Category Archives: Philip Margolin

Do You Remember Your President Nixon*

NIXON RESIGNATIONAs I post this, it’s forty years today since Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States. Whatever you think of Nixon’s presidency, his politics, or the scandal that brought down his administration, it’s hard to deny the impact of his resignation, at least in the US.

Of course, there’d been scandals before at very high levels of the US and other governments. But this was the first time for the US that a scandal led to a presidential resignation. What’s more, the investigation into Nixon’s activities and those of other members of his administration were very public – on television for the world to see. For many people who’d always trusted their government, the Nixon resignation was a rude shock and a bitter lesson that sometimes that trust is misplaced.

But if you look at crime fiction, you see that high-level government scandal has been around for a long time. There are a lot of examples of this plot point in the genre; space only permits me a few. But I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of many more than I could anyway.

A few of Agatha Christie’s stories feature government scandals. One of them is the short story The Incredible Theft. In that story, Lord Charles Mayfield hosts a house party that consists of himself, his secretary Carlisle, Retired Air Marshal Sir George Carrington and Carrington’s wife Julia and son Reggie. Also present is an enigmatic American Mrs. Vanderlyn. During the visit, Mayfield and Carrington want to consult about the plans for a new air bomber. Those plans have been kept top secret since they would be of great interest to England’s enemies. During the evening, the plans are stolen. Recovery of the plans is essential in order to protect them, and it’s got to be done quietly, too. Otherwise the scandal and the insinuation that someone powerful is aiding the enemy could bring down the government. So Sir George calls on Hercule Poirot to help find the plans.

Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life concerns a case from 1963. Cissy Kohler was arrested and imprisoned for her involvement in the murder of her employer’s wife Pamela Westropp. At the time, Ralph Mickledore was also arrested and convicted in connection with the murder. As the novel begins, Kohler has recently been released from prison, and new hints are surfacing that suggest that she was innocent. More than that, they suggest that the investigating officer Wally Tallentire know that and hid evidence of it. When Superintendent Andy Dalziel finds this out, he’s determined to prove those allegations false. Tallentire was his mentor, and he has absolute faith in the man’s integrity. So Dalziel looks into the case again and from a different angle, so does Peter Pascoe. One interesting thing about this case is that it was tried in the same year as the famous Profumo case, in which John Profumo’s relationship with Christine Keeler was made public and eventually led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In fact that scandal is mentioned in the novel as a way of explaining public attitudes towards the Westropp case, and the assumption that Kohler was guilty.

In Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is recovering physically and psychologically from his last case (detailed in Dead Set). His plans are to work on his Ph.D. thesis and have a normal life, whatever that means. But he’s drawn back to AFP work by a double murder at Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra. The victims are Alec Dennet, a member of the 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government, and Dennet’s editor Lorraine Starke. As the investigating team learns, Dennet and Starke were working on Dennet’s memoirs at the time of their deaths. Since the manuscript has disappeared, it looks as though someone committed murder to be sure it wouldn’t be published. And that suggests several possible suspects. For one thing, there are some very highly-placed people who don’t want everything about the Whitlam government’s activities to be known. For another, there are some very nasty groups from other countries too who would very much like that manuscript, not just for the information it may contain, but also for its monetary value. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at the effects of a scandal years after it’s broken.

And then there’s Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege. Washington-based former cop-turned-PI Dana Cutler is hired by prominent attorney Dale Perry to follow a young intern Charlotte Walsh and report on where she goes and whom she sees. Cutler doesn’t see why a ‘nobody’ intern could be of interest to anyone, but a fee is a fee. So she begins her work. Then one night, Walsh leaves her car in a mall parking lot, is picked up in another car and is taken to a secluded safe house. Cutler is shocked to find that Walsh is meeting with US President Christopher Ferrington. The next morning, Cutler learns that Walsh’s body has been found in her car, which is still in the parking lot. Now Cutler is an important witness – and a target for some very powerful people who don’t want the young woman’s death investigated. It turns out that Charlotte Walsh’s murder is connected with another murder and a common experience the two victims had.

There are also several books by Margaret Truman, including Murder at the White House, in which scandal at the very highest levels of government is explored. But Nixon’s resignation didn’t just change people’s attitudes about government and its leaders. It also made heroes out of journalists such as Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered what was going on in the Nixon administration.

The perception of journalists as interfering annoyances (you see this attitude come up in some classic crime fiction) changed for a lot of people during the Watergate investigation. And we see that shift in some modern crime fiction. For instance, Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon is a crime reporter who breaks several high-level scandals in the series that features her. One of the recurring characters in Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is journalist Linda Hiller. She helps Irish bring down some very powerful people in Bad Debts, and even though she doesn’t appear in all the novels, she’s presented in a positive light, as a someone who’s working to stop corruption. And of course to get herself a major story. And Ian Rankin’s John Rebus co-operates more than once with journalist Mairie Henderson. The image of the reporter/journalist as the gutsy, heroic protagonist may not have originated with Woodward and Bernstein, but it certainly got a boost as a result of their Watergate investigation.

The Nixon resignation had powerful and lasting effects, and not just on those directly involved. It was one of the pivotal US events of the 1970s. Little wonder that scandals are still given nicknames that end in ‘-gate.’

ps. If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you know that I almost always take my own ‘photos. But this one’s far better than any I could take. Thanks, Channel One News.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Young Americans.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Kel Robertson, Liza Marklund, Margaret Truman, Peter Temple, Philip Margolin, Reginald Hill

They Put a Parking Lot On a Piece of Land*

ParkingLotsOne of the major developments of the last century has been the ever-increasing popularity of cars. I don’t have to tell you how the auto has changed our lives. The thing about cars, though, is that you have to have a place to put them while you’re working, shopping, doing personal business, or out enjoying yourself. And that means parking garages and cark parks/parking lots. Such places are very handy for drivers. They’re also, if you think about it, very effective places for a murder or for leaving a body.

Most of the time, we don’t pay much attention to the people and cars around us when we park. We stop the car and lock it and go about our business. So who’s to say how long a particular car is in a particular place? Or whether there’s someone in the car? And people don’t usually pay a lot of attention to individuals coming or going through a parking area. Even with CCTV cameras in a lot of today’s parking garages, it’s sometimes hard to tell who goes where and does what. And in outdoor parking areas it’s even more difficult. Little wonder we see so many crime-fictional incidents of people being murdered and bodies found in such places. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Colin Dexter’s Last Bus to Woodstock, two women are waiting to catch a bus. When it becomes clear that there won’t be another bus any time soon, one of them, Sylvia Kaye, takes the risk of hitchhiking. Later that night her body is found in the parking area outside a pub. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder, beginning with the task of identifying the body. Then, they look into her relationships and past history to see who would have wanted to kill her. The other task is to trace her last movements. And as it turns out, those interactions and those last movements are crucial to solving the case.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water features an informal but notorious parking area called The Pasture, located near the Sicilian town of Vigàta. It’s a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients and for small-time drug dealers and their customers. Managed by Gegè Gullotta, The police generally leave The Pasture alone; in return, Gullotta more or less keeps order in the place and makes sure that his ‘business enterprises’ don’t cause trouble. Early one morning, the body of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello is discovered in a car at The Pasture and Inspector Salvo Montalbano is called to the scene. The official theory is that Luparello died of a heart attack at a very inopportune time and place. But Montalbano suspects that it might have been something more. So he’s given grudging permission to take two days and investigate the case more thoroughly. One of the challenges he faces is that the body was discovered in an easily-accessible parking area, where nobody really noticed who came and went.

Parking places play a role in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, too. Danny McKillop has recently been released from prison after serving time for a drink driving incident in which citizen activist Anne Jeppeson was killed. One night he leaves a message for Jack Irish, the attorney who defended him. Irish doesn’t pick up the message until later and even then, doesn’t take it seriously at first. Then McKillop leaves more urgent messages and this time, Irish pays attention. By the time he takes heed though, it’s too late: McKillop’s been shot in a hotel carpark. Irish feels a real sense of responsibility here. In the first place, he believes that he should have paid closer attention to the messages McKillop left him. And more than that, Irish knows he did a miserable job of defending McKillop in the drink driving case. At the time, Irish was in the depths of mourning the loss of his wife Isabel, who was shot in a parking garage by a deranged client. So at the time of McKillop’s case, Irish was spending far too much time drinking and far too little time working on behalf of his client. Now he decides to make as much right as possible and find out who shot McKillop and why. 

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s The Silence of the Rain begins with a murder in a parking garage. Rio de Janeiro business executive Ricardo de Carvalho is found shot in the parking garage he uses. His body is left in his car and his wallet, briefcase and money have been taken. At first it looks as though someone was waiting for him in or near his car, with the idea of robbing him. And that’s not impossible given that the parking garage is dark, with lots of places to hide. Inspector Espinosa begins the routine work of tracking down the killer and it’s not long before he comes to suspect that this might not be a ‘typical’ robbery/murder. In the end, he finds out that he’s quite correct.

In Philip Margolin’s  Executive Privilege, Washington-area cop-turned-PI Dana Cutler gets a new client and a new assignment. Attorney Dale Perry wants Cutler to shadow Charlotte Walsh and report where she goes, whom she sees and what she does. Cutler agrees and prepares for her surveillance. One night, Walsh drives to a mall and leaves her car in its parking lot. She’s picked up by the driver of another car and taken to a secluded house in a remote area. Cutler follows and discovers to her shock that Walsh has come to the house to meet U.S. President Christopher Farrington. She starts taking ‘photos, but is discovered and barely gets away. The next morning, Cutler learns that Walsh was murdered after she got back to her car. What’s more, some very powerful and nasty people know that she has photographic evidence of the victim’s meeting with the president, and those people are after her. What started out as a straightforward surveillance case draws Cutler into a very dangerous and high-level conspiracy.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s The Nesting Dolls. Academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack attend a concert at their daughter Taylor’s high school. As they’re leaving the performance, a woman approaches Taylor’s friend Isobel and gives her a baby. A note with the baby makes it clear that the woman, whose name is Abby Michaels, wants to give up the child and wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody of him. It’s a complicated situation and a search is made for Abby, but she seems to have disappeared. Later, her body is found in her car in a parking lot behind a jeweler’s/pawn shop. The key to the murder lies, as it often does, in the past and in the network of relationships in the victim’s life.

See what I mean? A good parking spot may seem like a godsend, but do look around carefully as you get in and out of your car. You never know what can happen. I’ve given a few examples. Now it’s your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Come Dancing.


Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Colin Dexter, Gail Bowen, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Peter Temple, Philip Margolin

Baby, We Were Born to Run*

On The RunOne of the differences between crime fiction of years gone by and modern crime fiction is arguably that it’s much more difficult today to go ‘on the run’ and into hiding. With today’s technology and the heightened security of the past couple of decades, it’s a lot harder to ‘cover one’s tracks.’ And a crime fiction author who wants to write a believable portrayal of someone who’s ‘on the run’ has to take today’s technology into account or the story loses credibility. That said though, it can really add a layer of suspense to a story when a character’s in hiding.

During most of the time that Agatha Christie was writing it was fairly easy to live life ‘on the run.’ And we see that sort of character in more than one of her novels. For example, in Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), the Cloade family is rocked when wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade unexpectedly marries later in life. Tragically, he’s killed in a wartime bomb blast before he has the opportunity to change his will and provide for his family as he’d always promised he’d do. So now, Cloade’s young widow Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Then a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to the village of Warmsley Vale where the Cloades live. He hints that Rosaleen Cloade’s first husband Robert Underhay didn’t die as was believed. ‘Arden’ also hints that he either is Underhay or knows where the man is. His story is possible too since Underhay had once said that he might fake his own death and return as someone else. If that’s true then Rosaleen Cloade can’t inherit her husband’s fortune, so the Cloade family has a strong interest in finding out whether Robert Underhay is still alive. It’s very interesting to see how difficult that was to prove in that day and in fact, there’s quite a lot of doubt as to whether Rosaleen can or cannot inherit. Then ‘Arden’ is killed. And then there are two other deaths. Two of the Cloade family members contact Hercule Poirot, and he investigates the deaths. And it’s very interesting to see how everyone learns who ‘Arden’ is. No spoilers, but it doesn’t depend on things like DNA sampling, ‘phone records or credit card purchases.

There’s another look at being ‘on the run’ in Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. In that novel Dr. Sponti, headmaster of Laguna Perdida School, hires PI Lew Archer to find seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, who’s run away from the school. Sponti wants Tom found before his wealthy parents find out he’s missing, but by the time he discusses the case with Archer it’s too late: Tom’s father Ralph Hillman has already been contacted by people claiming to be kidnappers. They say they’ve got Tom and are demanding ransom. Hillman hires Archer to find his son and Archerd begins to investigate. It’s not long though before he discovers that all is not as it seems in this case. For one thing the Hillmans are not nearly as co-operative as you’d expect frantic parents of a missing boy to be. For another, it soon appears that Tom may have joined his kidnappers willingly. So Archer begins to dig deeper – much deeper than the Hillmans want him to dig. In the process he finds that the people who’ve allegedly kidnapped Tom Hillman are ‘on the run’ and living under other names. Archer has to go through a more complex process than is necessary today. He contacts friends and acquaintances who can give him automobile license plate information, former employment information and so on but it’s not a simple process. In the end though Archer tracks the people he wants. He’s too late to prevent another murder but he’s not to late to find out the truth about Tom Hillman.

Today of course there are many ways to track what a person goes and what that person does. So it’s much easier to find someone who’s ‘on the run’ than it was. Not to say of course that no-one can ever stay in hiding. We’ve all read news stories where that’s happened. But savvy crime writers know that today’s police and PIs can and do use technology quite effectively to find someone.

For instance, in Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege, PI Dana Cutlre has to go ‘on the run’ after a case she accepts turns very dangerous. She’s hired to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh and report what the girl does, where she goes and whom she sees. Cutler thinks the job is straightforward and even a little boring until the night she traces Walsh to a secluded safe house where Walsh meets with U.S. president Christopher Farrington. When Walsh is murdered later that night, some very ruthless people want all of the surveillance information Cutler has. She goes ‘on the run,’ determined to stay alive until she finds out what exactly it is that she’s discovered. One thing that adds to the tension in this novel is the chase between Culter and the people who are after her. Cutler is a former cop and now a PI, so she is no slouch at evasion and self-protection. But the people who want to find her have all sorts of resources and a lot of money. It’s interesting to see how both ‘sides’ use telephone records, video surveillance and other modern technology to track each other.

The killer in Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom also finds that it’s very hard to be ‘on the run’ in today’s world. Toronto P.I. Sasha Jackson is hired by Christine Arvisais to find out who murdered her fiancé Gordon Hanes. The two had broken up before their planned wedding day but Arvisais says that she’s been accused of killing Hanes. As much as anything else she wants to clear her name. So Jackson starts work on the case. Then she gets word of another murder that has some similarities. And then there’s another. It turns out that the murders are related. In order to find out who the killer is, Jackson uses several strategies to track that person down. In the process, she finds out that the murderer is hiding from an earlier crime. With today’s technology though, it’s possible even for a person without official status (e.g. not a cop) to track someone’s past history.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, Saskatchewan political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn gets drawn into a case that involves several people who are ‘on the run’ from their pasts. One of them is Christy Sinclair, the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter. When she unexpectedly comes back on the scene, Kilbourn is less than happy about it. But Kilbourn accepts Christy back into the family circle. Then Christy is tragically killed in what seems to be a boating accident. It’s soon discovered though that her death might not have been an accident and instead, may be related to a series of other deaths. It turns out that one key to this mystery is the past from which Christy Sinclair was running. As Kilbourn investigates, we see that even though Sinclair changed her name, moved, and took other measures to hide her past, Kilbourn’s still able to find out the truth about her.

We also see that in T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell, in which London attorney Jill Shadow gets drawn into a web of drugs smuggling, politics, a lot of money and murder when she takes the case of Bella Kiss. Shadow’s client’s been arrested for bringing illegal drugs into the U.K. She admits doing so, but won’t tell Shadow who paid or coerced her to smuggle. In fact she says little at all and it’s soon clear that she’s protecting someone. It’s also clear that she’s very much afraid for her life. So Shadow begins to dig a little deeper. Then she hears of a murder that may be related to the case. Then there’s another murder. Now Shadow has to go into hiding herself because she’s gotten too close to the truth. In this novel we see how Shadow and the police use resources such as telephone records, financial transaction and so on to find out important information about the pasts of several characters. We also see the lengths to which Shadow has to go to stay safe while she’s ‘on the run.’  As each side tries to outwit the other, we see that it’s not really easy to be ‘on the run.’

That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen though. And part of the suspense in a crime novel with this plot point is the ‘game of chess’ between the person who’s ‘on the run’ and the people who doing the searching. But I suppose that’s been a part of good fiction for a long time (I’m thinking of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables). I know I haven’t mentioned even a small percentage of the well-written crime fiction in which characters are ‘on the run.’ Your turn.




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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Jill Edmondson, Philip Margolin, Ross Macdonald, T.J. Cooke

You Just Recover When Another Belief is Betrayed*

TrustingOne of the ways crime fiction authors build suspense in their novels is by raising the issue of trust. In any investigation, real or fictional, the detective has to decide who’s trustworthy and who is trying to mislead. When that question is woven into a novel, it can draw the reader in (e.g. ‘Is he really on ____’s side? What if he’s trying to kill ___?’  Or ‘No!! Don’t trust her! She’s really working for ___!’).  We see a lot of this plot device in thrillers, but it can also be very effective other kinds of crime fiction too. Authors need to be careful with this plot tool though. First, a plot that’s too complicated, with too many hidden loyalties and motives, can be confusing for the reader. Second, if the characters aren’t well-drawn, then the question of, who can be trusted can make them almost cartoonish and can make the sleuth seem too gullible. But when it’s done well, the trust issue can ratchet up a story’s suspense and keep the reader turning or clicking pages.

Agatha Christie wrote several novels in which there’s a question of who’s trustworthy. I’ll just mention one of them. In The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Beddingfeld, whose father has recently died, leaving her with little money. For a short time after his death, Anne lives with her father’s solicitor Mr. Flemming and his family. They’re well-meaning but Anne finds them dull and has no wish to live like that. Then one day she happens to witness a tube accident in which a man falls or is pushed onto the tracks. As his body is being recovered, Ann spots a piece of paper which she picks up. The note written on the paper makes reference to an upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town and on impulse, Anne books a cabin. That decision draws her into a case of jewel theft, murder, faked identities and more. As the novel moves along, Anne has to decide whom she should trust. As she sorts this out, she gets closer and closer to the truth about a stolen fortune and a secret past that one of the characters is hiding. Since the story is written from Anne’s perspective, the reader follows along with her as she slowly finds out who is and who isn’t trustworthy.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch often has to decide whom he can and can’t trust. One of the themes in this series is corruption in the top echelons of the LAPD and hidden loyalties and agendas. We see that for instance in The Black Ice. In that novel, Bosch goes to the scene of what looks like a suicide. Fellow cop Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore has apparently taken his own life because, or so the official report says, he’d ‘gone dirty.’ But Bosch isn’t sure that’s what really happened. So he begins to ask questions about Moore’s life and death. He finds out that Moore was investigating the importation from Mexico of a new and very dangerous drug called Black Ice. That plus what he learns about Moore’s past lead Bosch to a small Mexican border town where a vicious drugs gang has a heavily fortressed operation. Bosch gets a lot of pressure from the top brass to leave the Moore case alone, but anyone who’s familiar with Harry Bosch will know that doesn’t stop him. As the story moves on and Bosch gets closer to the truth about Moore, he has to make some sometimes very quick decisions about who’s trustworthy and who isn’t and that adds to the tension.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa knows he has to be careful about trusting too easily. He’s a cop in Rio de Janeiro, where bribery is a way of life and police corruption is all too common. What’s more, as in many places, the rich and powerful often manipulate events and people to get what they want. In A Window in Copacabana for instance, Espinosa investigates the murders of three cops. At first, it looks as though someone has a vendetta against the police. But then, the mistress of one of the murdered officers is killed. Then another one dies. And the third disappears. The more that Espinosa learns about this case, the clearer it is that this is no vengeful cop-killer. This is a case of a web of corruption involving the victims and some very ruthless people. As Espinosa gets closer to the truth, he also knows that he can’t tell just anyone what he’s found. So he gathers a very small team of people he trusts to work with him. They keep things so secret that they don’t even discuss the case while they’re at the station. Even so, Espinosa learns that you sometimes don’t know whether someone can or cannot be trusted.

That’s also what Philip Margolin’s PI sleuth Dana Cutler needs to remember in Executive Privilege. Cutler is hired to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh and report where she goes, what she does and whom she meets. Cutler isn’t told the name of her client; the arrangement is made through a third party, highly placed attorney Dale Perry. At first, the assignment isn’t all that interesting. Walsh’s patterns are more or less predictable and nothing much comes of watching her. But then one night she leaves her car at a local mall and is driven to a secluded safe house where, to Cutler’s shock, she meets with U.S. President Christopher Farrington. Cutler is sure now that she’s out of her league as the saying goes, and calls her anonymous client, saying that she’s dropping the case. But when Walsh is murdered Cutler herself becomes the target of some highly placed people who want all of the information she’s got about the victim. Cutler quickly goes into hiding and as she slowly gets closer to the truth about the murder, she finds that she has to be extremely careful about whom to trust. So does fledgling attorney Brad Miller, who is approaching the same case from a different angle. He’s been hired by a powerful Portland, Oregon law firm and hopes his career will get a boost when he takes on the case of serial killer Clarence Little. Little’s been convicted of several grisly murders, one of which is the killing of Laurie Erickson. Little claims that he was busy committing another murder when Erickson was killed, so he is not guilty of that crime. As Miller follows up on that case to see who might have killed Laurie Erickson, he finds himself getting closer to an extremely dangerous truth. He also finds that he can no longer be sure who is trustworthy.

Betty Webb makes use of that ‘who can be trusted’ plot point in Desert Wives, which features her sleuth PI Lena Jones. Jones rescues thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from a polygamous group called Purity, and returns the girl to her mother Esther. During the rescue, Jones sees that group leader Solomon Royal has been shot and badly wounded. So as soon as Rebecca is safe, Jones calls the police to report the shooting. The next day she learns that Royal has been murdered. What’s worse, Esther Corbett is suspected. If she’s arrested, it’s very likely that Rebecca will be taken from her and returned to Purity, where her father Abel is a member. So Esther is desperate to clear her name. Jones agrees to help and ends up infiltrating Purity in the guise of the newest wife of disaffected group member Saul Berkhauser. As Jones begins to take up her ‘new life’ at Purity, she slowly meets the different members of the community. Very soon Jones learns just how much danger there is for her. She discovers to her shock that the group is not the peaceful, happy community it seems on the surface. There are many instances of domestic abuse of both wives and children. There’s also child molestation and the forced marriage of girls as young as thirteen. To make matters worse, there’s so much intermarriage that there are many cases of severe birth defects. And the powerful group leaders (and even some locals who have their own power) are not eager to have those truths made public. Jones needs to keep her ‘cover’ to protect herself from those people. She also needs to keep in mind that someone in the group is a murderer who doesn’t want to be discovered. And it’s not at all clear at first which group members can be trusted and which ones cannot. Even Jones’ ‘husband’ Saul comes in for his share of suspicion since he had a motive for murdering Royal. That question of who is trustworthy adds a taut layer of suspense to this novel.

And then there’s T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell, which is the story of London lawyer Jill Shadow. Shadow’s managed to get past a poor and very dysfunctional childhood to go to law school and get her legal credentials. Along the way, she had a relationship with Jimmy Briscoe, father of her daughter Hannah. Jimmy’s been in prison for several years on drugs charges and Shadow’s had to make a life for herself and Hannah. Everything’s going well enough though until Shadow takes on the pro bono case of Bella Kiss. Originally from Hungary, Bella’s lived in London for a couple of years. She’s just been arrested though for drugs smuggling on her return from a trip. She admits she had the drugs in question with her when she came into the country, but she refuses to say anything about where she got the drugs or who paid or convinced her to bring the drugs in. It soon becomes obvious that she’s trying to protect someone. Shadow knows that she can do little to help her client without knowing everything about the case, but Bella remains stubbornly uncooperative. Then Jimmy Briscoe comes back into her life. He’s finished his sentence and claims that he’s made a fresh start. But at the same time, he seems to know too much about Bella Kiss’ situation. What’s more, he has a very poor ‘track record’ with Shadow. As if that weren’t enough, Shadow begins to uncover other truths about this case. Bella seems to be a pawn in a very high-stakes and high-level game of drugs and politics, and the more she finds out about this case, the less sure Shadow is of exactly what or whom to believe. Then one of the key people involved in the case is murdered. In the meantime, there’s been another murder. Then, Shadow herself becomes a possible target. Throughout this novel, the question of whom Shadow should trust adds a strong dose of tension and interest. And since the story is told from her point of view, the reader doesn’t always know who is trustworthy either.

It’s certainly possible to overdo the theme of ‘Who can be trusted?’ But when that plot point is used carefully and the characters are well-developed, it can add much to a story and give readers an added reason to invest themselves in what happens in the novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s A Matter of Trust.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Michael Connelly, Philip Margolin

>Can We Still Be Friends*

>So, you’ve just finished a novel by a favourite author, and you found yourself a bit disappointed. Maybe this novel just didn’t live up to the high quality you’ve come to expect from that author. What do you do? Do you continue to read that author’s work, or do you give up? An interesting comment exchange with Norman at Crime Scraps and Maxine at Petrona has got me thinking about why it is that with some series and authors, we’re willing to forgive the occasional less-than-best work and we still eagerly await the author’s next release. With other series and authors, though, we stop reading after the first weak effort and never really go back to that author. To some extent, of course, the answer to that question depends on the reader and the author. But there are qualities that just seem to keep us faithful to an author or a series, even after we’ve had a not-so-good experience with one of her or his books.


If you’re kind enough to read this blog, then you know that I’ve mentioned the importance of characters more than once. Without interesting and authentic characters who evolve over time, a series gets stale anyway. With those characters, readers come back time and again, even after a not-so-good experience.

For example, Jo Nesbø ‘s Harry Hole is a compelling character. He’s far from perfect (and for many people, that’s part of his appeal), and sometimes he’s his own worst enemy. But he is smart, complex enough to be interesting, and dedicated. He’s determined to do the right thing, even when it’s not clear what that right thing is. Because of Harry Hole’s fascinating and likeable character, readers queue up, even though some of the Harry Hole novels are quite violent, and some of them are longer than readers typically would choose. It doesn’t matter; we love Harry.

Another very popular set of characters appear in Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series. Guido Brunetti and his family are real, likeable people. Their fans love the “window” into the Brunetti family that they get in Leon’s novels, and they admire Brunetti’s dedication, his devotion to his family, and determination to do his job as well as he can. The other “regular” characters are also appealing, and fans love “visiting” them, too. Signorina Elettra Zorzi, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello, and even the man we love to hate, Vice-Questore Patta, are all quite real to their fans. So devoted readers forgive the occasional Brunetti mystery that doesn’t live up to their expectations; they sill love “visiting” with their favourite characters.

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has also won worldwide fans of his characters. Mma. Precious Ramotswe is a wise, interesting, smart and sometimes humourous sleuth. Her associate, Mma. Grace Makutsi, is equally interesting and so is Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He’s got his own quiet wisdom and his own appeal. Devotees of this series are always eager to catch up with their favourite “regulars,” and they are willing to forgive the occasional story that’s a bit disjointed or in some other way falls short of expectations. Why? They can’t wait to catch up with their “friends” in the next instalment.


I’ve mentioned this quality before, too, and it’s really important. Michael Connelly, for instance, has of course created memorable characters in his Harry Bosch and now his Mickey Haller. But even more, he’s not afraid to innovate, to try something different and to see where it takes him. Fans of his series know that even if they are a little disappointed in one or another of his titles, that he’ll come back with something new and fresh the next time round. That plus his terrific characters makes a new Connelly title irresistible to those who’ve come to love his writing.

Agatha Christie also wasn’t afraid to try new kinds of plots and to experiment. Her most famous sleuths, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have all sorts of different kinds of adventures, and Christie’s plot twists, new ideas and innovations are legendary. Even Christie’s most ardent fans wouldn’t say that everything she wrote was of the same quality. But even her weaker work shows her willingness not to be bound by whatever story had come before.

Focus on the Story

Perhaps it seems blatantly obvious to say that a good series has well-told stories. But I think the point bears a few comments here. Crime fiction fans want a taut, interesting story that keeps them wondering what’ll happen next. The answer to that question has to be believable, too. That’s part of what’s won so many fans to Philip Margolin’s legal thrillers, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone stories and Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren stories, among many others. These authors write novels that are focused around the main plot. Yes, of course we get to know the characters and they evolve over time. So these plots aren’t what you would call too linear. But the novels are focused more than anything else on the story.

Authors who craft their plots carefully and well don’t have to rely on too many co-incidences, “recycled” plots or too much blood and graphic violence. The plot carries the story and readers follow along eagerly. And readers are willing to forgive the occasional less-than-deep character or less-than-evocative setting if they know that in general, the author works hard to plot well.


I haven’t seen the research on this, so I can’t say with absolute certainty, but my guess is that readers are quicker to forgive a weak effort from an author whose work is usually strong than they are the same weakness in an author whose work is more uneven. I’m sure that all of you can think of at least as many crime fiction authors as I can whose work is consistently strong and has stayed that way. When those authors write a less-then-fine book, it’s easy to think, “Well, anyone can have an off-time. I’ll bet the next one will be much better.”

No author can be at his or her best all of the time. All authors stumble at least a little. Trust me. But what is your view on all of this? How easily do you forgive a beloved author for the occasional stumble? How many stumbles before you give up on that author? What pushes you in one direction or the other?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song from Philadelphia’s own Todd Rundgren.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Donna Leon, Håkan Nesser, Jo Nesbø, Michael Connelly, Philip Margolin, Sue Grafton