Category Archives: Karin Alvtegen

I Ain’t Got No Crystal Ball*

Crystal BallIf you read a lot of crime fiction, you see certain patterns often enough that you can almost predict what’s going to happen in a given story. Of course, if the author’s done her or his job, you’ll still be interested – even absorbed. But even so, there are just certain things you can guess about certain characters and events. You don’t need a crystal ball to work some things out.

Space only allows for a few examples. But I’m sure you’ll be able to think of dozens more; I hope you’ll share them in the comments. Here is just a smattering:


The Blackmailer is a Marked Person

Blackmailing in any form has a way of shortening people’s life spans. On the surface, it may seem like a quick and easy way to make a fortune. But any crime fiction fan knows that a person who wants to be paid for silence usually pays a much greater price in the end.

Just ask Monte Field, the wealthy lawyer whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery. One evening, Field attends a production at New York’s Roman Theatre. By the end of the performance, Field is dead of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Richard Queen takes the case and he and his son Ellery start to put the pieces of the puzzle together. As it turns out, Field’s wealth didn’t just come from representing his clients; he was also an accomplished blackmailer. As you can imagine, this makes for quite a list of suspects, several of whom were at the performance on the night Field died. So the Queens have to go over all of the events of that evening to find out which suspect could have had the opportunity to commit the murder.

Agatha Christie address the risks of being a blackmailer too. In Death on the Nile, for instance, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is on her honeymoon trip with her new husband Simon. On the second night of their cruise of the Nile, Linnet is shot. The first and most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But Jackie could not have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, has to consider other alternatives. As the story goes on, we learn that one person knows who the killer is. When that person makes the mistake of trying to get money for silence, well, I’m sure you know what the result of that is…

You could predict the same risk, too, for other people who know too much, even if they don’t blackmail. You know, the person who calls the sleuth with an important clue that can’t be discussed over the telephone. Or the person who arranges to meet the killer to confront that person. Both are dangerous things to do…


People Who Seem to ‘Have it All’ Are in Trouble

We all know that life isn’t perfect. But there are some people who seem to have ‘it all’ – money, a successful marriage, and so on. Any dedicated crime fiction fan can tell you that those people are likely in for a lot of trouble. In fact, that’s the main plot point of a lot of noir stories.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayed, for instance, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. They’ve been married for fifteen years, and are the parents of six-year-old Axel. On the surface, they seem to have a fine suburban life. But then, disaster strikes. Eva learns to her shock and dismay that Henrik has been unfaithful. She’d suspected he wasn’t happy for some time, but had been hopeful they’d work matters out. When she learns the truth, Eva becomes determined to find out who the other woman is. As matters start to spin out of control, we see that having ‘it all’ is no guarantee of avoiding trouble. In fact, in crime fiction, quite the opposite often happens.

It certainly does in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. Richard von Knecht is a very successful financier with a beautiful penthouse, a circle of family and friends, and just about everything else you’d associate with ‘success.’ One day he jumps (or falls, or is pushed) to his death from the balcony of his penthouse. At first it seems to be a case of suicide, although there doesn’t appear to be any kind of logical motive. But as Göteborg Police Inspector Irene Huss and her team discover, this is no suicide. When forensic evidence shows that von Knecht was murdered, the team looks into the victim’s background and family life. As we learn more and more of the truth, we see that ‘having it all’ can cover up some very ugly things.


Don’t Expect Help From the Locals

Whenever there’s a serious crime, especially murder, the police interview people who live in the area. And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that in a crime novel, at least some of the locals are going to be close-mouthed and suspicious. Sometimes it’s because they’re hiding their own embarrassing truths. Other times it’s because they know something about the crime and either don’t want to be suspected, or don’t want the killer to target them. There are other reasons, too (e.g. not trusting the police).

We see this, for instance, in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters in Jerusalem Lane, a very historic area of London. When she dies in what looks like a successful suicide attempt, DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate. Kolla isn’t so sure that this was a suicide, and Brock gives her the go-ahead to look into the case. It turns out that everyone in Jerusalem Lane knows everyone else. The locals have formed a tight community and keep their own and each other’s secrets. Here’s what Kolla says about it:

‘It’s almost as if the people who live here are all frantically signaling to one another, without letting on to the people passing through on the street.’

And as it turns out, that insularity hides some interesting truths…

Thea Osborne finds much the same sort of close-mouthed insularity in Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Killing. Duntisbourne Abbots residents Clive and Jennifer Reynolds have hired Osborne as a house/pet sitter for the three weeks during which they’ll be away on a cruise. On the appointed day, Osborne duly arrives and gets ready to take on her responsibilities. She’s under pressure as it is, since Reynolds has given her a long and exhaustive list of things to do. Matters get worse when she hears (or does she?) a scream late that night. The next morning, Osborne discovers the body of Joel Jennison in a pond on the Reynolds property. She gives the alarm and the police are called in. It’s not long before she learns that there may be more going on in this case than it seems. Then, she discovers that the victim’s brother was killed just six months earlier. Now the question seems to be: who had a vendetta against the Jennison family? To look into the case further, Osborne’s going to need to penetrate the layer of reticence among the locals. And that’s not going to be easy…

These are just a few instances of things you can predict without a crystal ball when you read enough crime fiction. Which patterns have you discovered?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s Santeria. Not exactly a family-friendly song, but the lyric worked…


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Ellery Queen, Helene Tursten, Karin Alvtegen, Rebecca Tope

There’s Still Time to Change the Road You’re On*

Going Back or NotA lot of murders, both real and fictional, come about because of a sort of cascade of events. Looking back later, we can point to several places where the buildup, if you will, could have been stopped, and the murder thus prevented. Of course, that wouldn’t leave very much plot for a crime novel, but it’s interesting to take a look at how sometimes small decisions can spiral out of control and result in disaster.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for example, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. And it seems like a godsend to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort when Linnet is willing to hire Jackie’s fiancé Simon Doyle as her land agent. But then Linnet finds herself attracted to Simon. Instead of turning back from that, as you might say, she pursues him and it’s not long before they’re married. Their honeymoon trip includes a trip to Egypt and a cruise of the Nile; to Linnet’s dismay, Jackie turns up at the hotel, as she has everywhere they’ve been. Linnet approaches Hercule Poirot, who’s at the same hotel, to ask him to make Jackie stop. He gently points out to her that she had the chance to prevent all this in the first place. Later, he talks to Jackie and asks her to turn back and leave the couple alone before it’s too late. Neither woman really listens to him, and Jackie goes along on the cruise. On the second night, Linnet is shot. Jackie is the first suspect, but it’s soon proven that she could not have killed the victim, so Poirot and Colonel Race have to look elsewhere for the killer. Throughout the novel, there are other examples, too, of points where people make choices that end up cascading out of control.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, Ystad Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team are faced with the brutal murders of local farmer Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria. The victims seemed to have no enemies, and they weren’t known to be wealthy. So there seems no motive for the murders. Even a look into their family background doesn’t really reveal anything that points to the killer. There is one possibility though. Just before she died, Maria said the word foreign. A lot of people have taken this to mean that the killers were foreigners. At this point, matters could be controlled somewhat, but the media gets hold of the story and it sets a spark to the already-simmering local prejudice against immigrants. When the story gets into the news, it sets off a backlash, which has its own consequences. And as we find out later, the murder itself might have been prevented, but for someone’s choice not to let matters go.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. Eva very much wants the peaceful suburban lifestyle, complete with white picket fence, for herself, her husband and their son Axel. So when she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful, Eva is devastated. At that point, she might choose to leave her husband or forgive him; many people do one of those things. Instead, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she sets in motion a chain of events that spins out of control. One night, she goes to a pub for a drink. There, she meets Jonas Hansson, a man with his own issues. She has the opportunity at that point to flirt with Jonas and make something of the evening, or to go home. Her decision to spend the night with Jonas has consequences that neither of them imagined. In this case, you could argue that a lot of what happens might have been prevented at several key points in the story.

That’s also true of Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit.  Mason and Gates Hunt are siblings with a terrible background including alcoholism and abuse. Mason chooses to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way to get out of his situation. He excels in school and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability and ends up living on money he gets from their mother, and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One afternoon, Gates’ romantic rival Wayne Thompson comes by, and the two get into an argument. Thompson leaves and the whole matter might have rested there. But later that night, the Hunt brothers are returning home from a night out. They run into Thomspon again and the argument starts anew. Instead of letting it all go, both men get angrier and angrier until, before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and time goes by. Years later, Mason is a commonwealth prosecutor. Gates has been convicted of cocaine trafficking. Gates begs his brother to get him out of prison, but this time Mason refuses. Instead of letting matters go, Gates threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder unless he co-operates. Now matters spin even more out of control until Mason finds himself indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Now he’ll have to find some way to clear his name before his brother is released from prison.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger makes quite a bit of use of those moments where people might turn back, but don’t. It begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has died in a car crash. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for a long time, but he still feels a sense of loss. He’s even more upset to discover that Sylvie wasn’t alone in the car. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who died in the crash as well. Instead of leaving matters alone and getting on with his life, Delorme takes an interest in Arnoult’s widow Martine. His interest soon leads to obsession and he begins to follow her. He even books a holiday in the same place on Majorca where Martine and her friend Madeleine go. Delorme’s decision to give in to his obsession has all sorts of dark and tragic consequences. And you could argue that it could all have been prevented if he had let the matter of Sylvie’s lover go and got on with the business of living.

There’s also Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. Luke Murray is riding a bus one day when three young people get on and soon begin to bully him. At one point, another passenger, Jason Barnes, intervenes and tells the group to stop. For a short time they do. But then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. So does Jason. Instead of leaving the matter, the bullies start up again and this time the fight escalates. It goes on all the way to Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Luke is left gravely wounded. As we follow the story, we see that there are several places where the whole thing might have been stopped, but for people’s choices. Other than Jason, the people on the bus don’t do anything to stop the bullying. The bullies don’t stop either, and neither do Jason and Luke. It’s a clear example of the consquences when things spin out of control.

And that’s what happens sometimes. One decision, one choice not to hold back or back down, and situations can go completely wrong in very tragic ways.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Pascal Garnier

And They Sit at the Bar and Put Bread in My Jar*

Bar and Pub ScenesBars and pubs come in all shapes and sizes. There are very posh bars in resort hotels; and seedy places where only the locals go, and then only when they don’t have enough money to go anywhere else. There are very dangerous drinking places and places that are quite safe. And of course there’s an endless variety of bar/pub themes, too.

When it comes to crime fiction, bars and pubs make for near-ideal backdrops. One reason is that they are so varied. Wherever the author sets a novel, in whatever context, there’s probably some kind of licensed establishment. And all sorts of scenes can take place at a drinking place. Business deals, romantic trysts, meetings between old friends…well, you get the idea. There’s nothing like a bar or pub for interactions among characters. That’s probably why there are so many scenes in crime fiction that take place in bars and pubs. I couldn’t possibly name them all, so I’ll content myself with just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy heiress Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is murdered during a trip on the famous Blue Train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and gets involved in the investigation. One of the more likely suspects is the man the victim was going to meet, Armand de la Roche, who calls himself a Count. Another suspect is the victim’s estranged husband, Derek Kettering. At one point, the Comte de la Roche hears of evidence against Kettering and thinks he can make a profit by charging for his silence. He waits in the salon/lounge of the hotel where Kettering is staying. When he tries blackmail, Kettering lets him know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of him. It’s a taut scene that also shows some interesting character traits of both men.

Perth Superintendent Frank Swann uses pubs for quite a different purpose in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. He’s investigating the murder of a friend of his, Ruby Devine, who owned a brothel. He faces several challenges in this investigation, not the least of which is a group of corrupt police officers, called ‘the purple circle.’ They’ve marked Swann because he called for a Royal Commission hearing into their activities. And now, he’s convinced that somehow, one or more of them is behind the murder. Few people will talk openly to Swann because most fear ‘the purple circle. But he finds ways to meet up with people who have information. In one scene for instance, he goes to the Grosvenor Hotel, which,


‘…looked like a shaky drunk under escort.’


Despite its less-than-inspiring exterior, it’s an upmarket place that professionals use to discuss business they don’t want to deal with in the office. That’s where Swann goes to look for a lawyer named Cooper, who handled Ruby Devine’s business. The meeting is tense, because in this case, they’re on opposite sides, so to speak. He is, in fact, a suspect in the murder. But as Cooper says, they were both Ruby’s friends. And he figures into the story in a few places.

There’s another case of a bar being used for a business deal in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American travel writer who now lives in Bangkok. He’s got a reputation for being good at finding people who don’t want to be found, and he speaks both Thai and English. So when Clarissa Ulrich visits Bangkok to find someone who can look for her missing uncle, Rafferty is a natural choice. She leaves word at the Expat Bar, one of Rafferty’s regular stops, and he gets the message that she wants to talk to him. When they meet at the Expat, she tells him that she hasn’t heard from her uncle in a few months and is worried about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter, and is soon drawn into a case that goes far deeper than a man who simply wanted to take off for a bit.

Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney also finds bars to be good places to follow up on leads and find people. In The Half Child, for instance, Jim Delbeck hires her to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. The police report stated that she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck doesn’t believe it was suicide. Keeney looks into the case, which at one point leads her to a place called the B-52 Bar. Her skill at playing pool turns out to be very useful as she goes after the information she wants. And so, in another bar scene, are her skill at speaking Thai and her understanding of the Thai culture.

Of course, bars and pubs are also effective settings for romantic meetings. But not all of them work out well. In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, for instance, Eva Wirenström-Berg is devastated when she learns that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. One night she goes out just to get away for a bit, and ends up at a pub. That’s where she meets Jonas Hansson, a man who has his own serious issues. Their meeting ends up having disastrous consequences, and as the story goes on, things spiral out of control for both of them.

Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House introduces us to Petra Westman, junior member of an investigating team that’s looking into a strange group of murders. One night, she and a colleague Jamal Hamad go out for a friendly drink. While they’re at the bar, she meets Peter Fryhk. A conversation leads to several drinks and to flirting. The next morning, she wakes up in a house she doesn’t know. Very soon she concludes that she’s been ‘date raped.’ She manages to get home, and one of the plot threads in this story is her search for the proof she needs to have her attacker brought to justice.

And of course, I don’t think I could do a post on bar and pub scenes in crime fiction without mentioning The Red Pony. That’s a bar/restaurant/poolroom owned by Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear. It’s one of Durant, Wyoming’s few gathering places, and it’s a regular haunt of Johnson’s sleuth Sheriff Walt Longmire. It may not be upmarket, but it’s comfortable and ‘down home,’ and lots of scenes, both funny and tense, take place there.

There are of course lots of other bar and pub scenes in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus). And it’s not at all surprising. They’re perfect for all kinds of meetings that can end in all kinds of ways. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man. Oh, come on, was there ever any doubt? ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carin Gerhardsen, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Karin Alvtegen, Timothy Hallinan

Closed the Shop, Sold the House, Bought a Ticket to the West Coast*

Midlife Crisis MaleTransitions through adulthood are often challenging. Adjusting to a new phase in one’s life can be stressful and people have all sorts of different kinds of reactions to that stress. That’s arguably part of the reason people sometimes have what’s often been called mid-life crises. An interesting post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about how often we see that crisis in fiction in general and crime fiction in particular.

Marina Sofia’s post dealt with male mid-life crises, so that’s what I’ll focus on in this post. But women are by no means immune; that’ll be the topic for another post soon. For now, here are just a few examples of what can happen at that pivotal point in adulthood.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He has a thriving career, a wife Gerda who adores him, and two healthy children. By all accounts he should be completely contented with his life; most people would call him very successful. But he’s restless. His mind keeps drifting back to an affair he had fifteen years earlier with Veronica Cray, who’s since become a famous actress. He’s in this state of flux when he and Gerda are invited to spend the weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. To his shock, he is reunited with Veronica during the visit; it turns out that she’s taken a getaway cottage nearby. Because they have a history together, she becomes a suspect when he is shot on the Sunday afternoon. Hercule Poirot has also taken a cottage in the area, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed John Christow and why.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. They’ve been married fifteen years and as far as Eva’s concerned, they’ve had a contented life. But lately, Henrik has been distant and obviously unhappy. He’s restless and seems to have built a proverbial wall between them. Eva is hoping that a holiday might help them re-discover each other but then, she learns to her shock that Henrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated at this and soon becomes determined to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she plots her own kind of revenge that has consequences she couldn’t have imagined.

In Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty and F***ed, banker Martin Carter faces this kind of crisis. His marriage is ending, which would be bad enough. Then he finds out that he’s being retrenched. With all of the things that had identified him being taken away, he’s reaching out for something new anyway. So on his last day at work, he can’t resist helping himself to a million-dollar payroll. Then he makes his escape in a police-issue 4WD and takes off. His plan is to meet up with an old friend and start over, but things don’t work out that way. First, he meets Faith, a librarian who’s got her own problems. Then there’s the matter of the bike gang. And that’s just the beginning…

Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert are a successful Chicago couple whom we meet in A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. They’ve never formally married, but they’ve been together twenty years and have built a solid home. Then, everything changes. Todd’s feeling restless, and begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, a college student and the daughter of his business partner. This isn’t the first time he’s strayed, but what makes this time different is that Natasha wants it to be a permanent relationship. She becomes pregnant and tells Todd that she wants to marry and be a family. At first, Todd promises her that’s what he wants too; he even leaves Jodi and moves in with Natasha. But as time goes on, he begins to see that he doesn’t want a wife and family. He feels ‘hemmed in’ enough as it is. Besides, the realities of living with a woman so much younger have set in. Then, Todd is murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking gone wrong. But then, the police begin to suspect that someone hired the shooters. And given Todd’s business and personal decisions, there’s no lack of suspects.

Sometimes sleuths go through mid-life crises too. That’s what happens in Peter Robinson’s Watching the Dark. In that novel, DCI Alan Banks is faced with the murder of DI Bill Quinn. Quinn was a patient at St. Peter’s Police Convalescence and Treatment Center, and that’s where his body is discovered early one morning, pierced with an arrow from a crossbow. The case turns out to be very delicate, because compromising ‘photos are found in Quinn’s room that suggest he’s been having an affair with a much younger woman. Obviously the police Powers That Be don’t want to cast aspersions on the badge, so Banks will have to tread lightly. In the meantime, he’s got his own personal issues to face. His former wife Sandra has married again and started a new family. He’s no longer involved with his lover Annie Cabbot, either, although they work together professionally. His children are grown and starting their own lives, too, and although they love him, it’s a different sort of relationship. So Banks is facing the sort of restlessness that often goes along with periods of change in life. It adds another layer to his character.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series will know that he’s at a point of flux in his life. He feels himself getting older, but at the same time, he still has plenty of energy and good detective skills. He’s torn about his relationship with his long-time lover Livia, too. He does care about her, but at the same time, he’s just as well pleased that she lives in Genoa, and not in Sicily. He also sees himself changing as he gets older, and that’s not always comfortable either. Camilleri depicts that internal conflict as a series of debates between ‘Montalbano One’ and ‘Montalbano Two,’ and it’s an interesting way to show the way the mid-life crisis can feel.

The changes that middle age brings aren’t always fun. The question, ‘Is this all there is?’ can hit hard. So can the recognition of one’s own mortality. People generally make their way through the transition intact, but not always. And it certainly can add character depth and plot points to a novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be Finding Time to Write. It’s a treasure trove of book reviews, poetry and beautiful visuals too.

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


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Geoffrey McGeachin, Karin Alvtegen, Peter Robinson

They Show You Photographs of How Your Life Should Be*

IllusionsWe all know of course that life isn’t perfect. But the illusion that it could be is very appealing. That illusion of a perfect setting/life/society/etc. can be very powerful. It’s what sells all sorts of products from ‘the perfect getaway holiday’ to ‘the perfect hairstyle’ to just about anything else. Just look at the ‘photo, for instance. It’s a picture of the famous Las Vegas Strip, where nearly everything is a carefully-crafted illusion of perfection. That ideal of perfection is also arguably part of what drives people to keep up appearances (e.g. ‘Yes, I have the perfect family.’)

But as I say, life doesn’t work that way. Before you know it, that perfect pair of shoes gets a scratch in it, or new people move onto the perfect street and start throwing loud parties and leaving trash everywhere. Those reminders that nothing’s perfect can be hard to take, because the illusion that it could be is so easy to accept. And that can add quite a lot of tension and suspense to a crime novel. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples than I could. Here are a few to get started…

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. She’s beautiful, wealthy and intelligent. And she’s accustomed to getting what she wants. She’s not deliberately spiteful or destructive, but she is used to arranging her life in exactly the way she decides. As the novel begins, for instance, she’s working on creating the perfect home at Wode Hall, which she’s recently purchased and is having renovated. She’s even trying to tear down a group of local cottages and relocate the people who live in them so that she can have the perfect view. When she meets Simon Doyle, who is engaged to marry her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, she finds herself attracted to him and before long, he too is part of the perfect world she’s trying to create. She and Simon marry and take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon trip. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet finds out tragically that the world won’t always work her way when she’s shot. The most likely suspect is Jackie, who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she could not possibly be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to search elsewhere for the killer. Interestingly, Poirot tries to warn Linnet that the world cannot be ‘made to order,’ but Linnet doesn’t listen…

The search for the perfect place to live motivates Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their children to move to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. The move seems successful and the family slowly settles in. At first, Stepford seems like an idyllic place to live: good schools, low taxes, friendly people and so on. But Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something dangerous may be going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t agree, and having just moved there, she’s not overly eager to sell their new house and move again. But after a time, she starts to believe that Bobbie may be right. The closer she gets to the truth, the more she sees that there is no such thing as the perfect place to live. Even beautiful small towns can have their dark secrets.

Glenn Hadlock thinks he’s found the perfect job in Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary. He answers an employment advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position and finds that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and in need of a chauffeur/escort for his wife Eileen. The pay and benefits are excellent, and Hadlock accepts right away when the job is offered to him. At first it seems like an ideal situation for him. Scofield is not exactly a pleasant person, but he is fair and generous, and Hadlock gets a nice place to live, a good wardrobe and plenty of spending money. He also gets to spend time with Eileen Scofield, and that becomes a serious problem when he finds himself attracted to her. Scofield has told Hadlock that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. As Hadlock finds that employment condition harder and hard to accept, he also finds that his perfect job arrangement…isn’t.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She works hard to create the illusion that she’s the perfect girlfriend, and then the perfect wife, to police officer Bill King. And she succeeds too, at least at first. She’s beautiful, smart, witty, and friendly. Her parties are perfectly arranged, the food is always beautifully presented and delicious, and she and Bill are the most popular hosts among their group of friends. But Bill’s sister Lora gradually begins to suspect that Alice is not the person she seems to be. First it’s a matter of little inconsistencies in what Alice says about herself. Then Lora begins to wonder just what kind of secrets Alice has. The more she learns about Alice’s life, the more she is at the same time repelled by and drawn to it. And she’s a little worried for Bill, to whom she’s always felt close. To her, Bill is too eager to believe that Alice is the perfect wife that he thinks she is. Then there’s a tragic murder, and Lora thinks Alice may be involved in it. If so, this could be dangerous for Bill. So Lora has to decide how she’ll go about finding out the truth and what she’ll do when she does find out.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband Henrik and their son Axel. Eva has worked very hard to create the perfect home, complete with white picket fence, and the perfect family life. She’s arranged everything as best she can to make everything idyllic. But of course, life isn’t that way. One day Eva finds out that Henrik has been unfaithful. She knew he’d been unhappy for a while (ironically, a lot of that had to do with her own attempts to make everything perfect). But this discovery devastates her. One night she goes out to a pub, where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own troubles. That meeting soon leads to both of their lives spinning out of control. And (again ironically), the more they try to make things perfect, the less perfect things get.

Qiu Xiaolong addresses the issue of the ‘perfect society’ in Enigma of China. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police is assigned to investigate what seems to be a straightforward case of suicide. Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, had come under investigation for corruption. It’s widely believed he killed himself rather than go through the humiliation that a full investigation plus trial and imprisonment would bring. But Chen isn’t completely sure this was a suicide and in any case, his job as a detective is to investigate fully. So he and his assistant Detective Yu look more deeply into the case. It turns out that the original allegations of corruption came from an Internet ‘grass roots’ group that posted some of the evidence. The Chinese government doesn’t want such groups to post, as that would put the lie to the illusion of a harmonious society that the government wants to create. At the same time, the government used that very group’s evidence against Zhou. It’s a very delicate situation, and in the novel there are several interesting discussions of the way the Internet is now used both for dissent and for factual information, since the official government outlets support only the appearance of societal stability and harmony.

People do want to believe illusions at times, because they can be so appealing. But sometimes, the cost of creating and maintaining an illusion can be awfully high. Maybe it’s just better to acknowledge that life’s not perfect…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Colby