Category Archives: Håkan Nesser

Pushing the Town Away*

Ordinary TownsMany crime fiction fans will tell you that a sense of place is important in a story. Some themes and larger issues may be universal, but most of us want to also see something distinctive in a story that speaks of a particular place or region. And that’s straightforward (if not easy!) in a place that’s got something to sell, if I may put it that way. For instance, some places are tourist destinations. Others are exotic to most readers. A place may have breathtaking scenery or be the kind of faded, dusty small town where you can just imagine nasty things happening. And that can add to the suspense.

It can take some creativity to make a setting interesting if it isn’t a major capital, a physically lovely setting, or a deliciously creepy one (I’m looking at you, Jamaica Inn!). But there are authors who make it work. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates two deaths. One of them is the sudden death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. When his family gathers for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and she herself tells the others to pay no attention to what she’s said. But privately, people do wonder whether she might be right. And when she becomes the second death the next day, everyone is certain she was. The family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and together, they look into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this case is Abernethie’s brother Timothy, who was very unhappy with the terms of his brother’s will. So Entwhistle pays him a visit in the Yorkshire town where he lives. It’s not an eerie sort of place, but it’s certainly not a ‘delightful English village’ either. World War II has left its mark on the economy, so the place isn’t exactly prospering. Yet, it’s also not a ‘ghost town.’ And it’s very interesting to see how Christie gives readers a sense of the place.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in the small Western Pennsylvania mining town of Rocksburg. Balzic is the chief of police there, and as the series evolves, we get to know what the town of Rocksburg is like. It’s a working-class sort of place, and not particularly pretentious. It’s been hit by the economy and by the slow change over time from mining to service and other industries. But it’s not eerie or dilapidated. It’s got schools, churches, banks and so on – in short, a normal sort of town, if you can say that any town is normal. There is lovely mountain scenery in that part of Pennsylvania – trust me – but Constantine doesn’t focus on it as a rule. Rather, the town comes alive through the ways in which Constantine depicts the people who live there. We get a strong sense of place not because Rocksburg is a tourist destination, or because it’s in view of a particular geographic landmark. We get that sense of place from the day-to-living that happens there.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Her dream is to become a detective, and she’s already started her own company, Falcon Investigations. She’s targeted the new local mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, as a place where crime is likely to occur, so she spends a lot of time there. Kate lives in a rather dispirited Midlands town, but she actually finds it quite interesting. She’s content with her detection company, too. But her grandmother Ivy believes the girl would be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams for the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but is finally persuaded by her friend Adrian Palmer. She and Palmer take the bus to the school, but only Palmer comes back. A massive search is undertaken for Kate, but she is never found. Years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa is working one of the stores in the mall. One night, she has an unexpected encounter with Kurt, a security guard at the mall. They strike up an awkward kind of friendship, and, each in a different way, they go back to the past and we find out what really happened to Kate. The town where the novel takes place is hardly a tourist destination. It’s an everyday town with everyday people. O’Flynn depicts it as lackluster, but not really desperately poor or creepy. And it’s just that ‘blah’ sort of dreariness that sets off Kate’s incandescent personality.

Several of Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels take place in Maardam, a fictional Northern European city. It’s never said so, but a lot of people think of it as a Swedish town. Like other cities in that part of the world, Maardam has long, cold winters and shorter summers. But it’s not really remarkable. It doesn’t have the rugged natural beauty that you find in the far north of Sweden and Norway. It’s not an exciting tourist stop. And there isn’t a major ‘draw,’ such as a famous university. The town isn’t crumbling, but at the same time, it’s not a wealthy place, either. In short, it’s a rather unremarkable place. Yet Neser makes the place real through the interactions among the characters. These novels gain their sense of setting from the lifestyles of the people in the stories more than from Maardam itself, if I may put it that way.

And then there’s Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally worked up the courage to leave his abusive father, Joe. He knows that staying where he isn’t an option. But he’s been kept so locked away that he doesn’t really know how to function in the larger world. As he’s leaving the house, he meets Billy Benson, who’s stopped by. Billy takes Adam under his wing, as the saying goes, and the two leave together. As the next week goes by, they learn a great deal about each other, and we learn some uncomfortable truths about both of them. We also learn how each is connected to the disappearance ten years earlier of a boy named Nathan Fisher. The week also brings Adam and Billy plenty of danger as they get mixed up in real trouble. The novel is distinctly Australian. But the town itself, in suburban New South Wales, isn’t exotic or famous. It’s neither run-down nor glittering with wealth. It’s got the sort of places you’d expect, with nothing really extra-special. And that rather ordinary sort of setting shows how the sorts of things that happen in the novel could happen in any ‘regular’ town. And that makes them all the more psychologically powerful.

Setting really does matter in a novel. But the setting doesn’t have to be a famous place, or a wealthy one. It doesn’t have to be an especially creepy place, either. The key is in the way the author uses the setting.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Håkan Nesser, Honey Brown, K.C. Constantine

Pack Up My Belongings, I’ve Got to Get Away*

Mobile SocietyOne of the major sociological developments of the past hundred or so years has been mobility. People no longer necessarily spend their lives within just a few miles or so of where they were born. Many people relocate because of jobs, although of course, that’s not the only motivation to move house.

This mobility has had a profound impact on communities everywhere. Places where everyone once knew everyone have become more transient. Even in big cities, residents of the same building or block once usually knew each other. That’s not so much the case any more (although of course, it does happen). For police, this change means that it’s sometimes harder to get information about crimes (e.g. ‘I don’t know who lives in that apartment,’ or ‘I’ve seen him/her, but I’ve no idea where that person works, or if that person was at home last night.’)

You see this increase in mobility a lot in crime fiction, which makes sense when you think of the genre as a reflection of society. And it’s been going on for quite some time. For instance, Agatha Christie discusses it in several of her stories, including The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, the village of St. Mary Mead is undergoing quite a bit of change. There’s new council housing in the area, and many people there whom Miss Marple doesn’t know. They come from different places and are changing the makeup of the village as they work, shop and send their children to school. One day, Miss Marple decides to take a walk in the new development. That’s how she meets Heather Badcock, who lives there with her husband Arthur. They’re a pleasant enough couple, and they actually are very helpful to Miss Marple when she has a fall and injures her ankle. Miss Marple discovers that Heather is a fan, to put it mildly, of film star Marina Gregg, who’s just purchased Gossington Hall with her husband Jason Rudd. Heather is more than excited when it’s announced that there will be a charity fête at the hall, as there has been in the past, and that Marina Gregg herself will preside and will meet people. On the day of the event. Heather finally gets to meet her idol. But she soon gets sick and later dies from what turns out to be a poisoned drink. At first, it seems like a case of accidentally poisoning the wrong victim, since Marina has her share of enemies, and Heather seemingly none. It turns out, though, that Heather might very well have been the intended victim all along.

Much of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is set in the small Québec town of Three Pines. It’s got a long history, and some residents have lived there for a very long time. And we see how that history plays out in Still Life, when beloved retired teacher Jane Neal is killed on Thanksgiving. At first the death looks like a terrible accident, but Gamache and his team learn that the victim was murdered. There’s a scene in this novel in which Neal confronts a group of local boys who’ve been harassing the owners of the town’s B&B. She identifies them all by name, since she knows them. That stops them in their tracks, and also makes them suspects when she’s found dead. It also shows that Three Pines is one of those towns where people know each other. But as time goes on, people do move in and out. For example, in A Fatal Grace, celebrity and ‘life coach’ C.C. de Poitiers and her family move to town. Her background and personal life are deeply troubled, as are her relationships with everyone in town. So when she is murdered, Gamache and his team have plenty of suspects.

Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Killing introduces readers to professional house-sitter Thea Osborne. She’s a relatively recent widow who’s trying to make a new life for herself and is using house-sitting as a bridge to whatever comes next. Her first clients are Duntisbourne Abbots residents Clive and Jennifer Reynolds, who are taking a three-week cruise. Thea’s job will be to look after their dogs, their sheep, and their gardens as well as their house. And Clive Reynolds has provided a long and very specific list of duties. On her first night in the house, Thea thinks she hears a scream, but supposes it’s probably her imagination. The next morning, though, she finds the body of Joel Jennison in a pond on the property. The police begin to investigate; and, as she’s new in the area and was in the house at the time, Thea is one of their ‘persons of interest.’ As she begins to ask questions about the death, though, Thea finds that more than one person might have had a motive. One of the things we see in this novel is the impact of people who’ve bought homes in the area in the past few years – the ‘incomers.’ They’ve affected the housing market, the shops and services, and the social relationships in the village, and it’s interesting to see how they and the locals react to one another.

Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books shows the way that mobility can happen. Bookseller’s assistant Israel Armstrong lives in North London. His educational background is in library science, and he would like nothing more than to be curator of a prestigious library. But he knows he has to ‘start small.’ There’s nothing available locally, so when he hears of a position as librarian for Ireland’s Tumdrum and District, he applies for and accepts the job when it’s offered to him. On his arrival, Armstrong finds a sign on the library door saying that it’s closed. Thinking he’s come all this way for nothing, he tracks down the person who hired him; she tells him that the community has decided to switch to a mobile library. As Armstrong gets used to that and many other aspects of life in the area, we see what it’s like for people who don’t know an area to move in. He doesn’t know anyone at first; and although everyone’s heard of him, the locals don’t know him either, really. Along with the actual mystery (the disappearance of almost the entire library collection), this change in the community is an interesting plot thread.

Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery shows a few consequences of today’s increased mobility. Waldemar Leverkuhn and a few of his friends have gone in together on a lottery ticket. To all of their surprise, they win, and decide to go out to celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is stabbed to death in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate the murder, which means they speak to the other residents of the apartment building where the victim and his wife lived. It’s interesting to see how these residents have superficial, but not very rich, information about the other people in the building. Nobody seems to know a great deal about the Leverkuhns. So the police team look into the family’s past. It turns out that the family had lived in the small town of Pampas from 1952 to 1976, but,
 

‘They moved out and disappeared. From one day to the next.’
 

They didn’t keep in contact with former residents, either. Even the family itself shows the effect of modern mobility, as the Leverkuhns’ grown children don’t live nearby.

And that’s the thing about today’s mobility. It means that people move a lot more frequently, and that family members often don’t live near one another. Those trends have had major effects on society – and on crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bad Company’s Movin’ On.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Ian Sansom, Louise Penny, Rebecca Tope

You Had to Have the Last Word Last Night*

WisecracksThere’s a great deal of sadness in a lot of crime novels, even those that don’t count as ‘bleak’ or noir. And that makes sense, since there’s nothing amusing about murder. So it can come as a welcome lift when one of the characters has enough of a sense of wit to make wisecracks. Those ‘wiseacre remarks’ have to be handled well, or they can be off-putting. But when they are deftly done, they can add a ‘lift’ to a story. Here are just a few examples to show what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice that I haven’t included ‘screwball’ novels: too easy…

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), wealthy Emily Arundell knows very well that her relatives would love to get their hands on her fortune. She tells them that they’ll have to be content to wait for her death, and a frightening fall down a flight of stairs convinces her that someone is willing to hurry her along, as the saying goes. That’s when she writes to Hercule Poirot. She doesn’t specify exactly what she wants from him, but Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing to investigate. By the time they get there though, it’s too late: Emily Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. When it becomes clear that she was poisoned, Poirot looks among her relatives and employees to find out who the murderer is. One source of information on the history of the Arundell family and their home Littlegreen House is Caroline Peabody, who’s known the family for years. Miss Peabody may be elderly, but she’s alert and intelligent, and not afraid to speak her mind. Here is a bit of a conversation she has with Hastings:
 

‘‘You are his secretary, I suppose?’
‘Er – yes,’ I said doubtfully.
‘Can you write decent English?’
‘I hope so.’
 ‘H’m – where did you go to school?’
‘Eton.’
‘Then you can’t.’’
 

Hastings can’t really come up with the right rejoinder to that.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s work will know that it’s infused with wisecracks. Those remarks lighten up what are sometimes very sad stories. And those quips come from several of the characters. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, Inspector Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of an unknown young woman whose body is found near a local landfill. Here’s a bit of the conversation Montalbano has with his second-in-command Mimì Augello shortly after he’s roused early in the morning when the body is found:
 

‘‘Mimì, couldn’t you have scratched your balls by yourself?’
‘Salvo, I’m not going to play your game anymore.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that if I hadn’t had you come here, later you’d be driving me crazy saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this, why didn’t you tell me that…’’
‘What’s the corpse like?
‘Dead,’ said Augello.’
 

There’s not much Montalbano can say in response to that…

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. That’s not of course the only team at the constabulary, and Scarlett’s made friends with Fern Larter, who heads a team of her own. In The Serpent Pool, the two work together to connect a six-year-old drowning death that Scarlett’s investigating with two recent murders that Larter’s investigating. One of those is the killing of book collector George Saffell. At one point, they’re discussing the Saffell case, in particular the Saffell family background:
 

‘‘For good measure, there’s a villa in Spain, but so far I haven’t managed to wangle a trip out there to hunt for clues.’ [Larter]
‘You’re slipping.’ Fern’s ability to persuade the top brass that trips overseas were vital to her latest investigation were the stuff of legend. ‘How about a trip to New Zealand, for a word with the daughter? They say it’s a beautiful country.’
‘Lynsey came back to England for the funeral,’ Fern pouted.’
 

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in Absaroka County, Wyoming, where Longmire is sheriff. Some of these stories are very sad, but there’s also a dose of wit. And some of that wit comes from exchanges between Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti. In Death Without Company for instance, Longmire has assigned her to wait outside a local supermarket to ‘collect’ a group of shoppers to serve as talis jurors, so they can fill out the local jury pool. Here’s a bit of their exchange about that:
 

‘I watched as my…deputy accosted a middle-aged man…copied down information from his driver’s license and informed him that he needed to get over to the courthouse pronto or be faced with contempt of court. ‘Well, there’s another notch on my Glock.’
…‘Hey, there are worse places for stakeouts. At least we’ve got plenty of supplies.’’
 

Then, Moretti asks what a talis juror is.
 

‘‘It’s from the Latin. Meaning bystander. You’re Italian, you should understand these things.’
‘I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.’’
 

Fans of this series will also know that there are plenty of wisecracks between Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear, who runs the Red Pony Inn.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found, and for finding out secrets people would rather keep. As a way of keeping his sanity, he’s informally apprenticed himself to master cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Irish richly enjoys working with the wood and creating new things. He also enjoys the interactions he has with Taub. For his part, Taub is absolutely not one to gush. But he does like having Irish around. Here’s a bit of an exchange they have in Bad Debts, when Irish pays a visit after not having been there for a bit:
 

‘‘So,’ he said without looking at me. ‘Man who finds the scum of the earth. Man who breaks his parents’ hearts. Horses and criminals. That’s his life.’…
‘I gather you missed me a lot then?’
Another snort ‘What I miss, I miss someone finishes little jobs I give him. Like little tables. Day’s work for a man who actually works.’’

 

There’s not much Irish can say to that…

There’s also Donna Malane’s Surrender, in which missing persons expert Diane Rowe gets involved in the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. A year earlier, Rowe’s sister Niki was murdered, and Snow admitted being hired to do the job. But he never gave the name of the person who hired him. Now he’s been killed in exactly the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed Snow, she’ll find out who killed her sister. So she looks into the case. Niki was an exotic dancer at a club, so Diane starts there to find out what her sister’s connections were, and who might have wanted her dead. One possibility is club regular Richard Brownlee, who paid quite a lot of attention to Niki. Brownlee’s crude, arrogant sexism does not exactly endear him to Diane. Here’s a bit of the conversation they have:
 

‘One of the girls at the club told me you had a bit of a thing for my sister.’…
‘What kind of a thing would that be, babe? No offence, but she was a whore.’
I was determined not to let him get to me. ‘She said you didn’t like other guys spending time with Niki. That you liked to have her all to yourself. I heard you were jealous.’
Richard barked a laugh. ‘Now that would be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it?’
‘Yep,’ I agreed pleasantly. ‘But then, you see, that would fit nicely with my assessment of you so far.’
 

Needless to say, everyone has a good laugh at Brownlee’s expense.

And, at the risk of making this post go on too long, here is my top wisecrack, from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband, Janek Mitter, discovers the body when he wakes up hung over after a long night of drinking. As you can imagine, he becomes the chief suspect and in fact, is arrested for the crime. He claims he’s innocent, and at his trial, an officious prosecutor asks how he knows he didn’t kill his wife, since he was so drunk at the time of the murder. Here’s Mitter’s reply:
 

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’ 
 

That, to me, is priceless. And it helps to spur Van Veeteren on to investigate the murder more thoroughly.

There are of course a lot of other great wisecracks in crime fiction, even in very sad stories (I know, I know fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series). Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Donna Malane, Håkan Nesser, Martin Edwards, Rex Stout

I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here*

Rags to RichesMost of us have probably imagined what it would be like. The official letter from the attorney’s office informing you that you’ve inherited millions. Or perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime lottery win. Or maybe meeting that perfect someone who’s also really wealthy. However it actually happens, the ‘rags to riches’ dream captures people’s imaginations. I’m sure we could all think of films and books in which that’s the main plot point.

It shows up in crime fiction, too. But of course, it doesn’t always work out perfectly, despite the fantasy. The ‘rags to riches’ phenomenon is a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include this plot point. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s had a very modest life in the village of St. Mary Mead for ten years, where she’s been paid companion to Mrs. Harfield. When her employer dies, Katherine gets the exciting and surprising news that she’s been named as sole heir to Mrs. Harfield’s considerable fortune. She’s now going to be quite a wealthy woman, and things begin to change immediately for her. In one amusing scene, for instance, she gets a letter from a Harfield cousin, who tries to persuade and then bully her into parting with the money. Then, she gets a letter from one of her own distant relatives Lady Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Rosalie has found out about her cousin’s good fortune and suddenly decides that it might be nice to have her visit. Katherine is no fool, and knows exactly what Lady Rosalie has in mind. But she has always wanted to travel, so she arranges to go from London to Nice, where Lady Rosalie lives, on the famous Blue Train. That’s how she meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on her way to meet her lover Armand de la Roche. The two end up having a long conversation, so when Ruth is murdered, the police want whatever information Katherine can provide. Hercule Poirot is on the Blue Train as well, so he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why.

In Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, Queen and his new business partner Beau Rummell set up a private investigation firm. One of their first clients is wealthy and very eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and hasn’t established bonds with anyone in his family. He wants Queen and Rummell to track down his relations so that they’ll be in a position to inherit when he dies. Then, Queen becomes ill, so Rummell has to take on the ‘legwork.’ He follows the trail to Hollywood, where Kerrie Shawn is an aspiring actress. She hasn’t had much success though, and shares a dingy place with her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day. Word comes that Cole has died, and Rummell gets the distinct pleasure of telling Kerrie that she is set to inherit a large fortune. Cole’s will stipulates that she and the other heir, Margo Cole, must share his home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit, so she and Vi move to the house. As you can imagine, trouble soon begins, since such a large amount of money is at stake. Then, Margo is shot and Kerrie becomes a suspect. By this time Rummell has fallen in love with her, so he wants to clear her name. If he does, it’ll be a real case of ‘rags to riches’ for both of them.

When Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series begins, her sleuth James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is trying to get his life back together. He’s a former big-city crime reporter and author who’s hit some hard times and gotten far too familiar with the bottle. In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, he gets a chance to start over when his former boss Arch Riker hires him as a features writer for the Daily Fluxion. At first, he lives the sort of paycheck-to-paycheck existence that you might expect. A bit later in the series (The Cat Who Played Brahms has the details) Qwill inherits a vast fortune from his mother’s friend Francesca ‘Fanny’ Klingenschoen. The only proviso is that in order to inherit, Qwill must live in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere’ for five years. If he chooses not to do that, the fortune passes to Atlantic City. When word gets around that Qwill is set to inherit so much money, there’s resentment at first, since many of the locals were hoping the money would be used in the town. But they’re even more upset at the thought of having all of that money go to Atlantic City. As fans know, Qwill finds a way to make it work. He’s not comfortable with vast wealth anyway, so he remains in Pickax and sets up a charitable fund, the Klingenschoen Foundation, that supports many town projects. And that still leaves him with more money than he could ever need.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, readers are introduced to Jodie Evans. She’s been brought up, as the saying goes, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ near Sydney. Her home life is not good, and she would like very much to get free of it and out of poverty. Her first chance comes when she does well enough in school to get a scholarship to an upmarket secondary school. Then later, she meets Angus Garrow, an up-and-coming law student from a ‘blue blood’ family. He falls in love with her and the two marry, very much against the wishes of his mother, who was hoping he’d choose someone from his own social class. For a long time, it seems that Jodie has successfully gone from ‘rags to riches.’ She and Angus remain married and she has two healthy children. There’s certainly a difference between her perspective and that of her new social circle, but she’s learned to fit in. Then everything changes. Her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a girl she named Elsa Mary. No-one knows about the child, not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie says she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption, but when the extra-vigilant nurse does some checking, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked, first privately and then very publicly. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As the story spreads, Jodie becomes a social pariah to the well-off people she’s been living among for so long, and she learns who her real friends are.

Even winning the lottery isn’t necessarily a great way to go from ‘rags to riches.’ Just ask Waldemar Leverkuhn, whom we meet in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. After a lifetime of working for a living, he and some of his friends go in together on a lottery ticket that turns out to be a big winner. He goes out with those friends to celebrate; but later that night, he is brutally murdered. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate. When they learn about the lottery ticket, one of their questions is whether someone was anxious to keep Leverkuhn’s winnings. The truth is more complicated than that, but it goes to show that riches can’t always protect you.

There’s just something about the ‘rags to riches’ fantasy. I’m sure you can think of lots of good examples of it that I’ve not included here. Just as well, as I’ve got to see what’s in this letter. You never know…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Håkan Nesser, Lilian Jackson Braun, Wendy James

If You Think I’m Feeling Older and Missing My Younger Days*

RetiredCopPolice officers see and learn a lot over the course of their careers. So when they retire, they’re often treasure troves of information about different cases and often, about the history of an area. Their perspectives can be helpful and certainly they can add richness to a crime novel. When retired cops are consulted, they can give the fictional sleuth a lot of insight and, provided they are well-drawn, can be really interesting characters in and of themselves. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that Hercule Poirot works with Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence on more than one case. By the time of Hallowe’en Party, Spence has retired to the village of Woodleigh Common, where he lives with his sister Elspeth. Poirot knows the value of Spence’s experience and wisdom. So he pays Spence a visit when a village girl, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds, is murdered during a party. On the afternoon of her death, Joyce boasted that she’d seen a murder, but wouldn’t give any details about it. The fact that she’s now dead leads Poirot to believe that she might have seen something. So he asks Spence about the history of the area, and Spence is able to give him some valuable input. And in fact, Joyce’s murder has everything to do with past history and past crime.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate when the remains of two women are found on the property of Pity Wood Farm in the Peak District. The farm was owned for many years by brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek has died but his brother is still alive and living in a care home. The police interview him, but he can’t add much to their investigation, as he sold Pity Wood Farm before the bodies were buried there. The current owner is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development, and has no connection to it or to the area. While the Suttons and Goodwin aren’t completely crossed off the suspect list, Fry and Cooper do see that they’ll need to look into the history of Pity Wood Farm and the nearby village of Rakedale. They soon discover though that Rakedale is a very insular community. No-one seems willing to talk to outsiders, and certainly not about any of the local ‘dirty laundry.’ But there is one person who’s lived there a long time, and who may be able to help. He is ex-PC David Palfreyman, who was the local bobby for thirty years before he retired. Cooper and Fry pay Palfreyman some visits, and it’s interesting to see what his perspective adds to the story. He gives them some background information on the Sutton family and about Rakesdale, and it’s clear that as they talk, he enjoys being part of an investigation again and that he’s missed his ‘police’ role.

Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence features detective Antsi Ketola. After years with the Turku police, Ketola has retired and is just beginning the next phase of his life. But he is still obsessed with one case that he never solved. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen disappeared and later was found in a field, raped and murdered. Ketola followed all the leads, but was never able to catch the criminal. A new case comes up when Sinikka Vehkasalo rides her bicycle to volleyball practice one day and never makes it. Her bicycle is later found, covered in blood and with the handlebars twisted round, in exactly the spot where Pia Lehtinen’s body was found. Inspector Kimmo Joentaa soon suspects that the same killer is responsible for both murders, so he decides to seek Ketola’s help in finding out who killed these two girls and why. And it turns out that Ketola’s knowledge of the old case and the area are very helpful in getting to the truth.

Reginald Hill’s novella One Small Step takes place in the future (well, it was the future when Hill wrote it in 1990). In this story, Superintendent Andy Dalziel has retired, and Peter Pascoe is now the Commissioner of the EuroFed Police. An international team of scientists and astronauts is conducting research on the moon, when one of them, a French astronaut, is murdered. Pascoe takes charge of the investigation and benefits greatly from the input and help he gets from Dalziel. This may not be regarded as Hill’s finest work, but it’s an interesting look at how he imagined the future might be.

Fans of Håkan Nesser will know that at the beginning of his Maardam series, Inspector Van Veeteren is a homicide detective who leads the investigating team. But after decades on the force, he has plans to move on with his life. In the course of the series, he leaves the force and becomes part owner of an antique bookshop. He enjoys his new life, but he still misses solving investigation puzzles. And for their parts, his former team-mates miss working with him and getting the benefit of his experience and his skill at detection. So in stories such as The Unlucky Lottery and The Weeping Girl, his former colleagues informally consult with him on their cases. In the former, Intendant Münster taps Van Veeteren’s wisdom as he solves the murder of retiree who’d just won a lottery. In the latter, Inspecter Ewa Moreno gets involved in the investigation when eighteen-year-old Mikaela Lijphart disappears. Moreno met the girl once and hasn’t been able to forget her. She finds that Makaela’s disappearance is connected with the disappearance of her father and with two murders.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls concerns two murders that took place in 1978. One is the murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. The other is the murder of sixteen year-old Kelly McIvor. The police investigated both deaths, but were never able to solve them. Now, journalist Erin Fury is making a documentary on the effect of murders on the victims’ families. As part of the film, she wants to interview Angela’s family members. Her parents are no longer alive, but her cousins Jane Tait and Jane’s brother Mick Griffin are. So are Jane and Mick’s parents Doug and Barbara Griffin. Doug is a retired police officer who could likely shed a great deal of light on the case and Erin wants very much to interview him. The problem is that he’s been diagnosed with possible dementia. He’s not spoken in a very long time, and seems to be losing his connection to the outside world. So he’s now living in a care home and there’s very little likelihood that Erin will be able to interview him. She finds her own way to gain access to him though, and we learn a surprising amount from what he has to say.

And that’s the thing about retired cops. They’ve seen a lot and been through a lot. They may be ‘straight arrows’ or ‘bent,’ and they may be willing or unwilling to talk about old cases. But they all provide a fascinating perspective on policing, and they often can give some very good insight and advice. Which retired police characters have stayed with you?
 

In Memoriam
 
WarrenClarke

This post is dedicated to the memory of Warren Clarke, who brought Superintendent Andy Dalziel to life on the small screen. He will be much missed.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Keeping the Faith.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Jan Costin Wagner, Reginald Hill, Stephen Booth, Wendy James