Category Archives: Tony Hillerman

I’m Just Beginning to Live*

When something tragic or traumatic happens, it can be hard to start over again. There are, of course, people who react to life’s blows by looking for comfort at the bottom of a bottle. But a lot of people find other ways to come back to life, so to speak, when something terrible happens. People’s ways of starting to feel alive again can vary quite a lot, depending on the person.

Those different ways of starting to heal can add an interesting layer of character development in a story. They’re realistic, too. People do try to start over again – and not always in self-destructive ways – when terrible things happen. And they’re a natural fit for a crime novel, since there’s often tragedy in those stories.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle is arrested and tried for the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. And there’s plenty of evidence against her, too. For one thing, Elinor’s former fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, had fallen in love with the victim (hence, the end of the engagement). For another, Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura had become very fond of Mary, and there was a real possibility that Mary might inherit the old woman’s fortune instead of Elinor. But local GP Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her acquitted. He asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. As you can imagine, it’s a horrible and traumatic experience to be tried for murder, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that at the end of it, Elinor needs desperately to start over. So, she decides to spend some time in a sanatorium, where she can have peace and quiet. The implication is, too, that she and Peter Lord will stay connected.

James Lee Burke’s police detective Dave Robicheaux sometimes wants peace and quiet, too, when he needs to heal – which is often. In A Morning For Flamingos, for instance, he and his police partner, Lester Benoit, are transferring two prisoners to Louisiana’s state prison at Angola, where they are slated to be executed. During the trip, the prisoners escape, and one of them kills Benoit and leaves Robicheaux for dead. Not only is Robicheaux badly injured, but he’s grieving the loss of his partner. He needs to heal, so he decides to take some time to go fishing, spend extra time with his daughter, Alafair, and do routine tasks at the police department when he’s physically ready for that.

‘My life became as bland and unremarkable as the season was soft and warm and transitory.’

Connecting with the outdoors, with his daughter, and with an almost humdrum routine helps Robicheaux start to put some pieces together. His healing time doesn’t last, though, as he’s recruited to help bring down a New Orleans crime boss named Tony Cardo.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). Although he negotiates the dominant-culture world when he has to, Chee is, in many ways, traditional. In fact, at the beginning of the series, he is studying to be a yata’ali – a singer/healer. Even later in the series, when that study is less of priority, Chee follows many of the traditional Navajo ways, and that helps him heal when life hurts him. More than once, readers follow as he uses Navajo rituals to regain focus, heal, and reconnect with nature. They help him to feel the peace and harmony with the world’s rhythms that he needs to come back to life.

In a similar way, Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon feels the need to reconnect with nature. In Track of the Cat, the first in the Anna Pigeon series, we learn some of her backstory. She and her beloved husband lived in New York City, where she lived a socialite’s sort of life. Then, her husband was tragically killed. Devastated by her loss, she needed to find something to help her put herself back together. So, she connected with animals and the rest of nature, and became a US Park Ranger. As the series goes on, she starts to come back to life, and develops a real feel for nature’s rhythms. That focus helps her to feel alive again.

And then there’s Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. In it, we are introduced to thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell, who has come to a crossroads in his life. His marriage has ended, and he admits that a lot of the reason for that is his own fault. He’s also lost the use of his legs as the result of a car crash. He needs to start over, so he buys a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. He soon gets drawn into a murder mystery when he learns about the history of his cottage, and how it’s related to a missing child and her father. One of the ways in which he starts to put the pieces together again is through a game called Murderball (wheelchair rugby). Through it, he meets others, gets some exercise, enjoys the competition, and finds a healthy outlet for his bitterness and anger. Playing Murderball doesn’t solve all of his problems. And it doesn’t solve the murder mystery. But it does help him start to heal.

And that’s the thing about gardening, or a sport, or nature, or….  When tragedy strikes, we all need to start over and find something to connect us again. And it’s interesting to see how that process happens in crime fiction.


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Finn Bell, James Lee Burke, Nevada Barr, Tony Hillerman

Many a Thing She Ought to Understand*

Many people begin their careers as trainees. They’re supposed to watch and learn, and they’re supposed to do as they’re asked. Of course, each situation is a little different; but, for instance, student teachers are limited in the amount of autonomy they have for much of their student teaching experience. Medical students are supposed to work only under the close eye of their supervising doctor. There are, of course, lots of other examples.

It’s not easy to be a trainee, if you think about it. You may have brilliant ideas, but you still have to learn how things are done, you still have to work with others, and you still have to be open to doing an awful lot of learning. It can be awkward, uncomfortable, and even disheartening at times, especially when you make a big mistake. But it’s a really important time in professional development. And it’s interesting how often this context shows up in crime fiction.

For instance, Robin Cook’s first major novel, Coma, is the story of a third-year medical student, Susan Wheeler, who is in training at Boson Memorial Hospital. When she discovers some patients went into comas during their surgeries, she begins to ask questions. She soon learns that this was the result of tampering with the patients’ oxygen lines and looks into the matter further. As she does, she finds herself in grave danger, as there are some ugly truths she uncovers. This is a thriller, but it also depicts the lives of medical students and their supervisors. Admittedly, the book was published in 1977, and there have been many changes in medicine in the last 40 years or so. But the essential roles the characters play, and the uncertainties and challenges of being a trainee, haven’t changed that much.

In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, we are introduced to FBI trainee Clarice Starling. The FBI is looking for a serial killer they’ve dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ and they think they have a way to find him. He is a former patient of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a noted, gifted psychiatrist. But Lecter is currently imprisoned in Baltimore’s State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. So, anyone who interacts with him may be at risk. Starling is chosen for the job, which does not exactly thrill some people who think that a trainee is not the right choice for this assignment. Still, she takes up her duties, and goes to visit Lecter. The two begin a dialogue, and Lecter agrees to help the FBI with the search for ‘Buffalo Bill.’ But he imposes a condition. For everything he tells Starling, she will have to share a personal secret. It’s a risky psychological game as the two pursue their agendas, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s still a killer on the loose.

Pablo De Santis’ Enigma of Paris introduces us to Sigmundo Salvatrio, son of a Buenos Aires shoemaker. He wants more than anything to be a detective, so he is thrilled to learn that he’s been accepted at the Academy for Detectives, run by world-famous detective Renato Craig. Craig is the co-founder of an international group of detectives known as The Twelve, and this group is scheduled to make a presentation at the upcoming Paris World’s Fair of 1889. Illness forces Craig to cancel his plans to attend the event, so he sends Salvatrio in his place. Salvatrio meets the other members of The Twelve, including the group’s other founder, Viktor Arkazy. Then, another member, Louis Dargon, is murdered, and Salvatrio works with Arkazy to find the killer. Throughout the novel, we see the roles that Salvatrio and the other detectives’ apprentices play, and how those roles are impacted by their trainee status.

We first meet Tony Hillerman’s Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito in The Fallen Man. In that novel, she is a rookie trainee in the Navajo Tribal Police’s Special Investigations Unit. In one plot thread of this story, the unit is tasked with getting to the truth about a series of cattle thefts. On the one hand, Manuelito knows very well that she is ‘the new kid,’ and has a lot to learn. On other, she learns some important things about the case, and decides to take some initiative. And, in the end, the unit learns who is responsible for the thefts. Manuelito’s need to balance her role as a trainee with her desire to solve the case reflects the dilemmas that many trainees may have. On the one hand, they’re supposed to watch, learn, take advice, and so on. On the other, they also need to learn to take initiative and make choices.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure begins as paramedic Carly Martens and her teammate for the day, Aidan Simpson, are called to the scene of what looks like a domestic dispute between Connor Crawford and his wife, Suzanne. They reassure the paramedics that all is well, although Suzanne has an injury. She insists that it’s minor, and that she’ll be fine, so the paramedics have little choice but to leave. The next day, Suzanne is brutally murdered, and Connor goes missing. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard investigate, and they find what the paramedics have to say is very useful. In one plot thread of this novel, we learn more about Aidan Simpson. He is a trainee, so he’s been assigned to work with different partners on a rotating basis to complete his training. But it’s not working out well. He is smug, arrogant, and unwilling to listen to what anyone says. What’s worse, he is inept. Both Martens and her regular partner, Mick Schultz, have tried to help Simpson fit in and learn his job. But he isn’t willing to try to learn. And that forms a thread in this novel.

And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Lucy Howard is a probationer with the Tasmania Police. She’s smart, and willing to do the work that it takes to learn the job. She’s lucky, too. Her boss is Sergeant John White, who wants her to do well. In fact, one afternoon, the police get called to the scene of a home invasion, and White taps Howard to go with him. For her, the prospect is nerve-wracking, but she is also flattered, and she wants very much to do the job well. Tragically, White is murdered at the crime scene, while he is at the back of the home, and Howard at the front. As the police deal with this death, and with the investigation, Lucy has to face her own feelings of guilt at not being able to save her boss.

It’s never easy to be a trainee. There’s so much to learn, there’s the social fitting-in, and there’s anxiety about doing the job well. That context can be challenging in real life, but it makes for a solid context for a crime novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Maria.


Filed under Katherine Howell, Pablo De Santis, Robin Cook, Thomas Harris, Tony Hillerman, Y.A. Erskine

This Warehouse Frightens Me*

Many companies use warehouses to store things until they are shipped or delivered. And, of course, there’s a big business in residential/individual storage too. That makes sense, as people look for a house, serve in the military, and so on. There’s even a US TV show about goods in storage, where people bid on the contents of different storage sheds.

If you think about it, warehouses and storage places can make for interesting additions to crime novels. They’re convenient for hiding contraband, weapons, bodies, and so on. And they can be awfully creepy, too. So, it makes sense that we’d see them in the genre.

For example, in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask, the Bullfinch pulls in to the London docks from Rouen. When it arrives, the cargo is unloaded into the warehouse. Tom Broughton, who works for the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, is sent to ensure that a valuable consignment of wine has arrived in good order. He checks the casks, and finds that one weighs more than the others, and that gets his attention right away. Soon enough, when he gets a foreman to open the questionable cask, he finds the body of a woman in it. Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard investigates, and he works with his French friend and counterpart, M. Lefarge of the Sûreté, to find out who the woman was and who killed her.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House begins with a fire in a warehouse in London’s Southwark area. Firefighters are called in and manage to control the blaze. In the ruins of the warehouse, they find the body of an unknown woman. The police, in the form of Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, are called in and begin to investigate. With help from his partner, Sergeant Gemma James, Kindcaid and his team discover that there are four missing persons reported whose descriptions match that of the woman in the warehouse. So, Kincaid, James, and the team work to find out if the dead woman is one of those people and, if so, which one. In the meantime, there’s the question of who set the warehouse fire – especially after it’s followed by other fires…

There’s a very eerie scene in a storage bunker in Tony Hillerman’s The Wailing Wind. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito finds the body of a man slumped over in his car. At first it looks a case of a drunk curled up asleep, but soon enough, it’s clear that this man was murdered. Once it’s clear that this is a crime scene, Sergeant Jim Chee takes over the case, and he works with (now retired) Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn to find the truth. It turns out that this is linked to a five-year-old case that Leaphorn wasn’t able to solve – the first time…

Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol features San Diego PI Boone Daniels. He’s approached by Petra Hall, from the law firm Burke, Spitz, and Culliver, to take on a new case. The firm represents Coastal Insurance Company, which is currently facing a lawsuit. Daniel ‘Dan Silver’ Silvieri is suing Coastal for bad faith and damages in the matter of a warehouse he owns. The warehouse burned, and Silvieri applied to the insurance company to cover his losses. But the company suspects this is a case of arson, and won’t pay; hence, the lawsuit. Hall wants Daniels to find a stripper named Tamera Roddick, who was a witness to the fire. Her testimony will be important in this case, and she has gone missing. Daniels doesn’t want to take the case at first, but he is finally persuaded. Not long afterwards, a young woman dies from a fall (or a push) off the balcony of a cheap motel room. She’s got Tamera Roddick’s identification, so at first, Daniels and the police draw the obvious conclusion. But they are soon proved wrong. The dead woman is Tamera’s best friend, another stripper who calls herself Angela Hart. Now, Daniels is drawn into a case of murder, arson, and some very ugly things going on. And the warehouse plays a role in the story.

And then there’s Peter Temple’s Truth. That novel takes place as Melbourne faces a serious threat from bush fires, so everyone’s nerves are stretched. Against this backdrop, Inspector Stephen Villani has some very difficult cases to solve. One of them is the murder of three drug dealers whose mutilated bodies are discovered in an abandoned warehouse. Another is the case of an unidentified woman whose body is found in a posh apartment. As the novel goes on, Villani finds that there are several people, including some in his own department, who do not want the truth about these cases to come out.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of crime stories where storage places and warehouses play roles (right, fans of Ian Rankin’s Doors Open?). And it’s not hard to see why. They’re very seldom carefully watched, they offer space for…whatever, and they can be positively creepy. These are just a few examples, to show you what I mean. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Matthews’ Warehouse.


Filed under Deborah Crombie, Don Winslow, Freeman Wills Crofts, Ian Rankin, Peter Temple, Tony Hillerman

I’m a Wanted Man*

With today’s technology, it’s not easy to ‘disappear,’ especially if the police have an arrest warrant. It might be possible to hide for a short time, especially with some help. And there are, of course, stories of fugitives who’ve escaped detection for years. As a rule, though, it’s hard to run from an arrest warrant for any length of time. And it’s even harder to avoid detection forever.

There are plenty of crime-fictional fugitives, and it’s not hard to see why. That plot point can make for solid tension and suspense in a novel. There’s the unfolding of the fugitive’s past, the tension over whether the fugitive will be caught, and more.

Agatha Christie mentions fugitives of one kind or another in several of her stories. There’s one, in fact, in which the fugitive’s past plays a crucial role in a murder. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, but it brings up an interesting point. Before the days of DNA evidence, the Internet, and other technology, it was harder to track a fugitive. So, some plots that are very successful in classic/Golden Age crime fiction wouldn’t be successful in a contemporary context.

Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway begins as Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo, shoots a man outside a laundromat. He’s wounded himself but drives away without seeking medical help. And we soon learn why: Gorman is a fugitive who’s wanted by the FBI. Sergeant Jim Chee is assigned to work with an FBI agent named Sharkey to go in search of Gorman. They eventually trace the man to the hogan of one of his kinsmen, Ashie Begay. By the time they get to the hogan, though, there’s no sign of Gorman or Begay. Some distance away, though, Chee and Sharkey find Gorman’s body, apparently prepared in the Navajo way for burial. The FBI has found its quarry, but Chee’s now got two mysteries on his hands. Who killed Gorman, and what’s the connection between that murder and the disappearance of Ashie Begay?

Judges know that people who’ve been arrested might very well decide to flee. So, in many cases, they require a bail bond to ensure that the defendant will appear in court. That bail money is often advanced by bail bond agencies. So, the owners and employees of those agencies have a vested interest in making sure that defendants don’t become fugitives. If they do, then those companies send out agents to find and recover those people. And that’s exactly what Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum does for a living. She was originally hired by her cousin to do clerical work. But, as fans know, she’s discovered a talent for finding people who don’t want to be found. It’s sometimes dirty, very dangerous work. But Plum’s good at it, even though her family might have wished a different career for her…

In Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam, we are introduced to Blanche White. She is a professional housekeeper who’s trying to build a client base. As the story opens, she’s in court facing serious trouble because of a bad check that she wrote. Jail isn’t an option for her, because she is taking care of her sister’s two children. So, she tricks the bailiff who’s supposed to be watching her and leaves the courthouse. She’s not stupid; she knows that she is now a fugitive. But she doesn’t see any option. As a way of hiding out for a short time, she takes a temporary job – and soon finds herself drawn into a family mystery and the murder of a local sheriff.

In Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw, we meet Kunihide Kiyomaru. As the story begins, we learn that he was responsible for the rape and murder of a young girl. Since the crime, Kiyomaru has been a fugitive in hiding. But the victim’s wealthy grandfather, Takaoki Ninagawa, devises a way to catch the man. Ninagawa offers a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru and can prove it. He makes the news widely available in newspapers and on social media, and soon, many thousands of people are looking for the fugitive. Kiyomaru, too, knows about this bounty. He knows very well that if he remains in hiding, he will be killed. So, he turns himself in to the police in Fukuoka. From there, he’ll need to be returned to Tokyo to face trial. For that, the Tokyo Municipal Police Department sends Kazuki Mekari and his team to go to Fukuoka, take custody of the prisoner, and return him to Tokyo. That won’t be easy, though, with so many people determined to get that one billion yen.

And then there’s Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. A company called Vestco has produced a new seed covering that it claims will greatly increase food production and reduce worldwide hunger. A Los Angeles-based watchdog agency called the Millbrook Foundation has serious doubts about those claims, and about Vestco. But they haven’t been able to prevent the release. Now, with nine days to go until the seed covering is distributed, it looks as though Millbrook has lost the fight. Then, a Vestco employee is murdered. Three Millbrook employees are framed for the crime, but they’re not even aware of that at first. They’re en route to New Zealand when their names come up as suspects. When they land, they have no idea that they are now international fugitives. Now, they’ll have to try to find the real killer and prevent the release of the seed covering if they can, before they’re captured or killed.

There are any number of reasons a person might choose to become a fugitive. And those reasons can add much to a crime story. Little wonder we see these characters as much as we do in the genre, whether it’s in books, television or film.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Renegade.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Geoffrey Robert, Janet Evanovich, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Tony Hillerman

Your Name’s Not Down, You’re Not Coming In*

You probably see them without even thinking about it. They’re there when you go to clubs, certain places such as museums, tourist attractions, and sometimes government buildings. Yes, I’m talking about security people.

They really do play an important role in our lives, if you think about it. It can be annoying to have your handback searched or have to empty your pockets when you go to a major sporting event. But at the same time, many people argue that security procedures keep everyone safer. If you go to a nightclub, it’s good to know you can shout for security if there’s a problem.

Security people play a part in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. Their role is to prevent trouble if they can and stop it if it starts. So, they develop the ability to ‘read’ people and watch for early ‘warning signs.’ Those ‘warning signs’ and that trouble are often the focus of crime novels, so it’s a fairly logical match. There are lots of examples in the genre; there’s only room in this one post for a few of them.

One of Stuart Kaminsky’s most popular series features Toby Peters. Fans can tell you that Peters started out as a security guard for Warner Brothers Studio (the series takes place in the 1940s). He was fired from the position and has since become a private investigator. Still, the various big studios see him as a ‘known quantity,’ and so do the Hollywood stars with whom Peters interacts as the series goes on. So, they often turn to him when there’s trouble. And Peters knows the town and the studios, so he’s got the background he needs to do the job.

There’s an interesting instance of private security in Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary. Glenn Hadlock has recently been released from prison and is looking for a new start. It’s not easy, though, as plenty of places won’t hire an ex-convict. So, he pays attention when he sees an advertisement for a bodyguard/escort. It seems that wealthy Victor Scofield is looking for personal security for his wife, Eileen. He himself is disabled and can’t leave his home. But he doesn’t want to restrict his wife. So, he’s hit on the idea of hiring someone to provide security and be a chauffeur/escort. Hadlock gets the job, and all starts out well enough. The work isn’t difficult, Eileen Scofield is pleasant company, and the pay and benefits are good. But Hadlock learns soon enough that there’s more going on here than it seems, and he’s in much more danger than he imagined.

In Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, we are introduced to Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai. He works part time as a security officer in a casino on the Ute Reservation. One night, the casino is robbed by a group of far-right militia members who want to use the takings to buy weapons. If you know anything about casinos, then you know that security is a big priority. It’s nearly impossible to take anything, let alone a large haul of money, without ‘inside help.’ And the police think that Bai has provided that help. He says that he’s innocent, though, and his friend, Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito, believes him. So, in one plot thread of this novel, she asks Sergeant Jim Chee to help her find out what really happened at the casino. It turns out that this case has its roots in the past and is connected to an old Ute legend.

Eoin Colfer’s Daniel McEvoy is an Irish ex-pat and former member of the military. Now, he works as a bouncer at Slotz, a rundown, dirty bar/casino in fictional Cloisters, New Jersey. It’s not the sort of place you go for an elegant dinner and some time at the baccarat table. In his line of work, McEvoy runs into all sorts of low-life, sometimes very dangerous people.

In Zoë Sharp’s Killer Instinct, we are introduced to Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. She’s a former member of Her Majesty’s Special Forces, who now lives near Lancaster. One night, her friend Clare persuades her to go to the New Adelphi Club, where there’s to be a karaoke competition. Clare wants to take part but wants some moral support. So, the two women go to the club. When another contestant tries to attack Clare, Fox steps in and the other contestant ends up getting ejected from the club. The owner, Marc Quinn, finds out what Fox has done, and decides to hire her as part of the security team. That doesn’t go down well at first with some of the other security folk, since Fox is a woman. But she proves herself to be more than a match when it comes to preventing trouble in the first place and stopping it when it starts. As she starts to work at the club, Fox soon discovers some ugly things that the club is hiding. She starts asking questions and finds that some people are determined to do whatever it takes to keep her from finding out the truth.

Of course, not all security is physical security. With today’s Internet and other electronic technology, cyber security becomes ever more important. That’s where Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc comes in. She and her business partner, René Friant, own Leduc Detective, a private investigation firm. Leduc’s specialty is computer security, which proves useful in Murder in the Marais. In that novel, an encrypted code that Leduc is hired to decrypt turns out to be connected to two murders.

Security experts can be very useful at the front door, so to speak. And they can make interesting characters, too. Which have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Klaxon’s The Bouncer.


Filed under Cara Black, Eoin Colfer, Robert Colby, Stuart Kaminsky, Tony Hillerman, Zoë Sharp