Category Archives: Robert Rotenberg

I’d Lie For You (And That’s the Truth)*

People are often very protective of friends, loved ones, and others who matter. Many are willing to do quite a lot to take care of those they care about, even to the point of lying for them. That’s why, in both real life and crime fiction, police and other sleuths have to take what they’re told with a grain of salt, as the saying goes. Anyone might lie to protect someone else, so corroborating (or giving) an alibi for a suspect doesn’t mean that suspect is really innocent.

Agatha Christie used this plot point in a lot of her stories.  One of them is Evil Under the Sun. In that story, Hercule Poirot takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Also staying there are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter, Linda. One day, Arlena is strangled, and her body discovered near Pixie’s Cove, not far from the hotel. Poirot works with the police to find out who the killer is and what the motive was. One of their tasks is to establish where each hotel guest was and what each was doing at the time of the murder. And, as it later turns out, two of the guests provide alibis for each other, because each one thinks that the other is guilty – and wants to protect that person.

In Vera Caspary’s Laura, New York homicide detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson is faced with a puzzling case. He’s assigned to investigate when successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is found shot to death in her apartment. As he begins to look into the matter, McPherson traces the victim’s last days and weeks. He soon learns that she was about to marry a ‘blueblood’ named Shelby Carpenter. She’d postponed the wedding for a short time though, so she could get away from city for a break. As it turned out, she never left the city, and it’s not clear why. She had plans to have dinner with an old friend and former lover, a writer named Waldo Lydecker. But she called him to cancel those plans. So, no-one is really sure what, exactly she did on the night of her death, or why she changed all of her plans. Then, it comes out that the dead woman was not Laura Hunt. In fact, Laura herself comes back from a stay at her place in the country, and startles McPherson, who’s in her apartment at the time. Now, the investigation changes completely. The first step is to identify the real victim, who turns out to be a woman named Diane Redfern. Laura admits to knowing her, and even giving her permission to use the apartment during her own absence. It seems that Laura had acted as a kind of mentor to Diane. When it also comes out that Diane was having an affair with Shelby Carpenter, Laura is very much in the picture as a suspect. There are other possibilities, too. In order to get to the truth, McPherson will have to untangle the network of relationships among the characters. He’ll also find that not everyone’s alibi actually holds water, as the saying goes, because of people’s tendency to cover up for those who matter to them.

In Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, the body of former TV star Geraldine ‘Geri’ Jackman is found in Chew Valley Lake, near Bristol. Diamond and his assistant, Detective Inspector John Wigfull, investigate. It’s soon established that the victim didn’t drown, and that her death was likely not an accident. So, they trace the victim’s life to find out who would have wanted to kill her and why. Her husband, Professor Gregory ‘Greg’ Jackman is one very likely suspect. He admits that the marriage wasn’t a happy one, and there is evidence against him. There’s also Dana Didrikson, whom Jackman had met when he saved her son, Matthew from drowning after a fall from a bridge. And there are other suspects, as Diamond and Wigfull discover when they find out more about the victim’s complicated life. In the end, Diamond gets to the truth about the murder, but not before discovering that someone has lied to protect the real killer.

We also see that in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. One morning, Gurdial Singh goes on his usual round of delivering the Globe and Mail to his customers. One of them is well-known Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. When Singh gets to the Brace residence, he finds the door left a little open. He knocks, and eventually Brace appears. Instead of his usual greeting, Brace says,
 
‘‘I killed her, Mr. Singh…I killed her.’’
 

‘Her’ refers to Brace’s common-law wife, Katherine Thorn, whose dead body is in the bathtub. It turns out that she’s been stabbed. The police, in the form of Officer Daniel Kennicott and his boss, Detective Ari Greene, investigate, and they soon arrest Brace. He has nothing to say, but he indicates that he wants to be represented by barrister and solicitor Nancy Parish. She meets with Brace, but he won’t communicate with her except by notes he writes. She’s not going to have an easy job defending her new client, because at no time does he protest his innocence, or suggest anyone else as the murderer. She’ll have to find out whom he’s protecting if she’s going to do her job.

And then there’s Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X. In that novel, Tokyo Inspector Shunpei Kusanagi investigates the murder of Shinji Togashi. The most likely suspect is the victim’s ex-wife, Yasuko Hanaoka, and there is good reason for that. But Kusanagi can’t find convincing evidence against her. What’s more, her alibi seems to unbreakable. So, although he strongly believes she’s guilty, Kusanagi can’t follow through. So, he asks for help from an old college friend, Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa, a physicist who sometimes consults with the police.  Yakuwa soon learns that a brilliant math teacher named Tetsuya Ishigami lives next door to Yasuko, and Yakuwa begins to suspect that he knows more than he is saying about the crime. But Ishigami corroborates her alibi, and does everything he can to protect her, chiefly because he is in love with her. It’s going to take all of Kusanagi’s and Yukawa’s skill to find out what really happened on the night of the murder.

There are plenty of other novels, too, where someone lies to corroborate an alibi, or other wise protect someone who’s a murder suspect. And that protectiveness can prove quite a barrier to an investigation. It can also add an interesting plot point to a novel.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Keigo Higashino, Peter Lovesey, Robert Rotenberg, Vera Caspary

People Livin’ in Competition*

A recent post from Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, has got me thinking about competitiveness. Bill’s post, which you really should read, discusses competitiveness in attorneys. His point, which is very well-taken, is that trial lawyers have to be competitive. Otherwise, they don’t keep the ‘fire’ they need to do all of the work that’s involved in preparing for a trial and seeing it through.

There are many, many legal mysteries that bear him out, too. In John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, William Deverell’s Trial of Passion, and Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, to name just three, we see examples of attorneys who take on difficult cases – and want to win. There are far too many more examples of such novels for me to mention in this one post, so I won’t.

There’s plenty of competitiveness in other crime fiction, too, and it can add a healthy dose of character development, suspense, and plot to a novel. And, since there’s competitiveness in many different professions, the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to integrating it into a story.

Competitiveness is certainly important in the world of athletics. That’s a major part of the plot in Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. Devon Knox has rare gymnastic talent, and her parents, Katie and Eric, want to nurture it. So, when gymnastics coach Teddy Balfour approaches them with a proposition, they’re happy to listen:
 

‘‘Bring her to BelStars [a program he’s started up]  and she’ll find the extent of her power.’’
 

Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (which might not have been an accident) occurs, and changes everything. Devon is gifted, but the question becomes: how far are she and her family willing to go to get to the Olympics? After all, there are only a limited number of young people who can join the US team. So, when one person earns a place, it often means others lose.

Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry series also explores athletic competitiveness (and for the matter of that, journalistic competitiveness as well). Like her creator, Henry is a sportswriter. She works for the Toronto Planet. Henry especially follows the doings of the Toronto Titans baseball team, so she goes along with them on ‘away’ tours, attends the home games, and gets locker-room interviews with players, coaching staff and the like. When the team is in a slump, it’s devastating. When the team does well, it’s euphoric. These players work hard and train intensively to go as far as they can in the World Series competition. Gordon doesn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a mystery series, and the murder plots dominate the books. But the books also give readers a look at what it’s like to be Major League Baseball athlete. It’s not a life for those who aren’t competitive. Neither is the life of those who write and publish stories about sports.

Business can be very competitive, too. In most industries, there’s a finite pool of customers. So, companies vie to get as much of their business as possible. And sometimes, that competitiveness can be deadly. In Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Contagion, for instance, we learn about a major competition between two insurance giants: AmeriCare and National Health. That competition becomes important when a virulent strain of influenza seems to be the cause of a series of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. Medical examiners Dr. Jack Stapleton and Dr. Laurie Montgomery try to find out what’s causing the virus. The hospital’s authorities are interested in keeping the whole matter as quiet as possible, mostly to protect the institution’s image. But Stapleton in particular wants to whatever it takes, regardless of unpleasant publicity, to prevent more deaths. When it comes out that Manhattan General is affiliated with AmeriCares, the question becomes: did someone at National Health have something to do with these deaths, with the aim of discrediting the competition?

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide deals with the competitive world of the beauty pageant circuit. In it, wealthy pageant coach and judge Tristan Pembroke is murdered during a charity art auction being held at her home. The most likely suspect is local artist Sara Taylor, who had a public argument with the victim shortly before the murder. But Sara’s mother-in-law, Lulu, is sure that she’s not guilty. So, she sets out to clear Sara’s name and find out who the real killer is. There are plenty of suspects, too, as Tristan was both malicious and vindictive. And, for the contestants in the pageant, and their families, there’s an awful lot at stake. The beauty pageant life is demanding, expensive, stressful and time-consuming. You don’t stay in it long if you have no sense of competitiveness.

I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that there’s a lot of competitiveness in the academic world, too. Many academic mysteries have plots that involve competition for scholarships/bursaries, prizes, academic jobs, funding and so on. It’s a demanding life that takes a lot of time and effort. Just to give one example, Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James novels take place in the context of St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, where James heads the English Literature Department. One of the sub-plots in the first of this series, Murder is Academic, concerns funding for the program. Each department’s funding is based on its performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). There’s a lot of competition for finite funding, and James knows that she will have to ensure that all of the faculty’s scholarship (including her own) is as impressive as possible. That in itself is stressful. At the same time, she’s caught up in the investigation of the murder of her predecessor, Margaret Joplin. Admittedly, getting funding isn’t the reason for the murder. But it does add to the tension in the novel. And it’s a realistic look at one way in which competition works in academia.

Bill is right that being competitive is important if you’re going to win your case in a trial. It’s also an important personality trait in other fields, too. So it’s little wonder it figures so much in crime fiction. Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Bill’s blog. Thoughtful reviews and commentary await you there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boston’s Peace of Mind.

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Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Grisham, Megan Abbott, Riley Adams, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Cook, William Deverell

He Hears But Cannot Answer to Your Call*

When there’s a crime, one of the important things that police do is talk to the people involved. Whether those people tell the truth or lie, the investigator can usually get some useful information. So, it’s critical to be able to communicate with witnesses, suspects, and others who can provide information.

But what if that’s not possible (or at least, if it’s very difficult)? In today’s world, if someone involved in a case speaks another language, it’s usually possible to get an interpreter to help facilitate communication. And if a witness simply decides not to speak, that person can sometimes be persuaded to do so. Those are straightforward, if not easy, challenges.

But there are cases where a witness or other involved person cannot communicate. When that happens, the police can be at a real disadvantage. And that can add a really interesting plot twist to a crime novel.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, the Boynton family travels from their home in the US to take a tour of the Middle East. Part of the trip involves a visit to the ancient city of Petra. One the second day of the visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like heart failure. Given her age and health, it wouldn’t be surprising. But Colonel Carbury isn’t so sure. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to ask questions. He finds that the victim was malicious, tyrannical and manipulative, so every one of her family members has a very good motive for murder. One of those members is her youngest daughter, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny.’ Jinny is mentally fragile, and lately, seems to have been losing touch with reality more and more. So, it’s very difficult to make sense of what she says and get to the truth. In the end, though, Poirot discovers who really killed Mrs. Boynton and why.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’ Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces his sleuth, Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, Mørck is named head of ‘Department Q,’ a department created to investigate ‘cases of special interest’ – cold cases. The first one he and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad investigate is the 5-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. She went missing during a ferry trip with her brother Uffe, and it was always believed that she drowned. But now there’s evidence that she might still be alive. If she is, then she may be in grave danger. Mørck wants to talk to Uffe about the incident; after all, he was on the ferry. But he is a very troubled young man who doesn’t really communicate. So, Mørck and the team have to do the best they can with what little they can learn from him, and with other information they learn. And they discover that the roots of Merete Lynggaard’s disappearance are in the past.

In Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, Chicago police detective Luton is assigned to investigate the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. The most likely suspect is sixty-five-year-old Jennifer White, who lives next door. But she has been diagnosed with dementia, and is slowly losing her grip on reality. Still, Luton is sure that White knows all about the crime, and may very well be guilty. So, she works to find ways to communicate. The story is told from White’s point of view, which adds to the tension as well as to a deep sense of unease as the dementia takes greater hold of her thinking.

In Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness, Inspector John Madden of Scotland Yard is called in when a group of murders shocks the village of Highfield. The victims are Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes. The Fletcher’s young daughter, Sophy, survived, because she hid under a bed during the murders. But she is very young, and of course, is suffering from the trauma of having her family members killed. So, she can’t really communicate about what happened. At first, Madden wants Sophy to remain locally, so that she can be available to the police as soon as possible. But Dr. Helen Blackwell, the local GP, insists that Sophy is in no condition to be interviewed or answer questions. At her insistence, Sophy goes to Scotland to stay with her aunt and uncle while Madden and the team investigate. But Sophy has her own way of communicating, and she provides an interesting clue.

Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces Toronto Detective Ari Greene. He and Officer Daniel Kennicott investigate when the body of Katherine Torn is discovered in the bathtub of her home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Thorn’s common-law husband, radio celebrity Kevin Brace, is the most likely suspect; he’s even said he killed her. But Brace’s attorney, Nancy Parish, is determined to do the best job she can for her client. And there is the possibility that he is innocent. She’s going to find this case difficult, though, because her client won’t speak with her. He only communicates through written notes, and even those are not overly informative. Little by little, though, and each in a different way, Greene and Parish find out the truth about what happened to Katherine Thorn.

And then there’s Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreo’s The Cemetery of Swallows, which features Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID. Mallock travels to the Dominican Republic when a French citizen, Manuel Gemoni, murders a Dominican citizen, Tobias Darbier. There’s no question that Gemoni is guilty. In fact, it comes out that he went to the Dominican Republic specifically for the purpose of murder. What isn’t clear is the motive. And Gemoni can’t be much help in the investigation. For one thing, he’s badly injured. For another, he’s not particularly coherent. So, it’s very difficult for the team to know exactly where to start with this investigation.

