Category Archives: Megan Abbott

She’ll Get a Hold on You, Believe It*

Femmes FatalesOne of the more memorable kinds of characters, especially (but not exclusively) in Golden Age ‘hardboiled’ novels, is the femme fatale. She is alluring and seductive, and that often spells ruin for anyone who gets involved with her. She’s an interesting character, actually. On the one hand, she is often depicted as wily, deceptive and sometimes a criminal. On the other, she is also depicted as independent, strong, and unwilling to accept the roles that society has laid out for her. You may not trust her, but you can’t help but admire her in a way. That kind of complexity has made the femme fatale an enduring sort of character. I’ve only space here for a few examples, but that’s all right; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could, anyway.

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Mason gets a visit from a woman who calls herself Eva Griffin. She says that she is being blackmailed by Frank Locke, a reporter for a tabloid called Spicy Bits. The tabloid has evidence that Griffin, who is married, was at the Beechwood Inn with up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke. Now, Locke is threatening to release the story unless Griffin pays him. She wants Mason to find Locke and stop him.  Mason agrees, but almost immediately runs into problems in this case. The major one is that Eva Griffin is not who she says she is. Her surname is actually Belter, and she’s been telling several other lies, too, about her situation. Still, she is Mason’s client, so he keeps working on her behalf. Then one night, she places a frantic call to him. Her husband George has been shot, and she’s terrified. Mason goes to her, and before he knows it, is drawn into a murder case in which both he and his client are suspects. He’s going to have to find Belter’s real killer if he’s going to clear his own name and defend his client.

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia features noted archaeologist Eric Leidner and his wife, Louise.  Leidner and his dig team are hoping to make some important discoveries at their site a few hours from Baghdad. Louise is joining the team for the first time, and isn’t fitting in particularly well. On the one hand, she can be both polite and charming when she wishes; and she has a certain ‘polish’ and sophistication. On the other hand, she can be rude and cutting as well. But even those who dislike her admit that she has a sort of magic that can draw people to her. One afternoon, she is murdered in her bedroom. Hercule Poirot is in the area, having finished another case, and is now on his way back to London. He is persuaded to change his plans and investigate the murder. As he looks into the case, he gets to know quite a lot about the victim’s personality:

‘She disliked domination – she disliked the feeling of belonging to someone else – in fact she disliked playing second fiddle.

He also learns how Louise Leidner impacted everyone around her. That effect certainly plays its role in her death.

Fans of Raymond Chandler will know that several of his stories feature femmes fatales. In The Big Sleep, for instance, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe to stop a blackmailer, book dealer Arthur Geiger, from extorting his family. Marlowe is persuaded, and goes in search of Geiger; but by the time he finds his quarry, Geiger’s dead. Sternwood’s daughter Carmen is at the murder scene, but she is either drugged or having a breakdown, so she can’t help much. Marlowe decides to get her to safety; that choice draws him into a case of multiple murder. It also means he crosses paths with both Carmen and her sister Vivian Regan. Both are seductive and, in their ways, quite toxic. As their father puts it,

‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat.’

And both women’s femme fatale personalities play their roles in the story’s events. I know, I know, fans of The Lady in the Lake and of Farewell, My Lovely. Both have terrific examples of femmes fatales.

James M. Cain also included several femmes fatales in his work. For instance, in The Postman Always Rings Twice, we meet Frank Chambers, an aimless drifter who ends up working at a roadside diner. He is attracted to the owner’s wife, Cora Papadakis, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Cora is unhappy in her marriage, and wants both her freedom and the diner. So she and Frank plot to kill her husband, Nick. Then, everything starts to spin out of control, and as with most noir stories, things don’t go at all as planned.  They don’t in Double Indemnity, either. In that story, insurance agent Walter Huff meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his clients. It doesn’t take long for him to fall under her spell; and before much time has passed, she’s drawn him into a plot to kill her husband for insurance money. As you can guess, things don’t work out the way either hopes they will.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker is the story of the murder of thirty-two-year-old Kate Sumner, whose body is discovered by Chapman’s Pool, in Dorset. PC Nick Ingram is first on the scene, so he begins the investigation. He, DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter narrow down the list of suspects to three. One is the victim’s husband, William. The other two are an actor, Stephen Harding, and his roommate, schoolteacher Tony Bridges. In this case, we don’t have the sort of femme fatale who induces a man to murder someone else. But we do have a seductive character who is independent and, in her own way, quite manipulative.

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s historical novel Queenpin. That’s the story of the infamous Gloria Denton, hardened mob moll who’s ‘seen it all and done it all.’ We see Gloria through the eyes of her twenty-two-year-old protégée, who’s recently been hired to do the books at a seedy Las Vegas club called Tee Hee. Little by little Gloria introduces the narrator of the story to the late-night-life of casinos, betting, and a lot of money. Then, the narrator falls for a small-time gambler, Vic Riordan. Now, everything changes, and things begin to take a very noir turn…

Speaking of Abbotts…Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel features Eve Moran and her daughter Christine. Eve has a lot of the qualities of a femme fatale. She’s independent, seductive, and clever. She is also very toxic, and stops at nothing to get what she wants – including murder. Christine has been raised in this dysfunctional atmosphere, and it’s had a powerful impact on her. But then, she sees that her three-year-old brother Ryan is beginning to get caught in the same dangerous pattern. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free both of them from Eve’s spell.

And femmes fatales do have a way of casting spells over people. It’s part of what can make them so compelling. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Philip Bailey, Phil Collins, and Nathan East’s Easy Lover.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, James M. Cain, Megan Abbott, Minette Walters, Patricia Abbott, Raymond Chandler

Mama, Just Killed a Man*

FamousCasesThere are certain criminal cases that capture people’s imagination, even years later. Sometimes they inspire crime fiction; but even when they don’t, they have a hold on our consciousness in some ways.

I’m not talking here of those rare cases of psychopaths who kill. Those stories may get the headlines for a while, but as a rule (with a few exceptions, of course), they don’t quite hold the public consciousness in ways that certain other cases do.

Not having a background in psychology, I don’t have the exact, definitive explanation for why certain cases get our attention. But if you read enough crime fiction, you see that they’ve certainly made their way into the genre.

Some cases, I think, hold our imagination because they’ve never really, conclusively been solved. The Whitechapel Murders – the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ – killings in London at the end of the 19th Century serves (at least to me) as one example of this kind of case. There’ve been many, many attempts to learn who ‘Jack the Raipper’ really was, and several different theories.  But to my knowledge, no-one has yet posited a theory about the case that everyone agrees is probably the truth. As far as I know, there’s never been a credible confession.

This sort of case invites people to speculate about what really happened, which is part of why there’ve been so many fictional stories inspired by this case. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is said to have been inspired by the Whitechapel Murders case. And it’s not the only one, by any means.

Another case that remained open for a long time was the case of Azaria Chamberlain, who died as an infant in 1980. Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, claimed that she was killed by a dingo, but there was also evidence that implicated them. They were convicted and went to prison, but later evidence supported them; and they were eventually released and compensated. Yet there was debate for quite a long time about this case. Recent DNA evidence has shown, to the satisfaction of many people (including the Northern Territories coroner) that Azaria did die as a result of a dingo attack. Still, there are those who aren’t satisfied. It’s exactly the sort of case that people speculate about because it isn’t conclusive – at least at first. Little wonder it’s shown up in books such as Wendy James’ The Mistake, which concerns the case of Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s the wife of a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children; in short, she’s living a life many would envy. But then comes the shocking news that she had a child years earlier – a baby not even her husband knew existed. She claims the baby was given up for adoption, but there are no formal records to support what she says. That’s when the questions begin, and soon enough, talk begins that she might have had something to do with the child’s disappearance. There are several people who compare Jodie to Lindy Chamberlain.

Some cases fascinate people not because they are unsolved, but because they are unusual, or shocking (at least for the times). Here, there is sometimes ‘shock value,’ but there’s also the larger question: What would make someone do that? For instance, in 1928, Ruth Snyder was execute for the murder of her husband. Her partner in crime was her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray. This case got a lot of publicity in part because her execution was caught on camera, and a photograph like that gets people’s attention. But the question of what, exactly, would have driven Gray to participate in a crime like this is also interesting. James M. Cain speculated on just that sort of question in Double Indemnity, which is loosely based on the Snyder case. There, too, we have a woman who decides to kill her husband and takes out a double-indemnity insurance policy on his life. While other details aren’t the same, the novella explores that question of what makes people behave as they do.

We also see this in the 1931-33 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, a Phoenix medical secretary who was found guilty of killing two of her friends, allegedly over the affections of Jack Halloran. The case has been referred to as ‘the Trunk Murders case’ because the bodies of the victims were discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders. The case raised several questions. What would make someone commit murders like this? Could love be such an obsession? What would these people be like? These questions are addressed in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is based on this case. In the novel, she explores the relationships among the people involved, and shows how the whole thing might have come about.

And then there’s the case of James Bulger. He was killed in February, 1993, at the age of two by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were both ten years old at the time. There was, of course, great public sympathy for the victim’s family and shock that he was so young. Just as shocking was the youth of his killers. There were many questions raised about how to deal with offenders who are this young. On the one hand, the two boys committed a horrendous crime. On the other hand, they were children. Most justice systems aren’t set up for such young offenders who are guilty of such horrific crimes.

Along with this set of questions is another set of questions about what would drive boys of this age to commit such a crime. And are children really capable of the kind of premeditation that adults are? Ruth Dugdall’s Humber Boy B addresses this sort of question. It’s not, per se, based on the James Bulger case. But it takes up the topic of juvenile criminals, and brings up the kinds of challenges that those who work with them face.

And that’s the thing about some famous cases. They capture our imagination, even decades or more afterwards, because they raise these difficult questions. Or they’re unsolved. Or they are of real psychological interest. There are also cases (which I’ve not had space to bring up here) that raise really important legal questions. All of these things can keep people interested in a case for a very long time.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.


Filed under James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Megan Abbott, Ruth Dugdall, Wendy James

He’s Adept at Adaptation*

AdaptingWe all have to adapt to new circumstances. If you get a new job, you need to learn the way your new employer does things. When you move to a new place, you have to find out where the library, the grocery store and the banks are. You also need to learn the local culture and fit in, if you want to settle in. The fact is, humans are a social species, so most of us want to be part of a group. The way to do that is…adapt.

Some adaptation makes a lot of sense. New employees need to learn company policies. Moving in with a new partner or spouse means that both parties have to adapt if the relationship is going to be successful. But how far does adaptation go before it means giving up too much? It’s not always an easy question, and crime fiction makes that clear. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to add lots more than I could.

Some adaptations aren’t really all that difficult. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet Jane Grey. She’s a hairdresser’s assistant in an upmarket London salon. She isn’t what you’d call poor, but she’s certainly not well-off. When she has a very unexpected win in a lottery, Jane decides to have a taste of ‘the good life.’ She takes a holiday at Le Pinet, as many of her clients have done. It’s not the fantasy trip it might have seemed, as she has quite a losing streak. But Jane is practical, and never really expected to spend the rest of her life in the lap of luxury. She does have to make some adaptations, so as to mix effectively with those who can go to Le Pinet whenever they want:

‘Jane, like most London girls employed in smart places, could produce a miraculous effect of fashion for a ridiculously small outlay. Nails, make-up, and hair were beyond reproach.’

The efforts that Jane goes to don’t cost her that much. But they do get her involved in a murder investigation when a fellow passenger is murdered on the flight back from France to London. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Adaptation (and lack thereof) takes on a more deadly cast in Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croydon is an up-and-coming bank official who is neat, quiet, and utterly respectable in every way. He’s always led a rather staid life, and as he moves up the bank’s proverbial ladder, he makes sure to only hire people who, like him, are completely respectable, preferably quiet, and with no hint of scandal anywhere in their families. Then one day, he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. When they first meet, she strikes him as quiet and respectable, just as he is. After a tasteful amount of time, they begin seeing each other seriously. Finally they’re married. That’s when Horace begins to see that Althea is not the person he thought he’d married. From his point of view, she is not a meticulous enough housekeeper, she has sloppy habits (she even shops without a list!) and is too ebullient for good taste. He keeps hoping she’ll adapt if he ‘corrects’ her, but she doesn’t. Then one day, she destroys a set of ciphers he was trying to work. They’re his passion, so this pushes him too far. Now Horace decides there’s really only one way to solve his problem. In this story we might very well ask, ‘who didn’t adapt?’

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Walter and Joanna Eberhart move with their two children from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They’re looking forward to more space, lower taxes, and good schooling for the children. From the very first, Joanna finds it a bit difficult to adapt. She’s a semi-professional photographer and a feminist who’s now living in a town where all of the women seem preoccupied by their homes and taking care of their families. In one scene, for instance, she’s in the supermarket, and notices that,
…they even fill their carts neatly!’

She tries to adapt, but finds it difficult to be,

‘…deeply concerned about whether pink soap pads are better than blue ones or vice versa…’

After a short time, she makes a friend in Bobbie Markowe, who shares Joanna’s frustrations. Neither of them wants to make the adaptations that it seems they’re expected to make. And that has consequences for both.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney, and the two fall in love. Bill’s sister Lora, a Pasadena teacher, is not at all impressed with Alice, and becomes concerned for her brother. But even she understands that it might just be a bit of jealousy on her part. So she doesn’t interfere when Bill and Alice get married. Alice soon settles into married life in the suburbs, and adapts very quickly. She becomes the social leader among their friends, and Lora tries to be friendly with her, mostly for Bill’s sake. But Lora wonders just how much Alice has adapted. The more she learns about Alice’s past, the more she wonders just who Alice really is. As she finds out, Lora is repelled, but at the same time drawn in, by Alice’s world. Then there’s a murder, and a good chance that Alice might be mixed up in it. So Lora starts asking questions, mostly (as she tells herself) to protect her brother. That choice turns out to have real consequences for everyone.

The question of how much you give up of yourself when you adapt comes up in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives. PI Lena Jones and her business partner Jimmy Sisiwan investigate the murder of Solomon Lord, leader of a very reclusive polygamist sect living on a compound called Purity. The members of the community are not willing to talk to ‘outsiders,’ so it’s decided that Jones will go undercover as a new member of the community. To do so, she has to make a lot of adaptations. It’s not just a matter of dressing in a particular way, either. Everyone’s activities are circumscribed, even non-verbals such as eye contact. Every new member has to make those adaptations, and they can be difficult. Jones does discover who killed the victim; she also uncovers other very dark secrets at Purity. But doing so requires almost more adaptation than she finds possible.

And then there’s Tonino Benacquista’s Badellas, which introduces readers to Fred and Maggie Blake and their children, who move from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. The family finds it a challenge to make the adaptations they have to make to fit in in their new home; there are cultural differences, language differences, and food differences. Matters aren’t made any easier by the very high stakes involved.  Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against the group. Now he and his family are in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, with new names and identities, and many adjustments they have to make. And when word of their whereabouts gets back to New Jersey, life gets even more complicated for them…

Adapting is often challenging, especially when it involves major adjustments. And those changes can be highly stressful. But they are part of life for a lot of people. And they can make for interesting plot points in a novel.


ps. There is little better adapted for life in the semi-arid climate where I live than a cactus. Unless it’s a lizard, but they’re harder to photograph…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Digital Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Talmage Powell, Tonino Benacquista

It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

You Give Me the Creeps*

Creepy FeelingsThere’s an old saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. And it’s generally wise to wait before drawing conclusions about people. Sometimes they do surprise you. But we can’t always help our first impressions. If you’ve ever had a very bad feeling about someone that you had trouble shaking off, you know what I mean. There are times when those feelings are not justified, of course. But there are other times when they are.

It’s interesting the way these ‘creepy’ feelings are handled in crime fiction. They can be used very effectively to build tension and to create motive. And what’s even more interesting is that they can also be used to misdirect the reader. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Dr. Sarah King, who’s recently gotten her medical license. She’s just ended a romance, and by way of healing, she’s taking a trip through the Middle East. While she’s in Jerusalem, she meets the Boynton family, also touring the area. Sarah has a pleasant encounter with Raymond Boynton, but everything changes when she meets his mother. She is immediately repulsed, and can’t help almost physically shuddering. She wonders at first whether it might be an unfortunate first impression, but she soon finds out that she was right. Mrs. Boynton is an unpleasant, tyrannical mental sadist who has her family so cowed that none of them dares go against her whims. When Sarah takes a side trip to Petra, she thinks she’s seen the last of the Boyntons. But when they turn up on the same trip, matters soon come to a head. On the second afternoon of the trip, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and when Colonel Carbury, who is the investigator for the case, asks him to look into the case, Poirot agrees. It turns out that Mrs. Boynton’s personality has a lot do with her murder.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is the story of the Sternwood family. Family patriarch General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help him solve a difficult problem. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s been hired to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe’s first impression of the general is not at all a positive one. It’s actually rather eerie:

‘An old man two-thirds dead and still determined to believe he could take it.’

Sternwood has lived a decadent life and admits it; he also has an autocratic way about him. None of this appeals to Marlowe, but he takes the case. By the time he tracks Geiger down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Marlow had hoped to simply get Geiger to leave the Sternwood family alone, but it turns out that he gets far more deeply involved with them than he imagined.

Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw meets Janusz Kiszka in the context of a murder investigation in Where the Devil Can’t Go. She’s looking into the death of Justyna Kozlowska, who seems to have died of a drug overdose. It’s not as simple as that though, and Kershaw believes that the victim was probably murdered. Kiszka knew Justyna, and that makes him a ‘person of interest.’ He’s a sort of ‘fixer’ London’s Polish community – someone who can get things done. So he knows all sorts of people, both law-abiding and…not so law-abiding. What’s more, he doesn’t particularly trust the police, and he has his own reasons for not being entirely forthcoming with Kershaw. So she sees him as dangerous – possibly even a killer. As they get to know one another, each sees that the other has valuable skills and information, and that they’ll solve the case better by co-operating. But it takes a while before Kershaw can shed her initial bad feeling about Kiszka.

When Megan Abbot’s Lora King meets Alice Steele in Die a Little, she immediately gets a bad feeling about her. Lora is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has fallen in love with Alice. Alice is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant with a shadowy past. On the surface, there isn’t really any reason to dislike Alice. She seems to treat Bill well, she’s friendly, she’s smart and she’s witty. In fact, Lora even tries to convince herself that she’s simply reacting out of overprotectiveness towards her brother. But she can’t shake her very creepy feeling about Alice. Matters don’t get any better when Alice and Bill marry, either. Then, there’s a murder. When it comes out that Alice may be mixed up in it, Lora feels especially torn. On the one hand, she is repelled by Alice’s life. On the other, she is drawn to it.

And then there’s Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. It soon comes out that Michelle was a sex worker who’d been in care since she was twelve years old. After a short time, Morriss discovers that Michelle was working for a pimp named Charlie Hawes. The more she hears about Hawes, the more contempt Morriss feels for him. But that doesn’t mean he killed Michelle. Still, she does consider him a suspect and tracks him down. The minute she meets him, she gets a very bad, creepy feeling about him. It doesn’t make her feel any better that Hawes is slick and arrogant. Among other challenges that she faces, Morriss has to separate her feelings about Hawes from a fair consideration of the evidence.

Her challenge is one we all face at times. There are just certain people who give us creepy feelings right from the beginning. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re wrong. Either way, though, it’s hard to get past them.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Camper van Beethoven’s I Don’t See You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Maureen Carter, Megan Abbott, Raymond Chandler