Category Archives: Henry Chang

I’ve Come to Look For America*

FireworksWhen you travel in the US, you see one thing very clearly: America is composed of a lot of very different communities. Of course, many other countries are quite diverse, and have all sorts of different smaller communities within them. Those smaller communities add depth, texture and complexity to the fabric of the country and (in my opinion) make it richer. And fortunately, there’s plenty of good crime fiction that gives readers a look at those communities. There’s not nearly enough space here to mention all of the smaller communities that make up America. Here are just a few that have added to the national tapestry.

The Native Americans were here first, and several crime fiction series and novels offer insight into their experiences. You’ll probably already likely know about the work of Tony Hillerman, whose Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels focus on life in the Navajo Nation. These novels give a fascinating perspective on the Southwest US, among other things. But Hillerman is hardly the only writer who explores the Native American experience. So does Stan Jones, whose Nathan Active novels take place in Alaska. Active is an Alaska State Trooper, and a member of the Inupiaq Nation. Although he was raised in Anchorage, Active now lives and works in the small town of Chukchi. This series does feature crime and its investigation. But it’s also a look at life among the Native Americans who live in Alaska. There’s also Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Father John O’Malley series. Those novels take place mostly on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, among the Arapaho people. Holden is a member of that community; she’s also an attorney. As she and Fr. O’Malley investigate, readers learn a lot about life among the Arapaho. There are plenty of other crime novels and series that take place among, or that feature, Native Americans (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series). To understand the United States, it’s important to have at least some understanding of the people who were here first.

Another fascinating community of the modern US is the Cajun community of (mostly) Louisiana. You’ll know from your history that they’re the descendants of Acadians, who migrated to what was then French territory after being expelled from what are today Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Cajun music, food, lifestyle and language have had a powerful impact on Louisiana. And that influence has spread as people have discovered that rich resource. James Lee Burke has shown millions of readers life among the Cajuns through his Dave Robicheaux novels. As fans will know, Robicheaux is a cop with the New Iberia (Louisiana) Police. He himself is a Cajun; and he certainly interacts with many other Cajuns in the course of his work. So readers get a really interesting perspective on that community.

I don’t think it’s possible to accurately discuss the American experience without discussing the Black experience. Perhaps the most important, and basic, thing about that experience is that it’s been fundamentally different to the White experience. Understanding that fact, and gaining a perspective on Black America, is important (at least I think it is) to understanding the modern USA. Walter Mosely has written a few series that explore the Black experience. His Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels take place in Los Angeles in the years just after World War II, and leading up to and through the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. In those novels, we follow Rawlins, who starts out as an informal PI, but later gets his license. Another of his series features Leonid McGill, a modern-day New York PI. What’s interesting is that a comparison of this series shows that the Black experience is not identical across the country. What’s more, it’s not identical over time. You could say the same thing about Attica Locke’s work. Her novels explore both the Houston area and Louisiana, both in the present day and the recent (and not at all recent) past. Throughout those stories, we see the complexity as well as the evolution of the Black community.

No less rich and complex is the US Latino community. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that there really isn’t one Latino community. Still, for the sake of space, there are crime writers who’ve explored the Latino experience in America. One is Manuel Ramos. His Denver-based attorney Luis Móntez was at one time involved in the Chicano activist movement. When we meet him in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, he has to return to that past when he learns that several other former activists – members of El Movimiento – are dying. The key seems to be their history and their possible involvement years ago in the death of one of their own, Rocky Ruiz. Steven Torres’ Precinct Puerto Rico series features Luis Gonzalo, a small-town Puerto Rico Sheriff. There are plenty of other novels, too, that depict different Latino communities.

Just about every major American city has a Chinatown of one sort or another. The Chinese community in the US has become a unique blend of traditional Chinese culture, language and lifestyle with elements of the surrounding culture. And the list of ways in which that Chinese culture has influenced the US would go on for far too long. Both S.J. Rozan and Henry Chang explore life in New York’s Chinatown. And Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons takes a look at life in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

There are plenty of other smaller communities in the US, too. For instance, Linda Castillo explores the Amish community in her Kate Burkholder novels. And Mette Ivie Harrison depicts life in the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) community in The Bishop’s Wife. All of these communities are unique and distinctive.

But here’s the thing. They are also all American. So although every community’s experience is different, there’s also a shared history. Stitching all of this together to form a national identity is an extremely complicated, sometimes horribly messy, and always fascinating process. After 239 years, it’s still a work in progress. It’ll be exciting and interesting to see where the journey takes us next. Happy Independence Day/Fourth of July to those who celebrate it!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s America.


Filed under Attica Locke, Craig Johnson, Henry Chang, James Lee Burke, Linda Castillo, Manuel Ramos, Margaret Coel, Mette Ivie Harrison, Michael Connelly, S.J. Rozan, Stan Jones, Steven Torres, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

My Little Town*

Communities within CommunitiesFor a lot of people, it’s important to belong to a community. It can be very comforting to be among people who share your culture, language, lifestyle, or something else. That’s why very often, even in large cities, you’ll find smaller groups of people who have some sort of bond. Those smaller communities, even when they’re not closed off (e.g. a cloister) can be very interesting to explore. And they make for interesting contexts for a novel.

There are all sorts of possibilities in terms of plot and character development when the author explores smaller communities within larger ones. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction. I’m quite sure you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we are introduced to Hercule Poirot, a former member of the Belgian police who’s had to escape to England. He and a group of fellow Belgians have settled in the village of Styles St. Mary and are trying to pick up their lives as best they can. They were sponsored and helped by wealthy Emily Inglethorp, and all of them are very grateful to her. So when she is poisoned, Poirot takes a very particular interest in solving the murder. We don’t get a very deep set of insights into the inner workings of this small Belgian community, but we do learn that they’ve been more or less accepted by the locals. In fact, one of them mentions that while he’s not overly fond of foreigners, he doesn’t mind the Belgians.

London is of course home to many different smaller communities. For example, Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters takes place in Jerusalem Lane, one of London’s historic districts. Among the other people who live in that small community are Meredith Winterbottom and her sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe. They’re the great-granddaughters of Karl Marx, who actually lived in that area at one point. A large development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to turn it into a shopping and entertainment district. One by one, the various residents sell up, but Meredith Winterbottom refuses. Then, she dies, apparently a successful suicide. But when DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla look into the case, they notice small things that don’t quite add up to suicide. So they begin to investigate more deeply. It turns out that along with the development company and its representatives, there are other people in whose interest it was to get Meredith Winterbottom out of the way. As Brock and Kolla look into the case, we get an ‘inside’ look at Jerusalem Lane and the network of relationships among its residents.

There are also many smaller immigrant communities in London. Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka novels explore one of them: immigrants from Poland. Kiszka is a veteran of the uprising against the former USSR that began in the Gdansk shipyards. He’s settled into London, but is still tightly connected to the Polish community there. In fact, he’s known as a ‘fixer’ among his fellow Poles – someone who can get things done. Since the imigrant Polish community is tight-knit, there aren’t many degrees of separation between Kiszka and any one other member of that group. That’s part of what makes him very useful to Kershaw when she investigtes crimes that affect London’s Polish community. Kiszka and Kershaw meet in Where the Devil Can’t Go, when he is a suspect in a murder she’s investigating. From both of their perspectives, readers get the chance to see how a smaller community functions within a larger one, and how each impacts the other.

New York is also composed of many, many different smaller groups of people. One of them for instance is its Russian community. There are lots of crime novels that focus on Russian-born and Russian-heritage New Yorkers. One of them is Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House. When US Congressman Paul Latham is found dead, it’s thought at first that he committed suicide. But that’s not by any means the only possibility. So when Georgetown University Law School Professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith learns of the case from a former student, he agrees to look into it. He finds a connection between Latham’s death and the economic climate that emerged in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. At one point in the novel, one of the characters travels from his home in Russia to New York, where he’s been told to wait for further instructions. He’s taken in by a former countryman and we see how the members of New York’s Russian community have created their own small world-within-a-world.

Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street explores smaller communities based on socioeconomic status. One warm night, Valerie ‘Val’ Merinao and June Giatto get on a pink rubber raft to take a ride on the bay near their home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Early the next morning, local teacher Jonathan Sprouse finds Val, injured but alive. June has disappeared. As we learn about the impact this has on the people who knew her, we see that there are really two small communities here. One is mostly middle-class, ‘respectable’ and largely Roman Catholic. The other is working poor/unemployed, mostly non-White, and more on the fringes of society. June’s disappearance and the investigation into it show how small communities can be formed around common economic situations and ethnic culture as well. And what’s interesting here is that these two groups live very close to each other; yet until June goes missing, they don’t really interact very much.

But proximity can matter a great deal in creating a small community within a larger one. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a Roman-style Melbourne building called Insula. The people who live and work there are disparate in some ways, but they’ve formed their own small group and they take care of each other. In this case, what started out as more or less being thrown together in the same place has evolved into a close-knit community.

There are many other examples of stories and series that explore these communities-within-communities. I’m thinking for instance of the Asian community in Los Angeles, which we read about in Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons. There’s also Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series, which features New York’s Chinatown. Which of those communities has stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Barry Maitland, Henry Chang, Ivy Pochoda, Kerry Greenwood, Margaret Truman, Michael Connelly

Don’t Care If It’s Chinatown or on Riverside*

NewYorkCityIf you’ve ever been to New York City, then you know that it defies easy description. It’s a city with a long and rich history, and today, it’s a mix of so many cultures and different kinds of people that the word ‘diverse’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. What’s interesting about New York, too, is that you’ll find some of the wealthiest areas of the city just a few blocks from some of the poorest. It’s an intense, fascinating place, and there are plenty of people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. There are famous museums, top musical artists, Broadway shows, world-class restaurants, and lots more there. Oh, and Billy Joel was born there, too.

Ahem – right – back to New York City. It shouldn’t be surprising that lots of crime fiction is set there. It’s just a natural context for a murder mystery, especially if you consider the number of real-life famous murders that have occurred there. There’s a long list of authors who’ve set their novels or series in New York. Here’s just a small smattering.

Any dedicated crime fiction fan will be able to tell you that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series has a distinctive New York City setting. Although Wolfe does travel a few times, the vast majority of the books are set in Manhattan, where Wolfe has his famous brownstone home/office. His employee/business partner (sometimes it’s hard to tell, really) Archie Goodwin does the ‘legwork’ on Wolfe’s cases, and his travels take him all over New York. Through his eyes, we get to see many of New York’s different ‘faces,’ from ‘society’ homes and mansions to tenements, and just about everywhere in between. Want to explore Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin’s New York? Check out your options with the Wolfe Pack, the Official Nero Wolfe Society.

Fans of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that although he called his setting Isola, it’s a thinly disguised New York City. Beginning with Cop Killer, these novels focus on murders in all sorts of different New York City settings. And what’s especially interesting about this series is that it looks at crime among all socioeconomic classes, too. Because the series is enduring (it lasted from 1956 to 2005), we also get to see how the city changes through the decades, and how factors such as immigration, technology and so on have affected it.

Lawrence Block’s PI series featuring Matthew Scudder is also set in New York. Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers, the series follows Scudder as he begins life as a PI after leaving the NYPD. Since most of Scudder’s contacts are informal, we also get a look at New York’s local restaurant and bar scene. I don’t mean necessarily trendy ‘popular’ places, although New York certainly has more than its share of them. I mean the smaller places that are popular with the local people. And New York City has plenty of those, too. Scudder has clients from several different socioeconomic strata too, so this series also gives readers a look at the different kinds of lives New Yorkers have.

Margaret Maron’s Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series is also set in New York City. Harald is a member of New York City’s Police Department, so she investigates all sorts of different kinds of cases. Beginning with One Coffee With, she takes on murders at university campuses, high-priced apartment buildings, attorneys’ offices and Greenwich Village ‘arty’ places, just to name a few.

Mary Higgins Clark has set some of her novels in New York City as well. For example, While My Pretty One Sleeps features murder in the world of fashion when a client of boutique owner Meeve Kearny is murdered. Loves Music, Loves to Dance follows jewelry designer Erin Scott and decorator Darcy Scott as they move to New York to pursue their careers. Then, they place personal ads in local newspapers to do some research for a TV producer friend who’s planning a feature on the topic. The research proves fatal when Erin disappears and is later found murdered. And in I’ll Be Seeing You, reporter Meghan Collins is following up on the story of the mugging of a US senator. When he’s rushed to Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital, she goes along with other members of the press to learn of his condition. That’s when an ambulance team rushes in with a woman who’s just died – a woman who looks exactly like Meghan…

And then there’s S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Chin and Smith are both private investigators who sometimes partner up in their cases. Chin is a member of New York’s Chinese/Chinese-American community, so she is especially in demand for cases that require some knowledge of that culture. In China Trade for instance, she is hired to track down some rare and valuable Chinese porcelain items that were donated to a local museum. The trail leads to the Chinatown underworld of gangs and in this case, shady art dealers. While not every novel in this series features the Chinatown setting, it’s the area of New York that Chin knows best.  Readers who are interested in Chinatown can also read Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.

There are of course many more novels and series that take place in New York. Just a few examples are Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, Ellery Queen’s New York-set novels (most are, some are not), Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery/Jack Stapleton novels and several of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers/Oscar Piper novels. And those are only a few examples. I’ll bet you could think of many more.


Now if you’ll excuse me, that’s my train. Time to head uptown…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. Really? You were surprised? 😉


Filed under Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Henry Chang, Jeffery Deaver, Lawrence Block, Margaret Maron, Mary Higgins Clark, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, S.J. Rozan, Stuart Palmer

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Execution-Style Murders

ExecutionMurdersThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is now one fifth of the way through our worrisome wanderings through the letters of the alphabet. I am, as always, grateful to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for the exciting journey thus far. Today’s stop is the E Resort and Spa and quite frankly, I’m ready for a nice rest. While everyone else is checking email and ‘phoning home, I’ll share my contribution for this stop: execution-style murders. Crime fiction is full of examples of what happens when one falls afoul of the wrong people. Actually it’s probably better to stay away from certain kinds of people to begin with but it’s even better to avoid getting them angry enough to kill. Because they do.

Just ask Tony Aliso, a mediocre filmmaker of mediocre movies whose death is the subject of Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music. When Aliso’s body is discovered in the trunk of his Rolls Royce, it’s assumed that this was a Mafia ‘hit.’ The murder has all the hallmarks of a Mob kill and Aliso was living far beyond his legal means. But somehow, the LAPD doesn’t seem to be too eager to find out who the killer is even though it could mean bringing down a criminal organisation. The police department’s reluctance doesn’t stop Harry Bosch though. Bosch investigates Aliso’s personal and professional lives and soon finds a ‘money trail’ that leads to a shady Las Vegas casino – and to a reunion with his old flame Eleanor Wish, who is now a professional gambler. In the end, Bosch finds out who killed Aliso and why, and how the criminal organisation he’s after fits in with the rest of the case.

In Henry Chang’s Year of the Dog, NYPD detective Jack Yu is temporarily assigned to Manhattan’s Ninth Precinct to fill in for some colleagues who are taking time off at the end of the year. He returns to his usual Fifth Precinct though, when a gang war threatens to erupt. Yu’s old friend Tat ‘Lucky’ Louie has become a local Mob leader; his gang is called Ghost Legion. Tat and his gang are upset because lately, there’ve been several surprise raids on the local gangs. Tat suspects that incoming gangs from Hong Kong are tipping off police so that they can take over the local gangs’ territories. Tat wants Yu’s help to find out whether the Hong Kong gangs are behind the raids. Yu refuses and the conflict between the local mobs and the Hong Kong incomers forms an important element in this novel.

Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas takes another kind of look at ‘execution-style’ murders. The Blake family, a supposedly normal American family, moves into a home in Cholong-sur-Avre, Normandy. They’ve moved to Normandy so that Frederick Blake can write a history of the Normandy invastion and it seems that the family soon settles in. Frederick’s wife Maggie devotes herself to charity work and their children devote themselves to television, the Internet, new friends and other adolescent obsessions. But the Blake family is not a normal family. They are really the Manzoni family and the father, Giovanni Manzoni, was a member of the New Jersey Mafia. He testified against the rest of the Mob so he and his family were placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. They’ve been relocated to Normandy and given new identities. The only problem is that before long, word gets back to the head of the New Jersey Mob that Giovanni Manzoni is alive and well. Now the ‘Blakes’ have to deal with the very real possibility that the Mob will find them, and will not exactly greet them kindly.

Of course, execution-style killings aren’t just Mob-related. For instance, Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone begins with the execution-style shooting of an unknown Senegalese immigrant. He’s laying out his wares at an open-air market one morning when he is murdered. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Villanello lead the investigation into the murder. Because the man was killed by professionals, no-one has seen anything really significant, so at first, there’s not much evidence. What’s more, the man wasn’t anyone of importance – just another illegal immigrant. So there’s not much public interest. But eventually Brunetti and Vianello trace the man to the room he rented, where they find a cache of diamonds. It turns out that this man’s execution had to do with ‘conflict diamonds’ and illegal arms trafficking.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage features several cases that Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate. One of them is the execution-style murder of banker Emmet Sweetman, who’s been shot in the entryway of his own home. As the detectives examine the victim’s life, they discover that he had been caught up in the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom and had taken advantage of the sudden wealth that was available during those years. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of money fed Sweetman’s greed and his confidence so that he took increasingly risky decisions. When the financial situation in Ireland began to fall apart, so did many of the shady deals Sweetman had made. When he didn’t pay the money he owed, Sweetman made some very dangerous people very angry, and they sought their own sort of justice. It turns out that this case has a link to another case that Tidey and Cheney work on, a heist that goes terribly, tragically wrong.

And then there’s Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money. In that novel, Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is hired by Madeleine Avery to find her brother Charles. His last-known whereabouts was Bangkok, so Quinlan travels there. When he gets to Avery’s apartment though, he discovers the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds clues that suggest that Avery has gone to Cambodia. Quinlan continues his search in Phnom Penh, where he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin. With Sarin’s help, Quinlan starts asking questions about Avery. Although most people aren’t willing to talk, the two sleuths do learn a few things. One is that Avery had been involved in some shady deals with the wrong people. That in itself put him in danger. What’s more, he claimed to know where there was a hidden cache of gold. That too made him the target of some people who are not afraid to kill for that much wealth. Quinlan and Sarin trace Avery to northern Cambodia, where the gold is supposedly hidden, if it even exists. The closer they get to the truth of that rumour, as well as the truth about Avery, the more in danger Quinlan and Sarin are. There are some very powerful people who are not at all concerned about having these two killed to keep the truth about the gold and about Avery secret. This novel also weaves in another ‘execution’ theme – the execution-style murders of millions of people that the Khmer Rouge saw as ‘enemies’ or ‘threats.’

So, you see? It’s important to be careful about the company you keep. The old saying is, ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ Especially if they have weapons. So…Shall we talk some business? I know a guy who knows a guy…  😉



Filed under Andrew Nette, Donna Leon, Gene Kerrigan, Henry Chang, Michael Connelly, Tonino Benacquista

This is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius*

Astrology…or at least, the Year of the Snake. The Chinese New Year has arrived and that’s got me thinking about astrology and horoscopes. The other day I was asked whether I think there’s any truth to astrology and horoscopes. My answer was that I think humans are far too complicated for just one factor to account for everything we are and do. But a lot of people believe very strongly in astrology. So it shouldn’t be surprising at all that we see astrology mentioned in crime fiction.

In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain for instance, we meet Kevin Costyn, a secondary school student who’s got lower than average academic intelligence but is shrewd, tough and a magnet for many of his female schoolmates. He’s been in trouble with the police, served two juvenile sentences and in general is not the kind of person nice parents want their nice daughters to bring home, so to speak. But he’s not entirely without redemptive traits. He’s fallen in love with his teacher Mrs. Julia Stevens because in his mind, she’s the only one who’s ever been good to him. It’s his attachment to her that gets him inextricably mixed up in her life (No, I promise – not in the way you might be thinking). That relationship turns out to be important when Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the disappearance and later murder of Ted Brooks, husband of Julia Stevens’ house cleaner Brenda Brooks. That murder turns out to be related to the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure, for whom Brooks was scout. It turns out that Kevin Costyn has an important piece of the puzzle and it’s interesting to see that he gets involved in the first place because of his horoscope (Gemini) which promises that


‘Maximum mental energy helps you through to a hard-to-reach person who is always close to your heart.’


We may not think much of Kevin Costyn’s character but his interest in what his horoscope says is fairly common.

In Henry Chang’s Year of the Dog, NYPD detective Jack Yu is assigned to Manhattan’s Ninth Precinct to help fill in during the end-of-the-year holidays. He’s called to the scene when a Chinese-American family of four is found dead in their home, apparently a case of murder/suicide.  In the meantime, Yu’s old friend Tat ‘Lucky’ Louie is now a local mob leader. He is in charge of a gang called Ghost Legion. Lately, though, there’ve been a lot of raids on local gangs and Lucky suspects it’s because some of the incoming gangs from Hong Kong are feeding information to the police so they can take over when the current gang leaders are arrested. When a gang war threatens, Yu returns to the Fifth Precinct, his usual assignment. Lucky wants help from Yu, who decides not to co-operate. To Yu, Lucky has wasted his life and besides, Yu likes his work as a cop and doesn’t want to ‘go dirty.’ Two other Chinatown cases also crop up and all of them present a fascinating look at the Chinatown culture and the need to ‘save face’ – to make and protect a reputation. The book is called The Year of the Dog because it begins on the Chinese New Year that in this case brings in the Year of the Dog:


‘The Dog is the eleventh sign, next to the last in the lunar cycle, the most likeable of all the animals. The Dog is fearless, charismatic and believes in justice, loyalty and fidelity. The year is characterized in the masculine Yang by struggle, perseverance and faith.’


The novel ends a year later with the coming of the Year of the Pig:


‘The Pig was the twelfth sign, the last sign in the lunar cycle, the purest in heart and most generous of all the animals. The Pig was loyal, chivalrous, and believed in miracles. The year was characterized by honesty, fortitude and courage.’


While Yu himself isn’t a traditionalist with respect to Chinese astrology he respects it and we can see that culture woven through the novel.

We also see how astrology plays an important role in people’s lives in Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. The ‘bread and butter’ of his business comes in part from families who hire Puri to ‘vet’ prospective spouses for their children and grandchildren. Time and technology have changed many parts of India, especially in the city. People don’t know each other in cities as they do in smaller villages. However, the arranged marriage is still a critical part of the culture. It’s believed that young people are not in a position to choose their own spouses and that the ones who most have their interests at heart – their children – should do so. And that’s where astrology comes in. Many parents now make use of personal ads online or in newspapers; those ads include their children’s appearance, age, educational background and astrological information. It’s strongly believed among many that astrological harmony between the two potential spouses is important not just for the marriage but for the wedding date itself. And in The Case of the Missing Servant, the Singla family has done just that to find a husband for their daughter Vimi. They hire Puri to find out as much as he can about Ramesh Goel, who seems to be the top candidate for Vimi. His horoscope is compatible with Vimi’s, he’s made a good impression, and the wedding date has been planned. Puri agrees to investigate and looks into Goel’s background. What he and his team find is so unacceptable that the Singla family has to call off the wedding – after having paid for everything. This isn’t the main case in the novel but it does reflect how very important horoscopes can be to people’s way of thinking.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello is concerned about his aunt Zia Anita. While normally what he regards as a sensible person, she’s been reading horoscope magazines lately and watching horoscope shows on television. At first, Vianello hopes that it’s just a private interest of hers. Then he finds out that she’s been taking money from the family business account. It’s money to which she’s entitled so there’s nothing illegal about it. But Vianello is worried that someone may be taking advantage of his aunt’s interest in astrology. So he asks Brunetti to look into the matter and Brunetti agrees. One of the things Brunetti does is (unusually for him) an Internet search where he discovers just how many people are convinced of astrology and how many astrologists and horoscope readers there are to advise those people, or fleece them if that’s how you see these things. As it turns out Zia Anita is indeed giving her money to a man who turns out to be a charlatan and when Vianello finds out the truth, he decides to risk his aunt’s anger rather than let her continue to be ‘taken.’

There’s also Sunny Frazier’s series which features Office Assistant Christy Bristol who works for the Sheriff’s Department in Central County, California. Bristol is also an astrologist whose skills prove critical in Fools Rush In. In that novel, informant Jimmy Blue is brutally murdered. Jack Wolfe, the undercover narcotics cop who was Blue’s contact, wants to catch his killer. Wolfe believes that Lloyd Parr, a local meth manufacturer, is behind Blue’s killing. He’s subpoenaed Parr’s telephone records and found that his quarry is an avid believer in horoscopes; he calls a dial-a-horoscope number every day. So Wolfe asks Bristol to help him lay a trap to catch Parr by casting his horoscope. It doesn’t help matters that Bristol is Wolfe’s ex-girlfriend and that he’s always made fun of her skill with horoscopes. But he convinces a very reluctant Bristol to agree. And it turns out the two have chosen an innovative way to catch Blue’s killer.

Even some sleuths read their horoscopes. Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson does. She’s not what you’d call a slave to it but reading her horoscope is a part of her daily routine.

Whether or not you believe in horoscopes a little, a lot or not at all, it’s hard to deny that a lot of people do. So it’s not really surprising that astrology is woven into crime fiction. Which examples have I forgotten?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s Aquarius.


Filed under Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Henry Chang, Jill Edmondson, Sunny Frazier, Tarquin Hall