Category Archives: James M. Cain

Reality is Dual, Walking With Good and Evil*

As this is posted, it’s 132 years since the first publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Among other things, this story explores human nature and our capacity for both good and evil. Stevenson uses two separate characters (although, of course, the same physical person) as representations of those two extremes. The fact is, though, that the capacity for both good and evil exists in all of us.

Crime fiction addresses this issue a lot. Not all crime novels get particularly philosophical, but the question does come up: what moves an otherwise law-abiding, possibly generous, loving person to commit murder? And if you read enough crime fiction, you learn that any one of us might do the same, given the right circumstances.

Here, for instance, is how Hercule Poirot puts it in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

‘‘Let us take a man – a very ordinary man. A man with no idea of murder in his heart. There is in him somewhere a strain of weakness – deep down. It has so far never been called into play. Perhaps it never will be – and if so he will go to his grave honoured and respected by everyone. But let us suppose that something occurs…And then the strain of weakness tells. Here is a chance at money – a great amount of money…He becomes greedy. And in his greed he overreaches himself.’’

It’s an interesting discussion of how a person who’s perfectly law-abiding and well respected – a good person – could do something like commit a murder. Several of Christie’s other stories also touch on the fact that all of us have a capacity for good or evil.

We certainly see that happening in James M. Cain’s novella Double Indemnity. Walter Huff is what many people would think of as a good person. He’s an insurance agent who decides to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, one day when he happens to be in the area. He’s hoping he can get a policy renewal if he makes a personal visit. Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff start talking and it’s not long before Huff finds himself attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, and they’re soon having an affair. Then, she tells Huff her plan: she wants to kill her husband to get as much insurance money as she can. By this time, Huff is so besotted by her that he falls in with her plan, even writing the double-indemnity policy she has in mind. The murder takes place, and Huff finds himself drawn into a web of coverup and conspiracy. He wouldn’t have thought of himself as a bad person, and most people would have agreed that he wasn’t. But as the story goes on, we see his capacity for criminality.

Of course, this all can arguably work the other way, too. People can show an unexpected capacity for good. For instance, in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, we are introduced to Fabio Montale. He, Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, and their friend, Manu, grew up together on the proverbial mean streets of Marseilles. They were involved in all sorts of petty crimes and other trouble with the law. But then, a tragedy made Montale re-think his lifestyle and priorities. He left Marseilles, joined the military, and then returned to Marseilles as a police officer. He’s been living on the right side of the law, and has made a sort of life for himself. But then, Manu, who never left Marseilles, is murdered. Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself. Now, in one plot thread, Montale feels driven to find out who killed Ugo and Manu. Among other things, this novel raises some interesting questions about who is good and who isn’t, and what is ‘moral’ and what isn’t.

David Whish-Wilson’s historical (late 1970s) series features Frank Swann. As the series begins, with Line of Sight, he’s a police superintendent who’s just returned to Perth after several years away. He’s come back because a former friend, Ruby Devine, has been murdered. Along with this main plot line, we learn something about Swann’s background. As a young person, he got into more than his fair share of trouble, and it looked very much as though he’d be headed for prison before many years had passed. But then, he met Marion Monroe and the two began to date. That’s how Swann met her father, George Monroe, who was a police officer. And that relationship led to Swann’s decision to join the police force himself. Swann’s certainly no angel. But he’s learned to do the right thing, if I may put it that way.

And then there’s John Clarkson’s Among Thieves. In that novel, we are introduced to James Beck, who owns a bar in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. What a lot of people don’t know is that he bought the bar, and the building next door, with money he won in a wrongful conviction lawsuit after serving eight years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. His co-owners are Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Guzman, Demarco Jones, and Ciro Baltassare, all people he met in and through prison. Unlike Beck, these men are guilty of various crimes, but are trying to put their lives back together. The bar gives them a chance for a legitimate income, and they’re mostly staying on the right side of the law. Then, Manny’s cousin, Olivia Sanchez, comes to him with a problem. She says that she’s been fired from her position at an upmarket investment firm, because she was ready to ‘blow the whistle’ on some dubious transactions. She claims that one of her colleagues threatened her, broke two of her fingers, and is responsible for ‘blacklisting’ her so that she can’t get another job in the industry. What looks at first like a ‘he said/she said’ dispute turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous than it seems. And Beck and his friends are up against some very nasty people. One thing that we see in this novel is that these men all have quite a capacity for good, despite the fact that they’d done really reprehensible things.

