Category Archives: Philip Kerr

The Hotel Detective, He Was Outta Sight*

Hotel DetectivesHave you stayed in any hotels recently? Because of the nature of hotels, all kinds of people may be there, for any number of reasons. Most hotel guests are there temporarily, too. So hotels do need to take security seriously. Many modern hotels address that issue by using CCTV and other surveillance. Some hotels have entire security staffs. That’s especially true in large or upmarket hotels, or hotels in places such as Las Vegas, where guests may be either very vulnerable or sorely tempted.

What I haven’t seen in any hotel I’ve stayed at is a hotel detective. I don’t know if hotels hire such professionals any more. Some certainly may. On the other hand, it may not be as necessary today, given how easy it is to set up a security system. But many hotels used to hire them. It was logical, too, since the police couldn’t really patrol a hotel.

Moira at Clothes in Books suggested I take a look at the hotel detective in crime fiction, and I’m glad she did. It’s a fascinating topic! Almost as fascinating as Moira’s excellent blog, which you really should have on your blog roll if you don’t. It’s a treasure trove of information and commentary on clothes and popular culture in books, and what it all says about us.

Raymond Chandler’s short story I’ll Be Waiting tells the story of Tony Reseck, house detective for the Windermere Hotel. He’s concerned about one particular guest, Eve Cressy, who’s been staying in the hotel for five days without leaving her room. She assures him that she’s all right, and just waiting for someone. Then, Reseck gets a message from his brother Al, who warns him to get Eve out of the hotel right away, as she’s in big trouble. It seems that she was mixed up with a criminal who’s recently been released from San Quentin prison, and is coming back to her. Of course, the relationship is a little more complicated than that, and Reseck finds himself getting mixed up in a drama and having to find a creative way out of it.

Much of the action in Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery takes place in the Chancellor Hotel. That’s where Donald Kirk keeps a well-appointed suite of rooms for his publishing business and his rare stamp collection. One day, a strange little man comes to see Kirk. He won’t give his name or his business to Kirk’s assistant James Osborne; instead, he says he’ll wait from Kirk. Osborne settles him in an office Kirk has set up for visitors, promising to let him know when Kirk returns. When Kirk comes back to his office, he and his clerk find to their shock that the visitor’s been murdered. His clothes are on backwards, and the room’s furnishings are backwards, too. Ellery Queen happens to be with Kirk, since the two had meet by chance in the lobby. He immediately takes an interest in the odd case. It’s all made even stranger by the fact that no-one was seen to go in or out of the office. What’s more the door is locked from the inside. This is one of those ‘impossible but not impossible’ cases that Queen fans will know. In this instance, the hotel detective, Brummer, doesn’t solve the case. But he does get involved, and it’s interesting to see how his job is portrayed.

Philip Kerr’s If The Dead Rise Not features his sleuth Bernie Gunther, a former police officer. This story takes place before the events of the Berlin Noir trilogy, and in it, Gunther has taken a job as house detective for the Adlon Hotel. It’s 1934, and the Nazis have taken power. They’re putting their stamp on everything; and, more and more, anyone whose loyalty is called into question is at risk. In fact, Gunther has a run-in with a police detective who questions his commitment to Hitler (in my opinion, Gunther finds a creative way to deal with that!). When he learns that the Nazis are targeting anyone with any kind of Jewish ancestry, he finds himself in trouble, since one of his grandparents was Jewish. As he’s dealing with that problem, he also has two other cases. One is the theft of a Chinese artefact from the room of an American businessman. The other is helping a journalist with her exposé of Hitler’s increasingly harsh treatment of Jews. Through it all, Gunther has to do his best to stay in the face of increasing risk from the Nazis.

There’s also Alan Russell’s novels featuring former surfer-turned hotel detective Am Caulfield, who works at La Jolla’s California Hotel. In The Hotel Detective, he solves several cases, including Carlton Smoltz’ murder of his wife, and the death of contractor Tim Kelly who may or may not have jumped from the balcony of his room. In The Fat Innkeeper, the hotel’s been bought by a Japanese firm, so Caulfield has to deal with his new bosses’ ways of doing things. And then there’s also the poisoning murder of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who was attending a retreat for those who’d had near-death experiences. Kingsbury was committed to debunking mediums, paranormal experts and so on, so no-one’s really surprised at his death. And that means there are several suspects in this case.

And here are a few other tidbits about house detectives that you might not know.  Dashiell Hammett had several jobs in his lifetime besides writing. One of them, for a time, was as a hotel detective. And E. Howard Hunt (yes, he of the Nixon Watergate years) wrote a thriller, House Dick, about a hotel detective. And finally, Stewart Stirling wrote a series featuring house detective Gil Vine. Those books aren’t as easy to find, but they present a more pulp-fiction/noir picture of the job.

So as you can see, even if the hotels you stay don’t have official house detectives, they’re still out there. At least in fiction. I’ll sleep better knowing that next time I’m on the road…

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re an American Band.


Filed under Alan Russell, Dashiell Hammett, E. Howard Hunt, Ellery Queen, Philip Kerr, Raymond Chandler, Stewart Stirling

Everywhere You Look Now There’s Murder Incorporated*

Changing Bad GuysWell-written crime fiction shows us ourselves – who we are as people. We can learn a lot about what we wish for, fear, and more as we read in the genre. For instance, if you consider the ‘bad guys’ in certain crime novels, you see that they reflect sociopolitical events, societal fears and sometimes prejudices. You also see how those have changed as the world has changed.

For example, if you look at early crime fiction, or historical crime fiction that takes place during the late Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era, you see that the ‘bad guys’ were frequently members or leaders of shadowy syndicates and crime rings. The best known example that I can think of is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Fans will know that he is a highly intelligent master-criminal who gives Sherlock Holmes quite a run for the money, as the saying goes. But he’s not the only criminal of that type. You see that influence also in Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry. In that novel, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn go up against Sebastian Nightwine, a dangerous opponent whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. When Nightwine returns to London, Barker is sure that trouble is going to follow, and he’s right. Barker ends up accused of murder and on the run, with all of his assets frozen. Then there’s another murder. He and Llewelyn will have to work hard to clear his name and take down Nightwine’s.  A few of Agatha Christie’s novels (The Big Four being one of them) also set up shadowy syndicates as ‘the enemy).

More modern novels, such as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano stories, have a more contemporary take on the crime syndicate. Sometimes, as in Camilleri’s work and that of authors such as Michael Dibdin and Tonino Benacquista, the syndicate takes the form of what we call the Mafia (sometimes in the US, it’s called the Mob). There are also modern takes on crime syndicates from other places, too, such as the Glasgow underworld that we see in William McIlvanney’s and Malcolm Mackay’s work.

World War I and World War II had profound influences on people’s conceptions of ‘bad guys.’ Several of Agatha Christie’s stories (N or M? and Postern of Fate, for instance) set up first the Triple Alliance, then the Axis powers (specifically the Nazis) as ‘the bad guys.’

And by no means is Christie the only author who’s used Nazis, their associates, and their modern-day incarnations as antagonists. You see that in a lot of crime fiction and thrillers, actually. Just to take a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, and Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders.

In fact, the Nazis-as-enemies have had a profound influence even in modern crime fiction that simply touches on the World War II years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, and Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). In those novels (and many more), we see how modern relationships, interactions, and even crime has its roots in the war, in Nazi occupation and in loyalties of that time.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that theme as time goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people whose parents/grandparents/great-grandparents lived through World War II.

In the post-World War II era, one of the most important geopolitical realities was the Cold War between the UK, US and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies. This arguably set up the KGB and other Soviet-bloc spy agencies as very effective ‘bad guys.’ Read the work of authors such as John le Carré, Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum, and you’ll see that in a lot of those novels, the enemy is usually the KGB or other such agency in some form or another. Sometimes it’s one person who’s a member of such a group, but that person often represents the Soviet Union and its policies. You can even see such sentiments in books that aren’t exactly what you would call spy thrillers. For example, there’s Martin Cruz Smith’s work featuring Arkady Renko. And Walter Mosley’s The Red Death has his sleuth Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins being asked to take down a suspected Communist. As I think about the Cold War era, I often wonder what impression I’d get if I could read Russian well enough to read some of the novels of those years that are written in that language.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the world changed, and so did crime fiction. There are arguably two kinds of ‘bad guys’ that have populated crime fiction since that time. One is the Eastern European crime gang that we see in novels such as Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. Another, very closely related, outgrowth is arguably the Eastern European/Russian human trafficking gang (check out Tess Gerritson’s Vanish as an example). The other sort of ‘bad guy’ is the Russian oligarch/shady businessman. With official Communism at an end, these businessmen came to the fore in terms of their power and ruthlessness. Several of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels mention them (especially Exit Music). There are also some thrillers (such as Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules) that touch on such people as ‘the bad guys.’

Another recent development in terms of ‘bad guys’ is the terrorist group, particularly the Middle Eastern terrorist group. Novels such as le Carré’s 1983 The Little Drummer Girl are earlier examples of such crime fiction, but by no means the only ones. Lindy Cameron’s Redback includes such terrorists as ‘bad guys.’ So do many other novels. In the wake of more recent terrorist events, we’ve seen a lot more such ‘bad guys,’ even in novels that aren’t billed as ‘thrillers.’

There’s also been another development in the sort of ‘bad guy’ authors choose: big corporations and their leaders.  I’m sure you’ve read as many novels as I have in which big developers are depicted as antagonists. Some novels (I’m thinking of Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope) present a more complex picture of development. But many depict big companies and developers quite negatively. For instance, there’s Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, several of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, and more.

Not all crime novels feature this sort of plot. Many are more personal plots, if I can put it that way. They feature crimes where one person (or a group of people) commit murder for reasons such as revenge, fear, or personal greed. That said though, if we look at crime plots over time, we really do see, I think, how they often use certain antagonists to reflect the kind of fears and prejudices that we have. I wonder which group will be next to be depicted in this way…


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Larsson, C.J. Box, Camilla Läckberg, Daniel Pembrey, Daniel Silva, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Lindy Cameron, Malcolm Mackay, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Philip Kerr, Robert Gott, Robert Ludlum, Tess Gerritsen, Tonino Benacquista, Walter Mosley, Will Thomas, William McIlvanney

In the Beginning I Misunderstood*

Strange and Misleading TitlesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about book titles. And while I’m mentioning that excellent blog, let me encourage you to pay it a visit. Moira’s blog is the source for all kinds of interesting discussion of fashion and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us. In the post, Moira shared some interesting book titles that are misleading in the sense that they don’t have much to do with the actual subject of the book. There are plenty of other titles too that are enigmatic, so that it’s hard to tell exactly what the book is about, really.

On the one hand, a title that tells the reader something important about the book can be a really useful marketing tool, especially if it’s not overlong or difficult to remember. On the other hand, sometimes, enigmatic or odd titles can generate interest too, and get the reader wondering what’s in the book. There are certainly titles like that in crime fiction; here are just a few.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) has, as fans will know, nothing to do with floods, tides or water. Rather, it’s the story of the Cloade family, and what happens when wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade marries without making a will – and then is tragically killed in a bomb blast. His young widow Rosaleen is now set to inherit his fortune, and his other family members are understandably not pleased about that. Then a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen may not have been a widow, as she claimed, at the time of her marriage to Cloade. If her first husband is still alive, her second marriage is of course null and she cannot inherit. So there’s a lot of interest in whether ‘Enoch Arden’ is telling the truth. One night he’s killed. Hercule Poirot has already heard the story of the Cloade family, and his interest is piqued in the case. There is a connection between that quote from Shakespeare that serves as the title and the novel itself. But it’s not a direct connection that would give away the premise (as opposed, say, to Christie’s The ABC Murders).

If you picked up Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, knowing nothing about it, you might assume it’s about people who make clothes. The reality is that the novel has nothing to do with the making of clothing. Rather, it’s the story of an ill-fated trip that Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter take through East Anglia. They have a car accident near Fenchurch St. Paul, and Rector Theodore Venables comes to their aid, even inviting them to stay at the Rectory until their car is fixed. They agree with gratitude and settle in. As it turns out, Lord Peter is soon able to repay the kindness. The local change-ringers are getting ready for their New Year’s Eve ringing when one of them, Will Thoday, becomes ill. Wimsey takes his place and the ringing goes on as planned. On the same day, word comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire Sir Henry, has died of the same illness. So Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. Sir Henry has died, and the gravediggers preparing for his burial have discovered to their shock that there’s another body in the Thorpe grave. Venables wants Wimsey to return to Fenchurch St. Paul and investigate. When he does so, Wimsey finds that it’s all connected to a long-ago robbery. So where does the title come in? It’s the number of times (nine) that the church bells ring when a man dies (ringing the nine tailors). It’s connected to the story, but you need to know that change-ringing term to see that link immediately.

Philip Kerr’s March Violets is the first in his historical series featuring cop-turned-PI Bernie Gunther. The story’s focus is a stolen diamond necklace. Wealthy and powerful Hermann Six hires Gunther to track down the necklace after it’s taken from the safe in his daughter’s bedroom. As he explains to Gunther, his daughter and her husband were shot that same night, but he is relying on the police to investigate those murders. His motivation for hiring Gunther to find the necklace is that he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of the increasingly powerful Third Reich. Gunther agrees, and begins to ask questions. As he does so, he comes to the unwelcome attention of some of Berlin’s criminal class, who do not want him to find out the truth. And when Gunther finds a link between those people and the newly-emerging Nazi leadership, the Nazis too are motivated to shut him up. As you can see, this novel isn’t about horticulture. The title comes from the derogatory term used for those who supported the Nazis, but only after they had taken power in 1933. Those were people who, as the explanation went, waited to see which way the wind blew before aligning themselves.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water isn’t about water, or even about mysterious shapes. In that novel, Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. He was found in a very compromising position in a car at a notorious place called The Pasture, where prostitutes meet their clients and small-time drug deals are conducted. There seems on the surface of it no reason to believe that this is murder. Luparello seems to have died of natural causes (a heart attack) at a very inopportune time, but there’s no reason to think he was murdered. Still, Montalbano has a feeling that there’s more to this case, and he’s given two days to follow up. Sure enough, there is plenty beneath the proverbial surface, and Montalbano finds out what it is. This title refers to a story that Luparello’s widow tells Montalbano. The key point of that story is that water doesn’t have a shape; it takes the shape you give it. This case has the shape, in other words, that it’s been given.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s series featuring Flavia de Luce. Much of the series takes place in the 1950s in and around the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. The titles of these novels are (at least in my opinion) inventive. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag; and I am Half-Sick of Shadows are just three examples. They are all connected with the stories in some way. Still, these titles don’t really directly reflect the main plot.

And I hope I may be forgiven for mentioning a non-crime-fictional example. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye isn’t about grains or a position on a baseball or cricket team. As you’ll no doubt know, it’s about the coming of age of Holden Caulfield, and the experiences he has after he leaves the prestigious school he’s attending. It’s got plenty of other themes as well, of course. The title comes from a misquoting of Robert Burns’ Comin’ Through the Rye, and from Caulfield’s desire to preserve the innocence of childhood (and his own particular world view).

Those enigmatic or even misleading titles can be intriguing and they can certainly set a book apart. What do you think? Does it bother you when a title doesn’t directly tell you about the novel? If you’re a writer, do you opt for a more straightforward title, or do you choose something less obvious?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Word.


Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Dorothy Sayers, J.D. Salinger, Philip Kerr

Picking Up the Pieces of My Sweet Shattered Dream*

Post-WarWorld War II ended in 1945. But the world was not magically made right again after the war. There were many scattered pieces, if I may put it that way, to be picked up, and millions of shattered lives to be put back together. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad unanswered questions and difficult challenges the war left behind. Let’s take a quick look today at the way that uncertain time is addressed in crime fiction. As you can imagine, I’ve only space to mention a few examples here. I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps far better than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) was published in 1948. In it, Lynn Marchmont has recently been demobbed from wartime service in the Wrens. She comes home to the village of Warmsley Vale to pick up her life and instead, gets mixed up in a case of murder. Her family has always depended on patriarch Gordon Cloade for financial support but that all changes when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay, a widow he’s met on a ship. Tragically, Cloade is killed in a bomb blast before he can change his will so at his death, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Then a stranger comes to Warmsley Vale with possible information that Rosaleen’s first husband is actually still alive. If so, she can’t inherit Cloade’s fortune. When two different members of the Cloade family visit Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in the case, he takes an interest. Then, the stranger is suddenly killed; now Poirot gets involved in the murder investigation. Throughout the novel, we see the financial havoc the war has wrought. People are scraping by at best and some are not even doing that well. We also see how difficult the war has been on those who were a part of it. Lynn Marchmont for instance has had to make a sudden and very abrupt change from the danger and excitement of war to the quiet and impoverished life Warmsley Vale offers. It’s a very difficult transition, even for those who didn’t participate in combat. For those who did, it’s even more challenging.

Just ask Charlie Berlin, the Melbourne cop we meet in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin’s recently back from service in Europe, where he also spent some time in a POW camp. Although he’s not the stereotypical demon-haunted, alcoholic detective, he does have what would later be called PTSD. He deals with nightmares and terrible memories. Berlin is seconded to Wodonga to help the local police track down a motorcycle gang that’s been responsible for a series of robberies. Since the latest incident has resulted in severe injuries, the police and the public are eager to see the gang stopped. Berlin’s just starting to find some answers when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first it’s thought that her death is related to the robberies. It’s not though, and soon Berlin has two cases on his hands. Along with the actual investigation, we get a look in this novel at the lingering resentment against people who’ve been The Enemy for years. That enmity didn’t just vanish when the war ended and McGeachin addresses that.

McGeachin also touches on life for Jews who left Germany either just before the war or as a result of being displaced by the war. Jews were not warmly welcomed everywhere, even by people who abhorred the Holocaust. We also see that theme in Sara Paretsky’s Total Recall. In that novel, Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel asks her friend Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski to do a personal sort of investigation. Herschel has recently heard from Paul Rabudka, who claims to be a Holocaust survivor looking for as many members of his family as he can find. Herschel’s own family escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis and ended up in the United States, but it was a harrowing journey and Herschel wants to forget as much of it as she can. Still, she doesn’t want to ignore Rabudka’s contact. Warshawski agrees to investigate and finds some very dark secrets buried in the past.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past highlights the enmity that lingered between Swedes who collaborated with the Nazis and those who resisted them. In that novel, two young people, Wilma Persson  and Simon Kyrö, go on a diving exploration of a World-War II-era plane that went down in Lake Vittangijärvi. Someone traps the young people under the ice, killing both of them. Several months later Wilma’s body surfaces and police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murders. One of the important threads running through this case is the reality that the end of World War II did not erase the hatreds that had developed because of it. We also see this theme in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast.

One of the many other challenges that arose after World War II was the status of people whose roles had changed because of the war. For instance, millions of women worked in factories to support the war effort. When the war ended, many were not so eager to return to the proverbial kitchen. Women began to see other roles for themselves. We see that in the character of Rebecca Green, whom we meet in The Digger’s Rest Hotel (See above). She’s a journalist/photographer for the Argus, and wants very much to make her way in what is still a man’s world. She isn’t interested at the moment in the ‘hearth and home’ role assigned to women. In her determination to be taken seriously as a professional, we see the challenge that women faced in a post-war world that wasn’t sure how to see them.

The end of the war meant that a lot of people faced job challenges. Factories that had geared up for the war effort had to either close or change their focus. Soldiers came home and needed jobs. All of this had profound effects on work life. We see this in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of his Ezekial ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels. Rawlins has recently lost his job working in a warplane factory. Since he is African-American there are few job opportunities open to him, but he has the same financial obligations as anyone else. This motivates him to accept the offer when DeWitt Albright hires him as an unofficial private investigator. Albright is looking for Daphne Monet, who’s been known to frequent bars in the Black community. The idea is that since Rawlins knows Watts (Los Angeles) very well, he’ll know where to look for her. This turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous a case than a simple search for a missing woman, and it shows how an entire community was affected by the financial upheavals of the war.

There was also the serious question of war criminals. In Stuart Neville’s Ratlines, Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow novels featuring Douglas Brodie, and Philip Kerr’s more recent novels featuring Bernie Gunther, we get a look at the way Nazi criminals escaped (or tried to escape) after the war. We also learn the stories of those who risked their lives to find them. There are other novels too, some that fall into the category of crime fiction and some that are more espionage thrillers, in which the protagonist goes after Nazi criminals and those who support them.

And Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case explores the legal ramifications of German law that related to war criminals. Fabrizio Collini, who emigrated to Germany decades ago, is arrested for murder in the shooting death of Jean-Baptiste Meyer. Caspar Leinen is ‘on duty’ as a legal aid and is assigned to represent Collini. It seems like a very solid case, as Collini offers no alibi and says nothing to defend himself. In fact, he says nearly nothing at all. But Leinen wants to do his best by his client, so he delves more deeply into the incident and the lives of both men.  What he finds is an obscure but vital point of German law that’s had a profound impact. As Leinen investigates, we also see how deep wartime wounds have really gone.

There are other novels too that address the post-war world and the way people tried to pick up their lives again; this is just a smattering. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Carefree Highway.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ferdinand von Schirach, Geoffrey McGeachin, Gordon Ferris, Jo Nesbø, Philip Kerr, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Neville, Walter Mosley

I Don’t Want Clever Conversation*

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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



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


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