Category Archives: Robin Cook

You’re In the Care of a Spin Doctor*

PR and Spin DoctorsIt’s a competitive world out there. So, for a lot of people and businesses, image is everything. They have to inspire confidence and build loyalty. That’s where public relations and ‘spin doctors’ come in. They’re the ones who work to ensure that the public sees the company in the best possible light. They also do ‘damage control’ when there’s a problem.

PR people certainly play roles in real life. They help build brand image and the good ones articulate the company’s (or person’s) message. They can be interesting characters in crime fiction, too. And including a PR angle (or even conflict) can add a solid plot point or layer of character development to a story.

Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is the story of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., a very respectable advertising agency. One day, copywriter Victor Dean has a tragic fall down a staircase at Pym’s, and dies. At first it looks as though it could have been just a terrible accident. But Dean left behind an unfinished note that calls that conclusion into question. The note says that he’d discovered one of Pym’s employees was using the company’s advertising for illegal purposes. For Pym’s, this is a PR disaster, so they don’t want to call in the police. Instead, they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover as Dean’s replacement and find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he starts looking into the matter. It turns out that Dean was right: someone was using the company’s advertising to arrange meetings between drugs gangs and local drugs dealers. When Dean found out who it was, he blackmailed that person and paid the price for it. It’s an interesting case of a PR firm that needs a PR boost of its own.

In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, Queen is temporarily working for Hollywood’s Magna Studios. The project is a film biography of famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The two had a very stormy romance and public breakup, and the gossip about them has been popular for a long time. Each married someone else and now has a grown child; and at first, the studio people think they’ll refuse to do the film. But to everyone’s shock, they agree. More than that, they rekindle their romance and decide to get married. For publicity man Sam Vix, this is a nightmare. He’d depended on the couple’s feud to sell the film. Then, Vix and the publicity team decide to make the best of the situation. They arrange with Stuart and Royle to give their wedding the ‘Hollywood treatment,’ and have it take place on an airstrip. From thence, the couple and their children will leave for a honeymoon trip. All goes off as planned; but by the time the plane lands, Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. Queen works to find out who the killer is and how the killer managed to poison the newlyweds.

As Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips wrote a series of mysteries featuring Pierre Chambrun, manager of New York’s very upmarket Hotel Beaumont. A hotel’s image is extremely important, so one of Chambrun’s valued employees is his PR chief, Mark Haskell. In fact, this series is written in first person, from Haskell’s point of view. As the series goes on, it’s interesting to see how Haskell handles press announcements and other public image events. It’s also interesting to see how the hotel deals with PR challenges such as police searches and arrests.

Carole Nelson Douglas’ Temple Barr is a freelance PR expert. As such, she’s hired by hotel/casinos (she’s based in Las Vegas), corporations and so on help create or restore the images they want. Companies consult with her to choose TV advertising campaigns, push new logos or spokespeople, and otherwise keep their names before the public. Among other things, this cosy series offers an interesting look at what PR people do.

Public relations is important to the plot of Robin Cook’s medical thriller Contagion. In that novel, medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery are faced with a mysterious set of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. They seem to be caused by a particularly virulent strain of influenza, and there’s a great deal of concern. But, as Stapleton discovers, the concern is as much for the hospital’s image as it is for anything else. For that reason, the hospital’s administrators want there to be as little obvious investigation as possible. From Stapleton’s point of view, this puts patients at risk, so he frequently butts heads with those in charge. He and Montgomery learn that Manhattan General is affiliated with insurance giant AmeriCare. That company’s major rival is National Health. As the story goes on, we learn how the competition between those companies impacts what’s going on at the hospital. We also see how important public image is in the medical field.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, are taking a holiday at Krabi. There, they meet a guide, Chanida Manakit, who goes by the name of Miss Pla. When her body is found washed up in a cave, Keeney and Patel feel a personal sense of loss, and decide to extend their stay for a bit and ask some questions. It’s difficult to say exactly how the victim died, but Keeney doesn’t believe the police theory that it was an accident. Miss Pla was far too good a swimmer for that. So Keeney and Patel trace Pla’s last days and weeks. They learn that she was working with an environmental group. Her task was to attend meetings between local villages and Nukun, the public relations officer for Apex Enterprises, a development company. While at those meetings, Pla was to ensure that villagers’ concerns were articulated. For the company, these meetings are important for public relations. Apex wants to cultivate the image of being sensitive to the local culture and its needs, and the people who run these meetings have to keep that image at the forefront. And Miss Pla’s role in the company’s PR plan plays its part in what happens to her.

PR people and ‘spin doctors’ have important and sometimes difficult tasks to do. That’s especially the case when a company or politician gets into trouble or does something illegal or unethical. There are all sorts of interesting possibilities when that happens, and crime fiction certainly shows that.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from TV Smith’s For Every Hit There’s a Miss.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Carole Nelson Douglas, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips, Robin Cook

Get Away From These Demagogues*

DemagoguesLet’s face it: the world can be a very scary place. Tragedies happen, changes happen; and sometimes, life seems to be full of frightening news. At times like that, some people try to use others’ uncertainty and fears to gain power, or at least ascendency, over others. And that sort of demagoguery can have devastating and lasting consequences. We certainly see it happen in real life. We’re seeing it now.

It’s certainly not unique to real life, though. There’s plenty of demagoguery in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. For one thing, the use of rhetoric and bigotry instead of reasoned debate has been going on for a lot time. For another, the sort of conflict that demagogues exploit can serve as a very useful tool for building tension in a story. There are a lot of examples of this in the genre. I’ll just mention a few.

Some novels and series explore the consequences of the actions of real demagogues. For instance, both Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series and Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series are set (at least partly) in Berlin just before and then during the Nazis’ rise to power. In both of those series, there are good reasons for people to be uncertain and afraid. It’s the height of the worldwide Great Depression, there’s little food, and the currency isn’t worth very much. There aren’t many jobs, either. Against this background, as you’ll know, Hitler rose to power in part through exploiting people’s fears, and setting up easy targets for them to blame. You’ll also know just how horrible the consequences of that demagoguery were.

We also see that pattern in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series, which begins in Moscow just before World War II. Josef Stalin is firmly in power, and has consolidated his control of the Communist Party. He’s done that in part through playing his political rivals off against one another, and by preying on people’s fears of what might happen if he’s not there to steer the proverbial ship of state. And that’s not to mention the fears people have already had about securing life’s basic necessities. The consequences of that demagoguery have been tragic, too, as hundreds of thousands of people have died in Stalin’s purges and other oppressions. Against this background, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Slivka, have to move very carefully. One wrong move and they could be next on the list, so to speak. At the same time, they are charged with upholding the law and catching criminals. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and Ryan acknowledges that fact.

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was also arguably a demagogue. He exploited Americans’ fears of Communism to the point where many people were jailed and worse. Others lost their jobs (and any chance of getting another one), were shunned by others in their communities, and more. We see part of the impact of that demagoguery in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is a sort of unofficial PI in post-WWII Los Angeles. One day, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter says that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes – money he has no way of paying. He’s resigning himself to prison when FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers him a way out. If Mosley helps the FBI bring down suspected Communist Chaim Wenzler, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Mosley has little choice but to accept. And in any case, he, too, has been taught to fear Communism, and Craxton appeals to his patriotism on that issue. The case turns out to be much more complicated than Rawlins imagined when he finds himself becoming friends with Wenzler. It’s even more complicated when he’s framed for two murders.

Argentina has had more than its share of demagogues. Many of the military rulers have used people’s fears, as well as their concerns about meeting their basic needs, to get and maintain power. For instance, Juan Perón came to power with the backing of (and a great deal of appeal to) the working classes. Once in power, he maintained his position through increasingly authoritarian decisions. The impact of that demagoguery lasted for many decades, long after Perón was no longer in office. Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lascano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina, a time when a military dictatorship is in control of the country. People have been taught to fear the political left; and those who are suspected of having leftist sympathies are brutally silenced. So are those who are suspected of questioning or, worse, opposing, the existing government. It’s a very difficult political landscape for a police officer who’s just trying to do his job, and Mallo depicts this faithfully.

In Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair runs directly into demagoguery when he gets involved in finding out who murdered his uncle, also named Rowland. There’s a good possibility that Uncle Rowland was killed by members of the New Guard, an ultra-right political group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. Campbell’s been taking advantage of people’s misery (the novel takes place in 1931, and the Great Depression is taking a toll) and fear, and appealing to their patriotism to gain power. He and the New Guard are planning to install a new government in Australia, one run by ‘a few right thinking men’ who will preserve traditional ways of life and the current class order. He’s gotten plenty of people afraid of Communism, working-class revolts, and other perceived threats, and is set to gain real power. The radical left isn’t taking this lightly, and is preparing for an all-out battle. Rowly wants not only to find out whether Campbell sanctioned his uncle’s murder, but also to prevent violence if he can. But it won’t be easy.

And then there’s Robin Cook’s Seizure, in which we are introduced to US Senator Ashley Butler. He’s a demagogue who’s used people’s fear of the unknown to gain quite a bit of power. He’s strongly opposed to stem-cell research and other, similar, scientific advances. He’s also a staunch supporter of the ‘traditional’ family and ‘traditional family values.’ And he’s used his constituents’ worries about societal change, the economy, and other issues for his own purposes. Then, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Butler knows that if the facts of his medical condition are made public, he’ll never succeed at becoming president, which is his goal. So, despite the rhetoric he’s used, he reaches out to Dr. Daniell Lowell, who’s been doing exactly the kind of research Butler has publicly opposed. Lowell is no friend to Butler, as he’s seen quite a lot of scientific progress stymied by Butler. He’s also not a fan of Butler’s rightist social leanings. But when Butler offers to withdraw his opposition to stem cell research, Lowell can’t resist the opportunity to use his controversial procedure to see if he can help Butler. Technically speaking, this is more a thriller than a crime novel. But the character of Ashley Butler was too good an example of a demagogue not to mention it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, demagoguery is alive and well. In crime fiction, it almost always has unfortunate, sometimes tragic consequences. I think it does in real life, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Nettie Moore.

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Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Philip Kerr, Rebecca Cantrell, Robin Cook, Sulari Gentill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

How to Succeed*

Internal PoliticsUnless you’re self-employed (and even, sometimes then!), you likely work with other people. And that nearly always means office politics. Political machinations take different forms, of course, depending on the kind of work you do. But they’re likely to be there in some way or another.

All of that tension and conflict can make for very effective plot lines in crime fiction. You’ll notice as this post goes on, by the way, that there won’t be mention of police politics. There are far too many examples out there, as the police figure a great deal in crime fiction. Even taking that form of politics out of the conversation, though, there’s plenty of office politics in the genre.

For example, any attorney can tell you that there’s often a great deal of politics involved in that profession. It certainly helps to have a law degree from a prestigious school. But in many law firms, moving ahead takes more than that. It means very long hours, especially at first, and showing everyone that you’re the first to arrive and the last to leave. We see that in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. The main plot thread of that novel is the murder of Katherine Thorn, common-law wife of Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. Brace himself is the most likely suspect; in fact, he even admits to the first witness on the scene,
 

‘‘I did it.’’
 

Crown prosecutor Albert Fernandez knows that a quick conviction in such a high-profile case will mean a lot for his career. And though he’s not unprincipled, Fernandez also knows that getting ahead often means playing politics. So he makes sure to get to his office before anyone else, to be the last to leave at the end of the day, and to ‘dress the part.’ In this particular case, he also goes very hard for the win, as the saying goes. Fernandez’ bosses want him to take the case to trial, too, so he’s under a lot of political pressure to refuse a plea deal with Brace’s lawyer Nancy Parish. He doesn’t want to see an innocent person convicted, but at the same time, a loss in a case like this could spell trouble for him. I won’t give away spoilers, but there are other places in this novel where that kind of politics plays a role.

Fledgling attorneys also know that they may not get very far in their careers if they go against what a firm partner, especially a senior partner, wants. That’s the way law firm politics are. And sometimes that can mean real trouble for the beginning lawyer. That’s what Brad Miller discovers in Phillip Margolin’s Executive Privilege. In one plot thread of that novel, we learn that he’s a newly-minted attorney who works at Reed, Briggs, Stephens, Stottlemeyer and Compton, Oregon’s largest law firm. As do many new attorneys, Miller works an exhausting number of hours, and is otherwise taken advantage of by the partners. One day, the firm’s top attorney, Susan Tuchman, directs him to take on the pro bono case of Clarence Little, who’s been convicted of murdering Laurie Erickson, and is due to be executed. Little wants Reed, Briggs to handle his appeal. From the firm’s perspective, it’s just a matter of form, and Tuchman doesn’t want Miller spending any real time on it. But the more Miller gets to know about the case, the more he begins to suspect that Little is not guilty of the crime for which he’s about to be executed. Now Miller runs straight up against law firm politics. He knows that his career at Reed, Briggs depends on his pleasing the partners and doing what he’s told. On the other hand, this case is turning out to be quite different to what he’d been informed it would be. Among other things, this plot thread gives a really interesting perspective on the politics involved in working for some large and powerful law firms.

As anyone who’s ever worked in a hospital can tell you, politics play an important role there, too. Junior doctors, interns and other medical professionals who are on the ‘lower rungs’ of the hospital hierarchy know that it’s not enough to do one’s job well and establish a good rapport with patients. It’s also important to catch the attention of senior doctors, and get (and stay) in their good graces. Sometimes this means getting caught in ‘turf wars’ between conflicting senior doctors. It’s had a lot of other consequences, too, some of them serious. Authors of medical thrillers often use the reality of hospital politics as important plot points. I’m thinking, for instance, of some of Robin Cook’s thrillers, where we see a junior hospital doctor or pathologist who notices a pattern that senior doctors either want to cover up or don’t believe.

This sort of plot thread has shown up in medical mysteries for quite some time, actually. Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need (which he wrote as Jeffery Hudson), was published in 1968. This story features junior pathologist John Berry, who tries to clear the name of a colleague and friend who’s been accused of negligence and of performing a then-illegal abortion. Along the way, Berry runs up against the most powerful doctor in the hospital, J.D. Randall. That layer of politics adds much to the suspense in this novel.

There’s also plenty of politics in higher education (Oh, come on! You were just waiting for me to mention academia, right?😉 ). It’s easy to see why, too. For one thing, tenure is highly coveted at institutions that grant it. So some people will go to great lengths to become tenured. And even when that’s not an issue, there are all kinds of promotion, funding, staffing and other decisions that are impacted by institutional politics. I’ve written about it myself (Publish or Perish, if you’re interested).

And I’m by no means at all the only one. Just ask Christine Poulson’s creation Cassandra James. Head of the English Literature Department at St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, she is no stranger to the politics of academia. In one plot thread of Murder is Academic, for instance, she’s just taken the reins at the department, and one of her tasks is to prepare everyone for the upcoming Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding and security depend heavily on its success with the RAE, so everyone’s scholarship has to be as impressive as possible. That’s not going to be an easy task, considering that James is also mixed up in the murder of her predecessor (she discovered the body, for one thing). Among other things, this series (of which Murder is Academic is the first novel) gives readers a close look at the internal politics of university life. Still interested in academic politics? You can also check out Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw mysteries, of which Simon Said is the first. There are many more examples, too.

But you don’t need to be a lawyer, doctor or professor to understand internal politics. Just look around, and I’ll bet you’ll see plenty of examples. That colleague who toadies to all the ‘right people,’ that boss who’s more concerned with her own promotions than with supporting her department, that sales executive who angles for the corner office, well, you know what I mean. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got an email about a meeting I’ve been invited to attend. Never mind that it’s during the weekend, it could be my chance to really get ahead! 

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Christine Poulson, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Phillip Margolin, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Cook, Sarah R. Shaber

Prove My Hypotheses*

ResearchOne of the things that academic types do is research. Even if you’re not an academic, I’ll bet you’ve had your own experience with research. Writers do it when they’re planning books. Attorneys do it when they’re mapping out their strategies. Medical people, of course, do it, too. Chefs, accountants, and teachers research as well. Almost whatever profession you’re in, you sometimes need to do research.

There are, of course, lots of different kinds of research, and the kind one chooses depends on one’s field, one’s question and so on. But basically, research is a matter of observing something, asking a question about it, forming a hypothesis, and gathering and making sense of relevant data. Not everyone uses those terms, but it’s a very similar process no matter what you want to know.

Research plays an important role in crime fiction, too. And that shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s an important part of learning new things in real life. You could even argue that sleuths are researchers.

But even if you don’t accept that argument, there’s plenty of research underway in the genre. For example, one of the characters in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) is Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He has a devoted wife, Gerda, and two healthy children. He has plenty of patients and is well-respected. He has a mistress, Henrietta Savarnake, who, in her own way, loves him. And yet, his main focus in life isn’t really any of that. He is passionate about understanding and finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease. For Christow, finding the right combination of drugs to combat the illness is much more important than just about anything else. It’s not because he’s particularly noble, either, or that he’s bent on achieving glory. He just wants to have the answer. One weekend, he and Gerda, among other guests, are invited to visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and is invited for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives, he sees what he things is a tableau set up for his ‘amusement’ – Christow has been shot and is lying by the pool. But it only takes a moment to see that it’s all too real. At first, the case looks very clear-cut, but as Poirot and Inspector Grange soon discover, it’s both simpler and more complex than they think.

If you read medical mysteries and thrillers such as those by Michael Palmer and Robin Cook, you’ll know that many of them feature characters who are engaged in medical research. And sometimes, the research raises some really important ethical questions (e.g. just because we can do something, does that mean we should?). Cook has also explored questions of whether certain research should be conducted.

Legal research is no less demanding, and is an essential when one’s working on a case. And it’s surprising what a legal researcher can sometimes find. For instance, in Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case (Der Call Colliini), we are introduced to a young Berlin attorney, Caspar Leinen. He’s taking his turn on standby duty for legal aid when he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Fabrizio Collini has been arrested for murder. He went to the Hotel Adon where he shot one of the guests, Jean-Baptiste Meyer. Collini has said almost nothing since the incident, and makes no attempt to defend himself. So if he’s to do his job defending his client, Leinen will have to do some research. In the weeks and months that follow, Leinen looks into the background of both the accused and the victim. That research pays off when he discovers that this whole case turns on an obscure point of German law. In this case, the legal research Leinen turns out to be immeasurably valuable.

In Elly Griffith’s The House at Seas End, a team of archaeologists is doing a study of coastal erosion near the village of Broughton Seas End. In the course of their work, the team members find six skeletons. Ruth Galloway, forensic anthropologist at North Norfolk University, is called in to help learn as much as possible about the remains. It turns out that the skeletons all belong to murder victims. What’s more, they aren’t English murder victims. Now Galloway gets involved in the process of finding out who the victims were, when they died, and how they ended up at Broughton Seas End.

And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, in which we are introduced to Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He’s an oceanographer and an expert on wave patterns. In one plot thread of this novel, he’s using both his connections with fellow oceanographers and his expertise to find out what happened to his grandfather Uilliam. Years earlier, Uilliam was on a fishing trip when he disappeared. It was always said he was washed overboard, and Cal wants to find out the truth about it. So he researches the tidal patterns in the area as well as what he learns about his grandfather’s past to trace Uilliam’s probable location when he went missing, and to find out what happened to his body.

There are a lot of other examples of ways in which research plays a part in crime fiction The process of noticing something, asking a question, forming hypotheses about it, and testing them is a natural for the genre. Am I right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Death Cab For Cutie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elly Griffiths, Ferdinand von Schirach, Mark Douglas-Home, Michael Palmer, Robin Cook

If You Look the Part You’ll Get the Job*

20151126_092844-1The conference name badge and backpack you see in this ‘photo serve a couple of important purposes. The backpack is, of course, handy for carrying notes, a pen, the conference handbook, and the many other little things conference delegates need when they go to different sessions. And the name badge makes it easy for people to introduce themselves or discreetly check if they really do remember that person from the last conference.

But name badges, backpacks and the like serve another purpose too. They identify a person as belonging to a group. If you walk into a conference venue with your name badge, you’re immediately accepted (and forgiven for any  ‘I’m a foreigner – sorry!’ blunders you may make).  No-one questions your presence. It’s quite different if you walk in without the name badge, backpack or both.

Those sorts of identifiers show up a in crime fiction, too, and they can mark a person as ‘belonging’ or ‘not belonging.’ They don’t always take the form of a name badge, but they can play a role. To give you one very general example, medical mysteries and thrillers (e.g. Michael Palmer’s work, Robin Cook’s, and so on) often have a plot point that includes a character who ducks into a hospital changing room and dons a lab coat. No-one really takes notice of a person in a lab coat in that environment. It’s a symbol that identifies someone as belonging there. There are more specific examples, too, of the way this works in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna move to the village of Lymestock so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. On the surface, Lymestock seems to be an idyllic small town, peaceful and just right for recuperation. It doesn’t turn out to be that way, though. One day, Joanna and Jerry receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Then, they learn that other villagers, too, are getting such notes. When one of those letters results in a suicide, and another death follows that, the police investigate. But, as the local vicar’s wife knows, Miss Marple is far better suited than are the police to find out the truth in a small, closed-mouth village like Lymestock. One of the interesting side issues in this novel is the local perception of Joanna. She’s a very smart dresser who wears makeup. This identifies her immediately as not belonging. And there are plenty of people who think that she shouldn’t wear makeup and should dress more ‘village.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights introduces readers to Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. In one plot thread, a local drug user nearly dies right near Chapman’s bakery, and she finds herself slowly getting drawn into the mystery of how it happened. There’ve been several overdoses in the area, some of which have led to death. The trail leads Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen to a Goth club called Blood Lines. A person can’t just walk into the club, so Chapman and Cohen are going to have to look as though they belong. Chapman gets some help from her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. The dress she wears, and the boots, make her look exactly right for the club, so that no-one questions her presence there. This allows her and Cohen to find out the truth about the drug deaths.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly Morriss and the team she works with investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. A search into the victim’s background reveals that she was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss wants to talk to anyone else in that profession who might have known her. When one of Morriss’ contacts disappears, and another is badly beaten, it’s clear that Morriss will have to dig deeper. She wants to talk to other sex workers, but of course, they wouldn’t be exactly open to talking to a police officer. But she finally persuades one of her contacts to let her join a group of ‘the girls.’ Morriss knows she’s going to have to fit in, and that includes thinking about how she identifies herself. Her final choice of clothes isn’t perfect, but,
 

‘…at least it wasn’t blue and no one would ask her to read the meter.’
 

In this case, wearing anything like a badge or other identifier would immediately have marked Morriss as ‘not belonging.’

Betty Web’s PI Lena Jones needs to find a way to look as though she belongs in Desert Wives. She and her PI partner Jimmy Siswan have a difficult case. Esther Corbett has hired them to rescue her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca from a secretive polygamous religious group called Purity. They succeed, only to learn that the cult’s leader, Solomon Royal, was shot and killed on the same night that they got Rebecca. What’s worse, Esther is implicated. If she’s going to rescue her client, Jones will have to find out who really shot the victim. But she won’t be able to enter the community without seeming to belong. So she borrows a
 

‘…long-sleeved, high-necked, ankle-length calico…’
 

that serves as an identifier for the women who live at Purity. Suffice it to say, the clothes Jones wears during this assignment are not at all like her usual choices.

Barbara Neely’s sleuth, Blanche White, works as a domestic. She’s a Black woman in a world where the rich and powerful are very much White. But nobody questions her presence if she wears a uniform. It’s a badge that marks her as an employee; in that sense, it makes her invisible. She’s part of ‘the help,’ so very few people pay any attention to what she does as she investigates.

And that’s the thing about name badges, lab coats, uniforms and so on. They give a person a certain kind of group membership (e.g. conference delegate, ‘the help,’ hospital employee, and so on). And that means that people don’t always think to question what that person is really doing.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Bragg’s To Have and Have Not.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Betty Webb, Kerry Greenwood, Maureen Carter, Robin Cook