Category Archives: Susan Wittig Albert

When Are You Free to Take Some Tea With Me?*

An interesting post from Tim at Informal Inquiries has got me thinking about tea. Yes, tea. If you think about it, tea’s played an important role in history and politics for centuries. And that’s to say nothing of its role in economics, sociology, and lots more. Plenty of people swear by tea’s medicinal qualities, too.

With all of this going for it, it’s not surprising at all that crime fiction is steeped with tea and tea shops. And, of course, there are myriad scenes where a character makes tea at home. There are far too many references for me to mention in this one post, but here are a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, we are introduced to Cora Lansquenet. When Cora’s brother, Richard Abernathie, dies, the rest of the Abernethie clan, including Cora, attend his funeral. At the gathering, Cora blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, but privately, several members of the family begin to wonder whether Cora was right. Then Cora herself is murdered the next day. Now, it seems quite clear that Cora must have been right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks for Hercule Poirot’s help in finding out the truth about these two deaths, and Poirot agrees. In the process, he and Mr. Entwhistle get to know the Abernethie family – all of whom were very much in need of the money that their patriarch left. They also meet Cora’s companion, Miss Gilchrest. Here’s what she says about her background:

‘‘When my little teashop failed – such a disaster – it was the war, you know. A delightful place. I called it the Willow Tree and all the china was blue willow pattern – sweetly pretty-  and the cakes really good – I’ve always had a hand with cakes and scones.’’

To Miss Gilchrest’s mind, keeping a teashop is the ‘essence of gentility.’ Certainly, tea shops like the one she had are woven into the culture in a lot of towns and villages – and stories about them.

There’s a very interesting example of a tea ceremony in Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. Tokyo Inspector Imanishi Eitaro is assigned to the team that investigates the death of an unknown man whose body is found under a train. At first, it’s difficult to find out who the victim was, but after some slow, patient work, he is identified as Miki Ken’ichi, the retired owner of a store in Okayama. Since the trail may lead to the man’s home town, Imanishi travels there. One of the people he interviews is Kirihara Kojuro, who knew the victim for years, and who’s been in town for a very long time. Kirihara is a traditionalist, so he formally invites Imanishi into his home, and serves him tea, using the traditional ritual, in a room set aside for the purpose. It’s an interesting look at the Japanese way of drinking tea. And, as it happens, Kirihara has some interesting information and perspective to share.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in late-1990s Shanghai. Our best knowledge is that tea was invented and first drunk in China. So, as you can imagine, the custom of drinking tea is an integral part of life in Shanghai, and there are many tea shops, stands, and so on. There are plenty of scenes, too, that have such places as backgrounds. For instance, in Enigma of China, Chen is looking into the death of Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. He’d recently been arrested in connection with a corruption scandal, and at first, it’s believed he committed suicide rather than face the public shame of a trial. But Chen isn’t so sure that’s what happened, and quietly starts to ask questions. One of his leads is a man named Melong, who runs an online watchdog group. The government monitors such groups very carefully, and Melong wants to keep a low profile. So, rather than come to the police station, he meets Chen in a local tea shop:

‘The waitress came into the room carrying a thick tea menu and long-billed bronze kettle.
Chen ordered ginseng oolong, and Melong chose Pu’er, the Yunan tea.
‘Enjoy your tea,’ the waitress said, bringing out the tea leaves from drawers in the table, putting each into a teapot, then pouring hot water from a kettle into their respective pots. ‘Snacks, which are on the house, are also listed on the menu.’’

Melong is an interesting character, and the scene shows the importance of the local tea shop for finding out information.

