Category Archives: Jussi Adler-Olsen

Unknown Enemy*

There are a number of ways to build tension and suspense in a crime novel. And that suspense is an important part of keeping the novel engaging for readers. One of the approaches crime writers sometimes use is to include what you might call an unknown enemy.

I’m not talking here of the evil villain out to take over the world. Rather, I mean situations where a character is targeted by an unknown person. If you think about it, that is an eerie feeling. Most of have a fairly good sense of who might be gunning for us. But what if you had no idea who was targeting you? That anxiety, and the wondering whom to trust, would likely add to your unease.

We see that in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, we are introduced to Jerry Burton and his sister, Joanna. They’ve recently moved to the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can continue his recovery from a wartime injury. They’ve not been there long when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, the Burtons learn that they’re not the only victims. Other people in town are also receiving such ‘poison pen’ letters, and it’s got everyone upset. Then, a letter to a local solicitor’s wife leads to a suicide. And then there’s a murder. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case when the local vicar’s wife, who knows her, suggests she might be able to help. Part of the tension of the novel comes from the fact that people don’t know who this unknown enemy is, and why that person might be targeting them.

There’s a similar plot point in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. Amsterdam Inspector Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small town of Zwinderen to help with an unusual problem. Several people in town have received ugly anonymous letters. This is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so one’s local reputation matters a lot. The tension caused by the letters is so high that the result has been two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t made much progress, so it’s hoped that Van der Valk will be able to help. And in the end, he and his wife, Arlette, find out who wrote the letters and why. One important cause of unease in the novel is that the local residents don’t know who their enemy is, if I may put it that way.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, we are introduced to London psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. He gets involved in a murder case when the body of a former client, Catherine McBride, is pulled from Grand Union Canal. Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz wants whatever insights O’Loughlin may have about this case, so he persuades a very reluctant O’Loughlin to help out. Then, there’s another murder – one that very much implicates O’Loughlin. Now, Ruiz actively wonders whether his consultant may know more about the case than he’s letting on. What’s more, the leads that O’Loughlin has given Ruiz don’t seem to pan out. Before long, it’s clear that someone has set O’Loughlin up, and is framing him for multiple murders. The problem is, O’Loughlin doesn’t know who would deliberately target him. He’ll have to go back to his own past, and go after a very dangerous killer, if he’s going to clear his name. And part of the suspense as he does so comes from the fact that he doesn’t know who’s after him.

Neither does Merete Lynnggard, who is featured in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). In the novel, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck is assigned to head up a new police initiative, ‘Department Q.’ This new department will be devoted to cases ‘of special interest’ (i.e. cold cases), and is at least in part designed as a way to demonstrate that the police take all of their investigations seriously. Shortly after Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad take up their duties, they begin to look into the five-year-old disappearance of Lynnggard, who was a promising politician. Everyone thought that she went overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But new evidence suggests that she may still be alive. If so, Mørck and Assad may not have much time to find her. I can say without spoiling the story that part of its tension comes from the fact that Lynnggard didn’t even know who was targeting her.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder, the first of her series featuring research assistant Verity Long. She works for famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport, who uses old cases as inspiration for her novels. When Long goes house-hunting, she discovers the body of well-known TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Badly shaken up by the experience, she’s happy on one level to let the police handle the investigation. At the same time, though, she found the body, so like it or not, she is involved. And she’s both curious and skilled as a researcher. So, she starts to ask questions. And it’s not long before she runs into serious danger. More than once in the story, it’s clear that someone is targeting her. And part of the suspense comes from the fact that she doesn’t know her enemy.

There are, of course, a lot of other crime novels in which someone has a secret enemy. That plot point can add suspense, even drama, to a story if it’s done effectively. And it can add to character development.

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by CKY.


Filed under Agatha Raisin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Lynda Wilcox, Michael Robotham, Nicolas Freeling

But the Sailors Threw Him Overboard*

Most killers don’t want to be caught. So, they do whatever they can to hide the evidence. And that means they often have to do something about the body of the person they’ve killed. After all, with today’s technology, bodies often contain evidence that points to the murderer.

One way to deal with this, if you’re a killer (fictional only, of course!) is to commit the murder on board a boat or ship, so the victim, or at least the victim’s body, can go overboard. Of course, a lot of things have to fall into place for that sort of plan to work. But when it does, the murderer has a solid chance to get away with the crime. So, it’s little wonder that we see this in a lot of crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, we are introduced to Margot Standing, an ingenuous and immature young woman whose very wealthy father, Edward, went overboard and was lost at sea. She now stands to inherit a fortune. But then, it comes out that she may not be eligible to inherit, and that her cousin, Egbert, may be the heir. The papers that would prove Edward Standing’s intent have disappeared, so there’s no easy way to determine who will get the money. Egbert suggests that he and Margot marry, but she refuses. When he insists, she refuses again, and leaves home. Unbeknownst to her, this puts her in danger from a gang led by a man named Grey Mask. They want to get rid of her, so they can get her money. Margot happens to meet Margaret Langton, who’s already mixed up with Grey Mask and his gang (‘though not in the obvious way). Margaret takes pity on the younger woman, and takes her in. And in the end, Margaret and her fiancé, Charles Moray, find a way to thwart Grey Mask.

Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip introduces readers to Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone. He’s a marine scientist (at least nominally) who’s found a way to make water samples seem clear, even if they are tainted. His employer, Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut, finds that very useful; he owns an agri-business that pollutes the water, and has no interest in changing what he does, or in being cited by the authorities. When Chaz begins to suspect that his wife, Joey, has found out what he’s doing, he decides to solve his problem. He takes Joey on what he tells her is an anniversary present: a cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the water, he throws her overboard. He hasn’t counted on the fact that Joey is a former competitive swimmer, though. Instead of dying, she survives and is saved by former police offer Mick Stranahan. With Mick’s help, Joey plans to make Chaz pay for what he did by ‘haunting’ him. And, as Chaz gets more and more unsettled by the things Joey does, Hammernut gets more and more concerned about their arrangement. And Broward County police detective Karl Rolvaag gets more and more suspicious of Chaz…

Jussi Adler-Olsen introduces his protagonist, Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck, in Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes. In that novel, Mørck returns to duty after being wounded in a line-of-duty shooting incident. He’s always been difficult to work with, but the trauma of what he’s been through has made dealing with him impossible. So, he is transferred to the newly-created ‘Department Q,’ which is dedicated to ‘cases of special interest’ (cold cases). It’s a move to appease members of the public and the government who believe that the police aren’t doing enough to solve crimes. The first case that Mørck and his new assistant, Hafaz al-Assad take on is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynnggard. At the time she went missing, everyone thought she went overboard in a terrible ferry accident. But Mørck and Assad begin to suspect otherwise. If they’re right, and she is still alive, there may be very little time left to find her. So, the two sleuths are under a great deal of pressure as they try to find out what really happened.

Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective features Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. Candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. His special interest is wave patterns, and he’s working on them for his thesis. In one plot thread of this novel, he’s also got a project of his own underway. Many years earlier, McGill’s grandfather, Uilliam, was on a fishing trip when he disappeared. The official account was that he went overboard accidentally, and McGill wants to know the truth about what happened. So, he’s using his knowledge of wave patterns to try to find out where his grandfather might have washed up, if he did. The search for the truth leads McGill to some dark truths about the island community where his grandparents lived at the time of the disappearance.

And then there’s Jonothan Cullinane’s Red Herring. It’s 1951 in Auckland, and PI Johnny Molloy is hired to find a man called O’Phelan. He takes the case and begins his search. Soon enough, he discovers that his quarry died in an overboard accident. But something doesn’t seem right about the incident, and Molloy starts to suspect it was a case of murder. What he doesn’t know at first, though, is that this death is related to a web of conspiracy, political intrigue, and ‘backroom deals.’ The closer Molloy gets to the truth about O’Phelan, the more dangerous the case becomes for him.

Seas and oceans can be very convenient places, if I may put it that way, for fictional murderers to hide their crimes. So it’s little wonder we see so many overboard ‘accidents’ in crime fiction. These are only a few. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband’s Walk the Walk.


Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Jonothan Cullinane, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Mark Douglas-Home, Patricia Wentworth

Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.


Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French

All My Troubles Seemed So Far Away*

Not long ago, Brad, who blogs at Ah, Sweet Mystery Blog, did a very interesting post on the way the past catches up with fictional characters. His focus was Agatha Christie’s work, and he gave some fine examples. G’wan, then, check it out for yourself. And as you’ll be there anyway, do have a look at Brad’s excellent blog. You won’t regret it!

That trope of the past catching up with a person is woven through a lot of crime fiction, and it’s not hard to see why. It can make for a suspenseful story and interesting character development. And in real life, one really can’t run away from the past. So, there’s an element of authenticity, too, in a story that uses that plot point.

As I say, Brad mentioned a few Agatha Christie novels. One that comes to my mind is Appointment With Death. In it, the Boynton family goes on a sightseeing trip through the Middle East.  We soon learn that family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is cruel and malicious, and uses that to keep her family under control. They’re all so cowed that none of them dares defy her. As a part of the trip, the family members visit the ancient city of Petra. On the second day there, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. At first, her death looks natural enough; she wasn’t in good health, and the trip has been exhausting. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied. Since Hercule Poirot is in the area, Carbury asks him to investigate, and Poirot agrees. He finds that the colonel’s suspicions were entirely justified. And it turns out that this murder has everything to do with the past catching up, if I can put it that way. Go read Brad’s excellent post for more Christie examples.

By no means is Christie the only crime writer who uses that trope, of course. In fact, there are so many fine examples of this plot point in the genre that I’m hard-put to choose just a few, I know you’ll have your own list to share.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, for instance, we are introduced to London psychotherapist Joe O’Loughlin. In this story, he gets involved in the investigation when the body of Catherine McBride is pulled out of the Grand Union Canal. It turns out that she was a former client, so Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz is interested in whatever O’Loughlin may know about her. Then, there’s another murder. This one very much implicates O’Loughlin, and now Ruiz begins to actively suspect him. There are soon other deaths, too. If O’Loughlin is going to clear his name, he’s going to have to find out who the killer is, and how it all connects with him. Trite as it sounds, O’Loughlin will have to go back to the past, as it were, and use all of his clinical skills, to stop this murderer.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy is the first in his ‘Department Q’ novels. In it, we meet Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. He’s recovering from a line-of-duty incident in which he was gravely wounded, and a colleague killed. Another colleague was left with paralysis. Mørck, has always been difficult to work with, and it’s only gotten worse since the shooting. Eventually, his bosses see no choice but to transfer Mørck – they refer to it as a ‘promotion’ – to a new department. ‘Department Q,’ as it’s called has been set up to investigate ‘cases of special interest.’ In part, it’s an attempt to respond to some media and public concerns that the police aren’t doing enough to solve murders. In part, it’s a political move. Mørck gets started in his new job, and soon meets his assistant, Hafez al-Assad. It’s actually Assad who calls Mørck’s attention to the five-year-old disappearance of up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard. At the time she went missing, it was assumed that she went overboard and died in a terrible ferry accident. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. If she is alive, then there may not be much time to rescue her, so Mørck and Assad feel a sense of urgency about this case. And in the end, they find out the truth. It turns out that it’s all connected with a past that didn’t let go.

The past doesn’t let go in Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, either. In that novel, we meet eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. She lives with her two older sisters and her father in a large old house in the village of Bishops Lacey, in 1950s England. One evening, Flavia’s father gets a visit from a stranger. Flavia doesn’t hear much of what passes between the two men, but she knows that their exchange is acrimonious. The next morning, she finds the body of the strange visitor in the cucumber patch. And it’s not long before word gets to the police about the argument. This puts Flavia’s father at the top of the list of suspects, and he’s soon arrested. Flavia knows her father is no killer, and decides to find out the truth. And, with her unusually strong knowledge of chemistry, she’s in a good position to do so. It turns out that this murder has everything to do with something in the past that has caught up, so to speak.

And then there’s Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses, which begins in the modern day, when police receive an anonymous letter. In it, the writer takes responsibility for the murder of a vagrant whose body was found on the tracks of an underground station. The story behind the letter starts in 1966, in London’s East End. It’s a time of Mods, Rockers, and experimentation of every kind. And teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan want to be a part of it. They’re from a working-class home, and have been brought up to be ‘nice young ladies,’ so they’re quite sheltered. But they want a little freedom. So, they cajole their mother into letting them go out one Friday night to the Palais Royale. The one condition is that their cousin Jimmy must take them and bring them back. That’s not a problem for the girls, who consider Jimmy to be ‘cool.’ The big night arrives, and Bridie and Midge go to the dance. What starts out as an exciting evening ends up tragically, and changes everyone’s life. And, as it turns out, that evening is behind the murder that takes place some fifty years later.

And that’s the thing about the past. Even many years or decades later, it doesn’t necessarily go away. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Yesterday – also Brad’s idea.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Robotham, Steph Avery

You Know the People Were Quite Pleased ‘Cause the Outlaw Had Been Seized*

As this is posted, it’s 137 years since Australian bushranger Ned Kelly was captured. Later that year, he was hanged. His exploits became the stuff of legend; in fact, some of Australia’s highest awards for crime fiction are called the Ned Kelly Awards – the ‘Neddies.’

That dramatic sort of confrontation and capture certainly makes the news in real life. And it can add suspense and tension to a crime novel, too. Of course, some stories don’t lend themselves well to this sort of drama, and are better off with a lower-key unmasking of the killer. But when it suits the story, that sort of confrontation can add much to a crime story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a strange case brought to them by pawnbroker Jabez Wilson. Through an unusual series of events, he was offered a job that promised easy money. All he had to do to get paid was copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Then, the job abruptly ended. Now, Wilson wants to know what was really going on with this job. Holmes takes the case, and he and Watson begin to investigate. What they find is that this strange job is connected to a gang of robbers who want to tunnel into a bank. The confrontation between the ‘good guys’ and the robbers adds tension to this story.

In Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, take a skiing trip to the small town of Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, which caters to such holidays. One day, one of the other hotel guests, Fritz Hauser, is shot, and his body discovered on the downward-facing ski lift that runs between the hotel and the village below. Capitano Spezzi and his team begin to investigate. And, once he finds out that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, the two men slowly begin to work together. They find that there are plenty of suspects among the hotel guests. Hauser was involved in smuggling, blackmail, and other dirty business, and no-one mourns his loss. Bit by bit, Tibbett and Spezzi find out who the killer is. And there’s a dramatic scene – a ski chase – when the killer is unmasked. That confrontation adds to the tension in the novel.

Michael Connelly uses such tension in several of his stories. For instance, in The Black Ice, LAPD detective Harry Bosch happens to hear of the suicide of fellow copper Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. He goes to the scene of the suicide, and it’s not long before he notices a few things that aren’t consistent with suicide. The official word on the case is that Moore had ‘gone dirty’ and then committed suicide. But Bosch isn’t so sure of that. He persists, as is his way, and discovers that this death is not what it seems. The trail leads to a dangerous Mexican drugs gang, and to Moore’s background. Towards the end of the novel, there’s a dramatic showdown between the Bosch and some allies he’s made, and some of the ‘bad guys’ in the novel, and it adds a great deal to the suspense of the story.

Meg Gardiner’s China Lake is a thriller, so you’d expect that it would include a dramatic confrontation. And it does. In the novel, we are introduced to science fiction author and legal researcher Evan Delaney. She’s at the funeral of an AIDS activist friend one day, when the mourners are accosted by a fanatic religious group called the Remnant. That’s when Delaney learns that her ex-sister-in-law, Tabitha, has joined the group. Worse, Tabitha’s made it clear that she wants custody of her six-year-old son, Luke, who’s been in the care of his father, Delaney’s brother, Brian. And the Remnant is willing to take all sorts of measures to get Luke away from Brian. They engage in vandalism, harassment, and more. Then, Pastor Pete, the leader of the Remnant, is found murdered in Brian’s home, with Brian being the chief suspect. Now, Delaney has to clear her brother’s name, try to keep Luke safe, and try to convince the police that the Remnant are much more dangerous people than is known. In the end, there’s a quite a confrontation…

And then there’s Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, in which we meet Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, he’s just getting back to work after a line-of-duty incident in which he was badly injured. For several reasons, he’s put in charge of a new department – Department Q – which is dedicated to those cases ‘of special interest.’ In this case, that means cold cases. He’s given an assistant, Hafez al-Assad, but very few other resources. Still, he and Assad begin their duties. Their first case of interest is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Linggaard. At the time she went missing, it was believed that she’d fallen overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise, so Mørck and Assad look into the matter. And in the end, they find out the truth. There’s a dramatic confrontation in the novel between the police and a perpetrator that adds quite a lot of tension to the last bit of the novel.

And that’s the thing about those confrontations and captures. When they’re done well, they can add a lot of suspense to a novel, even if it’s not a thriller. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s Smackwater Jack.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Meg Gardiner, Michael Connelly, Patricia Moyes