Category Archives: Katherine Howell

I’m in Hiding*

Going into HidingThere are a lot of crime novels and thrillers where one or another character goes on the run, hoping not to be caught. That plot element can be suspenseful and effective if it’s done well. But here’s the thing: it’s not so easy to go on the run and into hiding. There are all kinds of considerations and obstacles that people who don’t want to be found have to face. I’m hardly a sophisticated expert on these matters, but here are a few examples from crime fiction that show how many things need to be taken into account.
 

Money

In today’s world, there are banking machines just about everywhere. So you’d think it would be easy to access your money. But of course it’s not that simple. In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, for instance, Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove police uses the realities of today’s banking to catch a killer. In one plot thread, he and his team slowly trace the murderer of an unidentified man whose torso is found in an abandoned chicken coop. They connect that murder to threats against the life of visiting superstar Gaia Lafayette. And one of the ways they track this murderer is through video taken at bank machines. That, plus banking information that they get, allows them to find out exactly who the killer is.

Given the detailed information you need to provide to open a current/checking or savings account, it would be difficult to even use a bank to manage your money – not, that is, if you plan to ‘disappear.’ Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander has the computer and other skills one needs to pull off financial wizardry, but most people don’t. So people who go on the run have to find ways to get their hands on cash, and ways to keep it safe.

 

Travel and Documentation

Another obstacle to staying out of sight, so to speak, is getting documentation. In most countries, for instance, you can’t book an airline ticket without identification. And in today’s world of enhanced security, you sometimes have to go through more than one level of identity check. Modern hotels nearly always require a credit card (and often ID too) before you can check in. So unless you know where to go, or can stay in someone’s home – someone who keeps quiet – it’s not that difficult to track your whereabouts. There are of course people who are in the business of creating false documentation. But they aren’t charities, and it can take time to do the job right. That’s not to mention that they don’t exactly trumpet their services. So there’s a certain amount of effort, and sometimes quite an expense, involved in getting identification.

Some fictional characters, such as Anthony Bidulka’s Adam Saint, work for agencies and institutions that can provide them with documentation. When we first meet him in When the Saints Go Marching In, Saint works for the Canadian Disaster Recovery Agency (CDRA). His job is to travel to wherever there is a disaster that impacts Canada, Canadians, or Canadian interests. He is often provided with money and travel documents as a part of his job. And we see the same sort of thing in thrillers that involve British Intelligence, CIA, FBI or other agencies.

The reality is though that unless you work for that sort of agency, or are supported by a witness protection program of some sort, it’s difficult to travel anywhere far, or find a place to live, without authentic documentation. Just as an example, in Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, Ella Marconi of the New South Wales Police works with her team to investigate the murder of greenhouse owner Suzanne Crawford. Her husband Connor is the most likely suspect, not least because he and his wife were involved in a domestic dispute the day before her murder. The police want very much to talk to Connor, but he’s disappeared. Checks of his banking records, registration and so on reveal absolutely nothing; it’s as though he never existed. But this is the 21st Century, so the police finally do come up with the information they need. And I can say without spoiling the story that they do so through electronic records searching and co-operation with authorities from another country. Even crossing borders doesn’t necessarily mean a person couldn’t ever be found.

 

Employment

Just about every legitimate employer asks for an identification number or its equivalent before hiring. Some run criminal background checks as well. Part of the reason for that is so that the employer can keep accurate payroll records. Another part is so that the employer doesn’t run afoul of government regulations. So unless you’ve got authentic identification, it’s difficult to find the kind of employment a lot of people think of when they think of a job or a career.

If you don’t want your whereabouts known, you’d need to find the sort of employment where you get paid in cash, with few questions asked. There are such employers out there, but you have to know where to go. Or, you have to have the sort of occupation that Malcolm Mackay’s Callum MacLean, whom we first meet in The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, has. MacLean is a professional killer. He works independently, and does the jobs for which he’s hired in an efficient, ‘clean’ way. As you can imagine, he’s paid in cash, and he buys what he needs with cash.

But perhaps you’d rather not earn your living by killing people. In former times, a person might be hired on for cash. For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte often investigates in cases where people such as ranch hands come into town, are paid in cash, and move on when the work is done. And there are still some jobs like that. But you have to be willing to take on all sorts of different work, and you have to work among people who don’t ask a lot of questions. That’s not as easy to do as you might think.

Given the realities of today’s world, it’s awfully hard to realistically go into hiding or stay on the run for long. It can be done, and I’m sure you can think of novels where it happens. But it takes planning and effort. Plot lines featuring people who are ‘off the grid’ are most engaging when they take into account what would really need to happen in order for someone to be very difficult to find.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pearl Jam’s In Hiding.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Upfield, Katherine Howell, Malcolm Mackay, Peter James, Stieg Larsson

Pizza’s Cooking in a Storefront Oven*

PizzaThe culture of eating has changed dramatically over the past decades. One of the biggest changes since the mid-twentieth century has been the increasing popularity of….pizza. That’s right, pizza. Of course, pizza has a long history, but it’s really only since the end of World War II that it’s come into its own as a worldwide phenomenon. Today, as you know, pizza’s available in myriad varieties and styles. You can get upmarket pizza in a restaurant with crystal and cloth, or you can get a cheap frozen pizza and heat it up yourself. And that’s not to mention the booming pizza delivery business. Let’s face it: people love their pizza.

It’s easy to see why, too. Of course there’s the taste. But pizza’s also really convenient, especially if you have it delivered. And there’s something social about sharing a pizza with a group of people. With all of that going for it, it shouldn’t surprise you that pizza plays a big role in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of more.

Like many fictional sleuths, Katherine Howell’s Inspector Ella Marconi doesn’t have a lot of free time to cook for herself. As a busy member of the New South Wales Police, she also doesn’t have a lot of time to spend sitting in restaurants eating. So pizza delivery is tailor-made for her needs, as it is for so many other fictional cops. Here’s what she says about it in The Darkest Hour. In this scene, she’s looking for a flyer from a local gourmet pizza place, but can’t find it:
 

‘Had she thrown it out?
No, she wouldn’t have done that, not even on the worst-scale day. Mushroom pizzas were an important part of life, it was a recognised fact. Or if it wasn’t, she thought it ought to be.’
 

Pizza lovers everywhere would probably agree.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is a member of the Göteborg Police’s Violent Crimes Unit. She is also married to Krister, a very skilled chef who works at a well-regarded upmarket restaurant. Krister does quite a lot of the cooking at home, too. But that doesn’t stop his wife eating her share of pizza. Quite frequently, the members of Huss’ team have evening meetings about cases they’re working. When that happens, they have a standing order at a local pizza delivery place. The only person (besides team members) who is allowed to interrupt those meetings is the receptionist, and then only to let the team know that the pizza has arrived. There are also several scenes in this series where individual team members go to lunch together. Pizza is a staple in those cases too.

And then of course, there’s Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. As those who’ve read this series will know, Salander is not exactly health-conscious when it comes to her diet. And one of the main elements of that diet is Billy’s Pan Pizza. It actually serves her well, as she’s not exactly an extrovert who enjoys dining with others. A frozen pizza that can be heated up easily and eaten at her computer desk allows her the solitude and flexibility she needs to do the research at which she is an expert. Little wonder it’s a staple food for her. It would be nice to know how she manages to stay so slender on a diet like that…

Of course, crime-fictional pizza isn’t just useful as fuel for busy sleuths. Pizza boxes can be handy for forensics experts who may need to get samples for testing. And they have even more inventive uses too. Consider Peter Lovesey’s The Vault. In that novel, a security guard who works at the Roman Baths makes the gruesome discovery of a severed hand during his rounds. As soon as he is able to do so, he goes to the Bath Police to report what he’s found. When he does so, he faces a problem: how to transport his find. He thinks quickly and puts the hand in the pizza box that contained his lunch. As you can imagine, this causes more than a little consternation when he gets to the police station. At first, Superintendent Peter Diamond isn’t exactly overwhelmed. After all, the bones were found beneath Bath Abbey Churchyard. There are any number of reasons for which they might be there, none of which involve a crime. But when the hand turns out to be much more recent – from the 1980s – things begin to take a more sinister turn.

With pizza being as popular as it is, it shouldn’t surprise you that there’s a mystery series devoted to the topic. Chris Cavender’s Pizza Lovers Mysteries features A Slice of Delight, a pizzeria located in Timber Ridge, North Carolina. The restaurant is owned by Eleanor Swift and her sister Maddy, and offers both ‘regular’ pizzas and some gourmet styles. With that context, there are all sorts of possibilities for murder. Customers, vendors, delivery staff and so on all have their individual stories, and they all in some ways touch the lives of the Swift sisters.

That’s part of what can make pizza such a useful tool for authors too. There are so many ways in which clues can be left, characters can interact, the sleuth can get involved and so on. And that’s not to mention the way pizza can be used to give a little character depth too.

As a case in point, there’s a crime novel that uses the job of delivering pizza quite effectively. After all, what better way to put your victim off guard and get as close as you want than to use the guise of delivering a pizza? I don’t want to spoil the story, so I won’t give author or title. But I’ve always thought that to be particularly clever!

Really, there’s something ‘pizza’ for just about everyone. Whether you prefer upmarket, mushroom, vegetarian, kosher, lots of meat, Hawai’ian style, or something else entirely, there’s probably a pizza out there with your name written on it. Little wonder we see so much of it in crime fiction. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s the doorbell. I think my pizza’s here…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Bouncing Souls’ The Pizza Song.

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Filed under Chris Cavender, Helene Tursten, Katherine Howell, Peter Lovesey, Stieg Larsson

Thank You For Opening Your Door*

HouseguestsOne of many things people have to prepare for at this time of year is house guests. People often take time to visit friends and relatives, and those visits can be wonderful. But they also involve lots of logistics, from food, to where everyone will sleep, to things such as extra towels and bedding, and many other details. And then there’s the dynamics of people sharing a home when they’re not accustomed to it. With all of that going on, it’s no surprise that house guests can make a terrific backdrop/context for a murder mystery.

You’ll notice in this post that there won’t be a mention of the traditional ‘country house murder,’ where a group of people are gathered and one of them becomes a victim – too easy! And there are lots of other ‘house guest’ contexts. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective fiction writer Ariadne Oliver accepts an invitation to visit Judith Butler, a woman she met on a cruise of the Greek islands. During her stay, she helps out at a local children’s Hallwe’en party at another home. On the afternoon of the party, one of the guests Joyce Reynolds boasts that she’s seen a murder. Everyone hushes her up and no-one believes her. But that night at the party, Joyce is murdered. It’s certainly clear to Mrs. Oliver that there probably was a murder and that the killer overheard Joyce’s comments. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to travel to Woodleigh Common, where Judith Butler lives, and investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the case. He finds that this murder and another that occurs are linked to the town’s history. At one point, Poirot asks Mrs. Oliver if there is space in her London home to accommodate guests. Here is her response:
 

‘I never admit that there is…if you ever admit that you’ve got a free guest room in London, you’ve asked for it. All your friends, and not only your friends, your acquaintances or indeed your acquaintances’ third cousins sometimes….say would you mind just putting them up for a night? Well, I do mind. What with sheets and laundry, pillow cases and wanting early morning tea and very often expecting meals served to them, people come.’
 

In this case, though, Mrs. Oliver ends up making an exception.

One plot thread of Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls concerns an important Government Man who consults Mma. Precious Ramotswe on a private matter. He believes that his new sister-in-law is poisoning his brother and plotting to kill him. He wants Mma. Ramotswe to look into the matter and stop his sister-in-law before it’s too late. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to take the case, and travels to the Government Man’s home village, where his brother and sister-in-law live. There she gets to know the various members of the household. She feels a little uncomfortable exploring her client’s suspicions and still being treated as a guest, and matters are not made easier by the tension in the household. Then one afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she recovers a bit, Mma. Ramotswe pieces together what happened. She finds out some surprising truths about the household too.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack introduces readers to Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, a Buenos Aires police officer at a time (the late 1970s) when it’s very dangerous to live in Argentina. One day, he and his team raid a brothel. They make a few arrests, but several people get away because they have ties to people who are in power. Lescano is making a final walk-through when he discovers a young woman Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. She looks eerily like Lescano’s dead wife Marisa, so almost as a reflex action, he shelters her in his home. Eva is grateful to be rescued (we learn as the story goes on why she was hiding). But she has no reason at all to trust Lescano. He’s a police officer and in her experience, the police are brutal and sadistic. But he asks nothing of her. Lescano finds himself drawn to Eva, at first because of her resemblance to Marisa. As time goes by though, he gets to know Eva just a bit (she is not forthcoming), and finds her own personality appealing too. Eva’s stay with Lescano certainly has its awkwardness. Neither really trusts the other, especially at first. But they become allies.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, fledgling psyciatrist Stephanie Anderson meets a new patient Elisabeth Clark. After several sessions, Elisabeth begins to open up just a little. She has had mental and emotional problems since the abduction of her younger sister Gracie several years earlier. Gracie was never found, and the experience still haunts the family. It also haunts Stephanie, who lost her own younger sister Gemma in a similar way seventeen years earlier. Little by little, Elisabeth starts to put her life together again, and Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who wrought this havoc on both families. She travels from Dunedin, where she’s been living and working, to her home town of Wanaka. As one of her stops, she is invited to stay with Elisabeth’s father Andy, who is deeply grateful for his daughter’s returning mental health. In fact, he’s so grateful to Stephanie that he insists she stay as long as she wants at the lodge he owns, free of charge, as his guest. Although she doesn’t really even know Andy, Stephanie finds herself beginning to relax for the first time in a long time, and the visit prepares her to face the devastation her family suffered.

One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing team’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. More than once, Bess becomes a guest in someone’s home as she investigates mysteries. In A Duty to the Dead for instance, she is invited to visit the Graham family at Owlhurst in Kent. She nursed Arthur Graham before his death from battlefield wounds; in the process, he came to know and trust her and the feeling was mutual. So he gave her a very cryptic message, insisting that she commit it to memory and that she deliver it in person to his brother Jonathan. Bess is reluctant, but an injury of her own gives her the opportunity to pass along the message during her convalescence in England. The visit to Owlhurst is a very difficult one. For one thing, there is a great deal of tension in the family. For another, Bess learns that this family has many secrets. Having delivered Arthur’s message, Bess would actually just as soon end her visit, but she’s drawn into an emergency situation. Before she knows it, Bess is also drawn into a larger case of past murder and present death, all relating to that message.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. One afternoon, Paul Fowler and some friends are tossing a football around when he suddenly collapses. It’s soon determined that he was killed by a sniper’s bullet, and New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare investigate. They look into the lives of Fowler’s ex-wife Trina as well as the lives of his friends, and make some interesting discoveries. One of them is that Fowler had been laid off from his job, and was staying with a friend Seth Garland. When the team visits Garland’s home, they find a stark difference between the two men’s lifestyles. Garland is neat and orderly; Fowler…was not. I can say without spoiling the story that that difference isn’t the reason Fowler was killed. But it’s that sort of thing that can make being (or hosting) a house guest a challenge.

Whether you’ve been one or had them, the house guest situation can be delightful. But it’s also got lots of logistical and other challenges. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here because I’ve got to go count towels and sheets and plan food shopping. Your turn…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Wiggly Tendrils’ Song of the Grateful House-Guests.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Paddy Richardson

Somebody Help Me Tame This Animal*

Creating a MonsterOne of the things that crime fiction teaches is that we’re never quite as much in control as we might like to think we are. And that’s an unsettling thought. But it can make for solid suspense and tension in a crime novel. There are lots of cases for instance where characters think they can manage a situation or even another character, only to find they’ve created a monster as the saying goes. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death, Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to the scene when a body is discovered not far from Dale’s Camp. It’s hard to determine the cause of death at first, since hyenas found the body before humans did. And on the surface it looks as though the victim simply strayed too far from camp and was attacked by animals. But Kubu isn’t so sure, and forensic evidence supports the idea that this may have been murder. The trail leads to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), and that creates its own problems. The Botswana government considers BCMC essential for its economy, and there’s no desire to embarrass anyone who works there, especially not those at the top. But then there’s another murder, also with company connections. And another. In the end, Kubu and his team find out who’s behind the murders and how it all relates both to past history and to BCMC. And it turns out that someone’s ‘business arrangement’ has created a monster.

There’s also a sort of arrangement that leads to a monster being created in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano is a Buenos Aires cop in the Argentina of the late 1970s, a time and place when it’s very dangerous to navigate life. Early one morning, he gets a call about two bodies that have been found by a river bank. Both murders bear the hallmark of an Army hit, and Lescano knows the consequences of speaking up about them. But he also finds a third body – one that wasn’t reported. It turns out that this dead man is Elías Biterman, a successful moneylender and pawnbroker. Lescano soon learns that some very important people do not want the truth about this murder to come out, and there is a great deal of pressure on him to leave it all alone. But he perseveres and we learn the truth about what really happened. This murder and others that occur in the novel are in part the tragic consequence of someone who didn’t have nearly as much control of a situation as was thought.

That’s also true in Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). Very late one night, Sanna Stråndgard discovers the body of her brother Viktor in the Church of the Source of All our Strength. Stråndgard was a very popular, almost cult-like figure among the locals of Kiruna and outlying areas, and he was becoming very well-known in the rest of Sweden too. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much motive, since he had so many devotees. Sanna is distraught, and turns to her former friend, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson, for help. Martinsson has no desire to return to her home town of Kiruna, but for Sanna’s sake she reluctantly does so. Then, the police get some evidence that Sanna herself may be the killer. She claims that she’s innocent though, and begs Martinsson to defend her. For various reasons Martinsson would really like to have no part in this. But Sanna has two daughters and Martinsson doesn’t want them turned over to the state. So she agrees to represent Sanna. That’s how she meets police investigators Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke. At first uneasily, but later willingly, they work find out who the killer is. In the end, we see a clear example of how proverbial monsters can be created.

In Sulari Gentill’s  A Few Right Thinking Men, we meet artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred. They’re very different people and often don’t get along. Both are devastated though when their uncle, also named Rowland, is bludgeoned one night. At first, the police suspect that the victim’s housekeeper may have had something to do with the killing, but Rowly is certain she’s completely innocent. So he begins to ask questions. He soon learns that his uncle’s murder might be connected with a far-right group called the New Guard. This group seeks to stamp out communism and any left-leaning sympathy and create a new society run by ‘a few right thinking men.’ Rowly decides that the only way to learn the truth about the murder is to infiltrate the group, so he contrives a commission from the group’s leader, Colonel Eric Campbell, to paint his portrait. Little by little, Rowly learns the truth about what happened to his uncle. And as he gets closer to the group’s top members, he also learns the group’s ultimate plans. This too is a case of a monster being created.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer is the story of poet Tapani Lehtinen and his wife Johanna, who is a news reporter. In their world, climate change has wreaked havoc on the world, leaving millions of climate refugees. Little is done to maintain order and society is quickly descending into anarchy. Against this backdrop, Johanna is pursuing a story about a man who calls himself the Healer. He claims to be responsible for the murders of several CEOs of corporations that he believes are guilty of the ongoing destruction of the planet. The idea of the murders is to avenge those affected by this devastation and to call attention to it. When Johanna disappears, Lehtinen decides that the best way to trace her is to follow the story she was working on, and he begins to do just that. Little by little he learns the truth about the Healer and as he does so, he also gets closer to knowing what happened to his wife. In the end we see that someone created a monster, which led to some tragic and unintended consequences.

Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear introduces readers to Paul Fowler. One hot afternoon, he and some friends are tossing a football around in a local park when he suddenly collapses and dies. Soon enough it’s established that he was shot, sniper-style, and New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare investigate. They begin with Fowler’s ex-wife Trina and his friends and business associates. As they interview and follow up with these people they learn that Fowler had a hidden side to his life and that some people aren’t telling everything they know about it. When the police finally find out who killed Fowler and why, we see that sometimes, when you create a monster, it turns on you…

There are a lot of other examples of this plot point in crime fiction. It’s an effective one for the genre, and I’ve only had space here for a few instances. Your turn.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Three Days’ Grace’s Animal I Have Become.

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Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Åsa Larsson, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip, Sulari Gentill

But Times Have Changed and Things are Not the Same, Baby*

TimesHaveChangedToday’s savvy crime fiction fans want stories that reflect real life. I don’t just mean characters who behave in believable ways, although that’s important of course. I’m really referring here to other kinds of credibility. Here’s just one example. Suppose for instance that a character travels. It would be very difficult to do that, especially internationally, without that travel being documented. And if a character is a suspect in a crime, the police will at some point have access to those records. So a plot in which the police couldn’t find that information wouldn’t be credible. To take just one more example, consider the process of obtaining and showing identification. Of course it’s possible, if one has the right connections, to get forged documents. False documents are also given to certain top-secret government operatives and to people who participate in witness protection programs. And there’s the whole issue of identity theft, especially online identity. But for most of us, it would be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to go through our daily lives pretending to be someone else.

In some ways, this adds to the challenge of modern crime writing. In Sherlock Holmes’ A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Sherlock Holmes is approached by the King of Bohemia, who is about to be married. He’s concerned because his former lover Irene Adler has a compromising ‘photo of them. If it comes to light, the marriage plans will be scuttled. Holmes finds out where Irene Adler is and although she ends up, if you will, with all of the proverbial cards, the king is able to go ahead with the wedding. This story arguably couldn’t really happen today. For one thing, the king is only worried about getting that one ‘photo. With today’s online digital photography and online social media, the king would have no hope of keeping that ‘photo secret.

The major premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) is that a group of people is visiting Indian Island off the Devon coast, stranded by a storm. They’ve each been invited under a different pretext but as they soon find out, they were brought there deliberately. And when, one by one, they begin to die, it’s clear that there’s a murderer among them. As it’s written, it’s a very suspenseful story in part because there seems no escape from the danger; the people on the island really are cut off. Today’s crime writer would have some challenges writing a story with that scenario. After all, almost everyone has mobile ‘phones. It’s harder to be completely stranded than it was. It’s certainly possible, but today’s author would have to work to make it plausible.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna concerns the murder of Roseanna Mcgraw, a young woman from the US state of Nebraska. She is murdered during a cruise of Swedish cities, and one of the first challenges the police face is identifying her. It takes quite some time to connect the dead woman with the woman who was reported missing in Nebraska and then more time to establish the victim’s itinerary. After several months, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team get their answers and are able to focus on the right suspect. Today’s crime writer would have to account for a few things in order to sustain a story like this. For example, today, there’s instant communication among police forces, even internationally. What’s more, computer databases give police easy access to the kind of information that Martin Beck and his team need. And then of course there’s the reality of email, texting and the like. A crime writer would have to explain a disappearance like Roseanna’s in more depth.

It might seem then that today’s crime writers have a much harder task in terms of making stories realistic than did crime writers of the past. But I’m not sure it’s that easy. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. In Karin Fossum’s The Water’s Edge, Oslo homicide detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the death of seven-year-old Jonas August Løwe. When a couple out for a Sunday walk discover Jonas’ body, they call the police and an investigation is started immediately. Modern technology means that the police are notified quickly, the body is identified very soon thereafter, and Sejer and Skarre can begin the process of finding out who killed the boy. What it also means is that Fossum can focus on the investigation and on the characters involved rather than take a lot of time to explain how the boy is identified and so on.

Today’s realities can also add to a story’s interest. For example, in one plot thread of Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, New South Wales Police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate when Suzanne Crawford is murdered. In part because of a previous incident of possible domestic violence, her husband Connor is the obvious suspect. But he seems to have disappeared. What’s more (and this is adds to the story’s suspense), when the police look into his background, it turns out that they can’t find anything. There are no records that he ever existed. Given today’s documentation, that doesn’t make much sense. But that’s just what makes the case more interesting and for Marconi and the team, more challenging. In the end though, we find out the truth about both mysteries. In this case, Howell takes advantage of the realities of today’s world to add to the storyline.

There’s also Anthony Bidulka’s When the Saints Come Marching In, which introduces us to CDRA (Canadian Disaster Relief Agency) agent Adam Saint. Saint is a part of a top-secret agency that provides assistance anywhere in the world when wars or other disasters affect Canadians or Canadian interests. Saint travels to Magadan, in the Russian Federation, when his boss is killed during the investigation of a plane crash. There’s more to it of course than that, but Saint drops the investigation and returns home to Saskatchewan when a personal emergency ends his career with the CDRA. As you can imagine, though, the story doesn’t end there. This novel and others like it depend on modern realities. Saint travels on very little notice, something that couldn’t happen without today’s realities. He has access to the very latest in modern technology too. And there are other aspects of the plot that wouldn’t be credible at all without modern realities.

Developments such as DNA testing, modern identification documents and procedures, and global communication mean that some kinds of stories that we used to take for granted wouldn’t be credible today. So in some ways, today’s writers have more considerations than ever if they’re to sustain credibility. At the same time though, new realities have made possible all sorts of new kinds of storylines.

What about you? Are you bothered by lapses in credibility (e.g. ‘You know she had a mobile; why didn’t she call for help?’). If you’re a writer, how do you address the issue?

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö