Category Archives: Nelson Brunanski

The Atmosphere is Electric*

AtmospheresAn interesting guest post on crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta’s site has got me thinking about atmosphere. In part, the post’s focus is on character development, and that’s important of course. But the post also mentioned the larger context – the atmosphere.

Writers, of course, can use context for a number of purposes, far too numerous to discuss here. So I’m going to just mention a couple of ways in which crime writers use atmosphere.

Sometimes, crime writers use atmosphere to serve as a stark contrast to the murder(s) that are the main plot threads of their story. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure: the peaceful, lovely small town that hides secrets.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories are like that. For instance, Hallowe’en Party takes place in the village of Woodleigh Common, a small, outwardly peaceful place. One afternoon, several residents are visiting Apple Trees, the home of town social leader Rowena Drake. They’re helping her to get ready for a Hallowe’en party planned for later that evening. Also among the group is detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During the preparations, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder once. Everyone immediately hushes her up, and the assumption is made that she said what she said to call attention to herself, especially as Mrs. Oliver was there. But later, at the party, Joyce is murdered. Now everyone has to face the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and help find out what happened, and he agrees. When the two of them visit Apple Trees to talk to Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Oliver says,
 

‘‘It doesn’t look the sort of house there’d be a murder in, does it?’’
 

And it doesn’t. It’s a neatly-kept, pleasant house in a small, peaceful community. Nothing creepy about it. And that contrasts with what happens at the house, and with what is later revealed about some events in the town.

Ira Levin uses a similar strategy in The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to find low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes smoothly. The town is beautiful, the residents are pleasant, and everyone settles in. But then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her seriously. But then, some things happen that show just how right Bobbie was. Levin fans will know that he takes quite a different approach in Rosemary’s Baby, where the apartment building that features so heavily in the novel is depicted as rather eerie right from the start.

Nelson Brunanski’s novels featuring John ‘Bart’ Bartowski often feature the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. It’s a quiet town where everyone knows everyone, and where life is mostly peaceful. That lovely small-town backdrop contrasts with the main murder plots of the stories. For example, in Crooked Lake, the first of the series, the body of Harvey Kristoff is found on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is former head greenskeeper Nick Taylor, whom Kristoff recently had fired. But Taylor claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart to help clear his name. In Frost Bite, Bart gets involved in the murder of Lionel Morrison, a CEO with quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge owned by Bart and his wife Rosie. Later, Bart discovers Morrison’s body under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. Crooked Lake’s peaceful, ‘down home’ sort of atmosphere serves as a really interesting contrast to the murders that happen there.

Of course, some crime writers use a story’s overall atmosphere to add to the suspense. That, too, can be quite effective. For example, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. When her mother dies, Mary obeys her mother’s last request and goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who own Jamaica Inn. The inn is in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. Before Mary even arrives, she’s warned about Jamaica Inn, but she chooses to continue the journey. And when she arrives, she finds that it’s every bit as dreary and unpleasant as she’d heard. The place is isolated, run-down and creepy. Her uncle is unpleasant and abusive, and her aunt so downtrodden that she does nothing about it. This atmosphere serves as the backdrop for a case of murder, and for some very dark secrets that Mary discovers.

Several novels in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make mention of the old Hadley house. Fans of this series will know that it has a dark history, and that adds to its eerie atmosphere. Even Gamache, who is not a fanciful person, doesn’t like going there. In The Cruelest Month, a murder takes place there. A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance during her stay. The first attempt doesn’t go well, but another is scheduled during the Easter break, and is to be held at the Hadley place. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s said that she was frightened to death. But soon, it’s discovered that she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. In this case, the house’s creepy history and atmosphere add to the suspense and tension.

And then there’s Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, which features DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. In that novel, two sets of remains are discovered in the Peak District on Pity Wood Farm, which used to be owned by the Sutton family. It now belongs to a Manchester attorney named Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the property after the remains were already there. So the detectives focus on the Suttons and on the people who lived in the area when they owned the farm. The nearest village is Rakedale, and Fry and Cooper are hoping to get some background from the residents. But Rakedale is a close-mouthed, creepy place. Few people are interested in speaking to the police, and even fewer in discussing the Suttons. It makes for a tense sort of atmosphere.

Whether the author chooses to use atmosphere to contrast with a murder (or murders), or add to the tension, it’s hard to deny the importance of atmosphere in adding to a story. Which atmospheres have stayed with you?

Thanks for the inspiration to Sue and her guest, David Villalva! Now, please go visit Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for crime writers, and a fascinating place to learn all kinds of interesting things.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s So Many Paths.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ira Levin, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Stephen Booth

You’re So Scared and All Alone*

Families of the AccusedAn interesting post from Mason Canyon at Thoughts in Progress has got me thinking about the families of those accused of murder. People who are suspected of murder often have parents, children, siblings, or other relatives; those people are deeply affected by the fact that one of their own may have killed someone. Their stories can add a compelling layer to a crime novel; they can allow readers to see just how much impact such an accusation can make, whether or not it’s true.

Agatha Christie addresses this in several of her stories. For example, in Ordeal By Innocence, Rachel Argyle is murdered with a fireplace poker. The evidence points to her stepson Jacko, who is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Later, he dies in prison.  Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary visits the Argyle family home, Sunny Point. He’s there to give them news that he thinks ought to please them: he can conclusively prove that Jacko Argyle was not a murderer. Calgary wasn’t able to provide that evidence at the time of the murder, because he was suffering from a case of amnesia. He’s since recovered, and now wants to put things right. To his shock, the Argyle family isn’t happy at all about his return or his news. If he’s right, it means that someone else within the family circle is a murderer. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow and of Five Little Pigs.

In Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, we meet Juliet Spence, an herbalist who lives with her thirteen-year-old daughter Maggie in the village of Winslough. One evening, Robin Sage, Vicar of Winslough, has dinner with the Spences. He dies soon after in what turns out to be a case of poisoning by water hemlock. At first it’s put down to tragic accident. But that’s not how it seems to Simon St. James, who’s staying in the area with his wife Deborah. He asks his friend, Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley, to look into the matter, and Lynley agrees. Maggie Spence has a particularly difficult time during this investigation. For one thing, she is of course, worried about her mother, who is now the chief suspect in a murder case. For another, she has to deal with schoolmates and others who see her as a murderer’s daughter. It’s an awful situation for her, and George makes that clear.

It’s the Garrow family who comes under fire in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who’s being spoken of as the possible next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s from a proud, ‘blue-blood’ family, and is highly regarded in the field. Everything changes when his wife Jodie becomes a murder suspect. It all starts when their daughter Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. That hospital happens to be the same place where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even Angus, knew about this baby. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says that she gave the infant up for adoption, but the nurse can’t find any formal adoption records. Now, some very ugly talk starts. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? That murder accusation changes the Garrow family forever.

Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake introduces readers to John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake, and own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Murder strikes Crooked Lake when the body of Harvey Kristoff is discovered on the green at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The police start to investigate, and it’s not long before they settle on Nick Taylor, former head greenskeeper of the course. There’s evidence against him, too. For one thing, he blames Kristoff for getting him fired from his job. For another, it turns out that his wife Wilma had an affair with Kristoff. And the murder weapon belongs to Taylor. Still, Taylor claims that he’s innocent. And his lawyer Frank Hendrickson wants to defend his client as best he can. So he asks Bart, Taylor’s oldest friend, to help. Bart isn’t at all certain that Taylor is innocent, but he does agree to do what he can. As the story goes on, we see the impact on the Taylor family of a murder accusation. It’s all made even worse by the fact that Crooked Lake’s a small town; everyone knows everyone else. Even the Bartowskis feel the strain of being ‘on the Taylors’ side.’

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. According to Kasliwal, he had employed a maid, Mary Murmu, in his home for a time. Then, several months ago, she went missing. New evidence has come up that suggests that she was raped and murdered, and that Kasliwal might be responsible. The media is watching this case carefully, as there’s a sense that Kasliwal will get special treatment because of his social status. The police are well aware of this, and are determined to show that they don’t toady to the rich. And that’s Kasliwal’s problem. He says that he is innocent, and doesn’t have any idea what happened to his maid. He wants Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. Puri agrees, and he and his team get to work on the case. As they look for answers, we see what happens to a family when a member is accused of murder, even if that family has high social status. It’s difficult for all of them.

The Blligh/Dickson family has a terrible time of it, too, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Several years ago, Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam were murdered one horrific afternoon. Only their daughter Katy survived, because she wasn’t home when the killer struck. At the time, Angela’s brother Connor Bligh was suspected of the crime. The evidence against him was compelling, so he was arrested, tried and convicted. Since then, he’s been in Wellington’s Rimutaka Prison. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of this case at a crucial time for her. She’s reached a plateau in her career, and is looking for a story that will ensure her spot at the top of New Zealand journalism. So when she hears that there’s evidence Bligh may not be guilty, she’s interested. If he is innocent, this could be the story she’s been wanting. Thorne begins to re-investigate the case, and soon learns that no-one in the family really wants to help her. One reason is that they believe Bligh is guilty. But just as important is the fact that it’s been awful for them to have family members murdered, and probably by a relative. Now, they just want to get on with their lives, and not rake things up again.

It’s very hard to be accused of murder, whether or not one’s guilty. It’s at least as hard on family members. But that, too, is a reality of criminal investigation. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Renegade.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

I Know There’s Fish Out There*

FishingFishing has been woven into our human experience since people first learned how to catch fish. Although people all over the world eat seafood, you really see the fishing culture in seaside or lakeside areas, for obvious reasons.

Fishing is big business, too. Whether it’s sport fishing or commercial fishing, there’s a lot of money to be made in the industry. Fishing is so deeply ingrained into human history that it makes complete sense that it’s also an important part of crime fiction. There’s no possible way for me to mention all of the novels in which fishing plays a role; but here are a few examples.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Mystery, Reverend Dodd, vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Sea, takes an interest in the shooting murder of Julius Tregarthan. Dodd’s friend Dr. Pendrill has been called to the scene, and Dodd comes along. Soon enough, it’s clear that this case isn’t going to be easy. The victim was shot through the open window of his sitting room. Three shots seem to have been fired, all from slightly different angles. So one possibility is that there were actually three assailants. Other evidence, though, makes that unlikely. It doesn’t help matters that more than one person had a motive for murder, so there are several suspects. As he follows leads, Dodd finds that he gets some very valuable information from a local man who sometimes takes his fishing boat out.

Lots of people depend on fishing for a living, even if they don’t work for a large commercial outfit. For instance, in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the death of a local fisherman, Justo Castelo. In many ways, the death looks like a suicide. But little clues suggest to Caldas that Castelo might have been murdered. The only problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much motive. Castelo wasn’t wealthy, and he lived a quiet life. In fact, he preferred not to mix very much socially. Then, Caldas discovers something important. In 1996, Castelo and two other fishermen were on board a boat with Captain Antonio Sousa when a terrible storm struck. Sousa was lost in the storm, but the other three made it back to land. They’ve never spoken of the incident since, but Caldas finds that it plays a role in Castelo’s death. This novel offers an interesting look at the small-time fishing life, with boats coming in early in the morning to sell their catch at the local warehouses, and the area restaurants and individual buyers coming in later to make their choices. It’s not an easy life.

We also see that in Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton has captained his Brisbane-based family boat Sea Mistress for quite a long time. But he’s got a broken leg from an incident that ended in the murder of Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. Bretton’s daughter Samantha ‘Sam’ wants very much to take her father’s place as skipper until he’s back on duty. Her logic is that if Sea Mistress doesn’t go out, the family fishing business will suffer and may fail. Her father finally agrees, and Sam prepares to gather her crew. Her new deckhand is Chayse Garrett, an undercover police officer who’s investigating McKay’s death. The police suspect that Bretton killed McKay, and that he might be involved in the drugs smuggling trade; Garrett’s job is to find evidence bearing on that theory. Sam’s not aware of Garrett’s identity as a detective, but she has her own reasons for wanting to bring down McKay’s killer and clear her father’s name. As Sea Mistress’ crew looks for answers, we learn a lot about life on a modern trawler. We also learn how the small-time fishing industry can sometimes be useful to the smuggling trade.

Smuggling also happens in the larger commercial fishing trade. In Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, for instance, Arkady Renko has been assigned to work as a crew member on the Soviet fishing ship Polar Star. It’s a punishment for his pursuit of highly-placed Party officials (read Gorky Park for the details). Renko is fed up anyway with policing, especially if it doesn’t really change things. But he’s drawn into a case of murder when one of his crew mates, Zina Patiashvili, is hauled out of the ocean with the day’s catch. At first, there seems no motive for the murder. The victim was a galley worker, like everyone else, and hadn’t any obvious enemies or wealth. But soon enough, Renko learns that there was another side to her. She was involved in smuggling and blackmailing, and some very important people are implicated.

Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano lives and works in fictional Vigàta, on Sicily. So as you can imagine, there’s lots of fishing integrated into that series. For example, in one plot thread of The Snack Thief, Montalbano investigates the shooting of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be aboard an Italian fishing boat. Montalbano finds that he was killed when a Tunisian boat fired on the Italian boat. The question then becomes: how accidental was the death, really? In that thread of the story, Camilleri makes reference to the long-standing unease between Tunisia and Sicily over water, territory and fishing rights.

Many people enjoy sport fishing and fishing as a hobby. So there’s also a lucrative business in providing places and equipment for fishing enthusiasts. Just ask Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowksi. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. But they own Stuart Lake Lodge, a holiday fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Clients come from many different places, including other countries, to spend time fishing and relaxing. It sounds harmless enough, but in Burnt Out, the lodge is burned, and a body discovered in the ruins of the fire. Now, gossip spreads that Bart is guilty of arson and very likely murder, too. He knows that he’ll need to find out what happened to his family’s business if he’s to clear his name. The Bartowskis aren’t going to be the same after this tragedy, but Bart’s determined to at least preserve the family’s integrity.

Scotland’s another popular place for sport fishing. Just ask M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He’s the local bobby for the village of Lochdubh, but he’d just as soon relax with a fishing line. So he understands the appeal of John and Heather Cartwright’s Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing, to which we’re introduced in Death of a Gossip. The Cartwrights open a new class, hoping that all will go well. It doesn’t. One of the participants is Jane Maxwell, gossip columnist for the London Evening Star. She wants new fodder for her column, and is willing to go through everyone’s proverbial closet, looking for skeletons. When she’s found strangled with casting line, it’s clear that someone in that fishing class didn’t want her to find out too much. Macbeth investigates, and as he does, we learn a bit about the modern fishing resort. There are a lot of other crime-fictional mentions of the Scottish fishing life, too, including Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed and Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, to name just two.

There are many, many other examples of fishing in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Johan Theorin’s Gerloff Davidsson). Which do you like best?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Downeaster ‘Alexa.’

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Domingo Villar, Gordon Ferris, Johan Theorin, John Bude, M.C. Beaton, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Cruz Smith, Nelson Brunanski, Sandy Curtis

Living in a New World*

Global Small BusinessThe world, and people’s thinking, has arguably gotten a lot more global in the last years, especially with the advent of the Internet. We’ve seen it in innumerable ways, across society. One post could never really do justice to the increasingly global nature of the way we think. So for today, I thought (I hope!) it might be interesting to look at a bit of the way this process has affected business, and how it plays out in crime fiction.

As the world has gotten smaller, many businesses that were previously local or regional have become international. One of them is Starbucks. It started as a local Seattle company but it’s hardly local now. You may say that part of Starbucks’ growth is smart marketing. But the company has also had a global perspective. And as you know, Starbucks is just about everywhere. There are dozens of crime-fictional references to the company, too. One I like very much is in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, which concerns the murder of popular radio personality Kevin Brace. At one point, the police take an interest in one of Brace’s colleagues Donald Dundas. On hearing that he often starts his day in a local coffee shop, the police try to guess which one. They hear some of Dundas’ colleagues talk of a trip to ‘Four Bucks’ to get coffee, but it turns out Dundas has chosen a smaller, independent shop.

It’s not just Starbucks either, of course. McDonald’s has also become a global contender, and of course, it features in a lot of different crime novels. For instance, there’s a reference to the company in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts. In one plot thread of that novel, sometime-attorney Jack Irish and some of his friends/colleagues are on their way to a horse race in which they’ve got some money invested. Along the way they stop at a ‘Maccas.’ As I say, that’s just one of many, many references to the company that pop up worldwide.

Tesco is another company that’s ‘gone global.’ Based in the UK, it has branches in several different countries now. There’s an interesting Tesco scene in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. In one plot thread of that novel, self-styled medium Ava Garrett has suddenly died of what turns out to be poison. DCI Tom Barnaby and his team connect this death to the earlier death of financial advisor Dennis Brinkley. Ava’s daughter Karen is temporarily being looked after by nineteen-year-old Roy Priest, who lodges with the Garretts. Roy is a product of the government’s child welfare system, and wants more than anything to spare Karen his fate. So he looks after her as well as a misfit nineteen-year-old can. At one point, he sees that she needs new clothes and other things. So he takes her on a shopping trip to Tesco. Karen is awestruck by everything that’s sold there, and delighted to have some new things all her own.

As you’ll know, not all global ventures have been successful for companies. Thanks to an interesting comment exchange with Australian author Geoffrey McGeachin, I learned that Starbucks pulled out of Australia. Tesco’s attempt to gain a foothold in the US market was also unsuccessful.

So, does this global expansion of companies and their culture mean that the small independent local or personal business is doomed? People don’t agree on this question, but I don’t think so. The advent of the Internet and global reach has meant that small businesses and individuals can market themselves to an international audience. Erm – you’re visiting my blog, aren’t you? And if you don’t live near me, this is just one example…

We certainly see that in crime fiction too. In Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder, for instance, we are introduced to Malin Andersson, whose living comes from a very successful and lucrative blog called Malin’s Table. Its focus is sustainable food, recipes and the like. She and her husband Henrik Kjellander also have another source of income. They plan to be away from their home on the Swedish island of Fårö for two months, and have arranged to sub-let their home. For this purpose, they use a company that matches available homes with people who’d like to have a temporary tenancy in them. The company itself is a small business, but because of the Internet, it has a global reach. If you’ve ever booked a B&B online, you know the kind of reach I mean. When the family returns from their trip, they find their home in terrible condition. At first they think it’s a case of slipshod, inconsiderate tenants. But then, other things happen that make it clear that someone has targeted the family. Fredrik Bronan and his police team investigate, and they’ll have to act as quickly as they can to find out who would want to hurt the family and why, before something tragic happens.

Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski may not be the most technologically savvy character in fiction. But he certainly understands the value of promoting a small business globally. He and his wife Rosie own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They do spend time at the lodge, but their home is in the small town of Crooked Lake, south of the lodge. Stuart Lake Lodge does get some local trade. But a great deal of the company’s business comes from international visitors. Bart has arrangements with travel agents in several places, and, of course, a toll-free number, so that the lodge’s reach is much larger than you might think.

Smaller, independent businesses also rely on simply doing things better, if I may put it that way. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne-based baker who prides herself on making ‘real’ breads, rolls and other baked goods. She uses fresh ingredients and markets locally. When a large competitor opens one of its franchises on the same street where Chapman has her bakery, she faces stiff competition. Her employee and apprentice baker Jason Wallace does some reconnaissance at the new bakery and reports that the bread’s not made nearly as well. Still, the new place does attract a lot of trade – until ergot is found in some local breads, and poisons some customers. Now Chapman faces the closure of her own bakery unless the source of the ergot is found.

So, can small, independent businesses compete against the behemoths? They’re certainly not doomed to failure. Of course, a lot depends on the particular business and market; and each industry is different. But the Internet has made it possible for even one-person businesses to ‘go global.’

ps. The ‘photo is an example of a small business with a global reach. This is a case of very nice wine from Peju, in California’s Napa region. It’s not by any means a huge winery, but no matter where you live, you can connect with Peju and see what you think of their wine.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Machines (or, ‘Back to Humans’).

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Filed under Caroline Graham, Geoffrey McGeachin, Håkan Östlundh, Kerry Greenwood, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Temple, Robert Rotenberg

I Didn’t Get a Chance to Defend Myself*

ArrestedWhen the police investigate a crime, they have to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But evidence doesn’t always immediately point to the actual criminal. Sometimes that means that an innocent person is arrested or even convicted. It happens in real life, and that plot point adds tension and suspense to a crime novel too. It’s incredibly hard on a person to be arrested for a crime, especialy for those who aren’t accustomed to the justice/prison system. That stress can affect one deeply, and that can add to a crime story too, in terms of character development and suspense.

Agatha Christie deals with this issue in several of her novels. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, James Bentley is arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the murder of his landlady. He isn’t a particularly pleasant, friendly person, so he doesn’t have many supporters. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence, who gathered the evidence in the case, believes Bentley may be innocent. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and goes to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder took place. It’s not long before he learns that there are several other possibilities; Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about people, and she’d found out something it wasn’t safe for her to know. As the novel goes on, we see how the experience of being wrongly accused of a crime has affected Bentley. He is convinced that no-one cares what happens to him, and certain that he won’t get a fair deal, as the saying goes. Christie doesn’t discuss too much what happens to Bentley when the real murderer is caught, although in Hallowe’en Party it’s mentioned that he’s gotten married. It’s not hard to imagine though that re-integrating himself into everyday life can’t have been easy. (I know, I know, fans of Ordeal by Innocence and Sad Cypress).

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder introduces readers to Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy business magnate Dietrich Van Horn. He’s been troubled lately by blackouts during which he has no idea what happens. He becomes especially frightened one day when he wakes up covered in blood. Sure that he’s done something terrible, he visits his old college friend Ellery Queen and asks his help. Queen agrees and thogether, the two men try to piece together what’s happened. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, where his father and stepmother Sally live. While they’re there, there’s another blackout incident. This time, Sally Van Horn is killed. Howard is accused and becomes convinced that he is guilty. And the experience of being the focus of a murder investigation (and believing he is a killer) takes a terrible toll on him. Although Queen finds out the truth about the case, that doesn’t really change much for his former friend. Queen fans will know that this plot point – the terrible experience of being arrested when one’s innocent – is also a part of Calamity Town.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is arrested for the rape of Mayella Ewell. Since Robinson is Black and Ewell is White, this is a particularly emotionally-charged case. Robinson claims he’s not guilty, but almost no-one believes him. Prominent attorney Atticus Finch takes the case and begins to look into what really happened. As he does, we see how difficult it is for Robinson. Finch finds out the truth, but that doesn’t mean that life becomes perfect again. It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties Robinson has in getting back to something like a normal life after his experiences.

Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton includes a similar plot point. Alexander Seaton is the undermaster of a grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He gets drawn into a criminal investigation when the body of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is found in Seaton’s classroom at the school. Local music master Charles Thom, who is a friend of Seaton’s, was Davidson’s romantic rival, so he’s the immediate most likely suspect. He’s quickly arrested and imprisoned, although he claims he’s innocent. When Seaton visits his friend in prison, Thom asks Seaton’s help. He claims again that he’s innocent and asks Seaton to clear his name. Seaton reluctantly agrees and begins to ask some questions. Little by little, he finds out that this case is more complicated than it seemed on the surface, and that plenty of other people could have wanted to kill Davidson. As the novel goes on, we also see how difficult it is for Charles Thom to languish in prison, with no really effective way to defend himself.

And then there’s Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl. One morning, Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer John Ceepak is having breakfast at a restaurant with summer cop Danny Boyle. While they’re eating, twelve-year-old Ashley Hart stumbles up the street screaming incoherently. Ceepak and Boyle manage to calm the girl enough to tell them what’s wrong. She and her father, wealthy developer Reginald Hart, were taking a morning ride on the Turtle Tilt a Whirl, a ride at the town’s amusement park. Then, Ashely tells the police, a strange man with a gun shot her father and then ran off. When the police go to the scene, they see Hart’s body and the evidence Ashley described. The trail soon leads to a local homeless man nicknamed ‘Squeegee’ because he sometimes works at a car wash business. He’s disappeared, though, so tracing him won’t be easy. Ceepak and Boyle finally track ‘Squeegee’ down, and it does seem as though he could be guilty. But as Ceepak points out, that’s only one possibility. The police do find out who killed Hart and why, but in the meantime, it’s very hard on ‘Squeegee,’ who can’t really do much to defend himself.

There’s also Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake. John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie own a fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They live further south, in a small town called Crooked Lake, where everyone knows everyone. Because the town is so small, Bart learns about it very quickly when his friend Nick Taylor is fired from his job as head greenskeeper at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. Needless to say, Taylor’s furious about it, particularly since he doesn’t believe he’s done anything to deserve being separated. He blames Board of Directors member Harvey Kristoff, so he’s the natural suspect when Kristoff’s body is found later that day on the grounds of the golf course. The police are called in, and they follow the trail of evidence where it naturally leads – straight to Taylor. He’s soon arrested and charged. But he claims that he’s innocent, and his attorney Frank Hendrickson believes him. Bart doesn’t want to believe Taylor’s guilty either, so he’s only too happy to help clear his name. As it turns out, Taylor’s by no means the only one with a motive for muder, and Bart finds out who the real killer is. But it’s clear throughout the novel that being charged with murder is very hard on Nick Taylor. It doesn’t help matters that Crooked Lake is a small town, so everyone knows him and knows about his arrest.

The process of being arrested and charged with something as serious as murder takes a major toll on a person. Even knowing one’s innocent doesn’t always help much. It can add suspense and substance to a crime novel plot when the author acknowledges that.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buddy Guy and George Buddy’s Innocent Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, Nelson Brunanski, S.G. MacLean, Shona MacLean