Category Archives: Helene Tursten

I Love the Old-Fashioned Things*

I spent a couple of days at a conference last week. The conference itself was interesting, with plenty of ‘food for thought.’ Just as interesting (at least to me) was the way people interacted. As you’ll know, one of the customs people have at conferences is to exchange business cards. Business cards and other, related, calling cards have been in use in some form or another for hundreds of years. And even with the less formal nature of today’s business interactions, and with today’s technology, they’re still a popular formality.

The exchange of business cards isn’t the only formal ritual custom people keep. And that’s not surprising. There’s a certain comfort and security that can be associated with them. For example, a funeral ritual can help the bereaved go through the process of letting go of a loved one, no matter how casual those left behind are in the rest of their lives. And certain ritual customs, like formal meals, engraved invitations, and exchanging business cards, add what a lot of people think of as ‘class’ to an event. So, even in today’s more casual world, where people often text or email rather than send letters, there’s something about certain formalities. We certainly see that in crime fiction. And those formalities can be effective tools for character development, cultural background, and even the setting up of context.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth about the murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. He was poisoned sixteen years earlier; and at the time, his wife Caroline was the only really viable suspect. There was plenty of evidence against her, too. She was arrested, convicted and died a year later in prison. Now, her daughter wants to clear her name if that’s possible. Poirot agrees to look into the case. One of the people who give him information is Caleb Jonathan, the Crale family lawyer. He’s retired now, but he knows the family history very well. Both he and Poirot are accustomed to certain formal traditions, so before they even meet, there’s an exchange of letters. Then Poirot receives an invitation for dinner and to spend the night. Only after dinner and an after-dinner brandy does the attorney really begin to talk to Poirot about the Crale family. And that conversation proves useful.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, for instance, will know that Chee and Leaphorn are members of the Navajo Nation, as well as members of the Navajo Tribal Police. In his personal life, Chee is more traditional than Leaphorn is, but both respect their people’s customs. For instance, one custom they observe has to do with visiting people’s homes. It’s the Navajo tradition when visiting to sound the horn and/or call out, and then to wait outside the home of someone one’s visiting until one’s host opens the door and invites one in. This is intended to allow the host to clean up, change clothes, or whatever is needed to prepare for a guest. These police officers know that they could knock on a door right away. But the formality of sounding the car horn and waiting to be invited in shows respect to the homeowner, It also puts witnesses at ease, so they’re more likely to be helpful to the police.

We also see formal courtesy, for instance, in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. In that novel, Göteborg DI Irene Huss and her team investigate the death of wealthy financier Richard von Knecht. One day, he falls from the balcony of his exclusive penthouse, and at first, it looks very much like a suicide. But small pieces of forensic evidence begin to suggest otherwise. So, Huss and the members of her team look more deeply into the matter. One of the important witnesses in this case is Fru Eva Karlsson, an elderly lady who happened to be walking her dog at the time of von Knecht’s deah. Huss wants to learn as much as she can from this witness, so she pays Fru Karlsson a visit. From Huss’ perspective, it’s an informal visit, just to get information. But she is a visitor, so Fru Karlsson insists on making a more formal event of it, complete with fresh coffee and homemade pastries. It’s much more than Huss wants to eat or drink, but putting the witness at ease is important, so she goes along with this formality.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe understands the value of a certain amount of ease and modern informality. But there are some more formal traditions that she continues, and prefers. She prefers to greet people in the traditional way, although it is a bit more formal. And she respects the custom of showing traditional respect to the elderly. When clients come to see her, she puts them at their ease by offering them traditional hospitality: a cup of bush tea and, perhaps, some cake. She knows that those formalities can help ease the awkwardness that often goes with hiring a private investigator.

In Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders, Dr. Hilla Driver decides to have a large house party, both as a sort of housewarming, and to celebrate her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. The guests are among Mumbai’s elite, and include Bollywood people, a famous dancer, a famous author, and a critic, among others. And Hilla wants this to be a very special weekend. So, at the urging of her chef, Tarok Ghosh, she decides to make it a ‘foodie’ weekend that will culminate in a formal, traditional, seven-course gourmet meal. There are to be special hors d’oeuvres, printed menu cards, and other formalities. The weekend arrives, and so do the guests. Right from the beginning, there’s conflict among some of them, but for the most part, things go smoothly enough. Then, on the night of the gourmet meal, Ghosh gives each guest a custom-made hors d’oeuvre, and uses these to show that he knows a secret about each one. That hint strikes too close to home for someone, and by the next morning, he’s dead. One of Hilla’s guests is a retired police detective, Lalli, who’s there with her niece. Together, the two find out who killed Ghosh and why.

Some formalities may seem unnecessary in today’s world. But they have their place, and a lot of people like them. What about you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s I’m Old Fashioned.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Helene Tursten, Kalpana Swaminathan, Tony Hillerman

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under John Grisham, Megan Abbott, Scott Turow, Reginald Hill, Helene Tursten, Fred Vargas, Katherine Howell, Qiu Xiaolong, Claudia Piñeiro, Robert Rotenberg, Liane Moriarty

I Ain’t Got No Crystal Ball*

Crystal BallIf you read a lot of crime fiction, you see certain patterns often enough that you can almost predict what’s going to happen in a given story. Of course, if the author’s done her or his job, you’ll still be interested – even absorbed. But even so, there are just certain things you can guess about certain characters and events. You don’t need a crystal ball to work some things out.

Space only allows for a few examples. But I’m sure you’ll be able to think of dozens more; I hope you’ll share them in the comments. Here is just a smattering:

 

The Blackmailer is a Marked Person

Blackmailing in any form has a way of shortening people’s life spans. On the surface, it may seem like a quick and easy way to make a fortune. But any crime fiction fan knows that a person who wants to be paid for silence usually pays a much greater price in the end.

Just ask Monte Field, the wealthy lawyer whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery. One evening, Field attends a production at New York’s Roman Theatre. By the end of the performance, Field is dead of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Richard Queen takes the case and he and his son Ellery start to put the pieces of the puzzle together. As it turns out, Field’s wealth didn’t just come from representing his clients; he was also an accomplished blackmailer. As you can imagine, this makes for quite a list of suspects, several of whom were at the performance on the night Field died. So the Queens have to go over all of the events of that evening to find out which suspect could have had the opportunity to commit the murder.

Agatha Christie address the risks of being a blackmailer too. In Death on the Nile, for instance, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is on her honeymoon trip with her new husband Simon. On the second night of their cruise of the Nile, Linnet is shot. The first and most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But Jackie could not have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, has to consider other alternatives. As the story goes on, we learn that one person knows who the killer is. When that person makes the mistake of trying to get money for silence, well, I’m sure you know what the result of that is…

You could predict the same risk, too, for other people who know too much, even if they don’t blackmail. You know, the person who calls the sleuth with an important clue that can’t be discussed over the telephone. Or the person who arranges to meet the killer to confront that person. Both are dangerous things to do…

 

People Who Seem to ‘Have it All’ Are in Trouble

We all know that life isn’t perfect. But there are some people who seem to have ‘it all’ – money, a successful marriage, and so on. Any dedicated crime fiction fan can tell you that those people are likely in for a lot of trouble. In fact, that’s the main plot point of a lot of noir stories.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayed, for instance, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. They’ve been married for fifteen years, and are the parents of six-year-old Axel. On the surface, they seem to have a fine suburban life. But then, disaster strikes. Eva learns to her shock and dismay that Henrik has been unfaithful. She’d suspected he wasn’t happy for some time, but had been hopeful they’d work matters out. When she learns the truth, Eva becomes determined to find out who the other woman is. As matters start to spin out of control, we see that having ‘it all’ is no guarantee of avoiding trouble. In fact, in crime fiction, quite the opposite often happens.

It certainly does in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. Richard von Knecht is a very successful financier with a beautiful penthouse, a circle of family and friends, and just about everything else you’d associate with ‘success.’ One day he jumps (or falls, or is pushed) to his death from the balcony of his penthouse. At first it seems to be a case of suicide, although there doesn’t appear to be any kind of logical motive. But as Göteborg Police Inspector Irene Huss and her team discover, this is no suicide. When forensic evidence shows that von Knecht was murdered, the team looks into the victim’s background and family life. As we learn more and more of the truth, we see that ‘having it all’ can cover up some very ugly things.

 

Don’t Expect Help From the Locals

Whenever there’s a serious crime, especially murder, the police interview people who live in the area. And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that in a crime novel, at least some of the locals are going to be close-mouthed and suspicious. Sometimes it’s because they’re hiding their own embarrassing truths. Other times it’s because they know something about the crime and either don’t want to be suspected, or don’t want the killer to target them. There are other reasons, too (e.g. not trusting the police).

We see this, for instance, in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters in Jerusalem Lane, a very historic area of London. When she dies in what looks like a successful suicide attempt, DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate. Kolla isn’t so sure that this was a suicide, and Brock gives her the go-ahead to look into the case. It turns out that everyone in Jerusalem Lane knows everyone else. The locals have formed a tight community and keep their own and each other’s secrets. Here’s what Kolla says about it:
 

‘It’s almost as if the people who live here are all frantically signaling to one another, without letting on to the people passing through on the street.’
 

And as it turns out, that insularity hides some interesting truths…

Thea Osborne finds much the same sort of close-mouthed insularity in Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Killing. Duntisbourne Abbots residents Clive and Jennifer Reynolds have hired Osborne as a house/pet sitter for the three weeks during which they’ll be away on a cruise. On the appointed day, Osborne duly arrives and gets ready to take on her responsibilities. She’s under pressure as it is, since Reynolds has given her a long and exhaustive list of things to do. Matters get worse when she hears (or does she?) a scream late that night. The next morning, Osborne discovers the body of Joel Jennison in a pond on the Reynolds property. She gives the alarm and the police are called in. It’s not long before she learns that there may be more going on in this case than it seems. Then, she discovers that the victim’s brother was killed just six months earlier. Now the question seems to be: who had a vendetta against the Jennison family? To look into the case further, Osborne’s going to need to penetrate the layer of reticence among the locals. And that’s not going to be easy…

These are just a few instances of things you can predict without a crystal ball when you read enough crime fiction. Which patterns have you discovered?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s Santeria. Not exactly a family-friendly song, but the lyric worked…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Ellery Queen, Helene Tursten, Karin Alvtegen, Rebecca Tope

Looks Like Another Suicide*

Faked SuicidesOne way in which real and fictional murderers may try to hide their crimes is by setting the scene to make it look as though the victim committed suicide. After all, we never really know what’s in someone’s mind, so it’s plausible that someone might commit suicide without giving a hint of suicidal thinking. That certainly happens in real life, and thanks to Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling, I’ve been thinking about how it can happen in crime fiction too.

Agatha Christie used that plot point in several of her stories. In Dead Man’s Mirror, for instance, Hercule Poirot receives a summons from Gervase Chevenix-Gore to the family home at Hamborough Close. Chevenix-Gore believes that someone in his family may be cheating him, and he doesn’t want to call in the police. Poirot is none too happy about being summoned in such an autocratic way, but he goes. Shortly after Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is killed, apparently the result of suicide. And several signs point to just that explanation. But Poirot has already concluded that the victim was most assuredly not the kind of person who would kill himself. So he investigates further and finds that someone set the scene up to look like suicide.

Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus begins when Milan-based Dr. Luca Lamberti is hired by wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri to help with Auseri’s son Davide. It seems that Davide has developed a severe depression coupled with a serious drinking problem. Nothing seems to have helped, and now Auseri simply doesn’t know what to do next. Lamberti agrees to at least meet Davide and see if he can be of assistance. After a time, he learns the reason for Davide’s troubles. A year earlier, Davide met a young woman, Alberta Radelli. After spending a day out of town together, Alberta begged Davide not to take her back to Milan. In fact, she threatened suicide if he did, and tried to persuade him to take her along wherever he was going. Davide refused. Not long afterwards, Alberta’s body was discovered in a field outside Milan, an apparent victim of suicide. Now Davide blames himself for her death. Lamberti comes to believe that the only way to help his patient is to find out what really happened to Alberta. So he begins to look into the matter. Davide soon takes an interest too. In the end, Lamberti discovers that Alberta did not commit suicide; she’d gotten involved in a very dangerous business with some very dangerous people, and paid the price.

Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss introduces Göteborg Inspector Irene Huss. She is part of the Violent Crimes Unit supervised by Sven Andersson. When the team hears of the death of wealthy businessman Richard von Knecht, they go into action. The victim apparently committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his upmarket penthouse. But soon enough, forensic and other evidence suggests that von Knecht was murdered. What’s more, he didn’t seem despondent enough to have taken his own life. What’s more, von Knecht was afraid of heights. If he’d decided to commit suicide, he wouldn’t likely have used that means to do so. Now that it seems clear von Knecht was murdered, Huss and her team look more closely at the people in the victim’s life to see who would have had a motive to kill him. It turns out that there’s more than one possibility.

Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore begins with the discovery of the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo. At first it looks as though Castelo committed suicide; and he kept to himself so successfully that no-one really knows whether he had a motive. But little pieces of evidence suggest to Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas that perhaps Castelo was murdered. So Caldas and his team begin to look a little more closely into the victim’s life. They find that his death is related to a tragic incident in the past.

Suicide by drowning also seems to be the verdict in Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team have re-opened the six-year-old case of the death of Bethany Friend. Scarlett isn’t entirely satisfied that the victim committed suicide. For one thing, she didn’t seem to have a motive. For another, she was very much afraid of drowning; so, even if she had decided to kill herself, Scarlett doubts she’d have chosen that method. As the team finds out more, Scarlett comes to believe that this death may be related to two more recent deaths. And so it proves to be. The three deaths have a link that Oxford historian Daniel Kind helps to discover.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. One morning, Sydney paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill go to the scene of a one-auto crash. The driver, Marko Meixner, refuses to let them take him to a local hospital at first. In fact, he says that he is in danger and they will be, too, if they spend any time with him. Koutofides thinks Meixner needs a psychiatric evaluation, so when she and Churchill finally get their patient to the nearest hospital, she requests a workup. But Meixner leaves before that can be done. Later that day, he is killed in what looks like a suicide when he falls under a commuter train. In fact, he’d attempted suicide before. But when New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi learns what Meixner said to the paramedics, she begins to wonder whether this was a case of murder. So she and her police partner Murray Shakespeare look more closely at the case. They find that Meixner’s murder was engineered.

There are a lot of other cases, too, of fictional murders ‘dressed’ as suicides. Which ones have stayed with you? Thanks to Carol for the inspiration! Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be her excellent Reading, Writing and Riesling? You’ll be rewarded with great book reviews (with a focus on Australian writers) as well as terrific recipes and stunning ‘photos.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Close to the Borderline.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Helene Tursten, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards

And I Have My Say and I Draw Conclusions*

Conclusions and EvidenceMost of us make sense of what we see and draw conclusions from it without even being aware of what we’re doing. For instance, suppose you don’t see your car keys where you usually leave them. You look out the window and your car’s still there, so you conclude that no-one stole your car, and your keys must be in the house somewhere. Then you use evidence (e.g. what rooms you were in the last time you had your keys, which trousers you were wearing), and usually, you track them down. You may not be consciously aware that you’re drawing conclusions as you go, but you are.

Evidence and conclusions play huge roles in crime fiction for obvious reasons. Skilled sleuths pay attention to the evidence and use it as best they can to draw reasonable conclusions. Even more skilled sleuths know that evidence can be faked, so they look for more than just what’s obvious. And one of the biggest mistakes sleuths make is to draw conclusions that are too hasty, because they haven’t paid attention to the evidence.

The way sleuths draw conclusions is central to court cases too, since evidence is key to either prosecuting or defending an accused person. ‘S/he did it – I know it!’ simply isn’t enough for a conviction. And there are a lot of crime novels where original investigators didn’t do a good job with the evidence, so the case is re-opened.

Using that connection between evidence and conclusions as a plot point can be risky. A sleuth who doesn’t pay attention to the evidence or who draws all of the wrong conclusions can come off as bumbling, and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, a sleuth who never has to puzzle over what conclusions to draw can come off as not very credible.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous fictional users of evidence to draw conclusions and make deductions. Here, for instance, is his commentary on Dr. Watson when they first meet in A Study in Scarlet:
 

‘I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.’
 

In fact, Holmes and his creator had little patience for sudden flashes of intuition.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is very interested in psychology, and draws conclusions from psychological evidence as well as physical evidence. And it’s interesting to see how he draws conclusions when the physical and psychological evidence are at odds. That’s what happens, for instance in Dead Man’s Mirror. Poirot is summoned to the home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, who believes he’s being cheated by someone in his inner circle. Very shortly after Poirot arrives, Chevenix-Gore is dead, apparently by suicide (there’s even a suicide note). And at first, that’s what everyone believes, since the physical evidence (locked study door, etc.) suggest it. But to Poirot, someone as self-important as Gervase Chevenix-Gore would simply not believe that the world could get along without him. He wouldn’t commit suicide. So Poirot looks more carefully at the physical evidence and discovers that there are some pieces that don’t add up to suicide either. And that’s how he draws the conclusion that Chevenix-Gore was murdered.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest is part of a team that investigates the murder of geologist/prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. He was stabbed in his hut not very long after a drunken pub quarrel with John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge. And the obvious evidence is very strong that Wireless is the killer. So Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn draws the very reasonable conclusion that Wireless is the man they want, and is ready to wrap up the case quickly. Tempest notices other evidence though – evidence from nature – and begins to suspect that Wireless may be innocent. So she begins to ask questions. In this novel, there’s an interesting debate between the evidence that comes from things such as bloodstains, wounds and so on, and the evidence that’s more psychological and intuitive. And as it turns out, depending on just the one or the other leads to the wrong conclusions. Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that he too relies on ‘the Book of the Bush’ – evidence from nature – to draw conclusions, and that he often looks beyond the actual physical evidence that he sees.

Sometimes, it’s hard to draw solid conclusions at first, because a fictional death looks so much like a suicide or accident. For example, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking a much-needed getaway break at Krabi, on the Thai coast. During their visit, they take a tour that’s led by a guide named Pla. That personal connection is one reason why both are very upset when they learn that Pla’s body has been found washed up in a cave. They decide to take a few extra days to see if they can find out what happened to her. The police report suggests that the victim died by accident or perhaps committed suicide by drowning. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion, and there isn’t very much physical evidence to suggest otherwise. But Keeney isn’t so sure. For one thing, she knows that Pla was an expert swimmer. So although it’s not impossible, an accident is unlikely. And nothing she learns suggests that Pla was despondent enough to kill herself. So Keeney starts asking questions. In the end, she finds that the truth is very different to what it seems on the surface. But at the same time, it’s easy to see why the police would draw the conclusions they did. If you don’t pay attention to those small bits of evidence, it’s very hard to work out whether someone drowned by accident, suicide or murder.

In Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss, Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and the other members of the Violent Crimes Unit are faced with a puzzling case. Successful entrepreneur Richard von Knecht jumps from the balcony of the penthouse where he and his wife Sylvia live. At first the case looks very much like a suicide. It’s a reasonable conclusion, and anyone might have a hidden motive for that. But the police pay attention to other pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. For one thing, the victim had acrophobia. If he was going to kill himself, it seems odd that he’d have chosen that method. For another, there is some forensic evidence that points to murder. So the team has to look at this case in an entirely new way.

And that’s the thing about drawing crime-fictional conclusions. It’s natural and human to draw conclusions from what we see. That’s how we make sense of our world. And those details and pieces of evidence that sleuths see are critical to drawing conclusions. That’s not always as easy to do as it seems, but the way sleuths go from details/evidence to conclusions is an important part of an investigation.

ps. Just to see how this works, what conclusions do you draw from the evidence in the ‘photo? 😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Helene Tursten