And that’s the real challenge when people simply cannot communicate. Even if they have useful information in a case, they may not be able to share it. So, the investigating team sometimes has to be creative in finding ways to reach out.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Go to the Mirror.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Rennie Airth, Robert Rotenberg

Pressure, Pushing Down on Me*

In the US, one of the last major hurdles for Ph.D. candidates is defending their dissertations. I understand it’s the same in many other places, too. If you have a Ph.D. yourself, or you’ve sat in on one of these events, then you know it’s a very intense experience. As this is posted, it’s my ‘dissertation anniversary,’ which has me thinking about the process. Candidates spend weeks or even months preparing their presentations of their material, as well as responses to possible questions they may get from members of their dissertation committees (and, at times, the audience). And, of course, those questions may be about any aspect of the dissertation, so the candidate needs to be thoroughly familiar with every bit of the material. It’s nerve-wracking, to say the least.

The thing about defending a dissertation is that it’s a bit difficult to describe, since it doesn’t have a lot of obvious parallels in other fields. But a look at crime fiction can help give a few insights.

Getting ready to defend a dissertation is a little like rehearsing for a performance. Just as actors must know their lines and musicians must know their pieces, Ph.D. candidates have to have their presentations well-prepared. We see the intensity of rehearsal in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright sees her protagonist, Cassandra James, asked to adapt a Victorian novel, East Lynne, for a stage production. She’s Head of the English Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, and her specialty is Victorian literature. So, she’s the right choice for the job. All starts out well enough, and rehearsals begin. But then, Melissa Meadows, who is to take a leading role in the play, tells James that someone is stalking her. Then, she goes missing. This throws rehearsals into chaos, and, when she doesn’t return, leads to the investigation of a possible murder.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett, and Deborah Nicholson, among others, will know that their novels also take the reader ‘backstage.’ In such novels, we see how many times material has to be prepared and how important timing is. We also see the suspense, nerves and tension that come out under so much pressure. It’s the same when one’s preparing to defend a dissertation.

Defending a dissertation isn’t really entertainment, though. Candidates need to be prepared to address challenges to everything about their work. They need to examine each aspect of their dissertations, from the topic, to the data collection, to the data analysis, and more. In that sense, preparing to defend a dissertation is a little like preparing for a trial. A good attorney prepares thoroughly for each trial. That includes working with witnesses and, possibly, the defendant. It also includes looking carefully at each aspect of the case, and addressing possible weaknesses. Attorneys know that any serious weaknesses in a case will be exploited by the other side. So, they do everything possible to prevent that. Admittedly, the Ph.D. candidate doesn’t risk prison. But it’s still quite a high-stakes process.

We see that sort of preparation in work by, for instance Scott Turow, John Grisham, Robert Rotenberg, and Paul Levine. The writing team of ‘Perri O’Shaughnessy’ also explore this sort of pre-trial work in their Nina Reilly novels.

Presenting one’s material before the dissertation committee, and fielding questions, isn’t exactly like a trial. The role of the dissertation committee is to support the candidate. After all, if the candidate doesn’t do well, this reflects on the committee, too – in particular on the candidate’s advisor/tutor, who generally chairs the committee.

In that way, defending a dissertation is a bit like a major sports competition. On the one hand, the player has to work very hard, and coaches can be difficult to satisfy. The Olympic Games, the World Series, the World Cup, and other such contests, all require discipline and focus. And coaches and trainers push and challenge players to get the most from them. At the same time, their role is to be allies and support systems.

Alison Gordon’s crime novels give readers a good look at what it’s like to play for a Major League baseball team. Readers see how important the actual games can be, and what the roles of coaches and trainers are. John Daniell’s The Fixer offers some similar insight into the world of rugby. And there’s Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, which takes the perspective of a sports agent. In all of these novels and series, we see how pivotal a game or series of games can be. That stress and tension is quite similar to what it’s like to defend a dissertation.

As I say, it’s a little difficult to describe getting ready to defend a dissertation. It’s a singular experience, and it challenges Ph.D. candidates to think about their work in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise. But there is nothing quite like being informed you’ve passed, and having your committee address you as ‘Doctor.’ I often think it would actually be a solid context for a crime novel. There’s tension, intense preparation, possible ego clashes, and there’s no telling what the candidate might uncover in pursuit of that all-important data set. If you went through this process, I’d love to hear your experiences. I still remember mine, even after a number of years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure.

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Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Deborah Nicholson, Harlan Coben, John Daniell, John Grisham, Ngaio Marsh, Paul Levine, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow, Simon Brett

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow