Category Archives: John D. MacDonald

I’ll Take Your Part*

Classic and Golden Age crime fiction includes quite a few ‘gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. And it can be expensive to hire them. Poirot even admits a few times that his work does not come cheaply. Fans know that he is also sometimes compelled to investigate by compassion, but still,  hiring him can be costly.

And, yet, it’s not just the wealthy who are in need of an advocate. Sometimes those without any money get themselves into legal trouble or need a PI. Crime fiction also includes plenty of characters who help those without a lot of money or ‘clout – even if they’re not required to take such cases pro bono. And those stories (and characters) can be at least as compelling.

One of the most famous such characters is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ whose specialty is helping those who have had money or property stolen from them and have nowhere else to turn. McGee’s needs are relatively few, and he’s not greedy. His arrangement with his clients is usually that he will work on their behalf to get back what was taken from them. In return, he claims half of the value of that money or property. On the one hand, it sounds like a lot. On the other, his clients know that they have no chance of recovering their property without help. McGee is straightforward, good at what he does, and willing to help even destitute and desperate clients. So, in general, the arrangement works well for all. It helps, too, that he has a compassionate side, and feels a need to get justice for those who have no other chance of getting it.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has also been known to work on behalf of those who have nowhere else to turn. For example, in Eight Million Ways to Die, he meets Kim Dakkinen, a sex worker who wants to get out of the business, and free of her pimp. She’s going to need help, and for that, she turns to Scudder. He agrees to do what he can to protect her, but it isn’t successful. Kim is found brutally murdered, and Scudder feels a sense of responsibility. His first thought is that Kim’s pimp, an enigmatic man who calls himself Chance, is the killer. But Chance claims to be innocent, and, in fact, hires Scudder to find out who the real killer is. And it turns out that Kim’s death is more than a case of punishing a sex worker for trying to leave the business.

In Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, we are introduced to Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin. He works for a seedy firm, and does most of his business representing sex workers, drug users, and down-and-out people who don’t have much hope of getting legal help. In the process, he’s become familiar with the city’s underside, and that turns out to be useful to him. For instance, in I Remember You, Devlin becomes suspicious when a fire destroys the shop of tattooist Finar Rogan. Then, a bomb goes off under Rogan’s car. It’s clear now that someone wants to kill him. As Devlin himself thinks:
 

‘He knew the folly of becoming too closely involved with his clients and their misfortunes, yet it was a mistake he could never help making.’
 

It’s that fascination for his clients, and his determination to do the right thing, that makes Devlin a formidable ally.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski has a strong social conscience. More than once, that means that she works on behalf of those who can’t pay (or who can only pay a little). For instance, in Burn Marks, a visit from Warshawski’s Aunt Elena alerts her to a fire that took place in the seedy SRO hotel where her aunt lives. It’s a run-down place, occupied mostly by people who can’t afford anything better. Although Aunt Elena’s unexpected visit triggers Warshawski’s interest in the case, it’s her concern for the well-being of the people who live in the building that keeps her involved. And that interest turns out to be dangerous, as she goes up against well-placed developers and ‘backroom politics.’

Several of John Grisham’s protagonists take on the cases of those who have nowhere else to turn. In The Client, for instance, we are introduced to Memphis attorney Regina ‘Reggie’ Love. She gets involved in a very dangerous case when she meets eleven-year-old Mark Sway. He and his brother Ricky were sneaking a cigarette when they witnessed a suicide. That death is connected to another notorious murder and a missing body. Ricky was deeply affected and is in a sort of catatonic state. Mark is smart enough to know that the two boys are in real trouble. So, when he meets Love, he wants her help. The Sway boys and their mother can’t afford a lawyer, but Love wants to keep the boys safe, so she charges the family one dollar for her services. By getting involved in this case, Love goes up against some very dangerous people, including Mafia thugs and highly-placed people who are connected to the Mob. The Sway family fares little better, since the Mafia is convinced that Mark knows more than he is saying. And Love fears that the FBI won’t be of much help protecting the family. So, she will have to do what she can to keep the family as safe as possible. Fans of Grisham’s Gray Mountain will know that it also features a lawyer who works for those who don’t have much of a voice of their own.

Of course, lawyers, PIs and other professional investigators have to earn a living. But that doesn’t always mean that they don’t work on behalf of those who are ‘down and out.’ And it’s interesting to see how this theme comes through in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, John D. MacDonald, John Grisham, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Sara Paretsky

I’ve Always Listened to Your Point of View*

Humans are, by nature, social animals. That makes sense, too, when you consider how we depend on each other for so much – sometimes even for survival. Because people depend on one another, there’s often pressure for group consensus. That’s part of why, for instance, we ask for others’ opinions about things (e.g. ‘Which outfit should I wear,’ or ‘What do you think? A Honda or a Nissan?’). For many people, it’s important to have group approval, so looking for a consensus is logical.

We see that effort to get consensus in a lot of fiction, including crime fiction. And that shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s such a human quality. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode. She owns and heads Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. She and her business partner and colleague, Miss Chadwick, have built the place into one of the most sought-after schools in England. Everything changes, though, when the new Games Mistress, Grace Springer, is shot one night. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another death. Now the school is at real risk of having to close. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, knows of Hercule Poirot through her mother, and visits him to ask his help. And, in the end, he finds out the truth behind the events at the school. In one sub-plot, Miss Bulstrode is considering whether it’s time to retire and name a successor. She has a few possibilities in mind, and wants to get input on her decision. So, she asks various people what they think She’s an independent, strong-minded person, but she still wants some sort of consensus on the school’s future.

John D. MacDonald’s short story, The Case of the Homicidal Hiccup takes place in the small town of Baker City, where Johnny Howard and his gang run everything. Nothing happens without their consent, and every business pays for ‘protection.’ Then, Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. He wants to run a ‘clean’ business, so he refuses to have anything to do with Howard or his associates. At first, no-one really believes that Maybree will be able to stand up to Howard, but he does. Soon, other business owners feel the proverbial wind shifting, and join Maybree in refusing to work with Howard. Soon, the consensus against the crime boss builds. Now, Howard is afraid that he’ll lose respect and support in the underworld if he doesn’t do something about Maybree. So, he and his girlfriend, Bonny Gerlacher, devise a plan to kill Maybree. Everything is set up, and Gerlacher goes to the drugstore to carry out her part of the plan. But things don’t go quite the way they were intended…

Many times, when police teams are working on cases, they try to achieve consensus on what probably happened, and on the direction their investigations should take. We see that, for instance, in Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss stories. We also see it in Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, the first of her Anna Travis novels. In the story, Travis, who’s recently been promoted to Detective Sergeant (DS), joins the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. The team is facing a baffling case, too. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been found, and in several ways, her murder fits the profile of a group of six other women who’ve also been killed in exactly the same manner. But there’s one major difference: the other victims were older prostitutes. Melissa was young and not a prostitute. Now, the team has to establish whether Melissa’s murder was the work of the same killer, or there’s a different, perhaps ‘copycat’ killer. Among many other plot threads in the novel, this one includes the thread of establishing what the police really think happened. And that requires trying to find out what everyone thinks, and establish a consensus and a plan for moving forward.

One plot thread of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels concerns four children growing up in a small Welsh town in the early 1960s. These four children, Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards, have very little in common. But it’s a small town, so the children tend to spend a lot of time together, especially in the summer, when there’s no school. This particular summer, the children learn about some dark secrets that some people in the town are keeping. And they stumble on some truths that people would much rather keep hidden. Because they’re so different, the young people don’t always agree. But, they only really have each other. So, there are several scenes where they try to sift out all of the opinions and get some sort of agreement.

In collectivist cultures, group consensus, and having one’s opinion supported by the group, are very important. We see that, for instance, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, are taking some time off at Krabi. They’re both very much upset when they learn of the death of Chanida Manakit, also known as Miss Pla. The victim actually led a tour that Keeney and Patel took, so they have a special interest in finding out what happened to her. The official police report is that she drowned, but Keeney doesn’t think that’s likely, since Miss Pla was an expert swimmer. And, as it turns out, she’s right. As they work through the case, Keeney and Patel learn that Miss Pla worked with an environmental group. Her task was to attend village meetings with a development company called Apex Enterprises, and articulate the villagers’ concerns about Apex’s development plans. The company has determined that getting support and positive opinions from the villages was the best way to go ahead with their plans. What’s more, Thai law requires the consent of villages for development. So, Miss Pla was involved in helping to build, or at least assess, consensus. And that played a role in her death.

Most people want the support of others for what they do and think; some need it more than others. And it’s interesting to see how that process and human need work in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Blue Morning, Blue Day.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Helene Tursten, John D. MacDonald

We Pay Our Taxes Just Like They Say*

A lot of us grumble about paying taxes. I know I do, at times. But taxes fund our infrastructure, among many other things. And I’d argue that most of us like it when roads and bridges are maintained, letters and parcels delivered, fires put out, and so on.

But there’s another reason to pay one’s taxes. It’s illegal not to do so. And national taxing authorities do not take kindly to tax evasion. That’s how Al Capone was eventually brought down, as you’ll no doubt know (he was convicted of tax evasion on 17 October, 1931). Even in crime fiction, people get in a lot of trouble when they don’t pay taxes.

For example, in James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much, we are introduced to a down-and-out farmer named Jack Macdonald. He’s just lost his property due to non-payment of taxes, and has to start over. He begins working for his friend, Smuts Milligan, who owns a local store. Milligan wants to expand his business into a roadhouse and dance hall, and Macdonald works with him to put his plans in motion. The business doesn’t go as planned, though, and both Milligan and Macdonald become desperate for money.  And financial desperation is, as we all know, is one of the surest ways to real trouble. In this case, it leads to brutal murder. This novel may not be for the faint of heart, but it shows clearly what can happen when a little money trouble leads to not paying taxes.

David Dodge’s Death and Taxes is the story of George MacLeod, a successful San Francisco accountant. A major part of the reason he’s successful is that he’s very good at finding tax loopholes for his clients. He is quite creative at finding ways to save them money, but at the same time not raise too many ‘red flags’ for anyone who might be auditing either his business or his clients’ tax returns. One day, he gets a new client, Marian Wolff, who wants him to help her resolve a difficult tax situation. He’s been offered a very large fee if he helps her avoid charges of tax evasion, and get a tax refund, even though she hasn’t filed tax paperwork recently. It doesn’t make anything easier that Marian’s father, Harald Wolff, is a wealthy bootlegger who’s linked up with all sorts of dubious people. MacLeod’s got his work cut out for him, as the saying goes, so he asks his business partner, James ‘Whit’ Whitney, to come back early from a trip to Santa Cruz, and help with this client’s case. By the time Whit returns, though, it’s too late. MacLeod’s been shot. Now, Whit’s got to finish Marian Wolff’s tax return, and find out who killed his partner, if he’s going to stay alive himself.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins knows all too well about paying taxes. In A Red Death, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter states that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes, and will go to prison if he doesn’t pay. Rawlins knows that he can’t pay that much money, and starts mentally planning for a term of imprisonment. Then, he gets a reprieve from FBI agent Daryll Craxton. It seems that the FBI has targeted a suspected communist named Chaim Weitzman (this novel takes place in the early 1950’s during the McCarthy Era in the US). Craxton tells Rawlins that if he helps bring Weitzman down, Craxton can make his tax troubles go away. Rawlins sees no other option, so he agrees to the plan. It turns out that Weitzman volunteers at a local church, so Rawlins gets involved with the church, too, in order to get close to his quarry. Then, two murders occur there, and Rawlins is framed for them. Now, he has to find out who the real killer is and clear his own name. To add to this, he’s gotten to know Weitzman, and finds that he likes the man. So, he also has to walk a fine line between keeping his new friend safe, and keeping his commitment to the FBI.

There’s also Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered, the first of her Hilary Tamar series. Tamar is a former Oxford don who still mentors former student Timothy Shepherd, who’s become a London attorney. In this novel, one of Shepherd’s lawyer friends, Julia Larwood, is facing a great deal of trouble because she owes a lot of money in back taxes. So, in part to ease the stress of dealing with that problem, she decides to take an Art Lovers holiday and tour in Venice. It’s supposed to be a chance to relax, enjoy the time in Venice, and meet a young and willing man for a fling. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Larwood ends up being accused of the murder of Ned Watson, who was also on the trip, and whom she managed to seduce. There’s plenty of evidence against her, but she claims she’s innocent. Her friends work to clear her name, and find out who really killed Watson. In an interesting plot twist, it turns out that Watson worked for Inland Revenue (now HM Revenue and Customs). And that goes to show that life isn’t any easier for tax agency employees than it is for the rest of us taxpayers…  (I know, fans of The Sirens Sang of Murder. Taxes are a big part of that novel, too.).

And then there’s John D. MacDonald’s Pale Gray For Guilt. ‘Salvage Consultant’ Travis McGee discovers that an old football friend, Tush Bannon, is being pressured heavily to sell his small marina/motel business in order to pave the way for a large land development scheme. Bannon resists, but his opponents do everything possible (including a lot that’s at the very least unscrupulous) to get him to change his mind. Then, Bannon is found dead of an apparent suicide. McGee doesn’t think his former friend killed himself, and looks into the matter on behalf of Bannon’s widow, Jan, and their children. The trail leads to land speculator Preston LaFrance, and high-powered businessman Gary Santo. These are men who are thoroughly familiar with all of the ways to evade taxes and shelter their money. And they are ruthless. But McGee has his economist friend Meyer on his side. And together, they create their own financial scheme to ‘sting’ their opponents. Among other things, this novel shows just how people go about trying to duck their tax responsibilities.

But that’s never a good idea. Tax agencies are relentless, and they do not appreciate being bilked. And that tension can make for a solid story line.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from April Wine’s Money Talks.

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Filed under David Dodge, James Ross, John D. MacDonald, Sarah Caudwell, Walter Mosley

I Know I’ll Never be Forgiven*

Everyone makes mistakes, and plenty of people do things they shouldn’t do. That’s part of being human, really. And often, those mistakes – those ‘sins’ if you want to call it that – are forgiven. You pay that speeding ticket, and watch your driving, and you’re forgiven. You pay the overdraft fee on your bank account, and don’t let it happen too often, and you’re all right.

But every profession has certain ‘sins’ that aren’t forgiven. For instance, responsible news journalists report the truth and only the truth. That profession doesn’t easily forgive a person who makes up news stories, or who reports something that isn’t true.

Those ‘unforgiveable sins’ can make interesting contexts or plots for crime fiction. They can create a motive for murder, add character development, move a plot along, and build suspense. They also do happen in real life, and this can add to a story as well.

For instance, in the world of banking and finance, embezzlement is unforgiveable. People caught doing so are often ‘blacklisted’ and not able to work again within the field. It’s a serious enough sort of crime that those committing it will sometimes do whatever it takes to avoid getting caught – at least in fiction. In John D. MacDonald’s Nightmare in Pink, for instance, Travis McGee is drawn into a dangerous case involving embezzlement when an old military friend, Mike Gibson, asks for his help. Gibson’s younger sister, Nina, has just lost her fiancé, Howard Plummer. On the surface of it, Plummer’s murder looks like a mugging gone wrong. But she suspects otherwise. Plummer worked for an investment company called Armister-Hawes, and had begun to suspect that there were irregularities in some things happening at the company, including embezzlement. And, as McGee finds out, there are some well-connected people at the company who do not want him to find out the truth.

In the field of academia, one of the ‘unforgiveable sins’ is plagiarism. Presenting someone else’s work as one’s one can constitute grounds for failing a course, and later, for losing (or not getting) a job. And once word gets around that it’s happened, it usually means that the guilty party is unlikely to get another job, a speaking invitation, or a publishing contract. Plagiarism is part of the plot of Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret. In the novel, sessional lecturer Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig makes ends meet by teaching courses as needed for Grant McEwan University, in Edmonton. Her friend, Denise Wolff, asks her to work on an alumni event to coincide with the University of Alberta’s Homecoming (Craig got her M.A. at that institution). Craig agrees, and the planning begins. Then, Wolff tells her a disturbing piece of news. A new novel by Margaret Ahlers is about to be published. What’s unsettling about this is that Craig did her M.A. thesis on Ahlers, and knows for a fact that the author has been gone for years. And it’s very, very unlikely that an unpublished manuscript would have turned up after all this time. If it’s not a genuine Ahlers novel, then someone is a plagiarist. All of this brings up a mystery that Craig was involved when she was working on her thesis; that mystery ties into the present-day mystery, and puts Craig in a great deal of danger.

In the world of sport, one of those ‘unpardonable sins’ is fixing games or matches. It can be very tempting, though, especially if a lot of money is involved. Just ask rugby player Mark Stevens, whom we meet in John Daniell’s The Fixer. He’s a former star of New Zealand’s legendary All-Blacks team, who’s heading towards the end of his career. Now, he plays for a French professional team, and doing well enough. Everything changes when he meets Rachel da Silva, who works for a Brazilian magazine. She’s been sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, and wants to interview Stevens. He’s happy to do the interview, and before long, the two are working together on the article. Soon, da Silva tells Stevens about a friend of hers named Philip, who’s made a lot of money betting on rugby. And it’s not long before Philip’s very generous gifts, and da Silva’s very personal attention, draw Stevens into a web of providing ‘inside information,’ so that Philip can make even more money. That’s one thing, but then Stevens discovers that what Philip really wants is for him to fix matches. Now, Stevens faces a serious dilemma. He’s as opposed to fixing matches as any real athlete, or fan of sport, is. On the other hand, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. And there will be real danger for him if he doesn’t do as he’s asked.

The police are entrusted with a great deal of power and authority. Abuse of that power is grounds for, at the very least, disciplinary action. It can be grounds for much more, including termination or even imprisonment. There are many novels that feature corrupt police and those who try to bring them to justice. One of those is David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which introduces Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. He’s been away from Perth for a few years, but returns when he hears about the murder of an old friend, Ruby Devine. He starts asking questions about the death, but soon runs into a proverbial wall of silence. One reason is that he called a Royal Commission hearing on corruption in the police department. That alone makes him a ‘dead man walking.’ What’s more, the police who are the target of this investigation – a group called ‘the purple circle’ – are powerful. No-one wants to run afoul of them. So, Swann gets very little help. Even so, he finds out the truth about his friend’s murder, and about its connection to the ‘purple circle.’

Nurses work with sometimes very vulnerable people. So, they’re held to what you might call a higher standard when it comes to caring for their charges. For a nurse, causing harm to a patient is a very serious matter. Even if it’s unintentional, it can get the nurse fired. Neglect or intentional harm is an even more serious ‘sin.’ We see how that plays out in Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy.  This novel tells the story of Sally Narelle ‘Snow’ Delaney. As the story begins, she’s in prison (for reasons which are revealed in the novel). In one plot thread, she begins to write letters to New South Wales journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett. Her purpose is to set the record straight about some things he’s written. Through those letters, we learn a great deal about Snow’s childhood, her training as a nurse, and the experiences she’s had in that profession. We also learn about the events that led to her imprisonment. As the story unfolds, we get an ‘inside look’ at a system that’s supposed to protect the most vulnerable, and about what happens when it doesn’t.

Each profession has its standards, and when members violate those standards, the consequences can be especially severe. Among other things, there’s a sense of, ‘you’re supposed to know better, so it’s doubly wrong when you break this rule.’ These are only a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Echo and the Bunnymen’s Forgiven.

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Filed under Caroline Overington, David Whish-Wilson, Janice MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, John Daniell

It’s the Spirit of the Underdog*

For a lot of people, there’s just something about the ‘underdog.’ You know the sort of character I mean. Outgunned, as the saying goes, but not willing to give up the fight. Sometimes we cheer for the underdog because we want a fair fight; we want everyone to have a sporting chance. Other times, it’s because the underdog happens to be right, and we want right to prevail. There are other reasons, too, that people seem to love underdogs.

That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is anywhere else. And having a character in the role of underdog can add a layer of character development. It can also invite readers to invest themselves in a story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. Her father has recently died, leaving her with practically nothing. Still, she’s young and somewhat adventurous. One day, she happens to witness a tragic death at an underground station when an unknown man falls under an oncoming train. Naturally, she’s upset at the death, but she gets curious about a piece of paper that falls from among the dead man’s possessions. After a short time, she works out that the writing on the paper refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. Impulsively, she books passage on the ship, and is soon drawn into a web of international intrigue, stolen jewels, and murder. She’s up against considerable danger and a powerful enemy. But, although she’s far from perfect, she does have appeal. And part of that comes from the fact that she’s the underdog.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee knows all too well what it’s like to work with underdogs. In fact, he prefers them. McGee is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ based in Lauderdale, Florida. He works with people who’ve been robbed and need to get their property back. They don’t have anywhere else to turn, and they don’t generally have money to spend on expensive PIs. McGee doesn’t charge a fee per se. Instead, he takes half of whatever he recovers for his clients. And for those down-and-out clients, it’s a bargain at twice the price, as the saying goes. And McGee is scrupulous about letting his clients know his terms before he goes to work for them. He has a soft spot for those who’ve been ‘taken’ by the corrupt, the dishonest, and the powerful. And that adds a layer to his character. It also invites readers to invest themselves in what happens to his clients.

The same might be said of the clients we meet in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series. Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is finding money that people want to keep hidden. She works for Chow Tung, who owns a Hong Kong based company that recovers stolen money. This company’s clients have been swindled, often of large amounts of money, and are desperate to get their money back. Most have no other options. And, much of the time, those who’ve stolen the money are well-heeled, well-protected, and formidable opponents. So, Lee is quite familiar with taking the underdog’s side against a strong adversary. But, she’s no slouch herself…

Fans of C.J.Box’s Joe Pickett will know that he’s often a sort of underdog. Pickett is a Wyoming game warden who often goes up against dangerous and powerful opponents. He does have the force of law on his side, but he’s also learned the law can be for sale. So, he sometimes finds himself very much on his own, going against wealthy developers, well-armed drugs and animal traffickers, and so on. His status as the underdog arguably adds to his character, and invites readers to care what happens to him, especially readers who don’t care much for big business and corruption.

Fans of legal mysteries and courtroom thrillers can tell you that the ‘underdog lawyer’ is a very popular plot point in such stories. There are lots of examples; I’ll just share two. I know you can offer lots more examples than I could.

Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed isn’t really, strictly speaking, a legal novel. But it does have an important legal dimension to it. Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan has been arrested and convicted for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson. He’s scheduled to be executed in a matter of weeks. But he claims he’s innocent, and asks his former friend Douglas Brodie to try to help clear his name (Brodie is a former police officer who’s now trying to start a career in journalism). Brodie’s not sure what he can do, but he travels from London, where he’s been living, to Glasgow to see if he can help. That’s when he meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She lost her court case, but is still convinced her client was framed, and is working to appeal his conviction. In this novel, she’s very much the underdog. For one thing, the prosecuting attorneys are skilled and experienced. Sam’s got the skills, but not a lot of experience. For another thing, she’s a woman in what is very much a man’s world (the novel takes place in 1947). What’s more, once she and Brodie find out who’s really responsible for Rory’s murder, they learn that they’re up against money and power. The underdog status adds tension to the plot as the two try to save Donovan.

And then there’s Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). Italian immigrant Fabrizio Collini has lived peacefully in his adopted Germany for decades. Then one day, he abruptly travels to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, where he finds, shoots, and kills Jean-Baptiste Meyer. He’s promptly arrested and taken into custody, where he says almost nothing. German law requires that all defendants be represented by an attorney, but Collini doesn’t have one. So, Caspar Leinen, a newly-fledged lawyer who’s on stand-by duty for legal aid, takes the case. To Leinen’s frustration, Collini doesn’t try to defend himself. He admits to the shooting, but gives no motive. Leinen does his best, though, to prepare for the trial; and in this case, he’s the underdog. The prosecution has the confession, witness testimony, the weapon, and more. The only thing they don’t have is motive. Nor do they have any evidence that Collini is deranged or otherwise a threat. If he’s going to win his case, Leinen will have to go back to the past to find out the truth behind this murder.

There are plenty of other novels that feature underdogs. And that plot point can add a great deal to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Europe’s Spirit of the Underdog.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gordon Ferris, Ian Hamilton, John D. MacDonald