Category Archives: John D. MacDonald

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

And We Had to Go Our Separate Ways*

Returning After AbsencesA lot can happen to a person, even in a short time. So when someone goes away for a while and then reappears, there’s no telling what might have happening during that absence. This scenario can be really effective in a crime novel. For one thing, those questions and that speculation can make a fictional character all the more interesting. And sometimes, what happens during those absences plays a role in a present-day story.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her life included a real-life disappearance and return. She went missing for eleven days at the end of 1926, and was found staying at a hotel under an assumed name. Christie herself never published the reason for her disappearance, so there’s been a lot of speculation about it. Whatever the reason, it certainly added to her mystery.

We see that plot thread in some of her work, too. For example, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), Poirot is staying with a friend over the Christmas holiday. He gets drawn into a case of murder when Simeon Lee, who lives not very far away, is killed on Christmas Eve. There are plenty of suspects, too, as his family is gathered for the holiday. And, in classic Golden Age fashion, Lee was both wealthy and very unpleasant. One of the suspects is Lee’s son Harry, who hasn’t visited the family home in twenty years. He’s spent most of that time living in out-of-the-way places and cabling for money when he runs out. His long absence and sudden return have upset his brother Alfred, who’s always resented Harry. That thread of tension adds a layer to this novel, as does the mystery of what Harry’s been doing all these years. And the absence adds to Harry’s character.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, we meet Nora Wright, daughter of social leaders John F. and Hermione Wright. Three years before the events of the novel, she was planning to marry Jim Haight; he jilted her, though, and disappeared. Now he’s back, and to everyone’s consternation, he and Nora rekindle their relationship. Ellery Queen has been using a guest house on the Wright property as a writing retreat, so he’s on hand to see the impact that Haight’s return has on the family. Everyone hopes the relationship will end; instead, Nora and Jim marry. Then, Jim’s sister Rosemary comes for an extended visit. No-one likes her very much, but she seems ‘dug in’ to stay for a while. Then, on New Year’s Eve, she is killed by what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. For several reasons, Haight is the most likely suspect, and everyone is satisfied that he’s guilty. In fact, only Queen and Nora’s sister Pat believe there could be any other explanation. Queen looks into the matter and finds out what really happened; it turns out that Haight’s absence, and what happened during that time, play a role in the mystery.

John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye introduces readers to his sleuth, ‘salvage consultant’ Travis McGee. He’s the last hope for those who’ve been cheated out of money or property and want it returned. In this novel, McGee’s friend, dancer Chookie McCall, asks him to help one of the members of her dance troupe. Catherine Kerr has lost something and wants it back. The only problem is, she doesn’t know what ‘it’ is. She tells McGee that she got a visit from a man named Junior Allen, who had known her father. Allen ingratiated himself with her, and before long, they were a couple. Then Allen disappeared, only to return some months later, a great deal richer. He then took up with another woman, only to disappear again. Kerr is certain that Allen stole something of her father’s, and that that accounts for his wealth. But she has no idea what that something might be. In order to recover his client’s property, McGee will have to not only find Allen, but also trace what he was doing during his absence. And that turns out to be a very dangerous task.

Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed takes a slightly different perspective on being gone for a time and then coming back. Douglas Brodie has just returned from service in World War II, and is now trying to start his life again in London. Then he gets a call from an old Glasgow friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested for the murder of a young boy Rory Hutchinson, and is scheduled to be executed in four weeks. Brodie doesn’t know what he can do to help, but for the sake of his friendship with Donovan, he agrees to at least ask a few questions. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the relationship between Brodie and Donovan. They grew up together, and they saw military service together. But they haven’t seen each other in a while, and neither knows what the other’s been doing. So, although Donovan claims he’s innocent, Brodie can’t know for sure, especially at first, whether he is. Even as he’s talking to people and exploring other possibilities, he isn’t convinced his old friend was framed.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder, which takes place in the village of Tuesbury. The town is rocked by a series of murders, beginning with the local newsagent, Harold Slater. Retired milliner Blake Heatherington gets drawn into the case when Slater’s partner Steve Pensthorpe asks him to investigate. At first Heatherington demurs, saying that the police are much better equipped to do the job. But his curiosity is piqued. It’s even more so when he learns of some apparent vandalism going on at the local model village Little Tuesbury. A small cross has been painted on the door of the model newsagent’s, and the figure representing Slater has disappeared. As other murders occur, the same thing happens with their model businesses and the figures that represent them. Is this a case of Voodoo, as some whisper? Or is it something more prosaic? The closer Heatherington gets to the truth, the more danger he is in of being the next victim. Throughout this novel, there’s an interesting plot thread concerning Heathington’s friendship with Rufus Blackwood. The two grew up together, but then Blackwood left the area. He returned for early retirement ten years ago, but the two haven’t really picked up their friendship. And it’s interesting to see how Blackwood’s absence plays a role in the way they relate to each other now:

‘Rufus Blackwood is my oldest friend, living in Tuesbury, that is; and yet I know very little of him these days. We grew up together…and we went our separate ways.’

It’s actually Blackwood’s commissioning of a hat from Heatherington that gets the two talking again.

And that’s what happens when people leave, or go missing, and then return. You never know what’s really happened in their lives.

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


Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Ellery Queen, Gordon Ferris, John D. MacDonald

I Went Down to the Chelsea Drugstore*

PharmaciesYou probably visit them without even thinking about it. Perhaps you have a cold, or need a headache remedy. If you’ve been to see a doctor, you may have a prescription. Yes, I’m talking about pharmacies. Today’s larger pharmacy chains, such as Boots, Walgreen’s, PharmaChoice and Amcal, offer a lot more than medicine, too. You can get just about anything from lotions to cereal to small appliances. At the pharmacy nearest where I live, you can even get your passport ‘photo taken.

Of course, the concept of what a pharmacy is and does is different across cultures. And those ideas have changed considerably over time. But in whatever form, pharmacies play important roles in our lives – and in our crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she had a background in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. So it’s little wonder that she makes use more than once of the chemist’s and the hospital dispensary. For instance, in After the Funeral, Hercule Poirot looks into the untimely, if not unexpected, death of Richard Abernethie. When the members of Abernethie’s family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; even she asks the family to ignore what she said. But privately, all of her relatives begin to wonder whether she’s right. The wondering turns to certainty when Cora herself is murdered the next day. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this mystery is Gregory Banks, nephew-by-marriage to both Abernethie and his sister. Banks is a chemist’s assistant who, it turns out, has a questionable history. It is said that he once offered to sell a customer poison to kill her husband. And when Poirot meets Banks, he learns that the man is psychologically very fragile. Now Poirot has to decide whether that means Banks is the killer. I know, I know, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client) and of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In Michael Collins’ short story Who?, we learn about Boyd Conners, a young man whose job is making deliveries from a local drugstore. One day, he suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. He was in very good health, and not a drug user, so his mother is convinced that there’s something more to his death. She visits PI Dan Fortune to ask him to investigate. As Fortune begins to look into the case, he learns that there are a few possibilities. For one thing, there’s the victim’s romantic rival Roger Tatum. There’s also a local group of hoodlums who might have wanted him dead. As it turns out though, the actual killer is someone who isn’t even a suspect.

In the US, drugstores used to be more than just places to purchase aspirin. They used to be social gathering places. We see that, for instance, in John D. MacDonald’s short story The Homicidal Hiccup. Walter Maybree has purchased the local drugstore, and wants to keep it a safe ‘clean’ place for young people to meet, and for families to do their pharmacy shopping. Like many drugstores of the day, it’s got a counter where customers can get milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and other treats. The only problem for Maybree is local crime boss Johnny Howard. Howard and his gang run the town and extort ‘protection money’ from all of the businesses. As if the extortion weren’t enough, the gang wants to make Maybree’s drugstore a place for selling pornography. This Maybree refuses to do. Much to Howard’s surprise, other business owners in the area, who are fed up with the crime gang, stand by Maybree and help him protect his store. Desperate to keep his respect, Howard and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan. She’ll go to the drugstore disguised as a teen. As she’s sitting at the counter, she’ll use a straw to shoot poison at Maybree, killing him and getting him out of Howard’s way. Things don’t go as expected, though, when a natural human response takes over. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories will know that drugstores make several appearances in that series. They’re used as places to make telephone calls, have a meal, meet people and get an ice cream soda.

Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues introduces us to Phryne Fisher. Originally from Australia, she’s been living in London. One evening, an acquaintance, Colonel Harper, asks Phryne to visit his daughter Lydia, who now lives in Melbourne, and see whether she’s all right. It seems from her letters that she’s not in good health, and that her husband may be responsible for that. Phryne agrees and travels to Melbourne. In the course of finding out the truth about Lydia, she unearths a cocaine ring operating in the area. It’s not long before she discovers that the nexus of the ring is a pharmacy in a seedy part of town. So one night, she and her friend Bert Johnson visit the pharmacy to find out for themselves what’s going on there. She knows that she won’t learn anything from just going in well-dressed, and asking questions in an educated accent. So, she pretends to be a very different sort of woman:

‘Those pink powders for pale people,’ she finished, and held out her ten shilling note. The man nodded, and exchanged her note for a slip of pink paper, embossed with the title ‘Peterson’s pink powders for pale people’ and containing a small quantity of the requisite stuff. Phryne nodded woozily to him and found her way back to Bert.’

It turns out that that visit to the pharmacy provides an important clue.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has discovered that a local hospital has been in collusion with three pharmacists. Pharmacists sometimes receive a courtesy fee when they schedule their customers for appointments with specialists. Vianello has learned that three pharmacists have been scheduling ‘phantom patients’ in exchange for extra money. Vianello and his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, are looking into the matter when there’s a break-in at a pharmacy that adds a whole new dimension to the case.

You might not think about it much, unless you’re not feeling well or you run out of tissues. But pharmacies are an integral part of our lives, even with today’s online ordering. And they can add interesting layers to a crime story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, John D. MacDonald, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Collins, Rex Stout

I Ain’t Got Much to Lose*

Not Much to LoseIt’s not easy to investigate a murder, even for police and professional PIs, who’ve signed up to do that work and who have some training. It’s even more so for people who haven’t and don’t. Some people – at least fictional characters – investigate because they’re implicated, or because someone they care about is implicated. There are other people though, who get into investigation because they really don’t have anything else in their lives. So they don’t have much to lose, even if they get into danger.

Characters who don’t have a lot to lose sometimes take chances that others wouldn’t. And if that’s not handled well in a story, it can pull the reader out. But these characters also can bring a certain perseverance and focus to a case because they’re not risking families, successful businesses and the like. There are a lot of characters like that in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

When we first meet him in The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has very little to lose, at least from his perspective. He’s a former New York police officer who left the force after a tragic accident in which a seven-year-old girl was shot as Scudder was going after some thieves who’d killed a bartender. As the series begins, Scudder doesn’t have a home life, or even very much of a place to live. He doesn’t have a steady job, either. So he doesn’t have a lot to lose when successful business executive Cale Hanniford asks his help. Hanniford’s estranged twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has recently been murdered, and he wants to know the kind of person she’d become. The police have arrested the victim’s roommate Richard Vanderpoel, and there is a great deal of evidence against him. So Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the crime. He simply wants to know what sort of life his daughter had, and what would have led to her murder. Scudder agrees to at least ask some questions, and begins following leads. The trail leads to the past for both the victim and the alleged killer, and as Scudder looks into the matter, he finds the pattern that has led to the killing.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we meet Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served a sentence for euthanasia. He can no longer work as a doctor, so he has nothing much to lose when Pietro Auseri offers to hire him. Auseri’s son Davide has been in a deep depression for almost a year, and can’t seem to stop drinking, despite some time spent in treatment. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do that professional treatment can’t, but he agrees to take on Davide’s case. Little by little, he gets to know Davide, and learns the reason for the young man’s depression and drinking. Davide blames himself for the death of Alberta Radelli, whose body was found outside of Milan a year earlier. He says that he met her by chance and offered her a ride and a day in Florence. They had an enjoyable day, but when he prepared to return with her to Milan, she begged him to take her with him – to help her escape Milan. He refused, she threatened suicide, and not long afterwards, her body was discovered. Lamberti believes that the only way to free Davide of his demons is to find out the truth about the young woman’s death. With little to lose, that’s exactly what he sets out to do.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins also gets drawn into investigating in large part because he doesn’t have much; therefore, he has very little to lose. In Devil in a Blue Dress, we learn that he worked at a wartime factory (this series takes place just after World War II). When the war ended, the factory downsized and he became redundant. When DeWitt Albright needs someone to find a young woman named Daphne Monet, Rawlins sees no real reason not to agree. And he’s well-suited for the task. He knows Los Angeles well, and, being Black, he can ‘blend in’ in the local Black community, which is where the missing woman was last seen. This case draws Rawlins into a web of fraud and murder; it also begins to establish his reputation as someone who can find people and get things done.

Fans of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum will know that she had nothing much to lose when she got started investigating. When Plum discovered that her husband was unfaithful, she got a divorce and took a job in a department store to pay the bills. Then, the department store made cuts in its staff, and Plum was laid off. With no real alternative, Plum took a job at her cousin’s bail bond company. She was supposed to work as a file clerk – a nice ‘safe’ job – but instead, ended up as a bounty hunter. It’s not exactly the job her family dreamed of for her, but it’s certainly never dull.

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), we meet Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish mathematician and scientist. Although she grew up in Greenland, she now lives in Copenhagen. She has no close ties to anyone, and not very much to lose personally. So she’s got nothing to hold her back, so to speak, when she decides to ask questions about the death of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen. He, too, was a Greenlander, and lived in the same building as Jaspersen. One day, so the police say, he was playing on the roof of the building and had a tragic fall that killed him. Jaspersen is drawn to the roof where the accident occurred, and when she looks at it, she notices some things about the snow that aren’t consistent with an accidental fall. The trail leads back to Greenland, and as Jespersen looks into what happened there, she finds that this case is much more than a young boy who fell from a roof.

When we first meet Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor in The Guards, he’s been removed from the Garda Síochána for excessive drinking, which led to an incident involving unprofessional conduct with a speeder. Taylor has some friends, and people he knows, but no really close ties. He doesn’t have much to lose when he decides to hang out his shingle as a PI in Galway. He doesn’t have the money for a posh office or a staff, so he uses his local, Grogan’s, as an office. That’s where Anne Henderson finds him when she goes in search of someone to learn the truth about the death of her daughter Sarah. The police called it suicide, but she knows better. Taylor takes the case and ends up involved in a coverup, multiple killings and more.

Some people make the choice to become professional detectives. But for others, the choice to look into a crime (or crimes) happens because they have no real alternatives and not much to lose by investigating. These are just a few examples (I know, I know, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee). Which ones occur to you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Citizen King’s Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out). I almost chose a line from Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s Me and Bobby McGee; both songs are good matches for the topic, I think.


Filed under Giorgio Scerbanenco, Janet Evanovich, John D. MacDonald, Ken Bruen, Lawrence Block, Peter Høeg, Walter Mosley

I Never Claimed to be a Hero, And I Never Said I Was a Saint*

Non-Sleuth ProtagonistsMany crime novels are told from the point of view of the sleuth. The sleuth may or may not be a professional (i.e. police or PI), but in either case, we see the story unfolding from that vantage point.

But there are also plenty of crime stories where the protagonist, or at least the narrator, isn’t a sleuth at all. I’m not talking here of those stories where you find out what a serial killer is thinking as the novel goes on, or where the story alternates between the sleuth’s perspective and the murderer’s. Rather, I mean stories where the protagonist or narrator is a different person entirely – sometimes even a criminal.

For instance, John D. MacDonald’s short story Homicidal Hiccup takes place in the small town of Baker City, where Johnny Howard and his gang run everything. Then, Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. He wants to run a clean business without having to pay protection or sell drugs to his teen customers. After a time, several other local business owners join forces with Maybree and help to guard his store. Now Howard faces a big problem. If he allows Maybree to get away with this defiance, he’ll lose respect. And that will likely mean he’ll lose his stranglehold on the crime business in the area. So he desperately wants to get rid of Maybree. He and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan to do just that. She’ll go into the store posing as a high school student. Then, at just the right moment, she’ll use a drink straw to shoot poison at Maybree. But, as the narrator tells us, things don’t work out the way they plan. In this case, the narrator, ‘though never named, is apparently part of the crime network – someone who’s in on the rivalry and politics of the criminal underground.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank gives readers an inside look at the plans for a major bank heist. Mike Daniels is a professional thief who, with his teammates, decides to pull off the robbery of a lifetime from London’s City Savings Deposit bank. The bank is well constructed and well guarded, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, the team will need expert help. This they get from Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect who’s become desperate for a source of income. Booker is driving a night cab when he meets Daniels for the first time, and before too long, Daniels convinces him to join forces with the thieves. The group puts together a foolproof plan, and at first everything goes smoothly. Then a sudden storm comes up unexpectedly and changes everything for the robbers. This novel is told in the third person, but not from the point of view of the police or of bank officials. Rather, it’s told from the viewpoints of Daniels and Booker. This choice allows the reader to see the intricacies of planning such a robbery. It also gives the reader a fuller and even somewhat sympathetic picture of a professional thief’s life.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to retired school principal Thea Farmer. Her original plan was to have a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, but poor financial decisions have meant that she’s had to give up that perfect home. She’s been forced to settle for the house next door, a house she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, she soon learns that her dream home has been bought and that new people will be moving in. They are Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and right from the beginning, Thea doesn’t like them. In fact, she calls them ‘the invaders.’ When Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with the couple, Thea is prepared to dislike her heartily as well, but slowly she finds herself developing a kind of bond with the girl. That’s especially true when she discovers that Kim is a very promising young writer. Then Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Since no actual harm has come to the child, the police aren’t inclined to do anything about it, so Thea works out her own plan for dealing wth the situation. Thea isn’t a professional sleuth; she’s really not a sleuth at all. But we see the events of the story through her eyes, and that gives an interesting perspective on Frank, Ellice and Kim, as well as a fascinating look at how Thea sees herself.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Underworld trilogy (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence) features a different kind of protagonist also. Callum MacLean is a hitman who works for Glasgow crime bosses. He looks at his profession the way most people look at theirs. It’s what he does for a living and he takes pride in doing it well. In fact, although he walks a very thin line at times, given the volatile nature of the underworld, he manages to stay alive and even succeed. His reputation is a good one. The stories are told partly from his point of view, and partly from the points of view of others involved in the underworld. While Mackay doesn’t gloss over what MacLean does, nor what the Glasgow underworld is like, he still shows these people as humans.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. This novel tells the story of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. At first the police suspect that someone in her family may have killed her, as is so often the case. But then, not very long afterwards, another young girl Kelly McIvor is also found dead. Like Angela’s body, Kelly’s is found with a scarf around her neck and head. Now it looks as though a multiple murderer (the press dubs the killer the Sydney Strangler) is at work. Neither murder is solved, and since there are no similar murders after them, the press and therefore the public gradually lose interest. And that’s just fine by Jane Tait, Angela’s cousin. She and her brother Mick and their parents have had to live with the aftermath of Angela’s death, and for her, it’s just as well people don’t really ask her about it any more. That is, until journalist Erin Fury decides to make a documentary about the effect of murders on the family left behind. Reluctantly, and mostly because her daughter Jess wants her to, Jane decides to talk to Erin. Through her eyes, as well as those of some other family members, we learn the truth about what really happened to Angela and to Kelly. None of these people is an official investigator, and it’s hard to say that any of them is a protagonist for whom we’re supposed to cheer. That choice allows James to slowly reveal what happened and what went on behind the news stories and police reports of the day.

And that’s what makes such protagonists/narrators interesting. They can show readers what a case is like from a very different perspective. And it’s an innovative approach to telling a crime story. Which stories like this have stayed with you?

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


Filed under John D. MacDonald, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan, Wendy James