Category Archives: Robert Pollock

Unexpected Things Happen*

unexpectedthingsI’m sure you’ve had this happen to you. You make plans to do something or go somewhere, and then something happens that you couldn’t have anticipated. A sudden rainstorm soaks the plans you made for an outdoor lunch. Or, you wake up with a fever and upset stomach on the day you’d planned to leave home to take a trip. Those sorts of things happen to us all, and they act as reminders that we can never completely control things.

That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. And, when they’re done well (i.e. not contrived), those unexpected things can add a great deal to a story. Certainly, they can add suspense and plot layers.

Agatha Christie wove unexpected happenings into her stories and novels more than once. In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is en route from the Middle East back to London. He gets a berth on the famous Orient Express train, and prepares for the three-day trip across Europe. On the second night of the journey, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed in his bunk. Poirot is asked to find out who the killer is, so that that person can be handed over to the police at the next border crossing. He agrees, and takes part in interviewing the suspects (all of whom are berthed in the same train car as the victim). In this case, a snowstorm that stopped the train disrupted the killer’s plans. And it’s interesting to see how other plans have had to be hastily put together. The fact of the snowstorm doesn’t immediately tell Poirot who the murderer is. But it’s the one thing the murderer couldn’t control.

Unexpected weather also plays a role in Robert Pollock’s Loophole. In that novel, professional thief Mike Daniels and his team have targeted London’s City Savings Deposit Bank for a heist. To do the job well, though, they’ll need the services of an architect. So, Daniels enlists out-of-work architect Stephen Booker to join the team. Booker is desperate for money, so he goes along with the plan, albeit reluctantly at first. Everything is carefully put together, and all starts well enough. The team members think that every detail is in order. But they haven’t counted on a sudden rainstorm that comes up during the heist. And that storm changes everything. Speaking of heist stories, fans of Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder novels know that Dortmunder and his team often run up against unexpected problems when they’re trying to pull off a job.

It’s not always storms that unexpectedly alter plans. For instance, much of the action in Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors takes place in the East Anglia village of Fenchurch St. Paul. One of the customs of the local church is a New Year’s Eve change-ringing, and one of the ringers is Will Thoday. As luck would have it, Thoday falls ill with influenza just before New Year’s Eve, so he can’t do his share of the ringing. As it so happens, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, have had a car accident in the area. They are rescued by the local vicar, Theodore Venables, and invited to stay at the rectory until their car is fixed. When Wimsey discovers that Thoday is ill, he offers to take the man’s place at the change-ringing. Venables gratefully accepts the offer, and the change-ringing goes off as planned. Both of these incidents (Thoday’s illness and Wimsey’s car trouble) are things that that couldn’t have been controlled. And they play their role in what happens when, a few months later, an extra body is discovered in a gravesite intended for the local squire.

Michael Collins’ short story Who? features his PI sleuth Dan Fortune. One day, a seventeen-year-old boy named Boyd Conners collapses suddenly and dies of what seems to be a heart attack. Boyd was young, and in quite good health, with no congenital medical problems. So, his mother has begun to question the official theory. She visits Fortune, asking him to look into the matter, and Fortune agrees. He traces the boy’s last days and weeks, and finds out that there are a few people who might be considered enemies. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a really clear suspect. But then, Fortune makes a small discovery that changes the course of the investigation. It turns out that Boyd was what you might call an accidental victim. The murderer had planned to kill someone else, but due to something that person couldn’t control, and couldn’t have foreseen, Boyd died instead.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins with one of those unexpected happenings that alter the course of a story. Journalist Jack Parlabane has recently returned to Edinburgh from Los Angeles, and is settling in. He wakes up one morning to a great deal of commotion, and decides to see what’s going on. He leaves his flat, only to learn the hard way that he’s forgotten his key. The door locks automatically, so now, Parlabane can’t get back inside. He knows that the downstairs flat has a window that corresponds to one of his own. So, he decides to go through that flat, if he can, climb out that window, and up into his own place. When he enters that downstairs flat, Parlabane finds out the source of the commotion that woke him up: there’s a dead body there. DC Jenny Dalziel, who’s on the scene, catches Parlabane trying to sneak through the window, and draws the obvious conclusion. When Parlabane convinces her that he is innocent, they begin to co-operate, and in the end, they find out who the dead man was, who the killer is, and what the motive is. And it all happens because neither Parlabane nor the killer could have anticipated forgetting the key.

And then there’s Jane Woodham’s Twister. As the story begins, five days of rain have soaked the city of Dunedin. Then, an unexpected twister roars through. The police are already stretched thin, as the saying goes, because of a ‘flu epidemic that’s making the rounds of the city, and the weather is making a bad situation completely miserable. Then, the body of Tracey Wenlock, who went missing a few weeks ago, is discovered. Her body was in some underbrush, and it might never have been found – or not for a very long time. But the twister knocked down trees and spurred a general cleanup that the killer couldn’t have anticipated. DSS Leo Judd is assigned to find out what happened to Tracey. Ordinarily, the job would have been given to someone else, since Judd lost his own beloved daughter, Beth, nine years earlier, and is still coping with that. But there is no-one else, because of the ‘flu epidemic. Now, Judd has to put his own grief aside and try to find some closure for Tracey’s family.

There are many other examples of those unexpected things that change plans. The trick is to weave them into a plot as naturally and authentically as possible. Otherwise, they can seem too contrived. When they’re done well, though, they can add a layer of suspense, to say nothing of plot twists, to a story.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of the aftermath of an unexpected pinhole leak in our plumbing. That certainly changed my plans when it happened…

 
 
 
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Ruta Antana.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Brookmyre, Donald Westlake, Dorothy Sayers, Jane Woodham, Michael Collins, Robert Pollock

Multi-Million Dollar Heist*

HeistsHave you ever seen George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)? If you have, then you know its focus is an outlaw gang called the Hole in the Wall Gang. One of their goals is to rob the Union Pacific’s Overland Flyer, and the gang makes preparations to do so – twice, on both the eastward and westward run of the train. The first time they’re successful. The second train’s arrival, though, sets off a chain of events that changes the story dramatically. Throughout the story, though, the two lead characters, played by, respectively, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are portrayed sympathetically.

More than that, Hill built the tension in this film not through a murder (or murders) and the investigation, but through the plans and execution of a heist. And that makes sense. Fictional heists can add at least as much conflict and tension as a murder can, not to mention another layer to a plot. It’s little wonder, then, that they figure so often in crime fiction.

Many heist novels do include murders or other deaths. It’s just that it’s the heist that’s the main plot, rather than the murder(s). There are a lot of heist novels out there. I’ll just mention a few; I know you’ll think of more.

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole, or: How to Rob a Bank, we are introduced to professional thief Mike Daniels and his teammates Harry and Gardner. They decide to pull off a difficult, but potentially very lucrative job – a theft from the City Deposit Bank. It’s a heavily guarded bank with the latest in security, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, in order to carry their plan out, the thieves will need the services of an architect. They find one in the person of Stephen Booker, who’s recently been laid off from his job and hasn’t been able to find another. In fact, he’s been driving cab at night to pay the bills. That’s how he meets Daniels, who finally convinces Booker to join the thieves. They prepare very carefully for the heist, and on the day of the job, all goes well at first. Then a sudden storm blows up, and changes everything for the men.

In Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, we are introduced to professional thief John Dortmunder. He’s recently been released from prison, and the plan is that he’ll ‘go straight.’ But that’s before he meets up with his old friend and co-conspirator Andy Kelp. Kelp tells Dortmunder that a new heist is in the works, one that’s worth ten thousand dollars to each member of the team. The target is a valuable gem called the Balabomo Emerald, currently on display at the Coliseum in New York. While the African nation of Akinzi claims ownership, another African nation, Talabwo, contests that claim. Talabwo’s Ambassador to the US, Major Patrick Iko, wants the gem, and is willing to pay the heist team to get it. Dortmunder, Kelp, and the rest of the gang meet and plan the heist very carefully. But almost from the beginning, things don’t go at all as the team planned…  Westlake’s Dortmunder series sees the heist team get in several serious situations as they plan and try to carry out difficult heists.

Fans of Lawrence Block will tell you that one of his series features Bernie Rhodenbarr, who’s a New York bookseller. But he’s also a burglar. In fact, he served a prison sentence as a young man. Now he’s determined not to get caught again, so he’s very careful when he plans a heist. He’s good at what he does, but he sometimes has a habit of finding bodies when he’s actually on the trail of some other prize. Bernie is well aware that it’s illegal to break and enter, but he’s what you might call addicted to the thrill. This series is lighter than Block’s Matthew Scudder series. Although I don’t usually like to compare series, it has a hint of similarity to Westlake’s Dortmunder series on that score.

In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we are introduced to Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, and has no desire to go ‘back inside.’ So he’s careful about avoiding risk unless the payoff is very much worth it. He meets up with this girlfriend, Michelle Flood, his brother Noel, and some other friends; together, they come up with an idea for a heist that will set them all up for life. The target is Protectica, a company that provides secured transportation of cash among different banks. The heist is planned down to the last detail, and everyone is hoping it’ll go smoothly. At first, things do go well. But then, there’s a tragic turn of events that changes everything.

And then there’s Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State. Gary Chance is, among other things, a professional thief who’s been lying low in South Australia. A union leader friend of his named Lawrence convinces him to work a robbery so he can have money to care for his wife Faye, who has cancer. When that robbery goes wrong, Chance knows he has to get out of the area. So he heads for Brisbane. There, he meets Dennis Curry, who runs certain non-casino poker games. Curry wants to rob wealthy Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao, who’s one of his high rollers. Chance meets the rest of Curry’s team and takes the job. Not one of the other team members is a reliable, straightforward sort of thief, but they’re the people Curry has picked. Despite the fact that he doesn’t really trust them, Chance has to work with them to plan the heist with as few risks as possible. But this doesn’t turn out to be anything like the sort of job Chance thought he was taking.

There are, of course, many other kinds of heist novels. Some, such as Gunshine State, are a little grittier. Others are lighter. But all of them have an added layer of tension that comes from the heist and the planning that leads up to it. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Meanies’ Big Brother’s Watching.

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Filed under Andrew Nette, Donald Westlake, Gene Kerrigan, Lawrence Block, Robert Pollock

Am I My Resume?*

Job SearchIf you’ve ever looked for a new job, you know how difficult it can be. To begin with, people don’t usually look for work actively unless they’re unhappy in their present job (which is a stress in and of itself) or they’re unemployed (also a major stressor). So it can be hard to muster the energy you need to present yourself at your very best. And even when times are good and jobs are available, there’s sometimes a lot of competition.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of potential employers don’t treat applicants particularly well. Some keep applicants waiting for a long time, and some are all but rude during interviews. And then there are those who never follow up to let you know whether you’ve gotten the job. If you add to that the very real power imbalance of a job interview, it’s easy to see why the process of finding a new job is so difficult.

That pressure is hard on anyone, but it’s exactly that challenge that can add an interesting layer of tension to a novel. And the job search can be a compelling plot thread. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Jane in Search of a Job, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, a young woman who is, as the title would suggest, looking for work. She’s up against competition from many other young women with a decent education; and most have more work experience. So she’s at a point of real concern when she sees an unusual employment advertisement. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ she is hired as a ‘double’ for Her Highness, Grand Duchess Pauline of Ostrova. The grand duchess believes that revolutionaries from her homeland may try to kidnap her, and the idea is that Jane will impersonate her on certain public occasions, as a decoy, in case those enemies strike.  All goes well enough until a charity bazaar at Orion House. At that event, Jane finds herself in more danger than she imagined.

People don’t always consider John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to be a crime novel. But there’s definitely a murder in it, and deeply involved in the whole thing is Tom Joad, who’s recently moved with his family from Oklahoma to California. It’s the time of the Great Depression, and, combined with the ‘Dust Bowl’ in certain parts of the US, these years have been almost more than the Joad family can survive. They left their Oklahoma farm because of the dust storms, and were told there was plenty of work on California’s farms. But when the Joads arrive, they find that conditions are abysmal. Those who can find work are given the barest of essentials when it comes to living quarters (and not even always that much). And there are so many people looking for work that the Joads face a lot of competition. One of the elements that comes through in this novel is the power imbalance between farm owners and managers, who are in a position to hire, and job applicants. This sort of job search is among the most humiliating there is, and it doesn’t help matters that there is no legislative or other support for farm workers. Basically employers can hire and fire whomever and whenever they wish, and pay whatever they wish.

There’s also Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Stephen Booker is an architect who’s recently been made redundant. At first, he and his wife do their best to take matters in stride; after all, people do lose their jobs. And he believes that it won’t be long before he finds something else. So he applies, goes on interviews, and endures the difficult process of trying to look for work. Nothing pans out though, and he’s forced to take a night job driving a cab. The idea is that he can still use daytime to keep applying. But he gets a whole different perspective when he meets professional thief Mike Daniels, who takes his cab one night. Bit by bit, Daniels and Booker become friendly, and Daniels finds that Booker could be a real asset. Daniels and his team are planning a major bank heist, and they can use the services of an architect to help them plan the break-in. Booker is reluctant at first, but money is money. So he eventually agrees to Daniels’ plan. Everything goes smoothly, even on the day of the robbery, until a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Much of the focus of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola is on Kingsmarkham’s Employment Bureau. Twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande has a meeting there one day with her employment counselor. After that meeting, she disappears. When she doesn’t return, her father, Dr. Raymond Akande, asks for help from Inspector Reg Wexford, who is one of his patients. Wexford isn’t overly concerned at first. After all, there are many reasons a young woman might take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong. But when she remains missing, Wexford decides to look into the matter. Part of trying to find the young woman is tracing her movements, so Wexford and his team interview the staff at the Bureau. They want to talk to Annette Bystock, the counselor with whom Melanie had her meeting. But by the time they track her down, she’s been murdered. As Wexford and the team unravel the mystery, we see the inner workings of an employment office. Rendell also shows readers what it’s like to be looking for work.

And then there’s P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter. Louis Kincaid has come to Loon Lake, Michigan, for an interview with the police department there. He’s looking for a new start, and he’s hoping that he’ll get this job. When he gets to the department’s building, he’s interviewed by Police Chief Brian Gibraltar. It’s an odd interview (some of them really are!), and doesn’t last long. To Kincaid’s surprise, he is hired within moments, and arrangements are made for his start date. Although it is strange, Kincaid doesn’t want to turn the job down, so he accepts. Soon enough, he is drawn into two murder cases. One is the killing of his predecessor; the other is the murder of a retired police officer. It turns out to be a complex investigation that puts Kincaid in a great deal of danger.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Grace Makutsi graduated from the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with the highest score of any other graduate. At first, she thinks that will get her a good job. But as she starts applying for work, she finds out that the women who get those jobs are more often hired for their looks than for their skills. But Mma. Precious Ramotswe is different. Mma. Ramotswe sees that Mma. Makutsi is willing to work hard and is skilled. Besides, she needs a secretary for her new detective agency. So she hires Mma. Makutsi. As fans will know, it’s a very good match for both of them. Still, at one point (in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive), Mma. Makutsi considers leaving the agency. She goes looking for a new job, only to be reminded that applying for work is enervating and can be humiliating. It’s not a pleasant lesson, but McCall Smith does remind readers of what it’s like to be a job applicant.

No matter the circumstances, it’s never fun to look for work. But it is a part of life for a lot of people, and it can make for an effective plot thread.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlish and Edward Kleban’s I Hope I Get It.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, John Steinbeck, P.J. Parrish, Robert Pollock, Ruth Rendell

And All the Sinners Saints*

Interesting CriminalsIn an interesting post at Col’s Criminal Library, Col makes the point that criminals can be interesting, even engaging, protagonists – at least as interesting as ‘good guys.’ I think he has a well-taken point. There are plenty of cases where a criminal is the protagonist, or at least a strong main character, and is appealing, even sympathetic. It takes a lot of careful work on the part of the author. Most of us aren’t primed to like people who commit crimes. But when it’s done well, having a criminal as the protagonist or a main character can add an interesting innovation to a story.

For example, in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, we meet twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellan, who’s grown up contented in Helford. When her mother dies, she fulfils a promise she made and travels to Cornwall, where her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss keep Jamaica Inn. Even during the trip, Mary’s been warned about the inn, and told she’d be better off not going. But, determined to keep her promise, Mary perseveres. From the moment she arrives, though, she learns that all of the gossip about the place seems to be true. Uncle Joss is boorish, dangerous and abusive. Aunt Patience is mentally fragile and frightened into docility. Mostly out of compassion for her aunt, Mary remains and tries to make herself useful. But it’s not long before some frightening things begin to happen. One of the main characters in this story is Joss’ brother Jeremiah ‘Jem.’ Jem is a self-admitted horse thief and opportunist who leads a far from blameless life. He’s gotten into his share of trouble. But he is portrayed as an interesting, even sympathetic character. He doesn’t make light of the things he’s done; at the same time though, there are positive aspects to his personality and choices, so that he becomes a more rounded sort of character.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank is the story of professional thief Mike Daniels and his team mates. They’ve decided to pull off a major heist – one that will set them up for life. Their target is the City Savings Deposit Bank. The problem is that the bank is of course equipped with the latest in surveillance and security. So in order to so the job, they’ll need to work with an architect. Daniels finds such a person in Stephen Booker, who’s recently been let go, and has taken a job as a night cab driver. One night, Daniels happens to be in Booker’s cab, and the two get to talking. As time goes by, they talk more and more; finally, Daniels lets Booker in on the scheme. At first, Booker is reluctant; he has stereotyped views of criminal, and certainly doesn’t want to be one. But Daniels slowly persuades him otherwise. The team now makes its final plans, and the heist proceeds. But then a sudden storm changes everything. In this novel, Daniels and the other thieves are portrayed as friendly, sympathetic characters, whose profession just happens to be illegal.

Stealing is one thing; killing is another. And yet, there are books and series where murderers are portrayed as interesting characters. For example, in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, we are introduced to eighty-year-old George Wilcox. From the beginning of the novel, we know that he has murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. When the killing is reported to the police, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg begins the investigation. It isn’t very long before Alberg begins to suspect that, at the very least, Wilcox knows more than he is saying. And soon, he is sure that Wilcox is guilty. But he can’t get the evidence he needs to link Wilcox to the crime. What’s more, he can’t find any sort of motive. As he gets to know Wilcox better, he learns more about the man, and we find that Wilcox is hardly the stereotypical hardened and unsympathetic criminal. He is a peaceful, garden-loving, (generally) law-abiding man. There’s a lot to like about his character. And yet, he has committed murder, and he knows he’ll need to outsmart Alberg if he’s going to get away with it. So he also shows himself to be a quick thinker and a shrewd one. He’s an interesting character.

So is Vuk, a Bosnian Serb who was raised in Denmark, and whom we meet in Leif Davidsen’s The Serbian Dane. In the novel, he is hired to kill Sara Santanda, an Iranian author who’s been sentenced to die by the Ayatollahs of Iran. He’s up against Per Toflund, who is a security expert with the Danish national police. Toflund and his team have been charged with protecting Santanda during her trip to Denmark, where she is scheduled to give a newspaper interview. As the novel goes on, we learn a good deal about Vuk, his experiences growing up and later, his experiences during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Vuk isn’t portrayed as a unidimensional ‘killing machine.’ Rather, he is given a solid backstory and some layers to his personality.

We also see that with several of the characters in Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy. In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Sudden Arrival of Violence, readers learn about the lives of Glasgow’s crime leaders. We also learn about the paid assassins they hire to take care of their ‘problems.’ These are not mindless brutes, although there is certainly plenty of violence inherent in what they do. They’re people of business, who map out their plans in ways that are similar to those who own legal businesses. And the people they hire to do their killing are just as professional – well, the skilled ones are. This trilogy offers a really interesting look at the lives of those involved in Glasgow’s underworld. On the one hand, they aren’t at all light ‘caper’ novels. On the other, they show these people as interesting, rounded characters.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. This story’s focus is a woman who’s recently been released from prison, where she served time for murder. She’s given housing and settles in with her companion, a Pit Bull named Sully. For a time, she and Sully do all right. But then, a woman whose child attends the nearby child care facility complains about Sully. Then the local council gets involved and forces Sully’s human companion to give him up, as he’s a restricted breed. As she plots her revenge, we get to know her and her story. And we see that there is much more to this protagonist than just the fact that she killed someone.

It can be a challenge to create a criminal, especially a murderer, who is interesting and sympathetic. But when it’s done well, such characters can add leaven to a story. Which ones stay in your mind?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Daphne du Maurier, L.R. Wright, Leif Davidsen, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock

But it Don’t Take No Detective*

StoriesWithoutSleuthsWhen most people think of crime novels, they think of a story with a mystery (usually about a murder or series of murders) and the sleuth who solves the case. And a lot of crime novels have that form. But not all of them have that pattern. There are even crime stories that arguably don’t have a sleuth. In that sort of novel, there may be references to ‘the police,’ or a mention of one or another police officer. But those characters don’t really figure into the story.

It’s not easy to write that sort of story since traditionally, the suspense in a crime story is built as the sleuth solves the case. But when it’s done well, crime stories without sleuths can have their own kind of suspense. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could.

One very suspenseful story that has no sleuth is Frederic Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. The narrator tells the history of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some very dubious people. There are certainly crimes involved, but the suspense isn’t built through solving them. Instead, it’s built through the way in which the narrator addresses the reader.

There’s also no sleuth in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Architect Stephen Booker is made redundant by his company. At first, he thinks he’ll find a new job quickly; he is, after all, a professional. But time goes on and he finds nothing. He finally settles for a job driving a cab at night, so he can continue looking for a ‘real job’ during the day. One evening, he picks up a passenger who turns out to be professional thief Mike Daniels. Over time and several cab rides, they get to know each other, and they learn that they may be able to help each other. Daniels and his team are planning a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. In order for their logistics to work, they need help from an architect, and Booker may be just the man for the job. For his part, Booker is desperate for money, and after some misgivings about turning to crime, falls in with Daniels’ team. The group has every detail ready, and at first it looks as though the robbery will go off as planned. But then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has been killed in a car accident. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for some time, but he still feels her loss. What’s worse than that though is that he learns that she was not alone when she died. Sylvie had taken a lover Martial Arnoult, who was with her at the time of the crash and who also died. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left behind a widow Martine, he determines to find out about her. He soon becomes obsessed with Martine and begins a relationship with her. And that’s when things begin to spin completely out of control.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. As the story begins, she’s left her position and had a dream home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But bad luck and poor financial planning have changed everything. Now Thea has to settle for the smaller house next door, which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her perfect home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Elllice Charringon, whom Thea heartily dislikes (she calls them ‘the invaders.’). After a short time, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike her, too. Instead, she discovers that the girl has real promise as a writer, and even forms a kind of awkward friendship with her. So when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate living environment for Kim, Thea gets very concerned. The police won’t do much about it without clear evidence, so Thea makes her own plans to deal with the situation. This novel does refer to the police, but there really isn’t a sleuth. Rather, the suspense is built as we learn, little by little, about Thea, about the new arrivals, and about what happens when Thea decides to take matters into her own hands.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions is the story of middle school teacher and single mother Yūko Moriguchi. When her only child, four-year-old Manami, dies, it looks at first like a tragic accidental drowning. But Yūko knows that Manami was murdered; what’s more, she knows who is responsible. In fact, the novel begins with a speech she makes to her class in which she makes it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She doesn’t trust the juvenile justice system to punish the culprits appropriately, so she’s made her own plans for justice. And as the story goes on, we follow the lives of her students, and we learn what her plan was. The tension in this novel is built as life spirals downwards for several characters, and as we learn what, exactly, was behind the original murder.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman is one of the most promising students that secondary-school teacher Ilsa Klein has had. And Serena seems to be really interested in further education. Then, everything changes. Serena stops coming to class regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school counselor, and a visit is duly made to the Freeman family. When that effort is rebuffed, there’s not much more that Ilsa can do, although she is still worried. Then, Serena disappears. Three weeks later her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington to the family home in Alexandra to look for Serena. This novel doesn’t really cast Lynnie (or anyone else, for the matter of that) in the role of sleuth. Rather, the suspense and interest are built as we learn the truth about Serena and about some of the other characters. It’s that slow reveal, rather than a sleuth solving a mystery, that keeps the reader engaged.

It can be a challenge to build and maintain interest if the author tells a crime story without a sleuth. But in the right hands, it can work well. What are your thoughts on this? Does a story need to have a sleuth for you to ‘plunge in?’ If you’re a writer, have you ever tried your hand at a crime story without a sleuth?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Frederic Brown, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Pascal Garnier, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan