Category Archives: Sara Paretsky

The Law Won*

Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post.  Enjoy!
 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jonathan Kellerman, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Palmer, Tess Gerritsen

Gimme Shelter*

SheltersIt’s arguably not as easy to go ‘off the grid’ as it once was, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. But if you know where to go and what to do, and you have the money and motivation, you can do it. Sometimes, though, it’s not as easy as just disappearing, even if you want (or need) to do that. For example, those dealing with domestic abuse (usually, but not always, women and children) may simply not have access to money, a car and so on. So they need to rely on shelters or on groups of ‘safe houses.’ Sometimes they’re helped by individuals too.

Shelters and other similar places have been around more or less since the 1970s; before then, someone who had to escape had very, very few choices. Even today it can be awfully difficult, but there are shelters and other places that can help to protect survivors of abuse. They’re certainly out there in real life, and they are in crime fiction too.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House features Helping Hands, a Southwark women’s shelter. One night, there’s a fire in a warehouse next door to Helping Hands, and one of its residents reports the incident. The body of an unidentified woman is found among the ashes, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid begins the investigation. At the same time, Kincaid’s partner, DI Gemma James, gets a call from the Reverend Winnie Montfort. One of Montfort’s congregants is missing, and she may be the unidentified woman. There are other possibilities though. One of them is Laura Novak, who works at Guy’s Hospital, and who is also on the Board of Directors at Helping Hands. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the shelter and the people who live and work there do figure into this mystery.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In the second novel Exile, she has a job at Place of Safety, a women’s shelter. There, she meets Ann Harris, who is one of the shelter’s residents. Then, Ann disappears. On the one hand, the residents are under no obligation to tell the staff where they go and what they do. On the other, it’s always a cause for concern when residents go missing, because it could easily mean they’ve returned to an abusive situation. So Mauri does worry about Ann’s well-being. Still, there’s nothing to indicate a problem until two weeks later, when Ann’s body is found in the Thames. Mauri immediately suspects that Ann’s husband Jimmy killed her. But Jimmy’s cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, thinks he’s innocent. So she and Mauri start to ask questions about what really happened.

When we first meet Zoë Sharp’s Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox in Killer Instinct, she’s left the armed forces for reasons she would rather not discuss. But she’s found a way to fit back into civilian life:
 

‘I’ve been holding self-defence at the Shelseley Lodge Women’s Refuge for the last couple of years.’
 

On the whole, she finds the work satisfying, and the shelter provides her a place to teach her classes in exchange for not charging its residents any tuition. One night, she goes with a friend to a karaoke night event at the newly remodeled Adelphi Club. During the evening, she gets into a fight with another patron Susie Hollins. When Susie is later found murdered, the police are naturally very interested in Charlie. If she’s going to clear her name, she’s going to have to find out who the killer is, and all of the possibilities are dangerous…

In Sara Paretsky’s Tunnel Vision, her PI sleuth V.I. Warshawski is the lone holdout against the powerful Culpepper brothers, who own the Chicago building where she has her office, and who want to sell it. To add to that stress, one night, she finds a homeless woman and her children living in the building’s basement. She’s trying to find a solution for this family when her most important client asks her to help him find a community service placement for his son, who’s been arrested for computer hacking.  Warshawski finds a place for the boy at Home Free, a homeless advocacy group. Then, Deirdre Messenger, who sits on Home Free’s Board of Directors, is murdered and her body left in Warshawski’s office. Warshawski knew the victim, since both were volunteers at Arcadia House, a women’s refuge. So even if the body hadn’t been found in her office, she’d have taken an interest. She starts asking questions and ends up uncovering some very dirty domestic abuse secrets in some very high places.

Of course, there are plenty of individuals who help those who need to escape, even if they’re not affiliated with a particular group. In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, for instance, private investigator Lena Jones works with her PI partner Jimmy Sisiwan to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from Purity, a polygamous sect. Rebecca’s father Abel has rejoined the sect after some time away, and has agreed that Rebecca will marry the group’s leader Solomon Royal. Rebecca’s mother Esther, who’s divorced from Abel, wants Rebecca to be returned to her. So Jones and Sisiwan track Rebecca down and rescue her. In the process, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and is badly wounded. Still, she thinks that since neither she nor Rebecca had anything to do with the incident, they’ll be fine. But shortly after Rebecca and Esther are re-united, Jones learns that Royal has died. Now Esther is a suspect in his murder and will very likely be extradited from Arizona to Utah to face trial. So Jones infiltrates Purity to find out who really killed the victim. As she gets to know the area, she discovers that what’s going on at Purity is much more than just teenage girls being forced to marry (as if that weren’t bad enough!). But she also learns of a few individuals who have helped some of the women and children escape. And that makes a big difference.

Domestic abuse shelters and refuges are important ‘safety nets’ for those trapped in abusive situations. So it’s little wonder they show up in crime fiction, too. And in real life, they can use all the help they can get. Just as an example, if you’re looking for a new home for books you no longer want to keep, why not consider such a shelter? A good book can provide a badly needed balm when someone’s in such a situation. Your time, your donations and your advocacy when funding’s being debated are also good ways to help.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Rolling Stones song.

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Filed under Betty Webb, Deborah Crombie, Denise Mina, Sara Paretsky, Zoë Sharp

Behind You Another Runner is Born*

RunningDo you go jogging or running? If you do, then you know that running can be a terrific form of exercise. Studies suggest that running also helps lower stress levels and builds cardiovascular strength. And it’s not expensive to take up running, since there’s no need to join a club or purchase equipment. All you need is a pair of trainers and comfortable clothes like track pants or shorts. What’s more, you can run at nearly any time of day. You’re really only limited by the weather. It may not be for everyone, but it’s not hard to see why running has become such a popular form of exercise in the last decades.

It’s little wonder really that we see running pop up so often in crime fiction. Not only is it common in real life, but it’s also a very handy tool for authors who want characters to find bodies (I’m sure you could think of lots more examples than I could where that happens!). Authors can also use running to describe a particular setting (i.e. readers follow along as the character runs). Space only permits a few examples here, but I’m sure they’ll suffice to show what I mean.

There’s an interesting jogging scene in Ian Rankin’s The Black Book. In one plot thread of that novel, Inspector Rebus is working to bring down a moneylender associated with Edinburgh crime boss ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. Fans of this series will know that Rebus and Cafferty have an unusual sort of relationship. On the one hand, they are on opposite sides of the law, and neither trusts or really likes the other. At the same time, they sometimes find they have common enemies or a common goal. And they have learned to respect each other. At one point, Rebus and Cafferty go for a jog together. It’s an effective way to have a conversation without being overheard. During that run, Cafferty and Rebus share information, and it’s interesting to see how Rankin uses that scene to build tension.

Fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that she is fond of running along the beach near her home in fictional Santa Teresa. She stays in shape that way and it gives her the opportunity to de-stress. Here’s how she puts it in D is For Deadbeat:
 

‘Sometimes I awaken uncomfortably aware of a low-level dread humming in my gut. Running is the only relief I can find short of drink and drugs, which at 6:00 a.m. don’t appeal.’
 

Millhone doesn’t pretend to be a health fanatic. Fans will know, for instance, that she’s certainly not overly concerned about her diet. For her, running helps with stress relief and is a form of self-discipline.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski is also a runner. She likes to keep in shape, and running clears her head. It also gives her the chance to give her dogs exercise. Here’s what Warshawski says about running in Burn Marks:
 

‘I know that, however unappetizing it seems, running is the best antidote for a thick head. Anyway, a big dog like Peppy depends on running for her mental health.’
 

So does Warshawski, although she admits she often doesn’t physically feel like running.

In Karen Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, the small Norwegian village of Granittveien is badly shaken when the body of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland is found by a local tarn. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called to the scene and begin the investigation. On the surface of it, it seems that Annie was well-liked and successful. She was an avid runner, logging in twenty miles a week. Until recently she’d played handball too. She had a boyfriend with whom she had no obvious problems, and wasn’t mixed up in drugs or other dangers. So at first there doesn’t seem a real motive for her murder. But as Sejer and Skarre dig deeper, they discover that more is going on in the village than it seems. As it turns out, Annie wasn’t killed during a run. But her love of running was an important part of her character.

And then there’s Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard. This novel introduces readers to psychologist Alice Quentin. For reasons having to do with her childhood, Quentin tends towards claustrophobia. In fact, she has a special dislike of elevators/lifts. That’s one reason for which she finds a great deal of release in running:
 

‘At seven I changed into my running gear and headed for the best part of the day. Soon I was running down the stairs so fast that it felt like flight…[later] I made my way home at a slow trot, enjoying the rush of endorphins – nature’s reward for nearly killing yourself.’
 

One evening, she’s taking a long run when she discovers a recently-murdered young woman at Crossbones Yard, a former graveyard for prostitutes. It turns out that this murder may be connected to another, earlier series of murders. The only problem with that theory is that the person responsible for those earlier murders is in prison. Is there a ‘copycat’ at work? Or is the criminal somehow engineering more murders? Perhaps there’s even another explanation…

Lots of runners swear by the ‘runner’s high’ that can come from the release of endorphins. And running can be very good for one’s health, not to mention one’s physical condition. Some people even say that going for a run with a friend or partner is a good social activity too. With all of that going for it, it’s little wonder that a lot of crime-fictional characters run. I’ve just given a very few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheila Ferguson and Giorgio Moroder’s The Runner.

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Filed under Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Kate Rhodes, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton

Are the Liberators Here?*

LiberationAs I write this, it’s the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz. Until that time, many people either did not know about, or chose not to know about, what was going on in camps such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. But the films and photographs taken when the camps were liberated made it impossible to ignore the Holocaust.

Millions of people were killed in those camps. But some survived and, after World War II ended, put their lives together as best they could. No-one could get through such an experience unscathed, but there are many people (I’ve met some personally) who did create lives for themselves when it was all over. We’ve heard and read their stories in real life, and they’re written into crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples.

In Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel, Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk and his wife Arlette travel to the small town of Zwinderen to help solve a troubling case. Several people in the town have been getting vicious anonymous letters accusing them of all sorts of immorality. The matter is so serious that two people have committed suicide and one has had a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to make much progress, because the town’s residents are very close-mouthed. So it’s hoped that Van der Valk will be more successful. He and Arlette settle into the town and he begins to ask questions. The evidence seems to point to one person, M. Besançon, as the guilty party. Not much is actually known about Besançon, really. Reports are that he’s a French Jew, a Holocaust survivor, who settled in Zwinderen after the war. He keeps himself to himself, as the saying goes, and even has a high-walled garden to protect his privacy. Although it’s soon shown that he didn’t write the letters, it’s interesting to see how the town regards him.

In this novel, we see that one challenge survivors have faced is trying to make a life among people who don’t really understand their struggles. It’s not so much that others have no sympathy, but in some cases, there are a lot of cultural gaps that need to be bridged. What’s more, for very good reasons, surviving a trauma such as the Holocaust leaves a person with little if any sense of trust. So it’s very hard to become an intrinsic part of a new community.

And some new communities weren’t particularly welcoming to survivors. We see that, for instance, in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. In that novel, which takes place in late-1970’s Buenos Aires, we are introduced to police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. Early one morning, he is called to a riverbank where two bodies have been ‘dumped.’ They bear all the hallmarks of an Army killing, and Lescano knows better than to question them too much. At that time, the Army is in control of the country, and anyone who goes up against them risks everything. But then Lescano finds a third body. This one doesn’t look like a military-style execution, and he begins to ask questions. As it turns out, the victim is Elías Biterman, a Holocaust survivor who made his way to Buenos Aires. He became a successful moneylender and therefore, had contact with a lot of people, including some important people. So there are all sorts of possibilities for suspects. One of the things that is made clear in the novel is the anti-Semitism in Buenos Aires. In fact, more than one person wonders why Lescano would care at all about the death of ‘just another Jew.’

Even when they settled in communities that welcomed them warmly , Holocaust survivors have faced plenty of other challenges. For one thing, the Holocaust experience left permanent mental and emotional scars. We see that for instance in Sara Paretsky’s Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel, who is a close friend of Paretsky’s PI sleuth V.I. Warshawski. As we learn in Total Recall, Herschel’s family escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis, moved to London and then on to Chicago. The scars from that trauma are still there, so when an enigmatic stranger named Paul Rabudka comes to town claiming to be looking for Holocaust survivors, Herschel is emotionally devastated. She has made a good life for herself as a skilled doctor, and doesn’t want to be reminded of that time. So she asks Warshawski to find out whether Rabudka is who he says he is. The trail leads to a case of insurance fraud that Warshawski is already investigating.

Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police shows another sort of Holocaust survival. In that novel, we are introduced to Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, Chief of Police for the small French town of St. Denis. When Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr is murdered and his body found in his shack, the investigation touches everyone, since his son, his grandson and his grandson’s wife have roots in the town. Two of the characters we meet in this novel are Bachelot, the local shoemaker, and Jean-Pierre, who runs the local bicycle shop. As we get to know the town, we learn that these men were involved in the French Resistance, although they were in rival groups and have hated each other because of that ever since. Part of the novel tells their stories and we see how devastating the Nazi occupation of France really was. Neither man escaped unscathed; they have deep scars and long memories. And yet, they’ve gotten on with life.

There are fictional sleuths, too, who survived the Holocaust. For instance there are David Del Bourgo’s Simon Wolfe of the San Francisco Police, and Peter Leonard’s Harry Levin, who runs a Detroit scrap metal business. And fans of Geoffrey McGeachin’s Charlie Berlin will know that he is married to Rebecca Green, whose parents escaped from Stuttgart just in time to avoid being sent to concentration camps. Berlin himself saw more than his share of life in concentration camps, and although he’s not Jewish, you could certainly argue that he’s had to survive the experience.

The Holocaust changed everything on a lot of levels. And on some of those levels, the real work of survival didn’t end when the camps were liberated. This post is dedicated to those who had the courage to start over after the end of the war – and to the memories of those who never got that chance.

ps. For a powerful novel (not crime fiction) that tells the story of the camps and of the work that lay ahead when they were liberated, may I recommend Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Red Sector A. Did you know that Rush’s frontman Geddy Lee is the son of concentration camp survivors?

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Filed under David Del Bourgo, Ernesto Mallo, Geoffrey McGeachin, Martin Walker, Nicolas Freeling, Peter Leonard, Sara Paretsky

When Sleuths Buy Gifts ;-)

When Sleuths Buy GIftsHave you ever taken part in a ‘Secret Santa’ gift exchange? Sometimes it’s called a ‘Kris Kringle,’ and sometimes a ‘Pollyanna.’ There are other names for it too. Whatever you call it, the way it generally works is that a group of people put their names into a hat, a box or some such thing. Each one draws the name of someone else and gets a gift for that person.

It sounds like a wonderful idea, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t always work out as planned. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what happens….
 

When Fictional Sleuths are ‘Secret Santas.’
 

I. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

Hastings: Whose name did you draw, Poirot?
Poirot: I have drawn…(Glances down at the slip of paper) Mlle. Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton).
Hastings: Any idea what you’ll get for her?
Poirot: I think, mon ami, that I will have Georges make an appointment for her at a dressmaker’s shop. Les femmes, they all love beautiful dresses, do they not?
Hastings: Er…well…I suppose so.
 

II. Rebecka Martinsson (Åsa Larsson)

(Having a coffee with Inspector Anna-Maria Mella)
Rebecka: So I got talked into this Secret Santa business.
Anna-Maria: Well, it might be fun. Whose name did you get?
Rebecka: Her name’s Corinna Chapman (Kerry Greenwood).
Anna-Maria: So what will you buy?
Rebecka: At this time of year? A heavy parka. If I rush it, she’ll get it before Christmas too. Hmm…. I don’t know her size. Well, I’ll just get her an average-sized coat – one I might wear. That ought to be safe. Can’t miss!
 

III. John Rebus (Ian Rankin)

Rebus: Shiv, you doing this Secret Santa thing?
Siobhan Clarke: Yeah, sure. You?
Rebus: Don’t have much choice, I don’t think.
Clarke: Who’d you get?
Rebus: His name’s Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter).
Clarke: Ah, fellow copper. What are you getting him?
Rebus: Everyone loves music, right? Think I’ll get him tickets to a Rolling Stones concert.
Clarke: (Looks down at her cup of tea) Maybe you ought to find out what kind of music he likes first?
Rebus: Who doesn’t love the Stones?
 

IV. V.I. ‘Vic’ Warshawski (Sara Paretsky)

(Having a glass of wine with Lotty Herschel)
Vic: So I’ve been thinking about this whole Secret Santa thing.
Lotty: That’s good. It’s coming up soon.
Vic: I know, and I think I have just the thing. I got this guy Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout). He’s never been to Chicago. So I’m going to take him bar-hopping! Really show him a Jack Daniels night. Then we’ll go to the Maxwell Street Market for some kielbasa. Ha! I might even get him a Cubs hat! What do you think?
Lotty: If you really think he’d like it.
Vic: Can’t go wrong!
 

V. Armand Gamache (Louise Penny)

(Having breakfast with his wife Reine-Marie)
Reine-Marie: So, have you decided what to do about this Secret Santa name draw?
Armand: Actually I think I have. I drew Lisbeth Salander’s name (Stieg Larsson). She’s from Stockholm, so I thought it would be nice to give her a real Québec welcome, with Christmas right here in Three Pines.
Reine-Marie: What a lovely idea! I’m sure she’d love a small-town holiday after living in the city. We can ask them to give her a room at the B&B, we’ll make sure she meets everyone, and she can come to Midnight Mass with us.
Armand: Good thinking. No-one does gourmet bistro better than Olivier and Gabri. She’ll love it!
 

VI. Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammett)

Nora: I’ve got it, Nick!
Nick: Got what?
Nora: The perfect idea for the Secret Santa draw, of course.
Nick: Oh, that. Who’d we get anyway?
Nora: His name’s Walt Longmire (Craig Johnson). He’s from Wyoming.
Nick: So what’s your brilliant idea?
Nora: Well, we’re going to be in New York for the next couple of months. Why not get him the best Broadway tickets we can? We’ll put him up at the Plaza for a few days.
Nick: Sounds great! I’ll bet he’s dying to get out of whatever one-horse town he lives in.

Perhaps after all it’d be just as well for these sleuths to stick to solving crime… ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Rankin, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stieg Larsson, Sue Grafton