Category Archives: Henning Mankell

That is All I Have Left to Say*

Dying WordsNot every fictional victim gets the chance for last words. But it’s interesting to see how many crime novels include dying words. It’s tricky to handle dying words effectively. For one thing, a lot depends on how the fictional victim dies. In many cases, it wouldn’t be possible for a victim to say anything. And there’s the matter of melodrama. That said though, dying words can be very interesting; and sometimes, they’re important clues to the killer.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She feels that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. It seems that Helen’s sister Julia suddenly died after a strange series of eerie noises and unexplained events. On the night of Julia’s death, Helen heard her sister scream. She rushed from her bedroom into the corridor and saw her sister there. Julia was only able to say,

‘‘Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’’

before she died. Helen could make little sense of the words, but now, she’s hearing the same strange noises that preceded Julia’s death. Holmes and Watson travel to Stoke Moran, the estate where Helen lives, and investigate to find out who would want both women dead and why. I know, I know, fans of The Boscombe Valley Mystery.

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at a guest house belonging to wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. Also staying (but in the main house) for the weekend are Levering’s three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. As you can guess, the atmosphere at the house is tense, so Queen spends most of his time at the guest house. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from his host, who says that he’s been murdered. He tries to say more, but because he stutters, it’s extremely difficult for him to get anything out. And at least at first, Queen can’t make sense of what he does say. In any case, he rushes over to the main house. But by then, it’s too late: Benedict has been killed by a blow to the head. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. It turns out that Benedict knew all along who killed him; had Queen understood what he was saying, the case would have been solved before it began. But of course, that wouldn’t make for riveting reading…

Agatha Christie used dying words in more than one of her stories. For instance, in The Boomerang Clue (AKA Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?), Bobby Jones is golfing with his friend, Dr. Thomas. At one point, they’re looking for a ball that went over a cliff when they see a man who’s fallen off the cliff and landed below. Jones goes to stay with the man as Thomas rushes off to get help. So Jones is alone when the victim says,

‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’

and then dies. The words seem meaningless at first, but as Jones and his friend, Lady Frances ‘Frankie’ Derwent ask some questions, it becomes clear that the man was murdered, and that he’s the key to something much bigger than they’d thought. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow.

Henning Mankell’s first Kurt Wallender novel, Faceless Killers, begins with brutal attacks on a rural farmer, Johannes Lövgren, and his wife, Maria. Johannes dies before any help can arrive, but Maria lives long enough to be transported to emergency care at the nearest hospital. She, too, later dies, but not before uttering the word,


That one word means serious trouble for Wallander and his police team. There is already simmering resentment against immigrants in the area. If it gets out (which it does) that these murders were likely committed by foreigners, there’s no telling what might happen. And when the media hears about it, the police have to deal with a real backlash – including the murder of a Somali immigrant who was living at a nearby camp. Now the police have to fend off the media, solve the murder of the immigrant quickly (so as not to appear prejudiced) and continue to work on the Lövgren case.

And then there’s Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is an undermaster at the local grammar school in 17th Century Banff, in Scotland. One morning he wakes to the news that there’s a dead body in his classroom. He finds that the dead man is apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson, and that Davidson has been poisoned. The most likely suspect is his romantic rival, music master Charles Thom, who is duly arrested. Thom claims that he’s innocent, and begs Seaton to help clear his name and get him out of prison. Seaton agrees and begins asking questions. He saw Davidson alive, not long before his death, and now that vision comes back to haunt him. Davidson had tried to get his attention, but Seaton didn’t respond. Now he discovers that two other people did respond: local prostitutes Mary and Janet Dawson saw Davidson and tried to help him. Neither they nor Seaton can make sense of Davidson’s dying words, at least at first. But as we find out, those words have a lot of significance.

And that’s the thing. Dying words often do have a significance, both in real life and in crime fiction. It’s just that sometimes, it’s harder to work out what the meaning is than it is other times. Which fictional dying words have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s version of Muddy Waters’ Blow Wind Blow. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, Shona MacLean

The Wise Old Owl, The Big Black Crow*

Bird WatchingAn interesting comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about birds and bird watching. It’s a delightful pastime, really. It gets you out into nature, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it can be really interesting. You might think of it as peaceful, too, but if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that it isn’t at all. There are plenty of examples of ways in which bird watching can get you into a lot of danger.

