Category Archives: Mickey Spillane

Got a New Wife, Got a New Life*

NewLifeThis is the time of year when a lot of people try to make changes in their lives. You know – ‘This is the year I’ll lose weight/quit smoking/find a partner/get rid of my partner/learn a language/get that great job, etc. .’ Sometimes people do get the chance to start all over, and it’s always interesting to see whether they really can make different lives.

Starting over is a very useful context for crime fiction.There’s always the possibility of the past coming back to haunt. There’s the challenge of trying to live a new life. And there’s all sorts of possibility for conflict as the character tries for a new beginning. It’s a flexible plot point too; the author can make it hopeful or bleak, light or dark and twisted. Perhaps that’s part of why we see so much of this plot point in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie uses the ‘fresh start’ plot point in several of her stories. It’s hard to discuss some of them without giving away spoilers, but here’s one example. In The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. In the letter, Renauld says that his life is in danger, and begs Poirot to come to his aid. Poirot and Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer, where Renauld and his wife and son live. But by the time they get there, it’s too late: Renauld has been found murdered on the golf course that adjoins their property. Poirot works with the French authorities (and sometimes at cross-purposes with them!) to find out who the killer was. He discovers that Renauld wasn’t born in Canada. He moved there to start over completely. Later, he and his wife returned to France. Someone has found out about Renauld’s former life and that knowledge played a pivotal role in his murder.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary. She leads the Cold Case Review Team, and as we first learn in The Coffin Trail, she got that position after she became a ‘sacrificial lamb’ in another case. There were several mistakes made in an earlier investigation and since Scarlett was involved, it was decided to make as much of the problem as possible go away by moving her. The job is seen as a demotion – a dead-end position – but Scarlett determines to make the best of it. And as the series goes on, we see how she tries to do as much as she can with her new start. Oxford historian Daniel Kind, the other protagonist of this series, has also started over. A well-known ‘celebrity historian,’ he got tired of television and the limelight. So he’s bought a place in the Lakes, hoping to focus on his research and his writing. Kind’s expertise in history proves extremely helpful to Scarlett as she discovers local-history links to the ‘cold case’ murders she and her team solve.

Phillip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American writer who ‘stars’ in one of Timothy Hallinan’s series. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer with a home base in Bangkok. He’s also quite good at finding people who don’t want to be found. So he’s a good choice when someone goes missing in Bangkok. Rafferty’s wife is Rose, a former bar girl who has made a new life for herself as the owner of an apartment cleaning company. All of her employees are also former bar girls. Rafferty loves his wife very much, and is happy to accept her exactly as she is. But Rose knows very well that it’s hard to leave the ‘bar girl’ life behind. After all, as she points out in A Nail Through the Heart, what happens when she and Rafferty happen to be out together and encounter one of Rose’s former clients? Still, the two of them work hard to put together a good life for themselves and for Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is in the process of adopting.

Eric Burdett’s Bangkok 8 introduces readers to Sonchai Jitplecheep, a member of the Royal Thai Police. For Sonchai, his career as a police officer is an important way of starting over. He and his best friend Pichai Apiradee were involved in a murder. According to the Buddhist tradition, this has badly damaged their karma, even though the victim was a drug dealer. The way to repair the damage, so they’ve been instructed, is to become police officers and try to work for the good of the community. In Bangkok 8, Pichai is tragically killed during the investigation of the murder of US Marine Walter Bradley. The strong desire to avenge his friend’s death is part of what drives Sonchai to go after Bradley’s (and Pichai’s) killer. He is also motivated by his commitment to using his new life to do good.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans. Brought up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ she seems in a way destined to live the same lower-class, economically disadvantaged life that her mother has had. But Jodie is both intelligent and driven. She is determined to have a new life for herself. Her ambition and brains are enough to get her a scholarship to the ‘right’ sort of school and eventually into the company of Angus Garrow. Angus is from a ‘blueblood’ family, so as you might expect, his mother is not happy about his relationship with Jodie. But the two marry and over the years, Jodie becomes a part of the upper-class circles within which Angus has always moved. All seems well until Jodie’s past comes back to haunt her. One day her daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years earlier to a daughter Elsa Mary. No-one knows about that child – not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption; but when the nurse checks into the matter, she finds that there are no records of the adoption. So she begins to ask questions. Those questions soon become public property and before long, Jodie is the focus of a scandal. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie, Angus and their children face the accusations, it’s clear that sometimes, no matter how much you try to make another start, it’s not as easy as it seems…

That’s certainly what Natasha Doroshenko finds in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale. She has fled her home in the Ukraine to escape the thugs who killed her journalist husband Pavel and threatened her life and that of her daughter Katerina. At first, it seems that Denmark, where they’ve ended up, will be a safe haven for them. In fact, Natasha even falls in love again and becomes engaged to Michael Vestergaard. But everything changes when Natasha is imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé. One day she happens to overhear a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. She manages to escape police custody and goes to Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. Her plan is to get Katerina and go away somewhere where they can start over again. But the trip to Coal House Camp is only the beginning of real danger for her, her daughter, and Red Cross nurse Nina Borg.

People often do want to make a fresh start and do things differently this time. And sometimes it’s very successful. But it doesn’t always work out that way. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill). Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. I know I’ve used that song before. You’re welcome. ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, John Burdett, Lene Lene Kaaberbøl, Martin Edwards, Mickey Spillane, Timothy Hallinan, Wendy James

But Don’t Fall in Love*

Chance Meetings and Blind DatesA lot of parties and other holiday activities are meant for couples. So life can get a bit awkward for those who are single. That’s one reason why a lot of people consent, however reluctantly, to being ‘fixed up’ for dates. Others meet new people casually, for instance, at pubs/bars or clubs. At least it’s a little easier to go to parties and so on as a couple, even if you don’t know the other person well.

Sometimes, even in crime fiction, being ‘fixed up’ or taking a chance on a complete stranger can work quite well. Fans of Agatha Christie, for instance, will know that more than one happy match is made with encouragement from Hercule Poirot (and actually, Miss Marple too). I’m thinking, for instance, of The Moving Finger and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, among others. But sometimes, such chances turn out to be very unlucky – even disastrous.

For instance, in Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, PI Mike Hammer is at a coffee shop. A young woman – who, as it turns out, is a prostitute named Nancy Sanford – approaches him. They start a conversation which ends with her telling Hammer the story of how she got into the business. Hammer feels for the woman and gives her some money to help her start over. Not long after their chance meeting, he learns that she’s been killed in what looks like a drive-by car accident. He is determined to find out who killed her and why, and begins to investigate. That investigation puts Hammer up against a prostitution ring run by some highly-placed people who aren’t afraid to do whatever it takes to silence anyone who gets in their way. Not a safe situation for Hammer…

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, wealthy engineer Pietro Auserti hires Dr. Duca Lamberti to help his son Davide. Davide Auserti suffers from a serious drinking problem that hasn’t abated even after a stint at a treatment facility. Lamberti accepts the job and begins to interact with Davide. It takes some time, but little by little he gets to the root of the young man’s troubles. A year earlier, Davide had a chance meeting with Alberta Radelli during which she begged him to help her leave Milan. She claimed she couldn’t stay there any more, but he didn’t believe her. Shortly afterwards she died in what police claimed was a suicide, and he’s blamed himself since that time. Lamberti knows that if he doesn’t find out the truth about what really happened to the victim, Davide Auserti will never be free of his guilt. So he begins to investigate. He and Davide end up being drawn into a dark case of multiple murder and sleazy underworld business. And all because of a spontaneous invitation to give a pretty young woman a ride…

Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead is in part the story of Carrie Foster. For various reasons, she’s gotten into the business of upmarket prostitution. One day she’s sitting in a café waiting for one of her clients when by chance, she meets Gordon Matthews. The two hit it off, and Carrie is impressed with his good looks and apparent wealth. In fact, they end up marrying. But each is keeping an important secret from the other. Carrie’s never told her husband that she was a prostitute, nor that she returned to the business after a few years of marriage to him. And for his part, Gordon doesn’t tell his wife that he served time in prison for the murder of his first wife Anne. As time goes on, we see just how disastrous this chance meeting turns out to be.

As Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered begins, London lawyer Julia Larwood decides to take an Art Lovers tour of Venice. She’s glad for the chance to escape her own tax woes, and hoping to enjoy herself. And at first, she does. In fact, she becomes besotted with a young man Nick Watson whom she meets on the tour, and they end up spending a memorable afternoon together. But when Julia wakes up afterwards, she finds that Watson is dead. She leaves the room as quickly as she can and slips away. But she’s left behind her copy of the Finance Act, so right away, there is evidence to connect her with the murder. It’s going to take help from her lawyer friends and their unofficial mentor Hilary Tamar to sort matters out and clear her name.

Jane Casey’s The Burning is in part an investigation into a series of deaths committed by a killer that the London Press has dubbed the Burning Man, because he tries to incinerate the bodies of his victims. DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met is on the investigating team, and as the story goes on, she and her teammates slowly find out how the killer operates. Somehow (no spoilers), the murderer wins over his victims by gaining their trust. By the time he attacks, they’re no longer really able to defend themselves. Then comes the slightly different murder of PR professional Rebecca Haworth. Many of Kerrigan’s colleagues think that the Burning Man has simply changed his tactics. But Kerrigan wonders if it may be a ‘copycat’ murder, thus implying two killers. This novel is a good reminder that casual encounters can be as dangerous as blind dates can be.

We also see that in Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. Stewart Macintosh is at a Glasgow night club called Heavenly one night when he happens to meet Zara Cope. She’s beautiful, she’s had a few as the saying goes, and she seems willing. So the two agree to go back to her house. That turns out to be a big mistake on Macintosh’s part. He’s soon drawn into a case of murder, concealing drugs, and other crimes. And all because of a pickup at a club.

And for film buffs, there’s Joseph Losey’s 1959 film Blind Date. That’s the story of Jan Van Rooyer, a Dutch painter living in London who happens to meet Jacqueline Cousteau at the art gallery where he works. Although she doesn’t seem much interested in art, she ends up asking him for painting lessons, and before long, the two begin an affair. One day Van Rooyer goes to an apartment to meet his lover. He waits for her for a time, but she doesn’t appear. Van Rooyer thinks he was probably stood up, but before he can do anything about it, a group of police arrive. It turns out that Jacqueline Cousteau has been murdered; her body was in the apartment the whole time, but hidden from view. Inspector Morgan of Scotland Yard investigates, and is convinced that Van Rooyer has killed his mistress. Someone has clearly framed Van Rooyer, but it’s awfully tempting for the police to assume his guilt and close out the case. You can read more about this film at Tipping My Fedora, which is the place to go for terrific reviews of crime novels and great crime films.

When you look at what can happen when you go on a blind date or chat up a stranger, it’s probably easier (and certainly safer!) to just go to those holiday parties by yourself or with a friend (I know, I know, those who’ve read Tammy Cohen’s Dying For Christmas. I haven’t read it…).
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Tubes’ She’s a Beauty.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Jane Casey, Malcolm Mackay, Margaret Yorke, Mickey Spillane, Sarah Caudwell, Tammy Cohen

I Don’t Want Clever Conversation*

EuphemismsA very interesting post from B.C. Stone at The Vagrant Mood has got me thinking about euphemisms. Oh, and before I go on, you’ll want to go pay a visit to The Vagrant Mood. It’s a fantastic resource for all sorts of thoughts on writing, classic novels, film and art. Trust me.

Now, back to euphemisms. There are a lot of topics people may feel uncomfortable talking about, and euphemisms can help people discuss them without feeling so awkward. We don’t want to be lied to, and most of us don’t like lying to others. At the same time, blunt terms can make it really difficult to discuss certain things. So it makes sense that people use euphemisms at times. They run through crime-fictional conversations just as they do any other conversation, so you see them a lot in the genre. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver has traveled to the village of Woodleigh Common to spend some time with her friend Judith Butler. While there, she assists at the preparations for the local school’s Hallowe’en party. At one point, she needs to excuse herself:

 

‘Mrs. Oliver…left the room in search of a particular apartment, the geography of which is usually fairly easily identified.’

 

It’s obvious of course where Mrs. Oliver is headed, but Christie chooses a euphemistic expression. During the preparations for the party, one of the young people there, Joyce Reynolds, boasts of having seen a murder. No-one believes her, but when she is murdered during the party later that day, it’s clear that she might have been telling the truth. So Mrs. Oliver asks her friend Hercule Poirot to investigate. He agrees and discovers that Joyce’s murder has everything to do with past events in the village.

Many, many crime novels use euphemisms for prostitution. Women who are employed that way are sometimes called ‘working girls’ and sometimes ‘sex workers.’ Here’s an interesting perspective on euphemisms from that profession from Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District. In that novel, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson gets a new client Candace Curtis, who runs an exclusive bordello. Curtis is worried because one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria has gone missing. Jackson isn’t too sure about the case but she does accept it. It turns out that the search for the missing Mary Carmen leads into Toronto’s very shady underworld, as well as into the world of human trafficking. Here’s a bit of a conversation that Jackson and Curtis have early in the novel:

 

‘You have a database of hookers?’… [Jackson]
‘Please, don’t call them hookers. Most of the girls use the term intimacy consultant, though some call themselves relaxation therapists. I know they’re euphemisms, but they’re important to the girls’ self esteem.’
‘Consultants. Right. Got it.’

 

As the novel goes on, Jackson learns that she has some preconceived notions about the business, and it’s interesting to see her reaction as her assumptions go up against what she finds out.

In Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, PI Mike Hammer is at a coffee shop when he meets Nancy Sanford who sometimes uses the coffee shop as a ‘sales office.’ (See? I use euphemisms too at times.) She approaches Hammer, and when he demurs, she says,

 

‘Rest easy Mister, I won’t give you a sales talk. There are only certain types interested in what I have to sell.’

 

Hammer has some compassion for Nancy, and when she tells him how she got into the business, he gives her some money to make a new start for herself. Shortly after they meet, Nancy is run down in a not-so-accidental hit-and-run incident. When Hammer finds out, he determines to track down her murderer. In the process he uncovers a prostitution ring with some very high-level connections.

There are plenty of other euphemisms related to prostitution and sex of course, and we see them all throughout crime fiction. Here, for instance, is a bit of a conversation from Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale, featuring his Berlin PI Bernie Gunther. At this point in the novel, Gunther is looking for a young woman Arianne Tauber. He thinks she works at a place called the Golden Horseshoe, but one of the hostesses there tells him that she doesn’t:

 

‘So where does she work?’ [Gunther]
‘Arianne? She runs the cloakroom at the Jockey Bar. Has for a while. For a girl like Arianne, there’s a lot of money to be made at the Jockey.
‘In the cloakroom?’
‘You can do a lot more in a cloakroom than just hang a coat, honey.’

 

Gunther knows without his informant having to use vulgar terms exactly what kind of girl Arianne Tauber probably is…

Of course, crime and mystery fiction often deals with murder. And a lot of people are uncomfortable with words such as ‘dead,’ ‘deceased,’ or ‘killed.’ Euphemisms can make conversations with witnesses and family members a little easier. There are dozens and dozens of examples of this sort of euphemism in crime fiction; here is just one. In Jane Casey’s The Burning, DC Maeve Kerrigan and her team at the Met are investing two cases that may be related. One is a series of murders committed by a killer dubbed ‘the Burning Man’ by the press, since he tries to destroy his victims’ bodies by fire. Another is the murder of Rebecca Haworth, who may or may not have been the Burning Man’s latest victim. At one point, Kerrigan is talking to Haworth’s parents, trying to get a sense of what she was like. The idea is that the more she knows about the victim, the closer she’ll get to the killer. When the conversation is over, Haworth’s father says,

 

‘She was happy. She had everything to live for. So please, Maeve, do find the person who did this to her, for our sake.’

 

Neither of Haworth’s parents is unwilling to face the fact that she is dead, although it is devastating. But the euphemism is still useful to them.

I could of course go on and on about euphemisms because they are so common in language. In part that’s because most of us do want to be told the truth, but we don’t always want it told in the most unvarnished terms. Which examples of euphemisms have you noticed in crime fiction?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jane Casey, Jill Edmondson, Mickey Spillane, Philip Kerr

We Are Detective, Come to Collect*

PIsOne of the ways in which crime fiction has evolved in the last sixty or seventy years has arguably been the increasing variety of PI sleuths. And perhaps this is just my opinion (so do feel free to differ with me if you do) but I think it’s a good thing. In real life, private investigators take all kinds of cases, from spouses who suspect their partners of cheating to pre-hiring background checks to investigators who work with attorneys on their cases. And it hardly need be said that today’s PIs come from all kinds of backgrounds.

‘Gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes paved the way for the modern PI novel, which today ranges from the light (e.g. Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe series) to the noir (e.g.  Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series). One post is hardly enough to do the modern PI novel justice, but let’s just take a quick look at the sub-genre.

Authors such as Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Mickey Spillane were at the forefront of the ‘hard boiled’ PI novel. In Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool for instance, Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter to her husband James. The letter alleges that Maude’s been having an affair, and she is afraid that if James finds out, the marriage will end in divorce. Archer takes the case and begins his investigation. Right from the beginning he learns of the dysfunction in the Slocum family. James’ mother Olivia is quite wealthy and uses her financial power to manipulate the family. Maude and her mother-in-law have never been exactly friends, and Maude resents the fact that James is somewhat of a ‘mother’s boy.’ So when Olivia is found dead one day in her swimming pool, there’s every chance one of the family could be responsible. But then again, oil magnate Walter Kilbourne wanted to drill on the Slocum estate and Olivia was firmly set against the idea. So the murder could be the work of Kilbourne or one of his paid ‘associates.’ As Archer investigates, we get to see the seamier side of the way the wealthy live.

Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant also sometimes sees the not-so-very-nice side of ‘the beautiful life.’ In Tapas on the Ramblas for instance, wealthy business executive Charity Wiser believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She hires Quant to find out who it is and invites him on a family cruise to get to know the other members of the Wiser clan so he can ‘scope them out.’ As he does so, he discovers that just about everyone in the family had a motive for murder. It’s not just a matter of greed, either. There’s a lot of dysfunction in this family and the better Quant gets to know the family members, the more he uncovers about the undercurrents of resentment. Then, there are two attempts at murder and later, a death. In the end, Quant puts the pieces of the puzzle together but not before he comes close to being a victim himself.

We get an interesting look ‘behind the scenes’ of a PI firm in Julie Smith’s Talba Wallis series. Wallis lives and works in New Orleans, where she’s employed by E.V. Anthony Investigations. The firm does background checks on potential employees and at the beginning of Louisiana Bigshot, we learn that Wallis also investigates cheating spouses. In fact that’s what her friend Clayton Robineau (who goes by the name Babalu Maya) hires her to do. Babalu thinks that her fiancé Jason Wheelock has been unfaithful and wants Wallis to find out whether it’s true. At first Wallis doesn’t want to take the case; she would rather Babalu simply break up with Wheelock than learn all of the sordid details of any affair he’s having. But Babalu insists, so Wallis begins to investigate. She finds out that her friend was right and breaks the bad news. Shortly after that, Babalu is found dead, apparently a successful suicide. Wallis doesn’t think it was a suicide though, and neither does Jason Wheelock. So Wallis starts to look into the case more closely. She finds that Babalu’s family history and someone’s desperate need to protect a reputation are the keys to the murder.

Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson doesn’t work for a firm; she’s set up in business for herself. And one of the very effective elements in this series is that we get to see what it’s like to try to build up one’s client base, take care of the bills and so on. And in Dead Light District we get an interesting perspective on why some people hire private detectives instead of going to the police. Candace Curtis owns a brothel which she staffs with only the best employees. The client list is carefully vetted too. It’s an illegal business though, so when one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria goes missing, she can’t call the police about it. So she hires Jackson to find out what happened to Mary Carmen. Jackson is uncomfortable about the case. For one thing, she’s not comfortable with the thought of young women who, as she sees it, are being exploited. For another, Mary Carmen could simply not want to be found. If so, why shouldn’t she be left in peace? But Curtis is persuasive and a fee is a fee, so Jackson begins her investigation. But this turns out to be much more than a missing person case. First an alleged pimp is stabbed to death in a hotel and then there’s another murder. Then Curtis becomes a target. Jackson finds that what started out being a case of a prostitute who’s disappeared has led her to the underside of Toronto’s sex trade.

Some PIs don’t really think of themselves as PIs – at least not at first. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins doesn’t. In the first few novels, before he gets his PI license, he thinks of it as ‘doing favours.’ So does Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. In fact in The Sins of the Fathers, he says,

 

‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’

 

And yet in both of these cases the sleuths learn that the PI business can be, if not exactly lucrative, at least a source of income.

Today’s PIs are a very diverse group. There’s the wisecracking ‘world’s greatest detective’ Elvis Cole (courtesy of Robert Crais), the not-domestically-inclined Kinsey Millhone (courtesy of Sue Grafton) and lots of others too. And that variety has added to the sub-genre.

Now, you may be wondering why I’ve not mentioned one of the best known PI sleuths, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. I was saving this mention because today is (or yesterday was, depending on when you read this) Sara Paretsky’s birthday. So this post is in honour of what Ms. Paretsky has contributed to the crime fiction genre. V.I. Warshawski is one of the most popular PI sleuths in crime fiction. She’s a unique character with a strong commitment to social justice, a deep love of her home town (Chicago) and a true-blue sense of loyalty to her friends. She was one of the groundbreaking fictional female PIs and the novels featuring her have gained Ms. Paretsky a worldwide audience.

Happy Birthday Sara Paretsky and many more.

 

 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ We Are Detective.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jill Edmondson, Julie Smith, Lawrence Block, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Cars

CarsWell, let’s C…I think the 2013 Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has reached – yes, it has reached – the third stop on our crime-ridden journey. Thanks as always to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for being such an excellent tour guide. My contribution (appropriate, I think, for a journey) is cars.

We all know that cars can be very dangerous. That’s why there are laws against drink driving, mobile ‘phone use while driving, and speeding. It’s why we’re always told to buckle up and stay alert. But if you look at crime fiction, you also see that cars aren’t just deadly because of accidents. They can be very effective murder weapons.

Agatha Christie mentions car-related deaths a few times in her work. One incident is part of the plot of And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). A group of people is invited for a stay at Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. For a variety of reasons they all accept. When they arrive, they’re a little surprised that their host has not yet made an appearance. Still, they settle in. That night after dinner, each guest is accused of being responsible for the death of at least one other person. Everyone is shocked at this accusation and at first there’s a round of denials. But then one of the guests Anthony Marston suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Now the guests begin to see that they’ve been lured to the island by a murderer. As one by one the guests die, the survivors try to discover who the murderer is and stay alive. And what was the death of which Anthony Marston was accused? A hit-and-run car crash that killed two children.

Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick also features deadly use of a car. In that novel, PI Mike Hammer is in a coffee shop when he meets Nancy Sanford, a young woman down on her luck who’s turned to prostitution. Hammer gives her some money to try to help her escape ‘the life’ and it seems that she will be able to start over. A few days later, though, Hammer learns that Nancy has been killed in a hit-and-run incident. There is no evidence that she was murdered but Hammer doesn’t believe her death was an accident. So he begins to investigate. He discovers that Nancy was trapped in a major prostitution ring. Before she was killed, she was collecting evidence against the ring leaders in hopes that they would be arrested. Needless to say, Hammer takes it on himself to finish what Nancy Sandford started.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, twenty-eight-year-old violin virtuoso Gideon Davies is terrified one night when he finds himself unable to play. He seeks out psychological help to try to figure out what is causing this block and starts digging into his past. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie faces a very ‘here and now’ danger. One night, she is killed in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. As Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers soon discover, this was no accident. Eugenie Davis’ death is related to her son’s inability to play, and both are related to a long-ago tragedy in which two-year-old Sonia, Gideon’s sister, was drowned. At the time of her death, her nanny Katja Wolff was imprisoned for the drowning and has recently been released. As the novel evolves we see how this too relates to the rest of the story.

Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson finds out the hard way just how dangerous cars can be in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts. She is killed in a hit-and-run incident and Danny McKillop is arrested for it. There’s a lot of evidence against him, too. After serving eight years in prison, he’s released and one of the first things he does is contact the lawyer who defended him Jack Irish. Irish was, to put it mildly, not at his best at the time of the trial; he was using alcohol to ease the pain of his wife Isabel’s murder and did a poor job of defending McKillop. So when McKillop calls him, Irish feels a sense of obligation. But by the time he gets around to meeting with his former client it’s too late; McKillop has been murdered. Irish decides to find out why and by whom, and slowly he pieces together what happened. McKillop was framed for Anne Jeppeson’s murder and the truth about what happened to both victims is bound up with politics, greed and corruption.

And then there’s Phil Smedway, whose life and death are part of the plot of Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are. Smedway was a beloved regional TV presenter who ‘hit it big.’ He was also a mentor to his successor Frank Allcroft. Then one day Smedway was killed in a hit-and-run incident during his regular jog. Everyone, including the police, thinks that this was a tragic accident. But Allcroft begins to wonder when he is drawn to the place where Smedway died. The road at the site is straight and clear of obstacles, so it would have been easy for even a drunken driver to see and avoid Smedway. What’s more, it wasn’t raining or snowing the weather wasn’t a factor. Allcroft decides to start asking questions about Smedway and his death. As he slowly finds out the answers, he also learns quite a bit about Smedway’s life.

Oh, and lest you think that the only danger from cars comes from hit-and-run incidents, consider Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. In that novel, wealthy and eccentric Cadmus Cole hires Ellery Queen and Beau Rummell, who’ve just opened up a detective agency. Cole wants to find his only living relations. One is Margo Cole, who’s been living in Paris. The other is Kerrie Shawn, an aspiring actress who’s trying to make a success of herself in Hollywood. The two women are no sooner found than word comes that Cadmus Cole has died at sea. According to the provisions of Cole’s will, both Kerrie and Margo will have to move into Cole’s upstate New York mansion and live there in order to claim his considerable fortune. Not long after the young women move in, Kerrie is trapped in the mansion’s garage and is nearly killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a running car engine. Later she’s accused when Margo is shot. Kerrie learns that not only is it dangerous to inherit a lot of money, it’s very dangerous to be around cars.

 

See? Cars may be necessary for a lot of people’s lives, but they do carry high risks. Buckle up and enjoy the ride! ;-)

 

Oh, and if you want to ride along with us as we continue our crime fiction journey, we’d love to have you. Check out the meme details right here!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, Ellery Queen, Mickey Spillane, Peter Temple