Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post. Enjoy!
Category Archives: Erle Stanley Gardner
Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post. Enjoy!
Secretaries and office assistants are often essential to the success of just about any business. The more competent they are, the better the business runs. If you’ve ever had either a very competent or a very incompetent one, you know what I mean.
We see secretaries quite a lot in crime fiction too. Where would Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot be without his secretary Felicity Lemon? Where would Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason be without Della Street? And where would Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti be without Signorina Elettra Zorzi?
The thing about competent secretaries is that very often, they know a lot more about what goes on in a firm than you’d think. And that can make them very vulnerable. There are plenty of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we meet Sheila Webb, who works for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in the town of Crowdean. One afternoon she is sent to Wilbraham Crescent, where her services have been specially requested. When she arrives at the house, she finds that there’s a dead man in the sitting room. Badly shaken, she rushes out of the house – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a special agent who’s in the area working on a case of his own. There are some odd things about this particular crime, so Lamb thinks it will interest his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. Poirot and Lamb, together with DI Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle, are looking into what happened when there’s another murder. Now Sheila Webb is mixed up in much more than she thinks…
In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York City when Nick gets reluctantly drawn into a case. Businessman Claude Wynant seems to have disappeared, and his daughter Dorothy wants to track him down. At first, Nick is unwilling to get involved, but the next morning there’s a shocking new development. Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. There are several suspects, too, including Wynant himself. Even Nick falls under suspicion, since the Wynant family members, Wynant’s business associates and other suspects seem to use Nick and Nora’s home as a gathering place. In the end, Nick untangles the web of secrets and lies and finds out who killed Julia Wolf and why.
Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s The Silence of the Rain begins with the death of Richard Carvalho, an executive at the mineral exploration company Planalto Minerações. His body is found in his car, apparently killed by a thief who stole his briefcase and wallet. Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police is called to the scene and begins the investigation. One of the people he wants to interview is Carvalho’s secretary Dona Rose Chaves Benevides. But that turns out to be much more difficult than you’d think. First she’s out sick; then she abruptly disappears. It’s now clear that this death is much more than a case of a robbery gone wrong.
Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With is the first in her series featuring NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald. In this novel, murder strikes Vanderlyn College’s Department of Art. One morning, department secretary Sandy Kepler goes to the college cafeteria to get coffee for the various faculty members with whom she works. She puts the tray of cups on the top of a filing cabinet and soon, various people come into the department office to get their coffee. Not long afterwards, deputy department chair Riley Quinn dies of what turns out to be poisoning by potassium dichromate. As Harald and her team investigate, they learn that more than one person had a very good reason to poison the victim. Even Sandy herself is a suspect. At the very least, she’s now mixed up in a murder case, just when she was hoping to get her life settled.
In Qiu Xiaolong’s The Enigma of China, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. He is a rising cadre in the Party with a bright future. He’s also a very well-respected detective, with a reputation for being ethical. So the Party is eager to have him as a consultant when Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, apparently commits suicide. Zhou became the subject of a Party investigation when evidence that he was corrupt was spread on the Internet. He had been placed in extra-legal detention and was at a secure hotel when he apparently hanged himself. That explanation makes sense considering Zhou was a high-level official who was about to be severely punished. Chen comes under a great deal of pressure to sign off on the suicide explanation, but he isn’t quite convinced. As he investigates, Chen finds that his role as a cop comes up against the realities that he discovers, and he has to make some difficult choices. One of the people he interviews is Zhou’s former secretary Fang Fang. She had a very responsible position and could have been privy to quite a lot of information. Even if she knows nothing about her boss’ fate, she may very well be helpful. That’s especially true given that she was also, by all accounts, Zhou’s ‘little secretary,’ which implies that she did more than just make his appointments and manage his office. As Chen interacts with Fang, we see just how vulnerable this case makes her. The same powerful people who want this case handled in a certain way are just as interested in keeping Fang quiet…
And that’s the thing about being a secretary/assistant. You often get to know a lot about what goes where you work. So when there’s shady business or worse, you get mixed up in it, no matter how innocent you are (or aren’t). These are just a few examples. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Loesser’s A Secretary is Not a Toy.
You don’t see many public telephones any more, at least not in the area where I live. In part that’s because so many people have mobile ‘phones; there’s just no need for them. Telephones have become rich storehouses of people’s information, so when there is a murder, the police check the victim’s telephone to see who might have contacted that person and when the last calls were placed. All of this helps to narrow down the possibilities when it comes to suspects and motives for murder.
Actually telephone records have been around for a long time as very useful tools. And an interesting comment exchange with Rebecca Bradley has got me thinking about that. Now, I’ll wait while you go visit Rebecca’s blog. It’s an excellent resource for readers and writers of crime fiction. And Rebecca hosts the online Crime Book Club, which discusses a different crime novel each month (This month: Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Wednesday 16 April, 8PM GMT).
Back now? Right – telephones. Hercule Poirot uses records of telephone calls in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In that novel, we meet the various members of the Lee family, which is headed by unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch Simeon Lee. When he invites his family to gather at Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one really wants to accept. But at the same time, no-one dares to refuse. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby with a friend, and he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the murderer is. It’s not easy either because all of the family members have motives for murder. One of them is Lee’s son George, a Member of Parliament and very concerned about his image. He claims that he was making a telephone call at the time of the murder. It’s interesting to find out what the truth about that telephone call reveals about George Lee. What’s more, it shows that even then, detectives traced calls.
We see that in Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claws too. Perry Mason’s been hired by Eva Belter to stop sleazy tabloid reporter Frank Locke from blackmailing her. Locke found out that she was having an affair with an up-and-coming politician and plans to milk that for all it’s worth. Mason agrees to meet with Locke to try to get him to leave Belter alone. They do meet but Mason is sure that Locke knows more than he’s saying. So he follows Locke one day, ending up at a local hotel. There, he arranges with the hotel telephone operator to trace a call that Locke makes. The information from that call gives Mason the information he needs about why his client has been targeted for blackmail. But that’s when things get complicated. When Eva’s husband George is murdered, she becomes the prime suspect and appeals to Mason to clear her name.
Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of Red Heroine takes place in 1990’s Shanghai, not many years before mobile telephones became easily available to almost everyone. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant Yu Guangming investigate the murder of national model worker Guang Hongying. Her body is found one afternoon in the Baili Canal, and it’s thought at first that she was raped and killed by a taxi driver. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. This case will be delicate though, because the victim was linked to several powerful people. Still, Chen and Yu persevere. One of the leads they follow is a series of telephone calls that ties the victim to one particular person. Those calls are all made from and received at a public telephone and it’s interesting to see how those records are kept.
As I say, most people now have mobile telephones, and those records can prove extremely helpful. Of course, people who want to cover their tracks know that too, so they often use pay-as-you-go ‘phones. But the police can find those useful too at times. In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage for instance, DS Bob Tidey is working with Garda Detective Rose Cheney on the murder of Emmet Sweetman, a dubious banker who made a lot of money during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, but got into serious financial trouble when the crash came. He did business with some dangerous people and the detectives want to know who those associates are. They’re lucky enough to find Sweetman’s pay-as-you-go ‘phone, which he used for his off-the-record dealings, and that discovery proves quite informative.
Today’s telephones are also frequently used for texting, and those texts can also be very helpful to detectives. In C.J. Box’s Below Zero for instance, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is on the trail of the Mad Archer, a poacher who shoots animals and leaves them to die. Then Pickett’s daughter Sheridan begins receiving text messages from her foster sister April Keeley, whom everyone thought was tragically killed six years earlier. Pickett rushes home to find out the truth about those texts. If they were from April, then he wants to trace her. Where has she been and why hasn’t she contacted her foster family? If the texts are not from April, Pickett wants to know who would want to play the sick game of pretending they are. Those text messages turn out to be very helpful in leading Pickett to the truth about April.
Of course, it’s not always as easy as it may seem to use telephone records. In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, Constable Molly Smith and Sergeant John Winters investigate the Christmastime deaths of Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and his friend Ewan Williams. Part of that investigation is a set of interviews with the victims’ friends. At one point Winters asks one of them if Jason got a call on Christmas Eve:
‘‘I don’t know. We didn’t keep him under armed guard, you know. Can’t you check his phone calls or something?’
Everyone knew too much these days, or thought they did, about police methods. Ewan and Jason both had cell phones on them. Completely ruined by their immersion in the icy river. Winters had put in a request for the phone records of the dead men but had yet to hear back. It was a slow week everywhere.’
It’s sometimes a difficult process to get telephone information, although of course, you don’t see that on television or films.
Still, telephone records give extremely valuable information in solving cases. With modern messaging, Internet capability and so on, they’re increasingly individual too. Little wonder cops always look for people’s telephones.
Oh, sorry, I’ve got a call – must take this. Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Todd Rundgren song.
Most of us don’t feel particularly comfortable when we lie, even if it’s a ‘little white lie’ that’s meant well. It’s not in most people’s nature to lie easily, and that’s why police interrogators, profilers and so on can often tell when a person is lying. Non-verbals and other hints make it clear that that person isn’t entirely comfortable.
There are some people though who are very, very good liars. In fact, they’re so good at lying that they seem to (or do they?) believe the lies themselves. That can be scary because it’s hard to know exactly what is true and what is not true. And in crime fiction, it means that the sleuth has to go through layers upon layers of what a person says to get to the truth of a case. There are many, many examples of this kind of character in crime fiction. I’ll just mention a few to give you a sense of what I mean.
In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claws, attorney Perry Mason gets a new client Eva Griffin. She’s being blackmailed by Frank Locke, a reporter for Spicy Bits, who has threatened to publicise her romance with up-and-coming politician Hamilton Burke. Since Eva is married, this could be damaging both to her and to Burke. So she wants Mason to stop Locke. Mason agrees, but it’s not long before he learns that Eva Griffin is not a truthful client. She hasn’t even told him her real name, which is Eva Belter. But truthful or not, Eva is Mason’s client, so he continues to work on the case. Then one night, he gets a frantic call from Eva, who tells him that her husband George has just been shot. She begs Mason for help and he agrees to go. But it’s not long before Eva herself is accused of the murder. Mason does his best to defend his client, who swears that she is not guilty. But Eva cannot seem to tell the truth about much of anything. She tells so many lies in fact that Mason’s assistant Della Street wants him to drop the case. Mason refuses though, and perseveres until he finds out who really killed George Belter and why.
In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The eccentric Mr. Shaitana has invited seven other guests: three other sleuths and four people who, Shaitana hints, have got away with murder. During the meal, Shaitana throws out hints to each of the suspected killers. Then after dinner, everyone settles in to play bridge. Sometime during the game, one of the guests stabs Shaitana. There are only four possible suspects – the four people Shaitana had hinted were murderers. So Poirot, Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver work to find out which guest is the murderer. To do this, they have to look into the past history of each guest to find out whether they committed murder and whether Shaitana could have known about it. One of the guests Anne Meredith was companion to a woman named Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning from hat paint. It was always assumed that she accidentally confused the hat paint with medicine she was supposed to be taking. But is that what really happened? Did Anne Meredith poison her? If so, did she also stab Shaitana? It’s hard to know if she’s the guilty party because as the sleuths discover, Anne Meredith is a very accomplished liar…
Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man introduces us to Nick and Nora Charles, who are visiting New York. By chance, Dorothy Wynant spots Nick, who’s a former private detective, and asks for his help. Her father Clyde Wynant disappeared after a bitter breakup with her mother Mimi, and she wants to track him down. Nick wants nothing to do with the case at first, but then he gets a visit from Wynant’s attorney Herbert Macaulay, who wonders whether Nick has been hired to find Wynant. Then the next day Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. Now Nick is drawn into the case and finds himself trying to find out what’s happened to Wynant and who killed his secretary. One of the suspects is Mimi Wynant, but it’s very difficult to find out anything from her. As one of the other characters puts it:
‘When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, admits it and gives you still another, and so on….She keeps trying and you’ve got to be careful or you’ll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you’re tired of disbelieving her.’
What makes Mimi all the more interesting is that at times it’s hard to tell whether she is actually aware she’s lying, or whether she really believes the things that she says.
Wendy James’ Out of the Silence is a fictionalised retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was convicted of the killing of her infant son and remanded to a Melbourne prison. But the story behind those events is not as simple as it seems, as we learn in James’ retelling. In 1898, Maggie meets Jack Hardy, who’s visiting from Sydney. As the saying goes, he sweeps her off her feet. Before she knows it she’s in love, and Hardy seems to reciprocate her feelings. They become engaged but Hardy asks her to keep it secret for the moment until he can find steady work. He then returns to New South Wales to find work. Not long afterwards Maggie finds out that she’s pregnant. She writes several times to Hardy but he doesn’t answer her letters. In the meantime, Maggie knows that she won’t be accepted by her own family, so she makes her way to Melbourne where she gets work in a Guest House. When baby Jacky is born, she arranges to go to a home for mothers and their newborns. Then she finally manages to track Hardy down. Bringing baby Jacky along, she goes to Hardy’s home. Instead of greeting her warmly, Hardy insists that she’s crazy and won’t admit that Jacky is his son. When it finally hits Maggie that Hardy has no intention of marrying her and never really did, she leaves but she has nowhere else to go really. In fact, she’s turned away from six lodging places. That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. Is Jack Hardy that accomplished a liar? Or did he really believe his own lies? It’s an interesting question…
In A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, we meet Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert. They’re successful Chicago professionals who’ve been in a relationship for twenty years. Then, Todd has an affair with a university student Natasha Kovacs, who is also the daughter of his longtime friend Dean Kovacs. Todd has been unfaithful before, but this time, Natasha gets pregnant. She wants to get married and be a family, and Todd promises that’s what he wants too. He even arranges with his lawyer to serve Jodi with eviction papers that will force her to leave the home they’ve shared. As Jodi’s life falls apart, she becomes desperate. Then, Todd is murdered and everything changes. The novel is told from both Jodi’s and Todd’s perspectives. And it’s really interesting to see how Harrison uses that to show how Todd lies to both of the women in his life. Is he a malicious liar? Does he really believe the lies he tells? And Jodi isn’t perfect either. What about her lies? That question forms a layer of real interest in the story.
And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson suffer the worst tragedy that any couple can – the loss of their nine-week-old son Noah. When Noah goes missing, the entire Australian media gets to work. First of course, the goal is to find Noah. But slowly, questions are raised about both parents, and soon enough, people begin to wonder whether the truth about Noah is much darker than anyone thought. This story is told from Joanna’s perspective and from the perspective of Alistair’s former wife Alexandra, and as it unfolds, we see that it’s much more complex than it seems on the surface. There are several layers of lies here, and what’s interesting is that sometimes, it almost seems as though the people who are lying actually believe those lies. Or do they? I can’t say a lot more without spoiling the story, but it’s a fascinating study of people’s ability to lie.
There really are people who become so good at telling lies that they almost seem to convince themselves. Certainly they are good at using lies to manipulate others. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe, made perhaps most famous by Rod Stewart.
An interesting post from Sergio at Tipping My Fedora has got me thinking about happens when fictional characters are brought to television and film. Most people will say that because film is a different medium, stories and characters have to be adapted and that means there have to be differences between the original story and the television or film version. And that makes sense. Film of any kind has a visual impact and sometimes an audible one and that’s bound to affect the way one experiences a story. But what happens when a character (especially the protagonist) is substantially changed in a film or television adaptation? What happens when other characters are eliminated or changed, or when events happen very differently in the adaptation? Some folks are purists; they like their adaptations to be as similar to the book as possible and they get very cranky if the adaptation isn’t pretty nearly identical to the original. Other folks see it as a matter of telling two different stories. There doesn’t need to be much similarity between the book and the adaptation because it’s like the proverbial apples/oranges comparison. Others would rather watch made-for-television series than adapted series because of the frequent differences between the two. For still others, certain differences are fine but others aren’t. There are far too many adaptations out there for me to mention them all, so I probably won’t mention the ones you like the best. But here are a few examples to show what I mean.
There’ve been many, many adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The television series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and (for much of the series) Edward Hardwicke as Watson is usually regarded as the most faithful to the original stories. There were some changes in plot points and some of the characters, especially in the series’ later years. But in general, the context, the major characters and so on are very much taken from the stories.
That hasn’t been the case with all of the Holmes screen adaptations. There’s now even an American series called Elementary in which a modern-day Holmes moves to Brooklyn after a stint in a drug rehabilitation program. His associate in this series is Dr. Joan Watson, a former surgeon who lost her license and has been hired to be Holmes’ sober live-in companion who’s there to help make sure he stays drug-free. Speaking for myself, I think Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is the closest I’ve seen to what the books portray and to be honest, I like that. But many, many people like to have those classic stories updated; hence the positive reviews for the modern-day series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes. For those folks, the fact that the series is well-planned, well-acted and so on matters more than does the fact that it’s not completely faithful to the original. And they like the modern-day feel of the series.
Sergio’s post focuses on another classic fictional sleuth Perry Mason. Among other things, he makes the point that the literary Mason comes across as somewhat hardboiled and even a little scruffy at times. The filmed Mason though is almost dapper in his bearing and less hard-edged. I’ve noticed that about the U.S. series featuring Raymond Burr too. One thing the television series and the novels share is an emphasis on Mason’s courtroom skills. He knows the law very, very well and that comes through in both the original stories and the television series. I’m less familiar with the films than Sergio is, so I will defer to his judgement that the courtroom aspect of Mason’s work is less a factor in the films. Many people prefer less emphasis on courtroom scenes and the twists and turns of the law, as they’re more interested in other aspects of Mason’s way of solving cases. And their vision of what a lawyer ought to be is less hardboiled than we see in the Erle Stanley Gardner novels. But others like those courtroom scenes and find the legal aspects of Mason’s cases to be really interesting.
And then there’s Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Again, there’ve been lots of adaptations of the Poirot stories, so space won’t permit me to mention all of them. The Poirot series starring David Suchet in the title role is, in some cases, fairly close to the original stories. And in my opinion (so please feel free to disagree with me if you do), Suchet is Poirot in terms of mannerisms, outlook, bearing and so on. But in several of the stories there are major departures from the original books. For instance After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) tells the story of the Abernethie family and what happens when patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies. Shortly after that death, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora is murdered. The television adaptation of this novel portrays the Abernethie family very differently from what we see in the novel. Several of the characters have different relationships to each other and their personalities are also quite different. There are several differences in plot points too. If you’ve watched Poirot episodes then you could probably name lots of other examples of that sort of departure from the original. For some people that’s not a problem; they like Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot and the differences in character, plot and so on don’t bother them so long as the story is engaging. For other people the stories stray very much too far from the original and lose what to them are essential parts of the story.
Colin Dexter was closely involved with the adaptation of his Inspector Morse series for television, so it makes sense that those episodes capture the essence of his novels and (again, this is just my opinion) John Thaw was Inspector Morse. In fact, Dexter fans will know that The Jewel That Was Ours was actually a book adaptation of the Morse episode called The Wolvercote Tongue. In that series, there are some departures from the original novels, but arguably fewer than there are in series where the author isn’t as closely involved in the creation of the television adaptation.
There’ve been several more recent adaptations of novels and series. For instance, Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series has been brought to television and features Guy Pearce in the leading role. I admit I’ve not watched that yet as it’s not (yet) available where I live. But sources I trust tell me that it’s a faithful adaptation and captures what makes the print series so well-regarded. I very much look forward to seeing this if/when I can.
Another more recent series based on novels (at least, recent for English-speaking audiences) is Montalbano, which is based on Andrea Camilleri’s highly-regarded series. That television adaptation stays quite true to the original stories, although there are of course some differences. The characters of Salvo Montalbano, Sergeant Catarella and Livia Burlando, among others, are very much the characters depicted in the novels. And those for whom the Sicilian setting is a major attraction may particularly enjoy the adaptation because the series is filmed in Sicily so the physical setting is a major part of it.
There’s also Vera, the adaptation of Ann Cleeves’ well-regarded series featuring Yorkshire DCI Vera Stanhope. This series features Brenda Blethyn, and (here we go with my opinion again…), she captures the Vera Stanhope character quite authentically. In fact, Cleeves has said she’s delighted with Blethyn as Stanhope, so in the sense of protagonist, this series is quite faithful to the novels. The stories are filmed in Northumberland so readers who enjoy the novels’ sense of place get the added benefit of seeing the physical setting of the stories in the adaptation. There are differences in the storyline of the adaptations, but they don’t depart really significantly from the novels.
There’ve been lots of other adaptations that space doesn’t permit me to discuss here (I know, I know, fans of Dalziel and Pascoe and Midsomer Murders…). Some are very faithful to the original novels; some are not. Does it matter to you whether a series is faithful to its source? How much does a series have to depart from the novel before it’s too much for you? If you’re a writer, what’s your take on this? Would you want your stories meticulously adapted? Or do you see a lot of room for flexibility?
Want more on this topic of adapting novels? Sure ya do! Please check out Book vs Adaptation, a really interesting feature by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading. Want more about crime fiction films? Check out Sergio’s Tipping My Fedora.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Turn it on Again.