The novel Moira and I were discussing was Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, in which Miss Marple has quite a hand in solving the killing of Colonel Protheroe. Miss Marple isn’t an avid bird watching enthusiast in the sense of belonging to the local Society, or going on lots of bird-watching excursions. But she does find bird watching to be a very handy explanation for the binoculars that she uses to see what some of the other characters are doing. And those binoculars give her useful information.

In Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis ‘inherit’ a cold case. Swedish tourist Karin Eriksson went missing a year ago during a trip to Wales. She was on her way through Wytham Woods when she disappeared, and as you’d expect, a thorough search was conducted there. The only useful discovery was a rucksack belonging to the young woman. In it was a small book called A Birdwatcher’s Guide and a list of birds with some names checked off. Now Morse and Lewis are tasked with tracing her movements and, hopefully, finding her body, so that they can learn the truth about what happened. As they do so, we see just what trouble you can get yourself into by taking an interest in birds…

Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace sees Inspector Richard Jury called to the small town of Littlebourne when a local dog discovers a human finger. Jury’s friend Melrose Plant soon joins him there and, each in a different way, start to investigate. They don’t get very far when another grim discovery is made. Ernestine Craigie is a bird-watching fanatic, who’s happy to get up at all hours in hopes of completing her list. That’s how she discovers the body that belongs to the finger. The victim turns out to be Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary secretary agency. Jury and Plant eventually find that her death is related to a brutal attack on another Littlebourne resident, as well as to a robbery that occurred in the area about a year earlier.

And then there’s Holger Eriksson, whom we meet in Henning Mankell’s The Fifth Woman. He’s a retired car dealer who’s taken up poetry and bird watching. One night, he goes out to watch some migrating birds, and is brutally murdered. Inspector Kurt Wallander is sick at the moment, and really didn’t need an extra case. But when Eriksson is reported missing, he has to respond. When the victim’s body is discovered, Wallander and his team have to find out who would have wanted to kill a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who just wanted to be left alone with his poetry and his birds. In the end, they discover a connection between this murder and the murder of a local florist. And they learn how those deaths are related to five murders in Africa a year earlier.

Several of Ann Cleeves’ stories feature bird enthusiasts, bird sanctuaries and bird watching. For example, in A Bird in the Hand, we are introduced to Tom Porter, a Norfolk ‘twitcher’ – bird watching fanatic – who works as a vegetable chef/kitchen porter. One morning he keeps a promise to himself to get up early and head for the marsh on a bird watching excursion. He’s found later face-down in a pool on the marsh, with his binoculars still on his neck. George Palmer-Jones is a twitcher himself, and a retired Home Office investigator. So naturally he takes an interest in the case. One thing that he notices immediately is that no-one seems to be especially upset about Porter’s death. And the more Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly look into the case, the more suspects they find. I know, I know, fans of Blue Lightning and The Crow Trap

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s One For the Rook. Blake Heatherington is a milliner who’s getting ready to retire. He’s got his beloved allotment in the village of Tuesbury, and is no longer interested in the increasingly annoying commute to his London shop. Hoping for a peaceful autumn, he’s getting ready for a local harvest festival. Then, he discovers the body of Peter Kürbis in his pumpkin patch, killed, it would seem, by Heatherington’s own prize pumpkin. The police are looking into this murder when another Tuesbury resident is killed. In the meantime, there’s another strange occurrence. A rookery that’s been in the area for some time seems to have disappeared. It’s a traditional sign of bad luck when rooks leave a place, and that’s certainly what happens here. One of the suspects in these murders is Dennis Nyeman, former member of the local caged bird society, and strident (and aggressive) proponent of those who want right of way through all of the local allotments. No, the rooks aren’t the killers here. But there’s certainly interest in birds in this story.

So do be careful, please, if you decide to spend some time contemplating our feathered friends. It’s important to connect with nature. But it’s not always good for the health. Little wonder a group of crows is called a ‘murder…’

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon René/Jimmie Thomas’ Rockin’ Robin, made famous first by Bobby Day and later by Michael Jackson.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Henning Mankell, Martha Grimes

