Category Archives: Håkan Nesser

What Time Was It?*

When there’s a murder, whether it’s real or fictional, it’s important to establish time of death if possible. Sometimes there are witnesses who can help in that process. But even so, establishing time of death isn’t always as simple as it may seem on the surface.

In crime fiction, at any rate, there are plenty of factors that can make it harder to establish when a victim actually died. Sometimes, for instance, fictional murderers set things up to make it seem as though a victim died at one time, when the death really took place either earlier or later. And that makes sense, too. If the killer has an unbreakable alibi for the supposed time of death, it’s easier to avoid getting caught. There are a few Agatha Christie stories in which the time of death is manipulated. No spoilers here, but the end result is that everyone has to go back to the proverbial drawing board when the real time of death is established.

Sometimes, knowing when someone died plays an important role in inheritances. That, too, can impact the way people think about it. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, General Fentiman dies while sitting in his customary chair at his club (which also happens to be Lord Peter Wimsey’s club). His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. The time of these deaths matters greatly, mostly because of inheritances. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, it passes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin, Ann Dormer. Then, it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned. Wimsey looks into the case and finds that more than one person had a stake in exactly what time each death happened.

There’s also a question of time of death and inheritance in Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, which introduces her sleuth, rare book expert Henry Gamadge. In the novel, Eleanor Cowden, her son and daughter Amberley and Alma, and Amberley’s tutor Hugh Sanderson, pay a summer visit to Ford’s Beach, Maine. Amberley’s in very bad health because of his heart condition, and he’s not expected to live long. He stands to inherit a fortune from a deceased aunt if he lives to the age of 21, but there’s a good chance he won’t live that long. Still, he’s determined to make this trip, as he is interested in the summer stock theatre in the area. The family arrives in the last few hours before Amberley turns 21 and settles in. The next morning, he’s found dead at the bottom of the cliff. One question is, how did he end up at the cliff in the middle of the night? Another is: did he die of heart failure or was this a murder? And, of course, there’s the question of when he died. This makes all the difference when it comes to the money he was to inherit.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye begins as schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up with a terrible hangover after a drunken sleep. He takes stock of himself and then slowly gets up. Within minutes, he discovers the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in the bathtub. Mitter was so drunk that he has no memory at all of what happened the night before. So, he has no alibi when the police begin to investigate. Having no choice, they arrest him, and he’s soon put on trial. Because Mitter was thoroughly drunk, he can’t establish when he last saw his wife alive. So, it’s difficult to pinpoint when she died. In part because of that, Mitter is the only one who was definitely at their home at the time his wife died. He claims to be innocent, but there’s no clear time of death that would put anyone else at the scene. He’s therefore convicted and remanded to a mental hospital until he can recover his memory of the murder. Inspector Van Veeteren’s team gathered the evidence against Mitter, and at first, it seemed persuasive. But now, Van Veeteren has doubts. And, when Mitter himself is murdered, it’s clear that this case is much more complicated than it seems.

And then there’s Julia Keller’s Bitter River, which features Raythune County, West Virginia, prosecuting attorney Belfa ‘Bell’ Elkins. Early one morning, the body of sixteen-year-old Lucinda Trimble is found in a car at the bottom of Bitter River, in Acker’s Gap. At first, it looks possible that she either committed suicide or that the car went into the river by accident. But soon enough, forensics reports reveal that Lucinda was dead before she went into the river. The fact that she was submerged in water makes it hard enough to pinpoint when she died. But now, Elkins and local sheriff Nick Fogelsong have to cast a wider net, as the saying goes, since they don’t have a clearly established time of death. And it turns out that there are more suspects than it may seem on the surface.

There are lots of other crime novels in which the time of death turns out to be very important to the story. Sometimes it’s because of one or another alibi. Sometimes it has to do with another aspect of the plot. Either way, the process of finding out when a victim actually died is central to murder investigations, whether they take place in real life or fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Unicorns’ Sea Ghost. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Elizabeth Daly, Håkan Nesser, Julia Keller

We’ve Got a Falling Barometer and Rising Seas*

If you read enough crime fiction, you soon learn to expect that something bad – perhaps very bad – is going to happen. After all, most crime fiction is about bad things happening. Much of the time, the terrible thing that happens is murder.

Even though crime writers know that their readers expect something awful to happen, they still want to draw those readers in. Sometimes, they do this by building the tension right from the beginning. It’s a bit like storm clouds gathering and building up the suspense that happens just before a major downpour. Authors have different ways of doing this, but no matter what way the author chooses, it can build suspense and get the reader turning and swiping pages.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, begins as a group of ten people travel to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They’ve all been invited to spend time there, and, for different reasons, each has accepted. As the various guests arrive, we follow their thoughts, and tension begins to build. It builds even more when it becomes clear that the host is not there. It’s all a bit odd, but everyone settles in. After dinner that evening, each person is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Later, one of the guests suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Then, there’s another death. Now the survivors begin to see that someone has deliberately lured them to the island and is trying to kill them. They’ll have to find out who that person is if they’re to stay alive. We may not know from the start who the killer is; right away, though, as the people gather, we know that something very, very bad is going to happen.

There’s a similar sense of the tension building at the beginning of Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski. In that novel, Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, are on their way to a skiing holiday at Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, and they soon find that several other people on the trip are staying there, too. As the group arrives at the hotel, there are already undercurrents of unease, and it’s easy to sense that something awful is about to happen. And it soon does. One of the guests, an Austrian businessman named Fritz Hauser, is shot, and his body found on a ski lift. Capitano Spezzi and his team arrive and begin to investigate. When it comes out that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, Spezzi grudgingly, and then more willingly, works with him. In the end, and after another death, they find that Hauser brought his fate on himself, in a manner of speaking.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye starts as a teacher named Janek Mitter slowly wakes up after having had far, far too much to drink. He was so drunk that, at first, he doesn’t remember who he is or where he is. That sense of disorientation starts to build the suspense right away. Slowly, Mitter remembers who he is, and that he’s at home. Just as he’s beginning to get his bearings, he discovers the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in their bathtub. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate, and it seems at first that all of the evidence points to Mitter as the killer. But he insists that he is innocent, and it’s not long before Van Veeteren starts to believe him. Mitter is still convicted, though, and remanded to a mental hospital until his memory recovers enough to assist the police. Not long afterwards, he himself is brutally murdered. Now, Van Veeteren knows that MItter was telling the truth, and works backwards to find out who would have wanted to kill both Mitter and his wife.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she’s understandably very interested when he starts to date former Hollywood seamstress’ assistant Alice Steele. From the moment Alice makes her appearance, there’s a sense that something isn’t quite right. And that feeling gets even stronger as Bill and Alice continue to date, fall in love, and decide to marry. At first, Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law for Bill’s sake. The more she finds out about Alice’s life, though, the more repelled she is by it. And the more questions she has about Alice. At the same time, she is drawn to that life, so she has conflicting feelings when there’s a death, and Alice seems to be mixed up in it. Telling herself that it’s to protect her brother, Lora starts to ask some questions. But long before the death, in fact, from the beginning of the story, we know that something bad will happen.

We know that about Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, too. Science fiction novelist Zack Walker decides that he and his family should move from the city that he considers too dangerous to the suburbs. The Walkers choose Valley Forest Estates as their new development, and move in. But right from the beginning, we know there’s going to be trouble. First, Walker notices some problems with the house that need to be fixed. Then, he witnesses an argument between a Valley Forest executive and a local environmentalist. Later, he finds that environmentalist dead near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker’s involved in a web of conspiracy and murder. But we know right from the beginning that this move is going to present real problems…

And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. This book follows the structure of a meal, with sections that have titles such as ‘Appetizer,’ ‘Main Course,’ and ‘Dessert.’ Within each section are the various chapters. At the beginning of the book, two couples meet for dinner at a very exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. In some ways, there’s little indication of what’s to come. But very soon, there’s a sense of uneasiness, especially as we learn about Paul’s relationship with his brother. Little by little, we learn the real reason the two couples have met. Their fifteen-year-old sons have committed a horrible crime. Now, the four adults have to decide what they will do. As the novel goes on, we learn about what happened, and we learn about the histories of these dysfunctional people. And that sense that something is wrong starts early in the book.

Sometimes, especially if you’re a crime fiction fan, you know right away that things will turn awful. Little nuances, the atmosphere, and other clues can give the sense that trouble is on the way. And that can draw the reader in.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Storm Front.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Herman Koch, Linwood Barclay, Megan Abbott, Patricia Moyes

I’m Living in a Bad Dream*

a-body-in-the-houseImagine this scenario. You wake up one morning, or you come home one evening, to find that there’s a body in your home. So, of course, you call the police. But here’s the catch. How are you going to clear your name? After all, it is your home. So, it’s only natural that the police would have a lot of questions for you. And if you happen to have known the victim, things get even more tricky for you, even if you’re completely innocent. And that’s not to mention the horror of actually finding the body. It’s like a bad dream.

This scenario is used in several crime novels, and it’s not hard to see why. It raises the tension right away. And, in the case of whodunits, it can be very effective at diverting suspicion from the real killer.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, awake one morning to learn that the body of a young woman has been found in their library. Neither knows the woman, but of course, the police have to start somewhere. And it gets a bit difficult for the Bantrys as questions are raised about how the colonel might have known the victim. Dolly knows her husband isn’t guilty, and asks her friend, Miss Marple, to help find out who the murderer is. The victim is tentatively identified as eighteen-year-old Ruby Keene, a professional dancer at the Majestic Hotel. This discovery opens up several possible lines of investigation, and it’s not long before the police and Miss Marple discover that more than one person could have wanted the young woman to die. Still, there are definitely a few uncomfortable moments for Colonel Bantry… I couldn’t agree more, fans of The Clocks.

Things are even more nightmarish for Janek Mitter, whom we meet in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. One morning, he wakes up after a night of far, far too much drink. He discovers to his shock that his wife Eva is dead, and her body is in the bathtub. He claims that he didn’t kill her, but Inspector Van Veeteran and his team have to go where the evidence takes them. So Mitter is arrested and put on trial. Although Van Veeteren is beginning to have his doubts, he can’t prevent Mitter from being found guilty. Because Mitter was so drunk the night of the murder, he doesn’t remember much of anything that happened. So, he’s remanded to a mental hospital instead of a prison. Meanwhile, Van Veeteren starts to ask questions about this case. Then, Mitter himself is murdered. Now, it’s clear that he was telling the truth, and someone else killed his wife.

Too much drink also plays a role in what happens to Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell in Denise Mina’s Garnethill. Mauri wakes up one morning after a night of drinking. She discovers her lover, Douglas Brodie, dead in her living room, but she can’t recall what happened. As you can well imagine, she’s a prime suspect. For one thing, she is mentally fragile; she’s even spent time in a mental health facility. For another, she and Douglas had been having problems, not the least of which is that he is – was – married to someone else. It doesn’t help that Mauri is not from the sort of background that inspires a lot of support from the police. But she’s sure she didn’t kill Douglas. So, she starts to ask questions. As she gets closer to the truth, Mauri finds out some dark secrets that someone wanted very much to keep.

Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed begins as Tadh Maguire is sleeping off a night of drinking. He’s jolted awake by a frightened shriek from his girlfriend, Kate. A second later he sees why she’s screaming. There’s a dead man in his bed. What’s more, Maguire knows who the man is. The victim is Tony Marino, second-in-command to crime boss Aldo Pirelli. If Maguire calls the police, it won’t be long before Pirelli finds out what happened. And he’ll likely assume that Maguire killed his associate. That can only have a bad outcome. There’s also the very likely possibility that Maguire will be the police’s prime suspect. Also not a good thing. So, Maguire calls his friend, Jason Choi, and asks him to help remove the body. That leads to all sorts of consequences, including abduction and some very nasty thugs who think Maguire has some money they want. This novel is more of a screwball noir approach what happens when a dead body ends up in your home.

You’ll notice that in several of these examples, there’s a night of drinking involved. And that’s one way to make it credible that a body could be put in someone’s home without that person knowing it. But it’s not the only way.

For instance, in Sherban Young’s Fleeting Memory, a man wakes up to the sound of someone knocking at the door of his cabin. He opens the door to find a woman who asks for his help. She says she doesn’t know who she is or why she’s there, but she needs assistance. The man invites her in, but when she asks his name, it occurs to him that he doesn’t know who he is, either. Thinking he’s mocking her, the young woman leaves. That’s when the man notices the body of another man on his living room floor. Now, he has to figure out who he is, as well as who the dead man is and why the body is in his living room. Just then, the man gets another visitor, PI Enescu Fleet, who’s looking for his missing dog. Fleet seems to be the answer to the man’s problem, and he agrees to look into the case.  

And then there’s Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. One evening, real estate agent Hans Vannerberg tells his wife, Pia, that he’s going to go look at a house for a client. When he doesn’t return, Pia gets concerned and contacts the police. The next morning, they begin their search. It ends when Ingrid Olsson, who’s been recovering from hip surgery, returns to her home to find Vannerberg’s body in her kitchen. She can account for her whereabouts of course, and she wouldn’t have been capable of murder in the first place. So the police, in the form of Stockholm area DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team, trace Vannerberg’s last days and weeks to find out who would have wanted him dead. It turns out that this murder is connected with other killings – and with a past traumatic incident.

See what I mean? You can be perfectly innocent, and still end up with a body in your house. So do be careful this holiday season…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Violent Femmes’ Bad Dream 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carin Gerhardsen, Denise Mina, Håkan Nesser, Rob Kitchin, Sherban Young

Talk Me Into Losing Just as Long as I Can Win*

imag0201Even if you’re not into playing sports, you may have a bit of the competitive spirit, especially if there’s a prize worth the winning. It’s a very human trait, and it can add a great deal to a fictional character. It can also add a layer of suspense to a story, too, not to mention a motive for all sorts of things…

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, pawn shop owner Jabez Wilson gets caught up in a strange sort of contest. His shop assistant tells him about an advertisement for a new job, which promises good pay for easy work. The only requirement to apply is naturally red hair. Wilson goes to the job interview and finds that many, many other men with red hair are competing for the same job. But Wilson is chosen, and soon begins work. The job is as easy as promised: copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The pay is good, too. One day, though, Wilson goes to his work as usual, only to find that the building is shut and there’s a sign saying that the Red Headed League has been disbanded. It’s a puzzling matter, and Wilson takes it to Sherlock Holmes, who agrees to find out what’s going on. It turns out that the Red-Headed League was just a cover for some nefarious business.

Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), introduces us to Jane Grey, a London hairstylist’s assistant. She takes a chance on the Irish Sweeps, and turns out to be a winner. While there are all kinds of well-meaning suggestions for how to spend her winnings, Jane decides to take a trip to Le Pinet, just as her wealthy clients do. On her way back after the trip, she takes a flight from Paris to London. On that same flight is a Paris moneylender named Marie Morisot. When the flight lands, one of the stewards discovers that Mmlle. Morisot has died of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. In this case, it turns out that winning the sweeps competition wasn’t all celebration for Jane…

Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma tells the story of the lucky Watson family, who wins an all-expenses paid trip to New York City, including a stay at the ultra-exclusive Hotel Beaumont. Everything is carefully planned for their comfort, and all starts off well enough. Then, their twelve-year-old daughter, Marilyn, wanders off and is later found dead, stuffed into a trash can. The family is devastated, and of course, the hotel will do everything it can to find out the truth. PR Director Mark Haskell works with the hotel’s manager, Pierre Chambrun, and with the police, to find out who killed Marilyn. And the truth turns out to be much more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Waldemar Leverkuhn learns that winning a competition isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. He and some friends go in together on a lottery ticket and, wonder of wonders, they win. They go out to celebrate and it looks as though everything will go well for them. But that night, Leverkuhn is stabbed to death. Intendant Münster and his team investigate the killing. And, of course, they focus on the friends that Leverkuhn was with that night. But it turns out that there are several other possibilities, too. And in the end, the murder is related to something that has nothing to do with a lottery ticket.

But don’t worry. Getting into a competition isn’t always dangerous. I promise. For instance, there are still a couple of days left for you to enter the Blackjack Blog Scavenger Hunt competition! What’s in it for you? Possibly one of three signed copies of Past Tense, my newest Joel Williams novel, which is coming out on 1 November. Wanna be a part of it? It’s easy! The instructions are right here. C’mon, play along!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Easy Money.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Håkan Nesser, Hugh Pentecost

It’s Just Apartment House Rules*

Apartment BuildingsFlats, apartments, whatever you call them, can be an attractive alternative to home ownership, especially if you don’t have a whole lot of money. Even if you are doing well financially, living in an apartment often means you don’t have chores such as house painting, grass cutting and the like. And, depending on where you live, you’re not responsible for most repairs, either.

Of course, the experience of living in an apartment can be miserable if your landlord/lady or the management company isn’t professional and responsible. And you live at close quarters with other people, not all of whom may be pleasant.

But apartment buildings can be very effective contexts for crime fiction. People get to know things about each other when they live in the same building. And some apartment communities are more transient, which makes for all sorts of possibilities for hidden pasts and other secrets. It’s little wonder, then, that we see apartment buildings going up all over the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick, a young woman who shares a London flat with Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. One day, she visits Hercule Poirot, telling him that she may have committed a murder. However, she leaves before she even gives him her name, since she says he’s ‘too old’ to be of help. Poirot finds out that his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver, knows the young woman; and, armed with her name, Poirot tries to find her to learn more about this possible murder. So does Mrs. Oliver. But before they can find out the truth about it, Norma disappears. Neither of her flat-mates knows where she is, and her family isn’t any more helpful. Eventually, though, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver learn the truth about the murder and Norma’s part in it. And it turns out that the apartment building in which she lives holds important clues.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, who lives in a Copenhagen apartment building. As the novel begins, she is attending the funeral of ten-year-old Isaac Christiansen, who, so the police say, tragically fell from the building’s roof. Like Smilla, Isaac was a Greenlander, so she felt a sort of bond with him, and is drawn to the roof where he fell. As she looks at the patterns in the snow, Smilla begins to wonder just how accidental the fall really was. So she starts to ask questions. Her search for the truth leads Smilla back to Greenland, and to something much bigger than just the death of one young boy.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlings owns three Los Angeles apartment buildings, including the Magnolia Street Apartments. Even though he’s the actual owner, he does the maintenance work in the building, and keeps a very low profile, letting someone else collect the rent. That way, he can have time for his other work, which we learn in A Red Death is
 

‘…the business of favors.’
 

He doesn’t have an official PI license, but he does have a good reputation for being able to solve problems and find people who don’t want to be found. And he knows everyone in the building, too. Most people there think of him as the handyman, and that’s how he likes it.

At the beginning of Val McDermid’s A Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar and fledgling academic Jane Gresham is living in a London council flat – not a luxurious place to be. It’s what she can afford, though, and she’s doing her best to move on in her academic career. She’s made a sort of friend in thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole, who lives in the same building. That’s what living at close quarters can do. Tenille is extremely bright, and Jane sees in her true potential in literature and writing. But Tenille has a terrible home situation. The first part of this novel has a strong focus on life in council flats. Then, Jane hears that a body has surfaced in a bog in her native Lake District. It is possible that the body may be that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. If it is, then it’s possible that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island as has always been believed. And if that’s true, he may have told his story to his good friend Wordsworth, which could mean there’s an unpublished manuscript out there somewhere. If it exists, that manuscript could be exactly what Jane needs to get her career going, so she goes to stay with her parents in their Lake District home to look into the matter. Meanwhile, one night after a tragic incident, Tenille leaves her home, too, and ends up in the Lake District. Her presence there plays an important role as Jane gets involved in a web of murder and false leads to try to find the manuscript she is convinced must exist.

There’s an interesting use of an apartment building in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. Waldemar Leverkuhn finds out that a lottery ticket he went in on with friends has come out the big winner. So he goes out with those friends to celebrate. Late that night, he is murdered in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate. Of course, the victim’s wife Marie-Louise comes in for her share of suspicion, but she claims she wasn’t home the night of the murder. The team members also speak to the other people who live in the same apartment building as the Leverkuhns, and it’s interesting to learn how much they know about each other. People know who’s been in and out, who does what, and so on. Despite that, though, the investigating team doesn’t get very far at first. Eventually, though, they link Leverkuhn’s death to the events that led to it.

Of course, no discussion of apartment buildings in crime fiction would really be complete without a mention of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Chapman is a baker, who lives and has her shop in a large Melbourne apartment building called Insula. As the series goes on, we get to know the other people who live in the building. They each contribute to the atmosphere of the place, and they all care about each other. They may not be related to the other residents, but the people of Insula have formed a sort of family of their own.

Apartment buildings can have that sort of effect. Of course, they can also be eerie places. That’s why we see so many of them in crime fiction – much more than I can show in one post (I know, I know, fans of Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall). After all, do you really know what the person living next door, above you, or below you is really like?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Høeg, Robert Rotenberg, Val McDermid, Walter Mosley