Category Archives: James M. Cain

I Don’t Have the Power Now*

Most of us like to think we have some control over our lives. Even though we may know intellectually that we can’t always control what happens, we want to feel that we can. That’s part of why it can be so unsettling when we decide to share our lives with someone. In doing that, we give up some of the control we’ve had over our what we do.

Feeling as though you’re losing control (or no longer have it) can be scary, and in a story, it can cause tension and suspense. So, it’s no surprise that it happens as often as it does in crime fiction. It can add a lot to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), for instance, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow is comfortably married, with two children. His wife, Gerda, looks up to him and is completely devoted to him. In many ways, he likes it that way, because he likes to feel in control. But in other ways, it makes him restless. Things are different with his mistress, Henrietta Savernake. She’s a successful sculptor who has her own independent life, and is not at all under Christow’s thumb. He likes the intellectual give-and-take with her, but he doesn’t like feeling that he has little control over what she thinks. One weekend, the Christows are invited to visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. The Angkatells have also invited a group of relatives (including Henrietta, who’s a cousin). On the Sunday, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is invited for lunch that day and arrives just after the murder. At first, the case seems clear-cut. But things don’t turn out to be as simple as it seems on the surface…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity introduces readers to insurance agent Warren Huff. One day, he happens to be in Hollywoodland, not far from the home of one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. He stops by, hoping to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t hime, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff strike up a conversation, and it’s not long before Huff is smitten. Phyllis does nothing to discourage him, either, and they soon begin an affair. She tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband, and that she has a plan to profit by his death. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he goes along with her plan, even writing the double-indemnity insurance policy that Phyllis wants. The murder is duly carried out, but Huff soon becomes aware of how very little control he has over what’s happened, and what happens next. That recognition is extremely unsettling, and as things continue to spin out of control for Huff, it adds to the tension.

That sense of losing control can also happen when we feel our bodies are beginning to betray us, and it can be frightening. For instance, Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces readers to political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn. The main plot of the story is the murder of her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. As a way of coping with her grief, Joanne decides to write a biography of Andy’s life. In the process of getting the information she needs to do that, she gets closer and closer to the truth about his death. In the meantime, something troubling is happening. Joanne seems to be getting ill and losing weight for no apparent reason. As the novel goes on, things continue to get worse, and the doctors can’t tell her exactly what’s wrong. It’s not spoiling the story to say that we find out what’s going on in the end; but until we do, it’s quite unnerving.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind also explores that feeling of loss of control. Dr. Jennifer White is a successful Chicago-based orthopaedic surgeon. She is diagnosed with early-onset dementia, so she has to leave her position at the age of sixty-five. As the novel opens, she lives with a caregiver, Magdalena. She still functions well on some days, but she is slowly losing control over her mind. It’s truly scary for her, as you can imagine. On some days, she’s simply a retired surgeon. On others, she doesn’t know who that person is in her house, or who it is (her children) who visit her, and that unsettles her. Then, the woman who lives next door is murdered. The two have known each other for years, so Detective Luton, who’s investigating the murder, suspects that Jennifer may know more than she can say about the killing. There’s other evidence, too, that implicates her. But Luton isn’t going to have much time to try to get to the truth before her witness mentally slips away completely.

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney is a Bangkok-based PI. She runs her own business and is very independent. When we first meet her, in Behind the Night Bazaar, she doesn’t have a partner, as she would rather live life on her own terms and make her own decisions about the business. She likes having that control. So, when she meets Rajiv Patel, in The Half-Child, she’s fully prepared to keep him at the same distance as she’s kept other men in her life. But she finds herself getting closer to him than she’d planned. In the end, they become intimate partners as well as business partners. On the one hand, Patel is smart, and has much to contribute to the business. And the two care deeply about each other. On the other, it’s very unsettling for Keeney at times. She doesn’t get to make all of the decisions any more, and she doesn’t have control that she used to have. For her, being involved with Patel is worth the uneasiness, but that doesn’t mean she never feels it.

And that’s not surprising. Most people don’t like to feel that sense of loss of control Little wonder that it can add so much to a crime story.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, James M. Cain

What’s in My Head*

Most crime novels involve at least a little violence. After all, a lot of them are about (at least one) murder. For some novels, though, the focus of the tension is as much on the psychological as it is on anything else, perhaps more. And, for many readers, that sort of suspense has powerful impact – even more than does physical violence.

The focus on psychology (as opposed to violence) for tension has been around for a long time. For example, Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s The Yellow Wallpaper, from 1892, details a woman’s slow descent into madness over the course of a summer. There isn’t really violence in this story, but it’s psychologically suspenseful.

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity also has more of a focus on the psychological than it does on violence. In it, insurance agent Walter Huff happens to be in the area where a client of his, H.S. Nirdlinger, lives. He stops by in the hopes of getting Nirdlinger to renew his policy. When Huff gets to the house, he finds that Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. The two get to talking, and Huff is soon smitten. Phyllis does nothing to discourage him, and it’s not long before the two are involved romantically. Phyllis has a plan to kill her husband; in fact, she even knows the sort of insurance policy she’ll need to carry out her plan. By the time she shares that plan with Huff, he’s so besotted that he goes along with it, even writing the plan that Phyllis needs. The murder is duly carried out, but Huff soon sees that that’s only the beginning of his troubles. In the story, the psychology involved causes at least as much tension as does the actual murder.

Beryl Bainbridhe’s Harriet Said also uses psychology to build suspense. It’s the story of a thirteen-year-old unnamed narrator who’s waiting for her fourteen-year-old friend, Harriet, to return to England from a trip to Wales. Feeling a little restless, the narrator strikes up a friendship with a middle-aged man named Peter Biggs. She starts to feel the hormone rush that comes from attraction, but she doesn’t do anything about it, as she wants to wait for Harriet’s return. And, in any case, Biggs is both older and married. When Harriet comes back, she says that she doesn’t want her friend to be overly emotional about Biggs. Rather, she wants this to be an objective observation. So, her plan is to spy on Biggs, and then ‘humble’ him. The two teenagers put their plan into motion. But, when they see something they were not intended to see, everything changes, and takes a much more sinister turn…

There’s also a lot psychological tension in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In it, Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen. Someone has been sending out vicious anonymous letters, and they’ve wreaked so much havoc that two people have committed suicide. Another has had a complete mental breakdown. The local police haven’t got very far in finding out who’s responsible, so it’s hoped that Van der Valk can discover the truth. Little by little, he gets to know the people of Zwinderen; and, as he does, he finds that many of them are really terrified of the letters. It’s a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and everyone sits in judgement. The hold that the letter writer has over the residents is much more psychological than it is anything else.

That’s also the case with A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. Todd Gilbert and Jodi Brett are a successful Chicago couple who’ve been together twenty years, although they’ve never legally married. He’s a developer; she’s a psychotherapist. Everything begins to fray at the edges for them when Todd has an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. This isn’t the first time that Todd has strayed, but this time, it’s different. Natasha discovers that she’s pregnant, and she decides she wants to marry and have a family. Todd tells her (and himself) that this is what he wants, too. His lawyer convinces him to serve Jodi with a formal eviction notice that will require her to leave their home. Jodi’s lawyer tells her that Illinois doesn’t have a provision for common-law marriages. This means that Joid has no legal claim on the house. With her options getting more and more limited, Jodi becomes more and more withdrawn. Then, Todd is killed in a drive-by shooting. On the surface, it looks as though he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, so to speak. But it turns out that someone hired the killers. And now, the police have to go through a number of suspects to find out who’s responsible.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry also has very little focus on violence, and much more on psychology. Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel from Scotland to his native Victoria with their nine-week old son, Noah. The flight itself is a nightmare, but they finally land in Melbourne. During the long drive from the airport to their destination, they suffer every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their son. There’s a massive search for baby Noah, and all sorts of public and private groups join in. At first, there’s quite a lot of sympathy for the couple. Then, a few questions start to be raised. Little by little, suspicion starts to fall on, especially, Joanna. As she and Alistair deal with the media, the police, and Alistair’s daughter, Chloe, we learn the truth about Noah.

And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. That novel takes place mostly at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant – the kind where you have to call in months ahead of time to (hopefully) get a table. Two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s brother Serge and his wife, Babette, meet at the restaurant for dinner. As the dinner proceeds, course by course, we slowly learn more about these two couples. We also learn of a terrible secret they are keeping. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, also fifteen, are guilty of an awful crime. In fact, that’s the reason the couples are dining together. They’re trying to work out what they’re going to do, now that the police are investigating. While we do learn what the crime is (and it’s violent), the real focus of the novel is the dysfunction in the families, and the psychology involved.

And, very often, that psychology has at least as much capacity for drawing the reader in as does violence – perhaps even more (Right, fans of Shirley Jackson’s work?). When it’s well-written, a psychological novel can be tense and suspenseful. Which ones have you liked best?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Beryl Bainbridge, Charlotte Perkins Stetson, Helen Fitzgerald, Herman Koch, James M. Cain, Nicolas Freeling, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson

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.

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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.

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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.

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