Category Archives: James Lee Burke

I Think of Childhood Friends and the Dreams We Had*

Changes OVer LifeIf you think back to the time when you were in your teens and early twenties, there’s a good chance you’re not living the life you imagined for yourself at that time. Most of us don’t. There are all kinds of reasons for that, too. Young people tend to be idealistic, and don’t always know how life can get in the way of, well, life. And there are unexpected good things that happen, too – things that young people don’t plan on happening. People mature and evolve, too; as we get to know ourselves better, we adjust our life’s course. So perhaps it’s not always a bad thing that we aren’t the people we might have thought we would be.

The way people change over time can be really interesting in real life. It is in crime fiction, too. That element can add a layer of character development, and it can add a solid plot point.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), for instance, Hercule Poirot is hired to find the killer of famous painter Amyas Crale. The case is complicated by the fact that the murder happened sixteen years earlier. It’s made even more difficult because Crale’s wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the case. She died a year later in prison, so she can no longer be of assistance in the case. Even at the time, she didn’t do much in the way of defending herself, so everyone has always thought she was guilty. But her daughter Carla doesn’t. So Poirot interviews the five people who were there at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each one about the events of that day. From that information, he’s able to determine who the killer was. This novel includes a ‘big reveal’ scene in which all of the suspects are gathered together. Most haven’t seen each other since the time of the murder, and it’s very interesting as we learn how much they have and haven’t changed since their younger days.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of Jodie Evans Garrow. She has a good life with her successful husband Angus and two healthy children. She is content with the way things have turned out for her, until her past comes back to haunt her. Jodie’s daughter Hannah is injured and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie herself gave birth years ago to another child. She’s never told anyone about the child, not even her husband. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overcurious nurse can’t find any official adoption records. Now questions begin to come up, first privately, then quite publicly. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As more and more gossip spreads around, Jodie becomes a social pariah. In the midst of all this, she has an unexpected reunion with a friend from childhood, Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan. The two were inseparable until Bridie moved away, and Jodie hadn’t seen her for years. Now Bridie comes back into her life, and there’s an interesting plot thread that shows the reader how different they are to what they thought they might be.

In Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is spending some time in Saskatoon, where her two oldest children are at school. There, she reunites with an old friend from childhood, Sally Love. They’ve been estranged since they were thirteen, when Sally’s father died and Sally went away to art school. Now Sally has become a renowned, if controversial, artist, and she’s having an exhibition at the Mendel Gallery. So Joanne decides to attend, and perhaps try to renew their friendship. The two do re-establish contact, and we see how life has worked out quite differently for them than they thought, despite Sally’s focus on her art. Then, gallery owner Clea Poole is murdered, and Sally becomes a likely suspect. It’s a difficult and very sad case with a lot of personal connections for Joanne.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse begins when Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help in a murder investigation. The victim is Angel Macritchie, and his murder closely resembles a murder that MacLeod is working on, so there’s a good possibility the two murders were committed by the same person. Macleod was born and raised on Lewis, so for him, this is a homecoming, albeit not one he relishes. He hasn’t seen anyone he knew as a child since he left for university, and that was how he wanted it. But now he has to renew his acquaintance with a lot of old friends, and people who weren’t friends. One important plot thread in this novel is the relationships among those people, both then and now. And it’s interesting to see how their lives have turned out, as compared to how everyone thought things might be.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingo, New Iberia, Louisiana, police officer Dave Robicheaux is working on building up a case against New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. In the course of this investigation, he happens to meet up again with an old flame, Bootsie Mouton Giacano. The two of them were lovers as teens, but their relationship ended when Robicheaux went to Vietnam. As they get to know each other again, we see how different their lives are to what they thought their future might be. As fans will know, they discover they still have feelings for each other, and Bootsie becomes Robicheaux’s wife in a series story arc.

It’s always interesting to think back on what we thought we might become, and what we actually have become. And it adds some interesting layers to stories, too. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Come Sail Away.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke, Peter May, Wendy James

Take Me Down to My Boat on the River*

HouseboatsThere’s something about living on a boat that has a lot of appeal for some people. Living on a houseboat means a certain amount of mobility and flexibility. And although it’s far from free, living on a houseboat means you don’t pay property taxes, municipal water/sewage fees and so on, because you don’t own land. If your boat’s paid for, it can be a lot less expensive to live on a houseboat than to live in a conventional ‘nice area.’ Depending on your finances and priorities, you can have a very nice boat, too.

There are houseboat communities all over the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see a lot of houseboats in crime fiction, too. Houseboat communities are interesting contexts, and living on a houseboat can give the sleuth an interesting character dimension.

Perhaps the most famous crime-fictional example of a houseboat dweller is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He’s a ‘salvage consultant’ who lives on a boat he calls The Busted Flush (he won the boat in a poker game). McGee helps clients who’ve been robbed to get their property back; he charges half the value of the property, which keeps him in boat paint and canned goods. The Busted Flush is moored in Lauderdale, Florida, but McGee also travels on his boat at times. Life on the boat suits McGee, as he doesn’t want to be overly encumbered with things.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux will know that when we first meet him in The Neon Rain, he’s living on a houseboat in Lake Ponchartrain, and working for the New Orleans Police Department. He’s an avid fisherman, and that’s what draws him into this particular case. He’s fishing on Bayou Lafourche when he discovers the body of a young woman who turns out to have been a prostitute. He starts investigating only to find that a very powerful drugs gang does not want him to stick his nose in, as the saying goes. And he finds out soon enough that the New Orleans Police Department seems no more eager than the criminals for Robicheaux to learn who the woman was and why she was killed. Certainly Robicheaux doesn’t find the serenity he thought he would find when he got the houseboat.

Daniel Pembrey’s Henk van der Pol is an Amsterdam police detective who features in Pembrey’s Harbour Master trilogy. As van der Pol puts it,

‘We Dutch remain at heart a seafaring people: a small but proud collective who once traded with the farthest reaches of the globe…’

He carries on that history in his way. He and his wife Pernilla live on a houseboat, and he has a morning ritual of looking out over Amsterdam Harbour before he starts his day. That’s why he’s on the scene when a dog walker notices something one morning and gives the alert. It turns out to be the body of a young woman. There is no identification on her except for a tattoo on her ankle, which van der Pol discovers is the insignia of a dangerous Hungarian gang. The ‘higher-ups’ among the police force want this case to go away; and in fact, van der Pol is removed from it. But that doesn’t mean he’s willing to give up. There’s a scene in this story in which we are reminded that houseboats are not always safe places.

There’s also Betty Webb’s Teddy Bentley. She works at the Gunn Zoo in Northern California, and lives on the Merilee, which is moored at Gunn Landing Harbor. She loves her boat, but one of the running conflicts in this series is that her mother would like nothing better than for her to give it up and find a ‘real’ place to live. In the first novel, The Anteater of Death (OK, can we pause for a moment and appreciate that title?), the body of Grayson Harrill is found in the anteater enclosure at the zoo. At first, Lucy the Anteater is blamed. But when it’s discovered that Harrill was shot, it’s clear to Bentley that Lucy was not responsible. Then there’s another murder. Now Bentley has to find out who is using the zoo as a murder site.

But it’s not just sleuths who live in houseboats. In Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case), Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and some of his friends went in together on a lottery ticket, and have just found out that they won. So they go out to celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is murdered. Of course the police look close to home (Leverkuhn has left behind a wife and some children). They also talk to the people who live in the same apartment building. But there isn’t much in the way of useful information. When they learn about the lottery ticket, they think they may have found the motive. So they interview the other people who in were with Leverkuhn on the lottery ticket. One of them, Bonger, hasn’t been seen since the night of the murder, so naturally the police are particularly interested in him. He lives on a houseboat, so the Münster and his team interview some of the other members of that houseboat community. They are quirky and interesting, but really can’t shed much light on Bonger’s whereabouts. This aspect of the plot sheds an interesting light on some of the people who choose to live in houseboats.

And then there’s Barry Maitland’s The Raven’s Eye. There are plenty of people who live in houseboats moored in London’s canal system; one of them is Vicky Hawke. One day, one of the other houseboaters finds Vicky dead in her bed, apparently of carbon monoxide poisoning. The first, and most likely, explanation is that the boat’s heating system wasn’t properly ventilated, and the victim succumbed while she was sleeping. But Kolla has her doubts, and begins to ask some questions. That’s when she finds that ‘Vicky Hawke’ wasn’t the victim’s real name. That discovery opens up all sorts of possibilities for killer and motive. It all goes to show that houseboats can be dangerous.

But they do have an appeal, especially for people who want to get away from conventional apartments or houses. Just…don’t think of them as peaceful…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Boat on the River.


Filed under Barry Maitland, Betty Webb, Daniel Pembray, Håkan Nesser, James Lee Burke, John D. MacDonald

It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

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

Scotland Yard Was Trying Hard*

National Police ForcesMany countries have a national police force or other law-enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the entire country. There are also sometimes local, province/state/department-level, or regional police as well.

National police forces and agencies are often the subject of crime fiction novels, for obvious reasons. And it’s fascinating (at least to me) to look at how they’re treated. Of course, a lot of that depends on the protagonist of a given novel or series, and it’s interesting to look at the different lenses through which those agencies are viewed.

The Met (formerly Scotland Yard), for instance, gets some very different treatments depending on the perspective of a given book or series. You’ll probably already know that the Met is not a national police force per se. But the agency does include expert special branches and services that other regional police forces tap. And in series such as Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan novels, Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers novels, or James Craig’s John Carlyle novels, Met police are treated sympathetically. In all of those cases, we have a protagonist who’s a member of that police force, so that makes sense. It’s not that there are no unpleasant Met characters in those novels. But the agency itself is viewed as competent and, overall, a positive force. Not so, though, if one reads, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Fans of those novels will know that Holmes has little patience with Scotland Yard. There are other novels too where there’s friction between Met branches and regional police.

We see a similar sort of disparity when it comes to the way the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s national police force, is treated. In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect for instance, we meet RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, who investigates the murder of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. It’s a very puzzling case; soon enough, Alberg begins to suspect eighty-year-old George Wilcox, but he can’t find a motive. Readers know from the beginning of the novel that Wilcox is, indeed, guilty. The suspense in the story really comes from the slow reveal of the motive and from Alberg’s dogged pursuit of the truth about the case. In this novel, the RCMP is not portrayed as perfect in the least. But it’s presented as an overall solid agency with competent law enforcers. Scott Young’s novels featuring Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak are also more sympathetic than unsympathetic towards Matteesie’s employer, the RCMP. But we get a very different picture through reading the work of Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill, Giles Blunt or Robert Rotenberg. Those series feature police protagonists who are in local or provincial police forces, and their perceptions of RCMP involvement are not exactly positive. At best, RCMP involvement is irritating. At worst, RCMP ‘players’ are slow, incompetent and counterproductive.

There’s an interesting ‘inside’ look at the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in Kel Robertson’s novels featuring Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. As a member of the AFP, Chen participates in investigations that have federal (and sometimes international) implications. He works with competent and dependable team members, too. They aren’t always perfect, and they like a night off work as much as the next person. But they do their jobs well and they are committed to their work. What’s more, they form an important support network for Chen. They’re as much his mates as they are his colleagues.

There’s a less positive portrayal of the AFP in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, which introduces her Bangkok-based PI sleuth Jayne Keeney. In this novel, Keeney travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. When his partner Nou is murdered, Didi is devastated. The police visit him, supposedly because he was considered a suspect. During their visit he’s shot, and the police report is that he was in fact guilty, and tried to resist arrest. The report alleges that he represented an immediate threat to the arresting officers. But Keeney is sure that her friend was innocent, and works to clear his name. In the process of looking into the case, she crosses paths with AFP agent Mark D’Angelo. He’s in Thailand on special assignment with a group that’s looking into human trafficking and the child sex trade. D’Angelo is not portrayed as stupid, incompetent or corrupt. But Keeney does find him unwilling to really consider all the implications of what he’s doing. And without spoiling the story, I can say that for Keeney, it’s very difficult to reconcile herself to the perceptions he and his task force represent.

Talking of Bangkok, the Royal Thai Police have jurisdiction in Thailand. There are several novels (Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom is one of them) in which this agency is depicted as corrupt and greedy at best. But other novels (including Savage’s work) show things differently. Savage’s Jayne Keeney knows that doing her job successfully depends on a rapport with the police. So she’s worked to get to know them. She finds some of the Royal Thai Police to be just as venal as their reputation suggests. But most do their jobs the best they can. And the hard-working police Keeney knows have encountered at least as many problems caused by farangs (foreigners) as those caused by the police. We also see a generally positive portrayal of the Royal Thai Police in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series. Sonchai is a member of the police force and a very observant Buddhist. As he investigates cases, readers get an ‘inside look’ at some of the challenges the police face and some of the ways in which they make a very positive impact. That’s not to say of course that there are no corrupt or even dangerous police in those novels. And even the ‘good guys’ have their faults. But we do see a more or less sympathetic depiction of this national police force, and one that shows readers what goes on ‘behind the scenes.’

Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is a member of the Police Nationale, one of France’s two national police forces. The Police Nationale have jurisdiction in large cities, and Vargas’ novels portray at least Adamsberg’s team as competent, if eccentric (to say the very least). They do their jobs and they care about their work in their way. The Gendarmerie has jurisdiction in smaller towns, rural areas and borderlands. This group gets a less positive treatment from Vargas, although she doesn’t portray each member in a terribly negative way. Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series isn’t very flattering to the Gendarmerie either. In fact. Bruno, who is Chief of Police of the village of St. Denis, very often finds himself at odds with Captain Duroc of the local gendarmerie. In fact, he works better with the Police Nationale. As an aside, you’ll probably know that the Police Nationale used to be known as the Sûreté. Fans of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links will know that her Hercule Poirot is no big fan of that group…

You’ll notice that until now, I’ve not mentioned the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That’s because there are dozens and dozens of crime novels and series that mention that agency, either in a positive or negative light. P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson is an FBI agent, and as you can imagine, the agency is portrayed more or less positively in those novels. There are many others too that depict the FBI in a sympathetic way. But if you read Tony Hillerman’s work or some of James Lee Burke’s novels, you soon see that it’s not at all that simple. There are dozens of novels and series in which the FBI is portrayed as officious, heavy-handed, and sometimes corrupt.

So what can we say about national police agencies (or those that provide national-level services)? They’re large, sometimes complicated, and therefore, complex. As with many groups, the answer depends on whom you ask.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth George, Fred Vargas, Giles Blunt, Inger Ash Wolfe, James Craig, James Lee Burke, Jane Casey, John Burdett, Kel Robertson, L.R. Wright, Martin Walker, Michael Redhill, P.D. Martin, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Young, Tony Hillerman