Category Archives: Martin Edwards

Sometimes I Don’t Speak Right*

Difficult InterviewsInterviews with witnesses and suspects are critical to any investigation. Certainly those people can lie or be wrong; still, what they say and don’t say often provides important information about a case. Some witnesses (and suspects too) are particularly challenging to interview. They may have mental or emotional limitations that make it hard to reach them; and it may be difficult to make sense of what they say. Sleuths have to be especially careful in those cases, and use all of their interviewing skills to get the information they need.

In crime fiction, this challenge can add a layer of interest and suspense to a story. It’s got to be done carefully, or the witness/suspect can seem more of a ‘curiosity object’ than a real human being. But in deft hands, such a plot point can add some depth to a novel.

Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders has a few interesting examples of this sort of interview. In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate a series of killings. The only things the murders seem to have in common is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each death, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. In the course of the investigation, Poirot interviews Lady Clarke, who is the widow of the third victim, retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. She has cancer, and is kept under sedation most of the time because of the pain. This means that arranging a conversation with her requires planning, so that she can remain lucid during the interview. When Poirot speaks with her, she does ‘drift off’ at times. But she also has moments of clarity; and she says some things that turn out to be very helpful.

Interviewing children nearly always requires delicacy and care. That’s especially true in the case of seven-year-old Melody Quinn, whom we meet in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. Melody is the only witness to the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez, so LAPD detective Milo Sturgis wants to find out what she knows. But she’s not always coherent, and Sturgis is sure there’s more she could tell the police. He asks his friend, child psychologist Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware is reluctant at first; but in the end he agrees to at least speak to the child. When he does, he discovers that she’s heavily medicated with Ritalin and other drugs intended for children with ADHD. After considerable effort, Delaware convinces her mother Bonita to allow him to reduce her daughter’s medication so he can communicate with her. When he does, the child starts having nightmares and showing other symptoms of distress, so neither Bonita nor Melody’s doctor allow him any more access to her. But what she says during their short time together turns out to be significant.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn takes an interest in the murder of a colleague Reed Gallagher, who headed the School of Journalism. One of Gallagher’s students, Kellee Savage, may have important information about the murder. As she’s also in one of Kilbourn’s classes, the two talk about the death. But Kellee has psychological and emotional conditions; and it’s not easy to interact with her. So at first, Kilbourn doesn’t take seriously some of the things Kellee says. Then one night, Kellee disappears. As the investigation goes on, Kilbourn learns that Kellee had some valuable knowledge about Gallagher’s death.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Chicago surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. She’s been diagnosed with dementia, and has had to leave her profession. But as the story begins, she still has many more good days than bad days. One night, the woman next door, Amanda O’Toole, is murdered. Her body has been mutilated in a skilled way that only a surgeon would be likely to know, so police detective Luton naturally takes an interest in White. And as she investigates, Luton finds more and more reason to think White is guilty. But at the same time, the evidence doesn’t completely add up; there are enough inconsistencies that it’s also quite possible White is innocent. But she is gradually slipping away from coherent thinking, so Luton finds it very hard to interact with her at times. In the end we discover what really happened to the victim, and it’s interesting to see how Luton goes about finding out the truth.

Martin EdwardsThe Hanging Wood introduces readers to Orla Payne, a troubled young woman who is haunted by the disappearance of her brother Callum twenty years earlier. Everyone’s always thought their uncle had something to do with what happened, but Orla’s never really believed that. Still, Callum hasn’t returned and his body was never discovered. Orla wants the case re-opened, so she calls the Cumbria Constabulary to ask DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team to look into it. But she is drunk when she calls, and emotionally very fragile in any case, so Scarlett finds it difficult to talk to her. Then Orla dies, apparently a suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not having worked harder to communicate with Orla, and commits herself to finding out the truth about Callum’s disappearance.

There’s a very interesting case of a witness/suspect with limitations in T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton. The body of a mysterious young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s good reason to believe that Elton Spears is responsible for her death. For one thing, he’d already been in trouble with the law before for inappropriate contact with young girls. For another, he was known to be in that area at the time of the murder. Solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. Working with this client isn’t easy though. Spears is a mentally troubled man who isn’t always coherent. He can’t do much to defend himself; he can’t even really explain his movements on the night in question. But Harwood wants to clear Spears’ name, so he and barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court, work to prove the young man innocent.

In real life, police and attorneys (and other investigators) sometimes have to work with witnesses or suspects who can’t be coherent and don’t seem reliable. And yet, those people can sometimes have important insights and valuable clues. So part of the task of solving a case is to find ways to reach those witnesses and suspects. That plot point can add a real layer of suspense to a crime story, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from War’s Why Can’t We Be Friends?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Gail Bowen, Jonathan Kellerman, Martin Edwards, T.J. Cooke

You Had to Have the Last Word Last Night*

WisecracksThere’s a great deal of sadness in a lot of crime novels, even those that don’t count as ‘bleak’ or noir. And that makes sense, since there’s nothing amusing about murder. So it can come as a welcome lift when one of the characters has enough of a sense of wit to make wisecracks. Those ‘wiseacre remarks’ have to be handled well, or they can be off-putting. But when they are deftly done, they can add a ‘lift’ to a story. Here are just a few examples to show what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice that I haven’t included ‘screwball’ novels: too easy…

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), wealthy Emily Arundell knows very well that her relatives would love to get their hands on her fortune. She tells them that they’ll have to be content to wait for her death, and a frightening fall down a flight of stairs convinces her that someone is willing to hurry her along, as the saying goes. That’s when she writes to Hercule Poirot. She doesn’t specify exactly what she wants from him, but Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing to investigate. By the time they get there though, it’s too late: Emily Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. When it becomes clear that she was poisoned, Poirot looks among her relatives and employees to find out who the murderer is. One source of information on the history of the Arundell family and their home Littlegreen House is Caroline Peabody, who’s known the family for years. Miss Peabody may be elderly, but she’s alert and intelligent, and not afraid to speak her mind. Here is a bit of a conversation she has with Hastings:
 

‘‘You are his secretary, I suppose?’
‘Er – yes,’ I said doubtfully.
‘Can you write decent English?’
‘I hope so.’
 ‘H’m – where did you go to school?’
‘Eton.’
‘Then you can’t.’’
 

Hastings can’t really come up with the right rejoinder to that.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s work will know that it’s infused with wisecracks. Those remarks lighten up what are sometimes very sad stories. And those quips come from several of the characters. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, Inspector Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of an unknown young woman whose body is found near a local landfill. Here’s a bit of the conversation Montalbano has with his second-in-command Mimì Augello shortly after he’s roused early in the morning when the body is found:
 

‘‘Mimì, couldn’t you have scratched your balls by yourself?’
‘Salvo, I’m not going to play your game anymore.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that if I hadn’t had you come here, later you’d be driving me crazy saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this, why didn’t you tell me that…’’
‘What’s the corpse like?
‘Dead,’ said Augello.’
 

There’s not much Montalbano can say in response to that…

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. That’s not of course the only team at the constabulary, and Scarlett’s made friends with Fern Larter, who heads a team of her own. In The Serpent Pool, the two work together to connect a six-year-old drowning death that Scarlett’s investigating with two recent murders that Larter’s investigating. One of those is the killing of book collector George Saffell. At one point, they’re discussing the Saffell case, in particular the Saffell family background:
 

‘‘For good measure, there’s a villa in Spain, but so far I haven’t managed to wangle a trip out there to hunt for clues.’ [Larter]
‘You’re slipping.’ Fern’s ability to persuade the top brass that trips overseas were vital to her latest investigation were the stuff of legend. ‘How about a trip to New Zealand, for a word with the daughter? They say it’s a beautiful country.’
‘Lynsey came back to England for the funeral,’ Fern pouted.’
 

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in Absaroka County, Wyoming, where Longmire is sheriff. Some of these stories are very sad, but there’s also a dose of wit. And some of that wit comes from exchanges between Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti. In Death Without Company for instance, Longmire has assigned her to wait outside a local supermarket to ‘collect’ a group of shoppers to serve as talis jurors, so they can fill out the local jury pool. Here’s a bit of their exchange about that:
 

‘I watched as my…deputy accosted a middle-aged man…copied down information from his driver’s license and informed him that he needed to get over to the courthouse pronto or be faced with contempt of court. ‘Well, there’s another notch on my Glock.’
…‘Hey, there are worse places for stakeouts. At least we’ve got plenty of supplies.’’
 

Then, Moretti asks what a talis juror is.
 

‘‘It’s from the Latin. Meaning bystander. You’re Italian, you should understand these things.’
‘I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.’’
 

Fans of this series will also know that there are plenty of wisecracks between Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear, who runs the Red Pony Inn.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found, and for finding out secrets people would rather keep. As a way of keeping his sanity, he’s informally apprenticed himself to master cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Irish richly enjoys working with the wood and creating new things. He also enjoys the interactions he has with Taub. For his part, Taub is absolutely not one to gush. But he does like having Irish around. Here’s a bit of an exchange they have in Bad Debts, when Irish pays a visit after not having been there for a bit:
 

‘‘So,’ he said without looking at me. ‘Man who finds the scum of the earth. Man who breaks his parents’ hearts. Horses and criminals. That’s his life.’…
‘I gather you missed me a lot then?’
Another snort ‘What I miss, I miss someone finishes little jobs I give him. Like little tables. Day’s work for a man who actually works.’’

 

There’s not much Irish can say to that…

There’s also Donna Malane’s Surrender, in which missing persons expert Diane Rowe gets involved in the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. A year earlier, Rowe’s sister Niki was murdered, and Snow admitted being hired to do the job. But he never gave the name of the person who hired him. Now he’s been killed in exactly the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed Snow, she’ll find out who killed her sister. So she looks into the case. Niki was an exotic dancer at a club, so Diane starts there to find out what her sister’s connections were, and who might have wanted her dead. One possibility is club regular Richard Brownlee, who paid quite a lot of attention to Niki. Brownlee’s crude, arrogant sexism does not exactly endear him to Diane. Here’s a bit of the conversation they have:
 

‘One of the girls at the club told me you had a bit of a thing for my sister.’…
‘What kind of a thing would that be, babe? No offence, but she was a whore.’
I was determined not to let him get to me. ‘She said you didn’t like other guys spending time with Niki. That you liked to have her all to yourself. I heard you were jealous.’
Richard barked a laugh. ‘Now that would be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it?’
‘Yep,’ I agreed pleasantly. ‘But then, you see, that would fit nicely with my assessment of you so far.’
 

Needless to say, everyone has a good laugh at Brownlee’s expense.

And, at the risk of making this post go on too long, here is my top wisecrack, from 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, discovers the body when he wakes up hung over after a long night of drinking. As you can imagine, he becomes the chief suspect and in fact, is arrested for the crime. He claims he’s innocent, and at his trial, an officious prosecutor asks how he knows he didn’t kill his wife, since he was so drunk at the time of the murder. Here’s Mitter’s reply:
 

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’ 
 

That, to me, is priceless. And it helps to spur Van Veeteren on to investigate the murder more thoroughly.

There are of course a lot of other great wisecracks in crime fiction, even in very sad stories (I know, I know fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series). Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Donna Malane, Håkan Nesser, Martin Edwards, Rex Stout

Lately All the Missing Pieces Have Been Falling Into Place*

EquilibriumOne really interesting aspect of human psychology is that we like things to make sense. We like questions to have answers. When things do make sense, we get closure. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called this process ‘equilibration.’ To him, cognitive development occurs when we become aware that our assumptions don’t answer all the questions. When that happens, we adjust our thinking and find out more. That’s how we return to cognitive equilibrium.

And that’s arguably part of the driving force behind people’s reaction to old, unsolved crimes – ‘cold cases.’ Of course, for the family and friends involved in unsolved cases, there’s also the sense of loss and grief. But there are also the unanswered questions. Those questions can drive the sleuths who investigate those cases as well. And they’re sometimes the reason those cases come back to haunt people, as the saying goes, even years later.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth behind the death of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Sixteen years earlier, he was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. His wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and she had motive. Her husband was having an affair with the subject of the portrait he was painting. What’s more, she had the poison in her possession. At the time, it seemed that the police had caught the right person. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. And Caroline can no longer speak for herself, as she died a year after her conviction. Poirot interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder, and also gets written accounts of the murder from each of them. He uses that information to find out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. Throughout this novel, we see how this case has come back to haunt some people, precisely because the ‘official’ report at the time didn’t answer all of their questions. I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder

Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men sees Inspector John Rebus remanded to Tulliallan Police College after an unfortunate run-in with a supervisor. He and a group of other cops (they’re called ‘The Resurrection Men’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’) are given an unsolved case to work together. The idea is that the experience will teach them teamwork and the skills they need to co-operate with authority figures. The case is the 1995 murder of small-time crook Eric Lomax. The victim was hardly an upstanding citizen, but his murder has left some nagging questions. And as Rebus and the others on the team look into the case, they find more there than they’d thought. And Rebus finds that Lomax’s murder is connected with a case he and his team-mate DS Siobhan Clarke were investigating before his remand. As it turns out, the need for answers in that older case leads to answers in the recent case.

In Jan Costin Wagner’s The Silence, we are introduced to Inspector Antsi Ketola. He’s at the point of retirement, but is still haunted by one particular case. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen disappeared and was later found murdered. Ketola was never able to find out who killed the girl. It’s bothered him since then, not least because he wasn’t able to get answers for himself or for Pia’s family. Now another case has come up. Sinikka Vehkasalo was on her way to a volleyball session when she went missing. Her bloody bicycle has been found at the same place where a cross marks Pia Lehtinen’s murder. The older case still nags, and Inspector Kimmo Joentaa suspects that it may be related to this new case. So he asks Ketola’s help in solving both. It turns out that someone has been keeping secrets for a very long time…

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett supervises the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. The team’s job is to re-investigate old cases that offer new leads. And part of what motivates these people (and the families and friends involved) is the desire to get some answers. In The Hanging Wood for instance, Orla Payne contacts Scarlett because she wants to find out what happened to her brother Callum. Twenty years earlier, Callum disappeared, and no trace of him – not even a body – was found. She’s been haunted by this for years, and part of the reason for that is that it doesn’t make sense to her. At first, Scarlett doesn’t pay close attention to the case; unfortunately Orla Payne is quite drunk when she calls about it, and doesn’t make a good impression. But not long afterwards, Orla herself dies in what looks like a case of suicide. But was it? Now Scarlett feels a strong sense of guilt that she didn’t take the victim more seriously, and re-opens the Callum Payne case. She also works to find out what really happened to Orla.

Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne looks for that same kind of equilibrium in Cross Fingers. She’s working on an exposé of dubious land developer Denny Graham when her boss asks her to change her focus. The idea now is to do a documentary on the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s called. At the time, apartheid was still very much in place in South Africa, and many New Zealanders protested their country’s welcoming of the South African team. On the other hand, the police simply wanted to keep order. And of course, rugby fans just wanted to see some good matches, politics aside. The tour went from bad to worse to devastating, and it’s certainly documentary-worthy. But Thorne believes that the story’s already been done well already, and that there are no real new angles for her to pursue. Then she gets interested in one small detail. During a few of the protests, two people dressed as lambs showed up at games. They danced, made fun, and entertained the crowds at the matches. Then, they stopped coming to the games. Thorne wants to know what happened to The Lambs, and decides to pursue that question. She discovers that one of them was a professional dancer who was murdered late one night. Now this older case nags at her, especially as it becomes clear that there are some people who do not want her to find the answers.

There’s a powerful example of unsolved cases coming back, so to speak, in Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. In 1978, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found dead, with her own scarf round her head. The police do a thorough investigation, but they can’t get clear evidence against any one particular person. Then, a few months later, the body of sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is discovered, also with a scarf round her head. Now it’s suspected that this is the work of a serial killer the press dubs The Sidney Strangler. The investigation continues, but the killer isn’t caught. There aren’t really answers in this case, and that haunts the people involved more than they know. Years later, journalist Erin Fury is putting together a documentary on the effects of murder on the families involved. She gets an introduction to Angela Buchanan’s cousins Jane Tait and Mick Griffin, as well as their parents. As she interviews these people, we see how much they’ve been impacted by what happened. And it’s not only their sense of loss. It’s also the lack of real answers and their growing awareness that things really aren’t as they seemed.

That need for things to make sense is part of what drives our curiosity. It’s also part of what keeps detectives and family members looking into old cases that don’t have clear answers, especially when those cases affect present investigations. These are just a few examples of what’s out there. Over to you.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jan Costin Wagner, Martin Edwards, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

Got a New Wife, Got a New Life*

NewLifeThis is the time of year when a lot of people try to make changes in their lives. You know – ‘This is the year I’ll lose weight/quit smoking/find a partner/get rid of my partner/learn a language/get that great job, etc. .’ Sometimes people do get the chance to start all over, and it’s always interesting to see whether they really can make different lives.

Starting over is a very useful context for crime fiction.There’s always the possibility of the past coming back to haunt. There’s the challenge of trying to live a new life. And there’s all sorts of possibility for conflict as the character tries for a new beginning. It’s a flexible plot point too; the author can make it hopeful or bleak, light or dark and twisted. Perhaps that’s part of why we see so much of this plot point in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie uses the ‘fresh start’ plot point in several of her stories. It’s hard to discuss some of them without giving away spoilers, but here’s one example. In The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. In the letter, Renauld says that his life is in danger, and begs Poirot to come to his aid. Poirot and Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer, where Renauld and his wife and son live. But by the time they get there, it’s too late: Renauld has been found murdered on the golf course that adjoins their property. Poirot works with the French authorities (and sometimes at cross-purposes with them!) to find out who the killer was. He discovers that Renauld wasn’t born in Canada. He moved there to start over completely. Later, he and his wife returned to France. Someone has found out about Renauld’s former life and that knowledge played a pivotal role in his murder.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary. She leads the Cold Case Review Team, and as we first learn in The Coffin Trail, she got that position after she became a ‘sacrificial lamb’ in another case. There were several mistakes made in an earlier investigation and since Scarlett was involved, it was decided to make as much of the problem as possible go away by moving her. The job is seen as a demotion – a dead-end position – but Scarlett determines to make the best of it. And as the series goes on, we see how she tries to do as much as she can with her new start. Oxford historian Daniel Kind, the other protagonist of this series, has also started over. A well-known ‘celebrity historian,’ he got tired of television and the limelight. So he’s bought a place in the Lakes, hoping to focus on his research and his writing. Kind’s expertise in history proves extremely helpful to Scarlett as she discovers local-history links to the ‘cold case’ murders she and her team solve.

Phillip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American writer who ‘stars’ in one of Timothy Hallinan’s series. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer with a home base in Bangkok. He’s also quite good at finding people who don’t want to be found. So he’s a good choice when someone goes missing in Bangkok. Rafferty’s wife is Rose, a former bar girl who has made a new life for herself as the owner of an apartment cleaning company. All of her employees are also former bar girls. Rafferty loves his wife very much, and is happy to accept her exactly as she is. But Rose knows very well that it’s hard to leave the ‘bar girl’ life behind. After all, as she points out in A Nail Through the Heart, what happens when she and Rafferty happen to be out together and encounter one of Rose’s former clients? Still, the two of them work hard to put together a good life for themselves and for Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is in the process of adopting.

Eric Burdett’s Bangkok 8 introduces readers to Sonchai Jitplecheep, a member of the Royal Thai Police. For Sonchai, his career as a police officer is an important way of starting over. He and his best friend Pichai Apiradee were involved in a murder. According to the Buddhist tradition, this has badly damaged their karma, even though the victim was a drug dealer. The way to repair the damage, so they’ve been instructed, is to become police officers and try to work for the good of the community. In Bangkok 8, Pichai is tragically killed during the investigation of the murder of US Marine Walter Bradley. The strong desire to avenge his friend’s death is part of what drives Sonchai to go after Bradley’s (and Pichai’s) killer. He is also motivated by his commitment to using his new life to do good.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans. Brought up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ she seems in a way destined to live the same lower-class, economically disadvantaged life that her mother has had. But Jodie is both intelligent and driven. She is determined to have a new life for herself. Her ambition and brains are enough to get her a scholarship to the ‘right’ sort of school and eventually into the company of Angus Garrow. Angus is from a ‘blueblood’ family, so as you might expect, his mother is not happy about his relationship with Jodie. But the two marry and over the years, Jodie becomes a part of the upper-class circles within which Angus has always moved. All seems well until Jodie’s past comes back to haunt her. One day her daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years earlier to a daughter Elsa Mary. No-one knows about that child – not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption; but when the nurse checks into the matter, she finds that there are no records of the adoption. So she begins to ask questions. Those questions soon become public property and before long, Jodie is the focus of a scandal. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie, Angus and their children face the accusations, it’s clear that sometimes, no matter how much you try to make another start, it’s not as easy as it seems…

That’s certainly what Natasha Doroshenko finds in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale. She has fled her home in the Ukraine to escape the thugs who killed her journalist husband Pavel and threatened her life and that of her daughter Katerina. At first, it seems that Denmark, where they’ve ended up, will be a safe haven for them. In fact, Natasha even falls in love again and becomes engaged to Michael Vestergaard. But everything changes when Natasha is imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé. One day she happens to overhear a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. She manages to escape police custody and goes to Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. Her plan is to get Katerina and go away somewhere where they can start over again. But the trip to Coal House Camp is only the beginning of real danger for her, her daughter, and Red Cross nurse Nina Borg.

People often do want to make a fresh start and do things differently this time. And sometimes it’s very successful. But it doesn’t always work out that way. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill). Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. I know I’ve used that song before. You’re welcome. ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, John Burdett, Lene Lene Kaaberbøl, Martin Edwards, Mickey Spillane, Timothy Hallinan, Wendy James

Turn the Choral Music Higher, Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

Preparing For GatheringsIt’s the time of year when people make plans for office parties, family gatherings and holiday travel. There are often all sorts of preparations to be made for everything from clothing to cleaning to food and travel tickets. And that’s to say nothing of gifts (but that’s for another post). It all can add up to an awful lot of stress. Part of the reason for that is arguably that people often picture an ‘ideal, perfect holiday’ as they plan, and hold themselves to that ideal. And of course, all sorts of disasters can happen, and people want to avoid them.

Certainly the stress of those preparations is a fact of real life, and of course, it’s there in crime fiction, too. That sort of stress is seldom the reason for a murder, but it does ratchet up the pace and sometimes the suspense. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), wealthy family patriarch Simeon Lee decides to invite the members of his family to Gorston Hall for Christmas. Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he is very wealthy, so no-one dares refuse the invitation. Lee’s son Alfred and Alfred’s wife Lydia share the home, so most of the preparations fall on them. And it’s not going to be pleasant, either. For one thing, Alfred finds out that his brother Harry, whom he’s disliked for years, will be there. So will his niece Pilar, whom he’s never met. For another, there will be extra bedrooms, more food and so on that will need to be planned. None of the other family members are any more keen to prepare for this holiday, but everyone duly gathers. On Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he agrees to work with the local police to investigate. As it turns out, the murder has everything to do with a past that came back to haunt the victim (I know, I know, fans of The Hollow…)

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel begins just before Christmas. The Mendel Gallery is planning an exhibition of the artwork of Sally Love. As it happens, she was a friend of academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, so Kilbourn decides to go to the gallery and see the exhibit. She’d like if possible to see if the friendship could be renewed. But that doesn’t work out as planned; in fact, it’s awkward. Then, when gallery owner Clea Poole is murdered, Sally becomes a likely suspect. Then, there’s another murder. Kilbourn has to juggle getting involved in the murders with final preparations for Christmas and for a week of skiing that she’d planned for herself and her children. And the lead-up to the holiday is a little frantic. Here, for instance, is a snippet of a scene featuring Kilbourn’s daughter Mieka, who’s come home from university for the holidays:
 

‘…my daughter Mieka was sitting at the dining-room table behind piles of boxes and wrapping paper and ribbons…
‘Help,’ she said. ‘I’m three days behind in my everything.’
I sat down beside her and picked up a box. ‘For whom? From whom?’ I asked.
‘For you. From me. No peeking. Now choose some nice motherly paper. Something sedate.”
 

There’s nothing like the glittery clutter and frantic pace of gift-wrapping…

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. Guest is married and firmly ‘in the closet,’ but he has had some trysts with men. And someone’s found out about it. Quant agrees to see what he can do, although he thinks it would be more logical for his client to simply come out as gay. This Guest refuses to do, so Quant gets to work on the case. The search for the truth takes Quant to New York, where he finds out some surprising truths. When he returns, there’s a murder. And an attempt on his own life. Meanwhile, Quant’s mother Kay has come to stay for the Christmas holidays. He loves his mother, but it’s awkward living at close quarters with her now that he’s an adult. But Kay does come in handy as Quant gets ready for his annual Christmas come ‘n’ go. He’s not really a particularly high-strung person, as the saying goes, but he does want things to look nice and turn out well. And with Kay’s help, they do.

There’s a lot at stake in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. The Cooking Channel’s Rebecca Adrian has come to Memphis to choose the restaurant that will win the coveted Best Barbecue award. The award will mean lots of recognition and more business for the winning restaurant, so everyone at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue is eager to show the place off to best effect. Aunt Pat’s has been in Lulu Taylor’s family for generations, and as current owner, she oversees everything that goes on there. When Adrian arrives, Taylor’s as anxious as anyone else for the visit to go well:
 

Got to be the Cooking Channel scout,’ Lulu hissed. She scurried to the mirror. ‘I knew I should have worn my power suit today!”
 

She and her family members do their best to make their guest welcome, and she’s confident that the food will be delicious. But only a few hours later, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. Then the gossip starts to spread that the victim was killed by the food at Aunt Pat’s. Taylor wants to salvage the restaurant’s reputation and keep the business going, so she decides to investigate. And she soon learns that more than one person had a good reason to want Rebecca Adrian dead.

Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool begins on New Year’s Eve. Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett and her partner Marc Amos are planning to go to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of successful attorney Stuart Wagg. It’s more upmarket than Scarlett likes, but she’s persuaded to go. She doesn’t lack confidence in herself most of the time, but there is of course the question of what to wear:
 

‘…her mind drifted back to the wardrobe challenge. Leather trousers were a safe bet. They were the colour of chocolate fudge cake – if she daren’t eat it, at least she could wear something that reminded her of it. That halter neck top with copper sequins, maybe, plus the brown boots for tramping outside to watch the firework display.’
 

The two go to the party and at first Scarlett’s pleased with her clothing choice, even getting compliments. But then then things go downhill. First, there’s a loud argument and one of the guests, after too much to drink, throws a glass of red wine at another and storms out. Not many days later, the host is murdered. Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team are already looking into a six-year-old murder, and they find that this recent one (and another killing as well) is connected.

As crime fiction shows us, it doesn’t matter how frantically and carefully we prepare for gatherings. Anything can happen, and sometimes does…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right On Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Riley Adams