Category Archives: Philip Kerr

Get Away From These Demagogues*

DemagoguesLet’s face it: the world can be a very scary place. Tragedies happen, changes happen; and sometimes, life seems to be full of frightening news. At times like that, some people try to use others’ uncertainty and fears to gain power, or at least ascendency, over others. And that sort of demagoguery can have devastating and lasting consequences. We certainly see it happen in real life. We’re seeing it now.

It’s certainly not unique to real life, though. There’s plenty of demagoguery in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. For one thing, the use of rhetoric and bigotry instead of reasoned debate has been going on for a lot time. For another, the sort of conflict that demagogues exploit can serve as a very useful tool for building tension in a story. There are a lot of examples of this in the genre. I’ll just mention a few.

Some novels and series explore the consequences of the actions of real demagogues. For instance, both Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series and Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series are set (at least partly) in Berlin just before and then during the Nazis’ rise to power. In both of those series, there are good reasons for people to be uncertain and afraid. It’s the height of the worldwide Great Depression, there’s little food, and the currency isn’t worth very much. There aren’t many jobs, either. Against this background, as you’ll know, Hitler rose to power in part through exploiting people’s fears, and setting up easy targets for them to blame. You’ll also know just how horrible the consequences of that demagoguery were.

We also see that pattern in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series, which begins in Moscow just before World War II. Josef Stalin is firmly in power, and has consolidated his control of the Communist Party. He’s done that in part through playing his political rivals off against one another, and by preying on people’s fears of what might happen if he’s not there to steer the proverbial ship of state. And that’s not to mention the fears people have already had about securing life’s basic necessities. The consequences of that demagoguery have been tragic, too, as hundreds of thousands of people have died in Stalin’s purges and other oppressions. Against this background, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Slivka, have to move very carefully. One wrong move and they could be next on the list, so to speak. At the same time, they are charged with upholding the law and catching criminals. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and Ryan acknowledges that fact.

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was also arguably a demagogue. He exploited Americans’ fears of Communism to the point where many people were jailed and worse. Others lost their jobs (and any chance of getting another one), were shunned by others in their communities, and more. We see part of the impact of that demagoguery in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is a sort of unofficial PI in post-WWII Los Angeles. One day, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter says that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes – money he has no way of paying. He’s resigning himself to prison when FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers him a way out. If Mosley helps the FBI bring down suspected Communist Chaim Wenzler, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Mosley has little choice but to accept. And in any case, he, too, has been taught to fear Communism, and Craxton appeals to his patriotism on that issue. The case turns out to be much more complicated than Rawlins imagined when he finds himself becoming friends with Wenzler. It’s even more complicated when he’s framed for two murders.

Argentina has had more than its share of demagogues. Many of the military rulers have used people’s fears, as well as their concerns about meeting their basic needs, to get and maintain power. For instance, Juan Perón came to power with the backing of (and a great deal of appeal to) the working classes. Once in power, he maintained his position through increasingly authoritarian decisions. The impact of that demagoguery lasted for many decades, long after Perón was no longer in office. Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lascano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina, a time when a military dictatorship is in control of the country. People have been taught to fear the political left; and those who are suspected of having leftist sympathies are brutally silenced. So are those who are suspected of questioning or, worse, opposing, the existing government. It’s a very difficult political landscape for a police officer who’s just trying to do his job, and Mallo depicts this faithfully.

In Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair runs directly into demagoguery when he gets involved in finding out who murdered his uncle, also named Rowland. There’s a good possibility that Uncle Rowland was killed by members of the New Guard, an ultra-right political group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. Campbell’s been taking advantage of people’s misery (the novel takes place in 1931, and the Great Depression is taking a toll) and fear, and appealing to their patriotism to gain power. He and the New Guard are planning to install a new government in Australia, one run by ‘a few right thinking men’ who will preserve traditional ways of life and the current class order. He’s gotten plenty of people afraid of Communism, working-class revolts, and other perceived threats, and is set to gain real power. The radical left isn’t taking this lightly, and is preparing for an all-out battle. Rowly wants not only to find out whether Campbell sanctioned his uncle’s murder, but also to prevent violence if he can. But it won’t be easy.

And then there’s Robin Cook’s Seizure, in which we are introduced to US Senator Ashley Butler. He’s a demagogue who’s used people’s fear of the unknown to gain quite a bit of power. He’s strongly opposed to stem-cell research and other, similar, scientific advances. He’s also a staunch supporter of the ‘traditional’ family and ‘traditional family values.’ And he’s used his constituents’ worries about societal change, the economy, and other issues for his own purposes. Then, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Butler knows that if the facts of his medical condition are made public, he’ll never succeed at becoming president, which is his goal. So, despite the rhetoric he’s used, he reaches out to Dr. Daniell Lowell, who’s been doing exactly the kind of research Butler has publicly opposed. Lowell is no friend to Butler, as he’s seen quite a lot of scientific progress stymied by Butler. He’s also not a fan of Butler’s rightist social leanings. But when Butler offers to withdraw his opposition to stem cell research, Lowell can’t resist the opportunity to use his controversial procedure to see if he can help Butler. Technically speaking, this is more a thriller than a crime novel. But the character of Ashley Butler was too good an example of a demagogue not to mention it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, demagoguery is alive and well. In crime fiction, it almost always has unfortunate, sometimes tragic consequences. I think it does in real life, too.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Nettie Moore.


Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Philip Kerr, Rebecca Cantrell, Robin Cook, Sulari Gentill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

I Wish That I Could Stick Around Berlin*

BerlinBerlin has a tumultuous – some would even say at times tortuous – history. Politics and world events have had a tremendous impact on the city, too. Yet at the same time, Berlin is home to world-class music, intellectual pursuit and top museums, among other things.

Because Berlin has been the focal point of so much history, it’s not surprising that several crime fiction authors have set their novels and series there. There’s just something about the city. Space only permits me to mention a few examples. So does the fact that my German is, to put it mildly, pathetic on my good days. But here are just a few examples.

Several stories in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series are set in Berlin, beginning in the years just before World War II. Gunther was a police officer, but in March Violets, the first of the series, we learn that he has become a private investigator. He’s no fan of the Nazis, and has nothing but contempt for their bullying, thuggery and violent anti-Semitism. But Gunther is no fool. He knows how powerful the Nazis are, and he knows that he’s as vulnerable as anyone (he has a Jewish grandparent). So he does his best to negotiate the very dangerous minefield that is World War II Berlin. After the war ends, Gunther has to find a place for himself in a very different Berlin that now becomes the flashpoint for what later becomes the Cold War.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series also takes place mostly in Berlin. This series begins in 1931, during the last years of the Weimar Republic, and features crime reporter Hannah Vogel. In the first of this series, A Trace of Smoke, Vogel discovers that her brother Ernst has died. Determined to find out the truth about his death, she starts asking questions. Discovering what really happened is going to be a difficult task, though, because the trail leads to some important players in the increasingly powerful Nazi party. Going up against them could have tragic consequences. As the series goes on, and World War II looms on the horizon, Vogel leaves Berlin. But she returns in time for the 1936 Olympic Games in that city, this time as a spy. And that’s when she discovers that the Nazis have crafted a peaceful, pleasant exterior for the city for the benefit of the many visitors. Underneath, though, Vogel discovers some of the awful things that are really going on. Later, she learns what the Nazis’ plans for the Jews really are as she uncovers the truth about a mass deportation of Jews to Poland. This series gives readers a look ‘behind the scenes’ as the Nazis come to power and establish their stranglehold on Berlin and the rest of Germany.

As you’ll know, after World War II, Berlin began to take on a whole new strategic importance as the Cold War began in earnest. Lots of spy and other thrillers have been written about this time period; I’ll just mention one. Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, which takes place in 1983, features Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom, who works for MI6 in its London Central office. He’s a former field agent who’s settled closer to home as he’s approached middle age. Disturbing news come to the London Central office that one of their active field agents, nicknamed Brahms Four, wants to come to the West. This is an agent who’s been working in East Berlin for some time, and the agency needs the information that Brahms Four provides. Sansom grew up in Berlin (his father was a British agent who worked in Germany during World War II), so he’s thoroughly familiar with the city. He’s the natural choice to go to East Berlin and try to persuade Brahms Four to stay ‘in the trenches’ for just a while longer. As if that problem isn’t enough, MI6 learns that there’s a very highly-placed KGB mole somewhere in the agency. Now Sansom has to solve the Brahms Four problem and find out who the mole is. And he’s up against some dangerous people who don’t want him to succeed. This novel gives the reader a close look at a divided Berlin, weary of the Cold War, but still heavily caught up in it. There is certainly beauty in the city, but the underside of the city is never very far away.

Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case) takes place in modern-day Berlin, but shows that, as the saying goes,’ old sins cast long shadows.’ Fabrizio Collini is an Italian immigrant who’s lived quietly in Germany for many years, with no problems and no criminal record. One day, he travels to Berlin, to the Hotel Adlon. There, he goes to the suite occupied by business magnate Jean-Baptiste Meyer, shoots Meyer, and is promptly arrested. Caspar Leinen is a new attorney who’s on standby duty for Legal Aid when he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Collini has no attorney, and German law requires that he have legal representation. Lenin isn’t going to find this case easy, though. Collini admits that he committed the murder, but he won’t give a motive, so defending him is going to be a real challenge. Still, Leinen gets to work. ultimately find the entire case rests on an obscure point of German law. He also finds that this case comes closer to home than he thought.

And then there’s Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs. Jane Logan has just moved to Berlin to be with her partner Petra. They have a beautiful apartment, and the couple are expecting their first child, so there’s every reason to feel optimistic. Still, Jane is a little lonely. Her only real contacts are Petra, Petra’s brother, and a few other people. And Jane’s German isn’t fluent enough for her to go out and easily make new friends. Then, she begins to take an interest in another family living in the same building. Dr. Alban Mann and his thirteen-year-old daughter Anna. Gradually, Jane becomes concerned about Anna when she hears vicious arguments coming from that apartment. And she learns that there’s a mystery surrounding Anna’s mother, who hasn’t been a part of the Manns’ lives since Anna was very a small child. Despite the fact that Petra wants her to stay out of the other family’s problems, Jane becomes determined to protect Anna. As you can imagine, this has terrible consequences…

There is, of course, a lot more excellent crime fiction that takes place in Berlin – much more than I could mention here. If you want a real expert on the topic, just stop over to Mrs. Peabody Investigates, which is the source for all sorts of classic and contemporary German crime fiction. And while you’re there, don’t forget to check out her great giveaway! You don’t want to miss it!


ps. Thanks to for the beautiful ‘photo!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kirsty MacColl’s Berlin.


Filed under Ferdinand von Schirach, Len Deighton, Louise Welsh, Philip Kerr, Rebecca Cantrell

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