Category Archives: Michael Robotham

And None Shall Ever Harm Cosette as Long as I am Living*

One way that crime writers ramp up the suspense in their novels is to put the sleuth’s loved ones in danger. The challenge with that plot point is to make the situation believable (and not melodramatic). This strategy has been used quite a bit in the genre, so authors who use it also run the risk of their stories seeming stale.

All of that said, though, it can be a useful plot point, and when it falls out naturally from the plot, it can work well. Here are just a few examples. I know you can think of many more than I can.

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four sees Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings pitted against a syndicate of four super-criminals who are bent on world domination. They’re responsible for several murders and abductions, and Poirot and Hastings know that, if they don’t catch and stop all four of the members, there will be more havoc. At one point, Hastings himself is abducted, and his wife (whom readers will remember from The Murder on the Links) is threatened. All of this spurs both Poirot and Hastings to even more action against the criminals, and Poirot, especially, uses some innovative strategies to stop them.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker decides that his family would be safer living in the suburbs than in the city where they currently live. So, he buys a house in a new suburban development called Valley Forest Estates. Everyone tries to settle in and adapt to the changed environment. But soon enough, things start to go wrong. First, Walker notices several repairs that need to be made to the new house. He goes to Valley Forest’s sales office to complain, only to witness an argument between one of the sales executives and an environmental activist. Later, he finds the activist’s body near a local creek. Before long, Walker finds that all is not as it seems in peaceful Valley Forest Estates, and he gets drawn more and more into a web of fraud and murder. At one point, his family is threatened, and placed in real danger. And that’s part of the tension that drives the plot (and Walker).

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye isn’t a part of his Joe Pickett series; it’s a standalone. In it, we meet Jack McGuane, a Travel Development Specialist for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. He and his wife, Melissa, are the loving adoptive parents of baby Angelina, whose teen mother chose to give her up for adoption. Then one day, everything changes. McGuane gets a call from the adoption agency through which he and Melissa found Angelina. It seems that her biological father never waived his parental rights and has now chosen to exercise them. At first, the McGuanes hope that the matter can be resolved. But that’s not to be. The baby’s biological father is eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, whose father, John Moreland, is a powerful local judge who’s squarely on his son’s side. The Morelands pay a ‘friendly visit’ to the McGuanes, during which Judge Moreland tries to bribe the McGuanes to give up custody of Angelina in return for the money to finance another adoption. The McGuanes refuse this, and the Morelands go from cajoling and bribes to threats, including a crude threat against Melissa. When that doesn’t work, Judge Moreland issues a court order requiring the McGuanes to relinquish custody of Angelina within twenty-one days. The McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to keep their daughter, and ‘whatever it takes’ turns out to be more than either had imagined.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin is a London psychologist who sometimes gets involved in very dark murder investigations. And some of the people he goes up against are very dangerous threats to his family. For instance, in Shatter, he is called to a bridge where Christine Wheeler is prepared to commit suicide. He tries to intervene but isn’t successful. Then, the victim’s daughter, Darcy, visits O’Loughlin. She tells him that her mother was manipulated into committing suicide. O’Loughlin doesn’t see how that could happen, but he does agree to look into the matter. Then, there’s another death. It’s now clear that a vicious killer is at work, and once O’Loughlin gets close to the truth, the killer prepares to strike very close to home. It’s a terrible situation for O’Loughlin and for his family.

And then there’s Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man, which features police detective Nick Chester. He and his family have been moved from England to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island for their own protection. Chester was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong, and now some of the people involved are determined to kill him. They settle into their new home, and Chester starts working on the disturbing case of two child abductions and murders, five years apart, that seem to have been committed by the same person. Then, there’s another abduction. Now, the investigation team know that they only have a limited time to catch the killer. And the killer has targeted Chester’s family. That’s not to mention the danger they face from Chester’s former ‘associates’ in England. He’s going to have to work fast and effectively if his family is to stay alive.

There are many other examples, too, of plot points where sleuths’ family members are in danger. Sometimes, that element of suspense and tension works very successfully. Other times, of course, it can be overdone and pull the reader out of the story. These are only a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Fantine’s Death (Come to Me).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Carter, C.J. Box, Linwood Barclay, Michael Robotham

Now, Can You Tell Me What’s Ailin’ Me?*

Visiting the doctor is a really interesting phenomenon. Apart from the odd power relationship, there’s a deep and private communication that goes on between doctor and patient. In fact, those communications are protected under privacy laws except under very specific and unusual circumstances. An appointment with a doctor can be routine or can be highly charged. Either way, it’s a part of life.

Doctor appointments can make very interesting plot moments in crime novels, too. They can serve to move a plot along, or to add character layers. They can be important aspects of a plot, too. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of others.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we are introduced to a dentist named Henry Morley. One particular morning, he has several patients, including Hercule Poirot. Late in the morning, he is shot in his surgery. Chief Inspector Japp investigates the case, and we soon learn that this could be a complicated situation. It seems that another of Morley’s patients that day was a powerful banker named Alistair Blunt. He’s made several enemies, and it’s not outrageous to believe that someone might take advantage of the vulnerability a person has while in the dentist’s chair. Then, another patient of Morley’s dies of an overdose of anaesthetic. And another goes missing. As though that’s not enough, Japp is pulled off the case, because it may have something to do with an espionage operative whose identity the Home Office needs to protect. But Poirot is not similarly restricted, and he continues to investigate. In the end, he finds that this case is both simpler and more complex than it seems. And it’s interesting to see how the different characters react to being in the doctor’s office. I see you, fans of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

One of the main plot lines in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola begins with a visit to a doctor. Inspector Reg Wexford visits his doctor, Raymond Akande. It’s a normal sort of visit – Wexford’s health isn’t in jeopardy. But not long afterwards, he gets a call from Akande. It seems that Akande’s daughter, Melanie, went missing after a visit to the local employment bureau, and she hasn’t been home since. At first, Wexford isn’t inclined to panic. Melanie is twenty-two – an adult who could have any number of reasons to go somewhere else for a few days. But Akande persuades Wexford to at least look into the matter. Not long afterwards, the woman with whom Melanie had her employment bureau appointment is found murdered. Then, a young woman is found dead in a local wood. At first, Wexford thinks it might be Melanie. It turns out to be someone else, though, and now Wexford has three difficult cases to solve.

Michael Robotham’s The Suspect introduces his sleuth, Dr. Joe O’Loughlin. He is a psychologist whose profession often gets him involved in cases. He also has Parkinson’s Disease, which means he goes for regular visits to a neurologist, Dr. Emlyn Robert ‘Jock’ Owens. Jock is a no-nonsense sort of a doctor, who knows his patient quite well. As a matter of fact, they mix socially; O’Loughlin’s wife, Julianne, even dated Owens at one point. It can be a tense relationship, especially when Julianne is discussed, or when Jock has bad news to share. But it’s also a really interesting look at one side of O’Loughlin’s character.

In Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood, we meet London investigator Catherine Berlin. Among other things, she is a registered heroin addict who’s supplied by Dr. George Lazenby under the registered addicts’ program. In one plot line of this novel, she goes to his office early one evening to keep a regular appointment. When she gets there, she finds that he’s been murdered, and she’s been set up as a likely suspect. What’s worse, with Lazenby dead, she now has no legal supply of heroin until she finds a new doctor under the program. This leaves her with only a week’s supply of the drug. This case is very probably related to another case Berlin is working. She’s been investigating a loan-shark operation run by Archie Doyle. Not long ago, she was working with an informant who called herself Juliet Bravo. Then, Bravo was murdered, and her body found in Limehouse Basin. Berlin wants to find out who that killer is, and how it’s related to Lazenby’s murder. But she’s going to have to act quickly, because there are some dangerous people who don’t want her to succeed.

And then there’s Eoin Colfer’s Plugged. Daniel McEvoy is ex-pat Irish, who worked for a time as a Middle East peacekeeper. Now, he works security at a sleazy nightclub called Slotz, in the fictional town of Cloisters, New Jersey. In one plot thread of this novel, he goes to visit his friend and hair replacement doctor, Zebulon ‘Zeb’ Kronski, whom he met while he was in the Middle East. While he’s waiting for Kronski, McEvoy encounters Macey Barrett, an ‘enforcer’ for local gangster Mike Madden. It’s obvious that something is going on between Madden and Kronski, but McEvoy doesn’t want to get involved in that mess. He has no choice, though, when Barrett tries to kill him, and his only option is to defend himself. Now, he’s got a tough, powerful gangster after him. What’s worse, Kronski’s gone missing. McEvoy will have to try to stay alive long enough to clear his name and find his friend.

Meetings in doctors’ offices can lead in all sorts of directions. And they’re a part of most of our lives. Little wonder that they show up as they do in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rudy Clark and Arthur Resnick’s Good Lovin’.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Annie Hauxwell, Eoin Colfer, Michael Robotham, Ruth Rendell

After All This Time You’re Still Asking Questions*

Even after a jury renders its verdict, that doesn’t mean a case goes away. The real truth about some cases doesn’t always come out, which means there are lingering questions about its outcome. We’ve certainly seen that in real life. For example, in 1892, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Borden was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother. And there are several theories as to who was really responsible. But at the same time, plenty of people continued to believe she was guilty. And there are historians who think the same thing.

The same questions come up in crime fiction, and it’s interesting to see the roles they can play in the genre. Those lingering questions can be the basis for a legal appeal. Or, they can prompt Cold Case teams to look into the case again. Sleuths, too, can be drawn into cases because of those questions.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned one afternoon. His wife, Caroline, is the main suspect, and she certainly has motive. She is tried for the crime, and is defended by a very skilled lawyer. But she’s found guilty and sent to prison, where she dies a year later. Most people don’t question the jury’s verdict, either. But years later, the Crales’ daughter, Carla, does. She believes that her mother was innocent, and she questions the outcome of the trial. She hires Hercule Poirot to take the case and find out who the real killer is. Slowly, he learns that there were a few questions at the time, but even those who thought Caroline Crale might be innocent faced one major challenge: if it wasn’t Caroline, then who else had a motive? Poirot gets written accounts of the murder from the people who were there at the time; he interviews them, too. That information leads him to the truth about the murder.

In Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life, Superintendent Andy Dalziel returns to a 1963 case – the murder of Pamela Westrup. At the time, Cissy Kohler was arrested, tried, and convicted in connection with the crime. But there were always some questions about whether she was guilty. Now, she’s been released from prison, and the questions continue to mount. There’s talk that she was innocent, but that the investigator in charge of the case, Wally Tallentire, hid evidence that would have supported her case. Dalziel is sure that’s not true, though, and it’s no small matter that Tallentire was his mentor, so he has a personal stake in the case. Dalziel goes back over the events in questions, and slowly gets to the truth about the Westrup murder.

Michael Robotham’s Lost features the case of seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle. Three years earlier, Mickey went missing. Everyone thinks that she was abducted and killed by a paedophile named Harold Wavell. In fact, Wavell was arrested, tried and imprisoned for the crime. But there are still questions about the case. Was Wavell really guilty? If not, what happened to the child?  Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz is looking into the case, when he is badly injured. After the injury, he has little memory of what happened. But, with help from psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, Ruiz slowly begins to recover his memories of the case. Once he does, he is able to find out the truth about Mickey.

Paddy Richardson’s Wellington-based journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of lingering questions about a case in Traces of Red. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for murdering his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the murders. There are lingering questions about the case, though. Was Bligh really guilty? There is some evidence that suggests he might be innocent. If he is, then this could be the story to ensure Thorne’s place at the top of New Zealand journalism. She starts looking into the case again and finds herself getting much closer to it than even she thinks is wise. In the end, she learns the truth, but it’s definitely at a cost.

In Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland with her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ She’s not particularly eager to make the trip, but it’s important to Yossi, so she goes along with the plan. There’s a good reason, too, for which Claire doesn’t want to go back to Auckland. In 1970, her father, Patrick, was arrested and imprisoned in connection with the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips. There was never enough evidence to make a conviction stick, so he didn’t remain in prison. But there are still plenty of people who think he’s guilty. And there are a lot of questions about the trial and about the disappearance. Still, Claire goes back to Auckland with her family. Then, she gets involved in a very high-profile case. A two-year-old in her care is diagnosed with a tumour. His parents object to any surgery on religious grounds, and this puts them squarely up against the hospital. It’s a difficult matter, and it puts Claire in exactly the situation she didn’t want: under the proverbial microscope. Her father’s case is made much of in the media, and all of the questions surrounding it are dragged out again.

There are certain cases like that, though – cases where there’s been an arrest, and possibly a trial and conviction, but there are still questions. Such situations can make for interesting plot lines in a crime novel. And in real life, those cases can make for much speculation.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Goldfinger’s Anything.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Michael Robotham, Paddy Richardson, Reginald Hill, Sue Younger

Still Trying to Clear My Name*

One of the tropes we see in crime fiction is the plot point where the sleuth is accused, or at least, suspected, of the crime that’s under investigation. It’s not easy to pull off, since readers know that the sleuth is not likely to be guilty (and didn’t Agatha Christie turn that one on its head!).

When it’s done well, though, having the sleuth suspected of crime adds tension to the story. And it gives the sleuth an added incentive to investigate. This trope turns up in all sorts of crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when one of the other passengers, Marie Morisot, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other people in the cabin, so Chief Inspector Japp concentrates his attention on them. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Poirot isn’t guilty. But at the coroner’s inquest, he’s considered quite a suspicious character, and the jury returns a verdict against him. The coroner doesn’t accept the verdict, and Poirot is at no risk of being arrested. But, as he says,
 

‘‘…I must set to work and clear my character.’’
 

And that’s exactly what he does.

In Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That?, Charles Paris gets a new acting job – a ‘play as cast’ part in the Pintero Theatre’s upcoming production of The Scottish Play. One day, rehearsals go particularly badly, and the entire cast goes out to drown their sorrows. Paris comes back to the theatre afterwards, quite a bit the worse for wear, and falls asleep there. He wakes up just after three in the morning, to find that he’s been locked in to the building. And then he finds the body of Warnock Belvedere, who had the role of Duncan. Paris knows that things don’t look good for him. He’s innocent, but he doesn’t expect the police to believe him. So, he avoids them as much as he can, for as long as he can. He also starts looking for the real murderer, so he can clear his name. It’s not going to be easy, though, as just about everyone in the production had a reason to want the victim dead.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, we are introduced to psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. When the body of a former patient is pulled from London’s Grand Union Canal, Inspector Vincent Ruiz investigates. As it happens, O’Loughlin was close to the scene when the body was discovered. And the victim is someone he knew. So, Ruiz asks for his help in finding a possible motive. But the more evidence he finds, the more it seems that O’Loughlin knows more than he is saying about this murder. Then, there are other murders, and O’Loughlin is implicated. Now, he’s going to have to find out the truth and persuade Ruiz of it if he’s to clear his name. And that truth turns out to be very dangerous.

Denise Mina’s Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell begins with Garnethill. In it, O’Donnell wakes up one morning after a long night of drinking. She discovers the body of her former boyfriend, Douglas Brodie, in her living room. It’s not long before she comes ‘a person of interest,’ and then an official suspect, in the case. For one thing, there’s the obvious: the body was found in her home, and she can give no explanation. For another, she’d recently found out that Brodie was married. And then there’s the fact of her fragile mental health. She knows that the police aren’t going to believe she’s innocent, and that she’ll likely end up in prison. So, she decides to find out who the killer is, so she can clear her name.

When we first meet her, in The Salaryman’s Wife, Sujata Masesy’s Rei Shimura is an antiques dealer and expert who lives and works in Tokyo. She also teaches English to help make ends meet. She decides to treat herself to a New Year’s holiday at a traditional B&B near Shiroyama, in the Japanese Alps. All goes well enough until the morning when Shimura discovers the body of Setsuko Nakamura, one of the other guests. Captain Jiro Okuhara is assigned to the case, and he and his team begin their work. Shimura is a ‘person of interest’ to begin with, since she discovered the body. And Okuhara isn’t entirely convinced that her account of what happened is really the truth. Still, there are several other suspects, and Shimura isn’t immediately accused. Soon, however, another guest, attorney Hugh Glendinning, is. In fact, he’s charged with the crime. He says he’s innocent, and Shimura wants to believe him, not least because she is attracted to him. Partly to clear her own name, and partly to clear Glendinning’s, if he is innocent, Shimura starts her own search for the truth. And it turns that search is a lot more dangerous than she’d thought.

And then there’s Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue, which introduces her sleuth, Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan. She’s a criminologist and academician who teaches at the University of Vancouver. When an injury leaves a colleague unable to deliver a paper at an upcoming symposium, Morgan takes his place. The symposium is in Nice, so she’s looking forward to the trip. While she’s in Nice, she encounters a former employer, Alistair Townsend. Townsend remembers her, and invites her to his wife, Tamsin’s, birthday party. Morgan doesn’t want to attend, since her relationship with Townsend was not at all a pleasant one. He insists, though, so she finally agrees. During the party, Townsend collapses and dies of what turns out to be digitalis poisoning. Captain Moreau and Lieutenant Bertrand take over the investigation. Morgan is the only ‘outsider.’ She had no regular access to the victim (and so, would take advantage of an event like the party) and has made no secret of the fact that she hated him. So, the police pay a fair amount of attention to her as a likely suspect. Mostly to clear her own name, Morgan starts asking questions, and finds that plenty of people had a good reason to want Townsend dead.

Being accused of murder can add a strong motive for the sleuth to investigate. And it can add tension to a story. There are plenty of examples in the genre; these are just a few…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Chris Rea.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, Denise Mina, Michael Robotham, Simon Brett, Sujata Massey

Unknown Enemy*

There are a number of ways to build tension and suspense in a crime novel. And that suspense is an important part of keeping the novel engaging for readers. One of the approaches crime writers sometimes use is to include what you might call an unknown enemy.

I’m not talking here of the evil villain out to take over the world. Rather, I mean situations where a character is targeted by an unknown person. If you think about it, that is an eerie feeling. Most of have a fairly good sense of who might be gunning for us. But what if you had no idea who was targeting you? That anxiety, and the wondering whom to trust, would likely add to your unease.

We see that in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, we are introduced to Jerry Burton and his sister, Joanna. They’ve recently moved to the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can continue his recovery from a wartime injury. They’ve not been there long when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, the Burtons learn that they’re not the only victims. Other people in town are also receiving such ‘poison pen’ letters, and it’s got everyone upset. Then, a letter to a local solicitor’s wife leads to a suicide. And then there’s a murder. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case when the local vicar’s wife, who knows her, suggests she might be able to help. Part of the tension of the novel comes from the fact that people don’t know who this unknown enemy is, and why that person might be targeting them.

There’s a similar plot point in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. Amsterdam Inspector Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small town of Zwinderen to help with an unusual problem. Several people in town have received ugly anonymous letters. This is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so one’s local reputation matters a lot. The tension caused by the letters is so high that the result has been two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t made much progress, so it’s hoped that Van der Valk will be able to help. And in the end, he and his wife, Arlette, find out who wrote the letters and why. One important cause of unease in the novel is that the local residents don’t know who their enemy is, if I may put it that way.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, we are introduced to London psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. He gets involved in a murder case when the body of a former client, Catherine McBride, is pulled from Grand Union Canal. Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz wants whatever insights O’Loughlin may have about this case, so he persuades a very reluctant O’Loughlin to help out. Then, there’s another murder – one that very much implicates O’Loughlin. Now, Ruiz actively wonders whether his consultant may know more about the case than he’s letting on. What’s more, the leads that O’Loughlin has given Ruiz don’t seem to pan out. Before long, it’s clear that someone has set O’Loughlin up, and is framing him for multiple murders. The problem is, O’Loughlin doesn’t know who would deliberately target him. He’ll have to go back to his own past, and go after a very dangerous killer, if he’s going to clear his name. And part of the suspense as he does so comes from the fact that he doesn’t know who’s after him.

Neither does Merete Lynnggard, who is featured in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). In the novel, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck is assigned to head up a new police initiative, ‘Department Q.’ This new department will be devoted to cases ‘of special interest’ (i.e. cold cases), and is at least in part designed as a way to demonstrate that the police take all of their investigations seriously. Shortly after Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad take up their duties, they begin to look into the five-year-old disappearance of Lynnggard, who was a promising politician. Everyone thought that she went overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But new evidence suggests that she may still be alive. If so, Mørck and Assad may not have much time to find her. I can say without spoiling the story that part of its tension comes from the fact that Lynnggard didn’t even know who was targeting her.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder, the first of her series featuring research assistant Verity Long. She works for famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport, who uses old cases as inspiration for her novels. When Long goes house-hunting, she discovers the body of well-known TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Badly shaken up by the experience, she’s happy on one level to let the police handle the investigation. At the same time, though, she found the body, so like it or not, she is involved. And she’s both curious and skilled as a researcher. So, she starts to ask questions. And it’s not long before she runs into serious danger. More than once in the story, it’s clear that someone is targeting her. And part of the suspense comes from the fact that she doesn’t know her enemy.

There are, of course, a lot of other crime novels in which someone has a secret enemy. That plot point can add suspense, even drama, to a story if it’s done effectively. And it can add to character development.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by CKY.

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Lynda Wilcox, Michael Robotham, Nicolas Freeling