Category Archives: Lawrence Block

Multi-Million Dollar Heist*

HeistsHave you ever seen George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)? If you have, then you know its focus is an outlaw gang called the Hole in the Wall Gang. One of their goals is to rob the Union Pacific’s Overland Flyer, and the gang makes preparations to do so – twice, on both the eastward and westward run of the train. The first time they’re successful. The second train’s arrival, though, sets off a chain of events that changes the story dramatically. Throughout the story, though, the two lead characters, played by, respectively, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are portrayed sympathetically.

More than that, Hill built the tension in this film not through a murder (or murders) and the investigation, but through the plans and execution of a heist. And that makes sense. Fictional heists can add at least as much conflict and tension as a murder can, not to mention another layer to a plot. It’s little wonder, then, that they figure so often in crime fiction.

Many heist novels do include murders or other deaths. It’s just that it’s the heist that’s the main plot, rather than the murder(s). There are a lot of heist novels out there. I’ll just mention a few; I know you’ll think of more.

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole, or: How to Rob a Bank, we are introduced to professional thief Mike Daniels and his teammates Harry and Gardner. They decide to pull off a difficult, but potentially very lucrative job – a theft from the City Deposit Bank. It’s a heavily guarded bank with the latest in security, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, in order to carry their plan out, the thieves will need the services of an architect. They find one in the person of Stephen Booker, who’s recently been laid off from his job and hasn’t been able to find another. In fact, he’s been driving cab at night to pay the bills. That’s how he meets Daniels, who finally convinces Booker to join the thieves. They prepare very carefully for the heist, and on the day of the job, all goes well at first. Then a sudden storm blows up, and changes everything for the men.

In Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, we are introduced to professional thief John Dortmunder. He’s recently been released from prison, and the plan is that he’ll ‘go straight.’ But that’s before he meets up with his old friend and co-conspirator Andy Kelp. Kelp tells Dortmunder that a new heist is in the works, one that’s worth ten thousand dollars to each member of the team. The target is a valuable gem called the Balabomo Emerald, currently on display at the Coliseum in New York. While the African nation of Akinzi claims ownership, another African nation, Talabwo, contests that claim. Talabwo’s Ambassador to the US, Major Patrick Iko, wants the gem, and is willing to pay the heist team to get it. Dortmunder, Kelp, and the rest of the gang meet and plan the heist very carefully. But almost from the beginning, things don’t go at all as the team planned…  Westlake’s Dortmunder series sees the heist team get in several serious situations as they plan and try to carry out difficult heists.

Fans of Lawrence Block will tell you that one of his series features Bernie Rhodenbarr, who’s a New York bookseller. But he’s also a burglar. In fact, he served a prison sentence as a young man. Now he’s determined not to get caught again, so he’s very careful when he plans a heist. He’s good at what he does, but he sometimes has a habit of finding bodies when he’s actually on the trail of some other prize. Bernie is well aware that it’s illegal to break and enter, but he’s what you might call addicted to the thrill. This series is lighter than Block’s Matthew Scudder series. Although I don’t usually like to compare series, it has a hint of similarity to Westlake’s Dortmunder series on that score.

In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we are introduced to Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, and has no desire to go ‘back inside.’ So he’s careful about avoiding risk unless the payoff is very much worth it. He meets up with this girlfriend, Michelle Flood, his brother Noel, and some other friends; together, they come up with an idea for a heist that will set them all up for life. The target is Protectica, a company that provides secured transportation of cash among different banks. The heist is planned down to the last detail, and everyone is hoping it’ll go smoothly. At first, things do go well. But then, there’s a tragic turn of events that changes everything.

And then there’s Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State. Gary Chance is, among other things, a professional thief who’s been lying low in South Australia. A union leader friend of his named Lawrence convinces him to work a robbery so he can have money to care for his wife Faye, who has cancer. When that robbery goes wrong, Chance knows he has to get out of the area. So he heads for Brisbane. There, he meets Dennis Curry, who runs certain non-casino poker games. Curry wants to rob wealthy Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao, who’s one of his high rollers. Chance meets the rest of Curry’s team and takes the job. Not one of the other team members is a reliable, straightforward sort of thief, but they’re the people Curry has picked. Despite the fact that he doesn’t really trust them, Chance has to work with them to plan the heist with as few risks as possible. But this doesn’t turn out to be anything like the sort of job Chance thought he was taking.

There are, of course, many other kinds of heist novels. Some, such as Gunshine State, are a little grittier. Others are lighter. But all of them have an added layer of tension that comes from the heist and the planning that leads up to it. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Meanies’ Big Brother’s Watching.


Filed under Andrew Nette, Donald Westlake, Gene Kerrigan, Lawrence Block, Robert Pollock

A Public Service Update… ;-)

The GirlFair Warning: this post is not appropriate for impressionable disbeliefs. So please have your disbelief leave the room as you read this. Thank you.

As a public-spirited citizen, and especially one who’s interested in crime fiction, I feel a responsibility to alert you to things that are going on in the genre. In that spirit, let me make you aware of a potentially dangerous individual who’s been lurking among recent crime novels. That’s right, I’m referring to an unnamed person I’ll refer to as The Girl.

She’s become a prominent character in a lot of crime fiction, but she’s just been reported as a Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn).  In case you haven’t noticed, let me fill you in on what she’s been doing and why authorities are looking for her. You’ll soon see why she’s a cause for concern.

Let’s begin with what she’s been doing. There is evidence that she is The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson), and that’s of course always dangerous. Word is also that she’s The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (Stieg Larsson). That’s a very risky thing to do, as it could result in swarms of hornets who could pose a threat. She’s quite possibly been responsible for a great deal more harm, too, so I think it’s important that the public be aware of this person.

Here is what we know about her appearance. One important identifying feature is that she’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson). It’s quite likely that you’ll notice her right away, as she’ll be The Girl in the Green Raincoat (Laura Lippman). Reports are, though, that she’s been seen in other clothes. For instance, you may see her as The Girl in the Red Coat (Kate Hamer).  So don’t be fooled by changes in clothes. The ‘photo above is provided so that you can get a sense of what she may look like.

Hospitals and doctors’ offices are also being alerted to the presence of this girl. She will likely stand out at such places, because she is The Girl With a Clock For a Heart (Peter Swanson). As if that weren’t unusual enough, we’ve also gotten reports that it’s a unique sort of a clock. In fact, some people call this girl The Girl With the Long Green Heart (Lawrence Block). That may very well be because of the shape and appearance of this clock. Authorities aren’t sure at this point where the clock came from, or what the girl’s purpose was in having it. It’s possible that she stole it or was transporting it for someone else.  Either way, it’s hoped that if the girl goes for medical treatment of some kind, the clock can then be traced to its source.

There have been several alleged sightings of this girl. Some witnesses have reported seeing The Girl on the Stairs (Louise Welsh). Others, though, insist that they saw The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins). Descriptions of the girl were not clear enough to establish whether the witnesses were speaking of the same, or of two different, girls. Authorities are not ruling out either possibility. There has even been speculation that she was The Girl in the Ice (Robert Bryndza), as some witnesses have suggested. That possibility seems less likely, though.

Whatever her actual whereabouts may be, this girl has certainly caused quite an upheaval in the crime fiction genre, and authorities would like to find her as soon as possible. If you do happen to see her, use extreme caution in approaching her. She’s been involved in all sorts of crime-fictional doings. Keep an eye out: she could even be The Girl Next Door (Ruth Rendell).

Thank you very much for your kind attention and alert observation in this matter. The more of us who know about this girl, the more likely it is she’ll be found. Now, please feel free to pick up your disbelief as you exit. Thank you.


Filed under Gillian Flynn, Kate Hamer, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, Louise Welsh, Paula Hawkins, Peter Swanson, Robert Bryndza, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson

I Don’t Drink It No More*

TeetotalingWith all of the crime-fictional characters who drink (and sometimes, who drink quite a lot), you might think that drinking is almost a prerequisite for being a sleuth or other major character in a crime novel. But that’s really not so at all.

In real life and in crime fiction, there are plenty of people who don’t drink alcohol. Some people abstain for religious or spiritual/moral reasons; others abstain for health or medical reasons. Still others don’t drink because they know first-hand the damage that alcohol can do. And then there are those (I have a few friends like this) who simply don’t care for the taste of alcohol, at least not very much. For them, not drinking is simply a matter of taste preference, and nothing else.

As I’m sure you know, there’ve been temperance movements in many countries. The idea behind these movements has been that alcohol consumption leads to terrible consequences, and that the best course of action is simply not to drink at all. The goal of these movements has been for as many people as possible to ‘take the pledge;’ some movements have even worked to outlaw alcohol entirely.

In the US at least, the temperance movement gained strong support in the mid-to-late 19th Century from the growing movement for women’s suffrage. While there wasn’t a complete overlap, plenty of suffrage activists also supported temperance efforts. We see the interaction of those movements in Miriam Grace Monfredo’s Blackwater Spirits, the third in her Glynis Tryon series. Tryon is the librarian for Seneca Falls, New York in the mid-1800’s, at a time when suffrage activism is taking root in the US. In this novel, the main plot concerns the arrest of Seneca Falls’ deputy Jacques Sundown for murder – a murder he says he didn’t commit. So there’s a great deal about the relations (or lack thereof) between the white citizens of the town, and the local Iroquois people. But also woven into the story is new temperance legislation, and the efforts to outlaw alcohol. Monfredo presents both sides of the case, and shows how the temperance movement fit in with other issues of that time.

As you’ll know, the temperance movement succeeded in the US, at least for about 14 years. During the Prohibition years (1919-1933), it was illegal in the US to manufacture, transport, export, sell or possess alcohol. That didn’t, of course, stop people who wanted to drink from doing so. But it does show that the teetotalers had their share of political power. Prohibition’s mentioned in several crime novels, including Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, wealthy American businessman Samuel Rachett is murdered on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the Orient Express train. The only possible suspects in his murder are the other passengers on the same coach. Hercule Poirot, who’s on the train, is persuaded to find out which of them is the killer. One of those suspects is an American named Cyrus Hardman. At one point in the novel, a decision is made to search the passengers’ luggage. When Hardman’s is opened, Poirot and his friend M. Bouc notice that he’s got several bottles of liquor in his suitcases.

‘‘You are not a believer in Prohibition. Monsieur Hardman,’ said M. Bouc with a smile.
‘Well,’ said Hardman. ‘I can’t say Prohibition has ever worried me any.’
‘Ah!’ said M. Bouc. ‘The speakeasy.’’

It’s an interesting glimpse of the extent of the temperance movement. Oh, and it is said that Christie herself was a lifelong teetotaler.

Stan Jones’ White Sky, Black Ice highlights another perspective on the question of alcohol use. In that novel, we are introduced to Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. He is a member of the Inupiaq people, and serves in the small town of Chukchi.  One of the plot threads of this novel concerns a debate over whether or not Chukchi should ‘go dry.’ Most of the people there are Inupiaq, and there is a great deal of sad experience with the impact of alcohol on their families. Many believe it would be better if Chukchi had no alcohol, so that people would be less likely to fall prey to it. At the same time, there are plenty who believe that it is the individual’s decision to drink or not. Many hold, therefore, that people, not the government, should decide whether alcohol should be allowed in the town. It’s not an easy question, and Jones discusses both sides of the debate.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Stranger, Fjällbacka police detective Patrik Hedström and his team investigate the death of Marit Kaspersen. On the surface of it, she seems to have died in an alcohol-related single-car crash. Certainly her blood alcohol level is very high. What’s strange, though, is that she didn’t drink. So why would a teetotaler be involved in a drink driving incident? Then, Hedström hears of another death a few years earlier. Rasmus Olsson apparently jumped off a bridge after drinking a bottle of vodka. Again it’s a case of a teetotaler dying with a large quantity of alcohol in the blood. As Hedström puts it,

‘‘…they don’t seem to have the slightest thing in common except that they both were teetotalers.’’

It turns out that these deaths are connected, and both are related to a past tragedy.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series will know that one of Rankin’s other main characters, Malcolm Fox, is a teetotaler. Fox, whom we first meet in The Complaints, has his own personal monsters to grapple with, so he doesn’t drink. We also see that in some other crime-fictional sleuths, too, such as Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran and Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder.

There are certainly enough characters in crime fiction who do drink that it’s sometimes nice to remember that not all of them do. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ringo Starr’s The No No Song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Ian Rankin, Lawrence Block, Lilian Jackson Braun, Miriam Grace Monfredo, Stan Jones

He Was the Bed and Breakfast Man*

B&BsIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that B&B’s are a different sort of accommodation to boarding houses or lodges. They’re not usually intended for long-term guests. At the same time, like lodging and boarding houses, they are often private homes. There’s also a sort of intimacy about the B&B that isn’t as common in hotels. The B&B makes a sometimes very pleasant alternative to the hotel or motel, too. You may not be able to get your dinner, but if you do a bit of research (and have a bit of luck), a B&B can be delightful.

There are a number of them in crime fiction; and, even when they aren’t directly concerned in the plot of a novel, they can certainly add character to a story. Here are just a few examples.

In Lawrence Block’s The Burglar in the Library, New York bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr plans a romantic getaway for himself and his current love interest Lettice Littlefield. The plan is for them to go to Cuttleford House, a lovely B&B in upstate New York. Then, Lettice surprises Bernie with the news that she can’t go because she’s getting married – to someone else. Not wanting to waste the trip or go alone, Bernie invites his friend Carolyn Kaiser in Lettice’s place. To add to his motivation, there’s a rare book in Cuttleford’s library that he’d like very much to have. The snowfall that started before they even got to the B&B gets worse and worse. Still they arrive safely and prepare to enjoy a break from New York City. Then, the body of fellow guest Jonathan Rathburn is found in the very library where Bernie saw the book he wants. And with everyone snowbound, it’s more than likely that one of the other people at the B&B is the killer. And Rathburn’s is only the first death…

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Nag, Lochdubh Constable Hamish Macbeth has recently been demoted from sergeant. That in itself might not be so bad, but he’s also dealing with the breaking of his engagement to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe. And the circumstances of that breakup haven’t exactly made him popular. He’s fed up and a bit at loose ends, as the saying goes. So he makes arrangements to stay for a bit at the Friendly House, a beachside inn, and makes the trip there. It’s not really a B&B – more like a boarding house – and it’s certainly not friendly. There are all sorts of annoying and eccentric guests, and the hosts are not exactly model innkeepers. Then, one of the residents, Bob Harris, is murdered. Macbeth gets drawn into the investigation. He traces Harris’ last days, including an incident in which he saw Harris leave a house that he’s discovered is a brothel. Unfortunately, when Macbeth returns to follow up on that clue, he knocks at the wrong door:

‘An angry flush rose up her face. ‘This is a respectable bed and breakfast, I’ll have ye know. It’s that Simpson creature you’re wanting. I could hae ye for slander. Off wi’ ye.’

Upon hearing that the brothel he’s looking for is next door, he makes a very understandable hasty retreat. A few moments later, he speaks to the brothel owner, Mrs. Simpson. Here’s what she says when Macbeth tells her about the mistake he’s made:

‘She burst out laughing. ‘That must ha’ got the old biddy’s knickers in a twist. I can tell you her gentleman boarders, as she ca’s them, drink mair than any o’ the lot that come here.’

Just because a B&B is respectable doesn’t mean all of its guests are…

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that many of the stories take place in the small, rural Québec town of Three Pines. If you aren’t staying with relatives or friends there, the place to stay is the local B&B/bistro, owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. It’s the setting for many interactions in the series, and both owners get involved at one point or another in the mysteries that Gamache investigates.

There are also, of course, a few mystery series set in B&Bs, with owners as sleuths. For example, there’s Jean Hager’s Iris House B&B Mystery novels. Beginning with Blooming Murder, the series follows Iris House’s owner Tess Darcy as she converts her late Aunt Iris’ former Missouri home into a B&B and launches her business. Things get off to a rather rocky start when Tess prepares to host participants in the Iris Growers’ Convention – and one of them ends up dead, stabbed with a cake knife.

And for a truly creepy B&B story, I recommend Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. Billy Weaver has just arrived in Bath to start a new job. He’s on his way to the Bell and Dragon, where he’s heard he can get a decent room, when he happens to pass a small, homey-looking place with a B&B sign. On impulse, he stops there and asks about a room. You can read what happens next right here. But I suggest you read it during the day. And not just as you’re looking up a B&B for that next getaway…

Don’t let stories like The Landlady stop you booking a B&B, though. They can be wonderful places; I know I’ve had some great experiences.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Madness’ The Bed and Breakfast Man.


Filed under Jean Hager, Lawrence Block, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Roald Dahl

She Lived There With This Roommate I Despised*

RoommatesVery often, young people don’t have the means to purchase or even lease a place to live by themselves. So they room with another person (sometimes more than one person). In fact, rooming together is a lot more common at universities (especially for undergraduates) than is having a place to oneself.

The roommate relationship is a very unusual one, if you think about it. In a lot of cases, roommates are not relatives or family members. And yet, they may know more about one another than family does. And there are all kinds of things that can happen between roommates, too. If you’ve seen Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female, you know some of what can happen. Even if you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you have your own ‘roommate stories.’

Roommates also figure into crime fiction. That makes sense, simply because of the relationship. Here are just a few examples.

Of course one of the best-known set of fictional roommates is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For many of the stories in that series, they share rooms at perhaps crime fiction’s most famous address, 221B Baker Street. They’re very different people, but they manage to make it work.

Agatha Christie’s Third Girl is in part the story of three young women who share a London flat. Claudia Reese-Holland and Frances Cary share with Norma Restarick, who’s been brought in as a ‘third girl:’

‘The main girl takes a furnished flat, and then shares out the rent. Second girl is usually a friend. Then they find a third girl by advertising if they don’t know one…First girl takes the best room, second girl pays rather less, third girl less still and is stuck in a cat-hole.’

Norma pays a cryptic visit to Poirot, and then changes her mind, saying he’s ‘too old.’ Shortly thereafter, she disappears. Poirot’s friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, knows who Norma is, and is interested in the mystery. So she works with Poirot to find out what happened to Norma and what it all may have to do with a murder that may have occurred. It’s an interesting look at taking a place together in London in the 1960s.

In Edward D. Hoch’s short story The Oblong Room, we meet university roommates Ralph Rollings and Tom McBern.  Connecticut police detective Captain Leopold is sent to the local university campus when Rollings’ body is found with stab wounds in it. McBern is in the room (which is locked), and apparently has been for two days. At first, no-one says anything about what happened – not McBern and not the young woman both roommates admired. Without any background, it’s hard to pinpoint a motive, but in the end, Leopold gets there. In this case, the motive is as unusual as the ‘locked room’ nature of this crime is.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers introduces readers to his sleuth Matthew Scudder. In this first novel, Scudder hasn’t yet got his PI license, but he does occasionally do a little very informal work for people. Successful businessman Cale Hanniford has heard about Scudder and want to hire him. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has been murdered, and all of the evidence points to her roommate, twenty-one-year-old Richard Vanderpoel. In fact, Hanniford doesn’t even want Scudder to investigate the murder. Rather, he wants to know more about the daughter from whom he’d become estranged. He’s hoping Scudder can help him understand the kind of person Wendy had become, and what led to her death. Rather reluctantly, Scudder agrees and asks some questions. As he does, he begins to wonder whether her roommate was actually responsible. In the end, he finds that Wendy’s murder is not as simple as it seems.

Neither is the murder of Kate Sumner, which we read about in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. Two young boys who out exploring find her body on the beach near Chapman’s Poole, Dorset. The alarm is raised and PC Nick Ingram begins to investigate. In the meantime, a toddler, who turns out to be Kate’s daughter Hannah, is found wandering around the nearby town of Poole. Gradually, the police trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and narrow the suspect list down to three people. One is Kate’s husband William. Another is a local schoolteacher Tony Bridges. A third is Bridges’ roommate, actor Stephen Harding. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that all three men had a motive, and that Kate’s complicated personal life and psychology have everything to do with her murder.

A group of college roommates features in Lisa Unger’s In the Blood. Lana Granger is a college senior who’s done everything possible to hide the darkness in her past. She’s managing, with difficulty at times, to function and is currently finishing her degree. As the story opens, she shares a dormitory suite with Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller and a third roommate, Ainsley. Then, Lana’s mentor recommends her for an after-school nanny job supervising Luke Kahn. Luke’s had severe psychological/emotional problems; even on his best days, he can be difficult. Lana takes the job, although she’s a bit reluctant about it. Things begin to go downhill, as the saying goes, when Lana suspects that Luke is manipulating her. Then one terrible night, Beck disappears. It’s not long before she’s officially reported missing, and Lana becomes the chief suspect, since she had an argument with Beck that evening. Lana claims that she doesn’t know what happened to her roommate, but the police aren’t ready to take her word for it. And the more they learn about that night, the more they question what she says. The truth about what happened isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems. Without spoiling the story, I can say that one of the things we see in this novel is college campus ‘roommate life.’

Living with someone who’s not a family member and not a romantic partner can be odd at times. In its way, it’s a very intimate relationship; yet, most of the time, roommates aren’t related. It’s certainly an interesting dynamic, so it’s no wonder it pops up in crime fiction. Got any ‘roommate war stories’ you’d like to share?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ She Just Happened.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward D. Hoch, Lawrence Block, Lisa Unger, Minette Walters