Category Archives: Maureen Carter

I Would Go Most Anywhere to Feel Like I Belong*

Humans are by nature social animals. Of course, some of us enjoy the company of other people more than others do. But we all have a need to belong – to be a part of a group. For many people, that group is the family. Plenty of people also belong to other tightly-knit groups such as sports teams, religious groups, or perhaps community service groups.

What happens, though, when people don’t have such a group? I’m not a social psychologist, but from what I do know about the topic, people who don’t have a social group form one or find one. That, say many psychologists, is part of the reason people join gangs, religious cults, and other such groups. And there are plenty of crime novels that involve that sort of group.

There are other crime novels where we see that strong desire to belong, and that can add a solid layer of character development. And readers can connect with that feeling. That need can also add tension and suspense, even poignancy, to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, we are introduced to Gerda Christow. She’s not overly bright, or conventionally beautiful. But she is absolutely devoted to her husband, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. She’s also the loving mother of their children. When the Christows are invited to spend the weekend with Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, Gerda dreads the prospect. The Angkatells are clever, interesting, and just about everything Gerda is not. John fits right in with the family, and is eager to go. And it doesn’t hurt that his mistress, Henrietta Savernake, will be there. For Gerda, the visit is something to endure, and that’s clear right from the start. She doesn’t belong with the Angkatells, although she would like to feel comfortable with them. Then, on the Sunday, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch, and he arrives just in time to see the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Inspector Grange and his team are called in, and he and Poirot work to find out who the killer is.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girls introduces Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss. When fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found dead, Morriss and her team investigate the murder. It soon comes out that Michelle was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss decides to focus on the victim’s friends and acquaintances who are ‘in the game.’ As she does, we get to know some of those characters. Some of them chose the life because of a bad situation at home. Others are in the business by choice. Either way, they’ve formed a group of their own, and all of ‘the girls’ belong. In fact, they’re protective of each other, and feel a responsibility towards each other. That belongingness isn’t the reason for Michelle’s murder. But it adds an interesting layer to the story.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse is the first of his Lewis trilogy, which features police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod. In the novel, MacLeod is seconded from Edinburgh to the Isle of Lewis when a murder occurs there that resembles one MacLeod is already investigating. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the island. But it’s not a joyful reunion; he had his own reasons for leaving. As the story goes on, we learn about his history on the island. And we learn about the island’s history. Part of that is an annual trip that a group of men make to An Segir, an outlying rock fifty miles from the Isle of Lewis. They go there to harvest guga, young gannet that nest on An Segir. It’s dangerous and difficult work, and those who do it belong to a special sort of informal club. To be invited to go along is a privilege, and every teen boy and young man wants his chance to belong. Harvesting the guga isn’t really the reason for the murder. But An Segir, and the sense of belonging among the men who go there, do play their role in the story.

In Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?, we meet Yvonne Mulhern. She and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved with their newborn daughter, Róisín, from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of a good job opportunity.  Yvonne is exhausted, as new parents are wont to be, and with Gerry at work most of the time, she does much of the child-minding work herself. What’s more, she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and the baby keeps her so busy that there’s little time to meet people. Gerry’s mother and brother are there, but it’s soon clear that Yvonne doesn’t really belong, at least as far as Gerry’s mother is concerned. Then, Yvonne discovers Netmammy, an online forum for new mothers. Immediately she feels comfortable in the group – she belongs. And that’s a good part of Netmammy’s appeal. There’s a scene, for instance, where Yvonne goes with Gerry to a work function. She feels completely out of place there, and no-one makes much of an effort to help her fit in. So, in the middle of the party, she logs onto Netmammy. When Yvonne notices that one of the other members of Netmammy seems to have gone ‘off the grid,’ she gets concerned. She does end up going to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in an abandoned apartment. Her basic characteristics match what Yvonne knows about her missing Netmammy friend. If it is the same woman, that has all sorts of implications for the forum. And if it’s not, then Boyle and her team will have a lot of work to do to identify the victim and find out who killed her and why.

Belonging is really important in a lot of police forces. And it’s not hard to see why. The police face an awful lot of danger in what they do, and they’re not always exactly popular with the public. So that sense of belonging isn’t just an emotional bond; they depend on each other for their lives. We see that sense of belonging, and what happens when it’s not there, in several novels.

Among them is David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which introduces Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. As we learn in the novel, he became a police officer in large part because of his father-in-law, and because he needed a place to belong. But then, a friend named Ruby Devine is murdered. And all signs point to a connection between her death and a group of corrupt police known as ‘the purple circle.’ Swann’s already a ‘dead man walking’ because he’s called a Royal Commission hearing to investigate the corruption. So, as he investigates his friend’s murder, he has the experience of doing so with none of the belongingness and support that police often have from each other. Fans of Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and of Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series can tell you that those stories, too, explore what it’s like when a police officer doesn’t feel that sense of belonging.

We all need to feel part of a group. Many of us, of course, belong to more than one social group. And that seems to be part of human nature. Little wonder it can be so interesting in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and David Zippel’s Go the Distance.


Filed under Adrian McKinty, Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wiilson, Garry Disher, Maureen Carter, Peter May, Sinéad Crowley

Because There’s Consequences For What We Do*

The ‘photo is of some of the cloth totes I use to do my grocery shopping. Last year, the voters of California, where I live, elected to ban single-use plastic bags, such as the ones that are often provided by grocery stores. On the one hand, using cloth totes, or using a personal trolley, certainly cuts down on the number of plastic bags that end up in landfills. This is, overall, good for the environment. And it’s no more difficult to fill a cloth tote or trolley than it is to put one’s groceries in single-use plastic bags. There are other benefits, too, to choosing cloth over plastic. What’s more, companies spend less when consumers provide their own bags. It’s a way, if you think about it, for them to save money without cutting down on the quality of what they sell.

But there have been some unintended consequences of this law. To take just one example, I recently attended a conference. Another delegate needed to do a bit of shopping; and, since I had my car at this conference, I offered to do the transportation. But a problem arose. Where was this delegate supposed to put the purchase? It couldn’t be left in my car. And taking everything through the conference venue wasn’t practicable. We managed by using my conference tote, which I’d brought with me by chance. But it would have been so much easier with plastic bags.

There’ve been other consequences, too. People who used those bags for lining trash cans, picking up after pets, wrapping things for the freezer, or other kinds of storage can’t do that now. Does this mean the law is wrong? No, not necessarily. It does mean there are a lot of unplanned consequences.

We certainly see that happen in a great deal of crime fiction. Something may be done for a laudable reason, but have all sorts of unintended consequences. For instance, in Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, Dr. Duca Lamberti is hired by wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri. He wants Lamberti to help his son, Davide, who’s developed severe depression and a serious drinking problem in the last year. Nothing seems to have been helpful, and Lamberti isn’t sure that he can do much good. But he agrees to try. And before long, he learns Davide’s story. It seems that, a year earlier, Davide had met a young woman, Alberta Radelli He gave her a lift, and they had spent a pleasant day together. Then, when the day ended, she begged him to let her stay with him. When he refused, she threatened to commit suicide. Not long afterwards, her body was found in a field, and it looked as though she made good on her threat. Now, Davide feels responsible for her death. Lamberti knows that the only way to help Davide is to find out what really happened to Alberta, so he decides to do just that. In this story, the unintended consequence of giving a young woman a lift turned out to be much more serious than it seemed at the time.

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn is all about unintended consequences. Crime writer Martin Canning is waiting for a ticket to an afternoon radio comedy show in Edinburgh. As he waits, he sees a blue Honda hit the back of a silver Peugeot. The two drivers get out of their cars and begin to argue. Then, the Honda driver brandishes a bat and begins to attack the Peugeot driver, a man named Paul Bradley. Almost by instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. On the one hand, that has very positive consequences. On the other, though, it draws Canning into a web of deception and murder that he hadn’t imagined.

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move begins as science fiction writer Zack Walker moves his family from the city to a new suburban development, Valley Forest Estates. The new home is bigger and has more amenities than the city home that Walker and his family currently have. What’s more, it’s in a safer area, and the family will have more property. So, on the one hand, it’s a wise move. But it has unintended consequences. For one thing, Walker gets drawn into a couple of murders that take place in the new development, and the danger reaches to his family.  For another, his two children are miserable, and don’t fit in at all in their new school. It’s a clear case of something that seems positive on the surface, but causes all sorts of unexpected trouble.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of a fifteen-year-old sex worker named Michelle Lucas. Morriss wants to find out as much as she can about the victim, and for that, she turns to Michelle’s friends. Michelle’s best friend was Vicki Flinn, also in the business. She starts off by being willing to help, but then goes missing. Then, another friend, Cassandra Swain, is badly beaten. Morriss does find out who killed Michelle and why. But as it turns out, taking what seems like the right step – connecting with the victim’s circle – has some very unpleasant unintended consequences.

And then there’s Eleanor Kuhns’ Cradle to Grave. It’s 1797 Maine, and itinerant weaver Will Rees has recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker community. One day, Lydia gets a letter from an old friend, Hannah ‘Mouse’ Moore, who’s still living with the Shaker community in upstate New York. Mouse is concerned about a group of children who live with their mother, Maggie Whitney. It seems that the children may be neglected, even abused. So, for their own safety, Mouse has taken them to the Shaker community. On the one hand, that means they’re safe. On the other, it gets Mouse into serious trouble for kidnapping, and casts a bad light on the Shakers. The Reeses go to New York to see what they can do to help, and with their intercession, the children are returned to their mother. Mouse will be disciplined, but allowed to remain in the community. And, at least she won’t be prosecuted and imprisoned. Then, Maggie Whitney is murdered. Mouse is, as you can imagine, the most likely suspect, but she claims to be innocent. The Reeses return to New York to try to clear their friend’s name if they can. In this case, all of Mouse’s attempts to help the children have had all sorts of negative consequences.

And that’s the thing about even very positive things. Everything has consequences, and sometimes, those consequences are both unexpected and negative. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Robert Cray’s Consequences.


Filed under Eleanor Kuhns, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Kate Atkinson, Linwood Barclay, Maureen Carter

Hold No Grand Illusions*

no-illusionsIn yesterday’s post, I brought up the topic of fictional characters who deceive themselves. We all do a little of that, of course, but in some people, it can be taken too far. And that can lead to a great deal of trouble.

But there are also a lot of characters (just as there are a lot of people in real life) who are under no illusions about themselves (or at least, very few). They’re very clear-eyed about their skills, about the way others perceive them, and so on. In a sense, that can be quite liberating, as these characters are very often more comfortable in their own skins than they might be if they weren’t honest with themselves. At the same time, that sort of clear-eyed self-awareness doesn’t always make for an awful lot of optimism. Still, many people feel that it’s better not to lie to oneself.

One of the central figures in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, is famous painter Amyas Crale. Sixteen years before the events in the novel, he was poisoned. At the time, everyone assumed that the killer was his wife, Caroline. She had good motive, too, as he was having an affair. What’s more, the poison used to kill the victim was among her things. Based in part on that evidence, she was convicted, and died in prison a year later. Now, the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant, is about to get married. Before she does, she wants to clear her mother’s name. So, she hires Hercule Poirot to look into the matter again. Poirot agrees, and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time. Through those interviews, and each witness’ written account, Poirot finds out what happened to Amyas Crale. As the novel goes on, we learn quite a lot about the victim. Among other things, Crale was honest with himself about both his talents and his failings. He was well aware that he couldn’t leave other women alone, that he couldn’t always be trusted, and so on, and made neither false promises nor excuses. In some ways, you could argue that that quality added to his character.

Peter Temple’s Melbourne PI Jack Irish is like that, too. When we first meet him, in Bad Debts, he’s just coming back to life, so to speak, after the murder of his wife, Isabel. Before her death, he was an attorney, and still keeps his license and does occasional legal work. But he’s very clear-eyed about the sort of person he is. He has no great ambition to climb to the top of the legal profession, and no illusions that he would be easily able to do that, anyway. He does PI work, but he doesn’t see himself as ‘the great detective,’ either. He doesn’t lie to himself about his faults and weaknesses. At the same time, he doesn’t wallow in self-pity. He’s straightforward with his clients, and (most of the time) quite honest with himself. It makes his character all the more down-to-earth and realistic.

Alexander McCall Smith’s PI Mma Precious Ramotswe is optimistic, and she’s aware that she’s intelligent. In that sense, she has confidence in her ability to solve the cases that come her way. But that doesn’t mean that she is under any real illusions about herself. For example, she is what’s called ‘traditionally built.’ She doesn’t try to hide her figure, and she doesn’t try to pretend she’s a sylph. In Blue Shoes and Happiness, she does start to go on a diet. But she isn’t a petite person, and all the dieting in the world won’t make her look like a stereotypical fashion model. It’s not long before she’s reminded of this, and returns to her custom of being really honest with herself about who she is and what makes her comfortable. She doesn’t have illusions about her skill as a detective, either. She promises her clients to do her best, and that’s what they get. But she is also aware that she can’t solve everything and find every answer. She tells clients that, too.

In Helen Fizgerald’s The Cry, we are introduced to Alexandra Donohue. She had to start life over again as a single mother after catching her husband, Alistair, with another woman, Joanna Lindsay. Now, she’s moved back to Melbourne from Scotland, and is raising her teenage daughter, Chloe, there. Alexandra has certainly had her problems coping with everything, but she also doesn’t cling to any illusions about Alistair or their life together. Things change dramatically when Alistair and Joanna come to the Melbourne area with their own nine-week-old baby, Noah. One of Alistair’s goals is to get custody of Chloe, and Alexandra has quite a bit of anxiety about that, particularly since she’s honest enough to admit that she wouldn’t qualify as a perfect parent. But when Noah goes missing, Alistair and Joanna are suddenly thrust into every caring parent’s worst nightmare. There’s a massive search, and even Chloe gets involved. Little by little, we find out the truth about what happened to Noah. As the story goes on, Alexandra becomes more and more clear-eyed and honest with herself and others. She even has an enlightening conversation with Joanna, in which we see how she’s developed. It all makes for some interesting layers of character development.

And then there’s Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. In that novel, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the death of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. When the team members discover that the victim was a commercial sex worker, they start to look among the people she interacted with, including her clients and her pimp, Charlie Hawes. Morriss suspects Hawes had something to do with the murder, even if he wasn’t directly responsible. But she finds it difficult to find anyone who’s willing to talk to her about him. One angle she takes is to talk to the other sex workers in the area. She discovers that most of them are quite realistic about what they do. On the one hand, they have no illusions that it’s a high-status occupation or that they’ll rise to the top of the most elite call girls. But on the other hand, most of them aren’t at all ashamed of what they do. And what’s really interesting is the equally honest perspective they have on their clients, many of whom are highly-placed. In fact, the sex workers likely have a more candid and accurate perspective on the men they meet than those men have on themselves.

Characters who don’t deceive themselves can sometimes seem cynical or pessimistic. But the fact is, many of them are simply realistic about themselves. And they can add real authenticity to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Helen Fitzgerald, Maureen Carter, Peter Temple

Just as Long as You Stand, Stand by Me*

loyalThere are a lot of qualities we value in others. One of the most important is loyalty. Whether it’s friends or co-workers, people tend to prefer those who are loyal. In fact, for some people, loyalty is more valuable than just about any other quality.

Loyalty also impacts the relationships that we have with others, and therefore, the way we behave. Some people hide things, lie, or more out of a sense of loyalty. But even those who don’t do those things will often let their loyalties impact what they do.

Because of that, loyalty can be a very interesting thread in a crime novel. It comes up in all sorts of different ways, and there are far too many examples for me to share them all. But here are a few to give you a sense of how loyalty can work.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Air, Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers, Marie Morisot, dies of what turns out to be poison. The victim was a well-known moneylender who went by the name of Madame Giselle, so as you can imagine, there is more than one suspect. But the only people who could have committed the crime are the other passengers. So Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out which person is the killer. Part of the trail leads to Madame Giselle’s maid, Elise Grandier. When Poirot interviews her, he finds that she was intensely loyal to her employer, and for good reason. Out of that loyalty, she’s kept some information that could prove to be useful. Poirot has to find a way to get her to share that information; and at first, it’s not easy. But he finally persuades her to confide in him.

In Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, we meet former Glasgow police officer Douglas Brodie. He’s recently returned from war (the novel takes place immediately after WWII), and has settled in London. One day, he gets a call from an old friend from school, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan, who’s scheduled to be executed. It seems Donovan was arrested for the kidnap and murder of a young boy, Roy Hutchinson, and there is evidence against him. He claims to be innocent, though, and wants Brodie’s help in clearing his name. Brodie isn’t eager to go back to Glasgow for a number of reasons. But Donovan is an old friend and wartime buddy, so Brodie feels a sense of loyalty to him. He travels to Glasgow and starts asking questions about what happened to Roy Hutchinson, and it’s not long before some dangerous people in high places decide that he’s too curious for his own good…

Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar begins as Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner, Nou, is brutally murdered. Didi himself is the most convenient suspect, and the police focus on him, although he claims he’s innocent. One night, the police raid his home, killing Didi in the process. Their account is that they’d come to arrest him, and he resisted to the point where they had no choice but to kill him. But Keeney doesn’t believe that’s so. Nor does she believe her friend would have killed his partner. So, out of loyalty, she changes her plans and remains in Chiang Mai to try to clear Didi’s name, and find out who really killed Nou.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss investigates the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. It’s soon discovered that she was a commercial sex worker, so the police concentrate on that aspect of her life. In order to find out more about her, Morriss gets to know some of the other sex workers in the area. Through them, she finds out that the victim was working for a notorious pimp, Charlie Hawes. There is no concrete evidence against him, but Morriss is sure that he had something to do with the murder, even if he wasn’t directly responsible. As she tries to find the truth, Morriss finds that the group of sex workers she meets have a solid sense of loyalty to each other in their way. They help each other, and they’ve formed a social group of their own. Among other things, this novel shows how that bond can develop.

Loyalty is a proverbial double-edged sword, of course. It can be the reason that people don’t report a crime, or don’t ‘blow the whistle’ when they might otherwise do so. That can make it very difficult for someone who does speak up. For instance, in Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, we are introduced to Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen. He’s just been stationed in Tiverton, in rural South Australia. He’s there mostly because he got a reputation as a ‘whistleblower’ in an internal investigation in Adelaide, and has basically been exiled from there. Hirsch’s reputation has followed him to Tiverton, and all of the other police there treat him as an outcast. They do everything they can to sabotage his work, embarrass him, and make his life harder. They see him as disloyal, and that’s an unforgivable sin to them. Still, Hirsch has a job to do, so when the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by the side of Bitter Wash Road, he investigates. It’s not easy, since he has no support from his colleagues. But in the end, he gets to the truth.  

There are lots of other examples, too, of novels where we see what happens to characters who are seen as disloyal. It’s an important character trait that many see as essential. And the quality of loyalty can add an interesting layer to a fictional character. Which loyal characters have you enjoyed (I agree completely, fans of Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear)?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Stand by Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Craig Johnson, Garry Disher, Gordon Ferris, Maureen Carter

I Will Never Rest*

Fixations on SuspectsWhen professionals investigate a crime, they’re supposed to keep an open mind – as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot puts it, to ‘suspect everybody’ – until there’s a reason to go after one particular suspect. But that’s a whole lot easier to say than it is to do. For one thing, detectives are human. They have prejudices and biases as we all do. So it can be difficult to be objective about suspects. That’s especially true if a suspect has a history with a detective.

It doesn’t often go as far as Inspector Javert’s pursuit of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Still, there are plenty of examples of crime novels where the sleuth fixates on one suspect or theory, for whatever reason. And this can lead the sleuth right down the proverbial garden path. Even when the sleuth happens to be right, that sort of obsession can add an interesting layer of tension to a story, and a layer of character development. There are a lot of examples of this kind of fixation in crime fiction. I’ll just mention a few of them.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. Renauld wrote to Poirot, saying that his life was in danger and asking for Poirot’s help. But by the time Poirot and Hastings got to Renauld’s home, it was too late. Now Poirot feels that he owes it to his client and his client’s widow to find out what happened. Also investigating the case is Inspector Giraud of the Sûreté. To put it mildly, Poirot and Giraud are not compatible. Most of that is because Giraud has become fixated on one theory of the murder. And in fact, I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that he arrests the victim’s son Jack as a part of that theory. He is so obsessed with Jack Renauld that he doesn’t listen to what Poirot has to say about the matter until it’s almost too late.

In Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life, Cissy Kohler is released from prison after serving a long sentence for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrup. There’s a lot of not-very-flattering talk that she was innocent, and that the investigating officer, Wally Tallentire, know that. In fact, so goes the gossip, he tampered with evidence to ensure she’d be imprisoned. Tallentire has since died, but Superintendent Andy Dalziel, whom Tallantire mentored, is sure that his boss behaved appropriately. He’s just as certain that Cissy Kohler was guilty. So he re-opens the case in his own way and goes into the events again. It’s mostly to clear his mentor’s name, but he also wants to show, once and for all, that Cissy Kohler was a killer.

In Geraldine Evans’ Dead Before Morning, DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn of the Elmhurst CID, Essex, investigate the murder of a young woman whose body is found on the grounds of the exclusive Elmhurst Sanatorium. As you can imagine, they look closely into the backgrounds and doings of the people who live and work there. So one of their ‘people of interest’ is the hospital’s owner, Dr. Anthony Melville-Briggs. Rafferty takes an instant dislike to Melville-Briggs, and it’s not hard to see why. Melville-Briggs is arrogant, insufferable, malicious, a serial adulterer and more. Nonetheless, as Llewellyn points out, there are other possibilities. When the victim is identified as a sex worker named Linda Wilks, the duo begin looking into her contacts with clients, her family, and other people she knew. But Rafferty is certain – too certain, if you ask Llewellyn – that the man they want is Melville-Briggs. That fixation plays its role in the way the investigation proceeds, and it adds an interesting layer of character.

Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove CID falls prey to the same sort of fixation in Not Dead Yet. In one plot line of that novel, Grace learns that Amis Smallbone has just been released from prison. In Grace’s opinion, Smallbone is,

‘…the nastiest and most malevolent piece of vermin he had ever dealt with.’

So he’s not too pleased to hear the news. One day, Grace’s partner Cleo Morey finds that her car has been sabotaged and a taunting sign painted on it. Grace is certain Smallbone is responsible, and wastes no time tracking the man down. When he finds him, let’s say that Grace wastes no time following up on his assumption. His certainly that Smallbone is the vandal blinds Grace to any other possibility.

And then there’s DS Bev Morriss, whom we first meet in Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. In that novel, she and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. It turns out that Michelle was a sex worker whose pimp was a man named Charlie Hawes. There are all kinds of stories about him, so Morriss is prepared to dislike him already. And when she finally gets the chance to meet him, she is even more certain that he is the murderer. In fact, she determines to do whatever she needs to do to get him. Her fixation on Hawes as the killer means that she’s not as open to other suspects as she might otherwise be, and it affects the investigation.

Of course, no discussion of this kind of fixation would really be complete without a mention of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and his fixation with Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. As fans will know, Cafferty is an Edinburgh crime boss who’s been a thorn in Rebus’ side for a long time. And every chance he gets, Rebus is all too happy to go after his nemesis. It sometimes leads him in the wrong direction (no spoilers here), but it always adds a layer of tension to the novels.

Sometimes police can have that sort of fixation about one of their own. For example, in Brian Stoddart’s 1920’s-era A Madras Miasma, Superintendent Christian Le Fanu and his assistant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah investigate the murder of Jane Carstairs. One morning her body is discovered in the Buckingham Canal in Madras (now Chennai). Le Fanu and Habi get to work on the investigation, and are almost immediately hampered by Madras Commissioner of Police Arthur Jepson. Jepson dislikes and distrusts Le Fanu for several reasons, not least of which is that he thinks Le Fanu is ‘too soft’ on Indians. So he takes every opportunity to sabotage the investigation and make things difficult for Le Fanu and Habi.

Everyone has biases and strong beliefs. When they get in the way of objectivity, they can hamper, and even ruin, police investigations. Still, they can add an interesting layer of conflict to a story or series.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Stars.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Geraldine Evans, Ian Fleming, Maureen Carter, Peter James, Reginald Hill, Victor Hugo