Category Archives: Martin Clark

Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park*

Trailer ParksCaravans, mobile homes, trailers, they’re different names for the same kind of home. Whatever you call them, these homes can move from place to place. Sometimes their owners live in a community with other trailer/caravan owners. Other times they live by themselves. Either way a trailer/caravan is a really affordable alternative to owning a home or a condominium.

There are plenty of mobile homes in crime fiction. That shouldn’t be surprising, since lots of people find them both affordable and convenient (they can be moved, after all). Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of others.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels will know that Chee lives in a trailer. He prefers to live more or less away from other people, in the Navajo custom, and he’s placed his trailer so that it faces east, also in the Navajo tradition. It turns out to be not such a safe place in Skinwalkers, when he finds himself the target of a would-be assassin. When a series of murders connected with the Bad Water Clinic occurs, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn looks into the case, and Chee gets involved after he is attacked. One of the interesting layers in this novel is the discussion of Navajo beliefs about skinwalkers, witches who can change shape. Those traditional beliefs still impact the culture in some ways.

In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we are introduced to brothers Gates and Mason Hunt. They’ve had a difficult start in life, being the children of an abusive, alcoholic father. But Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he has to get out of that situation. He winds up getting a scholarship to university and goes on to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability. He ends up living on money he gets from his mother, and from his girlfriend’s Denise’s welfare allotment. One afternoon, the Hunt brothers are at Denise’s trailer when Gates’ romantic rival, Wayne Thompson, stops by. He and Gates get into a serious argument, and Wayne ends up storming off. Later that night, the brothers are on their way home from a night out when they encounter Wayne again. The argument heats up again, this time fueled by alcohol. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot his rival. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his Gates cover up what happened, and life goes on for both. Years later, Mason has become the commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Gates, meanwhile, supplements his income with drug dealing. Then, he’s arrested for trafficking in cocaine. He’s convicted and sentenced to a long prison term. He begs his brother to help him get out of prison, but this time, Mason refuses. Gates threatens to incriminate Mason for the still-unsolved Thompson murder if he doesn’t help, and now Mason faces criminal indictment for a crime he didn’t commit.

Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty is quite familiar with trailers. Her official business is a sewing supply shop. But she also has another business, with a certain kind of client. Women who’ve been abused know that they can count on Stella to help them even the score. She’s not a murderer, but she can be extremely persuasive. Her ‘parolees’ know after one visit that they’d better leave their victims alone. Anyone who doesn’t heed that first warning gets an even more unpleasant second visit. In A Bad Day For Sorry, for instance, Stella goes to the trailer of one of her ‘parolees,’ Roy Dean Shaw, to remind him of how he’s supposed to behave. All goes as expected, and Stella thinks she has the matter in hand. Until the next day, when she finds out from Dean’s ex-wife Chrissy that he’s disappeared, and he may have her son Tucker with him. Stella starts asking questions to try to track down her quarry and the boy, and finds that the trail leads to some very dangerous people. Still, Chrissy is determined to get her son back, and the two women go up against some very difficult odds to do just that.

David Liss’ The Ethical Assassin begins with a visit to a Florida trailer park. Lem Atlick is trying to save money to pay for Columbia University, so he’s taken a job as a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesperson. One hot day, he visits the trailer of a woman named Karen and her husband, nicknamed Bastard. He’s making his sales pitch when Melford Kean comes into the trailer and kills both Karen and Bastard. Kean didn’t expect a witness, but he thinks quickly. He offers Lem this deal: Lem can keep his mouth shut, or Kean will implicate him for the murders, and Lem won’t have much of an alibi. Lem soon finds himself drawn into Kean’s world, and discovers that this is no ordinary shooting spree.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features Jodie Evans Garrow, who grew up on the proverbial poor side of town. She’s done well for herself, though, and gotten a university education. Now she’s married to a successful attorney, Angus, and is the mother of two healthy children. One day the past comes back to haunt her, though. Her daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years earlier to another child – one she never mentioned, even to Angus. A nurse there remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says that she was adopted, but the nurse can’t find any formal records. Now, questions begin to arise, first in whispers, and then in a full-out smear campaign. Is the child still alive? If so, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? Now, Jodie is a social pariah. It’s all too much for her daughter, Hannah, who decides to take off with her boyfriend. One of Hannah’s visits is to her grandfather (Jodie’s father) who now lives in a caravan in a rural area. She’s hoping that he can give her some insight into her mother’s past. On the one hand, the visit’s a failure, as he’s hardly helpful. On the other, Hannah’s disappointment is a lesson in itself.

And then there’s Kate Ellis’ The Merchant House. In one plot thread of that novel, Jonathan Berrisford disappears from the yard of the summer cottage where he’s been staying with his mother, Elaine. The Tradmouth CID, of course, mount a major search effort, but don’t immediately find the boy. In the meantime, the body of a young woman has been discovered, so the CID has plenty on its plate, as the saying goes. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the police get some useful information on both cases from some people who are staying at a nearby caravan park.

In that novel, and in others that feature such places, you can see that the trailer/caravan life is a unique culture. It’s sometimes a relatively closed culture, but even when it’s not, it makes for an interesting context.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Cowboy Junkies song.


Filed under David Liss, Kate Ellis, Martin Clark, Sophie Littlefield, Tony Hillerman, Wendy James

And I Wish I Could Have All He Has Got*

Wistful ThinkingI’m sure you’ve seen those cheerful social media updates. People post when they win awards, graduate, marry, have (grand)children, travel to exotic places, and go to fabulous restaurants. Those updates sometimes make it seem that the people who post them have charmed lives where everything’s going beautifully. Of course, in our rational minds, we know very well that life isn’t perfect, not even for people who post ‘photos of themselves being toasted at a major awards banquet. There really is no such thing as a charmed life. But when we compare our lives to others’ lives, it can seem that way.

An evocative poem by Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about how that comparison can play out in fiction. That thread of wistfulness – even envy – that people sometimes feel when they look at others’ lives can make for an interesting layer of suspense in a story. It can add a layer of character development, too. And in a crime novel, it can create a motive for all kinds of things…

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s had plenty of clients with the means to travel and enjoy life; and, although she’s not really what you’d call jealous, she’d like to play, too, as the saying goes:

‘So many of her ladies had been going to Le Pinet or just come back from Le Pinet. Jane – her clever fingers patting and manipulating the waves, her tongue uttering mechanically the usual clichés, ‘Let me see. How long is it since you had your perm, madam?… Your hair’s such an uncommon color, madam… What a wonderful summer it has been, hasn’t it, madam?’ – had thought to herself, ‘Why the devil can’t I go to Le Pinet?’

Jane gets her chance when she wins in the Irish Sweep. She’s returning by air from Le Pinet to London when a fellow passenger is poisoned. Since the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the cabin, Jane gets drawn into the investigation. Among other things, she learns that life among the ‘beautiful people’ is not charmed.

In one plot thread of Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s wedding. One of the events is to be a posh engagement-party weekend at the home of Mieka’s future in-laws. Then, Joanne gets an unexpected call. Christy Sinclair is the former girlfriend of Joanne’s son, Pete. She has a history of lying and being manipulative, so when she and Pete broke up, it seemed very much all for the better. Now Christy is back, and even says that she and Pete are getting back together. She wants to travel with the Kilbourns to the engagement party, where Pete is supposed to meet them, and Joanne reluctantly allows it. When Christy arrives the next day to join the family, she says,

“I’ve missed this family.’’

And it’s not just because of her relationship to Pete. When she is killed the next night in what looks like a drowning suicide (but isn’t!) we learn more about her history. She has a tragic background, and looked on the Kilbourns as almost a model of what she would like in a family. Fans of this series will know that Joanne and her family are not perfect, nor are their lives charmed. But that’s how it seems to Christy.

One of the main characters in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is Gates Hunt. When the story begins, in 1984, he is just moving into young adulthood in rural Patrick County, Virginia. He has a lot of natural athletic ability and the opportunity to parlay that into a successful career that can get him out of the poverty in which he grew up. He doesn’t make use of his talent, though, instead squandering everything. In fact, he lives on money from his mother Sadie Grace and from his girlfriend Denise’s Welfare payments. In the meantime, Gates’ younger brother Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity that comes his way. He’s worked hard and gotten a real chance at academic success. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The argument ends for the moment; but later that night, the Hunt brothers run into Thompson again. More words are exchanged and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots his rival. Out of filial loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. The years go by, and Mason continues to be successful. He becomes a prosecuting attorney, marries a woman he loves, and with her, has a healthy child. Gates envies his brother, although it’s not the sort of resentful envy you might imagine. That is, not until Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and sentenced to a long prison term. He reaches out to Mason to help get him out of prison, but his brother refuses. Then Gates uses a powerful bargaining chip: he threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder if Mason won’t help him. Mason calls his brother’s bluff, as the saying goes, and Gates carries out his threat. Now Mason has to clear his name and avoid being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets the opportunity to join a family cruise on a private yacht owned by wealthy business executive Charity Wiser. She’s hired Quant because she believes someone is trying to kill her, and she wants him to find out who it is. The idea is that if he goes on the cruise, he can ‘vet’ the various members of the family and identify the would-be murderer. Quant knows that even the wealthy don’t have a perfect, charmed life. But as Quant puts it,

‘I am generally a person with his feet planted firmly in reality, but I do love to dream…This case fit my dream perfectly. A swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.’

For him, it’s a chance to live, however briefly, the wealthy life. But as he finds out on this cruise, it can be as dangerous as it is enviable.

And, although it’s not really a crime novel, I couldn’t resist mentioning Monica McInerney’s Hello From the Gillespies. Angela Gillespie has spent more than thirty years sending out the sort of family newsletter that makes people resentful. You know the kind: perfect life, perfect children, success for all. But the reality is quite different for this family. They’re coping with everything from debt to career trouble to problematic retirement, and more. This year, for the first time, Angela tells the truth about her family:

‘It’s been a terrible year for the Gillespies. Everything has gone wrong for us.’

The trouble really starts when that letter gets sent accidentally to everyone on the newsletter list…

So as you see, you may get wistful or worse about your own life when you see those Facebook updates or get those holiday newsletters. When you do, it’s always good to remember that things are not usually what they seem. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop by Finding Time to Write? It’s a treasure trove of poetry, fine book reviews, and lovely ‘photos. Thanks for the inspiration, Marina Sofia.


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Gail Bowen, Martin Clark, Monica McInerney

There’s Still Time to Change the Road You’re On*

Going Back or NotA lot of murders, both real and fictional, come about because of a sort of cascade of events. Looking back later, we can point to several places where the buildup, if you will, could have been stopped, and the murder thus prevented. Of course, that wouldn’t leave very much plot for a crime novel, but it’s interesting to take a look at how sometimes small decisions can spiral out of control and result in disaster.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for example, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. And it seems like a godsend to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort when Linnet is willing to hire Jackie’s fiancé Simon Doyle as her land agent. But then Linnet finds herself attracted to Simon. Instead of turning back from that, as you might say, she pursues him and it’s not long before they’re married. Their honeymoon trip includes a trip to Egypt and a cruise of the Nile; to Linnet’s dismay, Jackie turns up at the hotel, as she has everywhere they’ve been. Linnet approaches Hercule Poirot, who’s at the same hotel, to ask him to make Jackie stop. He gently points out to her that she had the chance to prevent all this in the first place. Later, he talks to Jackie and asks her to turn back and leave the couple alone before it’s too late. Neither woman really listens to him, and Jackie goes along on the cruise. On the second night, Linnet is shot. Jackie is the first suspect, but it’s soon proven that she could not have killed the victim, so Poirot and Colonel Race have to look elsewhere for the killer. Throughout the novel, there are other examples, too, of points where people make choices that end up cascading out of control.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, Ystad Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team are faced with the brutal murders of local farmer Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria. The victims seemed to have no enemies, and they weren’t known to be wealthy. So there seems no motive for the murders. Even a look into their family background doesn’t really reveal anything that points to the killer. There is one possibility though. Just before she died, Maria said the word foreign. A lot of people have taken this to mean that the killers were foreigners. At this point, matters could be controlled somewhat, but the media gets hold of the story and it sets a spark to the already-simmering local prejudice against immigrants. When the story gets into the news, it sets off a backlash, which has its own consequences. And as we find out later, the murder itself might have been prevented, but for someone’s choice not to let matters go.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. Eva very much wants the peaceful suburban lifestyle, complete with white picket fence, for herself, her husband and their son Axel. So when she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful, Eva is devastated. At that point, she might choose to leave her husband or forgive him; many people do one of those things. Instead, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she sets in motion a chain of events that spins out of control. One night, she goes to a pub for a drink. There, she meets Jonas Hansson, a man with his own issues. She has the opportunity at that point to flirt with Jonas and make something of the evening, or to go home. Her decision to spend the night with Jonas has consequences that neither of them imagined. In this case, you could argue that a lot of what happens might have been prevented at several key points in the story.

That’s also true of Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit.  Mason and Gates Hunt are siblings with a terrible background including alcoholism and abuse. Mason chooses to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way to get out of his situation. He excels in school and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability and ends up living on money he gets from their mother, and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One afternoon, Gates’ romantic rival Wayne Thompson comes by, and the two get into an argument. Thompson leaves and the whole matter might have rested there. But later that night, the Hunt brothers are returning home from a night out. They run into Thomspon again and the argument starts anew. Instead of letting it all go, both men get angrier and angrier until, before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and time goes by. Years later, Mason is a commonwealth prosecutor. Gates has been convicted of cocaine trafficking. Gates begs his brother to get him out of prison, but this time Mason refuses. Instead of letting matters go, Gates threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder unless he co-operates. Now matters spin even more out of control until Mason finds himself indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Now he’ll have to find some way to clear his name before his brother is released from prison.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger makes quite a bit of use of those moments where people might turn back, but don’t. It begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has died in a car crash. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for a long time, but he still feels a sense of loss. He’s even more upset to discover that Sylvie wasn’t alone in the car. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who died in the crash as well. Instead of leaving matters alone and getting on with his life, Delorme takes an interest in Arnoult’s widow Martine. His interest soon leads to obsession and he begins to follow her. He even books a holiday in the same place on Majorca where Martine and her friend Madeleine go. Delorme’s decision to give in to his obsession has all sorts of dark and tragic consequences. And you could argue that it could all have been prevented if he had let the matter of Sylvie’s lover go and got on with the business of living.

There’s also Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. Luke Murray is riding a bus one day when three young people get on and soon begin to bully him. At one point, another passenger, Jason Barnes, intervenes and tells the group to stop. For a short time they do. But then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. So does Jason. Instead of leaving the matter, the bullies start up again and this time the fight escalates. It goes on all the way to Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Luke is left gravely wounded. As we follow the story, we see that there are several places where the whole thing might have been stopped, but for people’s choices. Other than Jason, the people on the bus don’t do anything to stop the bullying. The bullies don’t stop either, and neither do Jason and Luke. It’s a clear example of the consquences when things spin out of control.

And that’s what happens sometimes. One decision, one choice not to hold back or back down, and situations can go completely wrong in very tragic ways.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Pascal Garnier

Of Course Mama’ll Help to Build the Wall*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

There Ain’t No Easy Way Out*

HardChoicesHave you ever faced the sort of dilemma where neither choice was really a good one? Sometimes these are called ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations. If you have, then you know how stressful it can be to have to choose what to do. But those dilemmas happen quite a lot in real life. And they can add suspense and character depth to a crime novel. That’s why we see them in crime fiction as often as we do.

For example, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles-based PI Philip Marlowe to help him stop an extortionist. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood a blackmail letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and as you can imagine, Sternwood wants Geiger stopped. Marlowe agrees to work the case and goes to visit Geiger. When he finds Geiger though, it’s too late; his quarry’s just been murdered. What’s more, Carmen Sternwood is a witness. She’s either been drugged or has had a mental breakdown, so she can’t really tell Marlowe what happened, but she saw it all. Now Marlowe faces a difficult choice. His obligation to Sternwood is complete; Geiger won’t be a problem any more. On the other hand, Carmen Sternwood faces the very real possibility that the police will arrest her on suspicion of murder. If Marlowe washes his hands of the case, he is free of the disagreeable Sternwood family, but leaves Carmen in grave danger. If he helps Carmen, she may be spared, but he’ll get even more entangled in the Sternwood family drama and more trouble. Marlowe decides to help Carmen…

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have hit a rough spot in their marriage. Still, as far as Eva is concerned, she has the sort of life she’s always wanted: husband, son Axel, house with the white picket fence, etc. Then she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Now she faces a difficult choice. If she stays with Henrik, of course, she has to live with his infidelity and learn to cope. But she still has her settled, suburban life and the home remains stable for Axel. If she leaves Henrik, her dreams of that life are shattered, and so is Axel’s world. But she no longer has to live with an unfaithful partner. Eva decides to take her own kind of revenge, and that decision leads to some terrible unexpected consequences.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features brothers Mason and Gates Hunt, who grew up in Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a difficult start to life, being the sons of an alcoholic, abusive father. But they’ve made it to young adulthood. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity and is now in law school. Gates has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from his mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The fight’s temporarily put ‘on hold,’ but later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out when they encounter Thompson again. The fight starts anew and before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot his rival. Out of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both brothers. Then, years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and convicted. He asks his brother, now a commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of jail. Mason refuses. Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. This presents Mason with a true ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If he goes along with his brother, he’ll be responsible for freeing a criminal and violating the ethical requirements of his job. If he doesn’t, he’ll be under indictment for a murder he didn’t commit. Mason’s decision not to arrange for his brother’s release puts him up against an incredibly difficult legal challenge.

In Gail Bowen’s The Gifted, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack face a very challenging dilemma. Their fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor is a gifted artist who is passionate about her work. Two of her pieces are selected for inclusion in a high-profile art auction that will benefit a redevelopment project for the community of North Regina. If Taylor’s parents allow her to be a part of the auction, this will change everything for her. On the one hand, that will be a very good thing, as it will pave the way for Taylor to pursue her art. There will be scholarships and all sorts of other support for her. She’ll also get important recognition. On the other hand, Taylor is still a child. Her parents want to her to have as much of a normal childhood, whatever that actually is, as possible given her talent. Still, they don’t want to deny Taylor opportunities, so they somewhat reluctantly allow her to participate. That decision has dramatic unforeseen consequences when Taylor’s work is revealed at the auction.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack features Buenos Airies police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. Early one morning, he’s called to a crime scene, where he finds two bodies dumped by a riverbank. They bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit.’ This is late 1970s Argentina, when it’s extremely dangerous to say or do anything that might be interpreted as questioning the military-ruled government. So Lescano knows better than to raise comment about those bodies. But he finds a third body, too. This one is of moneylender and pawnbroker Elías Biterman. Someone’s gone to some trouble to make his death look like another Army ‘hit,’ but Lescano doesn’t think it is. He’s not a medical expert though, so he seeks help from his friend Dr. Fusili, who is a medical examiner. Fusili now faces a terrible choice. If he helps Lescano, he’s putting his own life in jeopardy. Certainly he’ll lose his job. On the other hand, if he doesn’t help Lescano, he’s betraying a friend. He’ll keep his position and perhaps even enhance his reputation, but he’ll be sacrificing his friendship and possibly sentencing Lescano to death. When Fusili decides to help Lescano, that choice puts him grave danger, but it gives Lescano badly needed support.

Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne faces a very difficult decision in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. She’s hit a sort of plateau in her career, and she knows that there are plenty of hungry journalists out there who are all too eager to grab headlines and ratings. So she needs the story that will secure her place at the top of the proverbial tree. Then she hears of just such a story. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. There are now hints that Bligh might be innocent and that’s what he himself claims. If he is, that’s exactly the story Thorne needs. However, there are plenty of people, Katy among them, who swear that Bligh is guilty and whose lives will be upended if Thorne goes after this story. Whichever choice Thorne makes, she’s taking risks. When she ultimately decides to pursue the story, she finds herself getting much closer to it than a professional normally should. Her choice has serious consequences for a lot of people.

It’s never easy to know what to do about a dilemma, especially when neither choice is really an outright positive one. But that tension makes for a real layer of interest in crime novels. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s I Won’t Back Down.


Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler