Category Archives: Harry Bingham

Well Versed in Etiquette*

I don’t have to convince you that society keeps changing. And in many of the most important ways, that’s a good thing. As we go on, we hopefully evolve and transform for the better. One of the consequences of those changes is that the ‘rules’ we’ve lived by need to change, too – well, some of them, anyway.

And that’s where the complexity and sometimes difficulties can come in. The thing about established rules of etiquette is that everyone knows them. There’s a certain security in that, if you think about it. People know who they are, they know what’s expected of them, and so on. And not having those rules can make things awkward. For instance, who pays for a first date? Who asks for the date? When two people approach a door, who opens it? There are some basic answers to those questions (e.g., At least in the US, the person who gets to the door first and/or has hands free opens a door). But things aren’t always as straightforward any more as they were. And that can cause anxiety.

We see these changes in etiquette throughout crime fiction. Among other things, they give us a look at a particular time, place and socioeconomic context. For example, Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead was published in 1952. In it, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to look into the murder of a charwoman. Her lodger, James Bentley, has been convicted of the crime, and is due to be executed. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence thinks he’s innocent. So, Poirot investigates. In the process, he’s re-acquainted with Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, who’s in Broadhinny to work with up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward to adapt one of her books for the stage. She gets out of her car and discovers that she’s been sitting on her hat:
 

‘‘I never liked it much. But I thought I might have to go to church on Sunday and although the Archbishop has said one needn’t, I still think that the more old-fashioned clergy expect one to wear a hat.’’
 

Today, there are far fewer ‘rules’ about what to wear to religious services, one’s office, or even occasions such as weddings. It so often depends now on the context, on the people involved, and so on. That means the decision about what to wear can be complicated, even if it is liberating in a lot of ways.

Among other things, Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates gives readers a look at post-World War II Japan. In it, Imanishi and his team investigate the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body is found under a Tokyo train. As Imanishi and his co-workers ask questions and follow up on leads, they interact with several other characters. Through this, we see the rituals of the time regarding going to someone’s home, giving and receiving things, and so on. Life has changed drastically in Japan since that time. And Natsuo Kirino’s Real World shows that. That novel takes place in modern Tokyo, and features four teenagers, who are part of the young culture. It’s interesting to see how many of the older rules of etiquette (e.g. interactions between the sexes) have changed. But at the same time, there are still some elements of old-fashioned etiquette that remain (e.g. bringing a small gift to someone’s home as a way of thanking or making apologies).

Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret brings up another sort of ‘etiquette’ question. In it, Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig is helping her friend, Denise Wolff, put together an alumni reunion to coincide with the University of Alberta’s Homecoming events. The reunion is intended for members of the English Department, so the list of invitees is long, but not so long as to preclude personal invitations. And that raises the question of how the alumni should be invited. On the one hand, a personal, paper invitation is still considered the most appropriate. On the other, that can get costly, and most people do have email accounts. So, why not send the invitations through email? In the end, that decision is voted down in the interest of creating a better impression with an actual paper invitation. But, the response card also includes an email address, so that invitees can respond that way if they wish. It’s an admittedly small part of the plot, but it shows how these etiquette rules aren’t as ‘hard and fast’ as they once were.

And then there’s Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, the first to feature Cardiff Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths. She gets drawn into the investigation of the murders of an occasional prostitute, Janet Mancini, and her six-year-old daughter, April. One of the other people on the team is Detective Sergeant (DS) David Brydon. He and Griffiths are attracted to each other, and neither is in a current relationship. So, there’s nothing, really, to hold them back from dating. But the problem is, Griffiths doesn’t know how to do ‘the dating thing.’ She doesn’t really know the etiquette for what to wear, how to make the right sort of small talk, and so on. It’s made all the more complicated because the rules aren’t really ‘hard and fast.’ They’re changing as society changes. This isn’t a major plot thread, and it’s certainly not the reason for the murders. But it does give some interesting insight into how confusing dating can be in today’s world.

And that’s the thing about those comfortable rules of etiquette. They can be very limiting, and I think most of us would agree that it’s good riddance to a fair share of them. But some of them are comforting and add a measure of security when we’re interacting. And they certainly show up in crime fiction.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Killer Queen.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Harry Bingham, Janice MacDonald, Matsumoto Seichō, Natsuo Kirino

No One Dare Disturb the Sound of Silence*

One of the major challenges that police and private investigators face is people’s reluctance to talk to them. Sometimes that’s because those people have their own secrets, and they’d rather the police didn’t find them out. Many times, though, it’s because they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they do co-operate.  If there’s a lot of what I’ll call peer pressure not to be involved in an investigation, people find that hard to resist.

For instance, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Laidlaw is faced with a very troubling case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body discovered in Kelvingrove Park. In that part of the city, there is a lot of pressure not to talk to ‘the polis.’ Everyone knows who co-operates with the authorities, and those people are not made to feel welcome. Laidlaw knows this, so he takes a different approach to finding information. He and his second-in-command, Detective Constable (DC) Brian Harkness, pay a visit to John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the victim was found. If Rhodes wants something to happen, it will happen. Laidlaw also knows that Rhodes has a certain ethic. He’s not going to be pleased about the rape and murder of a young woman on ‘his patch.’ So, Laidlaw and Harkness appeal to that ethic, and Rhodes agrees to put the word out for anyone who knows anything to come forward. Sure enough, that strategy turns out to be successful, and Laidlaw gets some useful information.

In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumprint, we are introduced to Sergeant Jacob Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police. He is responsible for the arrest of Erwin Schlumpf on the charge of murdering his sweetheart Sonja’s father, travelling salesman Wendelin Witschi. Studer decides to visit Schlumpf in prison, and arrives just in time to prevent the man’s suicide. He’s developing a liking for Schlumpf, so he decides to investigate Witschi’s murder again. There was certainly enough evidence against Schlumpf to arrest him, but Studer finds that there are other possibilities when it comes to the murderer. He faces a major challenge, though: very few people are willing to talk to him. It’s not so much that they dislike Schlumpf. Rather, they have to live in the small town where the murder occurred, and don’t want to upset the proverbial apple cart, especially considering that some suspects have quite a lot of local power.

There’s a similar sort of concern in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In that novel, Amsterdam police detective Piet van der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen. There’s been a spate of anonymous ‘poison pen’ letters, and the matter has gone far beyond annoying. The letters have been responsible for two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find out much information, chiefly because Zwinderen’s residents are close-mouthed. They have to live in this town, where everyone knows everyone’s business. If anyone is seen as helping the police, there’s immediately talk as to why. Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, travel to the town, and settle in. Because of the natural suspicion, van der Valk pretends to be a bureaucrat conducting a study for the Ministry of the Interior. In that guise, he slowly gets to know the residents; and, in the end, he finds out who wrote the letters and why.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girls introduces readers to Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss. The body of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas has been found by a local school caretaker, and the police begin their investigation. One of their first tasks is, of course, to find out as much as possible about the victim. When they learn that she was a sex worker, a natural next step is to talk to other local sex workers and find out about any enemies she’d made. That proves more difficult than it might seem. These women have to live in town and do their jobs. If they’re seen as helping the police, they’ll alienate some of the very people who are their support system. That’s not to mention that several of them work for Charlie Hawes, a dangerous pimp who’s not afraid to use violence to keep ‘his girls’ under control. He’s happy to use the same tactics against anyone else who crosses him, too, so people are inclined to keep quiet. Morriss knows how difficult it’s going to be to get Michelle’s friends and co-workers to talk, so she slowly develops a rapport with some of them, outside of the police station. Little by little, they learn to trust her, and she learns quite a lot of useful information.

Harry Bingham’s DC Fiona Griffiths faces the same challenge in Talking to the Dead. When part-time sex worker Janet Mancini and her six-year-old daughter, April, are killed, Griffiths joins the team that investigates the murders. She tries to make contact with some of the other sex workers in the area, but few of them are willing to talk. They still have to earn their livings. Besides, there are some very dangerous people who might be involved in the killings. It makes no sense to put their own lives in peril if anyone suspects they’ve been co-operating with the police. Still, Griffiths slowly finds out some of Mancini’s background. And she gets some important information about the killings.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which takes place in late-1970s Perth. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from the area for a few years, but returns when he learns of the death of a friend, Ruby Devine. He soon finds that almost no-one is willing to talk to him about her death, though. For one thing, Swann has convened a Royal Commission hearing to look into possible corruption among a group of police known as the ‘purple circle.’ That’s already made him a marked man. And the people who might know something sill have to live in and around Perth. They have to deal with the consequences if it gets around that they helped Swann. It’s a difficult situation for everyone, but Swann eventually finds out the truth.

And that’s the thing about getting people to talk. The police need to get answers, but the people who could help them still have to go on with their lives, perhaps next door to someone they’ve accused. Or perhaps the next target of someone who doesn’t want to be ‘known to the police.’ Either way, this can make it very challenging to get information.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.

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Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Friedrich Glauser, Harry Bingham, Maureen Carter, Nicolas Freeling, William McIlvanney

Here’s the Mystery of Fitting In*

Human interactions can be complicated, since people are complex. That may be part of why each group of people develops rules – some of them very subtle and unspoken – for being accepted. If you know and follow those rules, you have a much easier time in that particular group. If you don’t, it’s more difficult; you may even be made unwelcome.

Those rules permeate our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re also woven into crime fiction. For example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is Belgian, with a lifetime of that culture’s subtle and not-so-subtle ‘rules’ for interaction. He’s smart and observant enough to know that things are different in his adopted home of England. So, he’s made the adjustment. In The Murder on the Links, for instance, he and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, who lived with his wife and son in Merlinville-sur-Mer, in France. At one point, Poirot makes a trip to Paris to follow up on a lead. Here’s how he takes his leave of Hastings:
 

‘‘You permit that I embrace you? Ah, no, I forget that it is not the English custom. Une poignee de main, alors.’’
 

Needless to say, a handshake is much more suited to Hastings’ style.

In Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, Trafalgar, British Columbia (BC) Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and her boss, Sergeant John Winters, investigate the murder of land developer Reginald ‘Reg’ Montgomery. There are plenty of suspects, too. He wanted to create the Grizzly Resort, an upmarket tourist attraction that some people say would have brought in a lot of welcome revenue. But, there are just as many people who didn’t want the resort, saying it would wreak havoc on the environment and make life harder for the local people. The victim had some secrets in his personal life as well. There were certainly plenty of people who didn’t like Montgomery, but he knew some of the ‘rules’ for fitting in in Trafalgar:
 

‘…he made a point of shopping at the local stores, rather than the Wal-Mart in Nelson, eating out regularly, usually in family-owned restaurants, and tipping well. Ellie, his wife, had her hair done at Maggie’s Salon on Front Street, bought her clothes from Joanie’s Ladies Wear, and contributed generously, in time as well as money, to the hospital and the seniors center.’
 

Montgomery wanted the locals to accept him and his wife, and learned how to help make that happen.

In many groups, new members get the least desirable assignments, and sometimes have to be good sports about having tricks played on them. Once they show they can ‘take a joke,’ and are willing to do lowly tasks, they’re accepted. Of course, such ‘rules’ can be taken much too far, and amount to hazing. But they’re a part of a lot of groups’ cultures. For instance, Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood is the story of the murder of Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police. One day, he’s called to the scene of a home invasion, and takes probationer Lucy Howard with him to investigate. He’s killed at the house, and everyone assumes that the murderer is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley. Howard didn’t see the murder, though, as she was at a different part of the house when it happened. So, the police have to investigate. As they do, we get to know the people White worked with, and the bond they share. One of those people is Constable Cameron Walsh, who considered White a mentor, even though White played a ‘new guy’ prank on him. Walsh was accepted among his fellow coppers, including White, in part because he proved he ‘could take a joke.’

One of the most important things one learns in the LGBT community is that you don’t ever ‘out’ someone. People choose to come out or not of their own accord. And Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant knows and follows that rule. In Flight of Aquavit, Quant gets a new client, successful accountant Daniel Guest. Guest is a ‘closeted’ married gay man, who’s being blackmailed over some trysts he’s had with other men. He wants Quant to find the blackmailer and stop that person. Quant’s first reaction is that it would be a lot easier if Guest simply went public with the fact that he’s gay. But that’s not Quant’s decision to make, and Guest is unwilling to take that step. So, he takes the case and begins to look into the matter. It’s a challenging case, and leads to murder; but in the end, Quant finds out the truth.

Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates takes place in Japan, mostly in Tokyo. In that culture, at that time (the book was written in 1961), there are a number of expectations for the way one is supposed to interact. There are several ‘rules’ for verbal and other communication. Some indicate who has authority and who doesn’t; others are used to get along with others and to be accepted. Some of those expectations are still in place (we see some of them, for instance, in Natsuo Kirino’s Real Life, which was published in 2003). And it’s interesting to see how those rules and rituals allow for social harmony among a large group of people concentrated in a small place.

It’s much harder to be accepted among a group of people if you don’t know the social subtleties and rules. Just ask Harry Bingham’s Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths, whom we first meet in Talking to the Dead. In this novel, she’s the most junior member of her Cardiff-based police team. It’s vital for a group of police officers to be able to work together, and Griffiths knows that. But knowing and following those ‘rules’ is difficult for her, because she is dealing with a mental illness. It’s not so debilitating that she can’t work, but it does hamper her ability to interact productively with others, and to live on what she calls ‘Planet Normal.’ Things such as joking around, small talk, dating, and so on can be real challenges. She’s not the only one who faces this, either, is she, fans of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?

Most of us learn the ‘rules’ and expectations for interaction very early on. And that’s a good thing, as they make it much easier to work with others and get through life. In fact, they’re so much a part of our lives that we probably don’t pay a lot of attention to them. Little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pale Pacific’s How to Fit In.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Harry Bingham, Mark Haddon, Matsumoto Seichō, Natsuo Kirino, Vicki Delany, Y.A. Erskine

In The Spotlight: Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I mentioned in a recent post, there’s a wide range of crime fiction set in Wales. Some of it takes place in rural areas; some takes place in larger cities. Let’s take a closer look at one such novel today, and turn the spotlight on Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, the first of his Fiona Griffiths series.

Griffiths has only been a Detective Constable (DC) with the Cardiff police for a short time when Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Dennis Jackson taps her to join a murder investigation team. The bodies of Janet Mancini and her six-year-old daughter, April, have been found in an apartment not their own, and there are some odd features about the case. One of the strangest is that an almost-new credit card belonging to wealthy Brendan Rattigan is found at the scene. But Rattigan’s been dead for a few months, so he couldn’t be the killer. So, how did the card end up at the crime scene? That connection is one lead to follow, and Griffiths talks to his widow.

There are other leads, too. It soon comes up that Janet Mancini was a former drug addict who’d been in and out of trouble. She wasn’t addicted at the time of her death, but she was an occasional sex worker. Either of those two facts might lead to the killer. So, Griffiths makes contact with some of the regular sex workers in the area, to try to learn as much as she can about the victims. She also reaches out to Social Services, so that she can get some background on Janet Mancini’s case.

At first, not very much turns up. In part, that’s because all of the evidence seems to show that Janet was trying to do the best she could to put her life together for her daughter’s sake. There doesn’t seem to have been a reason for her to be killed. There’s also the fact that several of the other sex workers are not willing to talk to the police. And those who are don’t seem willing to say an awful lot.

Bit by bit, though, Jackson, Griffiths, and the rest of the team start to get some pieces of the puzzle. Then, there’s another murder. And this new death seems designed as a warning not to say anything to the police. Then, Griffiths gets a warning of her own. It’s now clear that this case is much more than a prostitute killed by a client. Something much bigger is going on, and the team slowly ties together the various pieces of the investigation.

In the meantime, Griffiths is also involved in the case of Brian Penry, a former Met police officer who retired for medical reasons, and took another job. Soon enough, he began embezzling from his new employer, and was caught. Now, it’s a matter of gathering all of the evidence and ensuring that it’ll stand up in court.

In the end, Griffiths learns who the murderer is, and why the victims were killed. And it turns out that the Penry case is helpful as she does so. These murders are all about people knowing things it’s not safe to know.

This is a police procedural, so readers follow along as the team members follow up leads, talk to witnesses, gather evidence, and so on. There’s also discussion of issues such as what sort of evidence is and isn’t admissible in court, what police are and are not allowed to do, and so on. All of the team members want to catch the person responsible, and everyone knows that that won’t happen if they don’t follow procedure.

Griffiths knows that, too. And, as the most junior member of the team, it’s especially important for her to do what she’s asked to do, when she’s asked to do it. Jackson’s a fair-minded boss, and he is willing to listen to what his team members say. But at the same time, he won’t tolerate mavericks. One of the sources of tension in this novel comes as Griffiths starts to learn the balance between taking initiative (something praiseworthy) and being a maverick (a big problem). And she doesn’t always strike the balance effectively. It’s not spoiling the story to say that she comes too close to being a maverick more than once.

The story is told from Griffiths’ perspective (first person, present tense), so we learn quite a bit about her. As a teen, she battled a severe mental illness, and she still deals with that issue. Things most of us take for granted, such as making friends, emotional responses, and social interactions are very difficult for her. And there’s the matter of how much, if anything, to say to her colleagues about it. That said, though, she doesn’t wallow in her struggles, and she has a close, loving relationship with her parents and two sisters. Interestingly, her mental struggles give her a unique perspective on this case, and allow her to think about it in ways her colleagues can’t.

The story takes place mostly in and around Cardiff, and Bingham makes that clear. Griffiths knows the city well, and the different parts of it play their role in the story. So do some other locations that are a bit more remote. Griffiths is proudly Welsh, and that’s clear in the story, too.

The solution to the mystery is a very sad one, and readers who dislike a lot of violence will notice that there is violence in this story, some of it brutal. This isn’t a light, easy read. The violence isn’t extended, though, and there is some wry, sometimes dark wit. Here, for instance, is a bit of a conversation Griffiths has with a colleague, David Brydon, about the case of Brian Penry:

 

‘‘He’ll plead guilty.’ [Brydon]
‘I know he’ll plead guilty.’
‘Got to be done, though.’ [Referring to the paperwork involved in the case].
‘Ah, yes, forgot it was State the Obvious Day. Sorry.’’

 

Some of the wit is self-deprecating, and Griffiths uses it to deal with her mental health issues. On the one hand, they are very real and, without treatment, debilitating. On the other, Griffiths wants to be a part of what she calls Planet Normal. Occasional dry wit is one of her ways of accepting her reality.

Talking to the Dead is a police procedural set clearly in Wales. It features an ugly set of crimes, and a sometimes-gritty search for the truth. And it introduces a sleuth who has a unique perspective on life, and who is working to be a good detective, and to build what she sees as a normal life. But what’s your view? Have you read Talking to the Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 24 July/Tuesday, 25 July – Bloody Waters – Carolina Garcia-Aguilera

Monday, 31 July/Tuesday, 1 August – Trial of Passion – William Deverell

Monday, 7 August/Tuesday, 8 August – Murder in the Marais – Cara Black  

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Filed under Harry Bingham, Talking to the Dead