Category Archives: Lilian Jackson Braun

Found in a Book, Hidden on the Pages*

Hidden in BooksWhen most of us think of books, we think of the pleasure of reading. That’s treasure enough in itself. But books can serve other purposes, too. For instance, they’re very good hiding places for things. Don’t believe me? All you need to do is take a quick look through crime fiction.

For example, in Ellery Queen’s short story The Adventure of the One-Penny Black, philatelists Friedrich and Albert Ulm report that a valuable stamp – a one-penny black, with Queen Victoria’s signature on it – has been stolen from their collection. On the same day, a man rushes into a nearby bookshop followed by police. The man disappears through the back of the store before the police can catch him. Then, the next day, the bookshop owner reports that someone came in and bought all of his copies of a book called Europe in Chaos. To add to the oddness, certain customers who’ve bought copies of that book have been robbed of those copies. Ellery Queen figures out that whoever stole the stamp probably hid it in a copy of Europe in Chaos as an emergency measure, and then went back to get it later (hence the need to buy and steal as many copies of that book as possible). But where is the stamp now? Who hid it? And what’s the truth about the robbery? It’s not as simple as you might think.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, a group of passengers is taking a cruise of the Nile. Among them are Linnet Ridgeway Doyle and her new husband Simon. On the second night of the journey, she is shot. The most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jacqueline could not be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot, who is on this cruise as well, has to look elsewhere for the killer. As he does so, he finds out a great deal about some of the other characters. And it turns out that one of them has been using hollowed-out books for an ingenious purpose…

A hollowed-out book turns out to be both lucrative and very dangerous in Harry Whittington’s Fires That Destroy. In that novel, we meet Beatrice Harper, secretary to wealthy businessman Lloyd Deerman. When she finds a cache of US$24,000 in a hollowed out book she can’t resist the opportunity to get her hands on that money. So she devises a plan. Deerman drinks more than he should, so one night, when he’s had plenty, she pushes him down a staircase to his death. Now Beatrice has the money; and at first, it opens up a world of privilege, good-looking young men, cars, and so on. But Beatrice doesn’t find it easy to live with the guilt of what she’s done. And her new boyfriend Carlos has his own demons. They try to start life over in Florida, but that only makes matters worse. Soon enough, life spins out of control for both of them. The saying that money can’t buy happiness turns out to be tragically true.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal, the local community theatre group is doing a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII under the direction of high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the final performance VanBrook is found dead in his car on the property of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill and local police chief Andrew Brodie look into the murder and soon find that VanBrook had made more than his share of enemies. One of the clues in this case actually comes from VanBrook’s personal library. Qwilleran finds a hollowed-out book in which there’s a list of other books, some of which have red dots next to the titles. In each of those books, Qwill finds a cache of money. Working out where the money came from and what this particular code means turns out to be essential to finding the killer.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh lives and works in Delhi, but travels to her home town in the state of Punjab at the request of an old friend who’s now the state’s inspector general. He’s faced with a baffling and difficult murder case. Thirteen members of the wealthy and powerful Atwal family have been poisoned, and several stabbed as well. What’s more, their house has been set on fire. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. It isn’t clearly evident whether she committed the murders, or is a victim who just happened to stay alive, and she’s said nearly nothing about the crime since the night it happened. The hope is that Simran will be able to get Durga to talk about the night of the murders, so that the police will know what steps to take. At first, Durga is reluctant to say much of anything, and Simran herself isn’t too enthusiastic about this case. But gradually the two start to communicate. At one point, Durga, who’s being kept in makeshift quarters in an adult prison, asks Simran to retrieve some of her books from the family home. Simran agrees, and gathers the materials. When she does, she finds a photograph that falls out of one of the books. It’s not a ‘photo of Durga, but all the same, it’s disturbing in its way. And it proves to be an important clue as Simran searches for the truth about what happened to the Atwal family and what led to it.

You see? Books are a never-ending source of interesting things, aren’t they? And I didn’t even mention the number of stories in which people find wills, names on a flyleaf, or margin notes in books – too easy!!  And all of this isn’t even to mention actually reading them…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Spock’s Beard’s On a Perfect Day.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Harry Whittington, Kishwar Desai, Lilian Jackson Braun

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

Hanging Tough, Staying Hungry*

EntrepreneursIt takes a lot of courage and bold planning to start up one’s own business. The odds are against success, and even if a person does launch a successful company, there’s a heavy cost in terms of time and personal life. But people open their own businesses all the time, trusting that they’ll do well and their companies will flourish.

Crime fiction is full of PIs who’ve take the risk to set up shop for themselves. Mentioning them on this post would be too easy. But there are plenty of other entrepreneurs in genre. Sometimes they do well, and sometimes…not well at all. Either way, people who start their own businesses can make for very interesting characters.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) we meet Susan Banks. She has dreams of opening up her own beauty salon, and the business acumen and bold planning that are needed to start one’s own company. But she and her husband Greg don’t have the money to stake such a venture. We learn as the story goes on that she approached her wealthy uncle Richard Abernethie, but he refused to help. When Abernethie dies, apparently of natural causes, his family gathers for the funeral. At the gathering, his youngest sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first no-one takes her seriously. But when she herself is killed the next day, everyone begins to believe that she might have been right. The family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. Susan immediately becomes ‘a person of interest’ because of her determination to have her own business – and because she has now inherited the money she needs to open her salon. It doesn’t help her case that she can’t really prove her whereabouts on either occasion. But as Poirot and Mr. Entwhistle find out, there are several suspects in this case…

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve discovers the same entrepreneurial spirit in her daughter Mieka. Like many parents, Joanne wants to see her daughter go to university and get a good education. And at first, that’s what Mieka does. But by the end of the first year, she’s made other plans. She decides to open her own catering business. In one story arc in this series, we see how Mieka has to convince her mother that the business can be successful. She does what new business owners have to do: study the market, look for an opening, decide on one’s talents and interests, and put together a business plan. It takes some time for Joanne to get used to the idea, but Mieka makes a go of it. Later, she uses the same initiative to develop a playground, UpSlideDown. Mieka has faults, as we all do, but she doesn’t lack in courage or bold planning.

There are several ‘regulars’ in Lilian Jackson Braun’s series featuring features journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Throughout most of the series, he lives and works in a small town, where readers get to know many of the other people who live there. One of those people is Lori Bamba. She starts out as Qwill’s part-time secretary, who also happens to be quite gifted with cats. So he depends a lot on her as he gets used to having his own two Siamese. As the series goes on, Lori and her husband Nick get involved in several new business ventures. One, for instance, is the Domino Inn, which we learn about in The Cat Who Came to Breakfast. It’s located on Breakfast Island/AKA Pear Island, Grand Island, and Providence Island, a holiday/fishing community with a certain tourist appeal. Lori and Nick are concerned about some strange incidents that look like sabotage, so Qwill arranges a stay at the Domino to look into the matter. What he finds goes much deeper and is much more dangerous that someone playing nasty pranks. The Bambas don’t always succeed in their ventures, but they have energy and resilience – and creative ideas.

In Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, we meet another entrepreneur, Rose. Originally from a small village in the country, she ended up in Bangkok, where she became a bar girl. She’s no longer in that business any more, and has started up a new apartment-cleaning company of her own. There’s plenty of competition, and Rose isn’t exactly wealthy. But she has a lot of courage. And what’s interesting about her company is that all of her employees are former bar girls who’ve had enough of that life and want to get out of it.

Walter Mosley’s Fear of the Dark is in great part the story of Paris Minton. A year before the events in the story, he opened the Florence Avenue Used Bookshop, hoping to run a peaceful business. He’s not at all what you’d call bold or a person of initiative. But he does love books, and just wanted a place where he could make a living and indulge his passtion. And for a year, he’s done all right for himself. Then his cousin Ulysses S. Grant IV ‘Useless’ pays him a visit. At first, Minton doesn’t even want to let his cousin in; Useless has been nothing but trouble, sometimes very bad trouble, all his life. But eventually Minton yields. Useless asks him for a place to stay, but Minton refuses. At first, Minton doesn’t think much of it – until Useless disappears and Minton’s aunt asks him to track Useless down. For that, Minton turns to his friend Fearless Jones, who’s the kind of person you want on your side in a fight. Jones and Minton go looking for Useless, and find instead a complicated blackmail scheme and some very dangerous people who are also looking for Useless…

And then there’s Carl Hiaasen’s Nature Girl. In one plot thread of that novel, we meet Sammy Tigertail, who was born Chad McQueen. He is half White/half Seminole, and not sure where he fits in with either community. He sets up his own new business offering airboat rides through the Florida Everglades. When his first client dies of a heart attack during the trip, Sammy decides that this business is not going to be successful, especially if enough tourists hear that his client died. So he heads deep into the wilderness and ends up in Dismal Key. That happens to be the place where Honey Santana is leading Boyd Shreave on a kayak trip that could turn out to be disastrous for him. She’s getting back at Boyd for verbal abuse during a telemarketing call he made. There are other characters in pursuit of both of them, so Sammy hardly gets the peace and quiet he feels he needs after his venture failed. This is a Hiaasen novel, so as you can imagine, all of the characters’ lives intersect in some unusual ways.

Not all business ventures are quite that adventurous. But all new businesses need courage, a lot of time, a lot of faith, and some luck. Money doesn’t hurt, either. Which fictional ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Gail Bowen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley

I’m Going Back Some Day*

Return Trips to Places From Earlier NovelsHave you ever finished a novel, and wondered what happened to the characters later, perhaps even years later? It’s interesting when authors explore this question, because it leads to all sorts of possibilities. Some authors return to their characters in the context of a series, so that we follow what happens to them on a regular basis.

Some authors, though, do things a bit differently. They return to their characters after (at least fictionally) some time has passed. When this happens, readers get to find out how different places and characters have evolved, if they have, and what has happened to them. And that can lead in very interesting directions.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer is her lodger James Bentley, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. In fact, there’s so much evidence that he’s been arrested, tried and convicted. Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t sure Bentley is guilty though, and has asked Poirot to look into the matter. In the course of the investigation, Poirot found that Mrs. McGinty had a way of finding out things about people, and that more than one person might have been willing to kill to prevent certain facts from coming out. Years later (in Hallowe’en Party), Poirot visits Spence, who is now retired, and living in the village of Woodleigh Common. Poirot is on another case, this time the drowning death of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds. He wants Spence’s impression of the people in the village and their possible motives for murder. As they chat, they return to the Mrs. McGinty case, and follow up on a few of the major characters in it. It isn’t, admittedly, a return to Broadhinny, but it does catch the reader up on what’s happened since the events of the first novel.

Scott Turow first introduced the world to Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich in Presumed Innocent. In that novel, Sabich is a prosecuting attorney for Kindle County. He gets a particularly disturbing case when he is asked to investigate the murder of a colleague, Carolyn Polhemus. What makes this case even more difficult is that until a few months before her death, Polhemus and Sabich were romantically involved. When Sabich’s boss finds out about this, he removes Sabich from the case. Matters get even worse when evidence turns up that implicates Sabich. In fact, he goes on trial for the murder. He asks Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him and together, the two prepare their case. Turow returns to Kindle County and to Rusty Sabich many years later in Innocent. By this time, Sabich is the chief appellate judge for Kindle County. One morning, he wakes up to find that his wife Barbara has died, apparently of natural causes. But questions begin to arise about the case. For example, why did Sabich wait 24 hours to contact authorities or his son Nat? And why was there a large dose of antidepressants in the victim’s system? Before long, Sabich is on trial for murder again, this time the murder of his wife. As the story goes along, we see how the characters have evolved since the events of Presumed Innocent.

John Grisham takes readers on two visits to Clanton, Mississippi. In A Time to Kill, the town is outraged when Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard brutally attack and rape ten-year-old Tonya Hailey. There’s a lot of sympathy for the Hailey family, and Cobb and Willard are duly arrested.  Tonya’s father, Carl Lee Hailey, isn’t convinced that these rapists will really face justice, since they are White and Hailey and his family are Black. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courthouse. Hailey’s lawyer, Jake Brigance, faces several obstacles as he prepares for trial. For one thing, his client clearly shot two people. And it doesn’t help matters that there are several powerful people in town who want Hailey out of the way for reasons of their own. Sycamore Row takes place three years after the events of A Time to Kill. Brigance has had to deal with financial and other very negative consequences of his defending Carl Lee Hailey. But it’s clear that at least someone supported him. One day Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a sycamore tree; his lung cancer is terminal and increasingly painful, and he saw this as the best way out, so to speak. Before his death, he sent a letter containing a holographic will to Brigance. The will stipulates that his children and grandchildren will not inherit any of his money. Instead, he has left everything to his housekeeper Letitia ‘Letty’ Lang. Hubbard knew that his family would contest the will, and he wants Brigance to do everything possible to uphold it. As Brigance and Lang prepare to go up against the Hubbards, we see what the town of Clanton is like now, and how much has changed or not changed.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Turned On and Off, her sleuth, James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, is a features journalist for The Daily Fluxion. He plans to do a feature on a little-known section of the city called Junktown. A lot of people think that Junktown is a run-down area full of junkies and crime. But it’s actually a collection of interesting antique shops and other unusual businesses. As he gets ready to do his feature, Qwilleran gets drawn into the personal stories of the people who live and work there. That’s how he finds out about the death a few months earlier of Andrew ‘Andy’ Glanz, a respected antiques expert and dealer. The death was assumed to be an accident, but Qwill soon begins to believe it was anything but that. As he prepares a tribute article, he finds out about the network of past history and relationships in the area; it turns out that Glanz’ murder has everything to do with that network. Qwill returns to Junktown later in the series, in The Cat Who Lived High. In that story, he is in the area to help save the legendary Casablanca apartment building from demolition. While he’s there, he stays at the Casablanca, in an apartment formerly occupied by artist Diane Bessinger. When Qwill discovers that she was murdered, he gets drawn into finding out who the killer was. And this puts him in contact again with several of the characters and places that Braun depicted in the earlier novel.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising takes place in 1981, in the Houston area. Jay Porter is a low-rent lawyer who’s trying to make a successful life for himself, his wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ and their soon-to-be-born first child. In one plot thread, he takes Bernie out for a bayou cruise to celebrate her birthday. Instead, he ends up rescuing a woman who’s fallen (or been thrown) in to the bayou. She won’t say much about herself; and once the Porters drop her off at the police station, she indicates that she doesn’t need or want any more help. But the next day, Porter learns that there was a murder that night, and that the woman they helped may be mixed up in it. Porter doesn’t want to get involved in the case, since he has an unpleasant past with the police (mostly a result of his days with the Black Power movement). But Porter finds himself drawn into this shooting case, and works to find out the truth and still say as far away from trouble as he can. It isn’t entirely successful…   Pleasantville returns readers to this area of Houston fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising. Porter has been working on environmental law, and trying to keep his office a going concern. He gets drawn into the disappearance of Alicia Nowell when he learns that she’s the third of three girls gone missing in the last few years. And this isn’t the work of a crazed serial killer either. It turns out that Alicia was a volunteer for one of the local mayoral candidates, and that this case is all about corruption and politics. As Locke tells the story, we see how the community has evolved, and we see what’s happened to Porter and the people in his life as well.

And that’s one of the interesting things about books that take readers back to settings and characters from earlier stories. Readers can see how places, characters and even ideas have evolved. Or haven’t.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roy Orbison and John Melson’s Blue Bayou. Listen to the original version and the popular recording by Linda Ronstadt and see which one you prefer.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, John Grisham, Lilian Jackson Braun, Scott Turow

You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer