Category Archives: Elly Griffiths

Friday Night Arrives Without a Suitcase*

LuggageAny sort of travel involves luggage. Whether it’s a small ‘weekend’ size bag, or the largest suitcase an airline allows, luggage reflects a lot about the person who owns it. For instance, some people pack very neatly…and some don’t. And people tend to pack things in a certain way, even given today’s tight restrictions on what passengers may bring aboard a flight.

And then there’s the matter of how much you pack. Some people pack very heavily, and bring everything that they might need. It means they have to check luggage and get it wherever they’re going, but it also means they’re prepared for a lot of eventualities. Others pack very light. That’s the way I am. I only bring exactly what I need, and I don’t check my luggage through – ever. That’s got its advantages and disadvantages, and it does raise some eyebrows. If you’ll indulge me, here’s one example. I recently returned from a (roughly) week-long trip to New Zealand. When I returned, I went through Customs and Immigration at Los Angeles.  After having my passport stamped, etc., I started to leave the secured area, since all I had brought was one small pilot-sized suitcase and my handbag. One of the security people came over to me and we had this conversation:
 

Security Officer: ‘Can I help you?’
Me: ‘Oh, no, thanks. I’m all done the process – just leaving.’
Security Officer: ‘But you have to get your checked luggage from the carousel, and that has to go through security, too.’
Me: ‘Thanks – I don’t have any checked luggage.’
Security Officer Looking at my suitcase and handbag: ‘Are you sure? Because if you do, you’re going to have to get it and send it through security.’
Me: ‘No, this is all I have.’

 

The security officer was doing her job, and doing it courteously, but she must have wondered at a person who spends a week in another country and has so little luggage.

There are good reasons to be very careful about luggage. Don’t believe me? All you have to do is read some crime fiction. There are a lot of examples of luggage that turns out to contain all sorts of things.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is on board the famous Orient Express on a three-day trip through Europe. On the second night, Samuel Ratchett, one of the other passengers, is stabbed. At the request of Poirot’s friend M. Bouc, who is a director of the company that owns the train, he agrees to investigate. The idea is for him to find out who the killer is before the train reaches the next border, so that he can hand the murderer over to the police. At one point, it’s deemed appropriate to do a search of the passenger’s luggage, and it’s quite surprising what turns up in two particular suitcases…

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Professor Jake Landau is on a plane from Boston to New York with his friend and attorney Martin Ross. They’ve been working through the details of Landau’s divorce from his wife, and both are tired just from that process. All of that’s forgotten when a bomb goes off in the plane. Six passengers are killed, including Ross. Landau survives, and decides to try to find out who killed his friend. The only problem is, he’s stymied right from the beginning by airline policy and FBI security regulations. But Landau persists, and finds out that the bombing is related to a powerful and far-reaching drugs ring. And how did the bomb get on the airplane? In a suitcase that’s later stolen by the bomber just before he is killed, too. As an aside, this novel was published in 1970, long before today’s luggage screening protocols. Crime writers who write contemporary crime novels would find it difficult to re-create that sort of scenario.

Megan Abbott’s historical novel Bury Me Deep is the story of Marion Seeley, whose doctor husband Everett has to leave the country when his cocaine habit costs him his medical license. He sees that his wife is set up in an apartment in Phoenix, with a clerical job at the prestigious Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion settles in and forms friendships with a Werden nurse, Louise Mercer, and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. Before she knows it, Marion is drawn into their world of parties, drugs, and dubious ‘friends.’ As she slips closer and closer to the edge, Marion gets more deeply involved in that world. It all leads to tragedy for those involved. Interestingly enough, this novel is loosely based on the 1933 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, who was accused of killing two of her friends. The bodies were later discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders…

In Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase, we are introduced to Copenhagen Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. One day she gets a call from her friend Karin Kongsted. She wants Nina to go to the train station and pick up a suitcase that’s waiting in one of the lockers. She seems upset about the suitcase, but won’t tell Nina what’s wrong, nor why she needs the suitcase. Nina agrees to get the luggage and goes to the train station. To her shock, she finds that the suitcase contains a three-year-old boy. He’s drugged and dazed, but he is alive. Immediately she tries to reach Karin, but she can’t make contact. In the meantime, Sigita Ramoškienė, a young Lithuanian mother, faces every parent’s worst nightmare when her three-year-old son Mikas goes missing. The police aren’t very helpful; in fact, they suspect her of having something to do with Mikas’ disappearance. So she determines to find out on her own what happened to him. The trail leads her to Copenhagen, and it’s not long before we learn that the three-year-old boy that Nina Borg found is, in fact, Mikas. Now, each in her own way, Sigita and Nina work to find out who abducted Mikas and why. In the end, and after a brutal murder, they discover the truth.

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ The Zig Zag Girl. It’s 1950, and magician Max Mephisto is on the circuit with other magicians, fortune-tellers, and other carnival people. He’s called in to help when the body of a young woman is found at Brighton’s Left Luggage Department. The body has been cut up in what DI Edgar Stephens thinks is a macabre re-enactment of one of Mehpisto’s illusions. So he’s hoping Mephisto will have some insight into who might be responsible for the murder.

Of course, luggage doesn’t always contain such horrible things as bodies and bombs. For instance, in Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is visiting his partner Alex Canyon in Hawai’i. He’s at the airport, preparing for the return to Canada, when he meets an enigmatic stranger who turns out to be archivist Walter Angel. Angel slips a cryptic message, a lot like a treasure map, into Quant’s hand luggage before Quant boards his flight. Shortly afterwards, Angel is murdered. Quant follows up on the clue he was given, and connects the killing to some dark secrets right in his own Saskatchewan.

You see what I mean about luggage? You’ll want to be very careful about yours, and don’t leave it unattended…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Lady Madonna.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, John Alexander Graham, Lene Kaaberbøl, Megan Abbott

Circus Life, Under the Big Top World*

CircusesThere’s something about a circus that can capture the imagination. The trapeze and other acts, the glittering costumes, the illusions, it’s all got something magical about it for a lot of people. At the same time, ‘circus people’ have often been seen as ‘not quite like the rest of us.’ They’re itinerant, they tend to keep to themselves, and they don’t always fit in.  And behind the scenes, the circus life is one of hard work, no real roots, and sometimes grimy, even ugly, surroundings. And yet, on the surface, the circus can look so enticing that it’s little wonder plenty of young people have dreamed of being clowns, acrobats or high-wire walkers.

It’s also little wonder we see plenty of circuses popping up in crime fiction. If you grew up reading Enid Blyton, you probably remember that circuses are a part of those children’s mystery stories. But we also see them in adult crime fiction.

For example, in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York City Homicide Bureau police officer Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he encounters a young woman about to jump off a bridge. She allows him to persuade her to come with him rather than jump; he then takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Although her mother died when she was very young, she’s had a more or less happy life until recently. Her father has met Jeremiah Tompkins, who is, as he puts it, cursed with the ability to see the future. Since that time, Harlan Reid has become obsessed with knowing the future; and now, Tompkins has predicted his death. Reid’s been told he will die at midnight on a certain day, and his daughter can no longer stand to see what’s happened to him since then. Shawn tries to help the Reids as much as he can, including investigating Tompkins. After all, Reid is a rich man, and it’s quite likely that someone is trying to manipulate him for his money. If it’s not Tompkins, it may be someone else. The trail leads to an itinerant carnival – a ‘tent show,’ but by the time the police get there, the whole show has moved on.  The police track down the performers, and it’s interesting to see how the operation is portrayed in this story.

In Clayton Rawson’s The Headless Lady, a young woman calling herself Mildred Christine comes to Merlini the Magician’s magic shop. She wants to purchase a particular illusion: ‘The Headless Lady.’ Merlini is reluctant to sell it to her, since it’s his only demonstration model. But she insists, and is willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money. Merlini finally agrees on the condition that she answer a few questions. She says that if she decides to do so, she’ll come back later. Merlini and his friend Ross Harte investigate, and trace the woman to an itinerant circus. It turns out that she is a circus performer, Pauline Hannum, daughter of the circus’ late owner Major Hannum.  When it comes out that Hannum was murdered, and that the killer might not be done, Merlini and Harte get involved in a behind-the-scenes circus mystery.

Jo Nesbø’s The Bat has Oslo police inspector Harry Hole travel to Sydney, where he’s been seconded to observe the investigation into the murder of a Norwegian national, Inger Holter. In the process of looking into her murder, the police find that there’ve been other, similar murders. If they are all connected, then the police could be dealing with a very dangerous killer. Hole and his Australian hosts have to ‘join the dots’ to find out what links all the victims, and one lead takes them to a circus that’s been giving performances in several different parts of the region. One of the things that we see in this novel is the ‘fringe’ nature of a lot of circus performers. Many of them don’t mix in with ‘the rest of us.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher goes undercover at Farrell’s Circus and Wild Beast Show in Blood and Circuses. In one plot thread of that novel, a few of the side show performers who travel around with the circus are concerned about some of the goings-on there. There’ve been several ‘accidents,’ including a broken tightrope, a fire, and a horse that suddenly died. The performers want Phryne to find out why the circus seems to be cursed, and who would want it to be ruined. She goes undercover as a trick rider, without access to her money, her title or her usual friends. As she finds out what’s happening at the circus, readers get a look at what circus life is like for the various performers.

Private investigator Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver also investigates some nefarious circus goings-on in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is spending the winter on the grounds of Blackcraig Estate. They’re happy for a safe place to stay, and willing to do some shows for the current owners in exchange. And Dandy’s two sons are excited that they’ll get the chance to see the circus. Then, some frightening things begin to happen, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. So she asks Dandy to find out what’s behind it all. That’s when Anastacia ‘Ana,’ the bareback rider, falls from her mount and is killed. It’s set up to look like a tragic accident, but Dandy soon discovers that it isn’t accidental at all.

Elly Griffiths’ new series featuring magician Max Mephisto begins with The Zig Zag Girl. It’s 1950, and Max is on the circuit, touring with fortune-tellers, dancers, sword-swallowers and so on. He’s called in to help when the body of a woman is discovered cut up and deposited in the Left Luggage section of Brighton Station. To DI Edgar Stephans, it looks like a macabre re-enactment of an old magic trick, The Zig Zag Girl, so he asks Max to help find out who might be responsible. At first, Max is very reluctant to get involved. As he puts it,
 

‘I don’t like the police.’
 

But he agrees, and as he and Stephens investigate, readers find out about life on the performing circuit during the early 1950s.

As you can see, the circus can be an exciting place, but underneath the glitter and the show, there can be real danger. Which circus stories have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Faithfully.

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Filed under Catriona McPherson, Clayton Rawson, Cornell Woolrich, Elly Griffiths, Jo Nesbø, Kerry Greenwood

You Got That Right*

AccuracyIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s left behind several relatives who are desperate for their share of her money, and who have very good motive for getting her out of their way. It’s a complicated case, and one evening, Hastings suggests that the two of them take their minds off the investigation and go to see a play. Poirot agrees and they duly attend. However, there’s one problem: Hastings  has chosen a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

Poirot gets very frustrated with the plot, claiming that the whole case could have been solved before the end of the first act.

This shows, I think, how we all bring our expertise into what we do in the rest of our lives. Certainly research suggests that we tap our knowledge, background and expertise when we read. People in general are not passive when they read. They interact with what they read; and, however unconsciously, compare it to what they know from real life. This doesn’t mean that readers are never willing to set aside disbelief. But a lot of readers do get cranky if the author isn’t more or less accurate.

For example, you may or may not know that my professional background has been mostly in the world of education. So I’m particularly ‘tuned in,’ for lack of a better phrase, when I read crime novels that take place in academia. And, if I’m being honest, I’m probably less patient with such novels when the author doesn’t portray that world accurately. I bring what I know to the reading process, as we all do, so I notice it more when what I know isn’t reflected in what’s in the book. That’s why I have a particular appreciation for work like Christine Poulson’s, Gail Bowen’s and Elly Griffiths’, whose novels have an academic context. In part because of the authors’ experiences in academia, the context is authentic, and that makes those novels more believable.

It’s the same, I would imagine, for just about any profession. For instance, the law profession varies from place to place, and certainly from country to country. But there are certain things about what lawyers do and don’t do that are, I think, a little more universal. And a well-written legal novel reflects that reality. I would suspect that attorneys who read crime fiction are ‘tuned in’ to those aspects of legal novels, and probably not patient when the author isn’t authentic. Not being an attorney myself, I can’t speak from expertise. But the works of authors such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham, Scott Turow and (in his Mickey Haller novels) Michael Connelly strike me as being realistic.

One might say the same thing about crime novels that take place in the health care and medical community. Physicians, paramedics, nurses and other health care providers who read crime fiction probably get very impatient with crime novels that don’t depict that world accurately. And they’re probably quite pleased with the authenticity of writers such as Katherine Howell, Michael Crichton and Michael Palmer.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think the point’s made. Whatever your profession or work background is, you’re likely to bring it to your reading, and you may very well find yourself noticing it particularly when someone isn’t accurate.

What about law enforcers who also read crime fiction? Most crime writers aren’t police officers (although some of course are or have been). And yet, if you think about it, just about every crime novel involves police presence, at least just a little. And some focus quite a lot more than others do on police activity. Some of those novels give a more authentic portrait of police life than others do. So my unsophisticated guess would be that there is plenty of frustration among law enforcement people when it comes to the way what they do is portrayed.

You’ll notice that all of the authors mentioned thus far have a professional background in the area that’s the focus of their books. For instance, Howell has been a paramedic, Rotenberg is a criminal lawyer, and Bowen has been a professor. Does this mean that you need to be a member of a given profession to write about it accurately? I don’t think so.

Let’s consider some of the highly regarded crime series out there. Ed McBain is, as you’ll know doubt know, the creator of the 87th Precinct series, which many people regard as a superior series. Its focus is police detectives and their lives, and the crimes they investigate. McBain was never, at least to my knowledge, in law enforcement. And yet this series is often held up as an example of an excellent police procedural series.

Jussi Adler-Olsen has done a number of things with his career, including music, business and publishing. He’s never, to my knowledge, been a police detective. Still, his Carl Mørck novels are very highly regarded police procedurals. Not being in law enforcement myself, I can’t vouch conclusively for their authenticity. But they certainly have the hallmarks of the police procedural, including life at the precinct, policy and so on.

Sara Paretsky isn’t a private investigator. Her background was in political science and history before she turned her focus to writing. But as any fan will tell you, her V.I. Warshawski series is very well-regarded, and gives readers a great deal of information about the ins and outs of private investigation. These are just a few examples; there are dozens of others. But I think just these few serve to show that some authors have written extremely credible work about professions that aren’t in their backgrounds. The key here really seems to be doing effective research (and of course, telling a well-written story!).

What about you? When you read a novel about people who do what you do professionally, do you pay extra attention to the details? Do you get frustrated when the author isn’t accurate?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, John Grisham, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Katherine Howell, Michael Connelly, Michael Crichton, Michael Palmer, Robert Rotenberg, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow

You’re Living in the Present Tense*

Stories In the Present TenseHave you noticed that there seems to be a trend in crime fiction towards telling stories in the present tense? Using the present tense is not a brand-new phenomenon in the genre. Still, it seems that many modern crime writers make that choice. Some writers claim that using the present tense conveys more immediacy, and allows a certain character depth. Other writers choose it for other reasons.

Use of the present tense is by no means universally popular though. Traditionally, publishers have frowned on that choice, requesting instead the use of the past tense. And lots of readers dislike reading books told in the present tense. It’s certainly not a settled question.

That said though, there are a lot of writers who’ve used that option. For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is told in the present tense. It’s the story of the Anderson family, whose lives are changed forever when four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing during a school picnic one terrible day. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the girl is ever found – not even a body. The Andersons try to move on as best they can, but they are left shattered. Seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie is a fledgling psychologist who lives and works in Dunedin. She begins working with a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, only to learn that she, too, had a younger sister who disappeared at a young age. Against her better professional judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who is responsible for the abductions. Her journey takes her back to her home town of Wanaka; and as she finds out the truth, she also slowly begins the healing process.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin/Vincent Ruiz series is also told in the present tense. It begins with The Suspect. In that novel, the body of Catherine McBride is pulled out of London’s Grand Union Canal. DI Vincent Ruiz discovers that she was a patient of psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, and wants his help in the matter. Then there’s another murder; this time O’Loughlin is clearly implicated. Ruiz already had questions about O’Loughlin, and now it seems that those suspicions are confirmed. Since the story is told from O’Loughlin’s point of view, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that he is innocent and is being cleverly set up. The question, of course, is by whom and why. It’s an interesting pairing of these two protagonists, and as fans will know, it’s a fruitful partnership.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, which takes place in 1981, is the story of Houston area lawyer Jay Porter. One night, he takes his pregnant wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ out for a bayou cruise to celebrate her birthday. During the trip, they hear a woman’s screams and then gunfire. Then they see a woman tumble into the water. Almost by instinct, Jay rescues her and they return to the boat dock. The woman says very little about herself, and claims that she’ll be fine. But she does consent to be taken to the nearest police station. After she’s dropped off there, the Porters return home. The next morning. Porter learns of a fatal shooting in the area where they rescued the young woman. He doesn’t want to be involved, but ends up drawn into the case, which turns out to be a complicated web of corruption and greed at high levels. This story is told in the present tense; but, interestingly, its follow-up, Pleasantville, is not. That novel takes up Porter’s story fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising.

Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are also told in the present tense, from Boyle’s point of view. Beginning with Tilt a Whirl, this series takes place in fictional Sea Haven, New Jersey, and features Boyle, who starts out as an extra ‘summer cop,’ hired to help deal with the tourists. As the series goes on, he becomes a full-time member of the Police Department, and works under the supervision of John Ceepak. These novels are told in the way that you might tell a friend about something that happened to you (e.g. ‘So there I am, sitting at the café, when these two guys come in. They go up to the counter and order…’).

Another author who uses present tense is John Burdett, whose Sonchai Jitpleecheep series takes place in modern Bangkok. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. He is also an observant Buddhist who tries to live his life according to those principles. Beginning with Bangkok 8, the series chronicles some of Sonchai’s cases as well as his own personal development. The novels are told in the first person, so we see the events clearly from his point of view. Burdett also uses the present tense/first person as a tool to convey interesting information to the reader. More than once in the series, Sonchai figuratively turns to the reader and offers ‘asides’ on Buddhism, Thai society and philosophy.

And then there’s Ernesto Mallo. His Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina. Lescano is a police officer at a very dangerous time. The far-right military government does not hesitate to silence any opposition, however illusory. And since everyone is trying to stay alive, very few people can be trusted not to ‘sell out’ others. Against this backdrop, Lescano is just trying to do his job and solve cases.  The series begins with Needle in a Haystack, in which Lescano investigates the death of a successful moneylender and pawn broker, Elías Biterman. Every effort is made to make his death look like an Army hit so that the police will leave the case alone, as they so often do. But enough things are different about this case that Lescano stars asking very risky questions.

There are many other novels and series, too, that are written in the present tense (I know, I know, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels). Some people enjoy the use of that tense; some people really dislike it. Others don’t really notice, or care, one way or the other.

What do you think about this? I’ve put a little poll here so that you can speak up, and I’d love your input. After a week or two, I’ll do a follow-up post on your answers.
 


 

Writers, do you use present tense? Why or why not?

ps. A special thanks goes out to FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, for the inspiration for this post.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Geddy Lee’s The Present Tense.

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Filed under Attica Locke, Elly Griffiths, Ernesto Mallo, John Burdett, Michael Robotham, Paddy Richardson

You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,
 

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’
 

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer