Category Archives: Michael Stanley

He Does Love His Numbers*

Pi DayAs I write and post this, it’s 14 March (3.14), also known as Pi Day. Even if you hated maths in school, it’s hard to deny the importance of mathematical principles in life. They help us understand quite a lot about our universe; and we use them constantly, whether it’s following a recipe, keeping track of bank accounts, or deciding how much space we’ll need in that new place. The other thing about mathematics is that much of it is quite objective. Two of something, plus two more of that same something, equals four of that something. For those who like the objective and the clear (as opposed to the subjective and ambiguous), that can be quite refreshing.

Mathematics finds its way into just about everything, including music and poetry. So it’s little wonder we find a lot of mathematics and mathematicians in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, is a brilliant mathematician. Here is what Holmes says about him in The Adventure of the Final Problem:
 

‘‘He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him.’’
 

As Holmes goes on to explain, though, Moriarty has a dark side and is now London’s top criminal leader. In this story, Holmes and Watson find the man such a dangerous enemy that they end up having to leave London for a time. They end up in Switzerland, where Holmes and Moriarty have a climactic meeting at the Reichenbach Falls. Of course, if you are a fan of these stories, you’ll know the saga doesn’t end there…

Plenty of the action in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The school is very capably run by Honoria Bulstrode. But she depends very much on Miss Chadwick, the mathematics mistress and the co-founder of the school. Miss Chadwick is a bit vague when she talks and she’s hardly a fashionable dresser. But she is a brilliant mathematician, and passionately devoted to the school. When games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion, Miss Chadwick is one of the two people who discover the body. Then, there’s a disappearance. And another murder. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, discovers an important clue to the events at the school. She visits Hercule Poirot, who knows a good friend of her mother’s, and tells him what she knows. Poirot goes back to Meadowbank with her to investigate; and in the end, he finds out the connection between the murders, the disappearance, and a revolution in a Middle East country.

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), we are introduced to Smilla Jaspersen. She’s half-Inuit and half-Danish, but was originally raised among her mother’s people on Greenland. She’s since moved to Copenhagen and, after a troubled childhood and adolescence, has become a mathematician and scientist. She forms a friendship with a young boy Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in the same building and is also a Greenlander. When Isaiah falls (or jumps, or is pushed) from the roof of the building, Smilla takes a special interest in his death. The police account is that the boy was playing on the roof and accidentally fell. But that’s not what the snow patterns say. So Smilla begins to ask some questions. The trail leads back to Greenland and to a particular expedition there. And it’s mathematics, science and a deep knowledge of snow and ice that give Smilla the answers.

Keigo Higashino also uses mathematics in his series featuring physicist/mathematician Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In The Devotion of Suspect X, Tokyo police officer Shunpei Kasanagi investigates the murder of Shinji Togashi. The victim’s ex-wife Yasuko Hanaoka comes under suspicion, but Kasanagi can’t find any really good evidence to connect her with the crime. So he brings in Galileo to consult on the case. It’s not long before Galileo sees that he is up against a formidable opponent (and former college mate) Tetsuya Ishigami, a mathematics teacher who lives in the same building as Yasuko Hanaoka. Ishigami has fallen in love with her and would do anything to protect her. In this case, mathematics and physics are woven throughout the novel.

There are also mathematics-related mysteries intended for younger readers. For instance, Leith Hathout’s Crimes and Mathdemeanors is a collection of stories featuring fourteen-year-old Ravi, a math genius who helps the local police solve crimes. Readers who remember the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries will find this a similar sort of context. What’s interesting in this collection is that mathematics principles are used to solve the cases.

There are even crime writers who are mathematicians. For instance, fans of the Michael Stanley writing duo’s Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series may know that one half of that duo, Michael Sears, is a mathematician. His specialty was applied mathematics (e.g. image analysis and ecological modeling).

So you see? Mathematics is everywhere, including crime fiction. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll have a piece of π.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kate Bush’s π.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Keigo Higashino, Leith Hathout, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Peter Høeg

It’s a Light and Tumble Journey*

Wildlife SanctuariesI’ve been fortunate enough to visit animal preserves and sanctuaries on three different continents. They can be breathtakingly beautiful places, and certainly give one a perspective on a lot of things. At least they do me. And it is fascinating to see all sorts of animals that you can’t see anywhere else.

But animal preserves and sanctuaries have a dangerous side to them too. There are all sorts of political and economic issues around them, and that’s to say nothing of the animals themselves. So it’s no wonder that this setting comes up in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you can think of lots more than I could.

Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon is a US National Park Service Ranger. In that capacity, she is sent to a variety of different US parks and preserves, and she knows first-hand how dangerous those places can be. For instance, in Track of the Cat, she’s been assigned to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There she discovers the body of a fellow ranger Sheila Drury one morning. At first, it looks as though Drury was killed by a mountain lion, and there’s the local outcry about it that you’d expect. It doesn’t help matters that the locals have never liked the fact that mountain lions living within the boundaries of the national park are off limits to hunters. They resent what they see as the damage caused by the animals and the government’s unwillingness to protect their land. Pigeon isn’t so sure that the culprit was a lion though, and she certainly doesn’t want mountain lions to become the targets of hunters. So she begins to ask questions. In the process she discovers that the victim’s death had a very human cause…

Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest national park, features in Vicki Delany’s Under Cold Stone. In that novel, Lucy ‘Lucky’ Smith and her partner Paul Keller (Trafalgar, British Columbia’s Chief Constable of Police) have decided to take a trip to Banff, in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Their plan is for some relaxing ‘just the two of us’ time. But that’s not how it works out. Keller’s estranged son Matt disappears. And since he’s experienced at camping and living in the outdoors, he could be anywhere and it would be very hard to find him. What’s more, he may very well be guilty of murder. Banff isn’t within the jurisdiction of Lucky’s daughter, Trafalgar Police Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. But she travels there to be of whatever support she can to her mother. Then Matt’s girlfriend begs her to clear his name, claiming that he’s innocent. So Molly begins to ask some questions. And you thought bears, cougars and wolverines were the biggest living threats in the park…

In Michael Sears’ and Stanley Trollip’s (AKA Michael Stanley) A Carrion Death, Professor of Ecology Benani Sibisi has taken a trip to Dale’s Camp, on the verge of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. He’s out in the field one day when he discovers the body of an unknown man. At first it looks as though the man was killed by wild animals; certainly hyenas have already paid the body a visit. Botswana CID Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to the scene and supervises sending the remains for forensics testing, mostly to try to identify the victim. Results of that testing suggest that the man was murdered. Now it’s even more important to find out who he was and what he was doing at the Reserve. So Kubu and his team begin to look more closely into the case. They find a connection between the dead man and the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), a powerful voice in the country’s economic and political arenas. That connection makes this case delicate, since the Botswana government has a major interest in making sure that the company remains a going concern. In the end, though, Kubu is able to find out who the dead man was and how his murder is related to events and interactions at BCMC.

Much of Michael Allan Mallory and Marilyn Victor’s Killer Instinct takes place at the Minnesota Wolf Institute (MWI), which in part functions as a preserve for wolves. Zookeeper Lavender ‘Snake’ Jones is invited to the MWI to film an episode of her television documentary series Zoofari. When she arrives, she finds herself in the middle of a dangerous controversy. Her friend Gina Brown, a biologist associated with the MWI, is a passionate defender of wolves and their preservation. That pits Brown against several locals, led by Ivar Bjorkland, who want to see the wolves exterminated. In fact, they have a very public dispute about the matter when four wolves are illegally killed. Then, Bjorkland is found murdered. Jones is worried that her friend might have been involved in the killing, although she doesn’t want to think so. Then there’s another murder. And another. Now Jones has to help clear her friend’s name and stop the killer before there’s another death. Wolves are by no means the most dangerous species in this novel…

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out the truth about her missing brother Jacobus. He disappeared twenty-five years earlier in what everyone thought was a skirmish with poachers. But now Emma thinks he’s still alive. So she wants to trace his history from Kruger National Park, his last known whereabouts. She and Lemmer arrive in the area only to find out that this is much more than the case of a man who was killed by dangerous poachers. In the end, they find out that the truth about Jacobus le Roux is related to coverups, corruption and ugly realities about politics and environmentalism. Along the way, they visit more than one animal preserve, and it’s interesting to read the different perspectives and views on taking care of South Africa’s unique ecosytems while at the same time nurturing the economy.

New Zealand’s Rimutaka State Forest is the scene of some of the action in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Wellington missing person expert Diane Rowe is hired by Inspector Frank McFay to trace the identity of a ‘John Doe’ whose body has been found in the forest. There isn’t much to go on at first, but with the help of pathologist Grant ‘Smithy’ Smith, Rowe slowly learns that the man was in his twenties when he died, and that he died sometime during the early1970s. Bit by bit, Rowe puts the pieces together and finds out who the man was. At the same time, she’s on another case of her own choosing. Her sister Niki was murdered a year ago. Now, the man who claims he was paid to kill Niki has himself been murdered in the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed the ‘hit man,’ she’ll find out who’s responsible for her sister’s murder. Although the wildlife in the forest doesn’t hold the key to Niki’s death, the forest does have its role to play in the events in the story.

And that’s thing about animal preserves and sanctuaries. They can seem like peaceful places, and their natural beauty is practically unmatched. But safe? Erm – possibly not. I’ve only had space here to mention a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Ann Cleeves’ The Crow Trap and Blue Lightning). Which stories with this context have stayed in your mind?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s At the Zoo.

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Filed under Ann Cleeves, Deon Meyer, Donna Malane, Marilyn Victor, Michael Allan Mallory, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Nevada Barr, Stanley Trollip, Vicki Delany

Somebody Help Me Tame This Animal*

Creating a MonsterOne of the things that crime fiction teaches is that we’re never quite as much in control as we might like to think we are. And that’s an unsettling thought. But it can make for solid suspense and tension in a crime novel. There are lots of cases for instance where characters think they can manage a situation or even another character, only to find they’ve created a monster as the saying goes. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death, Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to the scene when a body is discovered not far from Dale’s Camp. It’s hard to determine the cause of death at first, since hyenas found the body before humans did. And on the surface it looks as though the victim simply strayed too far from camp and was attacked by animals. But Kubu isn’t so sure, and forensic evidence supports the idea that this may have been murder. The trail leads to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), and that creates its own problems. The Botswana government considers BCMC essential for its economy, and there’s no desire to embarrass anyone who works there, especially not those at the top. But then there’s another murder, also with company connections. And another. In the end, Kubu and his team find out who’s behind the murders and how it all relates both to past history and to BCMC. And it turns out that someone’s ‘business arrangement’ has created a monster.

There’s also a sort of arrangement that leads to a monster being created in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano is a Buenos Aires cop in the Argentina of the late 1970s, a time and place when it’s very dangerous to navigate life. Early one morning, he gets a call about two bodies that have been found by a river bank. Both murders bear the hallmark of an Army hit, and Lescano knows the consequences of speaking up about them. But he also finds a third body – one that wasn’t reported. It turns out that this dead man is Elías Biterman, a successful moneylender and pawnbroker. Lescano soon learns that some very important people do not want the truth about this murder to come out, and there is a great deal of pressure on him to leave it all alone. But he perseveres and we learn the truth about what really happened. This murder and others that occur in the novel are in part the tragic consequence of someone who didn’t have nearly as much control of a situation as was thought.

That’s also true in Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). Very late one night, Sanna Stråndgard discovers the body of her brother Viktor in the Church of the Source of All our Strength. Stråndgard was a very popular, almost cult-like figure among the locals of Kiruna and outlying areas, and he was becoming very well-known in the rest of Sweden too. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much motive, since he had so many devotees. Sanna is distraught, and turns to her former friend, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson, for help. Martinsson has no desire to return to her home town of Kiruna, but for Sanna’s sake she reluctantly does so. Then, the police get some evidence that Sanna herself may be the killer. She claims that she’s innocent though, and begs Martinsson to defend her. For various reasons Martinsson would really like to have no part in this. But Sanna has two daughters and Martinsson doesn’t want them turned over to the state. So she agrees to represent Sanna. That’s how she meets police investigators Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke. At first uneasily, but later willingly, they work find out who the killer is. In the end, we see a clear example of how proverbial monsters can be created.

In Sulari Gentill’s  A Few Right Thinking Men, we meet artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred. They’re very different people and often don’t get along. Both are devastated though when their uncle, also named Rowland, is bludgeoned one night. At first, the police suspect that the victim’s housekeeper may have had something to do with the killing, but Rowly is certain she’s completely innocent. So he begins to ask questions. He soon learns that his uncle’s murder might be connected with a far-right group called the New Guard. This group seeks to stamp out communism and any left-leaning sympathy and create a new society run by ‘a few right thinking men.’ Rowly decides that the only way to learn the truth about the murder is to infiltrate the group, so he contrives a commission from the group’s leader, Colonel Eric Campbell, to paint his portrait. Little by little, Rowly learns the truth about what happened to his uncle. And as he gets closer to the group’s top members, he also learns the group’s ultimate plans. This too is a case of a monster being created.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer is the story of poet Tapani Lehtinen and his wife Johanna, who is a news reporter. In their world, climate change has wreaked havoc on the world, leaving millions of climate refugees. Little is done to maintain order and society is quickly descending into anarchy. Against this backdrop, Johanna is pursuing a story about a man who calls himself the Healer. He claims to be responsible for the murders of several CEOs of corporations that he believes are guilty of the ongoing destruction of the planet. The idea of the murders is to avenge those affected by this devastation and to call attention to it. When Johanna disappears, Lehtinen decides that the best way to trace her is to follow the story she was working on, and he begins to do just that. Little by little he learns the truth about the Healer and as he does so, he also gets closer to knowing what happened to his wife. In the end we see that someone created a monster, which led to some tragic and unintended consequences.

Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear introduces readers to Paul Fowler. One hot afternoon, he and some friends are tossing a football around in a local park when he suddenly collapses and dies. Soon enough it’s established that he was shot, sniper-style, and New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare investigate. They begin with Fowler’s ex-wife Trina and his friends and business associates. As they interview and follow up with these people they learn that Fowler had a hidden side to his life and that some people aren’t telling everything they know about it. When the police finally find out who killed Fowler and why, we see that sometimes, when you create a monster, it turns on you…

There are a lot of other examples of this plot point in crime fiction. It’s an effective one for the genre, and I’ve only had space here for a few instances. Your turn.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Three Days’ Grace’s Animal I Have Become.

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Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Åsa Larsson, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip, Sulari Gentill

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer

Mommy’s All Right, Daddy’s All Right, They Just Seem a Little Weird*

Dysfunctional Wealthy FamiliesLet’s face it; dysfunction and worse can happen in any family, no matter what the family’s socioeconomic level is, or where the family lives. But as any crime fiction fan can tell you, it seems that the richer and more powerful a family is, the more likely it is to be plagued by real dysfunction. Not being a family therapist or psychologist, I can’t say exactly why that is. It may be the pressure of being at the top of the proverbial social tree. It may be that being able to have anything one wants removes social restraints. Or it may be something else. But whatever the reason, there seems to be an awful lot of emptiness, unhappiness and worse among wealthy and influential families. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean (but you probably know it already).

Agatha Christie addresses this issue in several of her novels. For example, there’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGilliguddy Saw!). When Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a woman being strangled on a train, no-one wants to believe it really happened. There is no body, and no-one’s reported anyone missing who fits the description of the victim. But Mrs. McGillicuddy’s friend Miss Marple believes her. Miss Marple establishes that if there was a body, it probably ended up on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, the property of the Crackenthorpe family. With help from her friend professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple discovers the connection between the dead woman and the Crackenthorpes. In the process, we get to know the various members of this wealthy family, and there’s plenty of dysfunction, spite and worse to go round. And that’s just one instance of Christie’s treatment of the topic (I know, I know, Christie fans. There’s the Leonides family, the Lee family, the Abernethie family…)

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe gets involved with a very wealthy, powerful and dysfunctional family in The Big Sleep. It all starts when General Guy Sternwood hires Marlowe to stop book dealer Arthur Geiger from blackmailing the family. Marlowe goes to visit Geiger only to find out that he’s too late: Geiger’s just been murdered. In the same room is Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Is she a murderer or a victim? She’s in such a dazed (or drugged) state that she can’t be much help, but Marlowe doesn’t think she’s a killer. So he gets her away from the scene as quickly as possible. He thinks his involvement with the family ends there, but really, it’s only beginning. One of the threads that run through this novel is the decadence and dysfunction in the family. Here for instance is what Sternwood says about his own daughters:

 

‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’

 

Not exactly a healthy family…

Neither is the Wynant family, whom we meet in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. Nick and Nora Charles have come from their home in San Francisco to visit New York. Dorothy Wynant happens to spot Nick and immediately asks for his help. She hasn’t seen her father Claude since his not-exactly-amicable breakup with her mother Mimi, and she’d like to track him down. Nick is at first reluctant to take on the case. Then, Claude Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is murdered and before he knows it, Nick’s drawn into the case. He’s also drawn into the Wynant family circle and it’s not exactly a happy one. For one thing, Mimi Wynant cannot seem to tell the truth about anything. And there’s all sorts of dislike and spite in the family too. That dysfunction makes for an interesting thread of tension in the novel.

Michael Dibdin’s Ratking introduces us to the Miletti family. This is an extremely powerful family that basically runs things in and around Perugia. Then, family patriarch Ruggiero Miletti is abducted. With a family that powerful, the police naturally get involved right away, even though the family is wary of ‘interference.’ Finally, the Perugia Questura requests assistance and Aurelio Zen is seconded from Rome to take over the investigation. As he gets to know the members of the family, we learn just how much dysfunction there is in the group. Each member has a personal agenda, and the layers of hatred, greed and malice run very deep. Not at all the kind of family with whom one wants to spend holidays…

That’s also true of the Hofmeyr family, whom we meet in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. This very powerful family has the controlling interest in the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), which is considered extremely important to the country’s economy. When the body of an unknown man is discovered near rural Dale’s Camp, Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu launches an investigation to find out who the man was and how exactly he died. It’s not very long before Bengu finds a connection between the dead man and BCMC, so he begins to suspect that someone at the company may have had something to do with the death. This brings him into direct conflict with the wealthy and powerful Hofmeyrs, to say nothing of the Botswana authorities who have a vested interest in the company’s success. As Bengu and his team get to the truth, we get to know the Hofmeyr family, and there is plenty of dysfunction in it. What makes this case even more interesting is that the family tries hard to maintain an image of unity.

In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, we meet the members of the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth and her brother Jason take a skiing holiday with four friends in Trafalgar, British Columbia. Tragedy strikes when the SUV the group has rented goes off an icy road into the Upper Kootenay River. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and Sergeant John Winters investigate what first seems like a tragic accident. In one sense it is; Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth is proved to have died as a result of the plunge into the river. Then it turns out that his passenger and friend Ewan Williams had already been dead for several hours when the accident occurred. Now there’s a possible murder case and Smith and Winters look more deeply into it. That’s when they get to know the members of the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Drs. Jack and Patricia Wyatt-Yarmouth are wealthy and influential, and Jack uses that fact in every way possible. But as we learn, that money hasn’t resulted in any real happiness in the family.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant meets a rich but very dysfunctional family in Tapas on the Ramblas. Charity Wiser is not just a wealthy heiress, but a successful business executive, and her family has quite a lot of power and influence. She claims someone in her family is trying to kill her, and hires Quant to find out who it is. She invites Quant along on a family getaway cruise with the idea that he’ll get to know the various members of the family and figure out who the would-be murderer is. During the cruise there are two attempted murders. Then ‘would be’ turns real when there is a killing. As Quant gets to the truth about the events on the cruise, he also learns more about the Wiser family, and a lot of it isn’t very happy. He has to negotiate a proverbial minefield of jealousy, spite, repressed anger and more as he works to solve the case.

And then there’s the powerful Atwal family, the focus of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. One awful night, thirteen members of the family are poisoned and several stabbed. The house is burned too, presumably to hide the evidence of murder. Only one member seems to have survived: fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. She’s the most likely suspect, but she hasn’t said anything since the tragedy. Besides, there are also clues that she may have been a victim who just happened to survive the attack. Social worker Simran Singh is asked to travel from her home in Delhi to the Punjab town where the Atwals lived to try to get Durga to talk about what happened. As Simran slowly unpeels the layers of the incident, she learns more and more about the Atwals. Superficially wealthy, successful and powerful, they were also a desperately unhappy and dysfunctional family. That dysfunction plays a major role in Durga’s view of life and in a lot of what happens in the novel.

There are of course lots of other examples in crime fiction (and other fiction too) of that correlation between wealth/power and real dysfunction. Maybe it’s not so bad to be a ‘regular’ family…

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cheap Trick’s Surrender.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Kishwar Desai, Michael Dibdin, Michael Stanley, Raymond Chandler, Vicki Delany