Category Archives: Perri O’Shaughnessy

Pressure, Pushing Down on Me*

In the US, one of the last major hurdles for Ph.D. candidates is defending their dissertations. I understand it’s the same in many other places, too. If you have a Ph.D. yourself, or you’ve sat in on one of these events, then you know it’s a very intense experience. As this is posted, it’s my ‘dissertation anniversary,’ which has me thinking about the process. Candidates spend weeks or even months preparing their presentations of their material, as well as responses to possible questions they may get from members of their dissertation committees (and, at times, the audience). And, of course, those questions may be about any aspect of the dissertation, so the candidate needs to be thoroughly familiar with every bit of the material. It’s nerve-wracking, to say the least.

The thing about defending a dissertation is that it’s a bit difficult to describe, since it doesn’t have a lot of obvious parallels in other fields. But a look at crime fiction can help give a few insights.

Getting ready to defend a dissertation is a little like rehearsing for a performance. Just as actors must know their lines and musicians must know their pieces, Ph.D. candidates have to have their presentations well-prepared. We see the intensity of rehearsal in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright sees her protagonist, Cassandra James, asked to adapt a Victorian novel, East Lynne, for a stage production. She’s Head of the English Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, and her specialty is Victorian literature. So, she’s the right choice for the job. All starts out well enough, and rehearsals begin. But then, Melissa Meadows, who is to take a leading role in the play, tells James that someone is stalking her. Then, she goes missing. This throws rehearsals into chaos, and, when she doesn’t return, leads to the investigation of a possible murder.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett, and Deborah Nicholson, among others, will know that their novels also take the reader ‘backstage.’ In such novels, we see how many times material has to be prepared and how important timing is. We also see the suspense, nerves and tension that come out under so much pressure. It’s the same when one’s preparing to defend a dissertation.

Defending a dissertation isn’t really entertainment, though. Candidates need to be prepared to address challenges to everything about their work. They need to examine each aspect of their dissertations, from the topic, to the data collection, to the data analysis, and more. In that sense, preparing to defend a dissertation is a little like preparing for a trial. A good attorney prepares thoroughly for each trial. That includes working with witnesses and, possibly, the defendant. It also includes looking carefully at each aspect of the case, and addressing possible weaknesses. Attorneys know that any serious weaknesses in a case will be exploited by the other side. So, they do everything possible to prevent that. Admittedly, the Ph.D. candidate doesn’t risk prison. But it’s still quite a high-stakes process.

We see that sort of preparation in work by, for instance Scott Turow, John Grisham, Robert Rotenberg, and Paul Levine. The writing team of ‘Perri O’Shaughnessy’ also explore this sort of pre-trial work in their Nina Reilly novels.

Presenting one’s material before the dissertation committee, and fielding questions, isn’t exactly like a trial. The role of the dissertation committee is to support the candidate. After all, if the candidate doesn’t do well, this reflects on the committee, too – in particular on the candidate’s advisor/tutor, who generally chairs the committee.

In that way, defending a dissertation is a bit like a major sports competition. On the one hand, the player has to work very hard, and coaches can be difficult to satisfy. The Olympic Games, the World Series, the World Cup, and other such contests, all require discipline and focus. And coaches and trainers push and challenge players to get the most from them. At the same time, their role is to be allies and support systems.

Alison Gordon’s crime novels give readers a good look at what it’s like to play for a Major League baseball team. Readers see how important the actual games can be, and what the roles of coaches and trainers are. John Daniell’s The Fixer offers some similar insight into the world of rugby. And there’s Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, which takes the perspective of a sports agent. In all of these novels and series, we see how pivotal a game or series of games can be. That stress and tension is quite similar to what it’s like to defend a dissertation.

As I say, it’s a little difficult to describe getting ready to defend a dissertation. It’s a singular experience, and it challenges Ph.D. candidates to think about their work in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise. But there is nothing quite like being informed you’ve passed, and having your committee address you as ‘Doctor.’ I often think it would actually be a solid context for a crime novel. There’s tension, intense preparation, possible ego clashes, and there’s no telling what the candidate might uncover in pursuit of that all-important data set. If you went through this process, I’d love to hear your experiences. I still remember mine, even after a number of years.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure.


Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Deborah Nicholson, Harlan Coben, John Daniell, John Grisham, Ngaio Marsh, Paul Levine, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow, Simon Brett

I’ve Been Moved By Some Things That I’ve Learned*

Lessons From ReadingOne of the real pleasures of reading, at least for me, is the things that I learn about when I read. My guess is, that’s true of most book lovers. Of course a good plot and believable, interesting characters matter. Otherwise a novel becomes a textbook. But a well-written story can also offer readers insights and information that they didn’t know before. And perhaps it’s just my perspective, but I think that knowledge is a good thing. We all know different things and read different books, so for each of us, what we learn will also be different. But, speaking strictly for myself, here are a few things I’ve learned from the crime fiction that I’ve read.


Different Communities I Didn’t Even Know Were There


Of course people migrate all over the world. But I’ve still been surprised to learn about some of the communities there are in some unexpected places. For instance, in Craig Johnson’s Death Without Company, Absaroka County, Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire is faced with a very difficult crime. Mari Baroja, a resident of the Durant Home for Assisted Living, is found dead of what turns out to be poison. Longmire, his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, and new hire Santiago Saizarbitoria begin sifting through the evidence, starting with the members of the victim’s family. Bit by bit, we learn about Mari Baroja’s past, and how incidents from fifty years ago have influenced what happens in the present day. One of the interesting things about this novel is that the victim is a member of Wyoming’s Basque community. It turns out that Wyoming has a large Basque population, something I hadn’t known before. But Johnson weaves that into the story so that it comes up naturally, rather than feeling forced.

Another community I learned about through crime fiction is the Ukrainian community in Canada’s prairie provinces. We get a look at that community in Gail Bowen’s first Joanne Kilbourn mystery Deadly Appearances. Up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during a speech that he’s giving at a Sunday School picnic. Kilbourn was a friend of Boychuk’s as well as being one of his political campaign workers. So she’s devastated at his loss. She decides to write a biography of Boychuk to help her deal with her grief. In the process of finding out about Boychuk’s life, she also finds out who murdered him. And readers find out about Saskatchewan’s Ukrainian community, to which Boychuk belonged. Anthony Bidulka’s PI Russell Quant is also a member of that community since his mother is Ukrainian, and readers learn about Saskatchewan Ukrainians in the novels that feature him. In those series and in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series, readers learn about the Ukrainian influence on the Canadian prairie. There are even Ukrainian language programs in some schools in that part of the country.

I’ve learned about other communities I hadn’t been aware of too. There just isn’t room to mention all of them.


Things About the Legal System


One of the things that I enjoy about well-written legal mysteries is that sometimes, they turn on an important point of law that isn’t always widely known. So besides solid characters and plotting, I’ve also learned some interesting legal precedents and facts.

For example, in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, the case of Lindy Markov hinges on what’s been called ‘palimony’ in the United States. Lindy and her common-law husband Mike have been together for twenty years when Mike has an affair with his company’s vice-president for financial services Rachel Pembroke. Very soon Lindy finds herself removed from the company position she’s held and ordered to evacuate the home she’s shared with Mike for their entire relationship. She hires Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly to sue Mike on her behalf for her share of the profits from the company she helped him build. In part, this case has to do with the rights that a common-law spouse has. The answer isn’t clear-cut, and it varies by jurisdiction. This novel also taught me a lot about the process of jury selection and the work involved in preparing for a major trial.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features Virginia brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. The two share an unhappy childhood, but that’s about all they have in common. Gates squanders his athletic ability and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare money and money he gets from his mother. Mason on the other hand makes use of every opportunity he gets, wins an academic scholarship to university and then goes on to law school. One night, he’s with his brother when an argument flares up between Gates and his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and the Hunt brothers move on. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and begs his brother, now a Virginia commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of prison. Mason refuses, and Gates then threatens that if his brother doesn’t co-operate, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason calls his brother’s bluff and soon enough he’s indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. With the police targeting him and Gates willingly lying about the murder, Mason doesn’t have many options. But there’s one point of law that may be exactly what he needs. It’s a fact of law that I didn’t know until I read this novel. With help from his deputy prosecutor Custis Norman, Mason uses that legal point to his advantage.

Those are of course just two examples of novels where an important aspect of the law is explored. When they’re done well, such novels make points of law not just comprehensible to a non-attorney, but really engaging as well.


Politics and History That I Didn’t Know Before


Some political history makes international headlines, but there’s a lot that I didn’t know about before I started reading crime fiction. And sometimes, politics can be really interesting. For instance, in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, readers learn about Australia’s 1972-1975 Gough Whitlam government. In that novel, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen and his team investigate the murders of former Whitlam government official Alec Dennet and the editor of his memoirs Loraine Starck. Then it comes out that the manuscript they were working on has disappeared. Now it looks as though someone was afraid that Dennet might reveal some uncomfortable things about high-ranking people in the Whitlam government. The truth is both more complicated and simpler than that, but it leads to some interesting background on that government.

I also learned a lot about Australia’s women’s movement in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. That’s a fictionalised account of the 1900 trial of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. As the novel makes clear, it’s much more complicated than a mother who simply ‘snapped.’ As James gives readers the background on Maggie’s life and the circumstances that may have led to the death of her son, we also learn that her cause was taken up by leading members of the Australian movement for women’s suffrage. One character in the novel for instance is Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. I didn’t know that. The novel also gives some really interesting background on the women’s movement that had a powerful effect on the Heffernan trial. I also didn’t know before reading this novel (and afterwards, doing a bit of looking on my own) that South Australia was the first state to grant women’s suffrage (in 1895). Australian women were given the vote at the federal level in 1902, nearly twenty years before it happened in the U.S.  The things crime fiction teaches you!

Those are just a few of the many things that I’ve learned about that I never knew before reading crime fiction. What about you? I’m not talking here of things like recipes or names of places, as interesting as those can be. Rather, I mean things going on, perhaps even in your lifetime, that you never knew. If you’re a writer, has something you learned inspired you to write a story about it?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Staines’ River.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Gail Bowen, Kel Robertson, Martin Clark, Nelson Brunanski, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Wendy James

Having Been Some Days in Preparation*

PreparationIf you’re in the midst of final preparations for holiday parties or guests, then you know how important those preparations can be. Do you have enough food and drink? Are all the towels clean if you have guests? Has everyone on your gift list been crossed off? It can get hectic, but those last-minute preparations can make a great deal of difference. They matter a lot in crime fiction too. Now, before I go any further, let me say that this post will not mention novels where we follow a serial killer preparing for the next murder. Too easy and frankly, I’m a bit ‘over’ serial killers. But there are a lot of other crime fiction novels where preparations are highlighted. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective story author Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt, along the lines of a scavenger hunt, for an upcoming fête. The big event is to be held at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Soon enough Mrs. Oliver begins to suspect that something more is going on here than a fête, and she asks Hercule Poirot to travel to Nasse House and investigate. His presence will be explained easily enough since he’ll be giving away the prizes for the Murder Hunt. When Poirot arrives, he’s witness to all of the last-minute preparations, including discussions about where the various booths will be, who will do what, and whether the leaflets describing the Murder Hunt are ready. On the day of the fête, everything is finally ready. The event is shattered though by the murder of Marlene Tucker, the young girl who’s serving as the ‘victim’ in the Murder Hunt. Poirot and Inspector Bland both work to find out who would have wanted to kill Marlene and why. In this novel we get a solid ‘inside look’ at all that goes into planning an event like a fête.

There are a lot of theatre-based novels in which we learn about what it takes to put on a play. I’ll just mention two. In Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly, Oxford’s repertory theatre is getting ready for a production of Robert Warner’s new play Metromania. A group of people including Warner, the cast and repertory producer Sheila McGaw gear up for rehearsals and production. One night, one of the actresses Yseute Haskell is shot. The first explanation is that this is a suicide. The victim was alone, and no-one else had been seen going to or coming from her room. Chief Constable Sir Richard Freeman happens to be visiting his friend Oxford don Gervase Fen when the shot is fired, so he gets involved immediately in the case, as does Fen and journalist Nigel Blake. Although the main plot of this novel is the murder and its investigation, there’s also an interesting thread as we go ‘backstage’ (yes, pun intended 😉 ) to see what it’s like to get ready for a theatre production.

Of course it’s not just the cast that has to get ready for a play. So does the house. We learn about this in Deborah Nicholson’s House Report. Kate Carpenter is House Manager for the Foothills Stage Network (FSN), which is housed in the Calgary Arts Complex (the Plex). One evening during a run of Much Ado About Nothing, the body of Peter Reynolds is discovered in one of the men’s washrooms. Detective Ken Lincoln begins to investigate the case, and his first suspect is the victim’s ex-wife Gladys, who serves as one of FSN’s ushers. She claims to be innocent, and asks Carpenter to help clear her name since she doesn’t think she’ll get fair treatment from the police. Carpenter’s reluctant at first, as she and Gladys are not exactly friends. But Gladys is an employee. What’s more one of the other suspects is Carpenter’s lover Norman ‘Cam’ Caminksi, who’s a building engineer and whose hammer was used for the murder. As Carpenter investigates, we get to see all of the preparations that the building staff members of a theatre have to go through for every evening of a performance. Among many other things, there’s the matter of concessions, there’s the matter of making sure the theatre is clean and everyone’s ready, and there’s the matter of ensuring that all of the tickets are ready to be picked up. That includes keeping a list of complimentary ticketholders. It’s not any easy job to manage all of this…

We see a very different kind of preparation in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. A far-right French terrorist group called Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) has determined to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. Because of an earlier attempt, OAS’ members are already known to the police, so none of the members of the group can take on this task. Instead, they hire an ‘outsider,’ an Englishman known only as ‘the Jackal.’ The arrangements are made, and Jackal begins preparations. Meanwhile, the French government finds out about the plot, but no-one knows who the Jackal is nor what this person looks like. So Detective Claude Lebel has very little to go on as he matches wits with the Jackal. The novel gives readers solid details about how an assassination is planned and what preparations are necessary. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me if you do), Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 filmed version of the novel conveys the preparations even more effectively.

Any skilled attorney will tell you that preparing for a trial is at least as important as the actual trial itself. Certainly surprises happen during a trial; but the better prepared one is, but better one’s chances. We see that in many, many legal novels. For instance in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly gets a chance at a major case when Lindy Markov hires her. Lindy lived with her common-law husband Mike for twenty years. She helped build the Markov’s successful business, and in every other way was Mike’s partner. Then, Mike fell in love with his financial services vice-president Rachel Pembroke. Now, Lindy’s been served eviction papers ordering her to leave the home she’s shared with Mike for their entire relationship. What’s more, she’s been removed from her position as executive vice-president of the business she and Mike built together. Faced with the possibility that she’ll be left with nothing, Lindy wants to sue Mike for her share of the business’ assets. This won’t be an easy case. Lindy and Mike were never legally married, so there’s a very sound legal argument that Lindy has no right to anything. Still, Reilly takes the case. The preparations for the trial take months, and readers follow along as the jury is selected, experts are gathered, and a consulting attorney and jury consultant join the team. The trial begins, and we see how all of those preparations lead up to it. Then, a shocking event changes everything…

No less complicated is the preparation for a major news story. We see this in Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne has been working on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. In order to be responsible about the story she does, Thorne needs to talk to Graham’s victims, gather background facts about his company and also get information from people on his team. And she soon hears some tragic stories of people who were ‘sold’ by richly catered evenings, glossy ‘photos and videos of luxurious properties, and ‘testimonials.’ Many of the victims lost everything they’d saved, and Thorne is happy with the progress of her story, as this will be a major ‘scoop.’ Then, her boss asks her to put the Graham story aside temporarily and do a story on the 30th anniversary of the Springboks’ rugby tour of New Zealand. ‘The Tour,’ as it’s often called, was highly controversial because of South Africa’s then-in-place policy of Apartheid, and there were many protests and stories of police abuse. At first Thorne isn’t happy about this. To her way of thinking, the story’s been done and there isn’t really a fresh angle. Then, she happens to learn of an unsolved murder that took place at the time and she begins to investigate that. Again, we see how a journalist prepares for a story as Thorne talks to people who protested, to members of the police, and to other people. She also gets background information and in other ways marshals her facts for the story.

Sometimes, it’s all in the preparation, whether it’s a holiday, a news story, a legal case or something else…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite! 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Deborah Nicholson, Edmund Crispin, Frederick Forsyth, Paddy Richardson, Perri O'Shaughnessy

Clean Shirt, White Shoes*

Clothes and JudgementsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the judgements we make based on the way people dress. Even though we know that that’s a very superficial and usually inaccurate way to decide what we think of a person, it’s still something we all do. That’s why for instance people wear suits to job interviews and evening dress to certain events. The way we dress really does affect others’ opinions in real life, and it certainly does in crime fiction too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old murder of her father Amyas Crale. Crale was a famous artist who was working on a painting of his mistress Elsa Greer when he was poisoned. At the time, his wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted for the crime. And there was solid evidence against her too. But Carla is convinced that her mother was not guilty. So she asks Poirot to take another look at the case. To do so he interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets their written accounts of what happened. That information gives Poirot the clues he needs to find out the truth about the murder. One of the interesting aspects of this novel is the different perceptions people have of the various characters in this story. For instance, Elsa Greer is beautiful and rich, but at the time of the trial, she was regarded as ‘jumped up trash.’ In part it’s because of her role as a ‘homewrecker.’ But that opinion isn’t improved by the fact that Elsa wore trousers at a time when ‘nice young ladies’ wouldn’t have considered it. It’s an interesting reflection of how dress affects people’s opinions.

Any skilled trial lawyer will tell you that dress plays an important role in the impression one makes in a courtroom. So clients are often carefully coached on the kinds of clothes to wear and not wear when they are in court. A lot of legal novels mention this issue. I’ll only bring up a few examples.

In Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly faces a very difficult civil case. Her client Lindy Markov has been served with eviction papers that order her to leave the home she’s shared with her partner Mike for twenty years. What’s more, she’s being removed from her position as an executive vice-president in the company she and Mike built together. It all stems from Mike’s affair with his financial services vice president Rachel Pembroke, and there seems little Lindy can do about it. She was never legally married to Mike, so there is a strong argument that she has no legal claim to any of his assets. And yet, there is also a solid argument that she does. So she and Reilly prepare for a civil trial in which Lindy is suing for her share of the company assets. Part of the preparation for the trial is careful discussion about what Lindy will wear. She can’t give the impression of being rich for obvious reasons. But it’s well known that she and Mike have a successful business, so dressing as though she’s poverty-stricken won’t work either. All their preparation stops mattering though when there’s a shocking event that changes everything. Still, it adds an interesting layer to the story to see how both she and Reilly carefully choose what they’ll wear.

Paris attorney Catherine Monsigny and her client Myriam Villetreix have similar conversations in Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer. Monsigny is a recently-minted attorney who gets a real chance to make a name for herself when Myriam Villetreix is charged with murdering her husband Gaston. Gaston was well-liked in the small town where they lived, so as it is, his widow is not particularly popular. What’s more, she’s a foreigner. And it doesn’t help matters at all that her accusers are Gaston’s wealthy cousins, who have quite a lot of social power. And yet, Myriam says that she is innocent. So she and Catherine get down to work. One of the many conversations they have is about what Myriam will wear for her trial:


‘She chooses the clothes that she will advise Myriam to wear, which will not make her too invisible but won’t make her stand out too much either. She selects a slightly flared caramel-colored skirt with a beige sweater and a pair of gray pants with a white blouse. Myriam will choose.

Myriam chooses the pants and a sweater of her own, which is bright yellow. She won’t change her mind. This is what she is like, who she is’


And it’s very interesting to see the impression both women make in the courtroom.

In Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson have just arrived in Melbourne after a long trip from Scotland. That’s when they suffer the most awful loss any couple can:  the loss of their nine-week-old son Noah. When Noah goes missing, everyone’s initial reaction is support for the distraught couple. The media makes much of the case and an exhaustive search is made. Little by little though, questions are raised about the disappearance. Before long, both the police and the media begin to wonder whether one or both of Noah’s parents might be responsible. At one point in the novel there’s a trial, and Joanna is scheduled to give testimony. Her lawyer advises her carefully about what to wear and how to conduct herself, but Joanna has her own ideas:


‘Was the red dress a sane decision? Maybe not…But the grey trousers and cream blouse [Joanna’s best friend] Kirsty brought in for her felt all wrong.’


And even Kirsty warns her that


‘You shouldn’t wear that dress. People will hate you.’


Although Joanna’s attire isn’t a main theme of the novel, her choice here is an interesting plot point.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a group of disparate people who share a large Melbourne building called Insula. One of the residents is a woman who goes by her professional name of Mistress Dread. She owns a leather shop and dresses the part. She’s also a skilled seamstress and more than once provides Chapman with clothes. When she’s not on duty, Mistress Dread dresses quite differently as we learn in Earthly Delights:


‘In her tweed skirt and brogues she looked like an English countrywoman out for a ramble – one looked for the Labrador and the green gumboots.’  


And yet Mistress Dread knows that dressing and looking a certain way is important in her line of work. She needs to give the impression she wants to give – and so she does.

And that’s the thing about dress. It really can predispose one towards or against a person. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration.

Now, may I suggest your next blog stop should be Clothes in Books? It’s a wonderful resource for all things related to clothing and what it says about people, cultures and eras. G’wan – you’ll be glad you did.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Helen Fitzgerald, Kerry Greenwood, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Sylvie Granotier

No, it Don’t Mean Nothing Till You Sign it on the Dotted Line*

Paper TrailsSometimes it seems as though there are a lot of ‘hoops to jump through’ as the saying goes when we want to get certain things done. Do you really need that marriage certificate to prove your love? Can’t you raise a child in a loving and caring way without an adoption decree? And do you really have to have purchase papers for a friendly exchange of an auto for money if the two people involved know each other? The fact is that there’s a lot to be said for ‘paper trails’ and legal documents. They can do a lot to protect a person. Just a quick look at the way they’re used in crime fiction should show you what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice as you read this that there won’t be any mention of wills. Too easy! 😉

Agatha Christie uses marriage documents more than once in her novels. For instance, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Chief Inspector Japp investigates the shooting death of Henry Morley, a seemingly inoffensive dentist who is killed during his surgery hours. Since Hercule Poirot is one of his patients and actually had an appointment on the day of the murder, Japp seeks his help in the case. Morley didn’t have dangerous enemies, nor did he have a fortune to leave. So there seems no motive for the murder.  Shortly after Japp and Poirot begin their search for answers, one of Morley’s patients dies of an overdose of anaesthetic. Then another disappears. It’s now clear that this case is complicated. As Poirot discovers, a marriage certificate plays an important role in this novel.

A marriage certificate – or rather, a lack of one – plays a crucial role in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise. In that novel, Tahoe, California attorney Nina Reilly gets a new client Lindy Markov. Lindy has been living with Mike Markov for twenty years, and in fact helped him build an extremely successful business. She recently found out that Mike was having an affair with his company’s vice-president of financial services Rachel Pembroke and now, Lindy’s been served with an eviction order. She’s required to vacate her home, and it doesn’t look as though Mike is planning to provide for her in any way. Lindy wants Nina Reilly to defend her interests in a civil suit. Reilly agrees, but she knows that this will be a difficult case. Lindy and Mike were never legally married, so Lindy has no legal claim on any of Mike’s money or other assets. There’s not a lot of court precedent for such cases either. Still, Reilly pulls a team together and they work hard to prepare for the trial. The trial starts and a jury is seated. After contentious testimony and even more contentious debate among the members of the jury, a verdict is reached. Then, a shocking event changes everything about the case.

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife also addresses the issue of a marriage certificate. Jodi Brett is a successful Chicago psychotherapist who’s been in a relationship with developer Todd Gilbert for twenty years. The two have never been legally married, but Jodi regards Todd as her husband. Then, Todd has an affair with a college student Natasha Kovacs, who is the daughter of Todd’s longtime friend Dean Kovacs. Todd’s been unfaithful before and Jodi has dealt with it. But this time it’s different because Natasha gets pregnant. What’s even more shocking for Jodi is that Todd decides to leave her and marry Natasha. Then comes even more unpleasant news. Through his attorney, Todd serves eviction papers to Jodi, and she’ll be forced out of their home. When Jodi sees a lawyer, the first point brought up is that she was never legally married to Todd, so she has no legal claim on his home or his assets. Then, Todd is murdered and everything changes.

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye deals with a different kind of legal ‘trail’ – adoption papers. Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the loving adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. They adopted her legally, so they have the paperwork to support their claim to her. Then, they get the devastating news that all is not as much in order as they thought. Angelina’s biological father is eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland. At the time of her birth, he never waived his parental rights and now that he is of legal majority, he’s chosen to exercise them. Moreland has never been the least bit interested in Angelina, so the McGuanes do not believe that he wants to be a real father to her. In fact, they strongly suspect his motives. But he won’t sign the papers granting the McGuanes full custody, and he is supported by his father, who is a powerful local judge. So when the McGuanes refuse to relinquish Angelina, Judge Moreland serves them with a court order that gives them twenty-one days to relinquish custody of Angelina. This the McGuanes vow not to do, and they decide to do whatever is necessary to keep Angelina. ‘Whatever is necessary’ turns out to be much more than either of them imagined…

One of the most difficult ‘legal trails’ to follow is paperwork regarding works of art. For one thing, people do sell art informally sometimes, so there isn’t an official set of transaction papers. For another, some people are willing to pay for art without asking too many questions. So the matter of the art’s provenance doesn’t come up. But art can be extremely valuable, so proof of ownership can become a matter of real importance. That’s what we find for example in Aaron Elkins’ Loot. Art historian/expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call one day from an acquaintance Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop. Pawlovsky thinks that a painting he’s just gotten in may be valuable, and he wants Revere to look at it. Revere agrees and discovers that Pawlovsky is right: the painting is very likely a valuable Velázquez that’s been missing since World War II. When Pawlovsky is murdered shortly afterwards, Revere decides to try to trace the painting and therefore, possibly find out who the killer is. It turns out that this painting was one of many stolen by the Nazis and now there isn’t a clear ‘paper trail’ leading to its current legal owner. Revere untangles the messy question of ownership and that information helps lead him to the killer. What’s interesting too is that readers get a look at questions of provenance and how one actually goes about proving that a) a painting is genuine; and b) it is legitimately owned by a given person/family.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, it’s property ownership documents that become vitally important. DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper are called to the scene when a female skeleton is found at Pity Wood Farm in England’s Peak District. Shortly afterwards, another female skeleton is found. The current owner of the farm is attorney Aaron Goodwin, who bought the land for development purposes. He claims to know nothing about the remains; in fact, he has no real connection to the farm other than as its owner. So although he’s still a suspect, Fry and Cooper also consider other possibilities. Before Goodwin bought the property it was owned for many years by the Sutton family, most recently by brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek has died, but Raymond is still alive and in a care home. He claims to know nothing about the deaths and forensics evidence supports him. The bodies were apparently buried after he sold the farm. So now the team has to find out who actually owned the farm, who actually lived there, and what the young women were doing there if they’re going to find the killer.

Legal documents can be the source of an awful lot of conflict. But they are often very effective sources of protection. Sometimes that ‘piece of paper’ isn’t meaningless at all…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Marx and Bruce Gaitsch’s Don’t Mean Nothing.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Stephen Booth