Category Archives: Maj Sjöwall

And Who In Case She Doesn’t Hang Can Say She Started With a Bang*

The beginning of a novel is crucial. For many readers, if the first bit of the novel doesn’t draw them in and get their interest, they don’t want to bother finishing it. And even readers who are willing to finish a novel with a less-than-interesting beginning won’t feel the same about it as they would if they’d been ‘hooked’ right away.

One advantage crime writers have is that you can always start a story with a murder or a body. That’s often enough to get the reader’s attention. So, it’s little wonder so many crime novels start that way.

Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library begins as Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, wake up to learn that their maid has found a body in the library of their home, Gossington Hall. It’s a young woman, who is at first unidentified. Colonel Bantry calls the police, which is exactly what he should do. But Dolly Bantry knows better. She calls Miss Marple. Soon enough, the victim gets a name. Eighteen-year-old Ruby Keene, who worked as a professional dancer, has been reported as missing, and the body that the Bantrys’ maid found is identified as hers. It turns out to be a complicated case, and the reader is invited to engage with it right away, since the body is found at the beginning of the novel.

Here’s the first sentence of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna:

‘They found the corpse on the eighth of July just after three o’clock in the afternoon.’

The body, that of an unidentified young woman, is brought up from Lake Vãttern. Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team take part in the investigation, since it looks to be complicated. It takes quite some time, but the woman is finally identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a tour of Sweden when she died. It takes months – and some luck – to find out who killed the victim and why, but in the end, Beck and his team find the answers.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker also begins with a body. Brothers Paul and Daniel Spender are exploring one morning near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset coast. They’ve ‘borrowed’ their father’s expensive binoculars to get a better view of everything. Paul, the older of the two, spots a young woman apparently sunbathing in the nude. It’s not long, though, before it occurs to both brothers that she hasn’t moved in a while, and that, in fact, she’s dead. They give the alarm, and, soon enough, Police Constable (PC) Nick Ingram gets to the scene and begins an investigation. Soon, the woman is identified as Kate Sumner. Her husband, William, reported her missing when it was discovered that their three-year-old daughter, Hannah, was wandering around the town of Poole by herself. Ingram, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Galbraith, Woman Police Constable (WPC) Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter, work together to find out who killed Kate. Eventually, they settle on three suspects. One is, as you might guess, the victim’s husband. Another is a local actor named Stephen Harding. A third is Harding’s roommate, a schoolteacher named Tony Bridges. Little by little, the police pull apart the layers of Kate’s complicated life and find out who murdered her.

Gordon Ell’s The Ice Shroud begins as the body of a woman is discovered in a mostly-frozen river not far from Queenstown, on New Zealand’s South Island. Detective Sergeant (DS) Malcolm Buchan is the new head of the local Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB), so he’ll lead the investigation. It’s soon established that the woman is Edie Longstreet, who co-owned an upmarket lingerie shop called Figments. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much motive for murder. But before long, Buchan and his team find that there are several leads. There’s the victim’s ex-husband, there are her business contacts, and there’s the fact that she had a complicated personal life. It’s not going to be an easy case, and it’s going to involve peeling back a layer of secrets. This novel invites the reader to engage right away, as the body is discovered, and the authorities pull it out of the river.

Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, which takes place in 1919, begins with the discovery of the body of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal. He’s found in an alley in Calcutta/Kolkata, and Captain Sam Wyndham will be in charge of the investigation. He and his assistants, Sub-inspector John Digby and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, will have to be careful. McAuley was an important person and moved in some high circles. So, talking to witnesses and finding out who might have wanted the man killed will be a challenge. It doesn’t help matters that some of the evidence suggests that a group of revolutionaries is responsible. That possibility will involve other government forces. It turns out to be a complicated case, and Wyndham will have to negotiate a lot of the difficult realities of late-Raj India to find out the truth.

One of the novels I’m working on now starts with a death:

The pain started as he buckled his seat belt. At first, he didn’t pay very much attention to it. He was middle-aged now, and aches and pains were starting to be a part of daily life.  And he’d started his exercise program yesterday. Still, he felt fine that morning as he went to his office. It was a regular Wednesday morning, like so many others. Stop for coffee, get to the office, catch up with email, return telephone calls, and then a conference with Emma about his schedule for the day.  After that a meeting with some of the people at the office, that was all. Everything normal.  Must be he just threw something out as he bent to get into the car.

As you can imagine, this is not going to end well.

There are a lot of ways to begin a novel with a ‘hook’ that will invite readers to engage in the story. A dead body is one of them, and it can be very effective. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s Roxie.


Filed under Abir Mukherjee, Agatha Christie, Gordon Ell, Maj Sjöwall, Minette Walters, Per Wahlöö

I Can See All Obstacles in My Way*

Murder investigations don’t always get solved quickly. In fact, in many cases, there comes a point where the detective runs low on (or even out of) ideas. It’s not always easy to admit that ‘I got nothing’ feeling, but it does happen.

When it does happen, the sleuth needs to get past that sticking point. And there are any number of ways in which an author can use that situation. Sticking points can add tension to a story. And, when they’re done well, they’re credible. Exploring how the protagonist gets past being stuck can make for an interesting character layer, too.

Sometimes, the detective gets to the truth by chance. In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She wanted to divorce her husband so that she could marry someone else, and she’d even threatened his life. But she claims that she was in another part of London at a dinner party at the time of the murder. And there are 12 other people who are prepared to swear that she was there. It’s a baffling case for Poirot, and he doesn’t know how the pieces fit together at first. Then, he and Hastings happen to overhear a comment made by someone coming out of a cinema. That comment gives Poirot a new way of looking at the case, and that’s exactly what he needs to solve the mystery.

There are also times when the sleuth gets past a sticking point when something seemingly trivial triggers a new idea. For example, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team are stymied in their investigation of the murder of Roseanna McGraw. She was killed when she went overboard a ship during a tour of Sweden, and, since her body was dredged up from a lake, there’s not much evidence to suggest any particular person as the killer. And, since she wasn’t Swedish, it takes time to identify her, since her records aren’t on file. Even after she’s identified, there’s very little that the detectives can use as leads. All of these complications hold up the case for quite some time. Then, Beck gets a new idea from a simple postcard and a comment. He and his team contact all of the other passengers and ask to see any photographs they’ve taken. That idea gives Beck vital information that goes a long way towards solving the case.

Lawyers can sometimes get past a legal logjam by ‘doing the homework’ and finding a possibly-obscure point of law that’s relevant, and that can help them win their case. That’s what happens in Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case. Berlin attorney Caspar Leinan is taking his turn on standby for legal aid when a new case comes in. Fabrizio Collini lived peacefully in Germany for years after immigrating from Italy. Now, for apparently no reason, he’s murdered a man named Jean-Baptiste Meyer.  He does nothing to defend himself; in fact, he admits that he shot the victim. But he says very little else, and Leinan can’t find any evidence of a motive, nor much of anything else that he can use. But, German law requires that all defendants be represented by an attorney. What’s more, Leinan believes in the idea of everyone deserving a fair trial. And, truth be told, he wants to make his reputation and win this case. So, he digs in. It’s not easy, though, because Collini won’t be of any help, and the witnesses have little to offer. At a loss, Leinan decides to do more background research. When he does, he comes across an obscure point of German law that spurs him on and helps him to defend his client.

There are times when a sleuth finds that simply talking to people – or, rather, mostly listening to them – can help when there’s a sticking point in a case. That’s what Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache finds. He is a member of the Sûreté du Québec whom we first meet in Still Life. In that novel, he and his team travel to the small town of Three Pines when beloved former teacher Jane Neal is killed. At first, her death looks like a terrible accident, but Gamache isn’t sure of that. He’s a bit held back by what seems to be a lack of motive. But he observes, listens, and talks to people in the town. And, little by little, he finds that there are people who could have had a motive for murder. And, in the end, it’s that sort of conversation that helps put him on the right path.

Sleuths can also break through to a solution to one case if there’s another case that linked. Of course, sleuths don’t want people to be killed as a rule. But when there is a second murder, and it can be linked to the original murder, this can help point the sleuth in the right direction. Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine is a bit like that. So is Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. For that reason, a skilled sleuth will sometimes keep even a ‘cold’ case open enough to put the pieces together if there’s another murder.

There are other ways, too, in which a sleuth gets past sticking points. It takes perseverance and an openness to what people say, to new ideas, and so on. And, when the plot point is done well, sticking points and sleuths’ approaches to them can add to a novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Colin Dexter, Ferdinand von Schirach, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

It’s Happening All Around You*

It’s almost impossible for a writer not to be affected by larger events that are going on. After all, we’re all impacted by what happens in the larger world. Some authors choose not to weave those larger social climates and events into their work. When they do, it seems to work most effectively if those larger things are, if I can put it this way, in the background. In that way, both the author and the reader can focus on the characters and the plot at hand. If that happens, those larger events and social contexts can add a sense of time and place to a novel.

For example, World War II is the backdrop for Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. Heron Park Hospital has been converted for wartime use, and as the story begins, seven different people are going to the hospital to work in different capacities. One day, a postman named Joseph Higgins is brought the hospital with a broken femur. It’s not a life-threatening injury, but he does need surgery. When he dies during the operation, it’s put down to a tragic accident at first. In fact, Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police goes to the hospital to ‘rubber stamp’ that explanation. Then, a nurse who was present at Higgins’ death has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was done. Later that night, she is murdered. Now, Cockrill investigates both deaths as murders, and finds out who the killer is. In this case, the war provides the atmosphere, and there’s plenty of talk about it. But the action doesn’t take place on the battlefield. Rather, the focus is on the hospital and the characters involved.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood takes place mostly in the small village of Warmsley Vale. World War II has recently ended, and Lynn Marchmont has returned home to her mother, Adela, after military service. Times are not easy, but the Marchmonts had always counted on Adela’s wealthy brother, Gordon Cloade, for financial support. In fact, he’d told all of his family members not to worry about money, as he would see to their well-being. So, it was a shock to the family to learn that Cloade had married. It was an even worse shock when he died intestate. Now, everything will likely go to his widow, Rosaleen. Then, a stranger, who calls himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen may not be eligible to inherit, since she may have been married to someone else at the time of her marriage to Cloade. Arden is killed before anyone can determine whether he was telling the truth, and the Cloades (and Marchmonts) find themselves drawn into the murder investigation. Hercule Poirot is consulted by two members of the Cloade family, and he works to find out the truth. Postwar privation, and the postwar atmosphere aren’t the main focus of the novel, nor the reason Arden is killed. But Christie certainly taps into the atmosphere of the times (this book was published in 1948).

Twenty years later, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, was published. In it, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team are assigned to help secure the US Embassy. There’s a large protest against the Vietnam war, and things could, of course, get disastrous. Then, a gunman boards a bus and shoots eight people, including a police officer. At first, it looks like an act of terrorism. But soon enough, Beck and his team discover that this might have been a very deliberate attack on the dead policeman, whose current investigation was proving dangerous to some dangerous people. While the student activism and anti-war sentiment of the late 1960s isn’t the reason for the murders on the bus, that atmosphere and political context are certainly woven into the story and provide interesting background.

During the mid-1980s, there was a major strike among UK miners. Feelings ran high on all sides, and the strike left lasting resentments. That’s the background against which Reginald Hill’s Under World is set. In that novel, Colin Farr returns to the small mining town of Burrthorpe, where his father, Billy, died a few years ago in a tragic fall (or was it an accident?). It’s not long before he alienates everyone – especially those who think his father was responsible for the disappearance and murder of a young girl, Tracey Pedley. So, he’s an attractive target for suspicion when there’s another murder. Superintendent Andy Dalziel leads the investigating team, and it’s not going to be an easy case. Woven into all of this is the climate engendered by the strike. There’s a lot of hostility towards the police, which makes it hard to get information. And, there’s a look at the life of the miners, both underground and above it. It’s a very difficult, dangerous occupation, and it’s got its own culture.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness, which takes place just before the Scottish Parliament is to be reconvened after hundreds of years. A long-dead body is discovered behind a blocked-up fireplace in a building that’s being renovated to house the Parliament. The body isn’t nearly as old as the building is, so Inspector John Rebus and his team look into the building’s more recent history to find out the truth about the body. As if that’s not enough, a homeless man throws himself off a bridge – and leaves behind quite a lot of money. And a promising prospective MP is murdered. The upcoming reconvening of the Scottish Parliament is woven through the novel and adds to its atmosphere and background.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of authors who use contemporary events, movements, and so on as backgrounds to their stories. Doing that adds the risk of dating a novel. But if the focus stays on the characters and the actual plot, such events and movements can add real atmosphere to a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brett Dennen’s Surprise Surprise.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Ian Rankin, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill

This is Not a War, No Winners No Losers*

Some professional relationships are, by their nature, adversarial. For instance, in the context of a trial, opposing counsel have to be adversaries if there’s to be a fair trial. The two sides might respect, and even like, one another off duty. But in the courtroom, they have to oppose each other. Some people think of trials as zero-sum situations: if one side wins, the other has to lose.

But there are plenty of relationships that don’t have to be adversarial, although they sometimes turn out that way. For instance, if a person commits crimes in more than one jurisdiction, it helps everyone if the police in those different places cooperate. In other words, it’s not a zero-sum situation. If the police in one place catch the criminal, the police in the other place haven’t ‘lost.’ And the citizens in both places are now safer.

In real life, police in different units and different places know this, and they’re often willing to exchange information and cooperate. It’s not that there’s never friction. In most cases, though, everyone knows that working with different police departments isn’t a zero-sum situation.

We see that cooperation in plenty of crime fiction, too. And that makes sense, since police departments do have to interact. When it’s written well, that sort of interaction can add to a story. It can also introduce different characters.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, a series of murders occurs in different jurisdictions. The victims don’t have much of anything in common, and the murders are committed in different ways. The only things linking the deaths are that, before each one, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic warning letter; and, an ABC railway guide is found near each body. At first, it seems as though a serial killer might be at work. But Poirot isn’t convinced. He and Captain Hastings work with Chief Inspector Japp and police from the different towns involved to find out who the killer is. Admittedly, one of the people they work with, Inspector Crome, has a bit of an annoyingly superior attitude. But by and large, the different police groups share information and cooperate. And in the end, we learn who the killer is and what the motive is.

In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the body of a young woman is pulled from Lake Vättern. Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team travel to Motala, where the investigation is taking place, to work with the local police. The going is slow at first, since the victim doesn’t match the description of any person listed as missing. But eventually, the police learn that the woman’s name was Roseanna McGraw, and that she was an American who was on a tour of Sweden when she was killed. In the meantime, Elmer Kafka of the Lincoln, Nebraska Police is searching for Roseanna, since a missing person report was filed there. Eventually, he and Martin Beck communicate and begin to share information. That information proves to be helpful in finding the killer, and it’s an interesting example of the way police can work together without one group or another having to ‘win.’

Sharon Bolton’s A Dark and Twisted Tide sees Bolton’s protagonist, Lacey Flint, now working with the Met’s Marine Unit. In that capacity, her job is mostly to check boating licenses, warn people about unsafe conditions, and so on. One morning, she discovers the body of a young woman in the water. The victim is probably Middle Eastern or South Asian, and the likelihood is that she was drowned. What’s more disturbing, it looks as though the body might have been left where it was for Flint to find. If so, someone’s taking a bizarre sort of interest in her. The death is looking more and more like a homicide, so Flint works with Detective Inspector (DI) Dana Tulloch and her team in the Met’s Homicide group, to find out who the victim is, and who the killer is. As the two teams work to solve this case, we see solid cooperation between the Homicide Unit and the Marine Unit. There’s some good-natured back-and-forth about whose budget will be tapped for different things, but in the main, these people work together. They all know that everyone wins if the murderer is found, no matter who actually makes the arrest.

We see a similar sort of cooperation among police departments in Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team is investigating the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. They’re trying to trace the victim’s last months and weeks to find out who would want her dead. At the same time, Scarlett’s friend and colleague Fern Larter and her team are investigating two more recent deaths: book collector George Saffell and attorney Stuart Wagg. Scarlett and Larter are friends; but even if they weren’t, they both know that policing isn’t a zero-sum situation. Competing with one another wouldn’t solve crimes successfully, and working together does. When a connection between the two investigations is found, the teams share information and cooperate to find the killer.

In Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling, Detective Inspector (DI) Hazel Micallef and her team at Port Dundas, Ontario, are faced with a disturbing series of deaths that look on the surface to be assisted suicides. But Micallef’s not sure of that. As time goes on, and the case is no closer to being solved, she comes to believe that it’s possible a serial killer is striking. If so, this killer has likely struck before, and will likely strike again. So, in one plot thread, Micellef’s team communicates with other police teams to get whatever background information they may have on similar killings. That cooperation turns out to be very useful, as it helps the Port Dundas team home in on the murderer.

There are plenty of crime novels, of course, in which ‘patch wars’ and worse happen between fictional police departments, or between different units in the same department. And that kind of conflict does happen in real life. But the reality is, the more cooperation there is among different police teams, the more crime is solved. And it’s easier than ever with today’s technology. Little wonder there’s an argument that police work isn’t a zero-sum situation – well, except for the criminal…


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Inger Ash Wolfe, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Redhill, Per Wahlöö, Sharon Bolton

Any Fish Bite if You Got Good Bait*

Criminals don’t always leave a lot of evidence behind. So, in order to collar them, the police have to catch them in the act, so to speak. And that sometimes means that the police have to use ‘bait.’

This can be a tricky plot point in a crime novel. For one thing, real-life police aren’t eager to risk the safety of one of their own, so they don’t plan such operations without a lot of thought and care. For another, such operations can be legally chancy, and must avoid entrapment. When they’re not done carefully, these plot points can also become almost melodramatic, and that can take away from a story. But, when it’s done effectively, using a character as ‘bait’ can add suspense to a story, and can be a legitimate way for a fictional sleuth to catch a criminal.

You might say that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes uses himself as ‘bait’ in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. He and Dr. Watson get a visit from Hilton Cubitt, who’s very concerned about his American-born wife, Elsie. When they married, she assured him that she had nothing disgraceful in her own past. But, she’d had some dangerous associations. She made him promise not to ask her about her life in America, and he kept that promise. Now, though, she’s getting cryptic letters that have upset her. The letters take the form of sets of coded characters, so Cubitt doesn’t know what they say. And Elsie won’t tell him. Then, the drawings start appearing on the window ledge of the Cubitt home. Holmes gets to work trying to decrypt the messages, but before he can, Cubitt is shot one night, and his wife is wounded. Holmes sets a trap for the killer with himself as ‘bait;’ he sends a coded message asking the murderer to meet him. Holmes is able to catch the criminal, and we learn what really happened at the Cubitt residence.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series begins with Roseanna. In that novel, the body of an unknown woman is pulled from Lake Vättern. It takes time, but she is eventually identified as twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a tour of Sweden when she was killed. Once the victim has a name, Martin Beck and his team get to work tracing her last days and weeks, and trying to find out who would have wanted to kill her. Finally, after several months, some false starts, and a lot of work, the team learns who the murderer is. But there isn’t much evidence, and the culprit isn’t likely to admit any guilt. So, Martin Beck and his teammates set a trap, if you will, using one of their own, Sonja Hansson. She’s made fully aware of the risks, and decides she wants to help. So, everything’s prepared. In the end, that trap is successful in catching Roseanna McGraw’s killer, but it’s risky and it’s scary for all concerned.

The first of Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan novels, The Burning, sees Met Detective Constable (DC) Kerrigan tracking a murderer the press has called the Burning Man, because he incinerates his victims. The police haven’t gotten very far in finding out who the murderer is, because there’s not much evidence. So, the public and the press are losing patience. Then, there’s a new victim, Rebecca Haworth. On the surface, it looks very much as though the Burning Man has struck again. But there are little differences between this case and the others. Kerrigan wants to stay with the Burning Man team, but she’s assigned to follow up on the Haworth case. After all, the police don’t want to be seen as ignoring a murder. And, if this was, in fact, a Burning Man case, Kerrigan’s helping the team. In the end, we find out who the Burning Man is, and how the Haworth murder fits in, and it’s more complex than it seems at first. In one scene, Kerrigan joins the team as they plan to try to catch the Burning Man. An undercover officer, Katy Mayford, will serve as the ‘bait.’ It’s not spoiling the story to say that this operation turns out to be dangerous.

Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion is the first in her Anna Travis series. In it, Travis has just joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. At the time she comes aboard, the team is working on a case of six older prostitutes who were all killed in the same way. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton is sure the murders were committed by the same person, but the culprit doesn’t leave much at all in the way of evidence. Then, seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens is found dead. Her murder was committed exactly the same way as the others, but she was quite young, and not a prostitute. So, it’s not certain that she’s a victim of the same killer. Langton thinks she is, though, and the team gathers evidence. One possible suspect is a TV actor named Alan Daniels. There is some evidence that he could be guilty, but it’s not conclusive. Besides, he’s beloved, charming, and just about to make it big in films. If he’s not guilty, being dragged into a murder case like this will ruin his career. It could also harm Travis’ career, since she’s found some of the evidence against him. So, the team has to tread lightly.  At one point in the novel, Langton and the team set up an operation with Travis as ‘bait.’ It’s a suspenseful scene, since it’s not clear whether or not Daniels is the killer. There is another solid suspect, and things aren’t always as they seem in such cases. It’s very hard on Travis to serve as ‘bait,’ although she acquits herself well. And it shows just how stressful this sort of operation can be.

And it can. Still, sometimes the best way to catch a criminal is to set and ‘bait’ a trap. When that plot point is well-drawn, it can add a solid dose of suspense, tension and surprise to a novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Henry Thomas’ Fishing Blues.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Casey, Lynda La Plante, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö