Category Archives: Robert Barnard

And Now I’ve Done My Time in the Kitchen at Parties*

One of the skills most of us have to learn as adults is how to mingle and make small talk. Whether it’s at a conference, a company cocktail party, or a university’s department mixer, it often serves a person well to be able to chat with strangers and fit in at a gathering. Some people loathe those events, and others enjoy them. Either way, they’re part of many of our lives, so it’s often an advantage to be able to negotiate them.

For an author, a mixer or cocktail party offers all sorts of possibilities. Any number of things can happen, which can add tension and suspense to a story. A character’s way of handling mixers and cocktail parties can also show-not-tell quite a lot about that person. And, in whodunits, cocktail parties and mixers can be very good places to find out information, especially as alcohol starts to loosen people’s tongues.

Agatha Christie makes use of these sorts of events in several of her stories. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver is staying in the village of Broadhinny, visiting up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward. They’re collaborating on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage, and, to say the least, they have different visions of what the play ought to be like. Hercule Poirot, as it happens, is also staying in Broadhinny. He’s there investigating the murder of a charwoman who was killed, so everyone says, by her lodger, James Bentley. The evidence is very much against him, too. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence doesn’t think he’s guilty. So, he’s asked Poirot to look into the matter again. One night, both Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are invited to a cocktail party. Mrs. Oliver isn’t much for such events, but Poirot has told her why he’s there, and she knows that mixers like this are good places to learn things. And, as it turns out, they do find out something important. Not long afterwards, Upward takes Mrs. Oliver to a play to ‘vet’ an actor he’s considering for the lead role in their collaboration. Afterwards, there’s a cast party, which Mrs. Oliver doesn’t enjoy at all:

‘The play itself she had enjoyed, but the ordeal of “going round afterwards” was fraught with its usual terrors.’

Still, Mrs. Oliver hears something interesting at the party that proves to be a clue to Mrs. McGinty’s murder and another that occurs.

In Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat, Professor Belville-Smith, a noted Oxford academic, is scheduled to do a tour of Australia, and is including the University of Drummondale in his itinerary. Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty are to play host, and everyone’s hoping the events will go well. But, right from the start, things go wrong. First, Professor Belville-Smith is condescending, even contemptuous, which endears him to no-one. As if that weren’t enough, his lectures are dry and very boring. He’s given the same lectures so many times that he drones, rather than interacts with the audience. Still, he is a noted scholar, so Wickham and his staff do their best to put out the proverbial red carpet. That includes a cocktail party at which he’s to meet the staff. The party isn’t much of a success; certainly Belville-Smith doesn’t make any new friends. Later that night, he is stabbed in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s called to do so now. And it’s interesting how different people have different memories of the ‘greet-the-guest’ event.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client, Daniel Guest. It seems that Guest, who is a ‘closeted,’ married, gay man, is getting blackmailed over trysts he had with other men. He wants Quant to find the blackmailer and get that person to stop. Quant tells Guest that he’d be far better off simply coming out as gay, but Guest won’t consider it. So, Quant begins asking questions. The trail leads to New York and back to Saskatchewan, but after that journey, and a murder, Quant gets to the truth. At one point, Guest arranges for Quant to attend his accounting firm’s Christmas party, so that Quant can ‘vet’ some of the people who work there. Quant is, fortunately, not bad at small talk and mingling. But Guest is nervous about the whole thing. It’s very important to him that no-one know why Quant’s really there (he’s being passed off as a potential client). What’s more, he doesn’t want anyone to know that Quant’s gay. So, he refers to the friend Quant’s brought as his ‘girlfriend,’ which leads to the inevitable, ‘So how long have you two been together?’ sort of question. It all ends up being awkward for Guest, for Quant, and for Quant’s friend.

Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise begins just after an Barcelona awards gathering, where famous novelist Marina Dolç is awarded the Golden Apple prize for her latest novel. There’s lots of mixing and mingling, and Dolç doesn’t get back to her hotel room until just after two. The party’s still going on when, less than an hour later, a friend stops by Dolç’s ‘s hotel room and discovers her body. The police soon arrest Amadeu Cabestany, Dolç’s top rival for the Golden Apple prize. The two were at odds, and it doesn’t help matters that Cabestany’s hotel room is right next to Dolç’s. But he claims he wasn’t at the hotel at the time of the murder, and that he left the party early and went elsewhere. But no-one can corroborate his story. There was so much mixing, mingling, and drinking that no-one remembers when he left. Cabestany’s literary agent hires PIs Josep ‘Pep’ Martínez and his brother Eduard to find out who killed the victim.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? In that novel, we are introduced to Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern, who’ve just moved from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of an attractive job opportunity. The move goes smoothly enough, but Gerry spends a lot of time at work, which means Yvonne is left alone much of the time to care for their newborn daughter, Róisín. She doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and she’s overwhelmed with the demands of taking care of a newborn. So, she joins an online group called Netmammy. There, she finds answers, support, and friendship. All goes well until one of her new online friends goes ‘off the grid.’ And then a body is found in an abandoned apartment – a body that matches what Yvonne knows about her friend’s description. If the body is the same person, then what does that mean for Netmammy? And for Yvonne? At one point in the novel, Gerry persuades Yvonne to go with him to a cocktail party for people at his work. She doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t know anyone there, and Gerry spends almost no time with her. So, as you can imagine, she’s miserable. Her saving grace? She’s brought her ‘phone, and logs onto Netmammy from the party.

Some people really do enjoy mixing, mingling and exchanging small talk. Others do everything possible to avoid it. Either way, those events crop up in crime fiction, just as they do in real life.


*Note: The title of this post is a line from Jona Lewie’s You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Robert Barnard, Sinéad Crowley, Teresa Solana

‘To See Oursels as Ithers See Us’

Robert Burns’ To a Louse (on Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet, at Church) includes one of his most famous lines:

‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!


Burns has a point. There’s often a difference between the way we see ourselves, and the way others see us. Sometimes, that difference isn’t such a big problem (do people really have to see every single flaw we magnify when we think of ourselves?). But sometimes, the difference is quite striking. And that can make for all sorts of conflict. So, it’s little wonder this plot point/character trait comes up in crime fiction.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Mrs. Boynton. She is tyrannical and malicious – even cruel. In fact, her family members are so cowed that no-one dares to defy her. During a trip to the Middle East, she and her family meet Sarah King, who’s recently qualified as a doctor. Sarah soon finds herself interested in Mrs. Boynton’s stepson, Raymond, and the feeling is mutual. She also finds that she likes Raymond’s sister, Carol. But Mrs. Boynton’s mental sadism stands squarely in the way of either a budding romance or a friendship. At one point, Sarah is so frustrated with Mrs. Boynton that she speaks her mind:


‘‘You like to make yourself out a kind of ogre, but really, you know, you’re just pathetic and rather ludicrous.’’


Confronted with this outside view of herself, Mrs. Boynton is infuriated. Her reaction has real consequences, too. A few days later, she and her family take a trip to Petra. Sarah had already planned to do, so she continues follow the fate of the family. On the second day at Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and Colonel Carbury asks him to investigate. Poirot finds that this death has a lot to do with Mrs. Boynton’s personality.

In Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, we are introduced to a banker, Horace Croyden. He prides himself on a quiet, well-ordered life that is completely free of scandal. In fact, the very idea of a scandal horrifies him, and he’s very careful about the people he hires on that score. His passion is working ciphers, and he’s devoted to it. In short, his life is safe, respectable, and exactly the way he wants it. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin, Althea. They begin to date, and eventually marry. And that’s when the trouble begins. Althea is much more vivacious than her husband thought. Worse, she replaces some of the furniture with bright, modern furniture that’s not at all to his taste. The tipping point comes when she burns some of his beloved ciphers, because she thought they were trash. Croyden takes his own kind of action. The story is told from his point of view, which justifies everything he does, from the very beginning. And it’s very interesting to see how different his view of himself and his actions is from the view that others have.

Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat begins as Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at the University of Drummondale, in rural Australia, prepare for a distinguished guest. Oxford Professor Belville-Smith is doing a tour of the country, and one of his stops will be Drummondale. Everyone’s hoping the visit will go well, but from the beginning, it doesn’t. Professor Belville-Smith is condescending at best, and contemptuous at worst. He has an exalted sense of his own importance and assumes that everyone thinks he is as scintillating as he thinks he is. He’s not. He’s rude, and his lectures are both dry and incoherent. At one point, he even mixes up two lectures, beginning with one and ending with the other. No-one has a good impression of him, and some go even further than that. Two days into the visit, he is murdered. Inspector Bert Royle, who’s never investigated a murder before, has to solve the case, and he has plenty of suspects. Among other things, it’s interesting to see the difference between Belville-Smith’s view of himself and that of his hosts.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, financial planner Dennis Brinkman dies in what looks like a horrible accident. His friend, Benny Frayle, is convinced he was murdered, though, and wants the police to investigate. At first, Inspector Tom Barnaby is disinclined to open the matter again. The police who came to the scene did their jobs competently, and he sees no reason to go back over the same ground. But then, a self-styled medium named Ava Garrett gives a séance in which she recounts details of Brinkman’s death, an event she didn’t witness. These details indicate that he was murdered. Not long afterwards, she is poisoned. Now it’s clear that there’s more going on here than an accident, and Barnaby and his team look into both deaths. They find some interesting differences between what others thought of Ava, and what she thought of herself. She’d bought into the public perception of what a medium ‘should be,’ but the truth was different.

In Herman Koch’s The Dinner, we are introduced to Paul Lohman, his wife, Claire, his brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. They meet for dinner one night at one of Amsterdam’s exclusive restaurants – the kind where you have to call months ahead for a table. Each part of the novel takes place during a different part of the meal (starters, main course, etc.). As the story goes on, we learn something about these people. On the surface, they seem to be successful people with good families. But underneath, things are darker. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s fifteen-year-old son, Rick, are guilty of committing a horrible crime. The real reason for this dinner is for the two couples to work out what they will do. The story is told from Paul Lohman’s point of view; and, through his eyes, we learn the backstories of these people. As he tells the story, Paul shows his own view of himself, but he also includes things that other people say. And it’s interesting to see the difference between the way he sees himself and the way others do.

See what I mean? Burns certainly had a point. Happy Burns Night!


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Herman Koch, Robert Barnard, Robert Burns, Talmage Powell

All Human Life is There in a Caricature and Cartoon*

As this is posted, it’s 291 years since the publication of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As you’ll know, that novel takes a satirical look at British society of the day. Swift used the story to skewer social classes, politicians, and more.

Swift, of course, wasn’t the only author to use satire as a tool; plenty of others have done the same. That includes crime writers. And it’s interesting to see how crime writers have used their novels to skewer institutions, people, and so on.

Agatha Christie isn’t usually known for mocking wit in her stories. But she did use satire, including poking fun at herself. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, one plot thread concerns detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who is said to be Christie’s tool for self-deprecation. Mrs. Oliver is visiting the village of Broadhinny , where she is collaborating with up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage. She gets drawn into a murder investigation when Hercule Poirot takes another look at the murder of a charwoman whom everyone believes was killed by her lodger. Mrs. Oliver works with Poirot to find out who the killer is. Besides having a bit of fun at her own expense, Christie also takes a satirical look at plays, playwriting, and the process of adapting a work. The story itself isn’t comical, but it’s interesting to see how Christie fits in some sly satire.

Robert Barnard uses quite a bit of satire in Death of an Old Goat. In it, Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at Drummondale University are awaiting a visit from noted Oxford scholar Professor Belville-Smith. He’s on a lecture tour of Australia, and will be making a stop in rural Drummondale along the way. Right from the start, though, things don’t go well. For one thing, Belville-Smith is insufferable; he’s not accustomed to life in rural Australia, and wastes no time finding ways in which it falls short of his expectations. For another, Belville-Smith is also boring. Worse, he’s getting on in years, and finds it hard to keep track of his points when he lectures. The visit is going badly enough, but things get far, far worse when Belville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle investigates, but he’s not going to find it easy to do so. This is his first murder, so he’s unaccustomed to a lot of the procedures involved. What’s more, there are plenty of suspects, both in the academic community and among the ‘townies.’ Still, he persists, and in the end, finds out who the killer is. Throughout the novel, Barnard lampoons academia, rural Australians, pedants, and other ‘types.’

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ Corridors of Death is also a satire, this time of politics and politicians. In the novel, we meet Robert Amiss, who works as Private Secretary to Sir Nicholas Clark, Permanent Secretary to the Department of Conservation. One day, during a break in proceedings at a meeting of the Industry and Government Group, Clark is murdered. The police are called in, and Detective Superintendent James Milton takes charge of the investigation. He believes that Amiss might be a useful source of information, since he knew the victim quite well. For his part, Amiss finds the investigation process intriguing. So, the two begin to work together. And they soon find that there’s no lack of suspects. Clark was a malicious person who took pleasure in sabotaging the careers of other members of the department. And every one of them was on hand at the time of the murder. Still, Amiss and Milton get to the truth about the killing. In the process, there’s a very satirical look at political life a few tiers down from Downing Street, so to speak. There are plenty of inflated egos, sycophants, layers of bureaucracy, and more.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime introduces Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep “Pep” (who goes by the name Borja) Martínez. They happen to be twins, but in many ways, couldn’t be more different. One day, they get a new client: conservative Catalonia politician, Lluís Font. Once he is assured of the brothers’ discretion, he tells them that he believes his wife, Lídia, may be having an affair. Not only is this devastating news on a personal level, it could also cause great trouble for Font on a professional level, since he stands for traditional values such as home and family. The Martínez brothers take the case, and follow Lídia for a week. They don’t find any evidence of infidelity, though, and are ready to report as much to their client. But then, Lídia suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Now, her husband is a suspect in a murder case. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working on his behalf, this time to clear his name. Eduard is reluctant, but Borja is eager to do the job – and get the fee. In the end, we do learn who killed the victim and why. Along the way, Solana paints a satirical portrait of life among Barcelona’s very well-to-do. There’s a good look at the social backbiting, machinations, and superficiality of that group of people.

And then there’s the work of Carl Hiaasen. Fans of his novels will know that many of them are set in different parts of Florida. Through those stories, Hiaasen uses satire to comment on the ultra-wealthy, the press, bureaucracy, the different cultures in Florida, and much more. He puts his characters into a variety of absurd situations that highlight the many foibles that he explores.

These are by no means the only crime writers who’ve used satire to make their points. And it can be a very effective tool when it’s used well. Which novels like this have stayed with you?


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Comsat Angels’ Zinger.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Robert Barnard, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Teresa Solana

And I’ll Have to Play the Game*

Most of us, I’d guess, have some relationships that we maintain out of duty, rather than out of a deep attachment to a person. We may visit relatives we aren’t really connected to, but know we should visit. Or, we send Christmas cards and presents to cousins or other family members we don’t even really know. It doesn’t mean we dislike those people; it’s just that the bond we have is more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.

There are plenty of those relationships in real life, and they’re there in crime fiction, too. Sometimes, they provide solid contexts or plot points. They can also provide character development, minor characters, and even suspects in whodunits.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot’s help in solving the murder of a charwoman. All of the evidence points to her lodger, James Bentley. In fact, he’s been convicted, and is due to be executed. But Spence has come to believe that he may be innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate. One of the people he meets is Mrs. McGinty’s niece, Bessie Burch, who lives with her husband, Joe, in a nearby village. On the one hand, the Burches do inherit a little money by the terms of the victim’s will. So, one could consider them suspects. On the other hand,

‘It had been a family tie, honoured as such, but without intimacy.’

And neither Bessie nor Joe is so desperate for money as to be willing to kill for it. Bessie and her husband remain ‘people of interest,’ but their relationship with Bessie’s aunt was much more because of ‘family duty,’ than anything else.

In one plot thread of Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn gets a visit from a woman named Mary Keeyani. He doesn’t know her, but she is a member of the same Navajo Nation clan as his now-deceased wife, Emma was. That alone makes her a relative. So, Leaphorn feels an obligation to listen to what she has to say. A similar sense of duty has motivated the visit for Mary. One of her kinsmen, Ashie Pinto, has been arrested for murdering Delbert Nez, a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. She claims that Pinto isn’t guilty, that he wouldn’t do such a thing. Leaphorn understands all too well that she might be saying that out of a sense of obligation. But his own sense of duty drives him to agree to look into the matter. It turns out that Pinto has been framed for murder, and Leaphorn works with Sergeant Jim Chee to find out who really killed Nez.

Stan Jones’ White Sky, Black Ice introduces Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. In this novel, he’s recently moved back to the small, far-north town of Chukchi, where he was born (he grew up in Anchorage). He is Inupiaq, but was raised in a white adoptive home, so he’s not tightly connected to his people’s culture. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect it. In one plot thread, he meets Clara Stone, who is a relative of Active’s biological mother; she is therefore, related to him. She tells Active that her husband, Aaron, went on a hunting trip and hasn’t returned. She’s convinced that something has happened to him, and wants Active to search for him. Active is reluctant, but she is a relative, and even though he doesn’t know her, he feels a sense of duty. So, he gets a bush pilot to take him out to where Aaron Stone would likely be camped. There, they find Stone’s body. It looks at first as though he’s committed suicide, but soon enough, it’s identified as a case of murder. And it turns out that this murder is related to another that Active is investigating.

Much of the action in Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses takes place in 1966 South East London. Teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan want very much to be a part of the music and fashion scene of the times. So, they beg their mother to let them go dancing at the Palais Royale. Finally, after some persuasion, she agrees. Her only condition is that their cousin Jimmy take them to the dance and bring them back later. Midge and Bridie don’t mind, as they consider Jimmy to be ‘cool.’ Jimmy’s got, as the saying goes, other fish to fry. But he does feel a sense of obligation to his aunt and cousins. And, even though he doesn’t really have a close bond with Midge and Bridie, he agrees to take them and make sure they get home safely. What happens at the Palais Royale that night changes everything, and has repercussions that last for the rest of the girls’ lives. It’s even related to a murder that happens decades later…

Of course, a ‘duty relationship’ doesn’t have to be familial. For instance, in Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat, Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at Australia’s University of Drummond are scheduled to play host to a very distinguished guest. Oxford Professor Belville-Smith is doing a lecture tour of Australia, and will be visiting Drummond to do a series of lectures. Belleville-Smith is insufferable, condescending, and, quite frankly, a boring lecturer. But out of a sense of duty, everyone starts out by trying to make him welcome. Things fall apart, though, and it’s soon clear that this visit is a disaster. Then, on the morning after a ‘greet the guest’ party, Bellville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before. But he’s going to have to look into this one. And it turns out that this murder has to do with something from the past.

I’d guess we all have those ‘duty’ relationships. They have their benefits and drawbacks, but they’re woven into our lives whether we like them or not. And they’re woven into crime fiction, too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Great Suburban Showdown. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Robert Barnard, Stan Jones, Steph Avery, Tony Hillerman

You Had One Eye In the Mirror*

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to help her persuade her husband, 4th Baron Edgware, to give her a divorce. Poirot doesn’t usually take on this sort of case, so at first, he demurs. Then, she says,

‘‘You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?’’…
‘I should like everybody to be happy,’ said Poirot cautiously.
‘Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.’’

And that’s quite true. As we learn in the novel, Jane Wilkinson is thoroughly self-absorbed. She’s not cruel about it, or even particularly rude. But it’s obvious that her only concern is herself. In the course of the story, Poirot pays a visit to Edgware, who says he has no objection to granting a divorce. That night, Edgware is murdered. His widow is, of course, the most likely suspect. But several witnesses are willing to testify that she was at a dinner party in another part of London. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look for other suspects. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Jane’s self-absorption shows in her character.

She’s hardly the only self-absorbed crime-fictional character, though, and that’s not surprising. Characters who are completely self-absorbed can bring disaster on themselves and others. And they’re often vulnerable in ways that we don’t see in those who are concerned about others.

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, we are introduced to Phyllis Nirdlinger. She’s completely self-absorbed, but she’s so attractive that when insurance agent Walter Huff meets her, he’s soon besotted with her. In fact, it doesn’t take long for him to agree to a plan she has to get rid of her husband, in order to get the money from his insurance policy. Huff writes the double-indemnity policy she has in mind, and when the time comes, the murder is carried off as planned. That’s when it really occurs to Huff what he’s done: participated in a murder to get a woman. As if that’s not enough, there are questions both from the police and from Huff’s employer about the policy. What’s worst, though, is that Huff slowly learns just what sort of person Phyllis really is. As things spin out of control, Huff sees that he’s going to have to take some drastic action.

Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat introduces readers to Oxford Professor Belville-Smith. He’s doing a lecture tour of Australia, and has consented to give a few talks at Drummondale University. From the start, things go badly. For one thing, Belville-Smith isn’t accustomed to life in Australia, and adjusting isn’t easy. He’s also getting older, and not as scintillating as he used to be. In fact, he’s given the same lectures so many times that he drones them. He even mixes up two lectures at one point, beginning with one and ending with the other. What’s worst, though, is that he’s self-absorbed. Others’ views and reactions to what he says don’t occur to him. So, he is also insufferable. Then, Belville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room on the morning after a ‘greet the guest’ party. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s going to have to do just that now. And it turns out there’s more than one very good possibility.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is the story of brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve grown up in the same abusive home, but they’re quite different. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he can, and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his considerable athletic talent, and ends up living on money from his mother and from his girlfriend. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument ends, but not the rancor. Later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out. They encounter Thompson again, and the argument resumes. Almost before anyone knows it, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s convicted and given a long prison sentence. He reaches out to his brother, who’s now a county prosecutor, for help getting out of prison. This time, Mason refuses. Then, Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When Mason still refuses, Gates carries out his threat, leaving his brother to face a murder charge for a crime he didn’t commit. Throughout the novel, we see how self-absorbed Gates is. He has no real concern for his girlfriend, his brother, their mother, or anyone else. And that impacts the course of the novel.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is his first novel to feature Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao. In the novel, the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. She is soon identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. Because of her celebrity, this is going to be a delicate case. Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, are all too aware of the ramifications of a case that leads to high places. That’ll be especially true if the killer turns out to be a Party member. Still, they persevere, and slowly trace the victim’s last days and weeks. As they do, we learn quite a lot about the lifestyles of those who are high-ranking Party members – the High Cadre – and their families. Several of them are self-absorbed, and see things only from their own point of view. Without giving away too much, I can say that this self-absorption plays its role in the novel.

And then there’s Eve Moran, whom we meet in Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. Since childhood, Eve has been preoccupied with what she wants. And she’s had no trouble manipulating people and situations to acquire, whether it’s jewelry, clothes, or other things. She’s had the same view when it comes to men. She stops at nothing, including murder, if that’s what it takes. Eve doesn’t even really consider the needs of her daughter, Christine. She’s raised Christine in a very toxic environment, so that relationship is quite dysfunctional. Then, Christine begins to see the same thing happening to her three-year-old brother, Ryan. Now, she’ll have to find a way to free both herself and her brother if there’s to be a chance for either of them.

Self-absorption can be more than just an annoying character trait. It can lead to disastrous choices and dysfunctional relationships. Little wonder we see it in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Martin Clark, Patricia Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Barnard