Category Archives: Ed McBain

I’ll be Waiting in the Photo Booth at the Underground Station*

If you live in or near a large metropolis, then you’re probably familiar with that city’s subway/Underground/Metro system. In a place with extremely heavy traffic, it can be a lot more efficient to get where you’re going if you take the metro system. In fact, a lot of people in such areas don’t own cars, because it’s a lot easier and less expensive to simply take public transit.

Metros (whatever they are called in a given city) can also be very effective settings for action in a crime novel. For one thing, they can be very atmospheric – even creepy. For another, there are all sorts of disparate people who use the system. So, any number of things can happen. And, in crime novels, they do.

The London Underground system has been in place since the Victorian Era, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes knows the system by heart. Quite a number of the Holmes stories make reference to different Underground stations (Waterloo, Euston, and, of course, Baker Street, among others). At the time of the original Holmes stories, the London system was only a few decades old, and Conan Doyle makes quite effective use of it in the stories.

Many other authors also include stops at various London tube stations. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit features Anne Bedingfield, a young woman who’s recently lost her father. Now, with no ties to keep her in London, she’d like to see a bit of the world. One day, she’s at the Hyde Park Corner tube station when she witnesses he death of a man who falls (or is he pushed?) into the path of an oncoming train. Anne happens to get hold of a piece of paper that fell from the man’s pocket and gets curious about it. It turns out to be a reference to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage and boards the ship. And that’s when her real adventures begin. She ends up getting caught in a web of international intrigue, jewel theft, and more.

Jewel theft also plays a role in Martha Grimes The Anodyne Necklace. Inspector Richard Jury is about to go off for a holiday when he’s sent to the village of Littlebourne, where the remains of a human finger have been found. The rest of the body is soon discovered, too. It turns out that the victim was Cora Binns, a temporary secretary who’d gone to Littlebourne for a job interview, but never made it to that meeting. As Jury and his friend, Melrose Plant, start to look into the matter, they learn that this death is not the only terrible thing to have happened in the village. Sixteen-year-old Katie O’Brien was brutally attacked in a London Underground station not far from where Cora Binns lived. Now, she’s in a coma, and is unlikely to survive. Those connections are too close to be coincidental, so Jury and Plant believe that the two incidents are related. And so they turn out to be. In the end, they are linked to another death, a jewel theft, and a cryptic treasure map.

Ed McBain’s Kiss features Emma Bowles. The story begins as someone tries to push her off of a subway platform and into the path of an oncoming train. She survives, but that’s hardly the end of her troubles. Less than two weeks later, someone tries to run her over with a car. Now, she goes to the police. She has come to believe that the man responsible for both incidents is the driver employed by her husband, Martin. If that’s true, then it’s quite possible Martin is trying to kill her. Detectives Meyer Meyer and Steve Carella look into the matter, and Martin Bowles hires a bodyguard to protect his wife. But Meyer and Carella being to suspect something very serious is going on when Emma gets into even more danger…

In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers the body of the dog that’s owned by the people next door to him. At first, they think he’s responsible for the animal’s death. But he’s not. He wants to clear his name, and he’s curious about what happened. So, Christopher decides to become a detective like Sherlock Holmes and find out what happened to the dog. It’s not going to be easy for him, though. Christopher has autism, and although he’s high-functioning, it limits his social skills and makes it difficult for him to do a lot of things we take for granted. One of those things is taking public transit. In one thread of this plot, Christopher takes a trip on the Underground, and it’s interesting to get his perspective:
 

‘And I did detecting by watching and I saw that people were putting tickets into gray gates and walking through. And some of them were buying tickets at big black machines on the wall.’
 

For Christopher, this is a major undertaking, but he completes his journey and ends up learning a great deal, including things about himself.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man, the first of her Commissaire Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg and his team are with the Paris Police, and they often deal with unusual cases. This one’s no different. It seems someone has been leaving blue chalk circles in different parts of the city and putting things (a hat, an orange, scraps of paper, and so on) in the circles. And each circle contains a cryptic message: Victor, woe’s in store. What are you out here for? At first, it seems harmless enough, if very odd. But Adamsberg does need to know who’s responsible. So, he tries to find out who’s been in the area where the circles are left. That includes getting information from the local Metro stations. Matters get more serious when the body of Madeleine Châtelain is found in a newly-drawn circle. Now, it’s a murder investigation that’s complicated by the discovery of two other bodies. In the end, Adamsberg and his team connect the deaths, and find the killer. And it turns out that the Metro plays a role in where and when the chalk circles are left.

And that’s the thing about the Underground/subway/Metro. The system allows people to get where they’re going efficiently and quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Babyshambles’ Albion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Mark Haddon, Martha Grimes

I Wasn’t There But I Heard it All*

As this is posted, it’s 103 years since Thomas Edison invented the telescribe, a device for recording telephone conversations. Since that time, of course, technology has dramatically changed the way conversations are recorded. But the basic idea – that someone can record and later listen to one’s telephone conversations – hasn’t.

The notion of recording private telephone conversations without consent is controversial. On the one hand, wiretapping can lead to valuable information that catches criminals. On the other, there are serious issues of privacy and civil rights when telephone conversations are recorded. So, in general (not to say this always happens!), the police need a warrant in order to be allowed to record someone’s conversations without that person’s consent.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of mentions of wiretapping in crime fiction. And it doesn’t just happen in spy thrillers. Space only permits a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more than I ever could.

In Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, we meet professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and is trying to live a legitimate life, with a legitimate job. Then, he gets the chance to visit a luxury Manhattan apartment building. The visit gives Anderson the idea for a major heist: robbing the entire building. To do that, he’ll need materials and support, so he begins to enlist both from his contacts. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been wiretapping several of those contacts. So, most his conversations with those people are being recorded. In fact, plenty of the story is told through transcripts of those recordings. As Anderson begins to make final plans, the question becomes: will the police find out about the heist in time to be able to stop it?

James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover is the third in his Underworld USA trilogy. The novel takes place between 1968 and 1972, and it follows the political and other machinations of those years (e.g. J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with civil rights leaders, the Mob’s behind-the-scenes development of casinos, and Nixon’s political ambitions). Three people – Wayne Tedrow, Jr. (who is a drug runner), Dwight Holly (an FBI agent whose father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan), and Don ‘Crutch’ Crutchfield (who does menial PI work) – are caught up in all of the complexity. The plot involves several ‘backroom deals’ and more than one betrayal. And it features quite a lot of wiretapping, which shouldn’t be surprising to those who know what the US political situation was during that era.

In Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, Anna Travis joins the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. At the time, the squad is facing a perplexing case. Seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been murdered, and the profile of her death fits that of six other women who’ve also been killed. But there are major differences. For instance, the other victims were older sex workers, but Melissa was young, and not a sex worker. Still, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton believes that the same killer is responsible. After a time, the team settles on a suspect: up-and-coming television/film star Alan Daniels. But it’s going to be difficult. He is beloved, wealthy, and well-connected. What’s more, there’s very little evidence that conclusively links him to the crime. He may, in fact, be innocent. As the story goes on, the team uses recordings and ‘wires’ to find out the truth, and it’s interesting to see how those fit in.

Ed McBain’s Criminal Conversation (he wrote this one as Evan Hunter) features an ambitious assistant district attorney named Michael Welles. He has a particular loathing for the Mob, so when a thug named Dominick di Nobili is ready tell what he knows about Mob operations, Welles is only too happy to listen. It seems that de Nobili owed a big gambling debt to a loan shark, and the result is that he’s now caught between two major crime families: the Colottis and the Faviolas. As he sees it, he’s safer in police custody than he is on the streets. Welles arranges for all sorts of telephone tapping and other surveillance, thinking he finally has the opportunity to bring down these crime groups. But what he doesn’t know is what the wiretapping will actually reveal. When he finds that out, he learns that it’s all much closer to home than he imagined.

And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Closers. In that novel, Harry Bosch is working in the Open-Unsolved Unit of the LAPD. And, in one plot thread, he re-opens the murder of sixteen-year-old Rebecca Verloren, who was taken from her parents’ home and shot. Bosch finds that there’s a possible DNA match between evidence on the gun used in the crime, and a man named Roland Mackey. Now that his interest in Mackey is piqued, Bosch wants to trace Rebecca’s last few days and weeks, to see if there’d been any contact with Mackey. More than that, Bosch wants to record Mackey’s telephone conversations. As he says to his colleague, Kiz Rider,
 

‘‘…since Nine-Eleven and the Patriot Act it’s easier for us to get a wiretap.’
 

And she agrees:
 

‘The word’s sort of gotten around that this is a tool we can use now.’’
 

That said, though, approval for recording telephone conversations isn’t usually given capriciously.

And there’s good reason for that. Recording and listening to someone’s telephone conversations is an invasion of that person’s privacy. But at the same time, it can yield valuable information. So, it’s little wonder that tactic is used in some criminal investigation. An, of course, that means it shows up in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.

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Filed under Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, James Ellroy, Lawrence Sanders, Lynda La Plante, Michael Connelly

Everything Old is New Again*

Have you ever read a novel written, perhaps, decades ago, or even longer, and still found that it felt contemporary? Me, too. I got to thinking about this after yesterday’s post about Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin For Dimitrios. Someone who was kind enough to read the post mentioned that the book still feels quite contemporary.

And there are aspects of it we do still face today. The novel is set against a backdrop of unsettling international tension. In that case it’s the tension that was building just before World War II. But international tension is nothing new, and we’re still feeling it today. One of the plot threads has to do with drugs smuggling, and with how smugglers get their contraband across borders. That still goes on today, too. And we’re still asking ourselves some of the larger questions that are raised in the book (e.g. Do the ends ever justify the means? Are we really in control of our own choices?).

Whether you agree about that particular novel feeling contemporary or not, there are certainly plenty of novels, sometimes from a long time ago, that arguably have that feel. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for example, was originally given a title that most of us would consider offensive today. But the story itself still resonates. A group of people are invited to house on Indian Island. For various reasons, they all accept. On the night of their arrival, each one is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Soon afterwards, one of the guests dies of poison. Late that night, there’s another death. Before long, it’s clear that someone has targeted all of the guests. The survivors are now going to have to find out who the killer is, and stay alive themselves. Some of the larger questions of guilt, of what ‘counts’ as a crime, and of how people justify what they do are still raised today. And the context – a group of people trying to survive in a dangerous situation, also resonates.

Another reason that even older books can feel contemporary is arguably that they address challenges that we still face today. For example, Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die has as one of its central figures a detective novelist named Frank Cairnes, who writes under the name Felix Lane. When his son, Martin ‘Martie,’ is killed by a hit-and-run driver, Cairnes decides to find the culprit. That’s, in fact, the first sentence of the novel:
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

Those feelings of grief and rage resonate today. The loss of a child is the sort of human experience that isn’t limited, unfortunately, to one era.

Neither is a heat wave, which is the backdrop of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the first of his 87th Precinct series. The fictional city of Isola (a thinly disguised New York City) is stricken by a persistent heat wave, which makes everyone miserable. With this in the background, Steve Carella and his teammates at the precinct investigate the murders of two police officers. At first, it looks as though the killer is someone with a grudge against the police. But it’s both easier and more complicated than that. It’s true that this book (published in 1956) doesn’t include modern amenities such as air conditioning, computers, and so on. But even today, we all know what it’s like to go through a heat wave, and how hard that can be on the nerves. And many of the procedures used in the novel (talking to witnesses, checking information on weapons, and so on) are still done.

Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts was originally published in 1938. In it, Ellery Queen is working on a film script for Magna Studios. The project is a biopic about screen legends John Royle and Blythe Stuart. They had a very public, stormy romance and an equally public breakup, and went their separate ways. Each married someone else, and now has a grown child. The studio executives think that the public would pay for a film about their love story, so the pair is approached about it. To everyone’s shock, they not only agree, but they also rekindle their romance. In fact, they decide to marry. Unwilling to let go of the profits from the film, the studio Powers That Be decide to make the most of this new romance. They plan a Hollywood-style wedding, right on the tarmac of a local airport. Then, the couple and their children will take off in a private plane for the honeymoon. The wedding goes off as planned, and the plane leaves. When it lands, though, the newlyweds are dead from what turns out to be poison. Queen investigates to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the motive isn’t ‘dated.’ Neither is the backdrop of Hollywood glitz and gossip, very public love affairs, and fascination with celebrity.

And that seems to be one of the keys to a novel that feels contemporary, even though it was written many decades ago. A contemporary ‘feel’ is even more likely if the emphasis in the novel is on the characters and overall plot, rather than in details of an era that can ‘date’ a book. What about you? Are there books that feel quite timely and contemporary to you, although they were published a long time ago? Which ones?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Peter Allen and Carol Bayer Sager.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Eric Ambler, Nicholas Blake

With Ev’ry Kind o’ Comfort Ev’ry House is All Complete*

One of the major changes in society within the last hundred or so years has been the number of what we call modern conveniences. They were meant to save time and effort, and there are several that I’ll bet you couldn’t imagine living without at this point. Dishwashers, laundry machines, and so on have become integrated into modern homes. But of course, it wasn’t always that way. And it’s interesting to see how they’ve changed the way we do things. There are plenty of examples of these changes in crime fiction, too, and they give us a ‘window’ on a different way of life.

For example, many people today, especially in developed nations, have indoor bathrooms. Some people don’t think of them as ‘conveniences,’ but as essentials. But there are still plenty of places where outdoor toilets are common. And they were in regular use, even in cosmopolitan places, for a long time. One timeline of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels, for instance, begins in late 1962, in a small Welsh village. In this plot thread, we meet four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. One of the other residents of the village, a man named Dai Full Pelt, is a malicious bully. When he does something especially terrible, the children decide to get their revenge. They watch him closely, noting the places he goes and the times. They decide that he’ll be most vulnerable while he’s in his outdoor toilet, so that’s where they strike. Their plan works, and it is quite the case of ‘just deserts.’ But it’s not the sort of thing that one could pull off in a modern indoor bathroom.

Refrigerators are also modern conveniences that plenty of people take for granted now, but are relatively recent developments. For example, Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery was published in 1931. In it, Prudence Whitsby and her niece, Betsey, are spending the summer in at their cottage on Cape Cod. The cabin next door has been taken by a famous writer, Dale Sanborn. One night, he’s murdered. It turns out that there are several suspects, but one of the most likely is Bill Porter, who’s a friend of the Whitsby family. Local sheriff Slough Sullivan soon settles on Porter as the guilty man and arrests him. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work,’ Asey Mayo, doesn’t think his employer is guilty. So, he starts to ask questions. Between them, he and Prudence Whitsby find out who the real killer is. The story is told from Whitsby’s point of view, and here’s what she has to say about the summer cottage:
 

‘That refrigerator had been another added attraction to the cottage. Until this summer, we had carried our ice like the rest of the summer people from freight cars at the station whenever a load of ice happened to come in. Now we stood by and watched with an evil gleam of joy in our eyes as people raced cars home with their hunks of ice dismally dripping from a running board.’
 

It certainly makes one appreciate the modern refrigerator.

Sarah Waters touches on this, too, in The Paying Guests. In that novel, which takes place in 1922, Emily Wray and her daughter, Frances, have been left in a precarious financial situation. They decide that their only choice is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism they use. After a short time, Leonard and Lilian Barber respond to their discreet advertisement. Terms are arranged, and the Barbers move in. It’s awkward, as you might expect. But everything goes reasonably well at first. Then, things slowly spiral out of control until there’s a tragedy. This novel takes place in the days before modern refrigeration. So, the Wrays use a meat-safe to store their perishables. You can read about what a meat-safe is, and how it works, right here. Meat-safes couldn’t keep things fresh for long, but they worked in a society where people bought meat, vegetables and the like every day.

There’s an interesting look at modern conveniences in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In it, Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, solve the murder of Heather Badcock, who lived with her husband, Arthur, in the then-new council housing in the village. It’s not a major part of the plot, but there’s a discussion at the beginning of the novel about the way the village of St. Mary Mead has changed. And one of those changes is in the form of modern conveniences:
 

‘There were new people in most of the other old houses…the people who had bought them had done so because they liked what the house agent called “old world charm.” They just added another bathroom, and spent a good deal of money on plumbing, electric cookers, and dishwashers.’
 

In this case, ‘old world charm’ is only attractive to a point. Now that electric kitchen appliances and updated bathrooms are available, people want them.

Lots of homes now have air conditioning, whether it’s central air conditioning, or takes the form of room units. Before that, people who could afford to do so would go to a summer place in the mountains, by the sea, or somewhere else that was cooler. Those who couldn’t afford to travel opened their homes as much as they could so that breezes could cool things off, at least a little. But that wasn’t always enough when there was a heat wave. And that’s what we see in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the first of his 87th Precinct series. In it, a serious heat wave has struck Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City). Everyone’s miserable, including Steve Carella and the other people who work at the precinct. The main plot line concerns the murders of two police officers. But, in a small ‘aside’ plot line, we see how far the heat can drive people when there’s no relief. Among other things, the police are expected to attend lineups for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with local criminals. One of these cases concerns Virginia Pritchett, who’s charged with murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Instead, she tries to explain what she’s done:
 

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
 

And that, she says, is what led to the murder.

We may take modern conveniences for granted. But they haven’t always been around, and it’s interesting to see what a difference they make in people’s lives. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Kansas City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Ed McBain, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Sarah Waters

Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.

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Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French