Category Archives: Peter James

I Want to Hold Your Hand*

As this is posted, it’s 55 years since the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Talent, hard work, serendipity and luck came together, and the Beatles became an international phenomenon. Even now, there are Beatles fan clubs, online Beatles discussion groups, and so on. And that’s not to mention the myriad Beatles cover and tribute bands.

It’s interesting to speculate on what it is that brings some people and bands worldwide fame. Whatever it is, fans flock to their concerts and other appearances. And those fans can be passionate about their hero-worship, too. We see that in real life, as people pay top dollar for tickets and memorabilia, and try as hard as they can to get close to their idols. It’s there in crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, for instance, we are introduced to Heather Badcock, who lives with her husband, Arthur, in the new council housing in St. Mary Mead. She is thoroughly excited when she learns that famous film star Marina Gregg has purchased a local property, Gossington Hall, and will open it to the public for an upcoming charity fête. Heather hero-worships Marina Gregg and can’t wait to see her. On the day of the big event, she takes her turn to speak to her idol. Not long afterwards, Heather sickens and then dies of what turns out to be a poisoned drink. At first, it’s believed that the poison was originally meant for Marina, since it was her drink. But before long, we learn that Heather was the intended victim all along. Miss Marple interests herself in the case, since she’s already met Heather, and she and her friend, Dolly Bantry (the original owner of Gossington Hall), work to find out who the killer is.

Fans of Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters series will know that those novels often take place in Hollywood, among the ‘Hollywood set.’ Several of the characters are megastars, who’ve got avid fans and large followings. That doesn’t keep these stars safe, though…

In Michael Connelly’s The Overlook, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch and his police partner, Ignacio ‘Iggy’ Ferras are investigating the murder of physicist Stanley Kent. He was killed on an overlook near Mullholland Drive, and, as you can imagine, Bosch and Ferras are interested in anyone who might have been in the area at the time of the murder. And that’s just what worries twenty-year-old Jesse Milner, who’s moved to Hollywood to try to ‘make it.’ He was near the crime scene, sneaking onto the property of superstar entertainer Madonna, with whom he’s obsessed. His goal was to get a photograph or some sort of memento to send back to his mother to let her know he’s all right. Instead, he becomes a witness to a complicated crime.

Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion introduces readers to beloved television personality Alan Daniels. He’s got an absolutely devoted following, and quite a lot of money and ‘clout.’ In fact, he’s poised for big success in films, too, and is hoping the crossover will work well. Then, everything changes. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been discovered; and, in several ways, her murder resembles the murders of six other women being investigated by the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. And it’s not long before some of the evidence begins to suggest that Daniels might be involved in these crimes. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton, Detective Sergeant (DS) Anna Travis, and the rest of the Murder Squad know that Daniels has a devoted following and a lot of influence. He’s a media darling, too, which makes things even more challenging. If he is the murderer, of course, he’s responsible for some terrible crimes. If he’s not, then the police will have wreaked media havoc for nothing. It’s a delicate investigation, made all the more so by Daniels’ superstardom.

Superstar Gaia Lafayette is the subject of one plot thread of Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. She’s become a worldwide sensation, with avid fans everywhere. When she announces her plan to visit her hometown of Brighton to do a film, everyone’s excited. Well, not quite everyone. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police is well aware that having such a megastar in town will mean large crowds and plenty of opportunity for mischief and more. What’s more, his supervisor has made it clear that Grace and his team will be responsible to work with the celebrity’s personal staff to provide security. Grace’s team is spread thin enough, and he doesn’t relish the idea of giving up even more of his people. But this isn’t optional. There’s already been one attempt on the superstar’s life, and it’s quite likely there’ll be another. Gaia and her entourage arrive, and the filming begins. Now, Grace and his staff will have to protect Gaia as best they can, as someone out there is trying just as hard to kill her.

And then there’s Katherine Dewar’s Ruby and the Blue Sky. In it, a band called the Carnival Owls makes it big, winning a Grammy Award for one of their songs, During the acceptance ceremony, the band’s lead singer, Ruby, makes an impassioned speech that encourages sustainability, and urges people not to shop for new things. And this isn’t the rant of an unknown zealot, either. The band has become a phenomenon, and millions of people are eager to heed what Ruby says. That ‘star power’ ends up being a real disadvantage when some very dangerous people try to stop her from pushing her sustainability agenda.

It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that propels some people to international superstardom. But something does. And when it does, there’s all sorts of fame, fortune and more to be had. But it can be dangerous, too…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is…oh, come on, you know this one, right?!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Katherine Dewar, Lynda La Plante, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Stuart Kaminsky

Martha My Dear*

Not long ago, I was privileged to have the chance to read Cat Connor’s new Ellie Iverson novel, Qubyte. By the way, it’s coming out on 31 December. In the novel, FBI Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) Ellie Iverson and her team link a series of tragic events, and find themselves up against a very real (and, if I may say so, frighteningly possible) threat.

I won’t say more about the plot right now, but I found one aspect of it very interesting as a reader. Without spoiling the story, I can say that Ellie works with an FBI-trained German Shepherd, Argo. As I read, I found myself hoping that nothing would happen to Argo (and something easily could). The deaths of human characters were one thing for me, but I did not want to see Argo hurt or worse. And that got me to thinking about animals in novels.

When people read crime fiction, they generally do so with the understanding that there’s going to be ugliness. People will most likely be killed. For those who like dark, very gritty crime fiction, those deaths can sometimes be truly brutal. But even those who prefer lighter crime fiction with less violence know that there’s going to be at least one murder.

We know that, and we accept it. For most of us, if the murder isn’t described in horrific detail, we take that as part of the plot. But there seems to be a catch, so to speak. For lots of readers (I am one of them), it’s one thing if a murder victim is an adult (of either sex). It’s not even a ‘deal killer’ if the victim is younger. In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, for instance, the victim is fifteen years old. And in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, there’s a fourteen-year-old victim. But many people draw the line at the death (particularly a brutal death) of an animal, especially if that animal is a pet.

There are plenty of novels (don’t worry; I won’t list them all!) in which a character’s pet is killed. I won’t describe a set of examples; you don’t need them. Fictional deaths of pets and other animals often gets people very upset. In fact, there are people who stop reading a novel, and/or stop reading a particular author’s work, if an animal such as a pet is killed. Even people who don’t go as far as that often still dislike that plot point. I know I do. And it makes me wonder why.

Why do crime fiction lovers accept the death of a person, or even several persons, but not the death of an animal? I don’t have ‘official’ data on this, but here’s one possibility. Perhaps it’s because we know that pets are, in their way, much more vulnerable than people are. They can’t stand up for themselves in the same way that people can. So, the death of a pet may seem crueler.

It’s also worth noting that lots of people have pets, and that includes fictional sleuths. Sara Paretsky’s V.I.  Warshawski, Peter James’ Roy Grace, Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant, Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, and Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are just a few examples. People who have pets are often very devoted to them, especially if they don’t also have children (and often even if they do!). And they relate to fictional characters who have them. So, the death of a fictional pet hits hard.

There are also people who are animal lovers in general. They don’t want to see any animal, whether it’s a pet or a wild animal, be hurt or killed. There are other reasons, too, for which crime fiction lovers put pets and other animals in a separate category. Whatever one’s individual reasons, it seems to be a common reaction. Plenty of readers don’t worry so much about who dies in a crime novel, so long as the dog or cat (or…) makes it.

What do you think about all this? As a crime fiction fan, do you see animal deaths as different to the deaths of human victims? Does that sort of plot point put a book in the DNF pile for you? Why? If you’re a writer, where do you stand in terms of animal deaths? Is that a line that you don’t cross? I’d really like to know your thoughts about this.

The ‘photo is a gratuitous pet picture. You’re welcome.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles song which Paul McCartney wrote about his dog.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Cat Connor, Lilian Jackson Braun, Maureen Carter, Peter James, Sara Paretsky

You’re Just Another Face That I Know From the TV Show*

With the obvious exception of journalists, most fictional sleuths don’t spend a lot of time in front of television cameras. So, many of them aren’t particularly comfortable ‘going live.’ Yet, in real life and in fiction, television can be a useful ally in solving crime. That’s why, for instance, police give interviews to the press. Real and fictional lawyers know this, too, and may (or may not) give interviews, depending on whether they see an interview as helpful or hurtful to their clients’ chances.

It’s realistic, especially in today’s world of 24-hour news, to include a TV interview with a sleuth. What’s more, such a plot point can add tension to a story, especially as the media impacts public opinion. So, it’s little wonder that we see that influence of television in crime fiction.

A great deal of Agatha Christie’s writing was done before television dominated the news landscape. But at the time, newspaper interviews often played similar roles. For instance, in The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Captain Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp and local police to solve a baffling set of murders.  The case has captured the public’s attention, in large part because this isn’t a matter of one murder, or of one murder with a second murder committed to keep someone quiet. Hastings, in particular, isn’t used to being in the media spotlight, and it leads to consternation for him, especially when he learns the way some newspapers operate:
 

‘‘Poirot,’ I would cry. ‘Pray believe me. I never said anything of the kind.’…
‘But do not worry yourself. All of this is of no importance. These imbecilities, even, may help.’
‘How?’
‘Eh, bien,’ said Poirot grimly. ‘If our madman reads what I am supposed to have said to the Daily Flicker today, he will lose all respect for me as an opponent!’’
 

In the end, Poirot gets to the truth about these murders. And it’s interesting to see the way that those public interviews play a role in the story.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is an academician and political scientist. She understands how important television interviews can be, especially for politicians. But she herself isn’t in front of the cameras very often, at least not at first. But then, in The Wandering Soul Murders, she gets a new opportunity. Nationtv is making some changes to the panel for its politics-themed show, Canada Tonight, and Joanne’s name is put forward as a good choice for a new panelist. At first, she’s reluctant, but she agrees to be a part of the show, and it turns out to be the right choice for her. Still, it requires adjustment for someone who’s usually worked behind the political scenes, rather than in front of the cameras:
 

‘I had bought a new dress for the show, flowered silk, as pretty as a summer garden.
‘Next time,’ she said kindly, ‘try to find a solid colour. That’s going to make you look like you’re wearing your bedroom curtains.’’
 

Joanne learns quickly, and in A Killing Spring, makes really effective use of being on camera.

In high-profile trials, attorneys know that giving interviews can be a useful legal strategy. And, for those lawyers who are ambitious, television interviews can be an effective way to get their names ‘out there,’ especially if they win an important case. So, even those who aren’t particularly comfortable in front of television cameras often learn how to do successful interviews. That part of what a lawyer does comes out in several novels, including John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. In the novel, the small town of Clanton, Mississippi becomes the scene of a very public set of crimes. First, ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and left for dead. Her attackers are soon caught and arrested. Tonya’s father, Carl Lee, is, of course, enraged and heartbroken. And, since the two men responsible are white, while he and is family are black, Hailey doesn’t think justice will be done. So, he ambushes the two men, killing them both, and wounding a sheriff’s deputy. Hailey asks Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. Because of the sort of case this is, it gets a lot of media scrutiny, and television cameras are everywhere. And it’s interesting to see how both Brigance and his opponent, Rufus Buckley, make use of interviews.

In Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, we are introduced to Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson. As the novel begins, they’re en route from Scotland to Alistair’s home town in Victoria with their nine-week-old son, Noah. It’s a long, nightmarish flight, and both parents are only too happy when it ends. Then, tragedy happens. During the drive from the airport to their destination, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. A massive search begins, and the media soon pick up on the story. There’s no sign of the baby, though. At one point, it’s proposed that a television interview with the parents might produce results. Joanna is very reluctant to do this, but Alistair insists, so the cameras are set up and the interview takes place. It’s an awful experience for Joanna, who’s not used to being on television, and who is devastated by the ordeal she’s suffering. What’s worse, when the public sees that interview, plenty of people take her discomfort as one of several signs that she may have had something to do with Noah’s disappearance. It’s not long before the media and the public begin to turn against Joanna and Alistair, and it’s very interesting to see how that tense interview plays a role in what happens.

And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. In one plot thread of this novel, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace and his team take on a new investigation. The body – well, really, the torso – of an unknown man has been found in a disused chicken coop. There is no identification, and no immediate clues as to who the victim is. This means it’s going to be very hard to identify him, let alone track down the killer. So, it’s decided that a television interview might be a good way to make the public aware of the case.  To that end, the police send Grace’s second-in-command, Glenn Branson, and another colleague, Bella Moy, to appear on a true-crime show called Crimewatch. This show presents re-enactments of real crimes, interviews with people involved, and invitations for call-ins from people who may know something about the cases. It’s not a typical way for police officers to spend their days, but Branson and Moy go on the air.

Not everyone is comfortable in a television interview. But they can be very useful for getting information. And in a crime novel, they can add interesting layers to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Turn It On Again.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Helen Fitzgerald, John Grisham, Peter James

Sleeping in That Old Abandoned Beach House*

There’s something about abandoned places. They have a certain allure, especially for people inclined to explore. And they often have good stories to tell, too. Since they’re abandoned, such places are also very appealing for people who want to hide evidence of a crime – namely, a body. Perhaps that’s why abandoned places are so appealing for crime writers…

For instance, in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, we are introduced to Tad Rampole, an American who’s recently finished his university studies. He’s been encouraged by his mentor to visit Dr. Gideon Fell, so he decides to go to the UK. When he gets there, he meets Dorothy Starberth, and the two take a liking to each other. Soon, Rampole finds out more about the Starberths from Fell. It seems that several generations of Starberth men were Governers of nearby Chatterham Prison, which is now disused. The prison is abandoned, but it still plays a role in a Starberth family ritual. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, every Starberth male spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. Now, it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. He’s anxious about it, because there seems to be a curse on Starberth males, several of whom have died in strange circumstances. Still, he goes through with the plan. Late that night, Martin Starberth dies in what looks like a horrible accident. But Fell discovers that this death was no accident at all, and works to find out who the killer is.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow is the first of his novels to feature Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police. In this novel, he is called in when a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. The body is very possibly that of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who disappeared five months ago. Cardinal investigated that disappearance, but was never able to find out what happened to the girl. When the body is positively identified as Katie’s, Cardinal has the thankless task of informing her mother, and of re-opening the investigation. In the end, he finds out the truth about Katie and about other disappearances, too.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders, retired Florida judge Sylvia Thorn accompanies her mother and a group of other retirees on a sightseeing trip to Laughlin, Nevada. The group (they call themselves the Florida Flippers) gets involved in a case of murder when the body of an unknown man turns up in the bathtub of one of the group’s hotel rooms. Matters get more complicated when another Florida Flipper goes missing, and is later found dead in an abandoned mine. Now, the Flippers are ‘people of interest’ in a double murder, and Sylvia works to keep them out of trouble, and to find out who the real killer is, and what the motive is.

Tana French’s The Likeness is the second in her Dublin Murder Squad series. In it, a young woman is found stabbed to death in an abandoned house. Cassie Maddox, who’s recently returned to the Murder Squad after some time away, is shocked to discover that the woman is identified as Lexie Madison, an alias Maddox once used. The victim bears a strong resemblance to Maddox, too. Now, the squad has two serious questions. One, of course, is, who killed the victim? The other is about the victim’s identity. Since there never really was a ‘Lexie Madison,’ the squad has to find out who the woman really was, and why she hid her identity. Maddox is persuaded to go undercover as Lexie Madison to find out the truth.

One of the plot threads in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet concerns an unknown man whose body is found in an abandoned chicken coop. The only part of the body that’s been discovered is the torso, so identifying the victim will be a challenge. Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police and his team trace the man through his clothes, and find out who he was. And, in the end, they connect this murder with another case they’re working: a superstar whose life’s been threatened. It turns out that someone is willing to stop at nothing to ‘win.’

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Dublin Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates when the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Boyle and her team try to trace the victim’s identity through the apartment’s manager and owner, but they don’t get very far at first. Then, another possibility arises. Yvonne Mulhern and her family have recently moved to Dublin from London. She’s a brand-new mother, and at first, has no real support system. She doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and her relationship with her husband’s family isn’t particularly good. She soon finds solace in Netmammy, an online forum for new mothers. Then, she notices that one of the members has gone ‘off the grid.’ She’s concerned enough to contact the police, but there’s not much they can do. Boyle, though, starts to wonder whether there is a connection between the case she’s investigating, and the disappearance of Yvonne Mulhern’s online friend. If there is, this could have real implications for Netmammy.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in abandoned houses, apartments, warehouses, and other places. And that makes sense. Hiding a body in an abandoned place gives the fictional killer time to hide any connection with the murder. And it gives the author the opportunity for a really creepy setting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Backstreets.

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Filed under Giles Blunt, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Stoltey, Peter James, Sinéad Crowley, Tana French

She Can Tell You ‘Bout the Plane Crash With a Gleam in Her Eye*

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is murdered during a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Hercule Poirot is staying at the hotel, too, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is. At one point, they’re interviewing Mrs. Castle, who owns and manages the establishment. Here’s what she says about the murder:
 

‘‘But it does so reflect upon an establishment…When Ay think of the noisy gaping crowds…they will no doubt come and point from the shore.’ She shuddered.’
 

She’s got a point. In real life and in crime fiction, violent crime, especially murder, stirs up a lot of public interest. And that’s part of the odd dual nature of people’s reaction to crime. On the one hand, murder and other serious crime is horrible. If you’ve ever actually seen a violent crime, or been involved in one, you don’t need me to convince you of that. If you haven’t, then trust me. There is nothing entertaining about a serious crime.

And yet, many news sources (often, but not always, tabloids) make fortunes reporting on such stories. People want to read about crime. The more lurid the details, the better. We may want to keep serious crime at a distance, but many people still find it fascinating. It may be the same instinct that draws people to slow down and stare when they see a serious accident on the side of a road.

That duality (‘Keep it away from me! But I want all the details.’) shows up in plenty of crime fiction. There won’t be space in this one post to give more than a few examples. I know you’ll have plenty more than I could offer, anyway.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful lawyer whose name is being brought up as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. His wife, Jodie, is intelligent, attractive, and involved in the community, and his children are healthy and doing well enough in school. Everything changes when his daughter, Hannah, is rushed to a Sydney hospital after an accident. It turns out to be the same hospital in which Jodie gave birth to another child years earlier – a child she’s never told anyone about, not even Angus. A nurse there remembers Jodie, and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overcurious nurse can’t find any official records of the adoption. Now, questions start to come up, first privately, and then quite publicly. Where is the child? If the child is dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? People all over become fascinated with the case, and everyone puts in an opinion. Before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah, but she’s still obsessed, too, with media stories about her. At the same time as people are horrified by the thought that she might have killed her baby, they’re utterly drawn into the case.

In Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, police detective William Wisting and his team are faced with a disturbing case. A left foot in a training shoe has washed ashore near the Norwegian town of Stavern. That’s news enough in itself, but then another foot appears. And another. Oddly enough, though, no bodies have been discovered. There’s all sorts of speculation about what might be going on, and some of the local residents are concerned that these murders, if that’s what they are, might be the work of a serial killer. The police know that some people are worried for their safety. And, of course, they don’t want wild and inaccurate speculation to get in the way of their investigation. At the same time, taking advantage of the media interest (of which there is a great deal) might reach someone who has valuable information to share. So, the police give a few press conferences. And it’s interesting to see how the public’s fascination with a strange set of crimes is mixed with shock and horror at such crimes striking so close to home.

The focus of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry is Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson. When they travel from Scotland, where they’ve been living, to Alistair’s home in Victoria, they think that the long, miserable flight is the worst of their troubles. But during the drive from the airport at Melbourne to their destination, their worst nightmare comes true: the loss of their nine-week-old son, Noah. A massive search is launched, and there’s all sorts of ‘armchair detection’ about what might have happened to the baby. Then talk starts that perhaps the couple, especially Joanna, is involved. There’s an awful lot of public interest and speculation, which makes life miserable for Alistair and Joanna. And when the stories start circulating that they are responsible, matters get even worse. People are horrified by what’s happened, but at the same time, they are fascinated, and can’t get enough about the story.

We also see this fascination/repugnance in Peter James’s Not Dead Yet. In one plot thread, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace and his team are investigating a bizarre murder. The torso of an unknown man has been discovered in a disused chicken coop. There’s not much to go on, and the victim had no identification with him. The police want to find out who the man was, so they take advantage of the public’s interest in a lurid crime like this. Grace sends two of his team members to appear on a true-crime TV show called Crimewatch. Neither really, truly, wants to do the show. But they both understand how important it is to identify a crime victim. So, they do the show. And it’s interesting to see how TV shows like that get large audiences and, sometimes, good results.

And that’s the case in a lot of investigations. The public is fascinated by lurid crimes. At the same time, we know how horrible murder is. It’s an interesting duality, and it can add to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s Dirty Laundry.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Helen Fitzgerald, Peter James, Wendy James