Category Archives: Linwood Barclay

Of Course Mama’ll Help to Build the Wall*

Helicopter ParentsMost parents have hopes and dreams for their children. If you’re a parent, then you know the feeling of wanting your children to have everything life has to offer. It’s a fairly natural desire if you think about it. What’s more, for many parents, their children are a reflection on them. If one’s child has a problem, does something wrong, etc., it says something about the parents. Whether that’s true or not, there are a lot of parents who see it that way.

If you put those two feelings together, it’s easy to see why there are parents who protect their children too much from the consequences of their actions. In the world of (at least US) education, these are called ‘helicopter parents’ – parents who swoop in to rescue their children even when it’s not appropriate to do so. They’re certainly out there in real life, and although their desire to protect their children is perfectly natural, that sort of rescuing can have very negative consequences. It happens in the real world, and it happens in crime fiction too. Here are a few examples; I know you can think of many, many more.

In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen to Dinner), we meet American actress Jane Wilkinson. She’s currently married to George Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware, but she wants to get rid of him. Her reason is quite simple: she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton and wants to marry him. So she asks Hercule Poirot to intervene on her behalf and ask that Lord Edgware withdraw his objection to a divorce. Surprisingly, Edgware agrees and Jane is now free to marry the Duke. Shortly after that, Edgware is murdered one night, and the police are convinced that Jane is responsible. The only problem is that she has an alibi vouched for by a dozen other people. She tells the police that she was at a dinner in another part of London at the time of the murder. So Chief Inspector Japp and Poirot have to look elsewhere for the killer. At one point, Poirot gets a surprising visit from the Dowager Duchess of Merton, the Duke’s mother. She dislikes Jane Wilkinson intensely and feels that she’s a bad influence on Merton. So she wants Poirot to stop the wedding that will likely take place now that Edgware is dead. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Poirot doesn’t agree to interfere. And it’s an interesting example of a ‘helicopter parent…’

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker is concerned for the safety of his family. He’s not pleased with the kinds of people his two children Angie and Paul may be associating with, and he wants to protect them. So he moves his family to a new home in a suburban housing development called Valley Forest Estates. One day, Walker goes to the main sales office to complain about the workmanship in his house and ask for repairs. While he’s there he witnesses an argument between a sales executive and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker discovers Spender’s body near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker and his family are drawn into a far more dangerous situation than any they faced in the city. In this case, his attempt to rescue his children backfires badly.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit tells the story of Gates and Mason Hunt. They grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father, but they’ve somehow managed to survive. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s had and is now preparing to be an attorney. Gates, though, has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from the young men’s mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Later that night, on the way back from a ‘night on the town,’ the Hunt brothers have another encounter with Thompson and the argument starts anew. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother hide the evidence and life goes on for the two brothers. Throughout these years, Sadie Grace does her best to ‘rescue’ Gates. She gives him money and in other ways tries to protect him from the consequences of what he does. But then, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a stiff jail sentence and begs his brother, who’s now a commonwealth prosecutor, to get him out of jail. At first Sadie Grace supports Gates and asks Mason to help him. But this time, Mason refuses. Then Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When it becomes clear that he intends to do just that, Sadie Grace stops rescuing him. This time, she renounces him. And now, Mason has to do everything he can to clear his name.

In one story arc early in Gail Bowen’s series, her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, has to accept the fact that her daughter Mieka isn’t going to finish at university. Mieka has dropped out to begin her own catering business. On the one hand, Kilbourn loves her daughter and wants to see her succeed. On the other, she’s well aware that the business world is not always kind to small start-up businesses, and Mieka won’t have a university degree to help her. So Kilbourn has a strong desire to rescue her daughter from what she sees as a bad situation. Mieka of course doesn’t see it that way, and she and her mother have some difficult conversations about what she’s doing. As a result of an uneasy truce, Mieka goes ahead with her business, and it turns out to be much more successful than her mother thought it would be.

Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer has to deal with ‘helicopter parents’ in more than one of his investigations. In Black Seconds for instance, he faces a terrible case. Nine-year-old Ida Joner decides to ride her bicycle to a local kiosk to buy some candy. When she doesn’t return, her mother Helga becomes anxious and starts the frightening process of trying to find out where her daughter is. Her search turns out to be fruitless and she becomes more and more panicked as the hours go by. Eventually Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called in and begin a professional search. As we learn what really happened to Ida, we see the role that wanting to rescue one’s child plays in the events. I can’t say much more without spoiling the story; suffice it to say that Sejer has to get past that reality to find the truth.

There’s another example of ‘helicopter parenting’ in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a visit one day from successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. He’s been accused of the rape and murder of a family servant Mary Murmu. Mary went missing a few months ago, and it’s assumed that she’s dead. Kasliwal claims that he isn’t responsible for her disappearance, and that the police are simply trying to make an example of him to show that they’re not beholden to wealth and power. He wants Puri to find out what happened to Mary and clear his name. Puri doesn’t make the mistake of assuming his new client is telling the truth, but he takes the case. When he discovers the truth about Mary’s disappearance, we learn the role that that urge to rescue has played in the case. We see it in two other cases Puri handles in this novel as well. Those cases are requests for background checks on potential spouses – the sort of case that’s the ‘bread and butter’ of Puri’s agecy. In both of those situations, anxious parents want to rescue their children from the marriage partners they’ve chosen.

And then there’s C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Travel development specialist Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the devoted adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. One day their world is turned upside down when they discover that the baby’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. As you can imagine, the McGuanes refuse point-blank. Then Garrett’s father, powerful judge John Moreland comes to his son’s rescue, if you want to call it that. He and Garrett pay a visit to the McGuanes. During that conversation, he makes it clear that if the McGuanes relinquish their rights, he’ll see that they have both financial and legal support for another adoption – a quick and easy one. He makes it just as clear that if they don’t agree, there will be serious consequences. When they call his bluff, Moreland issues a court order giving them twenty-one days in which to surrender Angelina to the court. Both McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to fight this order. And ‘whatever it takes’ turns out to be much more than either imagined. This story shows a chilling side of being a ‘helicopter parent.’

It’s perfectly natural to want to rescue one’s child and keep him or her safe from trouble. But sometimes, facing the consequences of their actions isn’t a bad lesson for young people to learn…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Mother.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Linwood Barclay, Martin Clark, Tarquin Hall

Home, Where My Thought’s Escaping*

HomebodiesPlenty of crime-fictional characters travel in the course of their work. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, for instance, doesn’t really have a settled place to live. And although Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot likes his home at Whitehaven Mansions, he also travels quite a bit. Fans will know that he solves some of his more famous cases away from home.

But there are some characters who are homebodies. They prefer not to travel, and the comforts of home are far more appealing to them than a luxurious hotel. If you’re a homebody yourself, you know exactly what that’s like. There are plenty of them in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure your list will be much longer than mine could be.

Christie’s Miss Marple is rather a homebody. She does travel now and again, but she prefers life in her home in St. Mary Mead. In A Caribbean Mystery, for instance, she’s had a bout with illness, so her generous nephew has arranged for her to stay at the Golden Palm Hotel in the West Indies. On the one hand, Miss Marple knows her nephew is trying to help, and she’s grateful that he cares about her. But on the other, life at the Golden Palm means:


‘Everything the same every day – never anything happening. Not like St. Mary Mead where something was always happening.’


Miss Marple seems happiest in her own surroundings.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that Wolfe is very much of a homebody. He’s got his New York City brownstone house set up the way he wants it, complete with orchid room and elevator. He has a world-class live-in chef, an orchid expert and of course, Archie Goodwin right there. So Wolfe sees very little reason to leave his home. Besides, as Goodwin puts it in Too Many Cooks,


‘He [Wolfe] hated  things that moved, and was fond of arguing that nine times out of ten, the places that people were on their way to were no improvement whatever on those they were coming from.’  


Fortunately, the Wolfe/Goodwin team is successful enough that Wolfe can afford to have anything he needs and most things he wants come to him, rather than the other way round.

There’s an extreme example of a homebody in some of Ellery Queen’s adventures. She is Paula Paris, a famous and very popular Hollywood gossip columnist. We first meet her in The Four of Hearts, when Ellery Queen is looking for some background information on a case. Famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle had a stormy relationship for years, but surprised everyone by re-kindling their romance and even marrying. When they are both poisoned, Queen investigates. Paris is the hub for all sorts of information about Hollywood, and she knows everyone who is anyone. What’s interesting though is that she never leaves her home. She is agoraphobic, so going anywhere is out of the question from her point of view. Instead, people come to her. And of course, she makes effective use of the telephone. In the process of the investigation, Queen and Paris begin a friendship that later blossoms into a romance.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe isn’t agoraphobic, but she prefers life in her quiet home on Zebra Drive to just about anything else. She chose her home carefully, and even after she marries, she and her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni live there with their two adopted children. Mma. Ramotswe sometimes travels, but never really very far, and she’s always happy to return to her house and the familiarity of her detective agency office on Tlokweng Road. Mma. Ramotswe finds, too, that she doesn’t have to travel very far to get new clients. Her reputation as the owner of Botswana’s only female-run detective agency has spread, and people often seek her out.

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move tells the story of science fiction writer Zack Walker and his family. Walker isn’t a coward, but he is concerned about safety. So he’s excited about the family’s planned move to a home in Valley Forest Estates. Life in this suburban community will be less expensive than life in the city, so Walker will be able to write full-time. And he’s convinced his family will be safer in the suburbs. Walker isn’t a ‘do-it-yourself’ sort of person, but he does like being a homebody. Everything changes though when he goes to the development’s sales office to complain about needed repairs to his home. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the Valley Forest Estates executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a creek, and that’s the beginning of his involvement in a web of fraud, theft and murder. The irony in this novel is that every time Walker tries to get free of this case so he can return to his homebody writing life, he gets in deeper…

Nelson Brunanski’s Small-Town Saskatchewan mysteries feature fishing-lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie. Their lives focus on their home in the small town of Crooked Lake, and on their fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. They’re certainly aware of life outside their own town, but they have no burning desire to be jet-setters. They like their comfortable home life. And that’s what makes it so difficult for Bart when he gets mixed up in murder investigations. On the one hand, he has no desire to upend his life or that of his wife. On the other, he is a devoted and loyal friend, so he finds himself getting involved whether he wants to or not. Still, at heart, Bart likes the comforts of home.

And so do a lot of other crime-fictional characters. Which ones do you like best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ellery Queen, Lee Child, Linwood Barclay, Nelson Brunanski, Rex Stout

Well You Only Need the Light When It’s Burning Low*

Blown-out candleIt just seems to be human nature that we sometimes don’t value what we have until it’s gone. If you’ve ever had to scramble to get to work because the car you always depend on wouldn’t start, you know what I mean. It’s very easy to take things, places or people for granted, but as Benjamin Franklin wrote, ‘When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.’ It’s a very human reaction, so it’s not surprising that we see this plot thread in crime fiction too. After all, well-written crime fiction reflects realistic people.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet the Cloade family. They’ve always been able to depend financially on wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade and in fact, he’s encouraged that. He’s promised the family members that they could rely on his financial support and on expectations from his will. Then everything changes. First, Cloade falls in love and marries a young widow Rosaleen Underhay. Then, he is tragically killed in a bomb blast. Since he married before his death, and since he never made a will, Rosaleen is set to inherit Cloade’s considerable fortune. Now the other family members are faced with not having the money they had always taken for granted. When a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden hints that Rosaleen’s first husband may still be alive, the Cloades are eager to find out if that’s true. If so it would mean that Rosaleen was not legally married to Gordon Cloade and therefore cannot inherit. When ‘Enoch Arden’ is killed, Hercule Poirot gets drawn into the case. The investigation is of course an important thread in this novel. But so is the Cloades’ reaction to having to plan life without the money they had been so accustomed to having.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction author Zack Walker, his journalist wife Sarah, and their children move from the city to a new suburb named Valley Forest Estates. The idea is that the lower cost of living in the suburb will make it possible for Walker to write full time. What’s more, suburbs are safer than cities, and Walker wants his family to be safe. It turns out that Valley Forest Estates is far from a peaceful, quiet place to live. For one thing, there are plumbing and other problems with the house. For another, some of the Walker family’s new neighbours are not what they seem. One day, Walker goes to the main sales office for the development, hoping to get a resolution to the house’s ongoing maintenance problems. Instead, he witnesses an argument between one of Valley Forest’s sales executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body at a nearby creek. Now, despite his best efforts to stay out of it all, Walker finds himself drawn in to what turns out to be a case of multiple murder and theft. As the novel goes on, Walker learns just how much he misses the city that the family had taken for granted.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn meets Keith Harris, who is also a political scientist. The two don’t agree politically but they do ‘click’ personally, and are soon romantically involved. Then, Harris gets an irresistible job offer in Washington. At first, the two have a long distance relationship. But gradually they drift apart and Harris meets someone else. Kilbourn knows that the decision to end the romance was mutual, but that doesn’t stop her thinking about what she’s lost and trying to figure out how she feels about Harris with someone else. It’s an interesting story arc.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant doesn’t have a spouse or children. But he does have a group of close friends who are supportive of him. One of them is his next-door neighbour, the enigmatic Sereena Orion Smith. As the series moves on, we learn that she has a mysterious past, and she has a habit of turning up unexpectedly. Quant likes her, and it’s not that he really discounts her. But he does get used to having her in his life. So in Tapas on the Ramblas, he’s shaken when she doesn’t return from a Mediterranean cruise. What’s more, her house is up for sale, so she obviously doesn’t intend to stay there. Sereena’s disappearance forms a plot thread in Stain of the Berry, as Quant resolves to look for Sereena. It’s a very interesting case of not really being aware of how much a person means to one until that person is gone.

That’s also an important plot thread in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost.  The novel begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a budding detective; in fact, she’s opened her own agency Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the mall, hoping to find evidence of suspicious activity. She’s quite content with her life but her grandmother Ivy thinks she should go away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. At first Kate refuses but then her friend Adrian Palmer convinces her to at least try the exams. He even arranges to take the bus with her to the school for moral support. When Kate never returns from the school, Palmer is the most likely suspect in her disappearance. He claims he’s innocent but his life is made so miserable that he leaves town. Twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa works at a dead-end job at Green Oaks. One night she meets Kurt, a mall security guard. He’s been seeing some strange images on his cameras – a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. Each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt look into the past and the reader learns what really happened to Kate. In the process, we see that several of the characters in this novel weren’t really aware of the role Kate played in their lives until she disappeared. Among other things, the novel is a powerful look at one person’s impact on others, and at our tendency not to be aware of what we have until it’s gone.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind introduces us to Stephanie Anderson. One summer day when Stephanie is fourteen, she and her family attend a school picnic at Lake Wanaka. For Stephanie, the picnic is a chance to get noticed by a boy she likes. She certainly doesn’t want to spend time with her twin brothers or her four-year-old sister Gemma. Stephanie loves her family, but like a lot of people, she doesn’t really think about how much they mean to her. Then, Gemma disappears. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the girl is found – not even a body. The family is devastated and Gemma’s loss has permanent effects on everyone. But the members of the Anderson family, including Stephanie, carry on as best they can. Then seventeen years later, now a fledgling psychiatrist, Stephanie hears of a haunting case from one of her patients Elisabeth Clark. Elisabeth’s younger sister Gracie was abducted in the same way that Gemma was, and the story brings back all of the pain of Gemma’s loss. The case is eerily similar too. So Stephanie decides to face her own ghosts and find out who is responsible for the girls’ abductions. As she does so, we see how the losses of both girls have impacted their families. It’s a haunting case of having to get along without someone you thought would always be there.

But that’s what we humans do. We don’t always think about what we have until we don’t have it any more. These are just a few examples from crime fiction. Your turn.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael David Rosenberg’s (AKA Passenger) Let Her Go.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Linwood Barclay, Paddy Richardson

Raise Up a Multiplex and We Will Make a Sacrifice*

Land DevelopmentAn interesting comment exchange with Col at Col’s Criminal Library has got me thinking about land development. As the population increases and becomes ever more mobile, there are more and more land development projects. In a way, it makes sense, since bringing new people and new industries to an area means a stronger local economy. But a lot of people believe that too often, that economy grows at a devastating price: the loss of the land, the local wildlife and the ecosystem. That’s to say nothing of people who object to the changes that development brings to their small towns and their quality of life. That conflict between land development advocates and opponents is ongoing and has sometimes flared up into violence. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction too.

A few of Agatha Christie’s stories touch on land development in a tangential way, (I’m thinking for instance of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and Death on the Nile). In those stories, there’s some dismay for instance at the coming of council housing and the uprooting of people so that a personal piece of property can be developed. But that theme isn’t a central part of the mystery.

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts though, land development plays a major role in the story. Sometime-attorney Jack Irish gets involved in a case of greed, corruption and land development when a former client Danny McKillop is murdered. Irish had unsuccessfully defended MicKillop in a drink-related hit-and-run case in which Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson was killed. When McKillop was released from prison after serving his sentence, he contacted Irish, trying desperately to reach him, but by the time Irish returned McKillop’s calls it was already too late. Now Irish feels a sense of guilt over not getting to McKillop sooner and over not doing a better job of defending his client. So he decides to look into the Jeppeson case again. He soon discovers that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s murder.  Before her death, Jeppeson had been spearheading a protest against the closing of a public housing estate in Melbourne’s Yarrabank district. And the more Irish looks into this planned closing, the more he sees that it’s motivated by greed, land development planning and corruption. In the end, Irish and journalist Linda Hillier trace the murders to very highly-placed people with much to lose if the planned closing doesn’t go through.

Science fiction novelist Zack Walker and his family get caught up in a fight between land developers and local eco-activists in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker and his family move from the city to Valley Forest Estates. There, Walker hopes that life will be safer (and less expensive) for his family. He soon finds out how wrong he is though when he witnesses an argument between local environmental activist Samuel Spender and one of Valley Forest’s sales/development executives. Later that day Walker discovers Spender’s body in a nearby creek. Then, Walker is trying to return a handbag he’s found to its owner when he discovers the owner’s body. It’s now clear that something very serious is going on at Valley Forest. And even though the one thing Walker wants more than anything else is to have a safe, quiet life, he finds himself more and more involved in the murders, which have everything to do with greed and development schemes.

Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage tells the story of the conflict that arises over a planned road that will cut through Framhurst Great Wood. Many of the residents of Kingsmarkham, including Inspector Reg Wexford and his wife Dora, are not happy about this road. In fact, Dora’s joined a local citizens’ group that is actively opposing this development. But matters turn ugly when several groups of activists come to town. They end up taking hostages, including Dora Wexford. Then, there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to work the murder case as well as try to rescue Dora and the other hostages before there’s any more death. The land development people aren’t exactly Citizens of the Year in this novel, but Rendell doesn’t oversimplify the issues and it’s interesting to see how she portrays what is sometimes the darker side of activism.

Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier has land development as one of its major themes too. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith has recently joined the Trafalgar (British Columbia) police. One night while making her rounds, she finds the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery. Sergeant John Winters is assigned to investigate the case and he and Smith begin to look into Montgomery’s professional and private relationships to find out who would have wanted to kill him. There are several suspects too. One important angle to this case is that Montgomery was co-owner of the soon-to-be opened Grizzly Resort, an upmarket resort/spa/holiday destination. Many people feel that Grizzly will bring in desperately-needed money and will provide jobs for several of the local residents. Others feel at least as strongly that the resort will ruin the natural beauty of the area and will be hard on the local ecosystem. They don’t want the influx of tourists either. That conflict adds an underlying layer of tension to the novel as Smith and Winters work to find out who killed Montgomery and why.

In C.J. Box’s Open Season, newly-appointed game warden Joe Pickett has an embarrassing encounter with local outfitter and poacher Ote Keeley. Shortly afterwards, Keeley’s body is found on Pickett’s property. What’s more, Pickett’s daughter Sheridan discovers something else – a family of endangered animals living in the woodpile near the post where Keeley’s body was discovered. Now that Pickett and his family are personally involved, he works to find out who killed Keeley. What he discovers is a long-simmering conflict among oil developers, a poaching ring and independent locals who do not want a game warden telling them what they can and cannot do. This isn’t the only novel in this series in which Box addresses issues of land development and what it may mean.

That’s also true of Carl Hiaasen’s work. In several of his novels (I’m thinking for instance of Lucky You and Tourist Season), we meet characters who want to develop the land. And it’s Hiaasen’s work that actually got Col and me ‘talking’ about the way land development is portrayed. As Col pointed out, Hiaasen uses a lot of humour in his stories but there’s a strong underlying urgency about protecting the land from over-development.

There are plenty of mentions of land development in cosy mysteries too. For instance in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Prretty Is as Pretty Dies, retired English teacher Myrtle Clover is ‘volunteered’ to work with her local church’s women’s group. She goes to the church for a meeting of the Altar Guild where she finds the body of Parke Stockard. Myrtle wants to prove, especially to her overprotective son, that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet, so she decides to investigate the murder. As it turns out, there are several suspects. Parke Stockard was a malicious real estate developer who used all sorts of unethical and illegal tactics to ensure her place in the community and to get the properties she wanted. Myrtle sifts through what she finds, what people tell her and what she overhears (deliberately and otherwise), and figures out who killed the victim and why.

The question of whether, how and for what purpose land ought to be developed is not an easy one. That’s why it’s been such a contentious issue for such a long time. Little wonder we see so much crime fiction that touches on land development.

Thanks, Col, for the inspiration. Folks, please do pay Col’s blog a visit; it’s a nicely focused set of crime fiction reviews well worth following.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s No Man’s Land.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Carl Hiaasen, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Linwood Barclay, Peter Temple, Ruth Rendell, Vicki Delany

It’s a Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World*

ScrewballAuthor and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin’s new standalone Stiffed has just been released and I couldn’t be happier about that. Kitchin’s very talented. I’ll get back to Stiffed in a moment, but for now, let me if I may start with the kind of novel it is. Kitchin describes it as ‘screwball noir,’ and that got me to thinking about that sort of novel. Some novels do combine screwball, sometimes even downright implausible plot points with wit to take a very different approach to a crime story. That sort of story may not be everyone’s first choice, but for people who enjoy black humour and screwball situations in their crime novels, a screwball crime novel, whether or not it’s noir, can be a refreshing treat.

Rather than launch into a description of what ‘screwball crime fiction’ is and isn’t, let me offer you a few examples of what I think of when I think of that sub-genre. I’ll start with Kitchin’s new release Stiffed. Tadhg Maguire has just started sleeping off a night of too much beer when he’s jolted awake by a shriek from his girlfriend Kate. He wakes up only to find that there’s a dead man in his bed. What’s worse, Maguire knows who the man is; he is Tony Marino, ‘right hand man’ to powerful gangster Aldo Pirelli. Maguire knows that if he calls the police, Pirelli will assume he killed Marino and that will considerably shorten Maguire’s lifespan. That’s to say nothing of his chances of being arrested for murder. So instead, he calls his friend Jason Choi and asks him to help get rid of Marino’s body. But getting rid of Marino’s body is just the beginning of their troubles. First, two unwanted ‘visitors’ charge into Maguire’s home, obviously looking for someone or something. When one kills the other, Maguire and Choi are left with not one, but two bodies to hide. That’s when they bring in some other friends to help. Along with the bodies and the fact that a couple of Maguire’s friends get kidnapped, there’s the matter of the million dollars that some very nasty people think Maguire has. And there’s the matter of evading Pirelli – if it’s possible. And all of this without Maguire knowing (at least at first) why this has all happened in his home. The story is noir in the sense that there are some ugly situations – murder, kidnapping, and more – and there is some ugly violence (although given the context, it’s not gratuitous). And there are certainly people in the novel who seem trustworthy…and aren’t. But there is a great deal of dark wit, too. For instance, here’s Maguire’s reaction to the scene in his bedroom after it’s been gone through by the late-night ‘visitors’:


‘Whoever went through the place enjoyed throwing things around and ripping stuff up. The outline of a dead body made with shaving foam, sketched in the middle of my bedroom floor with my bed used to be, is a particularly fetching touch.’


The humour in this novel comes partly from that wit and partly from the way that ordinarily-impossible situations keep piling up.

Tom Sharpe has also written some very well-regarded screwball crime novels. For example, Wilt is the story of Henry Wilt, an Assistant Lecturer at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology. Overworked, underpaid and unappreciated, he is married to the overbearing, overenthusiastic and insecure Eva. His marriage has gotten to the point where Wilt’s favourite mental occupation is imagining ways in which he could kill her. Then one day, Eva runs off with Gaskell and Sally Pringsheim, Americans who are taking a sabbatical leave in the UK. In a drunken burst of ‘creativity’ Wilt decides this is the perfect opportunity to rehearse murdering her. So he makes use of a blow-up doll and a wig, and puts the doll down a 30-foot hole at a nearby building site.  The only problem is, he is witnessed by someone who thinks the victim is real. That’s when Inspector Flint takes charge of an investigation into Henry Wilt. The more Wilt tries to get out of the increasingly bizarre trouble he’s in, the worse things get for him. And the more Inspector Flint tries to get at the truth, the stranger and more frustrating things get for him, too. This is as much a comedy of errors as it is anything else, and the wit from it comes from that and from the sparring dialogue.

Some of Linwood Barclay’s novels might well be considered screwball. Bad Move for instance tells the story of science fiction author Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah, who move with their children from their home in the city to the ‘safe’ suburb of Valley Forest Estates. Walker thinks that life in the suburbs will be perfect: time for him to write, a safe school for his children and a nice place to live. Things start going wrong when he happens to witness an argument between a sales executive from the Valley Forest real estate office and Samuel Spender, a local environmental activist. When Walker later finds Spender’s body in a creek, he knows there’s going to be trouble, especially when he becomes a sort-of suspect. Then, he finds a handbag left behind at a supermarket. Thinking it’s his wife’s, Walker takes the handbag only to find that it’s not Sarah’s. It belongs to the sales office secretary and it’s very full of money. Walker tries to return it without letting Sarah know, only to discover another body. Before he knows it, Walker is up against a crime ring, a murderer who’s hiding out in the suburb, and a snake.

Carl Hiaasen’s novels have also been called screwball and I can’t disagree. For instance, in Lucky You, JoLayne Lucks buys a lottery ticket that turns out to be worth US$14 million. Her plan is to use the money to buy some Florida land and turn it into a preserve. Her plans are scuttled when her ticket is stolen by a group of neo-Nazis who want to use the money to field a militia. In the meantime, features writer Tom Krone of The Register has been assigned to do a story on JoLayne’s ticket and her plans for her winnings. All he wants is his story, but he’s soon drawn into a plot to get the ticket back from the thieves. As if that’s not enough, there’s a group of ruthless land developers who are determined to make sure that land stays available. Before he knows it Krone has gotten himself into one impossible situation after another..

In Donna Moore’s Go to Helena Handbasket, we meet PI Helena Handbasket. She is hired by Owen Banks to find out his brother Robin. Owen believes Robin might have been killed by his former boss, crime boss Evan Stubezzi. It seems that Stubezzi and his gang had pulled off a jewel robbery only to discover that the jewels had disappeared, and so had Robin. Helena isn’t exactly eager to take on the ‘untouchable’ Stubezzi, but it’s a starting place and she needs the fee. Shortly after she begins her search, a handless dead body is discovered in a nearby wood. Might it be Robin’s? Helena doesn’t think it is, so she keeps on pursuing different leads and getting herself deeper into trouble as she goes. The wit in this novel comes partly from the situations Helena gets herself into, and partly from her crazy attempts to straighten up her personal life as she works on the case.

And then there’s also of course Declan Burke, whose screwball novels have gained him quite a lot of fans. In The Big O for instance we are introduced to Karen King, a receptionist who is also an armed robber. She’s been doing fairly well living those two lives but a person can’t go on forever in the stickup business. Then she learns that her ex Rossi Callaghan has been released from prison. Callaghan is after Karen because she still has some of his prized possessions, and he is not going to be kind once he finds her. So she’ll need to pull off a major job to get the money to escape him. She enlists the help of the new man in her life Ray, who happens to be pretty good at kidnapping. In fact, Karen’s boss Frank decides to hire Ray to kidnap his almost-ex Madge, who is also Karen’s best friend. As Ray, Frank, and Frank’s lawyer (whose idea the kidnapping was in the first place) put the final touches on their plan, Rossi gets closer and closer to ruining everything. Needless to say, what starts out to be a simple (if there is such a thing) kidnap plan turns out to be anything but…

Screwball novels do tend to make use of the absurd – even the impossible. So there has to be a willingness to suspend disbelief. And to be honest, they’re not always for everyone. But they can be hilarious and they allow the author the chance to play around with crime fiction plot points. They can allow the reader some real fun, too.

Do you agree? Do you enjoy the screwball novel? Which have you liked in particular?


Congratulations, Rob!




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Lola.


Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Declan Burke, Donna Moore, Linwood Barclay, Rob Kitchin