Tea also has a very long history in India. We see that, for instance, in Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s The Masala Murder, which takes place in Kolkata/Calcutta. In it, PI Reema Ray investigates the murder of a gourmet food importer named Prakash Agarwal. As it turns out, Ray had interviewed Agarwal as a part of her ‘day job’ working for a lifestyle magazine called Face. So, she remembers him (not very fondly), and his widow. Now, Mrs. Agarwal has asked Ray to find out what happened to him. And it turns out that there are plenty of suspects. Agarwal was not ethical in his marriage, his business, or much of anything else, and he made plenty of enemies. There’s an interesting scene in which Ray recalls her interview with the victim. On the surface, it’s a very pleasant interview, with gourmet tea served, and so on. But it makes her very uneasy, and the fine quality of the tea doesn’t do much to lift the suspense.

Of course, tea isn’t always soothing and ‘civil’ anyway. Just ask Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, who are regular characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. They work in Chapman’s bakery, and live in the same building. Their dream is to become television stars, and whenever there’s a bit part on any show, they audition. So, for Kylie and Gossamer, staying thin is critical. That’s why, in Devil’s Food, they’re so interested when they hear about a new diet tea that’s supposed to help in quick weight loss. Instead of helping them lose weight, though, the tea poisons them. Now, Chapman and her friend, Meroe, have to find out what, exactly, the poison is, so that they can help Kylie and Gossamer.

And, no discussion of tea shops and tea in crime fiction could possibly be complete without a mention of Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. Bayles is the owner of Thyme and Seasons, an herb shop that includes special herbal teas. She is also the joint owner of Thyme for Tea, a teashop that’s built behind her herb shop. Bayles lives and works in the small town of Pecan Springs, Texas, which is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone. Bayles gets involved in more than one mystery because she’s ‘plugged in’ to the local network.

See what I mean? Tea has been an essential part of many cultures for thousands of years. So, it’s no wonder we see so much of it in crime fiction. It’s even featured on several excellent book blogs, such as Bitter Tea and Mystery, and A Hot Cup of Pleasure. Thanks, Tim, for the inspiration. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the kettle’s boiling…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Lovely Rita. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Matsumoto Seichō, Qiu Xiaolong, Susan Wittig Albert

Still These Allergies Remain*

AllergiesAutumn (or spring, depending on which hemisphere you call home) is upon us. And that means one important thing: allergies. If you’re subject to allergy attacks, you know how miserable they can make you. Seasonal allergies can be very annoying, but some allergies are more than that: they’re deadly. Some people have such severe reactions to certain foods, stings, etc. that they are at risk for death from anaphylaxis if they come in contact with that allergen.

For a crime writer, anaphylactic shock can make for a very handy murder weapon. The killer doesn’t need a special skill, a lot of medical knowledge or a great deal of pre-planning.  Anaphylaxis is also a handy ‘cover’ for certain kinds of poisoning. There are plenty of examples of the way allergies are woven into crime fiction; here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane is one of the later Holmes stories, taking place after he’s retired. In this story, he’s on a seaside holiday at Sussex when he runs into a friend Harold Stackhurst, headmaster of an exclusive preparatory school. As they’re chatting, one of Stackhurt’s employees, science master Fitzroy McPherson, staggers towards them, suddenly collapsing. The only thing he’s able to say before he dies is something about a lion’s mane. At first it makes no sense, but it’s soon suspected that McPherson was murdered. And the most likely possible culprit is mathematics master Ian Murdoch. In fact, Stackhurst fires him. But Holmes doesn’t believe that the case against Murdoch is iron-clad. For one thing, Murdoch has a solid alibi. For another, there are puzzling things about McPershon’s death that aren’t consistent with the theory that Murdoch is the killer. In the end, Holmes finds that the real murderer was a Lion’s Mane jellyfish which stung the victim and to which he had a fatal allergic reaction.

More than one of Agatha Christie’s stories feature allergies to wasps, bees and other stinging insects. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a wasp is blamed for the death of Marie Morisot, who is killed on a flight from Paris to London. There is a wasp on the flight; several passengers comment on it and one kills it. There’s a small sting mark on the victim, too. So at first it looks as though she died from a severe allergic reaction to a sting. But soon enough, Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, discovers that the victim was poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp look among them to find out who the killer is. I know, I know, fans of And Then There Were None

Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Liss Macrimmon is a former Scottish dancer who’s had to end her career because of an injury. Now she’s returned to her hometown of Moosetookalook, Maine. In Scone Cold Dead, she learns that her former dance troupe Strathespy is on tour in the area, and arranges for them to perform at the University of Maine’s Fallstown campus. One night, she throws a party for the troupe. One of the guests is company manager Victor Owen. During the event, Owen suddenly dies after eating a scone stuffed with mushrooms, to which he was violently allergic. Macrimmon has a not-very-amicable history with the victim, and she was the one who hosted the party and arranged for the food. So as you can imagine, she falls under immediate suspicion. Determined to clear her name, she works to find out who the real murderer is. And it turns out there’s no shortage of suspects.

Susan Wittig Albert’s Chile Death also features food allergies. In that novel, herb and spice shop owner China Bayles and her police-officer partner Mike McQuaid are invited to the upcoming Cedar Choppers Chili Cook-Off. McQuaid is even persuaded to serve as one of the judges. Bayles thinks this will be a good opportunity for him to ‘rejoin the human race’ as he starts to cope with life after a devastating line-of-duty shooting. On the day of the cook-off, insurance executive Jerry Jeff Cody, who’s serving as another judge, suddenly collapses and dies. It looks at first as though he’s the victim of a sudden heart attack. But before long it’s shown that he died of anaphylactic shock brought on when someone slipped crushed peanut shells into a sample of chili he was tasting. Now Bayles works to find out who knew about Cody’s severe peanut allergy, and who would have wanted to kill him.

I’ve actually used peanut flour as a fiction murder weapon myself. In B-Very Flat, violin virtuosa Serena Brinkman is killed just after having won a major musical competition. It turns out that someone knew about her severe peanut allergy and took advantage of it. Serena’s death is devastating to her partner Patricia Stanley, so Patricia asks her academic advisor Joel Williams to help find out the truth.

Of course, allergies can serve as useful clues, too. Just ask Elizabeth Spann Craig’s sleuth, retired teacher Myrtle Clover. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she discovers the body of beautiful but malicious Parke Stoddard in a local church. She wants to prove, mostly to her police-chief son Red, that she’s not ready yet to be ‘put out to pasture.’ So she decides to find out who killed the victim. And in this case, an allergy gives her important information.

Whether mild or severe, allergies are a part of life for millions of people. And they’re also a very useful tool for crime writers. These are a few examples. Over to you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Allergies.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kaitlyn Dunnett, Susan Wittig Albert

You Picked a Real Bad Time*

Bad TimingReading and reading experiences are often very subjective. Of course, no matter who’s doing the reading, ‘flat’ characters, stilted dialogue and cumbersome detail are signs that a book isn’t well-written. But the fact is, our impressions of a book are also affected by things such as personal taste and preference. What we think of a book is also arguably affected by when we read that book. Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean about the way timing can impact our impression of a book.

A lot of people prefer lighter reading during holidays. Somehow, lighter, cosy mysteries such as Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series or comic caper novels such as Carl Hiaasen’s just seem to ‘fit’ when you’re beach reading or curled up by the fire. There are many, many examples of this kind of lighter reading, and of course, personal taste is going to figure into which novels one chooses. But there’s something about holidays and vacations that seems to invite one to read a lighter novel.

What’s interesting is what happens when you pick up that kind of novel at another time, say, when you’ve just been reading about an important social issue and you want to mull it over. Suddenly, the Bev Robitai or Simon Brett theatre-based novel that seemed so absolutely perfect…doesn’t seem that way anymore. Nothing at all has happened to the quality of those novels (I recommend both authors, by the way). They’re still interesting stories with appealing characters. What’s happened is that the timing isn’t right for them.

The same kind of thing happens with novels such as Unity Dow’s The Screaming of the Innocent or Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Those are both difficult novels to read in that they deal with important but harrowing social issues. And there are times when one’s open to those more challenging stories. You might just have read an article about a certain topic, or you might have just come back from a holiday and be ready for a challenge. At those times, books like these can feel like the perfect choice. You can appreciate the message and you’re willing to invest yourself in the harder parts of the story.

But suppose you decide to try something such as Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second when you’re off on a fun trip. The same book that you might have thought of as difficult, even harrowing, but exceptionally well-written and worth reading, now becomes far too difficult to read. Now this kind of book is unutterably depressing and hard to finish. The fact is (and you already know this of course) nothing’s happened to the book’s quality at all. It’s still an excellent story with a lot of ‘food for thought’ and some compelling characters. The timing’s just wrong for the book.

Did you ever notice that when you’re planning to travel somewhere, you get quite interested in reading books that take place in your destination? I know that’s happened to me. So if you’re planning a trip to Spain you might be especially interested in Teresa Solana’s, Antonio Hill’s or Domingo Villar’s work. I’ve only mentioned a very few examples of Spanish crime fiction but you get my point. As you read those books you try to get every nuance of culture and geography you can, since you’re attuned to it.

But what if you choose a book like Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X when you’re having ‘one of those weeks’ and you’ve only got small amounts of reading time? Then, the very nuances of culture and geography that you love at other times can seem burdensome, or you might not pay attention to them and really appreciate them. That feeling might not have much to do with the quality of a given book. Rather, it’s the timing of your reading.

There are times when the action and suspense of thrillers such as Lindy Cameron’s Redback are exactly right. Thrillers like that can be the perfect accompaniment to a quiet evening when it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be up against international terrorists. But maybe it isn’t the best choice if you’re not feeling well and not ready to deal with edge-of-the-seat ‘roller coaster rides.’

A ‘quieter’ sort of mystery such as you find in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series might be really appealing for those times when you have a few days to follow along and appreciate the subtler approach and more slowly-evolving story line. At those times, you can see the real appeal of character development and nuance. But pick that sort of book up when you’re waiting in an office or when you’re anxiously awaiting word on whether you got that job, and you could easily find such a novel too slow. Those details of character development that so draw you in at other times now just seem irritating. The series hasn’t changed (by the way, I recommend Brunanski’s series – I really like Bart’s character a lot). The fact is, it’s the kind of series that’s best enjoyed when you’ve got the time to ‘slow the pace down’ a bit.

And I think we’d all agree that mood plays a role too in what we think of a book. Grumpy or feeling crotchety? Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice might be the perfect fit. Need a good, irreverent laugh? Christopher Brookmyre has done some very funny novels. You get the idea.

So as we all start to plan what we’re going to read in 2014, do you think about this timing issue? Do you plan your reading so that you’ll take the lighter stuff with you on holiday for instance? Or do you adapt yourself to the book you’re reading?  What about when you start a book and then realise it’s the wrong time for that novel? Do you give up or pick it up at another time?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.


Filed under Antonio Hill, Bev Robitai, Carl Hiaasen, Cath Staincliffe, Christopher Brookmyre, Domingo Villar, Keigo Hagishino, Kishwar Desai, Lindy Cameron, Nelson Brunanski, Simon Brett, Susan Wittig Albert, Teresa Solana, Unity Dow, Virginia Duigan

Now Everything is Oh, so Cozy*

CosiesMystery novelist and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Knot What it Seams   was released in February. That’s the second in her series featuring retired art gallery professional Beatrice Coleman. And Rubbed Out, the fourth in Craig’s Memphis Barbecue series (which she writes as Riley Adams) is due to be released in less than a month. I’m very happy for her success, as I think she’s very talented. It’s also got me thinking about the appeal of cosy mysteries. They’ve been a part of the crime fiction scene for a long time, and they are consistently popular with a lot of readers. Of course, everyone likes one or another kind of novel for different reasons. But here are a few of my ideas as to why cosies are as popular as they are.

Many of them feature amateur sleuths and readers who like to identify with the protagonist find amateur sleuths especially appealing. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a normal, if I can put it that way, person. She’s not a cop and frankly, she’s not even eager to investigate mysteries. She’s a baker and that’s her real professional passion. She’s also not fashion-magazine beautiful. She’s one of ‘the rest of us,’ and that makes her accessible. Of course, the series features interesting characters and solid plots too, as well as a really effective Melbourne setting. But all that aside, Chapman is a ‘regular’ person. Now, not everyone might call this a cosy series because it does get a little edgy at times, but it ‘counts’ for me. Your mileage as the saying goes may vary.

Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson is also an amateur – a ‘regular’ person. When we first meet Jacobson in Retirement Homes are Murder, he’s moved to a retirement home after the death of his wife Rhonda. One day he finds the body of fellow resident Marshall Tiegan stuffed into a trash chute. When the police are alerted Detective Saito takes the case and begins to investigate. Jacobson is immediately suspected for a few reasons. First, Marshall Tiegan did not exactly top most people’s popularity lists and Jacobson had good cause to dislike him. What’s more, Jacobson has severe short-term memory loss. He can’t recall on any given day what happened the day before. So he can’t explain how he came to find the body or what happened just before the murder, and he can’t provide an alibi. Jacobson knows he’s not a killer though, so he decides to investigate the murder himself in order to clear his name.

One of the most appealing things about cosies for a lot of readers is that they tend to be low on violence and even lower on gore. Of course, murder is a violent, horrible thing and a well-written cosy acknowledges that. But the violence is generally kept ‘off stage.’ That’s what we see for instance in Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. Bayles is a former attorney who now owns an herb and tea shop called Thyme and Seasons in Pecan Springs, Texas. In Chile Death, Bayles’ policeman partner Mike McQuaid is recovering from a serious line-of-fire injury that has left him in a wheelchair, probably permanently. When he’s invited to serve as one of the judges for the upcoming Cedar Choppers Chili Cook-Off, Bayles thinks this is the perfect way to help McQuaid take his mind off his troubles. He’s unwilling at first, but finally agrees. On the day of the cook-off, one of the other judges Jerry Jeff Cody suddenly dies. It turns out that he was severely allergic to peanuts, and someone put peanuts in the chili he was asked to sample. Since she and McQuaid were both on the scene, Bayles gets involved in the investigation. There are several suspects too since Cody was not only an unfaithful husband but also a shady businessperson. In the meantime, Bayles and McQuaid also look into some disturbing allegations of some things happening at the nursing home where McQuaid is recuperating. There are stories that the director may be skimming money from the patients and has been abusive with at least one resident. These stories tie in with the murder and bit by bit, Bayles discovers the connections. There is violence in the story in the sense that someone is killed. But there is no gore and the violence that there is, is ‘off-stage.’

That’s also the case with Alan Bradley’s historical (1950s) Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is a preteen chemistry whiz who lives in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie we learn that she and her two sisters are being raised by their father Colonel de Luce in the family home Buckshaw. One morning, Flavia finds a dead body in the family’s cucumber patch. It turns out that this man is the same man she saw having an argument with her father the night before and sure enough, Colonel de Luce is soon arrested for the crime. Flavia knows that her father isn’t a murderer so she decides to find out who the dead man was and who really killed him. Flavia discovers that although the dead man and her father did have a tragic past connection, there are several other people who were just as eager to see the victim killed. In this novel, we don’t see the murder as it actually occurs, and the description of the body is kept brief. And yet, there is no doubt of what happened and Bradley gives a very authentic picture of how frightening it must be to have a family member accused of murder.

Many cosy series also feature a cast of ‘regulars,’ some of whom may be eccentric, but they’re all appealing. For lots of fans of cosies, that’s a big part of their appeal. Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma. Precious Ramotswe is like that. Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s only lady detective, is the main protagonist. But there are several other characters too, to whom fans of the series have become deeply attached. For instance, Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. He doesn’t really solve cases with his wife, although she does sometimes seek his input. But his character is much-loved, and even his not-exactly-hard-working apprentices are popular ‘regulars.’ So of course is Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective with quite a lot of skill in her own right. Fans have followed the development of her character as she has evolved through the series. Also popular is Mma. Sylvia Potokwane who runs the local orphanage. There are other ‘regular’ characters too, and those who love this series are as attached to them as to anything else.

We also see that with Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series. The main protagonist is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, who lives in the small town of Pickax, in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ But there are several other ‘regulars’ who have become popular with fans. There’s Polly Duncan, head librarian and later bookshop owner, who is also the main woman in Qwill’s life. Then there’s Arch Riker, Qwill’s close friend and editor, and Arch’s wife Mildred. There’s also local police chief Andrew Brodie and luncheonette owner Lois Inchpot. As the series progresses, we see how the various ‘regulars’ interact with each other and with Quill, and fans have enjoyed the story arcs that feature them.

Well-written cosies of course also have believable mysteries and a solid setting too, just as any good crime fiction novel does. But for many people, the accessible protagonist, the low level of violence and brutality and the ‘regular’ characters of most cosies makes them especially appealing.

What about you? If you’re a fan of cosies, what is about them that appeals to you? If you write cosies, why did you choose that sub-genre?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Clarence Paul, Barney Ales, Dave Hamilton and Mickey Stevenson’s Once Upon a Time, made famous by Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells.




Filed under Alan Bradley, Alexander McCall Smith, Kerry Greenwood, Lilian Jackson Braun, Mike Befeler, Susan Wittig Albert

I Trusted You Till I Learned the Score*

AbuseofTrustOne of the worst kinds of crimes, at least in terms of the scars it leaves, is the sort of crime where those in positions of a lot of trust abuse that trust and take advantage of those who are vulnerable. We see lurid stories of that sort of thing in the newspaper, on television and the Internet when, for instance, a teacher or parent abuses children, or a shady ‘charity’ bilks honest donors and worse, those for whom those donations were intended. Abuse of trust is also a major theme in crime fiction and that makes sense. First, it happens in real life so it’s realistic to have it play a role in a novel. Second, abuses of trust are fairly often crimes, and even when they stay just this side of illegal, they can lead to a strong motive for murder.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, what starts out as a normal summer term at exclusive Meadowbank School turns disastrous when games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And then there’s another murder. While Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode works hard to reassure parents that their daughters are safe, many of them feel that their trust in the school has been violated and they pull their daughters out. In the meantime, one of the pupils Julia Upjohn visits Hercule Poirot, who is an acquaintance of a friend of Julia’s mother. She tells him of the events at Meadowbank and he agrees to look into the matter. In the end, the murders and the kidnapping are all related to a revolution in a Middle East country and a cache of valuable gems. And many of the events in the story happen because Miss Bulstrode has put too much trust in someone – and made her school vulnerable.

There’s a chilling example of abuse of trust in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. When George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper, it’s obvious that they trust her with their home and possessions. And although the new housekeeper is a little eccentric, all seems to go smoothly enough at first. She certainly does her job well enough. But as we soon learn, Parchman is keeping a secret from her employers and she’s desperate to prevent them from learning it. And although she’s afraid of them on that score, she also has her share of contempt for them. When George’s daughter Melinda accidentally discovers what the housekeeper’s secret is, the result is tragic. What makes it all the more tragic is that much of what happens could have been prevented if the Coverdales hadn’t trusted the wrong person.

Susan Wittig Albert’s Chile Death also has as one of its themes the abuse of trust. Former attorney China Bayles now owns and runs an herb and spice shop called Thyme and Seasons. Her partner police officer Mike McQuaid is in a nursing home recovering from a line-of-fire shooting incident that has left him paralysed. So now he’ll have to re-think his life and his identity. Then, there are allegations of abuse at the nursing home where McQuaid is staying. There are even reports that the manager may be skimming money from the residents. Then a nursing-home employee is fired for stealing, but claims that she was framed. In the meantime, McQuaid is dealing with the major changes in his life and so is Bayles. To take him out of himself so to speak, McQuaid’s persuaded to serve as a judge for an upcoming chili cook-off. He’s reluctant to appear in public but he finally agrees. On the day of the cook-off, fellow judge Jerry Jeff Cody, an insurance executive, is poisoned. Bayles looks into the murder and discovers how it’s related to the abuses and fraud at the nursing home.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), Stockholm tax attorney Rebecca Martinsson returns to her home town of Kiruna when her former friend Sanna Strångard is accused of murder. Sanna found the body of her brother Viktor in a local church and alerted the authorities. That’s stressful enough for her but then it’s discovered that Sanna may have had a motive for killing her brother. She tells Martinsson that she’s innocent and asks Martinsson to defend her. Martinsson has her reasons for being reluctant but she agrees to take the case and begins to investigate. As she looks into the lives of the people in Viktor Strångard’s life, especially those involved in the church where his body was found, she finds quite a lot of abuse of the trust people often put in church leaders. And that strikes an all-too-familiar chord with Martinsson, whose reason for leaving Kiruna in the first place had to do with a breach of that trust.

Abuse of trust and taking advantage of those who are vulnerable plays a major role in Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness. Lisa Trammel’s mortgage is being held by WestLand Financial, part of WestLand National, an L.A.-based bank. When her husband Jeff leaves her, she’s no longer able to make payments on her home. The bank threatens foreclosure and she visits attorney Mickey Haller to get some help with her situation. Haller looks into the matter and finds some evidence that the bank may be engaging in fraudulent mortgage re-assignment, and he’s trying to use that abuse as the basis to re-negotiate his client’s loan and find a way to help her. Trammel has her own mental issues so instead of taking responsibility for her part in the foreclosure (she didn’t pay the mortgage or contact the bank to try to make some arrangement), she blames the bank entirely. In fact, she sets up a citizens’ action group and even pickets the bank, claiming its foreclosure policies are predatory and illegal. Then Mitchell Bondurant, the mortgage officer who was handling the Trammel account, is murdered in the bank’s parking lot. Trammel is accused of the murder and certainly she had motive. But as Haller looks into the case he finds that she wasn’t the only one. So now he has to look into the bank’s practices, Trammel’s claims of innocence and the personal relationships that Bondurant had at the bank to find out who is responsible for the murder.

Angela Savage’s PI sleuth Jayne Keeney looks into a case of abuse of trust in The Half Child. Frank Delbeck has hired Keeney to look into the death of his daughter Maryanne, who fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from the roof of the hotel where she was living. The official police report classified the death as a suicide but Delbeck doesn’t think his daughter killed herself. So Keeney travels to the town of Pattaya, where Maryanne Delbeck was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre. New Life is an orphanage that also has a facility for what are called ‘boarders.’ Those are children whose mothers or fathers have not yet given them up for adoption but are unable to care for them. The idea is that the children will stay there until their parents either relinquish them or get into circumstances where they can take care of them. As Keeney begins to investigate Maryanne’s death, she discovers some evidence that there may be some serious abuses of trust going on at New Life. There are hints that parents may be being illegally coerced into releasing their ‘boarder’ children for adoption. There is even the possibility that some of the ‘boarders’ are being stolen from their parents and given to unwitting adoptive families. Did Maryanne know or suspect what was going on? If so is that why she was killed? Or did Maryanne’s personal life (which also contained secrets) have something to do with her death? As Keeney sorts out this case, we see through the eyes of some of the mothers of the ‘boarders,’ as well as through the eyes of adoptive parents, what happens when the trust we put in official institutions is abused.

Abuses of trust are perhaps all the more serious because those who are victims are often vulnerable at the start. That’s in part why they make us so angry when they happen in real life. That’s also why they can resonate so much in crime fiction.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lefty Frizzell’s I Don’t Trust You Anymore.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Åsa Larsson, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Susan Wittig Albert