There’s Still Time to Change the Road You’re On*

Going Back or NotA lot of murders, both real and fictional, come about because of a sort of cascade of events. Looking back later, we can point to several places where the buildup, if you will, could have been stopped, and the murder thus prevented. Of course, that wouldn’t leave very much plot for a crime novel, but it’s interesting to take a look at how sometimes small decisions can spiral out of control and result in disaster.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for example, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. And it seems like a godsend to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort when Linnet is willing to hire Jackie’s fiancé Simon Doyle as her land agent. But then Linnet finds herself attracted to Simon. Instead of turning back from that, as you might say, she pursues him and it’s not long before they’re married. Their honeymoon trip includes a trip to Egypt and a cruise of the Nile; to Linnet’s dismay, Jackie turns up at the hotel, as she has everywhere they’ve been. Linnet approaches Hercule Poirot, who’s at the same hotel, to ask him to make Jackie stop. He gently points out to her that she had the chance to prevent all this in the first place. Later, he talks to Jackie and asks her to turn back and leave the couple alone before it’s too late. Neither woman really listens to him, and Jackie goes along on the cruise. On the second night, Linnet is shot. Jackie is the first suspect, but it’s soon proven that she could not have killed the victim, so Poirot and Colonel Race have to look elsewhere for the killer. Throughout the novel, there are other examples, too, of points where people make choices that end up cascading out of control.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, Ystad Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team are faced with the brutal murders of local farmer Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria. The victims seemed to have no enemies, and they weren’t known to be wealthy. So there seems no motive for the murders. Even a look into their family background doesn’t really reveal anything that points to the killer. There is one possibility though. Just before she died, Maria said the word foreign. A lot of people have taken this to mean that the killers were foreigners. At this point, matters could be controlled somewhat, but the media gets hold of the story and it sets a spark to the already-simmering local prejudice against immigrants. When the story gets into the news, it sets off a backlash, which has its own consequences. And as we find out later, the murder itself might have been prevented, but for someone’s choice not to let matters go.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. Eva very much wants the peaceful suburban lifestyle, complete with white picket fence, for herself, her husband and their son Axel. So when she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful, Eva is devastated. At that point, she might choose to leave her husband or forgive him; many people do one of those things. Instead, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she sets in motion a chain of events that spins out of control. One night, she goes to a pub for a drink. There, she meets Jonas Hansson, a man with his own issues. She has the opportunity at that point to flirt with Jonas and make something of the evening, or to go home. Her decision to spend the night with Jonas has consequences that neither of them imagined. In this case, you could argue that a lot of what happens might have been prevented at several key points in the story.

That’s also true of Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit.  Mason and Gates Hunt are siblings with a terrible background including alcoholism and abuse. Mason chooses to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way to get out of his situation. He excels in school and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability and ends up living on money he gets from their mother, and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One afternoon, Gates’ romantic rival Wayne Thompson comes by, and the two get into an argument. Thompson leaves and the whole matter might have rested there. But later that night, the Hunt brothers are returning home from a night out. They run into Thomspon again and the argument starts anew. Instead of letting it all go, both men get angrier and angrier until, before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and time goes by. Years later, Mason is a commonwealth prosecutor. Gates has been convicted of cocaine trafficking. Gates begs his brother to get him out of prison, but this time Mason refuses. Instead of letting matters go, Gates threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder unless he co-operates. Now matters spin even more out of control until Mason finds himself indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Now he’ll have to find some way to clear his name before his brother is released from prison.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger makes quite a bit of use of those moments where people might turn back, but don’t. It begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has died in a car crash. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for a long time, but he still feels a sense of loss. He’s even more upset to discover that Sylvie wasn’t alone in the car. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who died in the crash as well. Instead of leaving matters alone and getting on with his life, Delorme takes an interest in Arnoult’s widow Martine. His interest soon leads to obsession and he begins to follow her. He even books a holiday in the same place on Majorca where Martine and her friend Madeleine go. Delorme’s decision to give in to his obsession has all sorts of dark and tragic consequences. And you could argue that it could all have been prevented if he had let the matter of Sylvie’s lover go and got on with the business of living.

There’s also Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. Luke Murray is riding a bus one day when three young people get on and soon begin to bully him. At one point, another passenger, Jason Barnes, intervenes and tells the group to stop. For a short time they do. But then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. So does Jason. Instead of leaving the matter, the bullies start up again and this time the fight escalates. It goes on all the way to Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Luke is left gravely wounded. As we follow the story, we see that there are several places where the whole thing might have been stopped, but for people’s choices. Other than Jason, the people on the bus don’t do anything to stop the bullying. The bullies don’t stop either, and neither do Jason and Luke. It’s a clear example of the consquences when things spin out of control.

And that’s what happens sometimes. One decision, one choice not to hold back or back down, and situations can go completely wrong in very tragic ways.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Pascal Garnier

There Are Secrets I’ll Never Tell*

PersonalLivesOr are there? An interesting comment exchange with Bernadette at Reactions to Reading has got me thinking about the amount of detail readers learn about sleuths’ personal lives. Do readers really want sub-plots, story arcs and other plot points that share what’s going on in the sleuth’s home?

On the one hand, I’d guess that most of us would say that we don’t want ‘cardboard characters. We want characters who feel authentic and ‘fleshed out.’ That said though, many of us would also say that when we read crime fiction, we want a plot – a mystery/crime that’s at the heart of the story. Too much ‘home life’ information takes away from the pace of that plot and can actually get tiresome.

It’s tricky to decide just how much information to include, really. And that choice has very likely changed over time as readers’ tastes have changed. There’s a strong argument that, while classic/Golden Age crime fiction certainly includes information about sleuths’ home lives, that’s often not the focus of the mystery. Today’s crime fiction is arguably quite different.

I thought it might be interesting to look at this question of personal lives in crime fiction just a bit more deeply. So the first question I asked myself was this: is there really as much ‘home life’ detail as it seems in crime fiction? To address that question, I chose 148 books that I’ve read. All of the books feature a police or PI professional sleuth. I didn’t consider amateur sleuths because, very often, their personal lives are the reason they get involved in detection. I thought it might skew my data.

Given that, here is what I found:


Cops' and PIs' Personal Lives


As you can see, of those 148 crime novels, 123 of them (83%) include ‘home life’ scenes and other information about the sleuth’s personal life. By ‘other information,’ I mean more than such things as a passing reference to ‘my wife/husband.’  Fans of series such as Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache novels or Henning Mankell’s Inspector Van Veeteren series probably won’t be surprised at this finding.

Going on the assumption that publishers are more likely to release books that readers want to read, there’s an argument here, I think, that we want that sort of ‘home life’ detail, at least to an extent. In fact, lots of readers actually follow story arcs in series precisely because they involve sleuths’ home and personal lives. In other words, books and series have this sort of information because readers want it. And that’s logical, given that most readers want believable characters.

The next question I asked myself was: has it always been this way? There’s a general perception that classic/Golden Age crime fiction doesn’t really give a lot of ‘home life’ information about sleuths. It’s been said that’s because those books tend to be more plot-driven. But is that really true? I decided to have another look at my data to see what it might show.


Percent of Books With Personal Life Details

As you can see, era really does make a difference when it comes to personal information and story arcs in crime novels. Only 38% of the pre-1950 crime novels in my data set include ‘home life’ scenes or other personal information. That number jumps to 85% in the years between 1950 and1980. And in the last thirty-five years, the percentage has risen to 92%.

Now, there are some important limitations to these findings. There are only 24 books in my pre-1950 data set. My guess is that that percentage would change if a lot more books were added. Would it go up to 92%? I personally doubt it, but it’s important to note the small size of the set. The same is true of the 1950-1980 set. There are 21 books in that set. If there were more, would the percentage be higher? Very possibly it would. But that, to me, would lend support to the argument that our interest in sleuths’ personal lives has increased over the years.

If this data reflects what’s really going on, why is it happening? Why do readers want to know, more than ever, about fictional cops’ and PIs’ personal lives? One answer is that we increasingly want our characters to be realistic, and that includes the fact that they have home lives. Another, related, possibility is that readers increasingly want story arcs in their series. If that’s the case, then it makes sense that story arcs would focus, at least some of the time, on personal lives. And in turn, it makes sense that we’d see more of sleuths’ personal lives in our crime fiction. Yet another explanation is that in general, people are sharing more of their lives (e.g. on social media). Whether or not that’s a good thing, we may be getting used to finding out others’ ‘home life’ information.

What do you think about all this? Obviously there’s such a thing as too much ‘home life’ in a crime novel. And I think most of us would agree that there’s definitely such a thing as too much dysfunctional ‘home life’ in a crime novel. But that aside, do you prefer books with ‘home life’ and other personal information about sleuths? If so, why? If you’re a writer, how do you balance that information with that all-important focus on the mystery at hand?

Thanks, Bernadette, for the inspiration. Folks, please give yourselves a treat and visit Reactions to Reading, simply one of the finest book review blogs there is. G’wan, you really want that blog on your blog roll!

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


Filed under Henning Mankell, Louise Penny

Passes on Her Painful Information*

Dying CluesIt would make murder investigations much easier if victims were able to tell the police who killed them. Of course, today’s technology means that DNA and other evidence can often provide lots of information. But it would save a great deal of work if the victims could speak. In crime fiction anyway, they sometimes actually do. One of the plot points that we see in crime fiction is the dying clue. The victim says something, is grasping something or in some other way implicates someone in the murder. That’s a tricky plot point because of course, if the sleuth understands the clue straight away, there’s not much of a plot. But if it’s done well, the dying clue can add to a story.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father Charles. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For one thing, his father objected to his choice of fiancée. For another, father and son were seen quarreling loudly just before the murder. McCarthy claims that he is innocent, and his fiancée Alice Turner believes him. She begs the police to look into the matter more closely. Inspector Lestrade thinks he has his man, but he agrees to look at the case again. He asks Sherlock Holmes to go over the evidence and Holmes and Watson investigate. When they question McCarthy, he says that his father said something just before he died. At first it sounds like the rambling of someone who’s losing consciousness. But Holmes is able to deduce that in fact, the dead man gave his son a dying clue.

Agatha Christie used dying clues in several of her stories. In Five Little Pigs, for example, Carla Lamerchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out who killed her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect and in fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted. She died a year later in prison. While she was alive, she claimed to be innocent, but never put up much of a fight to defend herself. Now, sixteen years later, her daughter wants the truth. Poirot interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder, and also gets a written account from each one. In the end, he finds out from those accounts who killed Crale and why. Interestingly enough, he also finds that Crale left a dying clue. It wasn’t as obvious as saying or writing the killer’s name, but it’s clear from the clue that Crale was identifying his killer.

Several Ellery Queen mysteries also make use of the dying clue. To take just one instance, in The Last Woman in His Life, wealthy jet-setter John Levering Benedict III invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to use his guest house for a getaway weekend. Also present for the weekend are Benedict’s three ex-wives, his attorney and his attorney’s secretary. They’re all staying at the main house, and as you can imagine, the atmosphere is ripe for murder. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says he’s been killed. Queen rushes over from the guest house but by the time he gets there, it’s too late. Benedict is dead of a blow from a heavy statuette. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. In the end, Queen does discover who the killer is, but it turns out that Benedict told him from the very beginning. During the telephone call, he started to tell Queen who his killer was. Had he finished, or had Queen understood the meaning of what Benedict did say, it would have led straight to the killer.

There’s no doubt as to the dying clue Maria Lövgren leaves when she and her husband Johannes are murdered in Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers. Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander and his team investigate when the Lövgrens are brutally attacked in their rural farmhouse. Johannes doesn’t survive the attack, but Maria does – barely. She’s rushed to hospital, but medical care can’t save her. Still, she lives long enough to say the word foreign. That word ignites the simmering resentment many locals feel against immigrants. Now the team is up against two murder cases, media hype and an ugly undercurrent of anti-immigration sentiment. Then there’s another murder. The team pieces together what happened, and Maria Lövgren’s dying clue has its role to play.

There’s also an interesting dying clue in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is undermaster of the grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He is shocked one morning when he hears that the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson has been discovered in his classroom. Davidson’s been poisoned and the most likely suspect is his romantic rival Charles Thom. But Thom insists that he’s innocent and asks Seaton, who’s a friend, to clear his name. Seaton has no experience in murder investigations, and he has his own reasons for not wanting to call a lot of attention to himself. But for the sake of the friendship he agrees. It turns out that someone else did indeed kill Davidson, and bit by bit, Seaton finds out who it was. Along the way, he discovers that Davidson left a dying clue, something he said just before his death. Although the clue’s not understood correctly at first, when Seaton figures out what Davidson actually said, it’s a clear pointer to the killer.

Most killers know their victims, so it makes sense that a victim who’s thinking clearly could leave a helpful dying clue. But in a lot of cases that’s not possible. And even where it is, dying clues can be garbled, misunderstood or otherwise not be as useful at the start as you’d think. And after all, how interesting would a crime novel be if the clue was clearly understood from the beginning? But in the end, dying clues can be very helpful, and they can certainly add an interesting plot point to crime fiction. Which ‘dying clue mysteries’ have you liked? If you’re a writer, do you use dying clues?


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, Shona MacLean