Category Archives: Giles Blunt

Lake Huron Rolls, Superior Sings*

The Great Lakes region of Canada and the US is large, ranging from eastern Minnesota on the west, to western New York on the east. It ranges as far north as Thunder Bay, Ontario, and as far south as Cleveland, Ohio. With links among the lakes, and several deep-water ports, it’s no surprise that this region includes such large cities as Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, and Buffalo.

One post couldn’t possibly do justice to all of the crime fiction that takes place in that region, especially if you consider all of the major metropolitan areas. Setting the big cities aside for the moment (after all, that would be too easy!), it’s interesting to see the sorts of crime novels that the region has inspired. Here’s just a quick peek at it.

Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight is a PI who used to be a Detroit police officer. A shootout left him with a bullet in his chest, so he left the force. He now lives in Paradise, Michigan, a small town on the state’s Upper Peninsula, not far from the Sault St. Marie (Soo) area, where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet. He lives in one of a group of cabins left to him by his father, and rents the others to hunters, boaters, fishers, and campers. It’s a rural area, where people tend to know each other. Fans of the series will know that McKnight’s got several friends and acquaintances who figure into the stories. And what’s interesting about this series is that, in several novels, the cases he investigates involve cross-border travel. Crimes such as smuggling, of course, don’t really have borders, so it makes sense that McKnight spends his share of time in rural Ontario as well as rural northern Michigan.

The ‘P.J. Parrish’ writing team’s Dead of Winter sees their sleuth, Louise Kincaid, travel to Loon Lake, Michigan, not far from Lake Huron, to take up a new job. It’s the sort of place that attracts summer boaters, hunters, and fishers (both in the summer and during ice fishing season). He’s been hired to replace a Loon Lake police officer who was shot a few weeks earlier. His boss, Brian Gibraltar, gives Kincaid permission to continue investigating the murder of his predecessor, Thomas Pryce, so Kincaid starts work on the case. Then, the body of a former police officer, Fred Lovejoy, is found frozen under the ice of the lake. Now, it seems that someone may be targeting police officers. As Kincaid looks more deeply into these murders, he learns that Pryce was keeping secrets, and he wasn’t the only one. In the end, Kincaid finds that these deaths are related to an older case – something no-one wants to discuss. There’s mounting pressure on him from both inside and outside the police force to leave everything alone. But he persists, and eventually discovers the truth.

Another Loon Lake, this one in Wisconsin, is the setting for Victoria Houston’s series featuring Loon Lake Chief of Police Llewellyn ‘Lew” Ferris and retired dentist, Dr. Paul ‘Doc’ Osborne. Beginning with Dead Angler, the series features the fishing and sometimes hunting culture of this part of northern Wisconsin. It’s a rural area that’s within two or so hours of both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. These novels aren’t what you’d call ‘frothy,’ or even exactly ‘cosy’ mysteries. They’re a little grittier than that. But at the same time, they’re not gory or particularly explicit. Rather, they’re more traditional whodunits with a strong sense of their rural Great Lakes settings. That makes sense, too, as Houston is a native of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, which is about two and a half hours from Lake Michigan, and less than two hours from Lake Superior.

Seneca Falls, New York, is about 45 minutes from Lake Ontario. It’s the setting for Miriam Grace Monfredo’s historical (mid-19th Century) mystery series featuring Seneca Falls librarian Glynis Tryon. While Seneca Falls isn’t a large city (fewer than 10,000 people live there), it’s been a nexus for a lot of historical events, and Monfredo explores them in this series. For instance, in Seneca Falls Inheritance, the first in the series, the issues of women’s suffrage is an important plot point. And that makes sense, since the first US women’s rights convention was held there in 1848. That issue comes up in other novels, too. So does the famous ‘underground railroad,’ which spirited many slaves to freedom during the period. This series also includes a look at some of the Native American/First Nations people who first lived in the Lake Ontario area.

The Great Lakes region also includes parts of Ontario, and Giles Blunt’s John Cardinal series gives readers a look at that part of the region. Cardinal is a detective with the Algonquin Bay Police Department. Algonquin Bay is fictional, but it is based on real-life North Bay, Ontario, which is about two hours from Lake Huron. More than once in the series, there are references to Lake Superior and Lake Huron, and the settings for the novels have the distinct ‘feel’ of that part of Ontario.

There’s definitely something appealing about the Great Lakes region. Some of the finest scenery, fishing, hunting, boating and getting-away-from-it-all is available there. But the weather can be dangerous, and it can be a long time between people. And, if you read enough crime fiction, anything can happen there…

ps.  Thanks, Pixabay, for the lovely ‘photo of Lake Erie!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.


Filed under Giles Blunt, Miriam Grace Monfredo, P.J. Parrish, Steve Hamilton, Victoria Houston

Sleeping in That Old Abandoned Beach House*

There’s something about abandoned places. They have a certain allure, especially for people inclined to explore. And they often have good stories to tell, too. Since they’re abandoned, such places are also very appealing for people who want to hide evidence of a crime – namely, a body. Perhaps that’s why abandoned places are so appealing for crime writers…

For instance, in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, we are introduced to Tad Rampole, an American who’s recently finished his university studies. He’s been encouraged by his mentor to visit Dr. Gideon Fell, so he decides to go to the UK. When he gets there, he meets Dorothy Starberth, and the two take a liking to each other. Soon, Rampole finds out more about the Starberths from Fell. It seems that several generations of Starberth men were Governers of nearby Chatterham Prison, which is now disused. The prison is abandoned, but it still plays a role in a Starberth family ritual. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, every Starberth male spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. Now, it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. He’s anxious about it, because there seems to be a curse on Starberth males, several of whom have died in strange circumstances. Still, he goes through with the plan. Late that night, Martin Starberth dies in what looks like a horrible accident. But Fell discovers that this death was no accident at all, and works to find out who the killer is.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow is the first of his novels to feature Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police. In this novel, he is called in when a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. The body is very possibly that of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who disappeared five months ago. Cardinal investigated that disappearance, but was never able to find out what happened to the girl. When the body is positively identified as Katie’s, Cardinal has the thankless task of informing her mother, and of re-opening the investigation. In the end, he finds out the truth about Katie and about other disappearances, too.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders, retired Florida judge Sylvia Thorn accompanies her mother and a group of other retirees on a sightseeing trip to Laughlin, Nevada. The group (they call themselves the Florida Flippers) gets involved in a case of murder when the body of an unknown man turns up in the bathtub of one of the group’s hotel rooms. Matters get more complicated when another Florida Flipper goes missing, and is later found dead in an abandoned mine. Now, the Flippers are ‘people of interest’ in a double murder, and Sylvia works to keep them out of trouble, and to find out who the real killer is, and what the motive is.

Tana French’s The Likeness is the second in her Dublin Murder Squad series. In it, a young woman is found stabbed to death in an abandoned house. Cassie Maddox, who’s recently returned to the Murder Squad after some time away, is shocked to discover that the woman is identified as Lexie Madison, an alias Maddox once used. The victim bears a strong resemblance to Maddox, too. Now, the squad has two serious questions. One, of course, is, who killed the victim? The other is about the victim’s identity. Since there never really was a ‘Lexie Madison,’ the squad has to find out who the woman really was, and why she hid her identity. Maddox is persuaded to go undercover as Lexie Madison to find out the truth.

One of the plot threads in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet concerns an unknown man whose body is found in an abandoned chicken coop. The only part of the body that’s been discovered is the torso, so identifying the victim will be a challenge. Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police and his team trace the man through his clothes, and find out who he was. And, in the end, they connect this murder with another case they’re working: a superstar whose life’s been threatened. It turns out that someone is willing to stop at nothing to ‘win.’

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Dublin Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates when the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Boyle and her team try to trace the victim’s identity through the apartment’s manager and owner, but they don’t get very far at first. Then, another possibility arises. Yvonne Mulhern and her family have recently moved to Dublin from London. She’s a brand-new mother, and at first, has no real support system. She doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and her relationship with her husband’s family isn’t particularly good. She soon finds solace in Netmammy, an online forum for new mothers. Then, she notices that one of the members has gone ‘off the grid.’ She’s concerned enough to contact the police, but there’s not much they can do. Boyle, though, starts to wonder whether there is a connection between the case she’s investigating, and the disappearance of Yvonne Mulhern’s online friend. If there is, this could have real implications for Netmammy.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in abandoned houses, apartments, warehouses, and other places. And that makes sense. Hiding a body in an abandoned place gives the fictional killer time to hide any connection with the murder. And it gives the author the opportunity for a really creepy setting.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Backstreets.


Filed under Giles Blunt, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Stoltey, Peter James, Sinéad Crowley, Tana French

Everybody Take Responsibility*

taking-responsibilityEver had the feeling that most companies and their representatives are only too happy to hide behind ‘company policy’ instead of providing good customer service? Yeah, me, too. And it can get disheartening.

But I’m here to say that it’s not always that way. Some people do take personal responsibility for what their companies do and what their customers need. Case in point: something that happened to me. Recently I had a situation with the auto insurance carrier I’ve had for decades. Without boring you with details, I’ll just say that there was a lapse in customer service – one that really disappointed me. But the story doesn’t end there. A few hours after dealing with the issue, I got a call from the representative who’d been working with me. She took personal responsibility for the choice her employer made, and took it upon herself to make things right. And she did. Among other things, it shows that there are people who do their jobs conscientiously and with integrity. It also made me an even more loyal customer. Thanks to that employee who had a sense of personal responsibility. Thanks, Liberty Mutual, for supporting that kind of integrity.

The whole situation got me to thinking about how integrity and conscientiousness can be woven through a genre such as crime fiction, in which we read about the horrible things people can do to each other. It’s got to be done deftly, or the result can be too ‘frothy.’ But it can be done.

Aaron Elkins’ Loot, for instance, introduces readers to Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. He gets a call one day from his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. It seems that Pawlovsky’s just gotten a painting he thinks might be very valuable, and he wants Revere to give him a sense of its worth. Revere agrees and goes to the shop. Much to his shock, the painting appears to be a priceless Velázquez. Revere is concerned about such a valuable item left in a pawn shop, and asks to take the art with him while he does some further investigation. This Pawlovsky refuses to do, and, in the end, Revere doesn’t fight him on the subject. He leaves for a few hours of research. When he gets back, he finds that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels a real sense of responsibility that he didn’t work harder to keep his friend safe, so he decides to at least find out who killed him. The trail leads all the way back to World War II, when the painting was originally ‘borrowed for safekeeping’ by the Nazis.

In Giles Blunt’s 40 Words For Sorrow, Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Detective John Cardinal learns that a body has been discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. It’s soon established that it’s the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who went missing five months earlier. Cardinal was assigned to that original case, and was never able to solve it. He takes personal responsibility for that, and goes himself to visit her mother and tell her the news – something that must be extremely difficult. He also takes responsibility for this new angle on the case, and follows the leads he gets. In the end, he’s able to discover who the killer is.

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts is the first in his series featuring sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish. He’s just coming back to life, so to speak, after the murder of his wife, and has been spending quite a bit of time at the bottom of a bottle. Unfortunately, that’s the state he was in when Danny McKillop was arrested for a drink driving incident that ended in the death of a Melbourne-area activist named Anne Jeppeson. Now McKillop’s out of prison, and wants to meet with Irish. But by the time Irish gets to it, McKillop’s been shot. Irish already feels responsible for McKillop’s imprisonment; he did a horrible job of representing him and he knows it. So he does what he can now to at least make things right for McKillop’s family. He digs into the case more, and finds that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s death, and that this ‘accident’ was quite deliberate.

In one plot thread of Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, Trafalgar (British Columbia) Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith discovers that her best friend, Christa Thompson, is being stalked by Charlie Bassing. Smith advises her friend to swear out a complaint and get a restraining order, but that doesn’t go very well. What’s more, Smith’s dealing with a murder case at the moment, and it’s occupying her time. So she doesn’t really follow up. Then, the stalking turns very ugly. Smith feels responsible for what’s happened, and believes that the system (and she!) should have done a better job of protecting Thompson. So she takes it on herself to try to make things right. It’s extremely awkward and difficult, because the whole thing has ruptured the friendship. But Smith isn’t satisfied to just ‘put it in the files.’

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has a similar feeling in The Hanging Tree. One day she gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants her to investigate the twenty-year-old disappearance of Orla’s brother, Callum. Unfortunately, Orla’s drunk when she calls, and not particularly coherent, so Scarlett puts the matter aside. Then one day, she learns that Orla has committed suicide (or was it?). She feels a real sense of responsibility, especially since she’d brushed the victim off. Now Scarlett takes it on herself to dig into the mystery of Callum Payne’s disappearance, and find out what happened to him, and how that might be linked with his sister’s death.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood, in which we meet London investigator Catherine Berlin. She’s been gathering background information on an illegal moneylending racket run by Archie Doyle. As a part of that, she’s been working with an informant who goes by the name of Juliet Bravo. One day, ‘Juliet’ is found dead in Limehouse Basin. Berlin knows that the victim’s safety was her responsibility, and she’s determined to try to make things right by at least finding out who killed her contact. That conscientiousness puts her at odds with her employer, and in very grave danger.

We all have stories, I’m sure, of people who didn’t have that sense of personal responsibility and integrity. I know I do. Once in a while, it’s nice to remember that there are people who act conscientiously – even in crime fiction…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Nylons’ Human Family.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Annie Hauxwell, Giles Blunt, Martin Edwards, Peter Temple, Vicki Delany

And Still We Wonder Who the Hell We Are*

lost-identitiesThere’s not much more basic – and more essential to the way we think about ourselves – than our identity. If someone asks your name, you know the answer. You may forget certain things you’ve experienced, but you have a core of memories that tells you who you are and where you’ve been. Imagine if you didn’t.

Crime fiction that makes use of this plot point (characters who don’t know who they are) can be risky. It’s a plot point that has to work hard to be credible. What’s more, it has to fit in smoothly with the rest of the plot. But when it does work, it can add an interesting dimension to a crime novel.

One novel that’s called a lot of attention to this plot point is S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. This novel tells the story of Christine Lucas. Because of injury from a mysterious accident, she wakes every morning with no idea who she is or where she is. Her husband, Ben, knows about his wife’s difficulties, and tries to help her each day to re-orient herself. Her doctor suggests that she start to keep a daily journal, and use it to write anything she does remember during the day. The hope is that she’ll gradually remember her life. Then one day, she sees a note in her journal: ‘Don’t trust Ben.’ Now, everything gets turned upside down. With her memory and sense of identity gone, Christine has no idea why Ben cannot be trusted, if he can’t. And what if she’s the one who can’t be trusted? Perhaps her memories are wrong. As she slowly pieces together what she can of her life, Christine isn’t sure who can be trusted. What she gradually comes to know, though, is that there is something very dark in her past.

Sherban Young’s Fleeting Memory introduces his detective, PI Enescu Fleet. In the novel, a man wakes up to the sound of someone knocking on the door of his cabin. He opens the door to a young woman who asks for his help. She says she has no idea who she is or what she’s doing there. He invites her in and tries to help. When she asks his name, it occurs to the man that he has no idea who he is, either. Thinking he’s mocking her, the woman leaves. That’s when it really hits home that the cabin is unfamiliar, too. So is the dying man he finds in the living room. The man’s last words are

‘The answer lies with Keats.’

Just then, the protagonist gets another visitor, Enescu Fleet. Fleet’s looking for his dog, who’s run off. And when his host finds out he’s a PI, he thinks he’s found the solution to his problem. Not knowing his own name, he becomes Assistant PI as he and Fleet try to piece together what’s happened. This novel is lighter than some others that feature characters who don’t know who they are, and puts more of a ‘cosy twist’ on the plot point.

That’s not the case with Giles Blunt’s BlackFly Season. In that novel, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Officer Jerry Commanda is having a soft drink at Algonquin Bay’s World Tavern when a young woman comes in, covered with black fly bites, and with her hair matted with leaves. She doesn’t know who she is, nor how she came to be at the tavern. And she has no idea where she lives or anything else that could help Commanda assist her. She’s taken to hospital, where X-rays confirm that she has a bullet lodged in her brain. This means that someone was trying to kill her. So OPP Detectives John Cardinal and Lise Dorme start to investigate. They find that the woman’s injury is related to the murder of a biker gang member, and to some other ritualistic killings.

And then there’s Peter May’s Coffin Road. That novel begins as a man stumbles ashore on a beach of the Isle of Harris.  He has no idea who he is, or why he was in the water, or that he’s apparently been living on Harris for the last eighteen months. He soon learns that he is a writer, who’s working on a book about a local Hebrides mystery: the 1900 disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. The only problem is, when he looks at his outline, he finds that he hasn’t written anything. The only clue he has is a map of the famous Coffin Road. He tries to trace back his movements from the time he lost his memory – and discovers a dead man. Now, he’s faced with the terrible possibility that he committed a murder. D.S. George Gunn investigates, and finds the relationship between the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance, the dead man, and an Edinburgh teen who becomes convinced that her father (thought to have committed suicide) is still alive.

There are also novels in which characters gradually lose pieces of their identities. For instance, Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind features Dr. Jennifer White, a former well-regarded orthopaedic surgeon who has been diagnosed with dementia. Over the course of the book, we learn that there has been a murder in the house next door, and that White may be responsible. But she is gradually losing her identity and her memory, so it’s very hard for the police to establish just what happened. There’s also Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Those stories feature octogenarian Jacobson, who has short-term memory problems. So he often forgets what most of us would consider very basic things.

And that’s the thing about losing one’s sense of identity. We take for granted the knowledge of things like our names, our children’s and grandchildren’s names, our personal stories. When we don’t have that – when we don’t even know who we are – it can be thoroughly frightening. And it can make for a solid layer of suspense in a novel if it’s done well.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.


Filed under Alice LaPlante, Giles Blunt, Mike Befeler, Peter May, S.J. Watson, Sherban Young

It Only Takes a Moment*

TIme PhenomenaIt’s surprising how hard it can be to gauge time. Sometimes something seems to go on forever, but only lasts a few moments or less. So it can be difficult to guess how much time has gone by, especially when one’s under stress. Any investigator will tell you that that can make witness statements notoriously inaccurate. But that ‘bending’ of time does seem like a real phenomenon. And we certainly see it in crime fiction. There are dozens of examples; I’ll just offer a few.

In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, Rachel Innes plans to spend the summer at Sunnyside, a beautiful country house she’s rented. With her will be her grown nephew Halsey and his sister Gertrude. At first, all goes well enough, but soon, some strange things begin to happen. It all begins with odd noises and a few other eerie events. But it takes a deadly turn one night when Arnold Anderson, son of the owner of Sunnyside, is shot. Piecing together what happened isn’t easy. The shooting wakes Rachel up, and it only takes her a few moments to give the alarm. But that’s all that’s needed for the shooter to escape. It’s one of those cases where one might think that something ought to take a lot longer than it does. The fear that’s only natural when one hears a shot doesn’t help matters.

There’s an interesting question of how long something takes in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He’s drawn into an investigation, though, when Flora Ackroyd asks him to help clear her fiancé Ralph Paton of suspicion of murder. Flora’s uncle, Roger Ackroyd, has been stabbed, and all of the evidence points to Paton. Flora is convinced he is innocent, though, and Poirot agrees to at least look into the matter. One of the questions is, of course, when the murder occurred (and by extension, who had the opportunity at that time). As the police work to establish exactly what happened and exactly what everyone was doing, it becomes clear just how very little time it actually takes to go into a room, stab someone, plant evidence and leave. It really only takes a very few minutes. And in this case, that means that more than one person could have had the chance to commit the crime.

Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas finds Saskatoon PI Russell Quant hired to go on a cruise. Wealthy and influential Charity Wiser claims that one of her family members is trying to kill her, and she wants to know which one. Her idea is that if Quant gets to know the various suspects, he’ll be able to ‘vet’ them and figure out who the would-be assassin is. To that end, she has Quant accompany the family on a cruise on her private ship The Dorothy. Quant’s not overly impressed with Charity Wiser, but he’s also not one to turn down a fee and a luxury cruise. The trip starts and little by little, Quant gets the chance to interact with several members of the Wiser clan. He still hasn’t established who the culprit is when The Dorothy makes a stop in Tunis. Several of the passengers, Quant among them, go ashore for some shopping and a chance to soak up the local culture. The time comes to return to the yacht, and Charity can’t be found. After only a few minutes of searching for her, Quant discovers that he’s lost in the shopping medina, among a maze of winding alleys and shops. He finally finds his client, but not in time to prevent an attack on her that lasts only a minute or two, but seems longer. She manages to get away relatively unscathed, but that’s hardly the end of Quant’s adventures. And the whole thing only takes moments.

It only takes a few moments for thirteen-year-old Katie Pine to disappear in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow.  One September day, she and two friends go to a traveling fair near their home at Algonquin Bay. They try out a few of the booths, and Katie decides she wants to win a large stuffed panda at the bowling pins game. Her friends take a few minutes to go have their fortunes told. By the time they come back, Katie has disappeared. No-one saw her leave, and no-one has seen her since. Five months later, her body is found in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. John Cardinal, of the Algonquin Bay Police, was assigned to the case, so he’s especially upset to find Katie was murdered. He re-opens the case and works to trace her last movements. It’s disconcerting to know how little time it takes for a young girl to go missing from a large, crowded fair.

And then there’s Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic. One afternoon, Cassandra James, who is in the English Literature Department at St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, goes to the home of Department Head Margaret Joplin. Her plan is to pick up some student exam papers and then be on her way. When she gets there, though, she notices to her shock that the student papers are scattered all over, with many of them in Joplin’s swimming pool. James’ first thoughts are about the terrible consequences of such careless handling of the papers. Student degrees are at stake, and so is the career of whoever is responsible if the exam papers are permanently lost. All of these thoughts seem to take some time, but really,

‘All of this flashed through my mind in the time it took me to run in through the conservatory door and bellow for Margaret.’

As it turns out, there’s a very good reason the exam papers are everywhere and Joplin is nowhere to be found. She’s drowned in the pool. At first it looks like a terrible accident; she hit her head, then fell into the pool. But James soon comes to suspect something more…

It may seem as though something is lasting forever, but it’s surprising how often it lasts only a minute or two. That sense of time passing more slowly than it really does is part of the reason it’s sometimes so hard to pin down when things happen and how long they take. Ask anyone who’s investigated a crime.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerry Herman.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Christine Poulson, Giles Blunt, Mary Roberts Rinehart