Category Archives: Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Getting to Know You Well*

Learning From BookshelvesLet’s say you’re invited to someone’s home for the first time. What’s the first thing that’s likely to pique your curiosity? If you’re a book lover, chances are that one of the first things you’ll want to look at is your host’s book collection. Part of that is, of course, that book lovers are drawn to books. But there’s also the fact that books tell a lot about their owners.

You can often tell people’s taste, education level, hobbies or special interests, and much more just from looking at their bookshelves. So it’s not surprising that we get curious about what’s on others’ shelves.

There are plenty of examples in crime fiction of what we learn from people’s bookshelves. That makes sense, too. For one thing, it’s realistic. For another, those details can add a lot to character development without having to go into a lot of narrative explanation.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, Hercule Poirot is on his way back to London from a trip through the Middle East. He’s persuaded to interrupt his travels to help investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. She and her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, have been staying at the expedition house of an important dig a few hours from Baghdad. One afternoon, Louise is murdered in her room. Poirot is of the belief that the more one learns about a victim, the closer one gets to the truth about that victim’s death. So he takes a close look at, among other things, Louise’s collection of books. Interestingly enough, they tell him quite a lot about her personality, and that proves to be key to solving the mystery of her death. I know, I know, fans of Evil Under the Sun.

Ellery Queen is able to draw some conclusions from a book collection in The Origin of Evil. In that novel, he’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills, hoping for some quiet time to write. That’s not what happens, though. One day, he’s visited by nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill, who tells him she believes her father Leander was murdered. According to Laurel, he’d been receiving a series of eerie and unpleasant ‘gifts.’ Those parcels caused the heart attack that actually killed him. In fact, Laurel says that her father’s business partner, Roger Priam, has been getting similar deliveries. At first, Queen is unwilling to do any investigation. But Laurel is nothing if not persistent. So he finally agrees. Naturally, he wants to speak to Priam, but Priam refuses to discuss the matter. That is, until an attempt is made on his life. He reluctantly allows Queen to investigate; as you might expect, Queen is drawn to his book collection. Priam has an impressive and expensive library. But oddly enough (‘though not surprising), it’s clear that Priam hasn’t read any of the books he owns. He simply amassed the collection because that’s what wealthy men are ‘supposed to’ do: have extensive libraries. It’s a very interesting case of using a character’s book collection to show what that character is like.

The main plot in Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back concerns the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. When her body is discovered near a tarn not far from her village, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. At first, they don’t get very far. Annie was well-liked and had a good relationship with her mother and stepfather. She had an on-again/off-again relationship with her boyfriend, Halvor Muntz, but it was never violent. Halvor claims that he’s innocent, and there really is no reason to believe otherwise. Still, he wants to be sure his name is cleared. He also wants to find a way to cope with the grief he’s feeling over Annie’s loss. So he starts to go through her computer files to find anything that might shed light on the case. The problem is that her computer is password-protected. In trying to narrow down the password, Halvor immediately thinks of books and characters that Annie’s talked about before. He knows what any reader knows: those who love books take them to heart. It’s an example of using people’s taste in books to find out more about them.

Sometimes, a look at someone’s books can reveal a commonality. It might be a shared interest, a shared ‘go to’ author, or something else. And those commonalities can help to build relationships. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation of the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. As if that’s not enough, there’s vandalism at the university where Joanne works. It’s meant that several colleagues are temporarily out of their offices as repairs are made, so Joanne gets a temporary office-mate, Ed Mariani. One night, he invites her and her daughter Taylor to dinner at the home he shares with his partner, Barry Levitt. Taylor is a gifted artist, and, as it turns out, Barry is quite knowledgeable about art. And in one scene, she ends up with a supply of art books he’s loaned her. It goes to show how people’s books can let us know what their interests are.

And then there’s Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa, who lives and works in Rio de Janeiro. Espinosa certainly puts a lot of time into his work. But he also loves books and reading. He has a large collection, and in fact, dreams of someday owning a bookshop. Espinosa doesn’t have lots of bookshelves to show his collection. They’re stacked on top of one another in various parts of his home. And that in itself shows something about Espinosa as a reader. He’s not a bibliophile in the sense of wanting particular editions of particular classic novels, and so on. Rather, he loves the stories that books tell. And you can see that just from looking at the way he stores his books.

You may not think about it until, well, you actually think about it. But the books we have really do say a lot about us. In my case, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Feeder.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

I’m Getting Married in the Morning*

Pressure to MarryOne of the more famous literary opening lines (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) is this:
 

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
 

And to say the very least, there’s been equal pressure on women to find husbands. Of course, times have changed since Austen wrote those lines. Being single for a long time, even permanently, isn’t looked down on as it once was. And many, many people live together permanently (and happily) without going through a wedding ceremony. They may be legally married under common law, but they choose not to get a marriage license. And of course, there are millions of same-sex marriages, too. So the concept of ‘spouse’ has changed.

Still, that pressure to ‘land a husband’ or wife has been woven into many cultures for an awfully long time. It’s there all through crime fiction, too. And that pressure can add an interesting layer of character development to a story, as well as an interesting statement on the social context of that story.

K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells faces that sort of pressure in Owen’s historical mystery series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College during the last years of the 19th Century. At that time, ladies, at least those in the ‘better classes’ only work until they marry. Their primary goal is ‘supposed to be’ to find a husband. On the one hand, Concordia likes the independence her job allows. She doesn’t feel the need to gain her identity through her marital status. On the other hand, she has found someone special. And for her, this presents an interesting dilemma. Should she marry (which means giving up her career) or should she remain single (which means going against the social pressure, and her own attachment)? I hear you, fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams!

The search for a spouse is an important factor in Brian Stoddart’s A Madras Miasma, which is set in 1920, during the last decades of the British Raj. Virginia Campbell and Jane Carstairs are young English women who are spending some time in Madras. They and other young women like them are often referred to as ‘the fishing fleet’ because of their purpose for being in Madras. They’re no longer in their early twenties, and the proverbial clock is ticking. So they’re looking to meet as many well-placed, eligible, young men as possible, in hopes of finding a husband. They attend every party, sailing trip, picnic and other social event they can. One night, after one such event, Jane is murdered and her body left in Buckingham Canal. Superintendent Christian Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad Habibullah, take charge of the investigation. As they trace the victim’s last days and hours, they (and readers) get a sense of ‘the marriage marketplace’ in the Madras of that time.

There’s an interesting discussion of the pressure to find a spouse in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Rosamund Darnley is a very successful clothing designer whose creations are well regarded (and upmarket). She takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay, only to meet up unexpectedly with an old friend, Captain Kenneth Marshall. He’s there with his wife, actress Arlena Stuart, and his daughter, Linda. Rosamund is very proud of her career and her talent. And yet, as she tells Poirot,
 

‘…all the same, I’m nothing but a wretched old maid!’
 

Poirot is of the opinion that
 
‘To marry and have children, that is the common lot of women.’
 

He doesn’t disapprove of women having careers, nor does he think less of Rosamund because she is in business. In fact, he quite admires her. That doesn’t, of course, stop him considering her a suspect when Arlena Marshall is murdered.

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, Archie Goodwin agrees to stand in for a friend at a dinner party hosted by society leader Louise Robilotti. The dinner dance is an annual event with a not-very-well-hidden agenda. Mrs. Roilotti is a patron of Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers. The idea of the dinner dance is to introduce a few of these young women to some of the eligible bachelors in the ‘better circles,’ and perhaps make a match or two. On this night, though, no-one’s thinking much about matchmaking after one of the guests, Faith Usher, suddenly dies. At first it’s put down to suicide, since she had poison with her and had threatened to kill herself. But Goodwin isn’t sure at all that it is suicide. So, with his boss Nero Wolfe’s support, Goodwin starts to ask questions. It turns out that he was absolutely right: Faith Usher was murdered.

Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t feel an undue amount of pressure to marry. Even in books written during and about times past, there are characters like that. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, for instance, feels no burning desire to marry, although she does have several relationships. In fact, that’s part of what makes her daring for her time.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano will know that he and his lover Livia have gone back and forth about marriage more than once. They do care deeply about each other, and in The Snack Thief, readers even get a glimpse of what they might be like as parents. In that novel, Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of a retired executive, which turns out to be connected to another case, the death of a Tunisian sailor who was on board an Italian fishing boat when he was killed. In the course of the story, Montalbano and Livia have the temporary care of a young boy whose mother has disappeared. It’s interesting to see this side of both of them. And yet, they don’t really feel a lot of social pressure to get married, and a lot of the time, they feel no great compulsion to do so.

That’s also true of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa. He lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, where he’s well settled in. He’s in a relationship with Irene, a graphics designer who lives and works in São Paulo. Neither is what you’d call very young. But neither really feels the pressure to marry and ‘settle down.’ They do care about each other, but there’s no real compulsion to marry.

It’s interesting to see how that social pressure has changed and not changed over time. I think that’s true in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Get Me to the Church on Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Brian Stoddart, Jane Austen, K.B. Owen, Kerry Greenwood, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Rex Stout

Far From a Maddening Crowd*

CrowdsThis photograph was taken at Los Angeles’ Union Station. It’s a major transportation hub, so thousands of people go through it each day. And most of them are so intent on their own business that they don’t usually pay much attention to anyone else. And because of the surging crowds, it’s hard to notice everything and everyone, even if you do pay attention. So it’s fairly easy for someone to fade into the background, as the saying goes.

That sort of anonymity is one reason that train stations, buses and other crowded places can be such effective settings in a crime novel. As Josephine Tey shows in The Man in the Queue, when there is a large group of disparate people together in one place, it’s easy for one person to, quite literally, get away with murder. That’s in fact what happens in the novel when small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell is stabbed. He’s waiting with a large crowd of other people who’ve gathered at the Woofington Theatre to see the final performance of the hit show Did You Know? Everyone is so self-absorbed that no-one notices the murder. For inspector Alan Grant, it’s frustrating to have so many witnesses but so little useful information from them.

A similar sort of thing happens in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro is waiting for a bus along with a group of other people. Many others are walking by on the street. Despite the number of witnesses, no-one sees it when she falls, or is pushed, under an oncoming bus. At first, her death is put down to a terrible accident. But then it comes out that she had been to see Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa a short time before her death. At the time, he wasn’t available to speak to her, and she agreed to return later. Now Espinosa is very curious about what she wanted and why she would have died so soon after coming to the police station, so he and the team begin to look into her death more closely. It turns out that this death was no accident.

Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit also includes a very effective large-crowd sort of murder. One afternoon, Marko Meixner is among a large crowd at a busy Sydney train station. When he is pushed under an oncoming train, New South Wales Police Inspectors Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene. At first, it looks as though this was a terrible accident. But when paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill arrive, they are shocked to see that this is the same man they rescued from a one-car crash earlier in the day. At that time, Meixner said that he was in terrible danger, and that they would be, too, if they spent any time with him. And now it seems that his warning wasn’t just an irrational rambling from a mentally ill person. What’s interesting about this particular murder is that, even with CCTV cameras in the station, Marconi and Shakespeare can’t follow individuals in the crowd well enough to work out who pushed the victim under the train.

Large, crowded places also serve another crime-fictional purpose for the author. They bring together lots of disparate people from all over. This means that any one character could have all sorts of interactions without contrivance. In fact, Hercule Poirot makes mention of this in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. He is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay when a fellow guest, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered. Since he’s there, and is possibly the last person who saw the victim alive, he gets involved in the investigation. Early in the novel, before the murder, he’s talking with another guest who’s just said that the hotel isn’t the sort of place you’d find a body. Poirot begs to differ and explains himself this way:

 

”Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street – eh bien, you must have a reason – you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.”

 

It’s the sort of place where people from all over gather, and where they don’t have to explain why they’re there. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

We see this sort of gathering together of disparate people in K.B. Owen’s Unseemly Haste, too. It’s 1898, and Concordia Wells is on a cross-country train journey from Hartford, where she teaches at a women’s college, to San Francisco. She’s taking the journey with her friend Pinkerton detective Penelope Hamilton, who has her own agenda. Along the way, Concordia runs up against crooked card players, fraud, a newspaper reporter in hiding, and a couple of murders. One of the elements in this novel is the number of very different kinds of people who are aboard the train. They come from all sorts of places, and all have their own agendas.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant deals with trouble in large crowds too. In both Tapas on the Ramblas and Date With a Sheesha, the trail of a case leads to large market bazaars where crowds of people mingle and where nobody pays a lot of attention to any one person. It’s easy to get lost, and easy to find yourself very vulnerable in such a crowd. And in both of those novels, that market setting is used very effectively to bring all sorts of people together.

And that’s what happens in places such as train stations, buses, markets and so on. They gather together all kinds of people from all over. And people are so intent on what they’re doing that they don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them. Even when they should…

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blackfoot’s Take a Train.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Katherine Howell, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Well, You Get a Hammer and I’ll Get a Nail*

DoitYourselfThere’s something about the process of building or refinishing something. It can give a real sense of satisfaction (i.e. I did this myself). And doing things yourself allows for a real creative outlet, and it means that you don’t have to pay for someone else to do the job. So it’s little wonder that a whole industry has been built up around doing things yourself. There are all sorts of home building outlets, and some furniture chains (Ikea comes to mind) sell only put-it-together-yourself pieces. You can do as little or as much do-it-yourself as you want, too, from snapping casters onto the bottom of a prefab chair to building your own house.

Of course, not everyone enjoys do-it-yourself projects, but they are very popular. They make appearances in crime fiction, too. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. He’s soon drawn into a murder case when retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most obvious suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who was desperate for money and had quarreled with Ackroyd about that. What’s more, Paton has been missing since the day of the murder. But his fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced he’s innocent, and wants Poirot to clear his name. This story is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the house Poirot has taken. Sheppard knows everyone in the area, and takes an interest in the case himself. Although he’s a medical man, Sheppard also enjoys do-it-yourself electronics, and has an entire workshop in his home that’s devoted to that interest.

Fans of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa will know that he loves books. He’s got quite a collection, especially for a small home like his. He’s a busy police inspector, so he doesn’t have a lot of time for home improvement projects. But he does want to take care of his books. At one point, he considers building bookshelves, and there are a few references to his reflections on what they might be like and where he might put them. But he settles on another option,
 
‘…a ‘shelf in its purest state’…’
 

He’s made his bookshelves completely out of books stacked on one another. No nails, hammer or paint are required for that project.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish knows the sense of satisfaction that can come from making and building something yourself. He is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a side business in finding people who don’t want to be found. But whenever he can, he spends time in his friend Charlie Taub’s cabinetry shop, where he is a kind of unofficial apprentice to Taub. There, he’s learned the real pleasure one can get in choosing the right piece of wood, using the right tools, and creating something in which he can take pride. He’s not the master of the craft that Taub is, but he’s learning; even Taub, who is not a man to gush, occasionally praises his work in his own way.

One of the plot threads in Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers concerns dubious developer Denny Graham. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne has been doing the research for an exposé on Graham, and she’s hoping to shut down his business. It seems that he lures people to invest their money in what seem to be lovely retirement or holiday properties. Then, they discover too late that the ‘luxury’ property they’ve bought is anything but. Thorne finds that several of Graham’s victims don’t want to be a part of her story, in part because they fear the consequences of going up against a powerful person like Graham. But there’s another reason too for which Thorne finds it hard to get her story at first:
 

‘It was difficult to work out exactly how he got away with it but buyers generally either sold up at a huge loss or got out their deckchairs and barbies and got on with it. New Zealanders are do-it-yourselfers and there’d always be someone they could count on to give them a hand to fix up the electrics or sort out the plumbing for the exchange of a week or so at the bach. And it was a whole lot easier and cheaper to pick up discounted floor coverings and a Para pool than to try to take it through the courts.’
 

Depending on how large and complex the job is, there certainly is something to the argument that if you’re willing to learn the task and do the work, it’s easier to do it than to deal with contractors.

Even people who don’t generally enjoy do-it-yourself projects sometimes like to put their own personal ‘stamp’ on a project or a place. For instance, in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall, television personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford and her mother Iris have planned to open an antique business together. Everything changes though when Kat gets an odd call from Iris. On what seems to be a complete whim, Iris has suddenly moved to the small Devon town of Little Dipperton and taken the former carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall. Shocked at this change in plans, Kat rushes to Little Dipperton to find that her mother has indeed started a whole new life there. Iris has recently broken a hand in a car accident, so Kat decides to stay for a bit to help out until her mother recovers. During that visit, she gets involved in a murder case when Honeychurch Hall’s housekeeper Vera Pugsley is killed. She also learns things about Iris that she never knew before. The carriage house itself is not in very good shape, and Iris is not by nature a do-it-yourselfer. But she’s trying to ‘stretch herself’ since the death of her husband Frank, and she’s doing a few things:
 

‘The pantry…was in desperate need of a coat of paint but it was clean and Mum had painstakingly lined every surface with adhesive paper in a cheerful red gingham pattern.’
 

There’s something about a coat of paint or varnish or paper that turns a room or a piece of furniture into something personal.

There are also several mystery series that feature do-it-yourself projects. For example, there’s Jennie Bentley’s Do-It-Yourself Mysteries, featuring New York-based home renovator Avery Baker. And there’s Sarah A. Hoyt‘s (as Elise Hyatt) Daring Finds mysteries, which feature furniture refinisher Candyce ‘Dyce’ Dare.

Even if you’re not one to open a can of paint or wield a hammer, you know how popular do-it-yourself projects are. They really can be satisfying, and in a novel, they can add character depth or even be a plot point. This is just a smattering of what’s out there. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Woody Guthrie’s Bling Blang.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elise Hyatt, Hannah Dennison, Jennie Bentley, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Sarah A. Hoyt

She’s a Highly Specialized Key Component of Operational Unity*

SecretariesSecretaries and office assistants are often essential to the success of just about any business. The more competent they are, the better the business runs. If you’ve ever had either a very competent or a very incompetent one, you know what I mean.

We see secretaries quite a lot in crime fiction too. Where would Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot be without his secretary Felicity Lemon? Where would Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason be without Della Street? And where would Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti be without Signorina Elettra Zorzi?

The thing about competent secretaries is that very often, they know a lot more about what goes on in a firm than you’d think. And that can make them very vulnerable. There are plenty of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we meet Sheila Webb, who works for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in the town of Crowdean. One afternoon she is sent to Wilbraham Crescent, where her services have been specially requested. When she arrives at the house, she finds that there’s a dead man in the sitting room. Badly shaken, she rushes out of the house – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a special agent who’s in the area working on a case of his own. There are some odd things about this particular crime, so Lamb thinks it will interest his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. Poirot and Lamb, together with DI Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle, are looking into what happened when there’s another murder. Now Sheila Webb is mixed up in much more than she thinks…

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York City when Nick gets reluctantly drawn into a case. Businessman Claude Wynant seems to have disappeared, and his daughter Dorothy wants to track him down. At first, Nick is unwilling to get involved, but the next morning there’s a shocking new development. Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. There are several suspects, too, including Wynant himself. Even Nick falls under suspicion, since the Wynant family members, Wynant’s business associates and other suspects seem to use Nick and Nora’s home as a gathering place. In the end, Nick untangles the web of secrets and lies and finds out who killed Julia Wolf and why.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s  The Silence of the Rain begins with the death of Richard Carvalho, an executive at the mineral exploration company Planalto Minerações. His body is found in his car, apparently killed by a thief who stole his briefcase and wallet. Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police is called to the scene and begins the investigation. One of the people he wants to interview is Carvalho’s secretary Dona Rose Chaves Benevides. But that turns out to be much more difficult than you’d think. First she’s out sick; then she abruptly disappears. It’s now clear that this death is much more than a case of a robbery gone wrong.

Margaret Maron’s  One Coffee With is the first in her series featuring NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald. In this novel, murder strikes Vanderlyn College’s Department of Art. One morning, department secretary Sandy Kepler goes to the college cafeteria to get coffee for the various faculty members with whom she works. She puts the tray of cups on the top of a filing cabinet and soon, various people come into the department office to get their coffee. Not long afterwards, deputy department chair Riley Quinn dies of what turns out to be poisoning by potassium dichromate. As Harald and her team investigate, they learn that more than one person had a very good reason to poison the victim. Even Sandy herself is a suspect. At the very least, she’s now mixed up in a murder case, just when she was hoping to get her life settled.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s The Enigma of China, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. He is a rising cadre in the Party with a bright future. He’s also a very well-respected detective, with a reputation for being ethical. So the Party is eager to have him as a consultant when Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, apparently commits suicide. Zhou became the subject of a Party investigation when evidence that he was corrupt was spread on the Internet. He had been placed in extra-legal detention and was at a secure hotel when he apparently hanged himself. That explanation makes sense considering Zhou was a high-level official who was about to be severely punished. Chen comes under a great deal of pressure to sign off on the suicide explanation, but he isn’t quite convinced. As he investigates, Chen finds that his role as a cop comes up against the realities that he discovers, and he has to make some difficult choices. One of the people he interviews is Zhou’s former secretary Fang Fang. She had a very responsible position and could have been privy to quite a lot of information. Even if she knows nothing about her boss’ fate, she may very well be helpful. That’s especially true given that she was also, by all accounts, Zhou’s ‘little secretary,’ which implies that she did more than just make his appointments and manage his office. As Chen interacts with Fang, we see just how vulnerable this case makes her. The same powerful people who want this case handled in a certain way are just as interested in keeping Fang quiet…

And that’s the thing about being a secretary/assistant. You often get to know a lot about what goes where you work. So when there’s shady business or worse, you get mixed up in it, no matter how innocent you are (or aren’t). These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Loesser’s A Secretary is Not a Toy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Donna Leon, Erle Stanley Gardner, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Margaret Maron, Qiu Xiaolong