Category Archives: Linwood Barclay

Someday You’ll Thank Me For This Advice*

for-your-own-good‘It’s for your own good!’ ‘Someday you’ll thank me.’ I’ll bet you’ve heard this sort of thing before. Very often, the person who says something like that is well-meaning, or at the very least not deliberately malicious. And yet, what someone else thinks is for our own good isn’t always. And the way that plays out in crime fiction can be very interesting.

I got to thinking about what is(n’t) for someone’s own good when I read an excellent review of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper from Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. Admittedly, I’ve not (yet) read the story myself. But it’s got a plot point that includes that question of what is really best for someone. But don’t take my word for it. Please go check out Cleo’s review yourself. Her blog is an excellent resource for all sorts of terrific reviews, so you’ll want it on your blog roll if it’s not there already.

We see this plot point in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family travels from the US to the Middle East for a sightseeing tour. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is manipulative, malicious and tyrannical, but no-one in her family dares go against her will. That includes her seventeen-year-old daughter, Ginevra ‘Ginny.’ In more than one place in the novel, Ginny wants (or doesn’t want) to do something, and her mother insists she do the opposite. It’s almost always, according to Mrs. Boynton, because Ginny has no idea what’s best for her. But the reader soon sees just how unpleasant and controlling Mrs. Boynton really is, and how little of what she does is the best thing for her daughter. On the second afternoon of the family’s trip to the ancient city of Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area on a trip of his own, so Colonel Carbury asks him to investigate. And Ginny becomes one of the ‘people of interest’ whom he interviews.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is a world-class violinist, who’s been a musical prodigy for most of his life. But one frightening day, he finds himself unable to play at all. Terrified, he seeks the help of a psychologist to try to get to the root of his mental block. Through that plot thread, we learn that he’s been groomed (many would say, pushed) since he was a little boy. We also learn that, twenty years earlier, he lost his sister Sonia (she was a toddler at the time) to a tragic drowning accident (or was it?). All of these past issues play a role in Gideon’s life now. And we see how he’s been impacted by that attitude of ‘I know what’s best for you.’

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction novelist Zack Walker decides that his family isn’t safe in the city. He’d rather live in the far-less-dangerous suburbs. Neither of his children wants to make the move. They’re both well-established in school, and don’t see the point of moving. And Walker’s wife, Sarah, likes their present home, too. Still, she is finally persuaded to make the move. Walker thinks he knows what’s best for his family, but it certainly doesn’t turn out that way. First, there are several problems with the house. And Walker doesn’t get much help when he goes to the development’s sales office to complain. Then, during Walker’s visit to the office, he witnesses an argument between one of the executives there, and local environmental activist, Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body at a local creek. Before he knows it, he’s drawn into a complex case of murder and fraud. As it turns out, he didn’t know what was best after all…

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is the story of Kate Meaney. As the story begins (in 1984), she is a ten-year-old budding detective. In fact, she’s got her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a great deal of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, since she is sure that a mall is a magnet for criminals and suspicious activity. Kate’s very content with her life, despite the fact that she lives in a somewhat dreary town. But her grandmother, Ivy, thinks that it would be better for the girl to go away to school. Over Kate’s objections, Ivy arranges for her granddaughter to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Ivy believes she’s doing this for Kate’s own good, but things don’t turn out as planned. Kate and her friend, Adrian Palmer, take the bus to the school for the exams, but only Adrian comes back. Despite a massive search, no sign of Kate is ever found – not even a body. Twenty years later, Kurt, a security officer at Green Oaks, starts to see unusual images on the cameras he monitors. They seem to be of a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, Kurt meets Lisa (Adrian Palmer’s younger sister), who has a job at the mall. He and Lisa strike up a sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, they re-open the past. We find out what happened to Kate, and we see that ‘for your own good,’ isn’t always for the best.

We see that, too, in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence, a fictional retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan, who was arrested in Victoria in1900 for the murder of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie meets Jack Hardy in 1898. She falls in love with him, and the feeling seems to be mutual. In fact, he asks her to marry him, but says their engagement must be kept secret until he can provide for a family. Maggie agrees, and Jack goes to New South Wales to look for work. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to Jack a number of times, but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that she can’t go home to her family, she goes to Melbourne to look for work. She finds a job at a Guest House, where she stays until her baby, whom she names Jacky, is born. Then, she goes to Mrs. Cameron’s home for unwed mothers. There, the young women are taught all sorts of things, ‘for their own good,’ including ways to take care of their babies. Maggie’s instinct is that Mrs. Cameron and her ways are wrong for both mother and baby. So, when she discovers that Jack Hardy has moved to Melbourne, she goes in search of him. When she finds him, he rejects her, telling her that she’s crazy. In her grief, Maggie goes from lodging house to lodging house, looking for a place for her and the baby to stay. She’s turned away from six establishments before the tragedy with Jacky occurs. She’s arrested and imprisoned, where again, a lot of what happens is ‘for the good’ of the prisoners. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at what was expected at that time.

Many people really are well-meaning when they say they’re doing/saying something ‘for your own good.’ And sometimes it works out that way. But sometimes it doesn’t. And that can add real tension to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Save Your Life  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, Linwood Barclay, Wendy James

Was I So Unwise*

Unwise ChoicesI’m sure you’ve had those moments. Someone you know, who’s otherwise an intelligent person, is doing something really foolish. You may even think (or say), ‘How can you be so stupid?’

There are lots of reasons why smart people do stupid things. All sorts of factors (denial, greed, and fear being a few) play roles in what we do; intelligence is only one of them. We all have those ‘blind spots’ though. And in crime fiction, when smart people make foolish choices, the result can bring real trouble. This sort of plot thread has to be done carefully; otherwise, it takes away from a character’s credibility, and can pull a reader out of a story. Still, when it’s done well, it can make for a solid layer of suspense and character development.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, we are introduced to pawn shop owner Mr. Jabez Wilson. One day he visits Sherlock Holmes, bringing with him an unusual story. His assistant showed him a newspaper advertisement placed by the Red-Headed League, inviting red-headed men to apply for membership in the group, and for a job. Wilson went along to apply, and was chosen for the job. It turned the work was easy, too: copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The only stipulation was that he was not to leave his work during ‘office hours.’ Then one day, Wilson went to his new job only to find the building locked and a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. He wants Holmes to help him solve the mysteries behind these weird occurrences, and Holmes agrees. Wilson isn’t a particularly stupid person (although he could be accused of being a bit credulous). But he seems to have had a sort of ‘blind spot’ about this job, which turns out to be connected to a gang of robbers who wanted to use his pawn shop to tunnel into a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He is soon drawn into a case of murder, though, when retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most likely suspect is his stepson Ralph Paton. Not only had the two quarreled about money, but also, Paton went missing shortly after the murder and hasn’t been seen since. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty, and she asks Poirot to investigate. Ackroyd was a wealthy man, so there are plenty of suspects, one of whom is his widowed sister-in-law (and Flora’s mother). It turns out that each of these suspects is hiding something, and in the case of Mrs. Ackroyd, it’s a stupid decision on the part of an otherwise smart enough woman. She was eager for money, and Ackroyd wasn’t exactly a generous person. She ran up bills she couldn’t afford to pay, and became a victim of some unscrupulous moneylenders.

There’s a chilling example of smart people doing very unwise things in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. George and Jacqueline Coverdale are well off and well educated. You wouldn’t think they’d do a lot of foolish things. But when they decide to hire a housekeeper, Jacqueline does a very stupid thing indeed. She hires Eunice Parchman without doing any real checking into her background, her previous experience, or much of anything else. Still, Eunice settles in and at first, all goes well enough. But Eunice has a secret – one she will go to any lengths to keep from her employers. When that secret accidentally comes out one day, the result is tragic for everyone. And it all might have been prevented if Jacqueline had done a little background checking before making her hiring decision.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, we meet science fiction writer Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah. Walker is concerned about the family’s safety, and decides that they’d be better off moving from the city to a safer, suburban home. The cost of living is lower, the amenities are better, and so he convinces his wife to make the move. All goes well enough at the very beginning, although the children aren’t happy. But then one day, Walker goes to the main sales office of their new housing development to complain about some needed repairs to the home. During his visit, he witnesses an argument between one of the sales executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek. He calls the police, who interview him – a wise enough decision. But then, one day during a shopping trip with his wife, Walker accidentally discovers a handbag left in a supermarket cart. He thinks it belongs to his wife, and takes it, only later discovering that it doesn’t belong to her. Instead of taking it back to the supermarket or to the police, Walker keeps it, hoping to return it to the owner himself. And that gets him more and more deeply involved in a tangled case of fraud and murder. In the end, his family gets in much more danger in the suburbs than they ever did in the city.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has gotten concerned about his aunt, Zia Anita. An otherwise intelligent woman, she’s been behaving oddly lately. For one thing, she’s taken what Vianello thinks is an unhealthy interest in astrology. As if that’s not enough, she’s been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man called Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing it. But the family is worried about the choices she’s making. Vianello asks his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to look into the matter, and Brunetti agrees. He does some background checking on Gorini, and finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now he’s back in business again, promising ‘miracle’ cures that he can’t deliver. In this case, Zia Anita wants so badly to believe in Gorini that she’s made some very unwise choices.

And that’s the thing. Even the smartest of us sometimes have ‘blind spots,’ and make some very foolish choices. The consequences aren’t always drastic, although they can be embarrassing. But sometimes, they’re devastating.

ps. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the many crime novels in which otherwise intelligent people make really stupid romantic choices. Too easy.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Night Before.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Linwood Barclay, Ruth Rendell

My Family Just Moved in Around the Corner*

New NeighboursI’m sure you know the feeling. A moving van pulls up to a home near yours and you start wondering. What will the new people be like? Will they have a dog that barks at all hours? Will they have loud parties? Will they be pleasant? It’s quite natural to be curious about new people, especially if you live in a place that’s not particularly transient. Sometimes, the new people who move in turn out to be terrific folks who become your friends. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, it’s enough to get people thinking.

That tension and curiosity about new people can also add a layer of interest and suspense in a crime novel. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd takes place in the small village of King’s Abbot. Dr. James Sheppard is the local GP, who lives with his sister Caroline. They’ve recently had someone new move into the house next door. Sheppard is not one to pry a lot, but Caroline is insatiably curious. Despite her best efforts, though, she hasn’t been able to find out very much about their new neighbour. One afternoon, though, Sheppard is doing some gardening when he has his own encounter:

 

‘I was busily exterminating dandelion roots when a shout of warning sounded from close by and a heavy body whizzed by my ears and fell at my feet with a repellent squelch. It was a vegetable marrow!

I looked up angrily. Over the wall, to my left, there appeared a face. An egg-shaped head, partially covered with suspiciously black hair, two immense moustaches, and a pair of watchful eyes. It was our mysterious neighbour, Mr Porrott.’
 

This isn’t the friendliest way to begin an exchange, but Hercule Poirot gushes out his apologies, explaining that he lost his temper with the vegetable and threw it without thinking. Before long, he and Sheppard get to talking. And when Sheppard’s friend, retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, is murdered, he and Poirot investigate.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, former school principal Thea Farmer has to deal with new people when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington move in next door. She has nothing but contempt for them, referring to them as ‘the invaders’ Getting used to these new people is even harder for her than it is for most of us, because they’ve bought the house that Thea had had built for herself. A combination of bad luck and poor financial planning meant that she wasn’t able to take possession of ‘her’ house, and had to settle for a smaller home nearby. All of this means that she’s not particularly disposed to like Frank and Ellice. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in. At first, Thea is sure this will make things even worse. But she ends up developing a sort of awkward friendship with the girl. That’s why she’s so upset when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Thea learns that the police aren’t going to do much about it without more direct evidence. So she makes her own plans…

William Ryan’s The Holy Thief introduces readers to Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID. This series takes place in the years just before World War II, when Stalin is firmly in charge in the then-Soviet Union. In one plot thread of the novel, Korolev has just been assigned new (and better) housing. Instead of having to share his room, he will have his own room in an apartment. It may not seem like much, but at that time, and in that place, it’s a definite step up. Korolev soon learns that he will be sharing the new apartment with Valentina Nikolaevna Koltsova and her young daughter, Natasha. It’s a little awkward at first, since they are complete strangers to each other. And it doesn’t help matters that during this time, it’s not uncommon for people to denounce each other to the authorities. So both Korolev and Koltsova are understandably very cautious about what they say to each other and what they do. Still, they gradually learn to like and trust each other.

In Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, we meet Emily Wray and her daughter Frances. It’s the early 1920s in London, when women don’t have many options for earning a living. Certainly women of ‘the better classes’ aren’t prepared to get jobs and have careers. So when Emily’s husband (and Frances’ father) dies, the two women are left without much money. They decide that they have no option but to take in lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism they use – to make ends meet. After a short time, Len and Lilian Barber answer the Wrays’ advertisement and take rooms in their house. It’s all awkward to begin with because of the Wrays’ embarrassment at having to take in boarders. But it’s also awkward because the Barbers and the Wrays don’t know each other, and don’t know what it will be like to be at close quarters. Frances isn’t particularly impressed with either Barber at first. But bit by bit, everyone gets used to the arrangement. It’s not long, though, before things begin to spin out of control. In the end, having new people around has disastrous consequences.

Of course, it’s no less awkward if you’re the new person moving in. That’s what science fiction writer Zack Walker finds out in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker decides that his family would be safer if they moved from the city where they’ve been living to a new, suburban home. He finds what he thinks will be the right place in Valley Forest Estates, where the lower cost of living means that he’ll be able to write full time. The family moves in, and they feel the awkwardness of being ‘the new people.’ It’s not long, too, before Walker begins to suspect that something is not right about this housing development. In the end, the Walkers discover that living in suburbia is hardly a tranquil existence. It all ends up in fraud, theft, and murder.

And that’s the thing about having new people move in (or being those new people). Sometimes it works out very well indeed. Sometimes it doesn’t.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Hill’s Proposal.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Linwood Barclay, Sarah Waters, Virginia Duigan, William Ryan

It’s All So Unexpected That I Just Don’t Understand*

Violating ExpectationsIf you’ve read enough crime fiction, you start to build up a set of expectations for crime novels. For example, imagine that a character’s walking down a very dark, abandoned street late at night. You expect that something bad’s going to happen. There are other overall expectations that we have of crime stories, too, and research suggests that we bring those assumptions with us when we read.

But at times, those expectations prove to be wrong. Authors sometimes play with readers’ expectations in order to build suspense and set readers up to be surprised. There are cases, too, where the author doesn’t do this sort of thing deliberately. Rather, the story simply goes in a direction that the reader hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it doesn’t. For the author, there’s a delicate balance between playing with readers’ assumptions and not ‘playing fair.’ There’s a delicate balance between taking a story in an interesting direction, and going off on an improbable tangent.

Agatha Christie, for instance, played with readers’ expectations in several of her stories. In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is en route to London on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. M. Bouc, a director of the company that owns the train, is also aboard, and asks Poirot to investigate. The idea is for Poirot to find out who the killer is before the train crosses the next frontier, so that the killer can be handed over to the police. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same coach, so Poirot concentrates his attention on them. And here we have what seems a rather traditional sort of Golden Age setup: a murder, a limited cast of suspects, some clues, and a snowstorm to isolate them. But as anyone who’s read this novel can tell you, the solution isn’t ‘typical’ at all. In that way, Christie manipulated readers’ expectations.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice also plays with readers’ expectations. In that novel, LAPD detective Harry Bosch happens to be listening to his police scanner when he hears of a suicide in a seedy motel in his jurisdiction. Surprised that he wasn’t officially notified, since he’s ‘on call,’ Bosch goes to the scene. There, he finds that a fellow officer, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, has died, apparently a successful suicide attempt. A few details strike Bosch as inconsistent with suicide, so he starts to ask questions. But the ‘higher ups’ don’t want him to make much of this case. The official story is that Moore had gone dirty and committed suicide as a result, and that’s what Bosch’s bosses want on the report. Bosch being Bosch, though, he isn’t satisfied with ‘rubber stamping,’ and investigates Moore’s death. There’s a very key violation of reader expectations in this novel. At the same time, though, it’s not random, and it’s not unexpected if one really thinks about it.

In Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, Boston PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro take on the heartbreaking case of a missing four-year-old girl, Amanda McCready. The police have been out in force looking for the child, and of course there’s been a major public appeal for any information. So at first, Kenzie and Gennaro aren’t really sure what they can do that hasn’t already been done. But Amanda’s Uncle Lionel and Aunt Beatrice insist, and the PIs are reluctantly persuaded to look into the matter. Without spoiling the story, I can say that it goes against reader expectations in some important ways. At the same time, it does so in a way that (at least to me) is credible. Lehane’s choices about the storyline also raise some important and powerful ethical questions.

Sometimes, characters can turn out to be quite different to what readers expect, and that can impact readers’ assumptions about the story. For instance, in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah move their family from the city to a beautiful suburban housing development called Valley Forest Estates. Walker believes that the family will be safer there, and he’s hoping that the lower cost of living will mean he can devote full time to his writing. Trouble begins soon after the Walkers move in. First, the family notices several problems with the house they’ve bought. Then, when Walker goes to the main sales office to complain, he witnesses an argument between one of Valley Forest’s executives, and local eco-activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body by a local creek. Bit by bit, the naturally cautious Walker gets drawn into more danger than he could have imagined. There are a few characters in this novel who turn out not to be at all what they seem. We have certain expectations of those characters, possibly from reading a lot of other crime fiction, but those assumptions turn out to be wrong. That fact adds to the interest in the story.

Sometimes, the story itself takes a new and unexpected direction. This can be quite tricky, since readers may think they’re ‘signing up’ for one kind of story, only to get a story that proves to be something else. At times that can work very well, as the new direction in the story draws the reader in. It’s less successful at other times. One such story is arguably Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. As that novel begins, Smilla Japsersen attends the funeral of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lived in the same Copenhagen apartment building. Isaiah fell off the roof of the building in what police say was a tragic accident. But when Jaspersen sees the marks in the snow on the roof, she notices signs that suggest that Isaiah’s death was not an accident at all. So she begins to ask questions. At this point, the novel has many of the hallmarks of a whodunit as Jaspersen tries to find out who would want to kill a young boy. But as she learns more, the novel arguably takes on the qualities of a science thriller. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but if you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean.

The question of whether and how much to manipulate reader expectations isn’t an easy one. But when it’s done well, it can make for a compelling story. It’s a risk, though, since if it doesn’t work well, it can also make readers very cranky. What are your thoughts? Are there certain expectations that you don’t want violated? How do you react when your assumptions about a story are turned upside down?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Church’s One Day.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dennis Lehane, Linwood Barclay, Michael Connelly, Peter Høeg

So Here I Am, Standing Waiting in the Lobby*

LobbiesA skilled author can create a scene that takes place in any number of settings. But some places just seem to lend themselves especially well to a solid crime-fictional scene. One of those places is arguably the lobby. It makes sense, too, if you think about it. All sorts of people come through a lobby. Some work there, some don’t. Some are there for just a few minutes, while others are there for a long time. And if a lobby’s big enough and busy enough, it’s very hard to keep track of who’s there and who isn’t. So lobbies allow for an interesting kind of anonymity, too.

Lobbies also give people an important sense of what a place is like (upmarket, seedy, or something else). So they make for effective ways for authors to create context without getting too wordy. It’s not surprising, then, that we see a lot of crime-fictional scenes that play out in lobbies. Here are just a few; I’m sure you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.

Agatha Christie used lobbies and lounges in several of her stories. One of them is At Bertram’s Hotel. In that novel, Miss Marple travels to London, to Bertram’s Hotel. The place has special meaning for her, since she stayed there as a young person. During this stay, she finds that the beautiful hotel has been a façade for some very underhanded doings, including murder. In this story, Christie uses the big central lounge as a very convenient place for Miss Marple to overhear a conversation that will end up mattering as the story goes on. But she also uses the Lounge to give readers a sense of the hotel:
 

‘Inside, if this was the first time you had visited Bertram’s, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had reentered a vanished world. Time had gone back. You were in Edwardian England once more.’
 

Christie then goes on to show the way the lounge reflects that era. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train and of Taken at the Flood.

Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai introduces readers to forensic accountant Ava Lee, whose specialty is tracing money for people who’ve been bilked and are desperate to get their money back. In this novel, Lee is working on behalf of Andrew Tam, whose financial services company has been swindled out of almost five million dollars. Lee gets to work on the case, and follows the trail to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Georgetown, Guayana, and the British Virgin Islands. Throughout her search, Lee gets information from several different people, some of whom can be trusted and some of whom cannot. She often finds that lobbies – especially hotel lobbies – are good places to meet her contacts. They’re public, so they afford a certain amount of safety. They’re convenient (Most people can find the lobby of a big hotel). And they’re anonymous enough so that people can have private conversations without attracting a lot of attention.

Steve Hamilton’s series features former Detroit police officer Alex McKnight, who now lives in one of a group of cabins his father left him. He rents the others to tourists who want to hunt, fish, and enjoy winter sports on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In Ice Run, McKnight makes plans to meet his new love interest, Natalie Reynaud, at the Ojibway Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie (Soo), right near the US/Canada border. When he arrives, he has an odd encounter in the hotel lobby with an elderly man wearing a homburg hat. He doesn’t think much of it at the time; but later, he finds that the same man has had a bottle of good champagne delivered to the table where he and Reynaud are dining. Then, when they get to his hotel room, the homburg had, filled with snow and ice, is waiting for them. So is a cryptic note. When the man is later found dead, McKnight feels an obligation to find out why, and is drawn into a very complex case.

Arthur Bryant and John May, who feature in Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit series, have a strange, lobby-related case to solve in Seventy-Seven Clocks. In one plot thread of that novel, attorney Maximillian Jacob is in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel, reading a newspaper. He falls asleep as he’s reading, and no-one pays much attention, as that’s nothing unusual. A few hours later, one of the staff tries to waken him, only to find that he’s dead. At first it looks as though he might have had a heart attack; but soon enough, it’s shown that he was bitten by a poisonous snake and killed by its venom. Bryant and May have seen some odd cases in their time, and this one is no exception. It will require them not just to find out how someone got a snake into the hotel lobby, but also to find out how it’s related to a vandalism incident at the National Gallery.

You may be thinking that hotel lobbies and lounges are prone to this sort of conflict and danger, but other places aren’t. You’d be wrong. Just consider Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Science fiction writer Zack Walker and his family have recently moved from the city to a suburban development called Valley Forest Estates. The idea is that the family will be safer there than in the city. It’s no small matter, too, that the difference in living costs will mean that Walker can write full-time. It’s not long before this perfect plan starts to go wrong. Walker begins to notice that there are several repairs that need to be made to his new home. He goes to the Valley Forest sales office to complain and arrange for repairs, only to find himself an unwitting witness to a loud argument. While he’s in the lobby/reception area, he sees a dispute between one of the Valley Forest executives, and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Spender and his group have been trying to close down the development for ecological reasons, and he is not going to just ‘go away.’ The argument makes everything very awkward, but Walker doesn’t think much about it – until later, when he finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek. He ends up getting drawn into a case that’s a lot more dangerous than city life was…

As you can see, lobbies and lounges are really quite useful places if you’re a crime writer. They can be dangerous, but they certainly afford all the contact, conflict and encounters you’d want. They’ve very good places for people-watching, too.  Trust me.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Ian Hamilton, Linwood Barclay, Steve Hamilton