Category Archives: Michael Gilbert

In The Spotlight: Michael Gilbert’s Close Quarters

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In the Spotlight. Michael Gilbert was one of the more prolific writers of the later Golden Age. He created several crime fiction series, standalone novels and short stories, and it’s more than time some of his work was featured here. Let’s do that today and turn the spotlight on Close Quarters, the first of his Inspector Hazlerigg series.

The story takes place in the English cathedral town of Melchester, and mostly, the cathedral close itself. The Dean of Melchester is concerned by a number of anonymous letters attacking Head Verger Appledown. The attacks on his character get uglier and more public, and the Dean wants an end to it. He’s reluctant to call in the police, but he sees little alternative.

Then, the Dean has what he thinks is a better idea. His nephew, Sergeant Robert ‘Bobby’ Pollock, is with the Metropolitan Police Force. The Dean decides to invite his Pollock for a visit. While he’s there, the Dean intends to talk to him about the case, and see if there’s anything he can suggest. Pollock arrives, and the two discuss the case.

Then, everything changes. Appledown is found murdered one night, and now, the police will have to be called in. Chief Inspector Hazlerigg takes over the case, and he and Pollock, with help from the Dean, begin to ask questions.

Before long, they discover that there’s a lot going on beneath the peaceful surface of the cathedral close. As Hazlerigg and Pollock slowly get to know the people who live and work in the close, they find out that each of them could potentially have a reason to want to kill the victim. They also find out that this case might be connected to a death that took place in the close a year earlier. In the end, and after a few proverbial wrong turns, Hazlerigg and Pollock discover who the killer is, and how it all relates to the anonymous letters and threats, and to the earlier death.

One of the important elements in this novel is Melchester Cathedral and the close. It’s an old establishment, and it’s a community unto itself. Those not familiar with the workings of a cathedral might not think of it, but a number of people are needed for it to operate successfully. There are choirmasters, vergers, canons, vicars, masters in the choir school, and more. As the story goes on, we learn about life in that sort of community, and about what it’s like to live and work there. We also learn about the daily rhythms of a cathedral. The novel was published in 1947, and takes place ten years earlier, so it doesn’t offer a look at contemporary religious life. Rather, it’s a ‘snapshot’ of life in that sort of place at that time.

Another important element in the novel is its Golden Age ‘feel.’ One focus of the investigation, for instance, is on who had an alibi for the time of the murder, and where everyone was. I can say without spoiling the story that there is a focus on who was doing what, and on what everyone saw and heard. This turns out to be important, since at one point, it seems that everyone concerned has an alibi for Appledown’s murder. It doesn’t turn out to be true, of course…

The use of anonymous letters, hidden messages, and other cryptic clues also gives the novel a sense of the Golden Age. Readers who enjoy trying to work out what such clues mean will appreciate that. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there’s even a hidden crossword puzzle that provides important information.

Because the close is its own small community, the focus is on the characters who live there. In fact, Gilbert draws a proverbial circle around that group, because the close is locked at night, and there’s a constable, Sergeant Brumfitt, who keeps watch on who goes in and out. The interactions among the characters, and their histories, play important roles in the story, so Hazlerigg and Pollock spend their share of time untangling those relationships.

This isn’t, strictly speaking, a police procedural, although both Hazlerigg and Pollock are on the police force. That said, though, the mystery is solved through gathering evidence and making sense of it, through discussions with witnesses and suspects, and through following up on alibis. Hazlerigg is painstaking, and alibis do matter in this novel, so there is a great of attention paid to those details. Readers who enjoy the challenge of having to be alert for inconsistencies will appreciate the chance to ‘match wits’ with Gilbert. Hazlerigg is also a reflective sort of an investigator, as is Pollock. So there is time spent discussing and thinking about where all of the threads of the case might lead.

This approach to storytelling is reflected in the novel’s pace. Readers who prefer a very fast-paced novel with lots of narrow escapes and ‘danger around every corner’ will notice this. Rather, Gilbert builds suspense through the creation of an eerie atmosphere, in which weather conditions, the cathedral itself, and the surrounding buildings, play roles. There are some scary moments, too. And there’s a hint of claustrophobia, since the cathedral close is a small, closed community. This, too, adds to the suspense of the novel.

Close Quarters has many of the hallmarks of a Golden Age novel. There are alibis, questions of time, a limited and suspicious group of characters, and cryptic clues. It features a distinctive setting, a cathedral with a personality of its own if I may put it that way, and a group of people who find themselves caught in an ugly case of murder. And it introduces a tenacious detective who is determined to get to the truth of the matter. But what’s your view? Have you read Close Quarters? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 16 October/Tuesday, 17 October – Blind Goddess – Anne Holt

Monday, 23 October/Tuesday, 24 October – The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin For Dimitrios – Eric Ambler

Monday, 30 October/Tuesday 31 October – Above Suspicion – Lynda La Plante

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Filed under Close Quarters, Michael Gilbert

>I Am a Living Legacy to the Leader of the Band*

>Here in the U.S. it’s Father’s Day (or soon will be, depending on where you live). A father’s relationship with his children is a unique bond; it’s quite different from the mother/child bond, and research shows that fathers play a critical role in their children’s lives. That father/child bond can be extremely strong and a real source of richness for both fathers and their sons and daughters. So it’s not surprising that there’s a day to honor fathers and all that they do for their families. It’s also not surprising that there’s quite a lot of crime fiction in which that father/child bond plays a role.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Rufus Van Aldin. He’s a very wealthy American businessman who’s devoted, above all else, to his daughter, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering. Even though she’s married and has a home of her own, he still worries for her, and likes to spoil her. When he gets the chance to buy Ruth the famous ruby, “Heart of Fire,” Van Aldin can’t resist. He buys the jewel and the necklace on which it hangs, and gives it to his daughter as a surprise. He soon finds, though, that Ruth has taken up again with a former love, a scoundrel who calls himself the Comte de la Roche. Ten years earlier, Van Aldin had forcibly ended Ruth’s relationship with the count, because he saw that the count was only after Ruth’s considerable fortune. Now that Ruth’s resumed her relationship with the count, Van Aldin is frantic with worry, and we can feel his protective instincts as he tries to stop his daughter. We can feel Ruth Kettering’s love for her father, too, as she agonizes over whether to go to meet the count. In the end, she takes the Blue Train to Hyères to meet the count, but she’s murdered on the first night of the journey. When Van Aldin finds out what’s happened, he rushes to France, and before long, he’s asked Hercule Poirot, who was on the same train, to find out who really killed Ruth. The most likely suspect is the count, but he seems to have an alibi, so Poirot looks further into the case. In the end, Poirot is able to find the murderer, and earns Van Aldin’s lifelong gratitude for that; in fact, Van Aldin’s name comes up again in other Christie works such as Death on the Nile.

In C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, we see an especially powerful and eloquent picture of a father’s devotion. Jack McGuane is the proud adoptive father of beautiful baby Angelina, His world seems complete until the awful day when he and his wife, Melissa, find out that Angelina’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never legally waived his parental rights and has decided to assert them. At first, Jack thinks this must be a terrible mistake, but then, he finds out that Garret’s powerful father, Judge Moreland, is supporting his son. Moreland has seen to it that the McGuanes have twenty-one days to relinquish custody of Angelina. Several father/child relationships are explored in a wrenching way in this novel as Jack works desperately to keep Angelina. In the end, his demotion to his child pushes Jack to do things he would never have dreamed of doing.

In Caroline Graham’s The Ghost in the Machine, we meet Mallory Lawson, who’s just inherited a fortune from his wealthy aunt, Carey Lawson. The only proviso is that he and his family move to the Lawson home and employ Carey Lawson’s former companion, Benny Frayle. This the Lawsons agree to do. Mallory Lawson’s daughter, Polly, is a headstrong young woman who soon gets herself into much more trouble than she bargained for when she thinks she’s found a way to make a fortune. When her plan fails in what for her is a frightening way, Polly disappears. Polly’s story is not the main plot of this novel, which focuses on the murder of the Lawson’s financial advisor, Dennis Brinkley. However, she does play an important role in the story, and her father’s frantic search for her and determination to help her is quite moving.

We also see a strong father/child bond in Michael Gilbert’s short story, The Amateur. In that story, Chief Inspector Hazelrigg investigates the kidnapping of David Collett, the young son of a wealthy shipping magnate. David’s father wants to be a part of the investigation, but Hazelrigg demurs at first. He gradually sees, though, that Collett is skilled, especially for someone without a law enforcement background. Collett finds out that his son is still alive, and even finds out where he’s being held. The police make plans to rescue the boy, and Collett insists on being included in the plans. In the end, Collett uses his own unique background to help the police find and free his son.

There’s also a powerful treatment of fatherhood in Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph. In fact, that’s one of the themes in the novel. Deborah St. James is despondent over not having children, but one day, on a trip to a local museum, she meets Robin Sage, the vicar of Wimslough, who gives her a real sense of peace. In fact, Deborah finds his message so positive that she convinces her husband, Simon, to take a holiday in Wimslough so they can meet the vicar again. When they get there, it’s too late; Sage has died from what seems at first like a tragic poisoning accident. St. James doesn’t believe the death was an accident, though, and asks his friend Inspector Lynley to investigate. Lynley agrees and begins to look into the backgrounds of the people of Wimslough. He finds that there’s much more to Sage’s death than a simple accident, and that several people in Wimslough are hiding some dark secrets. One of the residents of Wimslough is thirteen-year-old Maggie Spence. She’s the daughter of Juliet Spence, a local herbalist who actually served Sage the last meal he ate before he died. Juliet’s a single mother who’s never really told Maggie anything about the circumstances of her birth. Maggie is in a desperate search to find her father, and her desire to have that bond is an important aspect of this novel.

There are lots of fictional sleuths, too, who are devoted fathers, and for whom fatherhood plays an important role in their lives. For instance, Ellery Queen’s short stories and novels feature a fascinating father/child bond. Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Department and his son, Ellery, often work together on cases. They depend on each other, and we can see how they help one another. Permeating the books, too, is a sense of the respect each has for the other.

And then there’s Caroline Graham’s Inspector Tom Barnaby. His outspoken, independent daughter Cully is the proverbial apple of his eye. Cully’s a well-regarded actress who’s “butted heads” with her father more than once. Underneath the surface, though, Barnaby loves his daughter deeply, and she’s just as fond of her dad. Their relationship is an interesting and welcome thread running through the Barnaby series.

Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Reg Wexford is also a proud father. His daughters, Sheila and Sylvia, mean the world to him, even though he and Sylvia have a sometimes difficult relationship. Wexford’s feelings for his daughters comes through in novels such as The Veiled One, in which Wexford’s worried about Sheila she’s committed damage to the property of a nuclear facility as a protest. Since she’s an actress, her name and the incident will be in all the papers, and Wexford’s worried about that.

Even fictional sleuths who aren’t what you would call “family men” are devoted fathers. For instance, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus has a difficult time maintaining intimate relationships. But he’s always there for his daughter Samantha. Fathers really do play crucial roles in our lives. So if you’re a father, take some credit for the important role you play in the lives of your children. Who are your favorite crime-fictional fathers?

Oh, and the picture? That’s a ‘photo of one of the finest fathers I know: Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. The picture was taken when our daughter (who is now 19) was three. Happy Father’s Day, Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Leader of the Band.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth George, Ellery Queen, Ian Rankin, Michael Gilbert, Ruth Rendell

>…In Your Heart, There Will Always Be A Part Of Me.*

>Some of the most influential relationships we ever have are those we have with our parents and our children. The parent/child bond is so powerful that it affects nearly everything that we do, in one way or another. That may be one reason for which that bond is featured so often in crime fiction. It’s realistic to believe that someone might do just about anything – including kill – to protect one’s child. It’s realistic to believe that a parent might have so much influence over a child that the child is affected forever by what the parent says and does. Whether the bond is a healthy one or not, the parent/child bond is complex and fascinating.

There’s a saying that there is no beast more ruthless than a parent protecting its young. If you’re a parent, you know how true that statement is. Even if you’re not a parent, you can imagine. That’s why we can identify so strongly with novels in which parents protect, defend, and sometimes enable their children. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy American businessman Rufus Van Aldin’s only child, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, is the light of his life. He’ll do anything to make her happy, including using some questionable contacts to buy her the famous “Heart of Fire” ruby. The one thing Van Aldin can’t protect his daughter from, though, is her own bad judgment. When Ruth decides to take the famous Blue Train from London to France’s Iles d’Or to meet her lover, the Comte de la Roche, Van Aldin can do nothing to stop her. The Comte de la Roche has a notorious reputation and a history of stealing his lady-friends’ fortunes, and Van Aldin knows this. His warnings do no good, though, and Ruth heads off for her rendez-vous, although she’s already married to someone else. When Ruth is murdered on the train, it seems at first that the Comte de la Roche must be responsible. Soon enough, though, he’s able to establish an alibi. Hercule Poirot, who traveled by the same train, gets actively involved in the investigation when Van Aldin asks him to find out the truth. Throughout this novel, we can sense the strength of the bond between Van Aldin and his daughter, and although we can see that he’s spoiled her, we can forgive him that fault.

We also see a powerful parent/child bond in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, in which Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa, get the devastating news that the biological father of their adopted daughter, Angelina, wants her back. The McGuanes are given twenty-one days to surrender their daughter. McGuane can’t imagine why, after never having expressed an interest in Angelina, her biological father would suddenly want to assert his rights, and he suspects that something is wrong. So, with help from several friends, McGuane begins to investigate and to do everything he can to keep from having to give up his daughter. Along the way, he’s blocked at every turn by the baby’s biological father and grandfather. In this novel, we see in stark detail the lengths to which a parent will go to protect a child.

There’s also a fascinating example of that theme in Michael Gilbert’s short story, The Amateur. David Collett, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate, is kidnapped and held for ransom. His father, desperate for David’s safety and sure that he’s still alive, wants to be involved in the search for his son. Inspector Hazlerigg isn’t sure that’s a good idea, but he agrees. Collett turns out to be just as skilled in his own way as the police are, and in the end, it’s Collett’s specialized background that actually helps the team defeat the kidnappers.

That strong instinct to protect one’s child can have tragic results, too. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling death of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker while she’s at a fête. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective story writer, has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt, where contestants are given clues and a synopsis of a fictional murder, and are challenged to find out who the murderer is, what the motive is, and what the weapon was. When the Murder Hunt goes tragically wrong, Poirot and the local police inspector investigate the case. In the end, Poirot finds that Marlene Tucker’s death, and that of another character, are both caused by a parent’s misplaced loyalty to a child. The loyalty has led to a coverup that ended in two deaths.

We also see the tragjc side of parental protectiveness in Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph. Deborah St. James, wife of Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley’s friend, Simon St. James, is coping with the sense of loss she feels at having had several miscarriages. One day, she’s visiting a local museum when she meets Robin Sage, vicar of a church in the small town of Wimslough. His words give Deborah some peace, and, drawn to this vicar, she persuades her husband to take a holiday in Wimslough, so that she can meet the vicar again. When they arrive, though, they find that it’s too late. The vicar has been poisoned by water hemlock. At first, the death looks like a tragic accident. But Simon St. James isn’t sure, so he enlists Lynley’s help in finding out what really happened to the vicar. Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate the case, and find out that several people in Wimslough are keeping dark secrets, and that that fierce, protective parental instinct has led to more than one tragedy, including the death of Robin Sage.

For their part, children are also often fiercely loyal to their parents. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant, the daughter of famous painter Amyas Crale and his wife, Caroline, asks Poirot to investigate the poisoning murder of her father, who was murdered sixteen years before the novel begins. Caroline Crale was almost immediately arrested for the murder and convicted shortly after. There’s plenty of evidence against her, too, as her husband had told her he was going to leave her for another woman. The poison used in the murder was found in her possession, and she’d threatened her husband. Loyalty to her mother drives Carla Lemarchant to ask Poirot to clear Caroline Crale’s name if he can, and Poirot agrees. He asks each of the people present on the day of the murder to write an account of what happened, and uses those accounts, as well as interviews with each person, to figure out who really killed Amyas Crale and why.

There’s another example of this kind of loyalty in Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in which eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce resolves to solve the murder of a stranger whose body she finds one morning in her family’s cucumber patch. She doesn’t know who the man is, but she knows that he and her father had an argument the day before. When her father, Colonel de Luce, is arrested for the murder, Flavia is determined to clear his name. So she uses her passion for chemistry, her keen observation, and the help of several friends to find out for herself who the stranger was and who killed him.

There are many examples, of course, of crime novels that feature very dysfunctional parent/child relationships. Those, too, have powerful effects on the characters and the events of the story. For instance in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet Mrs. Boynton, an American widow who exercises a tyrannical, mentally sadistic control over her daughter and step-children. When she’s murdered, her children finally begin to learn what it’s like to enjoy the freedoms that most of us take for granted. In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, landscaper Warren Howe is murdered with his own scythe. Howe was an unpleasant person whose abuse of his children has powerful effects on them long after his death. Those effects are an important thread in the story. There are other novels, as well, where there’s a very dysfunctional parent/child bond.

Even when the parent/child bond isn’t a main theme in a novel, it’s still sometimes woven through the story. For instance, Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby dotes on his daughter, Cully, a talented actress. Cully features in several of the Barnaby novels, and it’s clear through all of them that she and her father enjoy a strong bond. Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Reg Wexford also has daughters, Sheila and Sylvia. He’s closer to Sheila than he is to Sylvia, but he loves both of his children, and that bond, too, is integrated throughout the series. We also see that bond in Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon series. Bengtzon is devoted to her children, Kalle and Ellen, and often finds herself conflicted between her role as their mother and her roles as a journalist and sleuth.

The parent/child bond permeates our lives, and is an important part of crime fiction. Do you enjoy novels that feature that bond? Which are your favorites?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel). Readers who know me are probably wondering why it took me this long to use some Billy Joel lyrics in my posts ; ).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, C.J. Box, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth George, Liza Marklund, Martin Edwards, Michael Gilbert, Ruth Rendell

>"Sucked In…"

>In real life, and in crime fiction, there are many killers who deliberately take life – by choice. They plan their murders and they commit them by choice. There are plenty of other crimes, too, that are committed by choice. There are some interesting cases, though, where people are (or at least, feel) “sucked into” being involved in crime. That is, they’re either pressured or trapped into a crime, or they’re caught by circumstances. I’m not talking here of innocent characters who are framed by a real killer. I’m talking instead about characters who commit crimes (or are involved in them) because they’ve been trapped into it. Those cases can be fascinating; it’s interesting to see how characters deal with being caught in that way. On the other hand, those stories can stretch the limits of credibility, so those sorts of plots can fall flat if there isn’t a logical reason for which someone would be pressured or trapped into being involved in a crime.

One example of being trapped in this way comes from Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. In that novel, wealthy, tyrannical Mrs. Boynton takes her family on a trip through the Middle East. A mental sadist, Mrs. Boynton has terrorized her family for years. During their tour, they take a few days to visit Petra. On the same excursion are several other tourists: a world-famous psychologist, Dr. Theodore Gerard; a brand-new doctor, Sarah King; an American friend of the Boynton family, Jefferson Cope; MP Lady Westholme; and Lady Westholme’s traveling companion, Miss Pierce. On the second day of their visit, Mrs. Boynton dies suddenly of what turns out to be digitalis poisoning. Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate and he finds out that it was Mrs. Boynton’s mental sadism that led directly to her murder. In the end, the killer was more or less trapped (at least in the killer’s view) into committing the crime.

In Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), there’s another case of being trapped into involvement in a crime. Wealthy Gordon Cloade had always promised the members of his family that they would be well provided for at his death. When he suddenly and unexpectedly marries, everyone is shocked. Matters get even more complicated when Gordon dies as the result of a wartime bomb blast. His bride, Rosaleen, and her brother, David Hunter, move into Cload’s home at Furrowbank, in the village of Warmsley Vale. Conflicts soon arise, since the other members of the family had always been given to understand that they need not worry about money. Then, to make matters even more complicated, a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden checks into a local inn, and hints that he may be Rosaleen’s long-lost husband. He tries to blackmail both sides in this conflict and one night, he’s killed. As Hercule Poirot looks into the case he finds that one person’s involvement in the case was not by choice. That person was more or less bullied into getting involved.

In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we also see an example of being involved in a crime against one’s will. Howard Van Horn, an old college friend of Queen’s, has been having a series of terrifying blackouts, during which he believes he’s committed some terrible crimes. One day, he wakes up after a blackout covered in blood, and begs Queen’s help in finding out what’s been going on. Queen agrees to do what he can. His search for answers takes him to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn’s wealthy father, Diedrich Van Horn, lives with his much-younger wife, Sally. While Queen and Van Horn are visiting, Howard has more blackouts and during one of them, Sally is murdered. Queen doesn’t believe that Howard’s guilty, and looks into the murder. What he finds out is that Howard’s been trapped into involvement with more than one crime.

There’s also an interesting case of being trapped into involvement with crime in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. That’s the story of William Decker, a former con man and gangster who’s decided to “go straight.” One night, Decker brings his toddler son into a bar where Mike Hammer happens to be having a drink. In tears, he leaves his son in the bar and goes outside, where he’s quickly gunned down. Hammer takes in the boy and resolves to find out who killed William Decker and why. As it turns out, Decker was a safecracker who’d gotten mixed up with a gang of local mobsters. At first, it appears that he’s been shot because he bungled a job he’d agreed to do for them. As Hammer digs deeper, though, he finds that there was more to Decker’s murder than that, and that Decker was, in a very real way, trapped into his involvement in crime.

In a slightly more humorous way, unemployed architect Stephen Booker gets economically trapped into getting involved in a bank robbery in Robert Pollock’s Loophoole, or How to Rob a Bank. Booker’s just lost his job and is frantic for money. One day, he meets professional safecracker Mike Daniels. When Daniels finds out what Booker’s profession is, he decides that Booker would be useful in a major bank robbery that Daniels and three of his cronies are planning. Booker is financially desperate, so he agrees to help, and the five plotters begin to plan the heist of the City Savings Deposit Bank. Everything is carefully planned, but on the day of the crime, things don’t work out as planned. In the end, Booker’s involvement in the crime shows that even the “straightest arrows” might get trapped into a crime.

There’s a very powerful example of getting trapped into crime in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa, are the proud adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. One day, their worlds are shattered when they find out from the adoption agency that arranged Angelina’s adoption that the biological father wants Angelina back. He never signed away his parental rights, so he’s legally entitled to pursue the case, but neither Jack nor Melissa can see why he’d want to do that. The father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, has never expressed interest in Angelina, even before she was adopted. So Jack and Melissa decide to fight the case. They find out soon enough that Garrett Moreland has “ammunition” of his own, as his father is a well-connected judge, and he has some friends from a local gang who are only too happy to get involved.The McGuanes have been given twenty-one days before they have to hand Angelina over, and Jack resolves to find out what’s behind Garrett Moreland’s determination to get Angelina back. His search for the truth leads him to confront the question: “How far would you go to prevent your child being taken away?” In the end, McGuane does things he never would have imagined just a few short weeks earlier.

There’s a similar story in Michael Gilbert’s short story, The Amateur. That’s the story of the kidnapping of David Collett, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate. Chief Inspector Hazlerigg is put on the case, and carefully makes plans to catch the kidnapper and save the boy. Collett, though, is desperate to save his son, so he does his own sleuthing. He finds out where the kidnappers are hiding, and that David is still alive. So, against Hazlerigg’s advice, he insists on being a part of the capture. Hazlerigg reluctantly gives in. In the end, Collett gets more involved in crime than he ever would have thought possible, driven by his desire to save his son.

When they’re well-done, crime novels can make us believe that someone would be trapped, tricked or forced by circumstances to get involved in crime – even to commit murder. But if the plot doesn’t make sense, those stories can fall flat. What’s your view? Do you enjoy books with the motif of being trapped into crime? Or do you think those plots are too implausible?

On Another Note…

Tomorrow (Saturday, 20 February), I’ll be once again in two places at the same time. I’ll be here and I’ll also be guest-blogging at Mason Canyon’s terrific blog, Thoughts in Progress. I’ll be talking about different subgenres of crime fiction….. and offering a giveaway of a signed copy of my new book, B-Very Flat. Do please stop over!

Have no fear, though, even if you don’t get a chance to stop over tomorrow; I’ll be offering a giveaway competition very soon right here, so stay tuned.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Ellery Queen, Michael Gilbert, Mickey Spillane, Robert Pollock

>Amateur Hour

>In real life, it’s most often police who investigate crimes. As Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has said more than once, the police have the resources and the skills to gather evidence. That’s even truer now, given today’s technology. There are, of course, detective agencies and private detectives, and they have special resources, too. It’s realistic to believe that these professionals would be the ones to find killers and other criminals. After all, besides their resources and skills, they’ve had training to help them stay safe. And yet, in the world of crime fiction, the amateur sleuth seems to be arguably as popular as the professional sleuth – perhaps more so. In general, crime fiction fans want to believe that the plots and characters they read about could exist, and they want some plausibility in the story. Why, then, do amateur sleuths have such followings, when it would seem that they’re the least likely sleuths in real life?

Sometimes, the amateur sleuth is believable because of what he or she does for a living. The sleuth’s profession brings him or her into contact with cases of murder and other crimes. For instance, Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon is a journalist; she’s the crime editor for the Stockholm paper, Kvällspressen. Because of what she does, Annika is often called out to crime scenes, as she is in The Bomber. In that novel, Annika is sent to Victoria Stadium, where a bomb has blown up Christina Furhage, who heads the committee that has organized the Stockholm Olympic Games. Since the bombing took place at the Olympic venue, many people think it’s a terrorist attack. However, as Annika looks in the Furhage’s death and that of Stefan Bjurling, who was killed in the same blast, she begins to believe that the two were not killed by terrorists. As she finds out about each victim’s personal life, Annika realizes that these deaths were deliberate murders.

Annika Bengtzon is believable as a sleuth in part because of her profession. So is MacKenzie “Mac” Smith. He’s a Washington, D.C. attorney who finds the killer of Andrea Feldman in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center. Smith is the family attorney for Senator Ken Ewald and his family. One night, Andrea Feldman, an Ewald staffer, is shot after a glittering fundraising event designed to support Ewald’s campaign for the presidency of the United States. Ewald’s son, Paul, is implicated in the shooting, since he was having an affair with Feldman. The gun used in the crime belongs to Senator Ewald, so it’s also possible that he was mixed up in the crime, too. Ewald asks Smith to defend his son and clear the family name if he can. As Smith digs into Andrea Feldman’s past, he finds out that the Ewalds weren’t the only ones who had motives for killing her, and he’s now under pressure to find out who killed Andrea as quickly as he can, to save Ewald’s campaign.

Profession is also the reason the reader can believe that Robin Cook’s Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery would get involved in solving murders. They’re both medical examiners who work for the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. So they see victims of all kinds of death quite frequently. It’s quite believable that unusual deaths or a series of unexplained deaths would attract their attention. That’s what happens in Contagion, when they work to find out how a group of people have unexpectedly died from a virulent strain of influenza that hadn’t been seen for many decades. All of the deaths occur at the same Manhattan hospital. Since the hospital is affiliated with a large medical insurance carrier, it’s not long before Stapleton and Montgomery conclude that the deaths are related and that they have to do with the economics of health care and health insurance. There’s a similar believability in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun novels. Dr. Siri is Laos’ chief medical examiner, so it’s quite believable that he comes into contact with unusual deaths. In The Coroner’s Lunch, for instance, Dr. Siri investigates the sudden death of the wife of Comrade Kham, who claims his wife died from accidental food poisoning. Dr. Siri suspects otherwise, and sets out to discover what really happened. He’s also called on to find out how the three Vietnamese citizens found in a Laos lake died, and how their bodies ended up in Laos. Among many other challenges, his job in both cases is complicated by the delicate political situations involved.

Sometimes, it’s not so much the amateur sleuth’s profession as it is his or her personality that makes the amateur a believable sleuth. That’s what arguably gives Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple her air of authenticity. She’s a spinster who lives in a small village and who’s interested in gardening, birds – and her neighbors. So we believe it when she gets interested in and involved with crimes that happen in the area. She’s on hand, for instance, in The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side), when famous actress Marina Rudd throws an open house party at Gossington Hall, which she’s recently bought. All of the locals, including Miss Marple, attend the party. As Marina Rudd is greeting her guests, she’s approached by Heather Badcock, who’s quite a fan. Heather is thrilled when Marina hands her a drink, but her joy is cut off when she suddenly dies of poisoning. Miss Marple’s very naturally curious, and we believe her sleuthing as she pieces together how and why Heather died.

The reader can also find an amateur sleuth believable if the context or circumstances are credible. For example, in Joanne Fluke’s first Hannah Swensen novel, The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, Hannah gets involved in the murder because the victim, a delivery man from the local dairy, is found behind Hannah’s shop, The Cookie Jar. He’s found surrounded by her cookies, too, so we believe it when Hannah wants to find out who killed him and why.

We also believe that Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis would want to find out who killed her Uncle Max in A Pedigree to Die For. In that novel, Max Turnbull, a breeder of Standard Poodles, dies one night of what looks like a heart attack. His wife, Peg, finds him in the kennel the next morning, and at first, his death seems natural. But when one of the Turnbulls’ prize Standard Poodles goes missing, Peg Turnbull thinks that there may be more to Max’s death than it seems. Besides, she wants her Poodle to be returned. So she persuades her niece, Melanie Travis, to help her figure out what happens. At first, Melanie’s reluctant to get involved; her reaction (also quite credible) is that her life is full (which it is). Besides, the police are already aware of the death; if there’s anything to find, they’ll find it. Eventually, though, she starts asking questions and soon finds that her aunt was right.

Melanie Travis’ reaction to becoming a sleuth is a clear example of another reason we love amateur sleuths, even when their involvement stretches the limits of credibility. They are us. They have families, bills, chores and money problems. They have jobs like ours and they react to life in much the way we probably would.

Amateur sleuths don’t always have the training, the skills and the contacts and access to resources that the police have. They bring unique perspectives and abilities to detection, though. Whether it’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple’s knowledge of human nature, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran’s reporter’s instinct, or something else, amateurs have their own flair. For that alone, they add much to the genre. It’s easy to underestimate them, too. For instance, Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax is frequently thought to be nonthreatening. So is Miss Marple. And Elizabeth Spann Craig’s police chief Red Clover thinks his mother, Myrtle, should be satisfied with her newspaper column, her garden, and church work. But people who underestimate amateur sleuths find to their detriment that the amateur sleuth can be very effective.

That lesson is made abundantly clear in Michael Gilbert’s short story, The Amateur. Chief Inspector Hazlerigg is drawn into the kidnapping of David Collet, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate. David’s father goes to the police with the kidnappers’ demands, and the police try to find out where the kidnapper has taken David. Hazlerigg soon finds out, though, that Mr. Collet is no mean sleuth, himself. Collet has found out where the kidnappers are and he’s discovered that David is still alive. In the end, it’s Collet’s skills that solve this mystery and, to use a cliché, save the day. In fact, Collet proves himself so capable that Hazlerigg later tells an acquaintance that he wouldn’t want Collet as an enemy.

What’s your view? Do you like amateur sleuths, or do you find their stories too improbable/ If you enjoy them, which are your favorite amateurs?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Cotterill, Dorothy Gilman, Elizabeth Spann Criag, Joanne Fluke, Laurien Berenson, Lilian Jackson Braun, Liza Marklund, Margaret Truman, Michael Gilbert, Robin Cook