Category Archives: Lynda Wilcox

A King Ain’t a King Without the Power Behind the Throne*

Power Behind the PowerIn any group, there are two different sorts of authority, or perhaps power would be the better term. There are those who have official authority, and those ‘behind the scenes’ who actually get things done. In real life, if you want to make a sale to a major business client, one of your most important tasks is to get that person’s assistant on your side. That’s the person who screens visitors, makes most of the day-to-day decisions, and often persuades the boss to do (or not do) something. A wise authority figure listens to, respects and depends on those ‘behind the scenes’ people without becoming too easy to manipulate (that’s another topic in and of itself!).

There are plenty such characters in crime fiction. They may have modest titles and unassuming job descriptions, but everyone knows that they are the ones whose opinions matter. They’re the ones who get things done.

One such character is Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. Goodwin is officially an employee of private investigator Nero Wolfe. But anyone who knows this series also knows that Wolfe hardly has all of the power in that relationship. In fact, it’s hard at times to say who really runs this detective agency. While Wolfe certainly directs Goodwin (and the other investigators who work for him), anyone who wants to see Wolfe generally has to go through Goodwin. And although Goodwin is supposed to do what Wolfe says (and frequently does), he’s very much his own man, and does quite a lot of work on their cases. He respects Wolfe’s brilliance, but he has no particular reverence for his boss. And he’s not above manipulating situations to get Wolfe to do what he wants. It’s actually a very interesting dynamic.

So is the relationship between Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his secretary, Felicity Lemon.  Miss Lemon is frighteningly efficient and competent at her job. That, in fact, is one of the reasons for which Poirot hired her. On the one hand, she takes his business telephone calls, answers his letters and so on. In that sense, she does as he asks her to do, and usually does so immediately. On the other hand, she has considerable authority and power of her own. Poirot depends on her quite a lot, and pays attention to what she says. This is how Christie expresses it in the short story The Nemean Lion:

‘He trusted Miss Lemon. She was a woman without imagination, but she had an instinct. Anything that she mentioned as worth consideration usually was worth consideration.’

Poirot knows that although he’s the boss, he can’t do his job without an efficient secretary, and he has learned to respect Miss Lemon.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that the real power in the Venice questura doesn’t belong to Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. It belongs to his assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi. Anyone who wants to do business with the questura has to meet with her approval. And everyone who works at the questura, including Brunetti, knows that Signorina Elettra is both an indispensable ally and a formidable opponent. If she wants something to happen, it will happen. If she opposes something, it will stop happening, or won’t happen in the first place. The easiest and most efficient way to get anything done is to enlist Signorina Elettra’s cooperation right from the start.

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire may be the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, but he knows very well that that doesn’t mean he’s all-powerful. For one thing, his position is an elected one. For another, there’s Ruby, his dispatcher/secretary. Ruby has a kind heart, and genuinely cares about people. But she is plain-spoken and direct, and everyone knows better than to take her for granted or ignore what she says. The sheriff’s office is run in the way she wants it to be run; and even Longmire has learned to obey her on certain things.  He knows how dependent he is on her to keep the office running smoothly, and to make sure that he can do his job. And, since she knows everyone, he also knows how valuable she is as an important source of information. She’s not above manipulating situations, either, if she needs to do that, and she usually turns out to be right.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long. She is researcher and secretary to famous crime writer Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport. One of her jobs, for instance, is to get information on past true crimes, and provide those details to her boss. Then Davenport adapts those facts to inspire her novels. Davenport is the one with the name recognition and the best-seller income. But it’s Long who does a great deal of the ‘leg work’ and the research. She’s also often a sounding board for her boss’ ideas. Like the relationship between Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, the relationship between Davenport and Long is an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, Davenport is bright, quick-thinking and a skilled writer. She’s no figurehead, if I may put it that way. On the other, it’s Long who provides the background information, prepares everything for publication, and deals with the myriad demands on Davenport’s time. The two really do depend on each other, and each one knows it.

One of the more interesting cases of this sort of ‘power behind the throne’ is in the work of Hilary Mantel. Her three-book Wolf Hall trilogy is a fictional retelling of the story of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII. Those with an interest in history will know that Cromwell’s life shows both the power that ministers and other assistants can have, and their vulnerability. At the height of his authority, Cromwell was said to have done much to move the Reformation forward, especially behind the scenes. The king depended quite a lot on Cromwell’s ability to manipulate situations; and he certainly got and kept quite a lot of power. But as it turned out, he was also vulnerable. He was executed in 1540, after he lost the king’s good will.

Most of the time, those who get things done ‘behind the scenes’ don’t face execution. But they do have a lot more responsibility and authority than it may seem at first glance. And they can add much to a novel or series.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s It Takes Two.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Craig Johnson, Donna Leon, Hilary Mantel, Lynda Wilcox, Rex Stout

Now Paul is a Real Estate Novelist*

Real EstateIf you’ve ever moved house (and most of us have), you know what a complicated, exhausting and sometimes thoroughly frustrating process it is. But there are plenty of people who make their living in that industry. Yes, I’m talking about house agents. The real estate business is a fixture in most places, and those who represent buyers and sellers can (when times are good and the property is of value) make a lot of money.

Real estate/house agents also play roles in crime fiction. After all, fictional characters buy and sell homes too. And sometimes those homes have secrets, and so do the people who move into them.

There are several house agents in Agatha Christie’s stories. For example, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Littlegreen House in the village of Market Basing at the request of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s worried that someone in her family may be trying to kill her, and wants Poirot to find out who it is. But by the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. No-one in Miss Arundell’s family or household knows of her concern, so Poirot needs a pretext for visiting the house. He goes to the office of Messrs. Gabler and Stretcher, who have Littlegreen House on their books. Here’s what Mr. Gabler says about the property:

‘Ah! Littlegreen House – there’s a property! An absolute bargain. Only just come into the market. I can tell you, gentlemen, we don’t often get a house of that class going at the price…Yes, we shan’t have Littlegreen long in our books.’

Anyone who’s ever had dealings with real estate people will find this kind of patter familiar. I know, I know, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science-fiction writer Zack Walker is increasingly concerned about the safety of his family. They live in the city, and Walker thinks they would be much safer in suburbia. So after being enticed by some attractive newspaper ads, Walker convinces his wife Sarah to at least look at Valley Forest Estates, a new housing development. When they get to the sales office, they’re even more drawn in by the sales representative, who gets them excited about the extra space, the ground-floor laundry room and more. It’s not long before the Walker family is settled into their new home. And that’s when the trouble begins. First, Walker happens to witness an argument between one of Valley Forest’s executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker discovers Spender’s body near a local creek. He ends up getting far more involved in this case than he ever intended; he also learns that life in suburbia is no safer than life in the city…

Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder introduces readers to Verity Long, who serves as research assistant to famous novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport. The arrangement has been working out so well that Long has decided to move to a nicer home than the one she currently has. So, she works with a house agent to find the right place. One afternoon, she and the agent visit a likely possibility. Long is exploring the house when she discovers the body of famous TV presenter Jaynee ‘Jay-Jay’ Johnson. Since Long found the body, DI Jerry Farish considers her (at least at first) to be a ‘person of interest.’ Soon enough, she’s able to convince him that she had nothing to do with the murder. But she remains interested in the case, since she’s involved. What’s more, it may be quite useful as the basis for one of her boss’ plots at some point. So Long does some of her own investigation.

Sometimes fictional real estate professionals find themselves on the wrong end of a murder weapon. For instance, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, we meet Parke Stockard. She’s a beautiful and very successful real estate developer who’s recently moved to the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. Soon enough, the residents discover that she is malicious and exploitative, and it’s not long before she manages to alienate just about everyone in town. So there are several suspects to consider when she is found murdered one afternoon. Retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover discovers the body and decides to investigate the death, mostly to show her son (and anyone else who might wonder!) that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet.

And then there’s Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. In that novel, Stockholm house agent Hans Vannerberg tells his wife Pia that he’s going out to look at a house for a client, and will be back soon. When he doesn’t return, Pia gets anxious and finally calls in the police. Vannerberg’s body is found in the home of Ingrid Olssen, who’s been in a local hospital recovering from surgery. DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team face several puzzling questions in this case. First, why was Vannerberg at Olssen’s home, when she wasn’t selling her house and in fact, claimed not to know him? And who would have wanted to kill a man who had a loving marriage, a successful business (with no hint of financial wrongdoing) and no criminal associations? In the end, the detective team finds that this murder is connected to other crimes and is linked to the past.

The real estate profession gets quite a different treatment in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling. William Heming is not the kind of man you really notice very much. He’s the local real estate agent who’s sold

‘…properties on every street in town.’

Most people don’t think much about Heming, and they certainly don’t know that he’s kept keys to all of the homes he’s sold. Heming takes a personal interest in all of the villagers and their doings, and keeps his eye on them. Then, the town is shaken by the discovery of a dead body in a backyard. Heming is just as concerned as anyone. If too much comes out, then everyone will know that selling houses isn’t the only interest he has…

It can be exciting to contemplate a new home, with all of the latest conveniences, in just the right place. But if you do consider a move, just be careful with whom you deal…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carin Gerhardsen, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Linwood Barclay, Lynda Wilcox, Phil Hogan

Tell Me What the Papers Say*

True Crime and NovelsAs we all know, there’s at least as much real crime out there as there is fictional crime. And writers can’t help but be influenced by those crime stories. After all, crime writers follow the news like a lot of other people, and sometimes those true crime stories can be fascinating enough that they catch the writer’s interest. Something about them gets the writer thinking.

For example, the 1888-1891 Whitechapel murders – the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders – have caught the imagination of lots of writers. These eleven murders of women have never been officially solved although there has been a lot of speculation about who ‘Jack the Ripper’ was. Possibly because the murders weren’t neatly solved, and because there was so much interest in them at the time, those killings have inspired many novels; I’ll just mention a few. In R. Barri Flowers’ historical thriller Dark Streets of Whitechapel, Dr. Jack Lewiston has been captured New York and arrested for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ crimes. But before he can be brought to trial, Lewiston escapes to London. Former New York City detective Henry Marboro comes out of retirement and travels to London to try to track Lewiston down before he can claim more victims.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is also based on the Whitechapel murders. In this story, we meet Robert and Ellen Bunting, highly respectable middle-class Londoners who let rooms. They’re particular about the people they admit, but they are also facing financial difficulties. So when a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth agrees to pay in advance for one of the rooms, Mrs. Bunting is more than willing to have him lodge there. Besides, he speaks and acts like ‘a gentleman.’ All goes well enough at the beginning but soon, the Buntings begin to get an eerie feeling about Mr. Sleuth. After a time Ellen Bunting begins to suspect that he might be a mysterious and vicious killer known as The Avenger, who’s been making headlines in all of the newspapers. The more time goes by, the creepier Mr. Sleuth seems and the more danger the Buntings feel. But at the same time, Mr. Sleuth hasn’t threatened them and they desperately need the money he pays them. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the dilemma of whether the Buntings will report what they suspect to the police (and give up that rent), or whether they’ll keep quiet.

And then there’s Glynis Smy’s Ripper, My Love, which tells the story of Kitty Harper, a seamstress who lives and works in Whitechapel at the time of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. This novel’s been called romantic suspense and it is in the sense that the novel follows Kitty’s life and the way she deals with three young men who are vying for her. But at the same time there’s a strong thread of crime and danger as the Whitechapel murders are seen from Kitty’s perspective – and the murderer may be closer to her than anyone knows. There are dozens and dozens of other novels that refer to, are inspired by or are retellings of the Whitechapel murders.

Another murder that has generated a lot of interest (and inspired other crime writers) is what’s often called the Crippen case. American homeopathic physician Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife Cora. There was significant evidence against him too. A torso which could have been hers was found buried in his basement. He’d purchased hyoscine, a quantity of which was found with the remains. He had a new love, too, Ethel ‘Le Neve’ Neave and in fact, they were captured as they landed in America after leaving England together. There was other evidence too that Crippen had killed his wife. Although the verdict against Crippen has been disputed in the last few years, most people at the time thought him guilty. The story made a sensation and has influenced more than one crime writer. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is the story of the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger James Bentley. Superintendent Spence doesn’t think so though and asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case. Poirot agrees and travels to the village of Broadhinny to do so. He finds that Mrs. McGinty had learned more than it was safe for her to know about one of the ‘nice’ people who live in the village; that’s why she was killed. One of the clues in this case is a story about four old murders, one of which is the murder of a woman by her husband. Like Crippen, this ‘Craig case’ features a body found in a basement and a man who was hanged for the crime while his lover left the country.

Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman is a fictionalised account of the Crippen case told from Crippen’s own point of view. The story begins just after Crippen is convicted for murder, and follows his thoughts as he awaits execution. Interspersed with reports and newspaper stories of the time, the novel tells of Crippen’s life in America, his move to London and his marriage to Cora. It then details how Crippen met Ethel Le Neve and tells the story of their plans to go to America together. In this novel, Edwards gives an alternative account of what exactly happened to Cora and why.

One of the most famous novels based on true crime is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That novel is a re-telling of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie Mae and his children Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crimes. The motive for the murders was money; Hickock and Smith had been in prison before the Clutter murders and heard from a fellow inmate that Herb Clutter had a lot of money at his farm. That wasn’t true but it didn’t stop Hickock and Smith from committing four murders and then going ‘on the run’ until the end of that year when they were caught. Capote’s novel tells the story of the victims’ lives, the relationship between Hickock and Smith and the devastating effects of the Clutter murders on the community. You could call this ‘untrue crime,’ as it is fiction but tells the story of a real crime.

So does James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. That novel’s focus is the still-unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, who was killed in Los Angeles in 1947. LAPD detectives Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are on a stakeout when they discover Short’s body. The case starts to overwhelm the LAPD and becomes a media sensation. Bleichert becomes more and more obsessed with the case, especially when he meets the enigmatic Madeleine Sprague, who closely resembles the victim, and begins to have an affair with her. Blanchard too is obsessed with Elizabeth Short, in large part because his sister was also murdered. This case takes a heavy toll on both officers as they get more and more deeply involved in finding out who Elizabeth Short really was, what her life was like and why she died. Ellroy presents a fictional solution to the case but the real focus in this novel is on the way the murder case affects the cops who investigate it.

There are many other novels that are based on real crimes. For example, there’s Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is based on the 1933 ‘trunk murders’ in which Winnie Ruth Judd was found guilty of murdering two of her friends. Abbott looks at the relationships and history that might have been behind those murders. Some crimes just take hold of the imagination and it can be fascinating to explore different aspects of them. And unlike journalists, novelists can create their own versions of how a crime might have happened and that can make for an absorbing story. In fact, that’s how Lynda Wilcox’s fictional crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport gets her inspiration. As we learn in Strictly Murder, KD’s assistant Verity Long researches old cases and KD uses those as the basis for her novels. It’s not hard to see how they might inspire her.

But what do you think? Do you enjoy reading true-crime books or ‘untrue crime’ stories? If you’re a writer, do you use real crime for inspiration?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Glynis Smy, James Ellroy, Lynda Wilcox, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Martin Edwards, Megan Abbott, R. Barri Flowers, Truman Capote

And These Are the People I Work With*

Co-workersIf you work outside the home, chances are that you have co-workers. Since you can’t always choose co-workers, it’s a very lucky thing when you have friendly co-workers you can depend on. On the other hand co-workers can also turn out to be the bane of one’s existence. Either way, they often have a valuable perspective so when there is a murder, detectives usually talk to the victim’s co-workers. The way someone’s perceived at work can give a lot of insight into that person’s personality, habits and even state of mind. So it makes a lot of sense that co-workers’ views and behaviour play a role in crime fiction too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot re-opens the investigation in to the death of a charwoman. Everyone is convinced that she was killed by her lodger James Bentley but Superintendent Spence, who did the original investigation, has begun to suspect that Bentley might be innocent. So he asks Poirot to look into the case. One of the first things Poirot does as a part of this investigation is to talk to Bentley’s co-workers at Breather & Scuttle, the realtor’s office where he’d been employed before he was let go. From Bentley’s former boss Poirot learns that Bentley wasn’t unpleasant, but he simply didn’t produce enough results to keep his job. This makes Poirot wonder whether Bentley would have had the faith in himself and audacity to carry off a murder. Then one of Bentley’s co-workers Maude Williams give Poirot surprising insights into the kind of person Bentley is. This is also extremely helpful in giving Poirot perspective on the man. In the end in fact Williams proves to be useful in solving the case.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, copywriter Victor Dean has a fatal fall down a staircase at work. His employer, Pym’s Publicity Ltd. is an advertising agency that counts among its clients some top companies and the management of Pym’s wants to keep things that way so discretion and respectability are very important. Dean left behind an unfinished letter in which he claimed that someone in the firm has been using the company’s resources for illegal purposes. That letter raises the possibility that Dean was murdered. Instead of calling the police in (which might bring unwelcome attention to this utterly respectable place), Pym’s hires Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at the company and find out whether Dean’s allegations are correct. Wimsey does so and in the course of his investigation, he gets to know Dean’s co-workers. From them he gets a perspective on the victim. He also finds out that Dean was right about the company’s resources. Someone who works at Pym’s has been using the company’s advertising to arrange meetings between a drugs ring and local drugs dealers. Dean found out who that person is and was taking advantage of that through blackmail. Because he’s undercover as Dean’s replacement, Wimsey gets to hear some very interesting unguarded remarks and conversations as he goes about finding out the truth about Dean’s death and catching the person responsible for it. 

Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man  is the story of former academic Harry Steadman, who used an inheritance to move with his wife Emma to Yorkshire to indulge his passion for excavating the Roman ruins in the area. When Steadman is found murdered, DI Alan Banks and his team investigate. Before he and his wife moved to Yorkshire, Steadman was a member of the faculty at Leeds University, so Banks travels there and gets to know some of Steadman’s former co-workers. They provide some interesting insights into Steadman, his reputation and his character. They also give Banks an important clue as to Steadman’s killer.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect; they had been known to quarrel and what’s more, he was very drunk on the night of the murder and doesn’t remember much of anything. So although he claims he is innocent, he really can’t provide an account of himself nor any other plausible suspects. In fact, he’s convicted of the murder and remanded to a mental institution since he cannot remember what happened. When Mitter himself is killed Van Veeteren knows for certain that Mitter was telling the truth. He and his team begin to dig more deeply into both victims’ pasts to find out who the killer is. And part of that is a set of interviews with co-workers at the school where both taught and where they met. After all, people at the school knew them both and could have had a motive for murder. From those interviews, Van Veeteren gets an interesting perspective on both people; he also gets an interesting clue about who the killer is.

In Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, Sydney police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the death of Paul Fowler. At first it seems that Fowler collapsed, possibly due to the heat, during a casual football game with a few friends. But when it’s found that he was shot, Marconi and her team begin to look into the death more carefully. The team learns that Fowler had been managing a carpet franchise called Carpet Planet until a few weeks before his death. So one of the avenues they explore is his reputation at work and his reasons for either quitting or being fired. Marconi and her police partner Murray Shakespeare interview Fowler’s employees as well as the franchise owner and discover that something had happened a few months before his death that changed Fowler’s disposition and that shortly after that, he’d left abruptly. Although no-one at work really knows what happened, that’s enough for the team to dig a little deeper. As it turns out, Fowler had taken a decision that got him into deeper trouble than he ever could have imagined and ended up costing him his life.

Co-workers turn out to be crucial to finding out who killed TV celebrity Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson in Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder. Verity Long is the assistant to well-known mystery novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Usually she does research for fictional murders but she gets involved in a real one when she goes house-hunting and discovers Johnson’s body in a supposedly empty prospective home. Long falls under some suspicion since she’s the one who found the body. But even after she’s cleared, she continues to ask questions. One of the first places she goes for answers is the television studio where Johnson worked. There, she learns that Johnson was hardly the beloved-by-all personality she appeared to be. Little by little, Long follows up on the leads she gets at the studio and finds out more about Johnson’s personal life. It turns out that what Long learns from Johnson’s co-workers is instrumental in solving the case.

It’s surprising how much co-workers know about each other. For detectives, co-worker interviews can be a proverbial gold mine when it comes to learning about a victim. And for a writer, there’s lots of potential for personality conflicts and character development. Kind of makes you think about your work-mates in a different way doesn’t it? ;-)


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blur’s Yuko and Hiro.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Håkan Nesser, Katherine Howell, Lynda Wilcox, Peter Robinson

In The Spotlight: Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder

In The Spotlight A-LHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Not all crime fiction has to be dark and bleak. But crime fiction that’s too light and ‘frothy’ also isn’t very believable. It can be a real challenge for an author to write a lighter murder mystery while at the same time making it engaging and authentic enough to keep readers interested. To show you what I mean about this balance, let’s turn the spotlight today on Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder.

Verity Long has been assistant to famous mystery novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport for six months. She does some secretarial things (answering mail, co-ordinating her boss’ schedule, etc.) but her job also involves looking up the details of real-life ‘cold case’ crimes. KD uses those details as the bare bones of her best-sellers, adding her own fictional details. So far the arrangement has worked well for both of them, to the point where Long is ready to move to a nicer place than the one she has now – one that’s closer to the center of Crofterton. She and a house agent visit a prospective home one afternoon and that’s where Long discovers the body of TV celebrity Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson.

Since Long found the body, she’s one of the first people the police interview and she comes in for her share of suspicion since her presence at the scene is a little too convenient. But even after DI Jerry Farish no longer considers her a suspect Long takes an interest in the case since, as she puts it,


‘But I am involved…I found her body.’


Long begins to investigate and soon finds that JayJay Johnson was not the beloved co-presenter that she seemed to be. So there are several suspects in Johnson’s personal life and among her colleagues and other studio employees.

In the meantime, Long’s gotten information on a ‘cold case’ that her employer might be able to use for a future novel. Fourteen-year-old Charlotte Neal was on her way home from a friend’s house in 1990 when she disappeared. No trace of her – not even a body – was found, and the police never got solid leads on what happened to her. So while she’s trying to find out what happened to JayJay Johnson, Long also follows up on the Charlotte Neal case. She interviews the investigating officer, she searches for friends and family members and she puts ads in local papers. As she looks deeper into this case, Long discovers that there were actually two Charlotte Neal cases. The second involved a girl who was killed in a hit-and-run incident. This case was never solved either. The more Long learns about these cases, the clearer it becomes that someone doesn’t want her to find out what really happened. As it turns out, the past and present cases do have a connection and in the end Long finds out who killed JayJay Johnson and what happened to both Charlotte Neals.

Verity Long is more than anything else a research assistant. So we get an interesting look at the way people go about researching novels. Long reads newspaper articles and other media reports and interviews police officers, witnesses, family members and other people, and we get the chance to see how someone who doesn’t have the force of law gets people to talk. And her personality is well-suited for the job. She’s smart, curious and tenacious. And while those qualities do get her into danger in a few places in the novel, they also help her get to the truth. We can see why KD hired her.

Long’s appeal as a character also comes from the fact that she’s neither perfect nor blindly devoted to her work. She enjoys good food and good wine. She can be stubborn and she sometimes takes more risks than she should. Readers who are tired of the ‘female protagonist in distress’ theme in mysteries should take heart, though. Long is certainly human and therefore vulnerable. But she isn’t foolhardy and she does a fairly good job of taking care of herself. It’s not hard to be on her side as she tries to unravel these mysteries.

Another element that runs through this novel is the story of both Charlotte Neals. As Long finds out bits and pieces of information about the two girls, we learn what they were like. Their stories are woven into the novel through the research Long does and those stories are at least as interesting as the case of JayJay Johnson is. Although KD plans to use some of the details in an upcoming novel, it’s clear that both she and Long respect the girls’ memories.

There’s also an element of romance in this novel. Long and Farish are attracted to each other and they develop a relationship as the novel goes on. But to Wilcox’s credit, their relationship evolves naturally, and it’s not without its challenges. First, neither is perfect. What’s more, Farish finds it hard as a cop to balance his personal and his working life. Long feels shut out when Farish can’t or doesn’t wish to discuss his work. And both are wary of relationships in any case. Refreshingly, this romance is woven into the novel without being such a major part of it that it takes over, and without being too ‘glossy.’

There’s a solid thread of humour woven through the novel too. Both KD and Long have a somewhat sarcastic way of looking at life and that comes through in the story. Here, for instance, is a scene during which Long and her boss are at a benefit fête where it’s hoped that KD’s ‘celebrity author’ status will draw in money:


‘I wandered around, my pace leisurely, my mind occupied not with the fun on offer but with darker thoughts. Determined not to open my purse, I relented and tried my luck at a bottle stall, run in aid of MacMillan Nurses. Naturally, from a large trestle table filled with every type of brandy, whisky, wine and liqueurs, I came away with nothing more than a bottle of nail polish. Green nail polish! Still, I didn’t really mind, at least my money had gone to a good cause.’


Long’s sense of humour is dry and refreshing and makes sense given her personality. There are some funny scenes too. For instance, at one point Long is doing some snooping in an office at the television studio. She hears someone coming and dives into the rest room attached to the office. The two people who come in intend to use the office for some ‘extracurricular activity’ and Long’s trapped in the rest room until they leave.

The working relationship between KD and Long is also an interesting element in the story. They are employer and employee, and yet they’re friends too. KD cares about Long and more than once is very helpful to her. And although even KD admits she’s difficult to work for, Long respects her boss’ intelligence, commercial savvy and ability to craft a good mystery. They have a similar outlook on life, too.

The mysteries themselves make sense and Long finds out the truth in believable ways. And after all, how can you not want to read more in a novel that begins this way:


‘I had been on the job only six months when my employer pulled a gun on me.’ 


Truly an attention-getting first line.

Strictly Murder is a light but not ‘frothy’ crime novel featuring a down-to-earth, practical sleuth, a believable set of mysteries and some humour. But what’s your view? Have you read Strictly Murder? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 28 January/Tuesday 29 January – Kiss and Tell – TJ Cooke

Monday 4 February/Tuesday 5 February – Louisiana Bigshot – Julie Smith

Monday 11 February/Tuesday 12 February – The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill


Filed under Lynda Wilcox, Strictly Murder