Category Archives: James Lee Burke

They Fight Over Turf, They Fight Over Land*

Land is a very valuable commodity in a lot of places. That’s especially true if the land has special significance, or if there is a valuable resource on it (e.g. oil or minerals). So, it’s little wonder that there are sometimes disputes over who actually owns a piece of land, or has the right to use it.

Some of those land disputes are relatively minor (e.g. is that tree on my property, or does it belong to the people next door?). In those cases, the dispute can often be settled peacefully, if not amicably. But other land disputes are more far-reaching, and have more consequences. They can cause serious conflict in real life, and they can add tension and plot lines to a novel. For a whodunit crime novel, a land dispute can even add a motive for murder.

There’s an interesting take on land use in Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. In that novel, a group of people gather at a New England property called Cabrioun, the home of Frank and Irene Ogden. The Ogdens own a specialty wood production business with a family friend, Luke Latham. The business depends on a certain sort of wood that’s now no longer available on the Ogden land. The only solution is a piece of land called Onawa, which does have the proper wood. Irene Ogden says that she inherited Onawa from her first husband, Grimaud Désanat, with the proviso that it not be logged for twenty years. With the business in danger, Latham and the Ogdens have decided to hold a séance to contact Désanat and get his consent to log on Onawa. It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem, as far as these people are concerned. Irene is a self-styled medium, and both her husband and Latham believe in the power of the séance. So, all is arranged, and the séance begins. It’s an eerie experience, and frightens several of the people there. Then, later that night, Irene is killed. Now everyone is thoroughly afraid, and the group works to find out who the killer is.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of the Thornhill family. In 1806, London bargeman William Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of wood. He, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long journey, and end up in Sydney. William finds work making deliveries along the nearby waterways; Sal opens a makeshift pub. There’s tension between the new arrivals and the Aborigines, who’ve always been there. But things are more or less calm. Then, Thornhill begins to work for a man named Thomas Blackwell, delivering goods up and down the Hawkesbury River. That’s when he discovers what he sees as the perfect piece of land for him and his family. He’s determined to have that land, and of course, that leads to direct conflict with the Aborigines, who have a completely different view of land use. And Thornhill’s not the only one. As settlement in the Sydney area continues, there’s more and more such conflict, and some ugly things are done. Thornhill wants no part of the real ugliness, but he learns that, if he’s to hold on to the land he loves, he’ll have to get his hands bloody, too.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary takes place mostly in Brisbane. The novel begins with a court case that the Corrowa people have brought. They claim that Merston Park belongs to the Corrowa; local developers and city officials dispute this. Justice Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa, saying that they cannot prove their uninterrupted occupation of Merston Park. Soon after the ruling, the judge is murdered. Then, others involved in the case against the claim are also killed, and a red feather placed near each body. Police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins investigate the deaths. For Matthews, this is especially difficult, since he is Aboriginal, and has been trying to succeed in a very white world. Still, he is a police officer, and determined to find out who’s responsible. Along the way, he meets Miranda Eversley, the attorney who argued the Corrowa’s case. She has her own issues to deal with, not least of which is that she’s now questioning her competence as a lawyer. Each in a different way, the two get to the truth about the killings.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Prairie Grass Murders, Willie Grisseljon visits his family’s old home in Illinois. While he’s there, he discovers the half-buried body of a man on the property. As if that’s not enough, he’s soon locked up himself on charges of vagrancy. He contacts his sister, Florida judge Sylvia Thorn, and she immediately travels to Illinois to see what she can do to help. With her intercession, Willie is freed, and the two prepare to leave. But Willie insists on returning to the place where he found the body. When they get there, though, there is no sign of a body, and the land has been plowed over. It’s soon clear that there’s a cover-up, and Sylvia and Willie get involved in a case of corruption, greed, and land dispute.

In James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues, we meet former blues artist Dixie Lee Pugh. Drugs, alcohol, and a prison sentence ended his music career, and now he works as a leaseman. In that capacity, he travels to Montana’s Blackfoot Reservation, where a lease is being prepared that will allow oil drilling on some of the land. One night, Pugh happens to overhear two men discussing two murders they’ve committed. He doesn’t want to get involved, because of his history, so he asks his old friend, New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux, for help. At first, Robicheaux’s reluctant to look into the matter, but he finally starts asking questions. When he does, he discovers that the murders really did happen. This turns out to be a case of greed and corruption that are tainting the drilling and land dispute.

And then there’s R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper. Meg Harris has recently moved to Outaouai, in Western Québec, where she’s living in a house she inherited from her Great Aunt Agatha. Like her great-aunt, Meg wants to develop a good rapport with the local Migiskan people, and so far, has succeeded. So, Migiskan Band Chief Eric Odjik feels comfortable asking for her help in a difficult land matter. There’s a good chance that there may be gold on Whisper Island, which is very near Meg’s new home. A company called CanacGold wants to mine the island, but many Migiskan people object. The only way to resolve the dispute is to determine who, if anyone, actually owns the island. It’s quite possible that Meg herself is the owner, since the island may be part of her great-aunt’s property. But she’ll have to find the paperwork to prove it. As she’s working to do that, the conflict between CanacGold and some of the Migiskin gets more and more heated. And here’s conflict among the Migiskin, too, as some believe that mining will be good for the local economy, and will mean more jobs. Then, there is a disappearance. And then a murder. They may or may not be related to the land dispute, but they certainly impact the area. Meg gets involved in the search for the truth, since the land may be hers, and the woman who’s gone missing is a friend and employee.

Land disputes almost always lead to tension and conflict, sometimes end up in court, and can even end in violence. It’s little wonder, since land and what’s on it can be so valuable. So, it makes sense that we see this plot thread in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The King Blues’ The Future’s Not What it Used to Be.

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Filed under Hake Talbot, James Lee Burke, Kate Grenville, Nicole Watson, Patricia Stoltey, R.J. Harlick

‘Cause I’m Unpredictable*

Some of the more interesting characters in crime fiction are appealing because one can never be sure exactly what they’re going to do. In order to make such a character credible, the author has to make sure there’s some stability (i.e. ‘Yes, that’s the sort of thing X might do’). But at the same time, these characters are just unpredictable enough that anything might happen. It’s a delicate balance, but when an author achieves it, that sort of character can be memorable.

For instance, James Lee Burke’s sleuth is New Iberia, Louisiana, police detective Dave Robicheaux. His best friend, and former police partner, is Cletus ‘Clete’ Purcell, who’s an interesting character in his own right. He drinks more than he should, and doesn’t always steer clear of trouble. In that way, he’s a little unpredictable. But he is loyal to Robicheaux, and he’s not afraid to get into a fight and knock heads together if needs be. And Robicheaux knows that Purcell won’t desert him when things get dangerous. Purcell’s character adds a dimension to Robicheaux’s personality, and has allowed Burke flexibility about plot lines, suspenseful scenes, and tension building.

We could say similar things about Walter Mosley’s Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. He’s an old friend of Mosley’s protagonist, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. The two grew up together in Louisiana, and have remained friends ever since. On the one hand, Mouse can be what’s sometimes called a ‘loose cannon.’ He has a hair-trigger temper and very few boundaries. He’s not the sort of person you want to upset. And he’s caused more than his share of trouble, in his way, for Rawlins. But he is loyal to his friend. And he’s completely unafraid. He’s saved Rawlins’ life, and survived an awful lot, including being shot in the back. Mouse isn’t what you’d call a nice person. But Rawlins knows that when it comes down to it, Mouse will be there, if I can put it that way.

Robert Crais’ Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole isn’t the biggest, or strongest, of people. He’s smart and quick-thinking, but that’s not always enough to keep him out of trouble. Fortunately, his PI partner is Joe Pike. A former member of the military, Pike is quick and skilled with weapons, of which he has plenty. He’s not a man of many words, but he can be very intimidating. And he’s not afraid to ‘mix it up’ if that’s necessary. You couldn’t really call him uncontrollable, but he’s certainly not one to stand by, if I can put it that way. And yet, Pike is highly disciplined in his way. And he’s loyal to Cole. When situations get dangerous, as they sometimes do, Cole knows that he can depend on Pike, and the two have a successful partnership. Even Cole’s feral cat approves of Pike; in fact, he’s the only human that the cat trusts.

Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch is a Melbourne-based former stripper (she does an occasional gig) who’s trying to make a success of her PI business. Because of her background, she knows several people in the adult entertainment business. One of them is her best friend, Chloe Wozniak. When we first meet Chloe, in Peepshow, she’s a stripper at a peepshow place called Shaft Cinema. As the series goes on, Chloe opens her own business, Chloe’s Elite Strippers. Although Simone is the main character in this series (it’s told from her point of view, too), Chloe is hardly a ‘shrinking violet.’ She’s not intimidated by clients, strip club owners and managers, or, really, anyone else. In fact, in Peepshow, she’s taken hostage by an underworld ‘tough guy,’ and isn’t intimidated by him either. I don’t think it’s not spoiling the story to say that she doesn’t sit quivering in a corner. Chloe may not be utterly reckless, but she’s not always predictable, either.

And then there’s John Clarkson’s Among Thieves, in which we are introduced to James Beck. He and some of his friends own a bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Very few people know that he bought the bar with money he won in a wrongful conviction lawsuit after he spent eight years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. His co-owners are all people he met in prison, and who are now ‘going straight.’ One of those people is Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Guzman, who used to be a gang leader. He’s not in that life any more, but he hasn’t lost his toughness. He can be unstable, too, although he’s not mindlessly rash. Beck knows that Guzman is perfectly capable of following through on any threat he might make, and he’s not afraid to do so. That’s why he’s so concerned when he learns that Guzman has said he’s going to kill someone. Then, he finds out the reason. Guzman’s cousin, Olivia Sanchez, has asked for his help. She says that she was fired from her job at an upmarket investment firm, and ‘blacklisted’ so that she won’t be able to find a job elsewhere. All of this has happened because she was going to ‘blow the whistle’ on some very questionable transactions. She’s filed a lawsuit against one of her colleagues, Alan Crane, who she says threatened her, breaking two of her fingers. Crane says that she attacked him, and that he was defending himself. When Guzman hears what his cousin has to say, he’s ready to take care of Crane in his own way. But Beck convinces him to wait, and at least talk to both parties first. Guzman reluctantly agrees. This case turns out to be much more complicated than a dispute between two ex-colleagues. And before they know it, Beck and his friends (including Guzman) are mixed up in a case involving Russian gangsters, US arms dealers, and more than one dangerous thug. Through it all, Guzman remains on ‘hair trigger’ alert, and that adds to the tension in the story. At the same time, he is loyal to Beck, and he understands the consequences if he lets rash decisions get in the way of helping his cousin.

And that’s the thing about such characters. They may be unpredictable, and sometimes even a little reckless. But they’re smart, and they’re loyal. And they can add much to a crime novel. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Robertson and Skye Sweetnam’s Unpredictable.

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Filed under James Lee Burke, John Clarkson, Leigh Redhead, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley

Hey, Better Send Some People Down*

Even the best-equipped police forces don’t always have the staff or the resources they need, especially when there’s a particularly difficult investigation going on. And many police forces serve areas where there’s little major crime. So, they don’t invest a great deal in special equipment, extra people, and so on. That’s not usually considered a wise use of taxpayer money.

What this means is that sometimes, police departments have to ‘borrow’ people from other police departments. Being seconded can give a detective solid experience, and it’s a way to get the job done with limited resources. Sometimes it goes smoothly; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, a secondment can add an interesting layer to a crime novel, and an equally-interesting look at the way police departments work.

For example, in Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), lifestyle guru Cecilia ‘CC’ de Poitiers decides to move to the small Québec town of Three Pines. She settles in with her husband and fifteen-year-old daughter, and it’s not long before she succeeds in alienating just about everyone. She’s mentally sadistic, malicious, and thoroughly self-involved, so it’s not surprising that she isn’t exactly the most popular person in town. Then, during a Boxing Day curling match, CC is murdered. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team investigate the murder. For duty officer Robert Lemieux, this case gives him the opportunity to work with the legendary Gamache, as he’s the one who reported the crime. Gamache welcomes Lemieux to the team, and does his best to take the fledgling detective under his proverbial wing. It turns out to be a very sad case, but it gives Lemieux valuable experience. And fans of this series will know that he plays an important role in The Cruelest Month, too.

James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown takes place mostly in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The city’s been devastated by the disaster, and the police force is stretched to its limits. So, many of Louisiana’s other police forces are tapped for extra support, including the New Iberia Police. And that means that police detective Dave Robicheaux is sent to New Orleans to help. He discovers that an old friend, Father Jude LeBlanc, has gone missing. LeBlanc had set off in a boat to try to save some of his parishioners, but hasn’t been seen. What’s worse, the boat he used has turned up in the possession of some looters. Robicheaux is sure that there’s a connection between LeBlanc’s disappearance and the looters; to him, this isn’t a case of people happening on an empty boat. But, with much of the city reeling from the hurricane, and with few resources, it’s not going to be an easy connection to make.

Inger Ash Wolfe’s (AKA Michael Redhill) DI Hazel Micallef lives and works in Port Dundas, Ontario. It’s not a very big place, and there’s generally not a lot of crime there. So, she doesn’t have a very big police department. That proves to be a major problem in The Calling, when a series of murders takes place in the area. A small team like Micallef’s isn’t enough to handle the multiple investigations, so she requests extra staff. At first, her boss, Commander Ian Mason, doesn’t see the need for any secondments; he’s not even sure there’s a serial killer involved. But Micallef knows that she and her small team aren’t going to be able to solve these crimes without help. She finally convinces Mason to approve some staff, and that’s at least a start. One of the interesting sub-plots in this novel is the politics behind secondments, and the way that ‘borrowed’ officers and the ‘regular’ team have to work together.

Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods sees Accra DI Darko Dawson seconded to the small town of Ketanu when the body of Gladys Menah is discovered in a nearby wood. The victim was a volunteer with the Ministry of Health, so the Minister of Health takes a special interest in this case; hence the secondment. Dawson’s the logical choice, because he speaks Ewe, the local language, and because he’s a skilled detective. That doesn’t cut much ice with Inspector Fiti of the local police, though. He resents what he sees as Accra’s meddling, and he doesn’t care much for the insinuation that he and his men can’t handle the case. Dawson does his best, at least at first, to reassure Fiti that he has no desire to meddle or take the investigation out of their hands. It doesn’t work, though, and there’s a great deal of conflict and friction between the two. This leads to its own sub-plot, which adds a layer of interest to this novel.

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse, the first of his Lewis trilogy. Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is an Edinburgh police inspector who’s working on a murder case when another, very similar, murder takes place on the Isle of Lewis. It’s very possible that the same person committed both crimes, so Macleod is seconded to help with the Isle of Lewis investigation. It’s hoped that if it’s the same murderer, he and the Isle of Lewis police will be able to help each other. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up there, but it’s not a happy one. He had very good reasons for leaving, and hasn’t had any desire to return. Still, he does his job and goes. This investigation will force him to confront his own past, and deal with several unresolved issues.

Jill Paterson’s Once Upon a Lie introduces readers to DCI Alistair Fitzjohn, of Sydney’s Day Street Station. He’s been in the UK taking some leave time, but returns to Sydney when the body of businessman Michael Rossi is found at a marina on Rushcutter’s Bay. Normally, the Kings Cross Police Station would handle this case, but they’re short-staffed at the moment. So, Fitzjohn is seconded to Kings Cross to help out. Fitzjohn insists that his second-in-command, Martin Betts, go with him. Betts isn’t overly eager, but he agrees, and the two take up their temporary assignment. It turns out that there are several possibilities, both personal and professional, when it comes to motive and suspect, so this case isn’t going to be easy. It doesn’t help matters, either, that Fitzjohn learns that a ‘mole’ may have been placed at Kings Cross to report back to his superior. In the end, though, Fitzjohn, Betts, and the Kings Cross team find out who killed Rossi and why.

Secondments can be awkward for everyone. Sometimes they even end up in friction or outright conflict. But they can also add to a crime novel. These are only a few of many examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Everybody’s Out of Town.

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Filed under Inger Ash Wolfe, James Lee Burke, Jill Paterson, Kwei Quartey, Louise Penny, Michael Redhill, Peter May

I Used to Rule the World*

As this is posted, it’s the Ides of March, the day of Julius Caesar’s assassination. It was a pivotal moment in history, and it shows that even the most powerful and well-protected people can also be quite vulnerable.

We see that clearly in crime fiction, too. In fact, that theme of the powerful person with enemies is arguably a trope in the genre. Certainly Agatha Christie uses that plot point in several of her stories. For instance, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), we are introduced to wealthy patriarch Simeon Lee. He’s manipulative, unpleasant and tyrannical. But he is also very wealthy. When he decides to have the members of his family to the family home for Christmas, no-one dares refuse the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is spending Christmas in the area, and he’s persuaded to work with the police to find out who the killer is. As it turns out, Lee’s money and power weren’t enough to protect him. In one scene of the novel, Lee’s daughter-in-law, Hilda, warns him about all that he risks by treating others as he does. He doesn’t listen to her, though, and that has disastrous results. I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express…

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, we meet New Orleans crime boss, Tony Cardo. He’s fended off rivals and the police, and has established a powerful place for himself. Now, a special Presidential Task Force on Drugs has targeted Cardo, and wants to go after him. He’s both wealthy and well-protected, though, and it’s going to be a difficult task. So, former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Minos Dautrieve asks his old friend, police detective Dave Robicheaux, for help. His idea is that Robicheaux will pretend to be ‘dirty,’ get close to Cardo, and bring him down. Robicheaux isn’t interested at first. He’s recovering from injuries he suffered in another incident, and in any case, wants to spend time with his daughter, Alafair. But Dautrieve tells Robicheaux that Jimmie Lee Boggs, who is responsible for Robicheaux’s injuries, is one of Cardo’s known associates. So, if Robicheaux goes after Cardo, he may very well get Boggs, too. Robicheaux finally agrees, and the operation begins. As time goes on, though, Robicheaux gets to know Cardo, and finds that this is a more complex situation than he’d thought.

One of the important plot threads in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has to do with bringing down powerful Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. Journalist Mikael Blomqvist and his publication, Millennium, made allegations against Wennerström – allegations that Wennerström has claimed are false. In fact, he sues for libel, and wins his case. He is both wealthy and well-connected, so it seems that it will be impossible to do anything about the situation. Then, Blomqvist gets his chance. Henrik Vanger (also wealthy and well-connected) wants Blomqvist to find out the truth about a forty-year-old case. Vanger’s great-niece, Harriet, disappeared years ago, but her body was never found. Nor did she ever contact the family again. Yet, someone’s been sending Vanger arrangements of pressed, dried flowers each birthday, something Harriet and only Harriet did. So, Vanger wants to find out if Harriet is still alive, and if so, where she is. In return for Blomqvist’s work, Vanger will give the journalist the ‘inside information’ he needs to bring Wennerström down. Blomqvist agrees, and he and his research partner Lisbeth Salander start investigating. In the end, they find out the truth about Harriet Vanger, and Salander finds a way to penetrate Wennerström’s protection and get the details she needs.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client. Charity Wiser is a wealthy executive and heiress, who has begun to believe that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She’s not sure who, but she’s sure it’s one of her relatives. She sends her granddaughter, Flora, to visit Quant and ask him to investigate. The plan is that Quant will join the Wiser family for a cruise on Charity Wiser’s private boat. During the cruise, he’s to ‘vet’ the various members of the family, and then report back to his client. Quant agrees, and makes his travel plans. Once aboard, he meets the different members of the Wiser family, and learns that just about all of them have reasons for wanting to murder Charity. For one thing, she’s manipulative, and seems to delight in putting her family into uncomfortable situations. For another, there is the matter of her money. The situation is stressful for Quant already, but gets even more so when there is an attempt on his client’s life. It turns out that money and power do not always keep a person safe.

Hilary Mantel explores this in her novels featuring Thomas Cromwell. As you’ll know, Cromwell was chief minister to King Henry VIII. Over time, he acquired a great deal of power and authority, and the king came to rely on him. But that power and wealth didn’t save Cromwell. Once he fell out of the king’s good graces, he was executed. The three novels featuring Cromwell (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the forthcoming The Mirror and the Light) tell Cromwell’s story and show how precarious power can be. Certainly, Henry VIII knew this, and took sometimes ruthless measures to protect himself. And Cromwell found out as well. Granted, these novels are not, strictly speaking, crime novels. But they do feature murders that are committed, and the sense of justice (whatever that really means) that people at the time had.

It all just goes to show that, at least in crime fiction, anyone can be vulnerable, no matter how wealthy, powerful, or well-protected. It makes for a trope with a lot of possibilities. And it offers some interesting layers of character development.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s Viva la Vida.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Hilary Mantel, James Lee Burke, Stieg Larsson

That’s the Night That They Hung an Innocent Man*

One of the more popular, and often very effective, tropes in crime fiction is the character who’s been wrongly convicted of murder. It’s no wonder that it’s popular, too. For one thing, convictions are not always the end of the proverbial story. There are appeals, and there are opportunities for detectives to go back over a case. As you’ll know, there are instances, too, where people who’ve been imprisoned are exonerated. And sometimes, it’s less clear that someone was wrongly convicted. So, there’s a big question of whether that person is, in fact, guilty. All of this means the crime writer has a lot of flexibility with respect to how a plot will develop.

There’s also the suspense involved. Will the wrongly convicted character be set free? If that person’s innocent, who committed the crime? Is the character actually innocent? All of these questions can add interest and tension to a plot.

In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumprint, we are introduced to Sergeant Jacob Studer of Bern Cantonal Police. As the novel begins, he recently compiled the evidence that landed Erwin Schlumpf in jail, convicted of murdering Wendelin Witschi. On impulse, Studer decides to visit Schlumpf in prison, and arrives just in time to stop him committing suicide. Studer has a liking for this prisoner, and decides to look at the facts of the case again. The trail leads to the small town of Gerzenstein, where the Witschi family lives. And, as Studer gets to know the town and its residents, he learns that this murder may be more complicated than he thought. Certainly, there are more suspects than it seemed at the beginning.

Agatha Christie used the ‘wrongly convicted person’ in several of her stories. In fact, as a personal aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a special interest in/concern for the innocent person who’s been convicted. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to revisit one of his (Spence’s) cases. James Bentley has been convicted of the murder of his landlady, Mrs. McGinty, and will soon be executed. Spence has come to believe that Bentley may be innocent; if so, he wants the man’s name cleared. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and visits the village of Broadhinny, where the murder took place. It doesn’t take long before he discovers that Mrs. McGinty was a charwoman who worked in several homes in and near the village. She was naturally curious, and had found out some things that it wasn’t safe for her to know. So, there are several people who are just as well pleased that she’s dead. I see you, fans of Five Little Pigs and of Ordeal by Innocence.

As James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos begins, New Iberia Police detective Dave Robicheaux is assigned to transport two convicted prisoners to Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary. One of these prisoners is Tee Beau Latiolais; the other is Jimmie Lee Boggs. During the trip, Boggs manages to escape, killing Robicheaux’s partner Lester Benoit, and badly wounding Robicheaux. Separately, he and Latiolais go on the run, and one plot thread of this story concerns Robicheaux’s search for them. Latiolais’ grandmother, Tante Lemon, begs Robicheaux to help her son. She says that he’s not guilty of murder (he was with her at the time of the killing), and that he was wrongly convicted. She also says, though, that the police won’t listen to her, and certainly won’t listen to her grandson. So, another plot thread in this novel follows Robicheaux’s search for the real killer.

In Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, we are introduced to former Glasgow copper Douglas Brodie. He’s recently returned from service in World War II (the novel takes place just after the end of that war), and is dealing with what we now call PTSD. He’s living in London, trying to start a career in journalism, when he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. Donovan’s been convicted and jailed for the abduction and murder of a young boy named Rory Hutchinson, and is slated for execution in four weeks’ time. There’s credible evidence against him, too. In fact, the evidence is strong enough that Brodie isn’t entirely sure his friend is innocent. But Donovan says that he isn’t guilty, and Brodie finally allows himself to be persuaded to at least ask a few questions. So, he travels to Glasgow, where he meets with Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She is firmly convinced her client is not guilty, and after a short time, Brodie begins to believe here. For one thing, there are a few too many obstacles to their finding out the truth, so it’s clear that someone wants the case left alone. For another, there are other possibilities. It’s not going to be an easy investigation, though; there are plenty of people who do not want the truth discovered.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Connor Bligh has been in Rimutaka State Prison for several years, convicted of murdering his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Now, little pieces of evidence suggest that Bligh may not be guilty. And that possibility gets the attention of Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. If Bligh is innocent, this could be the story of Thorne’s career – the one that will cement her position at the top of New Zealand television journalism. So, she wastes no time starting to ask questions. The more she discovers, the closer she gets to the story – too close for comfort, as the saying goes. In this story, part of the tension comes from the question of whether Thorne is really onto something, or whether Bligh is a multiple murderer.

Of course, many convicted prisoners claim that they’re innocent. But there are cases where some of them really are, or could be. And even the possibility that an innocent person has been convicted can add much to the tension and suspense in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobby Russell’s The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Friedrich Glauser, Gordon Ferris, James Lee Burke, Paddy Richardson