Category Archives: Megan Abbott

Perfect Isn’t Easy, But It’s Me*

We all know that people aren’t perfect. Most of us do some things well (perhaps even very well), and some things not very well. And, yet, there’s a myth that we ought to be perfect. We’re ‘supposed to’ do our work with no mistakes, always look perfectly ‘put together,’ and so on. There are even more myths around raising children (our perfect children are supposed to be raised perfectly).

Everyone knows that human make mistakes. Still, lots of people want to be perfect. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong (and a lot of things right) with setting goals, wanting to improve, and so on. It’s when perfectionism takes over that it can present a problem. I got to thinking about this after reading a really interesting post by Elizabeth Spann Craig. By the way, if you haven’t read Elizabeth’s mystery series (she’s got several), you want to try them. You won’t regret it.

Elizabeth’s post had a focus on perfectionism in writing (in case you’re wondering, it’s not possible.). But perfectionism isn’t just confined to writers. And it’s not confined to real life, either. There are plenty of crime novels in which perfectionism plays a role. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She goes with her father, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepmother, Arlena Stuart Marshall, to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercomb Bay for a holiday. But this isn’t a happy time for Linda. She is very much dissatisfied with her physical appearance, for one thing. She’s also got that teenage awkwardness that makes it hard for her to feel confident. Linda wishes she were perfect in appearance, grace, and so on, but she knows she isn’t. And that makes life very hard for her. It doesn’t help matters that her stepmother is a famous and beautiful actress, with all of the looks, confidence, and grace you’d expect. Linda has a lot of resentment towards Arlena, and that’s part of what makes her a ‘person of interest’ when Arlena is murdered one day. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is.

Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal features a banker named Horace Croydon. He has what he sees as the perfect life. He does his job perfectly, he has a perfect little place to live, and he’s never done anything to raise even the merest hint of a scandal. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin, Althea. After a very respectable courtship, they marry. Almost immediately, Horace sees that he’s made a dreadful mistake. Althea doesn’t serve meals on time, she doesn’t do the shopping in the ‘right’ way, and she’s made several changes to his perfect home. She doesn’t even dress properly to appear at the breakfast table. All of that’s bad enough, but one day, she goes too far. When she destroys some ciphers that Horace is working (it’s his hobby and passion), he decides he’s going to have to act. And he comes up with his own plan to solve the problem.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg. She’s always wanted the ‘perfect’ suburban life, complete with white picket fence. And she thinks she has it. She and her husband Hendrik have been married for fifteen years, and they have a six-year-old son, Axel. For Eva, it’s very important to have the perfect home, the perfect marriage, and so on. Then, she discovers to her shock that Hendrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated by this and decides to find out who his lover is. When she does, she decides to take revenge. In the meantime, we meet Jonas Hansson, who’s got his own issues. One night, he’s in a pub when Eva stops in for a drink. The two get to talking, and, soon enough, things spiral out of control for both of them. In this case, perfectionism has a very dark side.

It does in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? too. Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern and their newborn daughter move from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of a very good job opportunity. It’s hard for Yvonne, because she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin. And, while she’s not stupid or gullible, she has been subjected to the myth of the ‘perfect mother.’ As anyone who’s ever had a newborn knows, babies are exhausting. There’s little time to eat properly, clean the house, put together the right outfits, and so on. And there’s no magic way to get them to stop crying when you want them not to cry. Yvonne doesn’t really have a support system and feels very strongly that she doesn’t ‘measure up.’ Then, she discovers an online forum called Netmammy. It’s a chat group for new mums, and there, she finds the camaraderie and support she so desperately needs. Then, one of the other members of the forum goes ‘off the grid.’ Yvonne’s concerned enough to go to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in an empty apartment. It could very well be Yvonne’s missing friend. If it is, what does this mean for Netmammy? Could the other members, including Yvonne, be in danger?

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. Devon Knox has rare gymnastic talent. Her parents, Katie and Eric, want to nurture that talent, so they are only too happy to listen when gymnastics coach Teddy Balfour invites them to place her in his gymnastics coaching program. Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (if it was, indeed, an accident) changes everything. The question is now: how far does a family go to reach the Olympics? There’s a great deal of pressure in the program to be the best – to be perfect. And that plays its role in the novel.

We all know we’re not perfect. We’re messy, flawed, nuanced human beings. But it can be easy to ‘buy’ the myth that perfect is possible. And when that happens, it can lead to trouble.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Manilow, Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman’s Perfect Isn’t Easy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Sinéad Crowley, Talmage Powell

Politics – the Art of the Possible*

Whenever groups of people work together, there’s the issue of what I’ll call politics (I don’t mean government politics here. That’s the subject for another post at some point). Who’s in charge? Who gets ahead? Who’s allied with whom? Most people say that they get sick of office politics. On the other hand, it’s wise to be able to get along with colleagues. It’s a delicate balance to strike.

Some people, though, learn to be masters of workplace politics. They’re the ones who move along quickly in their careers. We may resent them, and even decide not to trust them. But it’s hard not to notice their ability to manage their careers. And we certainly see those characters in crime fiction.

For example, James Ellroy’s LA Confidential introduces readers to Los Angeles police detective Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of the much-revered Preston Exley, whose dream it is for his son to get to the top of the LAPD. He gives Ed all sorts of advice, pulls the right proverbial strings, and so on. And Ed certainly learns to play the ‘politics game.’ The real action in the story begins on Christmas Day, 1951, when seven civilians are brutally attacked by the police. Two years later, there’s another tragedy. This time, it’s a late-night shooting at the Nite Owl Diner. Exley is involved in both of these situations, and he uses his political skills (and the prodding from his father) to manipulate matters so that he can move ahead in his career.

Fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels will know that Bosch runs up against Irvin Irving more than once in his career. Irving is a very politically astute member of the LAPD, who’s quite skilled at protecting himself and those in high positions on the force. He isn’t above squashing investigations if they might impact his image, or the images of those above him in the pecking order. And, more than once, he works to impede investigations that Bosch is conducting. As any Bosch fan can tell you, Harry Bosch follows the trail wherever it leads, and that doesn’t always sit well with Irving’s political ambitions. The two butt heads more than once in the course of the series.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries feature Hannah Scarlett, who heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. Her Assistant Chief Constable (ACC), Lauren Self, is extremely politically conscious and astute. She takes every opportunity she can to advance her career; and, while she’s not deliberately malicious, she has no intentions of letting anything get in the way of her success. On the one hand, Scarlett has much less interest in ‘office politics.’ She wants to get the job done. Sometimes that putts her at odds with her boss. On the other hand, she can’t help but notice, and, in a way, respect the way Self manages the political realities of the job.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti works at the Venice questura. He wants to see crimes solved, and justice done. But he’s often hampered by his boss, vice-questore Giuseppe Patta. Patta’s main focus is his own career. So, he toadies to those with money and power. If an investigation happens to lead to someone with influence, or someone who could help Patta’s career, he’s not above squashing the investigation. He’s been known to remove Brunetti from cases, too. Fortunately, Patta’s assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, likes Brunetti and generally supports what he’s doing. She’s quite good at manipulating her boss, too, so she and Brunetti find ways to get things done.

It’s not just police forces where we see these politically astute characters. Many other groups and businesses include them. For example, in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, we are introduced to Albert Fernandez. He’s a Crown Prosecutor who lives and works in Toronto. Frenandez wants to move ahead in his career, and he does a lot to make that happen. He’s the first in the office in the morning, and the last to leave. He calculates the political risks of what he does, who he spends time with, and so on. It’s not that he’s soulless, but he’s intent on career success, and he has a sense of what that takes. He gets a chance at a real ‘feather in the cap’ when famous broadcaster Kevin Brace is arrested for killing his common-law wife, Katherine Thorn. It ought to be an easy case. Brace told a witness that he killed her. And he hasn’t said anything since to defend himself (actually, he hasn’t spoken since. He communicates with his own lawyer, Nancy Parish via handwritten notes). Fernandez isn’t going to find this case as easy a win as he thinks, though. Parish is no slouch, and there’s more to this case than it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s Dare Me. That novel takes place mostly within the context of a high school cheerleading team. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are members of their high school’s cheerleading squad, and undisputed ‘queen bees’ of their school’s social order. They know all about the politics of ‘making it’ in high school, and they’ve done well. Beth, in particular, is at the top of the high school social ladder. Then, Collette French is hired to coach the cheerleading squad. Right from the beginning, French changes the social order. The cheerleading squad becomes an elite social group, and Addy is welcomed into the ‘inner circle.’ Beth, though, is not. Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). It’s interesting to see how the politics of high school, and those who play that game well, are important in this novel.

There are plenty of other fictional examples of people who are astute at ‘office politics.’ Such characters have important social survival skills; even as we may resent them, it’s hard to deny their ability to negotiate some dangerous waters, as the saying goes. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s The Art of the Possible.

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Filed under Donna Leon, James Ellroy, Martin Edwards, Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly, Robert Rotenberg

Clinical, Intellectual, Cynical*

Life’s not always kind, and people who’ve seen a lot of that unkindness sometimes react to it by becoming cynical. If you think about it, a certain amount of cynicism is self-protective. It prevents too much vulnerability and disappointment (at least on a conscious level) when someone proves not to be trustworthy.

There are plenty of cynical characters in crime fiction, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Sleuths see the sometimes-tragic consequences when people act only in their own interests. And other fictional characters can be cynical, too. Carried to the extreme, cynicism has a lot of drawbacks. But a certain amount of it can add a layer of character development.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, we are introduced to Miss Pamela Horsefall, a writer for the tabloid Sunday Companion. One of her articles is a ‘Where Are They Now’ piece on women who’ve been involved in infamous crimes. The story itself is quite sentimental, and it suggests that these are all innocent people who’ve been victims of others or of society. That story turns out to be a clue when a charwoman is murdered. Everyone thinks the killer is her unpleasant lodger, James Bentley. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t so sure about that. He asks Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. When he finds out that Mrs. McGinty wrote a letter to the Companion shortly before she died, he suspects that there might be a connection between the article and her murder. So, he goes to visit Miss Horsefall. He discovers that she is much more cynical about the subjects of her story than it seems. In fact, in each case, she believes that the woman had much more to do with the murder than people think. Miss Horsefall’s cynicism doesn’t solve Mrs. McGinty’s murder, but the article gives Poirot an important lead.

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy (Total Chaos, Chourmo, Solea) features police officer Fabio Montale. As young people, he and his friends, Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini and Manu, got into plenty of trouble, and had more than one brush with the law. Then, a tragedy changed everything. Montale left Marseilles and joined the military. After his stint in the service, he returned to his old haunts in Marseilles as a police officer. Although he’s on the right side of the law, so to speak, Montale has no illusions about the law, the city, the people, or his fellow coppers. He has seen, in some very ugly ways, just how self-motivated people can be, and how self-interest can come before anything else, including others’ lives. And, yet, Montale tries to be ‘on the side of the angels.’ He tries to do whatever good he can do. It’s an interesting example of a person who’s cynical without giving up, if I can put it that way.

Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes is the story of John ‘Duke’ Anderson. Shortly after being released from prison, he gets a legitimate job at a printer’s. He plans to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow until he gets a chance to visit a posh apartment building on Manhattan’s East Side. When he sees how much wealth there is there, he decides to rob not just one apartment, but the whole building. He knows he won’t be able to pull off the job by himself, so he gathers a group of confederates. Anderson is cynical about their motivations and interests, and he plans accordingly. He’s matched, cynicism for cynicism, by his friend-with-benefits, Ingrid Macht. She has her own dark history and very good reasons for mistrusting everyone. Her view is, ‘Everyone’s out for themselves, so I might as well get mine, too.’ Although she and Anderson are friends, they have no illusions about themselves or each other, and have no problem using one another. Ingrid isn’t one of Anderson’s co-conspirators, really, but she sheds important light on him and his character.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we meet Alice Steele, a former Hollywood wardrobe assistant. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office, and the two begin dating. Bill’s sister Lora has her concerns about Alice. Still, she tries to be nice to her for Bill’s sake. Alice has a murky past, and she hasn’t completely left it. One of her friends, for instance, is Lois Slattery, a former roommate. Lois has a shady past of her own, and a cynical attitude towards life. Occasionally, she visits Alice, and Lora gets a chance to see how these two women seem to think. As time goes by, Lora has more and more questions about her new sister-in-law, and becomes increasingly uneasy about her. At the same time, she is drawn to Alice’s life. Then, there’s a death that turns out to be murder. And Alice could very well be mixed up in it all. Telling herself she’s doing it to protect Bill, Lora starts asking questions about the death. Throughout the novel, we see how cynical both Alice and Lois are. They’ve both seen plenty of life, and their cynicism comes in part from that.

As any fan of the ‘hardboiled’ PI novel can tell you, several fictional PIs are also cynical, even though they go after the ‘bad guys.’ Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, for instance, has no illusions about the motives of the clients who hire him, or of the people involved in his cases. He himself tries to do the right thing. But he’s seen enough in his time that he’s well aware of the dark side of many people. A similar thing might be said of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. There are plenty of other examples, too.

Cynicism certainly has its place in crime fiction. A dose of it can be useful in real life, too. And it’s interesting to see how it plays out in fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Supertramp’s The Logical Song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jean-Claude Izzo, Lawrence Sanders, Megan Abbott, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald

We’ve Got a Falling Barometer and Rising Seas*

If you read enough crime fiction, you soon learn to expect that something bad – perhaps very bad – is going to happen. After all, most crime fiction is about bad things happening. Much of the time, the terrible thing that happens is murder.

Even though crime writers know that their readers expect something awful to happen, they still want to draw those readers in. Sometimes, they do this by building the tension right from the beginning. It’s a bit like storm clouds gathering and building up the suspense that happens just before a major downpour. Authors have different ways of doing this, but no matter what way the author chooses, it can build suspense and get the reader turning and swiping pages.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, begins as a group of ten people travel to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They’ve all been invited to spend time there, and, for different reasons, each has accepted. As the various guests arrive, we follow their thoughts, and tension begins to build. It builds even more when it becomes clear that the host is not there. It’s all a bit odd, but everyone settles in. After dinner that evening, each person is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Later, one of the guests suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Then, there’s another death. Now the survivors begin to see that someone has deliberately lured them to the island and is trying to kill them. They’ll have to find out who that person is if they’re to stay alive. We may not know from the start who the killer is; right away, though, as the people gather, we know that something very, very bad is going to happen.

There’s a similar sense of the tension building at the beginning of Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski. In that novel, Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, are on their way to a skiing holiday at Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, and they soon find that several other people on the trip are staying there, too. As the group arrives at the hotel, there are already undercurrents of unease, and it’s easy to sense that something awful is about to happen. And it soon does. One of the guests, an Austrian businessman named Fritz Hauser, is shot, and his body found on a ski lift. Capitano Spezzi and his team arrive and begin to investigate. When it comes out that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, Spezzi grudgingly, and then more willingly, works with him. In the end, and after another death, they find that Hauser brought his fate on himself, in a manner of speaking.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye starts as a teacher named Janek Mitter slowly wakes up after having had far, far too much to drink. He was so drunk that, at first, he doesn’t remember who he is or where he is. That sense of disorientation starts to build the suspense right away. Slowly, Mitter remembers who he is, and that he’s at home. Just as he’s beginning to get his bearings, he discovers the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in their bathtub. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate, and it seems at first that all of the evidence points to Mitter as the killer. But he insists that he is innocent, and it’s not long before Van Veeteren starts to believe him. Mitter is still convicted, though, and remanded to a mental hospital until his memory recovers enough to assist the police. Not long afterwards, he himself is brutally murdered. Now, Van Veeteren knows that MItter was telling the truth, and works backwards to find out who would have wanted to kill both Mitter and his wife.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she’s understandably very interested when he starts to date former Hollywood seamstress’ assistant Alice Steele. From the moment Alice makes her appearance, there’s a sense that something isn’t quite right. And that feeling gets even stronger as Bill and Alice continue to date, fall in love, and decide to marry. At first, Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law for Bill’s sake. The more she finds out about Alice’s life, though, the more repelled she is by it. And the more questions she has about Alice. At the same time, she is drawn to that life, so she has conflicting feelings when there’s a death, and Alice seems to be mixed up in it. Telling herself that it’s to protect her brother, Lora starts to ask some questions. But long before the death, in fact, from the beginning of the story, we know that something bad will happen.

We know that about Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, too. Science fiction novelist Zack Walker decides that he and his family should move from the city that he considers too dangerous to the suburbs. The Walkers choose Valley Forest Estates as their new development, and move in. But right from the beginning, we know there’s going to be trouble. First, Walker notices some problems with the house that need to be fixed. Then, he witnesses an argument between a Valley Forest executive and a local environmentalist. Later, he finds that environmentalist dead near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker’s involved in a web of conspiracy and murder. But we know right from the beginning that this move is going to present real problems…

And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. This book follows the structure of a meal, with sections that have titles such as ‘Appetizer,’ ‘Main Course,’ and ‘Dessert.’ Within each section are the various chapters. At the beginning of the book, two couples meet for dinner at a very exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. In some ways, there’s little indication of what’s to come. But very soon, there’s a sense of uneasiness, especially as we learn about Paul’s relationship with his brother. Little by little, we learn the real reason the two couples have met. Their fifteen-year-old sons have committed a horrible crime. Now, the four adults have to decide what they will do. As the novel goes on, we learn about what happened, and we learn about the histories of these dysfunctional people. And that sense that something is wrong starts early in the book.

Sometimes, especially if you’re a crime fiction fan, you know right away that things will turn awful. Little nuances, the atmosphere, and other clues can give the sense that trouble is on the way. And that can draw the reader in.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Herman Koch, Linwood Barclay, Megan Abbott, Patricia Moyes

A Tiger is a Tiger, Not a Lamb*

Isn’t this wombat cute? I think so, too. But don’t let that fool you. Wombats are extremely strong, have sharp teeth, and can be very aggressive and destructive. That’s part of why they’re best left in their natural habitat. It’s a big mistake to be blind to what wombats can really be like.

The same is true of people. I think most of us would like to believe the best about the people in our lives. That’s arguably part of the reason we make excuses, at least to ourselves, for the way some people behave (e.g. ‘Yes, she’s very short-tempered, but look how creative she is!’). And sometimes, that way of thinking can allow us to work with others productively, even if we’re aware of their faults. And, in any case, no-one’s perfect.

It can be a mistake, though, to ignore others’ character traits, or to think that someone will change a fundamental trait (e.g. ‘I know he cheated on her, but it’ll be different with me.’). Making those sorts of excuses can lead to all sorts of sad consequences. And in crime fiction, it can lead to disaster.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of Crale’s death, it was believed that his wife, Caroline, was responsible, and she certainly had motive; he was having a very obvious affair. In fact, Caroline was arrested, tried, and convicted in connection with the murder. But now, their daughter Carla wants to clear her mother’s name. So, Poirot interviews the five people who were on the scene at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts of what happened from each one. Using the interviews and accounts, he works his way towards the truth of the matter.  As the story goes on, we learn more about the victim’s character. For him, his art was the most important part of his life. In fact, he even warned his mistress, Elsa Greer, not to believe in him or trust him, except for his art. She didn’t listen to him, though, and took their relationship far more seriously than he did. She believed they would marry as soon as Crale divorced his wife. Her refusal to see Crale for what he was caused all sorts of conflict and tragedy that play a role in the story.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office, and the two begin a relationship. Bill’s brother, Lora, a Pasadena teacher, isn’t enthusiastic about Alice at first, but she puts that down to her protectiveness about her brother. Even so, as she gets to know Alice, Lora begins to have questions. Alice and Bill marry, and Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law, but the questions and concerns won’t go away. The more she learns about Alice, the more repulsed Lora is by Alice’s life. At the same time, though, she is drawn to it. And she comes to have, as she sees it, fewer and fewer illusions about her sister-in-law. Bill doesn’t share her concerns, though, and Lora knows that he doesn’t see Alice for what she is. Then, there’s a murder, and it looks very much as though Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s looking out for her brother, Lora starts to ask questions. In the end, refusal to see things as they are ends up wreaking havoc.

Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry is the sixth in his series featuring London PI Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewellyn. In the novel, Scotland Yard Inspector Terence Pool goes to Barker with an odd request. It seems that the British government has granted immunity to Sebastian Nightwine, and that he will be returning to London at the government’s request, so as to take part in a top-secret mission. Nightwine has indicated that he’s afraid he’s in danger from Barker. It was Barker’s discovery of some of Nightwine’s crimes that caused him to flee England in the first place. Now that he’s returning, he’s concerned that Barker represents a threat to him. Pool warns Barker to stay away from Nightwine. But Barker strongly suspects that Nightwine has his own agenda, and may even have a major criminal plan underway. To Barker, the government is naïve in not acknowledging the sort of person Nightwine is, and that naivety will lead to disaster. So, he does a little checking, and discovers that he’s right. Before he can do anything about it, though, he’s neatly framed for a murder. Now, the police are after him, and so are Nightwine’s people. So, with help from Llewellyn, Barker’s going to have to clear his name and stop Nightwine if he can.

Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion is the first of her Anna Travis novels. In it, Travis has recently been promoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant (DS), and has joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. The team is facing a very perplexing case. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been discovered, and her murder is similar in many ways to six other deaths the team is investigating. But there are some major differences. For one thing, the other victims were all prostitutes, and Melissa wasn’t. For another, the other victims were all older; Melissa was a teenager. Still, it’s certainly possible that all seven women were killed by the same person. Gradually, the team comes to believe that a man named Alan Daniels is that person. But that possibility presents several challenges. Daniels is a beloved television actor who’s about to ‘make it’ in films. Any public aspersions on him will not be taken kindly. What’s more, there’s no conclusive evidence against the man. And, Daniels is wealthy and well-connected. He can afford the best legal representation, and the team risks a lot of public embarrassment (and more) if they botch this case. As a part of the investigation, Travis gets to know Daniels, even seeing him socially. All of this is planned by her team, but that doesn’t mean it’s not risky. And, as she sees more of him, Travis has to consider what sort of person he is, and whether there’s a ruthless killer underneath his charming surface. He is charming and attractive, and Travis needs to remind herself, more than once, not to make excuses for him.

And then there’s Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy, which features a locksmith named Jeet Singh. He’s a former safecracker/lockbreaker who’s ‘gone straight,’ and now operates a keymaking kiosk in Mumbai. One day, he gets an unexpected visit from his former lover, Sushmita, who asks for his help. It seems that her husband, wealthy industrialist Pursumal Changulani, has been killed in a planned murder disguised as a carjacking gone wrong. Sushmita says that she’s being accused of hiring a killer, so she could inherit her husband’s money. Now, she needs her name cleared. For that, she needs money, and that’s why she’s come to Singh. He’s still at least partly in love with Sushmita, so he agrees to do what he can. And that means taking on one more illegal job, so that he can earn some quick money. He knows that Sushmita broke his heart, callously (to him) marrying another man because he was very rich, and Singh is not. But he refuses to really see her for what she is, and that leads to all sorts of trouble in this novel.

And that’s the thing about not seeing people for what they are. Most of us acknowledge that everyone has faults. But we sometimes ignore troubling character traits. And that can cause real trouble. So…be careful if you pet a wombat.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Mein Herr.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Lynda La Plante, Megan Abbott, Surender Mohan Pathak, Will Thomas