Category Archives: Robert Pollock

He Sees Angels in the Architecture*

ArchitectureFor an author, it’s sometimes a challenge to decide how much detail to give the reader. On the one hand, painting a verbal picture can place the reader in a particular setting or context, and that can invite the reader to engage in the story. On the other, too much detail can slow a story down, and many readers will tell you they just skip over that information and move on to ‘the good stuff.’

Architecture is one example of the kind of detail that can add to a story or really detract from it depending on how it’s handled. And there really is a lot of architecture in crime fiction. That makes sense, if you think about it. For one thing, architecture can add context and even character development to a story. For another, architecture can play a role in mysteries, too.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She’s very much worried that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. Here is the story she tells. She and her sister Julia lived at the family home Stoke Moran with their stepfather Dr. Roylott. Julia began to hear strange noises at night, and started to be afraid. Then one night, she suddenly died after saying something about a speckled band. Shortly after that, Roylott insisted that Helen move her things into Julia’s room and use it as her own. Now, Helen is hearing the same strange noises that her sister heard right before her death. Holmes takes his client’s case seriously and he and Dr. Watson travel to Stoke Moran. There they discover that the danger to Helen is very real. As Holmes works out the truth, we learn how important architecture is in this story. Conan Doyle fans will know that architecture plays a role in other stories too (I know, I know, fans of The Red-Headed League).

Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly takes place at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting Nasse House to plan a Murder Hunt as one attraction for the upcoming annual fête to be held there. On the surface it seems that she’s simply been commissioned to plan clues, ‘red herrings,’ a ‘victim’ and so on. But she suspects there’s something more going on. So she asks her friend Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he travels to Nasse House to look into the matter. On the day of the big event, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was chosen to play the part of the victim, is actually killed. Now Poirot works with Inspector Bland and P.C. Hoskins to find out who the murderer is. One of the ‘interested parties’ is an architect Michael Weymouth, who’s on hand to build a small ornamental building – a folly – on the property. Weymouth’s profession is not the reason for the murder, but he has some interesting things to say about wealthy clients who don’t have any architectural knowledge or taste. And as it turns out, architecture does play a role in the story. Like Conan Doyle, Christie used architecture in more than one of her stories actually (I know, I know, fans of Three Act Tragedy).

Architecture plays a pivotal role in the plans of Mike Daniels, a professional thief whom we meet in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank. He and his team mates have decided to try to pull off a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. But as you might expect, the bank boasts the latest in security, so it’s not going to be easy to get the job done. One night Daniels meets a man he think can help the group. He takes a ride in a cab that’s driven by out-of-work architect Stephen Booker and the two strike up a conversation. Over time, Daniels takes more rides in Booker’s cab and they begin to get to know one another. Finally Daniels feels comfortable enough to invite Booker to lend his skills to the group in exchange for a share of the loot. At first, Booker’s reluctant; after all, Daniels and his team are thieves and what they want to do is, of course, both illegal and dangerous. But he’s getting desperate for money, so he agrees. With Booker’s skills, the team plans the tunneling and other preparations they’ll need. Finally, the day of the robbery arrives, and everything looks to be going well. Then, a sudden and unexpected storm blows up that changes everything.

In Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, we are introduced to Joakim and Katrine Westin. They’ve moved to a run-down manor house near Eel Point on Öland, with the goal of getting away from big-city life. They tell themselves and everyone else that they want to raise their children in a healthier environment, and are looking forward to the less-frenetic pace of life on the island. One of their major tasks will be to renovate their home. That project becomes a the subject of a feature in a local news magazine, and a reporter visits the Westin home to get ‘photos and background for the story:

 

Katrine and the reporter followed him [Joakim] up the crooked wooden staircase to an upstairs corridor. It was gloomy up here despite the fact that there was a row of windows facing the sea, but the panes were covered with pieces of chipboard that let in only narrow strips of daylight.’

 

When tragedy strikes the family, police officer Tilda Davidsson investigates, and we learn that this particular house has a dark history.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are sheds an interesting light on architecture. Television presenter Frank Allcroft has reached a sort of crossroads in his life. He’s got a happy marriage and a good relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s trying to search out the direction his life should take. He’s also devastated by the death of his predecessor, friend and mentor Phil Smedway. Smedway was jogging one day when he was hit by a car. It’s been regarded as a tragic accident, but Allcroft is drawn to the scene of the accident as he works through his grief. He notices that the road there is straight and wide, so it would have been easy for even a tired or drunk motorist to see Smedway. What’s more, the road was dry at the time of Smedway’s death. So Allcroft starts to ask some questions. Along with this search for the truth about his friend’s death, he’s also dealing with the loss of his architect father, and his complicated relationship with his mother. Allcroft’s father was passionate about his work, and although he was distant from his family, he created some imaginative and forward-thinking plans. So Allcroft has been working very hard to preserve the last of the buildings his father designed. Here’s Mo’s observation about it when the preservation approval comes through:

 

‘I think in four hundred years, people will be coming here for day trips. They’ll have question sheets to fill in about the name of the man who built it and the shape of the windows like we had to do at Aston Hall…I bet loads of them will look at the building and say, ‘Wow! What a great building. I wonder if he had any grandchildren.’ And they’ll try to imagine me, but they won’t be able to because I’ll be so long ago and mysterious.’

 

Architecture really can take on a life of its own, so to speak.

There isn’t space to mention all of the ‘impossible-but-not-really’ mysteries that rely on details of architecture. Nor is there space to mention authors such as P.D. James, who integrate a powerful sense of architecture into their novels. You’ll be better able than I anyway to fill in those gaps. Which architectural stories have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine O'Flynn, Johan Theorin, P.D. James, Robert Pollock

I Needed One More Fare to Make My Night*

TaxisDepending on where you live and your lifestyle, you may or may not take taxis very often. There are some cities where taking a taxi is easier than driving your own car, even if you have one; and of course, it’s far safer to take a cab if you’re having a night out drinking than it is to drive. Taxis are the scenes of lots of personal dramas, and cab drivers see an awful lot. So it’s little wonder that cabs and cab drivers appear in a lot of crime fiction.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is called in to help solve the murder of Enoch Drebber, an American visitor to London. At one point, Drebber’s secretary Joseph Stangerson is suspected of the murder, but then he’s killed himself. Holmes and Dr. Watson are now faced with two murders that are probably related. To get to the truth, Holmes has to follow two lines of investigation. One of them is the personal lives of the two victims. The idea there of course is to look for motive. The other is to trace their movements to see who would have had the opportunity to kill them. In the end Holmes deduces what happened and when the killer is confronted, that person admits to everything. In this novel, encounters in cabs play an important role…

Agatha Christie made use of taxis in several of her stories. In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner) for instance, famous actress Jane Wilkinson wants to hire Hercule Poirot to convince her husband Lord Edgware to consent to a divorce. She’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton, and wants a clean break from her current husband so she can marry again. In fact, she says that if Poirot does not help her,
 

‘I’ll have to call a taxi to go round and bump him off myself.’
 

Poirot agrees to at least talk to Edgware and when he does, he discovers that Edgware has already written to his wife agreeing to the divorce. Poirot and Captain Hastings are surprised by this, but they think that settles the matter. Then, Edgware is stabbed and Jane Wilkinson becomes the most likely suspect. A cab driver remembers taking her to the home, and what’s more, a woman giving her name was admitted to the house at the time of the murder. The only problem is that Jane says she was at a dinner party in another part of London, and there are twelve people ready to swear that she was there. So Poirot, Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. One possibility is the victim’s nephew Ronald, who was in serious debt and who now inherits both the title and a fortune. He claims he was at the opera on the night of the murder, but a helpful taxi driver is able to prove him wrong. The cabbie actually picked him up at the opera during the intermission and took him to the house. Now the new Lord Edgware has some explaining to do…

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York when he is drawn into the case of the disappearance of Claude Wynant. Wynant’s daugher is worried about her father and wants Charles to find out what happened to him. He’s just getting started on the case when Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is murdered. And as it turns out, Wynant himself had a motive for killing her. Now it’s more important than ever that Wynant be found. At one point on the novel, Wynant’s attorney Herbert Macaulay says that he believes Wynant is guilty, and tells of having been followed:
 

‘The quickest way to find out seemed to be by taking a taxi, so I did that and told the driver to drive east. There was too much traffic there for me to see whether this small man or anybody else took a taxi after me, so I had my driver turn south at Third, east again on Fifty-sixth, and south again on Second Avenue, and by that time I was pretty sure a yellow taxi was following me. I couldn’t see whether my small man was in it, of course; it wasn’t close enough for that. And at the next corner, when a red light stopped us, I saw Wynant. He was in a taxicab going west on Fifty-fifth Street. Naturally, that didn’t surprise me very much: we were only two blocks from Julia’s and I took it for granted she hadn’t wanted me to know he was there when I phoned and that he was now on his way over to meet me at the Plaza. He was never very punctual. So I told my driver to turn west, but at Lexington Avenue—we were half a block behind him—Wynant’s taxicab turned south.’
 

It’s an interesting example of the way taxis can be used to follow people…

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank, out-of-work London architect Stephen Booker has been pushed to the point of financial desperation. So he takes a night job driving cab, thinking that he’ll be able to use the daytime for a proper job search. One night he picks up an unusual fare. Mike Daniels is a professional thief with a big plan. He and his team want to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank, and they’ve come up with a way to defeat the bank’s powerful security measures. But they’ll need the help of someone with some expertise and when Daniels finds out that his cab driver is an architect, he thinks he’s found his man. Over a short period of time, he wins Booker’s confidence and finally persuades him to become a part of the team. Every detail of the robbery is carefully planned, and at first it looks as thought things will go beautifully. Then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Of course, cab drivers don’t really live charmed lives, as the saying goes. They’re often not paid particularly well, and customers can be awfully difficult. In Robin Cook’s Vector, we get a look at the life of Yuri Davydov, a disaffected Soviet emigre to New York. In the then-Soviet Union, he was a technician working for the Soviet biological weapons program. But he was (or so he believes) lured to the US with promises of lots of money and great success. It hasn’t worked out that way though, and Davydov has had to settle for a job as a taxi driver. He’s an easy convert for a group of skinheads who are also disenchanted with ‘the system.’ When they find out Davydov’s area of expertise, they enlist him to help them carry out their plan of revenge: a mass release of anthrax. New York City medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Lori Montgomery become aware of the plot when they investigate the death of a carpet dealer who was exposed to anthrax. Once they learn of the plot, they work to find and stop the conspirators before they can carry out their plan.

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. Winter is a small-time drug dealer/criminal who’s got big ambitions. He wants to climb to the top of Glasgow’s underworld and that’s got some of some powerful crime bosses upset. They decide to take care of this problem by hiring hit-man Calum McLean to murder Winter. MacLean learns his target’s routines and chooses a good night to do the job. That evening, Winter and his live-in girlfriend Zara Cope go to a nightclub called Heavenly. There Winter gets thoroughly drunk and Cope, seeing her opportunity, strikes up an acquaintance with Stewart Macintosh. They decide to spend the night together, but first, says Cope, they’ll have to get Winter home and to bed. So the two of them escort an extremely drunken Winter into a taxi and get out at the Winter/Cope home. A short time later, the interlude that the couple had planned is interrupted by McLean and his partner, who break into the house to do what they’ve been paid to do. With Cope’s help, Macintosh escapes, but information from the club’s CCTV and the memory of the cab driver allow the police to track him down, so he’s drawn into the investigation.

Taxis and taxi drivers can help establish alibis or guilt. They can also add other important information to an investigation. And as anyone who’s seen Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver can attest, drivers themselves can be fascinating, even dangerous, characters. Which taxi scenes have stayed with you?
 

Late Addition…
 

After this post was published, it occurred to me that it wasn’t complete. I couldn’t do a post about taxis in crime fiction without mentioning Kerry Greenwood’s historical Phryne Fisher series, which takes place in and around 1920’s Melbourne. Phryne’s made several friends in the course of the series, among them Bert and Cec, who are wharfies, but also have an all-purpose sort of cab service. They’re witty and well-drawn characters and if you haven’t yet ‘met’ them, I recommend it.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Taxi.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Kerry Greenwood, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock, Robin Cook

I Never Claimed to be a Hero, And I Never Said I Was a Saint*

Non-Sleuth ProtagonistsMany crime novels are told from the point of view of the sleuth. The sleuth may or may not be a professional (i.e. police or PI), but in either case, we see the story unfolding from that vantage point.

But there are also plenty of crime stories where the protagonist, or at least the narrator, isn’t a sleuth at all. I’m not talking here of those stories where you find out what a serial killer is thinking as the novel goes on, or where the story alternates between the sleuth’s perspective and the murderer’s. Rather, I mean stories where the protagonist or narrator is a different person entirely – sometimes even a criminal.

For instance, John D. MacDonald’s short story Homicidal Hiccup takes place in the small town of Baker City, where Johnny Howard and his gang run everything. Then, Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. He wants to run a clean business without having to pay protection or sell drugs to his teen customers. After a time, several other local business owners join forces with Maybree and help to guard his store. Now Howard faces a big problem. If he allows Maybree to get away with this defiance, he’ll lose respect. And that will likely mean he’ll lose his stranglehold on the crime business in the area. So he desperately wants to get rid of Maybree. He and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan to do just that. She’ll go into the store posing as a high school student. Then, at just the right moment, she’ll use a drink straw to shoot poison at Maybree. But, as the narrator tells us, things don’t work out the way they plan. In this case, the narrator, ‘though never named, is apparently part of the crime network – someone who’s in on the rivalry and politics of the criminal underground.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank gives readers an inside look at the plans for a major bank heist. Mike Daniels is a professional thief who, with his teammates, decides to pull off the robbery of a lifetime from London’s City Savings Deposit bank. The bank is well constructed and well guarded, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, the team will need expert help. This they get from Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect who’s become desperate for a source of income. Booker is driving a night cab when he meets Daniels for the first time, and before too long, Daniels convinces him to join forces with the thieves. The group puts together a foolproof plan, and at first everything goes smoothly. Then a sudden storm comes up unexpectedly and changes everything for the robbers. This novel is told in the third person, but not from the point of view of the police or of bank officials. Rather, it’s told from the viewpoints of Daniels and Booker. This choice allows the reader to see the intricacies of planning such a robbery. It also gives the reader a fuller and even somewhat sympathetic picture of a professional thief’s life.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to retired school principal Thea Farmer. Her original plan was to have a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, but poor financial decisions have meant that she’s had to give up that perfect home. She’s been forced to settle for the house next door, a house she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, she soon learns that her dream home has been bought and that new people will be moving in. They are Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and right from the beginning, Thea doesn’t like them. In fact, she calls them ‘the invaders.’ When Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with the couple, Thea is prepared to dislike her heartily as well, but slowly she finds herself developing a kind of bond with the girl. That’s especially true when she discovers that Kim is a very promising young writer. Then Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Since no actual harm has come to the child, the police aren’t inclined to do anything about it, so Thea works out her own plan for dealing wth the situation. Thea isn’t a professional sleuth; she’s really not a sleuth at all. But we see the events of the story through her eyes, and that gives an interesting perspective on Frank, Ellice and Kim, as well as a fascinating look at how Thea sees herself.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Underworld trilogy (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence) features a different kind of protagonist also. Callum MacLean is a hitman who works for Glasgow crime bosses. He looks at his profession the way most people look at theirs. It’s what he does for a living and he takes pride in doing it well. In fact, although he walks a very thin line at times, given the volatile nature of the underworld, he manages to stay alive and even succeed. His reputation is a good one. The stories are told partly from his point of view, and partly from the points of view of others involved in the underworld. While Mackay doesn’t gloss over what MacLean does, nor what the Glasgow underworld is like, he still shows these people as humans.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. This novel tells the story of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. At first the police suspect that someone in her family may have killed her, as is so often the case. But then, not very long afterwards, another young girl Kelly McIvor is also found dead. Like Angela’s body, Kelly’s is found with a scarf around her neck and head. Now it looks as though a multiple murderer (the press dubs the killer the Sydney Strangler) is at work. Neither murder is solved, and since there are no similar murders after them, the press and therefore the public gradually lose interest. And that’s just fine by Jane Tait, Angela’s cousin. She and her brother Mick and their parents have had to live with the aftermath of Angela’s death, and for her, it’s just as well people don’t really ask her about it any more. That is, until journalist Erin Fury decides to make a documentary about the effect of murders on the family left behind. Reluctantly, and mostly because her daughter Jess wants her to, Jane decides to talk to Erin. Through her eyes, as well as those of some other family members, we learn the truth about what really happened to Angela and to Kelly. None of these people is an official investigator, and it’s hard to say that any of them is a protagonist for whom we’re supposed to cheer. That choice allows James to slowly reveal what happened and what went on behind the news stories and police reports of the day.

And that’s what makes such protagonists/narrators interesting. They can show readers what a case is like from a very different perspective. And it’s an innovative approach to telling a crime story. Which stories like this have stayed with you?
 
 
 

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

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Filed under John D. MacDonald, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan, Wendy James

Don’t Let it End*

One Book AuthorsEvery month, a lot of terrific new crime fiction is released – enough to keep TBR piles and lists from ever actually shrinking. Erm – please tell me I’m not the only one with that problem. Please??  And there are authors such as Michael Connelly and Katherine Howell, who consistently keep their series going with high-quality stories. Interestingly enough though, there are also authors who write one or a few books and then stop. Of course there are a lot of reasons for this. Authors go on to different things, or have to deal with poor health, or something else happens. You wish they’d written more perhaps because that one (or those two) novels were well-done. There are a lot of them out there, and of course, they are not just crime fiction authors, but this is a crime fiction blog, so….

One of the most famous examples of a one-novel author is Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is, in my opinion anyway, a crime novel as much as it is anything else. Among other plot threads, Mayella Ewell claims that she was raped by Tom Robinson. Her father supports her and Robinson is arrested and nearly lynched. Complicating matters is the fact that this is Maycomb, Alabama, at a time when racism was a way of life. Mayella Ewell is White, and Tom Robinson is Black, which means he’s not likely to get a fair trial. Well-known lawyer Atticus Finch takes Robinson’s case, determined to see that he does get a fair hearing, and as the town prepares for the trial and deals with its aftermath, we see the effect that even alleged crime can have on a small community. There are of course a lot of other themes in this novel; whole university courses are devoted to it. And it won many literary prizes. And every year, the University of Alabama School of Law and the American Bar Association (ABA) award the Harper Lee Prize For Best Legal Fiction. This novel has had a real impact on modern fiction, to say the least. But it’s Lee’s only novel.

Also from the American South was James Ross. He’s said to be ‘the man who invented Southern noir.’ Written in 1940, Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much is the story of down-and-out farmer Jack Macdonald, who’s just lost his property due to non-payment of taxes. Macdonald’s friend Smuts Milligan owns a local store, but wants to expand it into a roadhouse and dance hall. Macdonald begins working for his friend and the two of them start to develop Smuts’ plans. When the business doesn’t go as well as they’d hoped, Smuts becomes desperate for money and as any crime fiction fan can tell you, financial desperation leads to all sorts of things. In this novel, it leads to brutal murder. Not a novel for the faint of heart, but it established Southern Gothic noir. And it was Ross’ only novel.

British author Robert Pollock didn’t write a lot of novels either. If someone else knows his work better than I do, please correct me. But it seems he only wrote four novels (although he wrote some non-fiction too). One of those novels is Loophole or, How to Rob a Bank. It’s the story of professional thief Mike Daniels and his team, who put together a plan to rob London’s City Savings Deposit Bank. They enlist the help of laid-off architect Stephen Booker, and before long, all of the details are worked out. On the day of the planned robbery, everything is ready. But no-one has planned for the sudden storm that blows up during the heist. I’ll confess this is the only one of Pollock’s books that I’ve read. Still, I don’t think this is part of a series. I sort of wish it was though, or at least that Pollock had continued writing caper/crime novels.

Mary Semple Scott also wrote only one crime novel, 1940’s Crime Hound. St. Louis investigator Herbert Crosby, who works for the DA’s office, decides to take a lakeside holiday. But he soon gets drawn into murder when a shady realtor he had an appointment with is murdered. When his own gun is stolen and later used for two other murders, it’s clear that Crosby is being set up. If he’s going to avoid going to jail himself (something the local sheriff would like only too well), Crosby is going to have to find out who’s framed him. It would have been interesting to see what Scott could have done with Crosby’s ‘regular guy’ character in a series.

There’s also David Markson, who wrote only two crime fiction novels featuring his New York PI sleuth Harry Fannin. In Epitaph For a Tramp, Fannin helps solve the murder of his ex-wife, whose body is found on his doorstep. And in Epitaph for a Dead Beat, Fannin investigates three murders that show just how deadly the literary world can be. Markson of course went on to become famous for his postmodern literary works, but the two Fannin novels are, so far as I know (so correct me if you know better) the only crime novels he wrote. For pulp crime fiction fans, they’re part of the canon.

And then of course there are more recently-published authors who’ve only done one or two novels, but who you’d love to see do more. Or at least do them more quickly. For instance, Adrian Hyland has written two novels (Diamond Dove/Moonlight Downs and Gunshot Road) featuring Aboriginal Community police officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest. There’s yet to be a third, although I hope that will change soon. Very soon.

These are just a few examples of authors who’ve only done one or two novels, but a lot of people wish wrote more. Which one-novel (or a few novels) authors do you wish wrote more?

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, David Markson, Harper Lee, James Ross, Mary Semple Scott, Robert Pollock

Oh Well I Heard a True Confession*

Talking to Total StrangersIt’s interesting how sometimes people tell things to complete strangers that they wouldn’t necessarily tell even to a good friend or family member. In some ways, odd as it seems, strangers can be easier to talk to, since they have no stake in a problem. Then too, a stranger is someone one may very well not see again, so there’s less risk in unburdening oneself. Of course, when that happens in crime fiction, you never know quite where it will lead…

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion in the village of St. Mary Mead (and oddly enough, she doesn’t meet Miss Marple…). When her employer dies, Katherine unexpectedly inherits a fortune. She decides to use some of it to travel, something she’s never had the luxury of doing before, and decides to start by visiting some distant cousins in Nice. Katherine’s taking the famous Blue Train to Nice when she meets wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on the same train. Ruth is dealing with some personal problems and a dilemma, and Katherine strikes her as a sympathetic sort of listener. So Ruth unburdens herself at least to an extent. It turns out that her conversation with Katherine is one of the last that Ruth has before she is murdered that night. So when the train stops at Nice, the police want to interview Katherine and before she knows it, she’s embroiled in a murder mystery. Hercule Poirot has also come to Nice, and he works with Katherine and the police to find out who murdered Ruth Kettering and why.

A train is also the backdrop for Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train trip to visit his estranged wife Miriam. He’s unhappy in his marriage and has a lot on his mind. So when he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s also on a journey, he’s happy for a sympathetic listener. Bruno too has his share of troubles. He’s got a very dysfunctional relationship with his father, and finds Haines a pleasant person to talk to about it. Then the conversation works round to a solution that Bruno proposes. His idea is that each man will commit the other man’s murder. Since neither man has a motive to commit ‘the other murder,’ the police won’t get suspicious. Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously at first, but confiding in a stranger gets him into serious trouble when Bruno kills Miriam and then demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain.

A chance conversation in a taxi gets architect Stephen Booker involved in crime in Robert Pollock’s Loophole or, How to Rob a Bank. Booker has been laid off from his job with an architect firm, and hasn’t been able to find another in his field. So, in order to make ends meet, he’s taken a night job as a taxi driver. That way, so he thinks, he can use his days to keep looking for a new professional position. One night, his passenger is professional thief Mike Daniels. Daniels and his team of fellow thieves are planning to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. But they’ve run into several logistics obstacles since the bank is well-protected and equipped with the latest in security devices and procedures. Daniels is an affable person and not a bad listener, so it’s not long before Booker tells him the story of his job loss and his frustrations. When Daniels learns Booker’s story, he realises that Booker could be just the man who could help the team get past the bank’s security barriers. So Daniels cultivates a friendship with Booker and then proposes that Booker join the team. Booker finally agrees and the team prepares for the robbery. Everything is planned down to the last detail. But no-one has anticipated the major storm that blows in unexpectedly…

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, art expert/historian Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. Pawlovsky has just gotten a painting that could be worth something and he wants Revere’s professional opinion. Revere agrees and takes a look at the painting. It turns out that it’s likely an extremely valuable Velázquez that was one of many ‘acquired’ by the Nazis during World War II. When Pawlovsky is murdered, Revere thinks that perhaps finding out how the painting got into the shop will lead to the killer’s identity. So he starts tracing the painting forward from when the Nazis took it to the present day. Before his death, Pawlovsky had arranged for Revere to meet his grand-niece Alexandra ‘Alex’ Porter. When the two meet for the first time, Alex finds Ben pleasant to talk to and ends up telling him a lot about her family background. In turn Ben finds her pleasant to talk to as well, and it’s interesting to see how the opportunity to talk to a stranger is helpful to them both. In fact, Alex proves to be a useful ally as Ben traces the painting and in the end, finds out the truth about Pawlovsky’s murder.

There’s a very interesting kind of opening up to a stranger in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s all ready for this next phase of her life when some disastrous financial decisions mean she has to sell her beautiful home. As the novel begins she’s had to take the house next door to her dream home – a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ As if that’s not bad enough, new neighbours buy her perfect home and move in. As it is, Thea isn’t much for company and would prefer to keep as much to herself as possible. But Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have bought Thea’s dream home and she thinks of them as ‘the invaders.’ Thea is a very private person who tells very little about her life to anyone. But she and Frank eventually do develop a kind of rapport. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Elllice. Perhaps because Kim’s not threatening, and perhaps because Thea recognises real talent when she sees it (Kim is a born writer), Thea strikes up a friendship with Kim despite her dislike of strangers. And for her part, Kim likes Thea very much despite her prickliness. They end up telling more about themselves to each other than either thought would happen. But that’s precisely what leads to tragedy when Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing a safe and appropriate home for Kim…

We normally think of sharing confidences with trusted friends and family members. But it’s odd how sometimes, people feel most comfortable talking with a stranger on a bus, a park bench, or a gym. And I haven’t even mentioned the myriad novels in which it’s the sleuth who’s the sympathetic stranger…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Bartholomew and Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino’s True Confession.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan