Category Archives: Paddy Richardson

That’s the Night That They Hung an Innocent Man*

One of the more popular, and often very effective, tropes in crime fiction is the character who’s been wrongly convicted of murder. It’s no wonder that it’s popular, too. For one thing, convictions are not always the end of the proverbial story. There are appeals, and there are opportunities for detectives to go back over a case. As you’ll know, there are instances, too, where people who’ve been imprisoned are exonerated. And sometimes, it’s less clear that someone was wrongly convicted. So, there’s a big question of whether that person is, in fact, guilty. All of this means the crime writer has a lot of flexibility with respect to how a plot will develop.

There’s also the suspense involved. Will the wrongly convicted character be set free? If that person’s innocent, who committed the crime? Is the character actually innocent? All of these questions can add interest and tension to a plot.

In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumprint, we are introduced to Sergeant Jacob Studer of Bern Cantonal Police. As the novel begins, he recently compiled the evidence that landed Erwin Schlumpf in jail, convicted of murdering Wendelin Witschi. On impulse, Studer decides to visit Schlumpf in prison, and arrives just in time to stop him committing suicide. Studer has a liking for this prisoner, and decides to look at the facts of the case again. The trail leads to the small town of Gerzenstein, where the Witschi family lives. And, as Studer gets to know the town and its residents, he learns that this murder may be more complicated than he thought. Certainly, there are more suspects than it seemed at the beginning.

Agatha Christie used the ‘wrongly convicted person’ in several of her stories. In fact, as a personal aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a special interest in/concern for the innocent person who’s been convicted. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to revisit one of his (Spence’s) cases. James Bentley has been convicted of the murder of his landlady, Mrs. McGinty, and will soon be executed. Spence has come to believe that Bentley may be innocent; if so, he wants the man’s name cleared. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and visits the village of Broadhinny, where the murder took place. It doesn’t take long before he discovers that Mrs. McGinty was a charwoman who worked in several homes in and near the village. She was naturally curious, and had found out some things that it wasn’t safe for her to know. So, there are several people who are just as well pleased that she’s dead. I see you, fans of Five Little Pigs and of Ordeal by Innocence.

As James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos begins, New Iberia Police detective Dave Robicheaux is assigned to transport two convicted prisoners to Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary. One of these prisoners is Tee Beau Latiolais; the other is Jimmie Lee Boggs. During the trip, Boggs manages to escape, killing Robicheaux’s partner Lester Benoit, and badly wounding Robicheaux. Separately, he and Latiolais go on the run, and one plot thread of this story concerns Robicheaux’s search for them. Latiolais’ grandmother, Tante Lemon, begs Robicheaux to help her son. She says that he’s not guilty of murder (he was with her at the time of the killing), and that he was wrongly convicted. She also says, though, that the police won’t listen to her, and certainly won’t listen to her grandson. So, another plot thread in this novel follows Robicheaux’s search for the real killer.

In Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, we are introduced to former Glasgow copper Douglas Brodie. He’s recently returned from service in World War II (the novel takes place just after the end of that war), and is dealing with what we now call PTSD. He’s living in London, trying to start a career in journalism, when he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. Donovan’s been convicted and jailed for the abduction and murder of a young boy named Rory Hutchinson, and is slated for execution in four weeks’ time. There’s credible evidence against him, too. In fact, the evidence is strong enough that Brodie isn’t entirely sure his friend is innocent. But Donovan says that he isn’t guilty, and Brodie finally allows himself to be persuaded to at least ask a few questions. So, he travels to Glasgow, where he meets with Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She is firmly convinced her client is not guilty, and after a short time, Brodie begins to believe here. For one thing, there are a few too many obstacles to their finding out the truth, so it’s clear that someone wants the case left alone. For another, there are other possibilities. It’s not going to be an easy investigation, though; there are plenty of people who do not want the truth discovered.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Connor Bligh has been in Rimutaka State Prison for several years, convicted of murdering his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Now, little pieces of evidence suggest that Bligh may not be guilty. And that possibility gets the attention of Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. If Bligh is innocent, this could be the story of Thorne’s career – the one that will cement her position at the top of New Zealand television journalism. So, she wastes no time starting to ask questions. The more she discovers, the closer she gets to the story – too close for comfort, as the saying goes. In this story, part of the tension comes from the question of whether Thorne is really onto something, or whether Bligh is a multiple murderer.

Of course, many convicted prisoners claim that they’re innocent. But there are cases where some of them really are, or could be. And even the possibility that an innocent person has been convicted can add much to the tension and suspense in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobby Russell’s The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Friedrich Glauser, Gordon Ferris, James Lee Burke, Paddy Richardson

So Hoist Up the John B. Sails*

voyagesOne of literature’s very interesting plots is what Christopher Booker has called the voyage and return. Booker’s work has its critics, but it is interesting to see how journeys (whether figurative or literal) can change people. We certainly see this sort of structure in crime fiction, and that makes sense when you consider all of the things that can happen on a voyage, no matter how you conceive of that term.

For example, there’s quite a literal voyage and return in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. After ten years of service as a paid companion, Katherine Grey inherits a fortune when her employer dies. She decides to use some of the money to travel, and chooses Nice as her destination (she has distant relatives who live there). As she’s taking the famous Blue Train through France, she meets wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who has her own reasons for taking the train. During the trip, Ruth is murdered, and Katherine is drawn in to the case. Hercule Poirot is taking the same train, and he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why. Katherine returns to her village of St. Mary Mead, and takes up another position, but she’s not the same person as when she left. As Poirot points out, she’s no longer an onlooker to life; she takes an active part in it.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, and is quite accustomed to a certain routine in his life. One day, he discovers that the dog belonging to the people next door is dead. Its owners think he’s responsible, but Christopher knows he isn’t. So, he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. The trail leads him to several unexpected places, and when he returns, he’s not the same person he was. He still has autism, but he has discovered several important things about himself.

H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case serves as a prequel to his series featuring Mumbai police detective Ganesh Ghote. In this novel, Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. His supervisor asks him to travel to Mahableshwar and look into a case of suicide on behalf of a friend. It seems Robert Dawkins’ wife Iris killed herself, and he (Dawkins) wants to know why. Since Dawkins is a friend of Ghote’s boss, Ghote feels he has no choice but to look into the matter, although his wife, Protima, is about to give birth to their first child. So, he goes to Mahableshwar and begins to ask questions. He finds that there are reasons for which Iris Dawkins might have wanted to take her own life. Still, the clues don’t add up, and Ghote slowly begins to believe that she was murdered. Now, he has to work out who is responsible. He discovers the truth, and gains some confidence in himself along the way. When he returns to Mumbai, we see that he’s done some maturing, and has a different relationship with his boss than he did at the beginning.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue is the first of her novels to feature Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan. In that novel, Morgan travels from Vancouver, where she teaches at the university, to Nice. There, she’ll attend a symposium and deliver a paper on behalf of a colleague who’s had an accident and can’t travel. One afternoon, she’s at an outdoor café when she has a chance encounter with Alistair Townsend, a former employer. Among other things, he persuades her (mostly against her will) to attend a birthday party he’s hosting for his wife, Tamsin. During the course of the party, Townsend suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. The French police investigate, and Morgan finds herself one of the suspects. Mostly to clear her own name and be free to return to Vancouver, Morgan begins to ask questions. Each in a different way, Morgan and the police work to find out who killed Townsend, and they have several suspects. In the end, Morgan discovers the truth and goes back to Vancouver. But she’s not the same person she was at the beginning of the novel. And we see that this experience will change her life in more ways than she thought.

Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide is the story of Samantha ‘Sam’ Bretton. Her father Allan ‘Tug’ is the owner of a Brisbane-based fishing trawler called Sea Mistress, and the Brettons depend on the income that comes from good catches. Tug is suspected of murdering Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. He claims he’s not guilty and Sam believes him. But he’s under a cloud of suspicion. What’s more, he broke his leg in the incident surrounding McKay’s death. So, he can’t take Sea Mistress out. After some effort, Sam convinces her father to let her skipper the trawler in his place. Meanwhile, Brisbane cop Chayse Jarrett has been assigned to find out the truth about the McKay murder. He goes undercover and gets a job as deck hand on Sea Mistress, hoping to find out whether Tug Bretton is guilty of murder, and whether he might be connected to the drugs smuggling trade. The trawler goes out, with both Sam and Chayse looking to catch a killer. And the experience changes both of them. It turns out that McKay’s murder is connected with a much bigger case than it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Newly-minted psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. At first, they don’t make any progress together. But very slowly, Elisabeth starts to talk about herself. And Stephanie finds that her client’s story is hauntingly similar to her own. It seems that years ago, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Gracie, was abducted. No trace of her was ever found, and the experience scarred the whole family. Stephanie lost her own sister, Gemma, seventeen years earlier in a similar way. When she hears Elisabeth’s story, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest. She travels from Dunedin to her home town of Wanaka to try to find out who wreaked so much havoc on her family and on the Clark family. Stephanie does find the answers she’s seeking. She also goes through some real personal changes.

And that’s the thing about some voyages. They can take people to places they hadn’t imagined. And they almost always change the voyager.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the traditional Bahamas folk song, The John B Sails. You might be familiar with the Kingston Trio’s recording of it, or that of the Beach Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, H.R.F. Keating, Mark Haddon, Paddy Richardson, Sandy Curtis

Am I Living it Right?*

teaching-lessonsAn interesting post by author and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has got me thinking about the way stories are used to teach lessons. In oral history cultures, stories are used to teach values, what it means to behave appropriately, and so on. And there are plenty of stories like that in cultures with written histories, too. For instance, many children’s tales teach the value of hard work (The Little Red Hen is one). Others teach other values (honesty, for instance, in The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’).

What about crime fiction? Does crime fiction teach values, or a culture’s priorities? Perhaps it doesn’t do so deliberately. I don’t, personally, know any crime writer who consciously integrates a ‘values’ lesson. But there is an argument that an author’s, or a culture’s, values come through in the genre. And that makes sense. Crime fiction is written by humans. And humans have value systems and priorities.

You’ll notice that this post won’t make reference to things such as an author’s political agenda, or to an author’s stance on particular issues. Rather, I mean larger value systems.

For instance, I’m sure you could name dozens of crime novels where we see the lesson that ‘money doesn’t buy happiness.’ If you look at Raymond Chandler’s work (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Big Sleep, but it’s hardly the only example), you see that his Philip Marlowe often works with families that are rich, but miserable. The same is true of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer in The Far Side of the Dollar.

There are plenty of other lessons in crime fiction, too. In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we are introduced to British special agent Colin Lamb. He’s been looking into the death of a fellow agent, and believes that the key may be a spy ring that this agent was investigating. The trail leads to the small town of Crowdean, and to a street called Wilbraham Crescent. Lamb’s following up on that lead when he gets drawn into a case of murder. It’s not directly related to his own case, but he works with Inspector Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle to solve the crime – with help from his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot. At the same time, he’s pursuing his own investigation. And, in the end, he finds the answers. Woven throughout the story (as is the case in a lot of Agatha Christie’s work) is the question of human nature. People are complex – much more than just their intellect – and Christie often makes a point of discussing that complexity. At this end of this novel, Lamb says,
 

‘‘I’m content…to be human.’’ 
 

It’s an interesting reminder that underneath everything, people are human beings, and, Christie seems to say, should be valued as such. Perhaps that’s why Poirot, as he says, does not approve of murder.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s work will know that most of his stories take place in the US Southwest, among the Navajo people. In fact, his two protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are members of the Navajo Nation, as well as being officers in the Navajo Tribal Police. Since many of the characters in these novels are Navajo, readers learn about that culture. And one of the important lessons in the Navajo culture is the concept of hozro – beauty. But in this case, ‘beauty’ doesn’t refer to physical attractiveness or visual appeal. Rather, it means harmony with one’s environment, and peace with one’s situation. All sorts of things can threaten that harmony. Sickness, grief, and encounters with death are just a few examples. So are anxiety and anger. The Navajo culture teaches the value of harmony with others and with one’s environment, and that comes through in Hillerman’s stories. In more than one novel (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Ghostway, among others), characters deal with death, with trauma and so on, and then seek to restore themselves to hozro. It’s portrayed as a desirable state.

Simplicity and being comfortable with oneself are portrayed as valuable in several of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe novels. For instance, as fans can tell you, Mma Ramotswe is ‘traditionally built.’ Normally, she doesn’t worry too much about that fact. She wears flat, comfortable sandals, and clothing that’s roomy enough for her. She makes no attempt to hide her size. And yet, in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she decides to go on a diet. As it turns out, she’s no better off once she starts her diet, and she gets a reminder that she’s not really being true to herself, as the saying goes. In the same novel, Mma’s assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, has her heart set on a pair of beautiful blue shoes she saw in a shop. They don’t quite fit, and they’re not really right for work wear. But Mma Makutsi is determined, and buys them. In both of these cases, we get reminders of the value of being happy with simple things, and being comfortable with oneself.

Paddy Richardson’s Rebecca Thorne gets a lesson in Traces of Red. She’s a successful Wellington TV journalist who gets what she thinks will be a chance at a story that will cement her position at the top of New Zealand journalism. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Thorne learns that there is a possibility that Bligh might be innocent. If so, there’s a major story there, and she goes after it. In doing so, she finds herself getting much closer to the story than is safe. And she learns important lessons about ambition.

Crime fiction may not be written with the purpose of teaching a lesson, as, say, Aesop’s fables were. And readers would probably get annoyed anyway with crime novels that served as ‘morality plays.’ At the same time, there are lessons woven through the genre. And it’s interesting to see how they reflect an author or a culture’s values.

Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration. Folks, do visit D.S. Nelson’s great blog, and try her Blake Heatherington mysteries. They’re terrific.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Why Georgia.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald

The Name on Everybody’s Lips is Gonna be…*

high-publicity-casesAs this is posted, it’s 70 years since Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. This still-unsolved murder case got a great deal of public attention at the time, and it’s not hard to see why. A young, attractive woman, found brutally murdered, would be sure to attract interest, especially when the killer was not found. It was a sensational killing, and the press dubbed Short ‘The Black Dahlia.’ Since the murder, there’ve been any number of theories about the killing, and dozens of people have confessed, or have pointed the police towards someone. No leads have held up to scrutiny, though.

There’ve been other murders that have gotten that sort of hype, both in real life and in crime fiction. Sometimes it’s because it’s a particularly gruesome killing. Other times it’s because the victim is famous, or wealthy, or particularly appealing.

We see this, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall travels to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Accompanying her are her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter, Linda. Not long after the family’s arrival, Arlena engages in a not-too-carefully hidden affair with another (married) guest, Patrick Redfern. It’s the talk of the hotel, and when Arlena is found strangled one day, the killing becomes a public sensation. At first, the police suspect Marshall of killing his wife. But it’s soon shown that he couldn’t have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the real killer is. Even though he’s been cleared of suspicion, Marshall is still subject to a lot of scrutiny, and it’s very hard for him. I see you, fans of The ABC Murders.

Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town takes Queen to the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s arranged to stay in a guest house on the property of wealthy social leaders John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen gets drawn into the family’s private affairs when Jim Haight, former fiancé of the Wrights’ youngest daughter, Nora, comes back to town after leaving three years earlier. Against all advice, Nora rekindles her romance with Jim, and the two marry. Then, some letters emerge that suggest that Jim is planning to kill Nora. Nora doesn’t believe it, and the two settle in together. Matters get even more complicated when Jim’s unpleasant sister, Rosemary, comes for an extended visit.  On New Year’s Eve, Rosemary drinks a cocktail that turns out to be poisoned. The police investigate and immediately, the case becomes a public sensation. It involves the most important family in town and it’s a lurid murder case. So, naturally, everyone has something to say about it. When Jim is arrested for the murder (the theory is that the cocktail was intended for Nora), almost no-one believes his claims of innocence. Queen does, though, and it’s interesting to see how his investigation is impacted by the publicity surrounding the murder.

Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces readers to Met PC Maeve Kerrigan. She’s been working with a team investigating a series of murders where the killer tries to incinerate his victims. The press has dubbed the murderer the Burning Man, and the murders have gotten quite a lot of media and public attention. In part, that’s because there’s a series of killings. In part, it’s because of the fires. In any case, the Met is getting an awful lot of pressure to catch the killer, and that doesn’t make anyone’s job easy. Then comes the murder of Rebecca Haworth. At first, her death looks like another Burning Man killing. But certain aspects of the murder are different enough that Kerrigan isn’t sure it’s the same killer. She wants to stay on the team investigating the Burning Man killings, but her boss has other ideas. If Haworth’s murder is a Burning Man killing, then any progress in solving it is progress towards solving the other murders. If it’s a ‘copycat’ killer, then the Met will come under heavy criticism for neglecting it if leads aren’t pursued. So, Kerrigan is assigned to follow up on the Haworth murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at how a case’s level of publicity can impact police decision-making.

In Tarrquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we learn of Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission, and that of the institute he founded, is to debunk fake spiritualists – people he calls ‘the godmen.’ One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. During the meeting, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. As you can imagine, the press and public make much of this, and many people say that Jha was killed because he was leading people towards becoming infidels. News commentators everywhere have their say, and the incident leads to an upsurge in attendance at shrines, and other worship. Delhi PI, whose client Jha once was, is not convinced this death has a supernatural explanation. He takes an interest in the case, and decides to investigate. As he and his team look into the matter, it’s very interesting to see the role that the case’s publicity plays.

Nelson Brunanski’s Frost Bite is the second of his novels to feature John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. Bart and his wife, Rosie, life in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. They own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fly-fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Most of the time, life for the Bartowskis doesn’t involve a lot of press or publicity. But that changes when Bart finds the body of Lionel Morrison under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. For one thing, Morrison was a well-known, well-connected agribusiness CEO; as a ‘heavy hitter,’ his death would naturally get attention. And this is no ordinary death. So, there’s soon a media ‘feeding frenzy’ and the case gets a lot of public attention. Bart’s already connected to the case, since he found the body. And the victim had recently spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge. So, even though Bart’s really not one to covet media attention, he gets drawn into this investigation.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. When Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam, were murdered, the most likely suspect was Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh. In fact, he’s been in prison for years for the murders. But now, little hints have suggested that he might be innocent. If so, this could be the case to solidify Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne’s place at the top of her field. So, she starts to look into the matter. And, as she does, she finds herself getting closer than is safe to it. Among other things, it’s a really clear look at how publicity affects those involved in a murder.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of fictional cases that get a lot of public attention (you’re right, fans of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry). And it’s interesting to consider which sorts of cases do get that sort of publicity, and which don’t. I wonder what that says about us…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Roxie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Helen Fitzgerald, Jane Casey, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall

See You, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard*

schoolyards-and-playgroundsWhen children are in the classroom, they’re supposed to behave themselves, and many do. What’s more, classroom activities are usually structured and choreographed by the teacher. So, they’re not always realistic, natural looks at what children are like.

But you can learn a lot about children and their families by watching them in the schoolyard or on the playground. Whether it’s before school, after school, or at recess/lunch/break, children tend to be more unguarded there. And, even when their parents or caregivers know that other people may see them, they’re sometimes unguarded, too. That can lead to all sorts of interactions.

Those can be the basis for interesting, and even suspenseful, plot points in crime fiction. There are a number of examples of these sorts of scenes. Here are just a few.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg discovers that her husband, Henrik, has been unfaithful. She’d had the illusion that she, Henrik, and their six-year-old son, Axel, had the perfect suburban life, so the news of Henrik’s affair is devastating. When Eva learns who Henrik’s mistress is, she decides to plot her own revenge. Her plan spins out of control, though, and leads to tragedy. In one plot thread of the story, she has a different sort of worry. One day, she’s driving Axel home from school when she notices he has a new toy. Then, he tells her about the man who gave it to him:
 

‘‘…he was standing outside the fence by the woods and then he called me while I was on the swing and said he was going to give me something nice.’’
 

Naturally, Eva’s frightened at the thought of what could have happened. Axel, as it turns out, is unhurt. But the man does figure into the plot, and the playground scene could frighten any parent.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red concerns the murders of Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. The only survivor that day was their daughter, Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the killings. For years, Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh, has been in prison for the murders. But now, there are little hints that he might not be guilty. And if he is innocent, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks she’s found the story to guarantee her place at the top of the list of New Zealand journalists. She starts asking questions, and takes the opportunity to meet several people, some of whom are convinced Bligh is guilty, and others who aren’t so sure. She also meets with Bligh himself, and persuades him to tell her his story. He takes her at her word, and sends her a long letter, telling her about his life. It’s not been a very happy one, either. He’s unusually intelligent, and never really fit in at school, because he was so far ahead of the other children intellectually. The letter tells of brutal play yard bullying, among other things. But then, Thorne learns that his story is different to the stories that his former schoolmates tell. The playground incidents aren’t the reason for the murders. And they don’t really get Thorne any closer to the truth about those killings. But they certainly shed light on what playground activities can be like when the adults aren’t around.

Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder tells the story of Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel. When they return to their home on the island of Fårö after two months away, they’re dismayed to see terrible messes everywhere. At first, it looks like a case of horrible tenants. But some of the family photographs have been damaged in a very deliberate way that looks much more personal. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin to look into the case, and see two possibilities. One is that one of the tenants had a personal grudge against the family. The other is that someone who knows the family found a way to get inside the house. The police aren’t sure what sort of case this is until the day that seven-year-old Ellen disappears from school. According to her friend, Matilda, Ellen was lured into a white car that stopped by the playground at the school she attends. That’s enough for the police to set a major search in motion, and certainly convinces them that this family is being targeted. Now they have to discover who’s behind everything, and what the motive is.

Some of the key action in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies takes place on the playground of Piriwee Public School, on the Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The story’s focus is three families who send their children to Kindergarten at the school. One of those children is accused of bullying by the mother of another child, and before long, this causes a major conflict. Many parents take the side of the accusing parent, because she’s one of the school’s leaders. Others, though, are not so quick to accuse, and take the side of the boy who’s been accused of bullying. The truth is, it was a playground incident, so no adult actually saw what happened. So, it’s hard to know who did what. There are other conflicts among some of the families, too, and other dynamics going on. It all simmers until Trivia Night, which is supposed to be a fundraiser for the school. The food doesn’t arrive on time, so everyone has too much to drink and not enough food to absorb the alcohol. Tempers flare and the end result is tragedy. The police investigate, and we slowly learn what really happened on the playground, and what really happened on Trivia Night.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, a retired academic and political scientist. In Kaleidoscope, her adult daughter, Mieka, opens a combination playground/meeting place she calls UpSlideDown in Regina’s struggling North Central district. Young parents in that area do not always have the support they need to help their children. So, Mieka has designed UpSlideDOown as a place where parents can meet, let their children play, get parenting advice, and find support. It’s so successful that Mieka opens UpSlideDown2. Admittedly, neither place is the scene of a murder, or an investigation. But both places play roles in the stories. And they’re both examples of the ways in which a playground can be a very positive place.

Playgrounds and schoolyards are where the action often is when it comes to young people’s interactions. And it’s where you sometimes see their parents in very unguarded moments, too. That’s part of what can make them so effective in crime novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.

    

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Filed under Gail Bowen, Håkan Östlundh, Karin Alvtegen, Liane Moriarty, Paddy Richardson