And that’s the thing about humans. We all have a capacity for great good – and for the opposite. And it’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats that.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stereolab’s Naught More Terrific Than Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, James M. Cain, Jean-Claude Izzo, John Clarkson, Robert Louis Stevenson

You Can Rely on the Old Man’s Money*

If you’ve ever been concerned that you haven’t been able to give your children what you wish you could, you’re not alone. Most parents want the best for their children. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want them to struggle the way I had to.’

It’s only natural for parents to want their children to have everything. But there’s an old expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ And it might very well apply here. If you’ve met children who’s always had everything they wanted, and never had to work for it, you know the effect that can have on their dispositions. And that’s to say nothing of how unprepared such children are to deal with life’s challenges.

There are plenty of examples of young people who’ve always had everything they wanted in crime fiction. They don’t always make for sympathetic characters, but they can add interest to a story, and they can add plot threads.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, we are introduced to Ronald Marsh. Having grown up in a ‘blueblood’ family, he hasn’t really wanted for anything. He’s never learned to manage his money, so he’s in quite a difficult financial situation. In fact, that makes him a suspect when his wealthy uncle, 4th Baron Edgware, is murdered. The victim’s wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the primary suspect. She wanted a divorce so that she could marry again. But she says she was at a dinner party in another part of London, and there are twelve people willing to swear that she was there. So Chief Inspector Japp has to look elsewhere for the murderer. Hercule Poirot is involved in the case, since he visited the victim on the day of the murder. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Ronald Marsh copes with the stress of being suspected of murder, of being in need of money, and so on. It’s clear that he was never prepared to work for goals and to deal with adversity.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep introduces us to the Sternwood family. General Guy Sternwood is upset because a book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent him an extortion letter that mentions his daughter, Carmen. Sternwood hires Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him from harassing the family. Marlowe doesn’t find the Sternwoods pleasant at all, but he agrees to take the case. By the time he tracks Geiger down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood was in the room at the time of the killing, but she’s either too drugged or too dazed to say much or remember anything. Marlowe quickly gets her out of the way before the police suspect her, and thinks that this will be the end of his work with the Sternwoods. The next day, though, the Sternwoods’ chauffer dies in what looks like a suicide (but is it?). Now, Marlowe gets more and more deeply involved with the family as he helps to find out what’s behind that death. Throughout the novel, we see that Carmen Sternwood and her older sister, Vivian, have always had every material thing they wanted. They haven’t had love and affection from their parents, but they’ve always been indulged. And that has a profound impact on them.

Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood gives readers a look at the ultra-privileged lives of Bollywood superstars. In it, top film director Nikhil Kapoor is found dead in his writing studio, apparently of a freak electrical accident. His wife, superstar actress Mallika Kapoor, also dies of an apparent cocaine overdose. The Powers That Be want this case wrapped up quickly, and the deaths attributed to tragic accident; but Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan isn’t so sure. So, he begins to look into the matter. He learns that, not long before the deaths, Nikhil Kapoor had hosted a private party at which he said one of those present had killed before, and would kill again. With this information in hand, Khan begins to investigate the people who were at the party, and find out which one Kapoor might have had in mind. And in the end, he finds out the truth about those deaths, and one other murder. As the story evolves, we meet the Kapoors’ son, Rohan. He’s been very much indulged his whole life, and is thoroughly spoilt. He’s smart enough, but he’s never had to work for a living, or make a life for himself. That overindulged background has an important impact on him.

In Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson gets a new client, Christine Arvisais. It seems that her former fiancé, ‘blueblood’ Gordon Hanes, was shot on the day that was supposed to be their wedding. Everyone thinks that Christine’s responsible, but she claims she is innocent. Sasha doesn’t care at all for this new client; Christine is spoiled, self-entitled, and rude. But a fee is a fee. So, she starts looking into the case. And it’s not long before she finds that there could definitely be other explanations for Hanes’ murder. Throughout the novel, we see that Christine has always had everything she wanted. And she’s actually quite hampered by not knowing how to work for herself or deal with life’s unexpected blows. And that life of indulgence has certainly had an impact on her personality.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of the Garrow family.  Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who comes from a ‘blueblood’ family. He’s doing quite well, even being spoken of as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s been indulged most of his life, and his mother still works to make sure he has whatever he wants. And on the surface, he does. His wife, Jodie, is smart and attractive, and he’s got two healthy children. Then, everything changes. His daughter, Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. Angus doesn’t know about this child, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her baby.  Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overzealous nurse can’t find any formal records. Soon, the whispers start. Then there are some very public questions about what happened to Jodie’s baby. There’s even talk that Jodie may have had something to do with the baby’s disappearance. Now, Jodie is a social pariah, and Angus finds it very hard to cope with this challenge. He’s never really had to face adversity before, and he’s always had everything. It’s interesting to see what happens to him as the novel goes on.

There are plenty of other examples of fictional children who’ve never been refused anything (right, fans of James. M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce?). They’re almost never really pleasant, happy people. But they can add to a story.


*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Daryl Hall and John Oates’ Rich Girl.


Filed under Agatha Christie, James M. Cain, Jill Edmondson, Raymond Chandler, Shadaab Amjad Khan, Wendy James

What I Didn’t Realise Was How You Would Change My Life*

One of the most common types of blended families is the stepfamily. In fact, there’ve been stepparents and stepchildren for so many years that we could even think of it as one of the traditional family structures.

Blending a family in this way can work, especially if everyone involved is willing to be flexible. But ‘stepping’ almost always presents challenges, even when family members love one another, and really want the relationships to be successful. And when there’s spite or malice, things can turn very bad, indeed.

There’ve been many, many crime novels that involve stepfamilies. One post couldn’t possibly do the topic justice. But I’ll mention a few examples, to start the conversation. Oh, and you’ll notice I don’t include examples of what a lot of people call domestic noir. Too easy…

Agatha Christie used stepfamilies many times in her work, so there are several examples. One is Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Captain Kenneth Marshall and his daughter, Linda, travel to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay for their holiday. With them is Marshall’s second wife (and Linda’s stepmother), famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. It’s soon clear that Linda dislikes her stepmother heartily. It’s not so much that Arlena is cruel to her, but she is self-involved, and mostly, she ignores Linda. What’s worse, Arlena is beautiful and graceful, and Linda is at an awkward point in her life, as young people often are at sixteen. One day, Arlena is found strangled in a cover not far from the hotel, Linda becomes a ‘person of interest,’ as does her father. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the hotel, and he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why. And as far as the ‘evil stepmother’ stereotype goes, there’s Christie’s Appointment With Death

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, we are introduced to the Priam family. Roger Priam and his business partner Leander Hill ran a successful company for years. But then, they both began receiving macabre ‘gifts’ that unsettled them. In fact, Hill died of a heart attack shortly after getting one of them. Hill’s daughter, Laurel, asks Ellery Queen  to find out who has sent the parcels, because she believes her father’s death is directly related to them. At first, Queen demurs, but he’s finally persuaded. When he learns that Priam also received packages, he tries to get his help. But Priam is unwilling to get involved at first. Still, Queen meets Priam’s wife, Delia, and her son, Crowe ‘Mac’ MacGowan. Mac is a very unconventional person. He lives in a treehouse he’s made on the Priam property, and wears as little as possible – sometimes nothing at all. He’s convinced that nuclear bombs are about to be unleashed (the book takes place in the early 1950s, during a particularly tense part of the Cold War), and wants to be ready to live in a world where not much is left. Priam has little to do with his stepson; he’s a businessman through and through. There’s an interesting, if dysfunctional, dynamic in the Priam household…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity begins when insurance sales representative Walter Huff decides on a whim to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. Huff happens to be in that area, and wants to see if he can get Nirdlinger to renew his policy. When Huff gets to the house, he finds that Nirdlinger isn’t there, but his wife, Phyllis is. The two get to talking and Huff soon finds himself attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, and before long, they’re having an affair. Then, Phyllis reveals that she wants her husband killed. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he falls in with her plan, even going so far as to write the double indemnity insurance policy she’ll need in order to collect from the company. The murder is duly pulled off, but that’s really only the beginning of Huff’s problems. He’s going to have to protect Phyllis as best he can if he’s going to protect himself. Then, he meets Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola. The two form a friendship (which Huff would like to be more than a friendship), and Lola tries to warn him about her stepmother. There is no love lost between the two, so there’s a possibility her attitude might simply be spite. But it turns out that Huff is in much deeper than he thought…

M.J. McGrath’s White Heat is the first in her series featuring Ellesmere Island hunting guide Edie Kiglatuk. As the story begins, Kiglatuk is escorting two hunters, Felix Wagner and Andy Taylor. During the trip, Wagner is fatally shot. Taylor says he’s not responsible, and the evidence supports him. So, at first, the death is put down to a tragic accident. But Kiglatuk is fairly certain that’s not the truth. Evidence that she saw suggests that another person shot Wagner. But she’s told that the Council of Elders, on whom she depends for her guide license, wants the ‘accident’ explanation ‘rubber stamped.’ Still, she starts to ask some questions. There’s not much she can do officially, but she tries to get answers. Then, there’s a disappearance. Then, her former stepson, Joe, with whom she’s still close, dies. On the surface, it looks like a suicide. But Kiglatuk is now sure that it was murder. In the end, we learn what connects all of these events; it turns out that there’s something much bigger going on than most people knew. The relationship between Kiglatuk and Joe is an undercurrent throughout the novel. It’s clear that they see each other as family, and take care of each other as close family members do. Not much of the ‘wicked stepmother’ stereotype here…

There’s also Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy. In that novel, former safecracker/lockbreaker Jeet Singh has decided to ‘go straight.’ He now owns and runs a small keymaking business. Everything changes, though, when he gets drawn into just one last job, for the sake of his former lover Sushmita. She married wealthy industrialist Pursumal Changulani, but now, he’s been murdered. At first, the murder looked like a carjacking gone wrong. But now, there’s evidence that it was a pre-planned murder. Sushmita is the main suspect, since her husband’s death means she now stands to inherit a considerable fortune. However, Changulani has three children from a previous marriage, and they claim that she was never legally married to their father. They argue that their stepmother was really just their father’s live-in lover. Sushmita needs money to pay a good lawyer to defend her interests, so Singh decides to help her. He ends up, though, being framed for murder. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how stepmother and stepchildren view each other when a lot of money is involved.

Many stepfamilies work well, function as a unit, and love each other (right, fans of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve?). But there are always some complexities, and sometimes, they play out in unexpected ways.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Andre’s Unconditional.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, James M. Cain, M.J McGrath, Surender Mohan Pathak

Confide in Me*

Most of us would probably say that we have private matters we don’t discuss with others. I know I would. And yet, it’s surprising how often people talk about sometimes very personal things with complete strangers. I don’t mean strangers such as doctors or attorneys, who need that personal information. Rather, I mean strangers such as someone in the same waiting room, or taking the same flight.

The thing is, though, that you never know where confiding in a stranger might lead. On the one hand, it might be perfectly harmless – even pleasant. On the other, it could be very dangerous. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. She’s served as a paid companion for ten years, but her employer has died. And she’s shocked to learn that she’s inherited her employer’s considerable fortune. She decides to use some of that money, and travel a bit. Her first stop will be Nice, where she has a distant relative, Lady Rosalie Tamplin. During her trip to Nice on the famous Blue Train, Katherine meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering. They fall into conversation, as people do on a train, and before long, Ruth has confided some of her personal story to Katherine. The next morning, Ruth is found murdered in her compartment. Since Katherine is possibly the last person to speak with the victim, she is a ‘person of interest,’ although not a suspect. And before she knows it, she’s drawn into a mystery. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and works with the police to find out who killed Ruth Kettering and why.

There’s an interesting case of confiding in strangers in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane has been arrested for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes, and there is solid evidence against her. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and before long, he has fallen in love with the defendant, even though they have never been introduced. When the jury cannot reach a verdict, the judge has no choice but to schedule another trial, to be held in thirty days. Lord Peter decides that he will use the time to clear Harriet’s name, so that he can marry her. First, of course, he’s going to have to meet her, and get her to cooperate with him. Harriet isn’t accustomed to sharing her private life with strangers, but in this case, it’s the right choice, as Lord Peter finds out who really killed Boyes.

Insurance representative Walter Huff finds that confiding in a stranger can be dangerous in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. In that story, he happens to be near the home of one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, and decides to stop in to see if he can get Nirdlinger to renew his policy. Nirdlinger isn’t there, but his wife, Phyllis is. She and Huff get to talking, and before long, they’ve slipped into a comfortable familiarity, although they are strangers. And it doesn’t take long for them to become involved romantically. Phyllis tells Huff that she wants to be rid of her husband; by this time, he’s so besotted that he falls in with her plan, even writing the sort of policy she’ll need to benefit as much as possible from her husband’s death. The murder is duly planned and carried out. Then it really hits Huff what he’s done. By this time, though, it’s too late, and things have already begun to spin completely out of control…

For many people, the classic example of this trope is Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train journey to visit his estranged wife, Marian. He meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s taking a journey of his own. The two fall into conversation, and Haines is happy to have a sympathetic listener. For his part, Bruno has a very dysfunctional relationship with his father, and finds Haines pleasant company. Bruno suggests that each man commit the other’s murder, so to speak. His point is that if he kills Haines’ wife, and Haines kills his father, neither will be suspected, because neither man will have a motive. Haines brushes off the idea, thinking that Bruno isn’t serious. But, as Haines finds out, Bruno is completely serious. And that pulls Haines into a dangerous trap.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal begins when Eva Wirenström-Berg discovers that her husband, Henrik, has been unfaithful. Devastated at this news, she determines to find out who this other woman is. One night, she goes to a pub, where she happens to meet Jonas Hansson, a man with his own demons and tragedies to face. The two get to talking, and it’s not long before things spiral out of control for both of them. The end result is more tragedy for a lot of the characters.

And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. In it, an unnamed art restorer happens to be visiting a Swiss monastery, with an eye to restoring some of the frescoes in the chapel. One day, he happens to meet an old man who’s living in the elder care facility on the monastery property. The old man offers to tell the art restorer a story – ‘a good one’ – if it can be recorded. The art restorer agrees and buys some tapes (this part of the story takes place in 1975). Then, the old man proceeds to tell him the story of the Franco family, who immigrated from Italy to New York City at the turn of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco started out in a shoe repair shop, and ended up opening his own shoe and shoe repair company. The family prospered, and all seemed well. Then, Ben killed a man named Luigi Lupo in a bar fight. As it happened, the victim’s father is notorious gangster Tonio Lupo. When Lupo finds out who killed his son, he visits Franco in prison, and puts a curse on his three sons, saying that they will die at the age of forty-two, the age of his own son when he was killed. At this point, the old man tells the story of the three sons, and what happened to them. This story is involved, and includes more than one sudden death. And it all comes about because of sharing a confidence with a stranger.

And yet, private as we may be, it still happens sometimes that people tell personal things to strangers. Sometimes, it can be the right choice. But other times, at least in crime fiction, it’s a big mistake…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Melissa Manchester and Stanley Schwartz.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Dorothy L. Sayers, James M. Cain, Karin Alvtegen, Patricia Highsmith

Tried to Warn You*

It’s hard for people to pay attention to everything. It’s even harder when the message is something one doesn’t want to hear. But those messages can matter greatly. And in crime fiction, those warnings can serve as very important clues. They can also provide interesting character development.

Agatha Christie uses that strategy in several of her stories. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to give her a divorce, so that she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot reluctantly agrees, and he and Captain Hastings pay a visit to Edgware. Surprisingly, their host tells them that he has already withdrawn his objection. At first it seems that the matter is settled. But later that night, Edgware is stabbed. The most likely suspect is his wife, but she says that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time, and twelve people are ready swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. As it turns out, one of the other characters gives Poirot a warning that turns out to be an important clue to the killer.

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity features insurance sales representative Walter Huff. He happens to be in Hollywoodland one day when he finds himself near the home of one of his policyholders, H.S. Nirdlinger. He decides to stop in, and see if he can get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger’s not home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff have a conversation, and Huff is soon very much attracted to her.  She does nothing to discourage him, and before long, they’re having an affair. Phyllis tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband; she wants to take out an accident policy first, so that she can inherit. Huff is so besotted with her by this time that he falls in with her plan, and even writes the policy she needs. The murder goes off as planned, but now Huff sees that he will have to do everything he can to protect Phyllis, so that he can also protect himself. Then, he meets her stepdaughter, Lola, and they form a friendship. Lola tries to warn Huff what her stepmother is like, and he gradually learns more and more about Phyllis from her. But by then, Huff’s in too deep, and things soon spin out of control…

Along similar lines, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe gets a new client in General Guy Sternwood. It seems that a book dealer named Arthur Geiger sent an extortion letter in which he referenced Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen. Now, Sternwood wants Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe agrees, but by the time he tracks the man down, Geiger’s been murdered. And Carmen is a witness, although she’s either too dazed or drugged to be able to say what happened. At first, it would seem that that solves the Sternwoods’ problem. But not long afterwards, their chauffer is found dead. Now, Marlowe finds himself drawn into the family’s web again. Interestingly enough, Sternwood himself gives Marlowe a cryptic warning about himself and his daughters:

‘‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’’

That doesn’t give Marlowe all the answers. But it is an important clue to the sort of people he’s dealing with in this case. And that plays its role in the story.

Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais introduces readers to Paris PI Aimée Leduc. In it, Leduc and her business partner, René Friant, are drawn into a murder investigation. It starts when a man named Soli Hecht hires them on behalf of a local synagogue, Temple Emanuel. He wants them to decrypt a code he gives her, and take her results by hand to a congregant named Lili Stein. By the time Leduc gets there, though, Lili Stein has been murdered. Leduc takes an interest in the case, and Inspector Mobier, who’s an old friend of her father’s, concedes that she might have useful information. So, the two agree to work together. This isn’t going to be an easy case, though, and it’s soon clear that it may be related to the past, during and immediately after the Nazis’ World War II occupation of France. One character warns/advises Leduc,

‘‘…no-one wants the past dug up.’’

And it’s true that there plenty of people in this novel who don’t want Leduc to go digging around in the past. She doesn’t give up, though, and ends up finding out the truth. It’s at a cost, though…

Sometimes, the sleuth tries to do the warning or send the message. That’s what happens, for instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life. In one plot thread, we meet Mma Holonga, who owns a successful chain of hair salons. As a wealthy and good-looking woman, she’s attracted her share of attention, and is ready to choose a husband. She’s narrowed her list to four candidates, and wants Mma Precious Ramotswe to ‘vet’ them, so that she can choose the best. It’s an unusual sort of request, but Mma Ramotswe accedes. One of these candidates is Mopedi Bobologo, a well-regarded teacher who also runs House of Hope, a home for troubled girls. On the surface, he seems very pleasant and steady, if perhaps a bit dull. But Mma Ramotswe learns that he is, in fact, very ambitious, and is likely trying to marry Mma Holonga for her money. Mma Ramotswe tells her client this, in attempt to warn her about the man. But when she does, Mma Holonga has a surprising reaction.

Warnings like that can be used in several different ways, of course, depending on the author’s purpose and the characters. However the author decides to use those warning messages, it’s probably wise for the reader to pay attention. Unless, of course, it’s a ‘red herring…’


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s My Old School.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Cara Black, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler