Category Archives: Rebecca Cantrell

The Account Of the Capture Wasn’t in the Papers*

An interesting post from Tim at Informal Inquiries has got me thinking about the different ways in which the media and the public react to a murder investigation. In some cases, there’s a great deal of hype and attention, sometimes to an almost frenzied level. In other cases, though, there’s very little attention paid to a case. Either it’s not seen as sensational enough, or some other major news story eclipses the case, or something else happens.

We see that distinction in a lot of crime fiction, too. And that means that the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to the plot. Will the case by hyped for some reason? That can add plot threads and suspense. Will it go nearly unnoticed? That, too, can add different sorts of plot threads, and a tension of its own.

One of the most eagerly followed cases of the early 20th Century was the Crippen case. In 1910, Harvey Hawley Crippen was convicted and executed for the murder of his wife, Cora. The details of the murder, of Crippen’s flight from England with his lover, Ethel ‘Le Neve’ Neave, and his subsequent arrest, made headlines all over the world. On the one hand, people have murdered spouses for a very long time, and most of those cases don’t get into the papers, or at least not beyond a few lines. On the other, the Crippen case included lurid details. There was the love triangle, Crippen’s attempted escape, and more. All of this combined to catch the public’s attention. There’s an interesting look at this case in Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman. That’s a fictional account of the Crippen case, told from Crippen’s point of view. Among other things, it raises an interesting possible account of what really happened to Cora.

The real action in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders begins as Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic warning note that tells him to
‘Look out for Andover…’

Sure enough, on the day specified in the note, Alice Ascher is murdered in her small tobacconist/newsagent shop.  Not much attention at all is paid the crime. It is, after all, what looks like a case of a robbery gone wrong. Terrible, of course, but hardly worth media hype. Then, after another warning note is sent to Poirot, twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard is strangled. Her body is discovered on a beach, and an ABC railway guide is found nearby. Now, there’s some interest, especially after it comes out that an ABC guide was also found near Mrs. Ascher’s body. Before long, and after another murder, the media begin to carry all the details of the case, and the public is enlisted to help catch the killer. It’s interesting to see how the case of Mrs. Ascher doesn’t get any attention at all until it’s linked to others.

Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass begins as pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns to her native Auckland from London. With her are her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ Claire’s reluctant to make the move, but it’s important to Yossi, so she goes along with it. And we soon find out why she’d rather have stayed in London. In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips disappeared. There was a great deal of media attention to the case, as you can imagine. Some of the evidence pointed to Claire’s father, Patrick Bowerman. In fact, he was arrested and imprisoned in the matter. But there was never enough evidence to really make the case, so he wasn’t convicted. Still, plenty of people think he’s guilty. Claire doesn’t want this old case raked up again. That’s exactly what happens, though, when she gets involved in another case. A two-year-old patient of hers has a tumour that needs to be removed. But his parents refuse the surgery on religious grounds. The conflict between the hospital and the family thrusts Claire into the spotlight, and brings up the old case again.

In Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, we are introduced to Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. The novel takes place in the late 1970s, a very dangerous time in that place. The military government is in firm control, and anyone seen as dissenting or ‘making trouble’ is quickly imprisoned. Many simply disappear. Those murders don’t make the news or get a lot of public discussion. It’s too dangerous to bring the topic up. Even Lescano, who is a good cop, knows better than to go up against the army. So, one morning, when he’s called out to a scene where two bodies were found, he’s inclined to leave the matter alone. The bodies bear all the hallmarks of an army ‘hit.’ But then, he sees a third body. This one’s a little different, and Lescano looks into the matter further. The dead man turns out to be a moneylender named Elías Biterman, and his death doesn’t look like a typical army killing. The murder doesn’t get any attention; after all, who cares about ‘just a Jew?’ But Lescano persists, and finds that looking into this murder might cost him his life.

Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke features Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel. The novel is set in 1931, during the last years of the Weimar Republic. The Nazis have already started to become powerful, and people know how dangerous it is to go up against them. Against this background, Vogel makes a shocking discovery one morning. She happens to be at the police station when she looks at the photographs displayed in the station’s Hall of the Unknown Dead. Among those ‘photos is one of her brother, Ernst. His death hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else; in fact, this is the first Vogel has heard of it. She wants to find out what happened to her brother, but in this place at this time, it’s very dangerous to call attention to oneself. So she’ll have to move very quietly. As she looks for the truth, we see how certain deaths get absolutely no media or public notice at all.

That’s the case with the death in Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. The body of an unknown man is found in the ruins of a fire that broke out in a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. When it’s established that the dead man might have been a foreigner, DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira, of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit are assigned to the case. There’s plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment in the area, so this could be a hate crime. As Zigic and Ferreira look into the matter, we see how little public and media attention is really paid to that death and to some other things that the sleuths uncover.

And that’s the way it is with some cases. They get very little media hype and public attention. Others, though, make headlines, sometimes for a long time. Thanks, Tim, for the inspiration.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Smackwater Jack.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ernesto Mallo, Eva Dolan, Rebecca Cantrell, Sue Younger

Over at the Counter, Helping All the Shoppers*

As this is posted, it’s 116 years since James Cash (J.C.) Penney opened his first department store. Since that time, department stores have become an integral part of our buying culture. And, if you think about it, department stores represented a major change in shopping. It was now possible to purchase ready-made clothing for men, women, and children, all in the same place. Linens, housewares and jewelry, too.

Of course, today’s department stores don’t much resemble the early department stores. Most now have online shopping options, for example. And there aren’t as many department stores as there once were. But, whether it’s El Corte Inglés, J.C. Penney, Debenhams or Hudson’s Bay, department stores still play a role in our shopping.

They play a role in crime fiction, too, and it’s interesting to see how they fit in to the setting of a novel. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Much of Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery is set in French’s Department Store, which is in New York City. One day, a store employee is setting up a window demonstration of some of the store’s furniture. When she tries to demonstrate the way the pull-out bed works, she discovers the body of a woman on the bed. Inspector Richard Queen takes the investigation, and, of course, his son Ellery goes along. It turns out that the dead woman is Winnifred French, wife of the store’s owner, Cyrus French. As the Queens investigate, they learn that there are several possibilities for the killer’s identity. As we meet the various suspects, we also learn about the way older, family-run department stores worked.

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, Perry Mason and Della Street duck out of the rain into a department store. There, they see a store security guard stop Sarah Breel for shoplifting. Unfortunately, this is a habit with her, but most of the time, her niece, Virginia Trent, goes shopping with her to prevent any incidents. But this time, Virginia wasn’t right next to her aunt. Not long afterwards, Virginia Trent comes to Mason with an even more complex problem. Her uncle is a gem expert, who appraises, cuts, cleans, and custom-sets gems on commission. Now, two valuable diamonds have been stolen, and the most likely suspect is Aunt Sarah. Austin Cullens, who originally sold the diamonds, doesn’t believe Aunt Sarah has the diamond. But when he’s found dead, and Aunt Sarah becomes the prime suspect, Mason has a difficult case on his hands.

Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series know that it takes place in the small town of Pickax, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The local department store, Lanspeak’s, is owned by Larry and Carol Lanspeak, who run it as a family business. Several scenes in the series take place at the store, and the Lanspeak family figures into more than one of the mysteries. It’s an interesting example of the sort of department store that used to be much more common before the advent of larger company buyouts and, later, the Internet.

There’s a memorable scene at a department store in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. It’s 1931, and the Nazis are rising to power in Germany. Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel has just learned that her brother Ernst was killed, but she doesn’t know why or by whom. So, she starts to quietly ask some questions. She has to be careful, so as not to attract Nazi attention, but she does want to find out the truth. Late one night, a young boy named Anton comes to her home. His birth certificate lists her as his mother, but she knows she has no children. Still, she takes the boy in and decides to take care of him the best she can for now. And that will include getting him some clothes, since the boy has nearly nothing. So, she takes Anton to Wertheim’s Department Store. They have a very good experience, and for Anton, it’s like being taken to a wonderland. All that changes on the way out of the store, when they are harassed by Nazi thugs who don’t want ‘good Germans’ shopping at ‘Jewish stores.’ It’s a frightening experience, and it shows how stores got caught in the dramatic events in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic.

In one plot thread of David Whish-Wilson’s Perth-based Zero at the Bone, we learn that former police superintendent Frank Swann is no longer working with the police (read about the events that led up to that in Line of Sight). He’s been hired by another former police officer, Percy Dickson. Dickson is head of security at a local department store, and he wants to know the truth behind some robberies that have been taking place. Several department stores and some jewelers have been targeted, and Dickson wants to know who’s responsible. So, he is working with the security people at the other stores to see if there’s a pattern. And Swann works with them to find out who’s behind the thefts. He discovers the truth, and the stolen merchandise is returned. But Dickson is under strict orders to say nothing about the thefts or the resolution of the problem. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of mentioning the matter to the wrong people…

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. That story begins in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Evelyn ‘Evie’ Hobart has grown up with very little. But she is beautiful and seductive. So, when she meets Hank Moran at a dance, it doesn’t take long for him to fall in love with her. They marry, and Evie finally has the life of privilege that she always wanted, since Hank comes from a family with money and prestige. All starts out well enough, and Evie joins the group of wealthy young women who take day trips into Philadelphia to shop, who belong to clubs, and so on. But Evie has always wanted to acquire things. And she enjoys the rush that comes when she takes them without paying for them. So, she’s caught shoplifting in department stores more than once. At first, it’s all hushed up and settled over because of the Moran family’s money and power. But finally, things get to the point where she is sent to The Terraces, an exclusive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured.’ Things don’t work out that way, though, and her daughter, Christine, grows up in a very toxic home. Evie hasn’t changed, and stops at nothing, including murder, to get what she wants. Christine feels powerless to do anything about it until she sees her young brother, Ryan, begin to get caught up in the same web. Now, Christine will have to find a way to free herself and Ryan before it’s too late.

The world of shopping has changed dramatically over the decades. But it’s still got a place for department stores. And so does crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rosenbergs’ Department Store Girl.


Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Lilian Jackson Braun, Patricia Abbott, Rebecca Cantrell

A Bomb or Two and Very Few Objected*

Very often, fictional sleuths have to move a bit carefully as they do their jobs. They may be investigating powerful and/or very dangerous people. Or (for police sleuths), they may have been told not to focus their energies on certain cases. There are other reasons, too, for which a sleuth might have to be very careful in investigating.

Sometimes, it’s the larger political situation that limits or even threatens what a sleuth can do. That context can add an interesting layer of suspense to a novel or series. In those situations, the sleuth has to go up against not just a group of suspects, but also political and other authorities that can be even more dangerous. One post isn’t enough space to list all of the novels and series that have this context; I know you’ll think of more examples than I could, anyway.

After the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s, ordinary citizens soon learned that they had to be extremely careful about where they went, what they did, what they said, and so on. Anything that brought them to the notice of the authorities could potentially result in a death sentence or worse. Several authors have used this climate of fear as a background for their novels and series. For example, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series begins in 1936, when the Nazis are fully in power. Gunther is a former police officer who’s turned private investigator, and sometimes, the trails he follows lead to some high places. He often has to balance finding out the truth against staying alive.

The same is true of Rebecca Cantrell, whose Hannah Vogel series begins in 1931. Vogel is a crime reporter who’s well aware of how powerful and dangerous the Nazis are. In several of the novels in this series, she has to come up with very creative ways to avoid calling attention to herself. When she does find herself in Nazi crosshairs, she has to find ways to stay alive, and it’s not always easy. Even when something isn’t directly happening to Vogel, it’s clear that she’s living in the sort of fearful atmosphere in which no-one can be trusted.

There’s a similar atmosphere in William Ryan’s series featuring Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. These novels take place just before the outbreak of World War II. Stalin is firmly in power, and the dreaded NKVD is, as the saying goes, everywhere. Citizens are encouraged to denounce anyone who says or does anything that could be conceived as disloyal to the Party or its leadership. So, people have learned, sometimes the hard way, not to trust anyone. Against this backdrop, Korolev is charged with solving crimes, which sometimes include murder. And sometimes, the crimes he investigates get very close to very highly-placed people. So, he and his assistant, Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka, have to be extremely careful as they do their work. It doesn’t help matters that Moscow’s criminal underworld is also dangerous, and sometimes takes an active interest in the crimes that Korolev and Slivka investigate.

Fans of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels can tell you that they, too, take place against the background of Party power and in a climate of distrust and fear. As the series begins (in Gorky Park), Renko is a Moscow homicide detective. As he investigates, he often finds himself in conflict with high Party officials, corrupt bureaucrats, and sometimes criminal gangsters. And he discovers that that corruption doesn’t end when the Soviet Union breaks up.

From 1948 to 1991, South Africa’s official policy was apartheid. This set of laws had powerful impacts on every aspect of people’s lives. The rule governed where one lived and worked, whom one could marry, and where one’s children went to school. They also governed the sort of social relationships one had. And there were several government agencies whose task it was to enforce the laws, often brutally. People know that speaking out, being seen with someone from a different race, or otherwise questioning the system, could get you killed. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series takes place in this environment. Beginning in the early 1950s, it tells the story of Cooper, who is a Johannesburg-based Detective Sergeant (DS) with the police. As he looks into cases, Cooper frequently has to cross racial lines. That in itself is risky, especially since people are strongly encouraged to report any suspected anti-apartheid activity. And Cooper isn’t universally liked, especially when the trail leads to people in authority. So he has to be very careful whom he trusts.

That’s also true of Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. He is a Buenos Aires-based police detective at a very dangerous time (the late 1970s) in the country’s history. The military government wields supreme power, and anyone seen as ‘trouble’ is quickly ‘disappeared.’ Often, such people are later found dead. Lescano knows that anyone might denounce him to the authorities, so he is very careful in his choices of confidants. That doesn’t entirely keep him out of trouble. But it keeps him alive.

And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen Cao lives and works in late-1990s Shanghai. At that time, Chinese society is integrating a few elements of capitalism, and ‘pure’ Maoism isn’t as common as it was. But the government is still very much in control what people see, read, and so on. And it’s not wise to go against the wishes of those who are high on the Party’s ‘ladder.’ More than once in the series, Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, have to move very quietly and carefully as they look into cases. That’s especially true when what they find goes against the official government line.

It adds real challenge to a fictional sleuth’s investigation when it has to take place against a sociopolitical climate of fear and lack of trust. That element can add suspense and conflict to a novel or series. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s The Lady’s Got Potential.


Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Malla Nunn, Martin Cruz Smith, Philip Kerr, Qiu Xiaolong, Rebecca Cantrell, William Ryan

And Share a Little of That Human Touch*

An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way authors can hold up a mirror to society. In some ways, those ‘mirrors’ can get people thinking deeply about that society, especially if the issue the book addresses is brought down to the human level.

When we see the way one or another aspect of society impacts a person or a family, we can get a real sense of the effect of that aspect. And, when a story is also entertaining (i.e. it draws the reader in), it’s often got more impact than it otherwise might. After all, most people don’t want to be ‘preached at’ when they read. They want stories that invite them to be engaged.

Agatha Christie often showed the human side of her society, if I may put it that way. Just as one example, during and after World War II, there were shortages of many different items, so an awful lot was rationed. It was difficult to get things such as coffee, meat, bread, and clothing. We see how that fact of life played out in Taken at the Flood. Lynn Marchmont has just returned to her home in the village of Warmsley Vale after service in the war. She hasn’t made permanent future plans yet, although it’s understood that she will marry a cousin, Rowley Cloade, a local farmer. Life’s not been easy for Lynn’s mother, Adela. She wasn’t wealthy to begin with, and now that everything’s rationed, it’s harder than ever to get things. Even simplr home repairs are beyond her reach. But the Marchmonts had always counted on Adela’s brother, wealthy family patriarch Gordon Cloade. In fact, he’d told all the members of his family that he would provide for them financially. Then, he unexpectedly married a widow, Rosaleen Underhay. He was tragically killed in a bomb blast without leaving a will. So now, Rosaleen stands to inherit everything, leaving the Cloades with nothing. Hercule Poirot gets involved with the Cloades when he takes an interest in the death of a stranger who visits Warmsley Vale, claiming that Rosaleen’s first husband is actually alive. If that’s true, then she can’t inherit. This death, of course, plays an important role in what happens to the Cloades. Woven through the story is a picture of what it’s like to live with rationing and other wartime privation.

The worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s had a lasting impact on just about every level of society, even those who didn’t live in poverty. There was financial panic, and many people scrambled to get food. We see what that daily life was like in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in 1931 Berlin. Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. Life is difficult for her, as it is for many people. It’s hard to earn enough money to buy food, let alone a decent place to live. She’s been able to eke out a living, but she doesn’t have much. Then, she learns by accident that her brother, Ernst, has died, and his body found in the water of the Spree. Hannah wants to know how and why Ernst died, but she has to move very quietly. With the Nazis coming to power, she doesn’t want to attract any attention to herself. But she starts to look into the matter. Bit by bit, she finds out the truth, and it does get her into real danger. Throughout the novel, we see the impact of the Depression. People sell anything they have, for whatever they can get, so that they can eat. For many women, that includes selling themselves. Everyone’s insecure, too, about meeting their basic needs. It’s a climate of deep anxiety, and it plays its part in the story.

From 1948 to 1991, apartheid was a fact of life in South Africa. And it had an impact on every part of a person’s life, both professional and personal. This set of laws, designed to separate different racial groups, determined where one lived, whom one could marry, what sort of job one could have, and where one’s children would be educated. Any social contact between races, other than very limited business contacts, was forbidden, and the consequences very harsh. We see how these laws played out in Malla Nunn’s Detective Sergeant (DS) Emmanuel Cooper series, which begins with A Beautiful Place to Die. As Cooper investigates cases, he has to cope with the daily realities imposed by apartheid. It governs whom he speaks to and where, which homes he can visit, and who’s ‘in charge.’ And in many ways, it limits him, although he starts out with the supreme advantage of being classified as ‘white.’ This way of exploring apartheid – taking it to the human, everyday-life level – is arguably more effective at depicting the policy than ‘preaching’ would be.

Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series takes place in the early 1980s, at the height of the Troubles. Duffy is a detective sergeant (DS) in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He is also a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant outfit. Through his eyes, we see the impact of the Troubles brought to a human level. There are certain places one doesn’t go if one’s Catholic, or Protestant. Daily life for a copper involves checking for bombs before starting the car – every time (with the two sides constantly battling, neither side likes the police very much). Different areas are walled-off with makeshift (and sometimes not so makeshift) barriers. The ongoing conflict even affects (sometimes determines) where a person shops, whom a person marries, and who gets included in one’s circle of friends. Duffy has to negotiate all of this as he tries to do his job.

There are still lasting effects of the Troubles, as we see in Brian McGilloway’s Garda Ben Devlin series. Devlin lives and works in Lifford, close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. There’s a fragile peace there, and people do try to work together. But that doesn’t mean everything is happy and everyone gets along. The memories of the Troubles are recent enough that there’s still bitterness, and families still live with the ache of lost loved ones. This series depicts, in a human way, what it’s like to live in a place that, until very recently, was a war zone.

There are plenty of other novels that show, in a very human way, the impacts of major events, major policies, and so on. And that approach is often a lot more effective than taking a ‘big picture’ look. Readers are arguably more likely to engage themselves when they read about characters who are like them – human.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, do go visit Clothes in Books. It’s a treasure trove of reviews and discussion of fictional clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us.


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


Filed under Adrian McKinty, Agatha Christie, Brian McGilloway, Malla Nunn, Rebecca Cantrell

Livin’ On The Edge*

Anyone who’s ever lived in wildfire/bush fire country can tell you that, when even a small fire starts, things can turn very, very bad, very, very quickly. So, there’s often a lot of tension as everyone looks at things such as prevailing winds, terrain, availability of firefighting staff, and size of the blaze. Wise people take precautions, in case they need to evacuate. After all, there may only be 10-30 minutes to evacuate once the order is given. That’s not the time to discuss who will take what, or where to go. By the way, if you want to read a realistic account of what this situation is like, read Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350. G’wan, read it. Admittedly, it’s not crime fiction, but it’s such a good fit here that I decided to mention it, anyway.

That tension, as people wait to see what will happen, is almost palpable. In real life, it can be a big challenge. In fiction, it can add an engaging layer of suspense. And crime writers have used it in several different ways.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood begins in Hercule Poirot’s club. Everyone’s taking shelter there against World War II air raids, and it’s not in the least clear how things will pan out. So, there’s a lot of tension. In part to break that tension, Poirot listens to a story told by fellow member Major Porter. It seems he knew a Robert Underhay who died in Africa. Underhay’s widow, Rosaleen, later married Gordon Cloade. But Porter’s story suggests that Underhay might still be alive. This possibility becomes crucial later, when Cloade is killed in a bombing. He dies without having made a will, which in most cases would mean Rosaleen inherits all of his considerable wealth. But if her first husband is alive, that would mean she couldn’t inherit. And that’s exactly what Cloade’s family wants, for various reasons. So, Poirot’s interest is piqued when he learns that a stranger named Enoch Arden has been killed in Warmsley Vale, where most of the Cloads lived. Arden hinted that he knew Underhay was still alive, and that could certainly have something to do with his murder. Poirot travels to the village and slowly learns the truth about Arden, the Cloades, and Rosaleen.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors takes place mostly in the East Anglia village of Fenchurch Saint Paul. When a car accident strands Lord Peter Wimsey and his assistant/valet, Mervyn Bunter, the village’s vicar, Reverend Theodore Venables, rescues the men and lodges them in the rectory until the car is fixed. That’s how Wimsey ends up getting involved in a case involving an unknown ‘extra’ corpse in a grave, some missing emeralds, a long-ago robbery, and change-ringing. In one plot thread of this novel, heavy rains bring on a flood. Venables wants to do what he can to save the villagers, and there are some very tense moments as everyone watches and waits to see how high the waters will rise, and how severe the damage will be.

Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke introduces Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel. It’s 1931, and the Great Depression has meant that everyone is desperate for money. Hannah herself has very little, although she has enough to eat and keep her home. What’s more, there’s a great deal of tension as everyone waits to see whether and to what extent the Nazis will get power. They’re already a force to be reckoned with, and people know that it’s best not to get in their proverbial sights. Against this very suspenseful background Vogel learns that her brother, Ernst, has been found dead. She wants to know why, and, if he was murdered, who killed him. So, she starts to ask questions. She’ll have to work very quietly, so as not to call too much attention to herself. But she’s determined to find answers. The background tension to this novel adds a real layer of atmosphere, as people watch and wait and wonder what will happen to the country.

Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground is the first of his series to feature Sean Duffy. He’s that rare thing, a Catholic member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The novel takes place in 1981, in the midst of the Troubles, when everyone’s nerves are frayed from the constant conflict. People do try to go about their lives, but they watch and wait to see what ‘the other side’ will do, and where the next attacks might be. There aren’t many really trustworthy people, and for Duffy, it’s especially difficult. For one thing, almost all of his colleagues are Protestant, reason enough for suspicion on both sides. For another, the public is suspicious, too. He’s a police officer, which is a problem in itself. Then, he’s a Catholic in the RUC; hence, he’s a traitor to a lot of Catholics. And Protestant civilians won’t trust him, either. All of that undercurrent of tension, as people wait to see what will happen, adds to the story as Duffy works to solve two murders that seem to be related.

And then there’s Peter Temple’s Truth.  That novel takes place during a siege of brush fires that are threatening the state of Victoria. It’s an extremely tense time, and it’s not at all clear how much damage there will be, which way the fires will go, and so on. Everyone is very much on edge as people watch and wait. Against this backdrop, Inspector Stephen Villani and his team work to solve the murder of an unknown woman whose body was found in a very posh apartment.  Meanwhile, they’re also investigating the killings of three drug dealers whose bodies were found in another part of the Melbourne area. The brush fires are not the central focus of the novel. But the suspense they cause adds much to the novel.

Watching and waiting, and not knowing how things will pan out, can be extremely hard to deal with in real life. In a novel, though, that suspense can add much to a plot if it’s not done in a melodramatic way. Which examples have stayed with you?

ps. The ‘photo is of a wildfire evacuation map. Red means a mandatory evacuation. Purple is voluntary/evacuation warning. Everyone who’s anywhere near a wildfire pays close attention to those maps, and the tension often builds as people watch and wait to see what will happen on their streets.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Aerosmith song.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Adrian McKinty, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Temple, Rebecca Cantrell