Category Archives: Tony Hillerman

We Fear What We Just Don’t Know*

As this is posted, it’s 53 years since the opening of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. As you’ll know, it’s a fictional re-telling of the Salem witch trials of the 17th Century. Miller used the play to speak out about the anti-communist paranoia – the McCarthyism – of the early 1950s. In the play, we see how fear and lack of understanding can end up in tragedy, and we’ve certainly seen it in real life, too.

That plot point can also add to a crime novel, too. For one thing, it seems to be a human characteristic. For another, it adds suspense and sometimes character layers.

For example, in Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is faced with three murders. All of the victims were somehow associated with the Badwater Clinic, run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse.  The clinic makes use of both western medicine and Navajo spiritual and healing traditions, and there are people from both schools of thought who don’t like what’s happening there. So, there is more than one possible murderer. Then, a would-be assassin targets Sergeant Jim Chee. Now, he’s drawn into the investigation. It turns out that Navajo beliefs in skinwalkers – witches who can take other shapes – plays an important role in the novel. So does the fear of falling under the influence of a skinwalker.

Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk is the story of Boston-area neuroscientist Dr. Edward Armstrong, who is doing work on possible medical treatments for depression. He’s been hired by a new company to create a psychotropic therapy, and he’s excited at the idea of making headway on his research. He and his team are under a great deal of pressure to come up with something quickly, since the pharmaceutical company won’t make a profit if he doesn’t deliver. Then, Armstrong gets what he believes is a breakthrough. He’s been dating a nurse, Elizabeth Stewart, who is renovating a home that’s been in her family for hundreds of years. In fact, one of her ancestors who lived there was executed on suspicion of witchcraft. It turns out that the hallucinations and other symptoms used as evidence were actually caused by ergot growing below the basement. Armstrong is fascinated by the idea of using ergot’s psychotropic effects in his research, and he and his team get to work. It ends up, though, that there are tragic consequences that no-one had considered.

M.C. Beaton’s Death of an Outsider begins as Constable Hamish Macbeth takes some time away from his usual post at Lochdubh to fill in for a colleague in the village of Cnothan. Macbeth is not exactly given a warm, cheerful welcome, and the feeling is mutual. Still, he tries to do the best he can to carry out his duties. One of the villagers, William Mainwaring, is possibly even more disliked than Macbeth is. He and his wife, Agatha, are English ‘incomers’ who’ve taken up crofting. But it’s suspected that Mainwaring is involved in some dubious activities. What’s more, he’s contemptuous of the locals, and Agatha isn’t much better. Then, Agatha complains to Macbeth that she’s being pursued by a group of witches. Macbeth isn’t superstitious, and he’s no fan of the Mainwarings, but he has to investigate a citizen complaint. And it is true that some strange things are going on. Matters come to a head when Mainwaring is murdered. Now, Macbeth has to work with the wary locals to try to find out who killed the victim.

Alexander McCall Smith introduces his protagonist, Mma Precious Ramotswe, in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe has recently opened her detective agency, and it’s not long before she begins to get clients. One of them is a schoolteacher named Ernest Pakotati, whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. He is desperate to find the boy and wants her to help. Mma Ramotswe is particularly upset about this case, as you can imagine, and starts working on the case immediately. Before long, she learns that the boy’s disappearance could be related to local witchcraft, and that adds a lot of complication. On the one hand, Mma Ramotswe doesn’t believe in traditional witchcraft, and it’s not politically expedient in modern Botswana to express those beliefs. On the other hand, plenty of people do believe in witchcraft. There’s an underlying respect for, if not fear of, witch doctors and others who deal in the occult. So, it’s not easy to find out the truth.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Miriam Kaplan, who goes by the name Meroe. She is a Wiccan who lives and has her shop, The Sibyl’s Cave, in a Melbourne building called Insula. Meroe is skilled in herbalism and other sorts of healing, and she follows many of the Wiccan traditions. She is friends with Greenwood’s sleuth, Corinna Chapman, who lives and works in the same building. Chapman doesn’t always understand Meroe’s beliefs and skills, but she’s not afraid of her, either. And it’s interesting to see how Meroe is portrayed in this series.

People often seem to fear the unfamiliar. There are myriad examples from real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too. That fear can lead to suspicion and worse, sometimes with tragic consequences. These are just a few examples from crime fiction. I know you’ll think of others.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Hornsby’s Sneaking Up on Boo Radley.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Miller, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Robin Cook, Tony Hillerman

He Talked of Life*

Crime writers use all sorts of strategies for giving background information and clues. One of them is to use a character who tells a story. I’m not talking here of legends and myths; rather, I mean personal stories, or at least, stories of actual events. Those characters can sometimes be easily dismissed (e.g. ‘Oh, that guy? He’s always rambling about something.’). But, as any crime fiction fan knows, any story can be important…

Agatha Christie used this strategy in several of her stories. For instance, in A Caribbean Mystery, Miss Marple is staying at the Golden Palm Hotel on the Caribbean Island of St. Honoré. Courtesy of her nephew, she’s taking some time to rest and heal from a bout of illness. One day, she happens to get into a conversation with another guest, Major Palgrave. In the course of the conversation, he starts to tell her a story about a man who got away with murder more than once, and even offers to show her a picture. Then, unexpectedly, he changes the subject. There are several people around, so it’s hard to tell whose presence caused the abrupt shift. The next day, a maid finds Major Palgrave dead in his room. Then, there’s another murder. And an attempted murder. It turns out that the rather rambling story Major Palgrave was telling plays a major role in working out who the killer is and what the motive is. I see you, fans of Taken at the Flood.

In one plot thread of Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, we learn of an old Ute Nation story about a man named Ironhand. According to the stories, he was almost magically able to steal Navajo sheep and escape again without being caught. On the surface of it, that seems a bit like a set of rambling myths. But, in fact, there’s truth to the story. And, when Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police hears this story from an old Ute woman, he pays attention to it. It turns out that Ironhand’s exploits are very helpful in solving the mystery of a casino robbery and an unsolved murder.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, we are introduced to Stephanie Anderson, who is just beginning her career as a psychiatrist. One day, she gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. At first, Elisabeth is not open at all to the therapy process, and it’s very difficult for Stephanie to interact with her. Finally, though, Elisabeth begins to trust Stephanie. Little by little, she tells her a haunting story. Several years earlier, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Gracie, was abducted, and never found. Not even a body was recovered. Needless to say, the tragedy devastated the family and wreaked havoc on Elizabeth’s mental health. That story resonates deeply with Stephanie, who lost her own younger sister, Gemma, seventeen years earlier. In fact, the circumstances of Gemma’s disappearance are eerily similar to the story Elisabeth tells. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own personal ghosts to rest and find the person responsible for these abductions. So, she travels from Dunedin, where she lives and works, to her home town of Wanaka. In doing so, she finds the answers she’s been seeking.

Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road is the story of the murder of Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins, a former geologist who’s been studying the area around Green Swamp Well, Northern Territory. He’s been working on some research that he thinks is significant, but even his brother hasn’t paid a lot of attention to what he says. Then, Doc is murdered. At first, it looks as though it’s the tragic end to a drunken quarrel at a nearby pub. But Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest sees some evidence that suggests otherwise. As she investigates this death, she finds that the things Doc had to say are key to understanding why and by whom he was killed.

Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret features her sleuth, sessional lecturer Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig. Years earlier, she did her master’s degree thesis on an enigmatic novelist named Margaret Ahlers. That’s how she knows that Ahlers is gone. But then, a friend tells her that a new Ahlers novel, called Seven Bird Saga, is about to be published. And Craig has the strong feeling that this isn’t a case of a manuscript stuck behind a filing cabinet or left in an attic. So, who has written the book? The closer Randy gets to the truth about that question, the more danger there is for her. Then, disaster strikes, and there’s a murder at what’s supposed to be a celebratory Homecoming weekend. Folded within this novel is the story of how Randy came to study Margaret Ahlers’ work, what happened when she did, and her search for the reclusive author. As it turns out, a key to both the current-day mystery and the original one is found in the Ahlers stories themselves.

And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. An unnamed art restorer is visiting a monastery in Switzerland, with an eye to repairing some of the frescoes in the chapel. There, he meets an old man who promises to tell him a story – ‘a good one’ – if he records it. This the art restorer agrees to do. He buys some cassettes (this part of the novel takes places in the 1970s), and the old man begins the story. It concerns the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy to the United States early in the 20th Century. The family prospered until patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ killed another man in a bar fight. The dead man turned out to be the son of a notorious gangster, who then cursed the three Franco sons. The old man goes on to tell what happened to the sons, and how the curse impacted the Francos’ lives. On the surface, it sounds like an old man’s ramblings.  But it turns out to be a very important story.

There are a number of ways in which an author can use those seemingly meaningless, even rambling stories. When they’re done well, they can add interest to a novel. They can also serve as clues and can provide important information.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles.


Filed under Adrian McKinty, Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Janice MacDonald, Paddy Richardson, Tony Hillerman

The Stage is Set*

In Janice MacDonald’s The Eye of the Beholder (the 7th in her Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig series), Randy and her police-officer partner, Steve Browning, marry. It’s winter, so Randy and Steve are among large numbers of Western Canadians (they are based in Edmonton) who take off for warmer climates. Their honeymoon destination, Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, is beautiful, but the newly-married bliss is soon interrupted. The body of University of Alberta student Kristen Perry has been discovered on the beach. At first, it looks as though she was simply suntanning. But it turns out that her body was deliberately posed. Since the victim was Canadian, Steve is asked to help with the investigation. Kristen didn’t really have any local connections, so he concentrates on her life in Alberta. She was studying art, so Randy uses her connections to the university’s Art Department (she is a sessional lecturer at the university) to get to know more about Kristen. In the end, we learn what the connection is between Kristen’s art background, and the way the body was posed.

In that novel, the pose of the body and the things around it are a clear clue and message. We see that in other crime fiction, too. In several novels and stories, murder scenes are contrived, or at least posed. Sometimes it’s to send a message. Other times it’s to misdirect. Either way, the position of a body can tell a lot about a crime.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Harley Street Specialist Dr. John Christow is shot one Sunday during a visit to Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage nearby and is invited for lunch. When he arrives, he sees what looks like a macabre tableau arranged for his ‘amusement.’ There’s Christow’s body, there’s the murderer holding the weapon, and it all looks, in a way, artificial. But it turns out that this murder is all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why. Along the way, we find out why the murder scene was arranged as it was.

One of the plot threads in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential involves the murder of Sid Hudgens, chief writer for Hush Hush magazine. He’s had a secret deal with LAPD officer Jack Vincennes; he gets ‘inside dirt’ from Vincennes in exchange for a ‘consideration.’ So, when he is killed, Vincennes has a personal interest in finding the killer. Hudgens’ body, and markings on it, are posed in a way that resembles a cache of pornography that the police have discovered. That connection proves to be crucial in solving the murders of six patrons at the Nite Owl, an all-night diner.

In one plot thread of Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman travels to the Big Reservation. He’s later found dead not far from the property of a kinsman named Ashie Begay, and Jim Chee, of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police) investigates. Gorman’s body has been prepared for burial in the traditional Navajo way, but Chee notices that it hasn’t been done correctly. To him, that means that Begay, who is an observant, traditional Navajo, probably wasn’t responsible. Chee slowly finds out more about Gorman, and learns what the connection is between him and a Los Angeles auto-theft ring. And in the end, he links that death to the disappearance of another of Gorman’s kin.

In P.D. Martin’s Fan Mail, best-selling novelist Loretta Black pays a visit to the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit to do background research. There, she meets FBI profiler Sophie Anderson. Soon afterwards, Anderson takes a field position in Los Angeles. That’s where she learns that Loretta Black has been murdered in an eerie imitation of the murder in her latest novel. Then, another novelist is killed, also in an imitation of a murder in that writer’s work. And another disappears. Now, Anderson has to work with the LAPD to find out who has targeted these novelists and why.

And then there’s Anna Jaquieri’s The Lying Down Room. In it, Commandant Serge Morel of the Paris Police is called to the scene of a murder. The body of Isabelle Dufour has been discovered in her bed. Post-mortem findings reveal that she was drowned before she died, and placed in her bed, with extra makeup and a red wig. Then, another woman, Elisabeth Guillou,is also found dead, posed in the same way as the first victim. The two women didn’t know each other, didn’t live near each other, and had little in common other than their gender. So, it’s hard for Morel and his time to link the deaths. But he is convinced that they are connected. Once he learns what the connection is, he is able to begin the process of finding the killer and the motive.

There are a number of reasons why a body might be posed or dressed in a certain way. It might be a message, or it might be done to misdirect. Or, it might have to do with the motive. Whatever the reason, it can add to the tension and the mystery in a novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Albert “Al” Hamilton, Eugene Hamilton (under the pseudonym of Ronnie Savoy), and Ed Wingate’s The Whole World is a Stage. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anna Jaquiery, James Ellroy, Janice MacDonald, P.D. Martin, Tony Hillerman

Who Tells Your Story?*

As this is posted, it’s 61 years since mobster Albert Anastasia was murdered in a barber’s chair in New York. This particular murder caught the interest of Mayra Montero, whose novel Dancing to ‘Almendra’ takes a look at that murder, putting it into the perspective of Mafia activity in New York and Havana at the time. In that novel, journalist Joaquín Porrata hears of this murder, and believes it’s because Anastasia got too interested in other Mob bosses’ interests in Havana. But Porrata’s editor points him to another story instead. When that story proves to be related to the Anastasia killing, Porrata is more determined to find out more about Anastasia. It takes a change of employer, but Porrata finally gets the chance to look more deeply into the murder. When he does, he quickly finds that some powerful people want to shut him up.

Montero is by no means the only author to have been inspired by a murder or other news event that perhaps didn’t get worldwide press at the time, but is nonetheless of interest. And sometimes, those stories can make for an engaging novel. It takes skill, because such stories do need to be credible. But when it’s done well, it can make for an absorbing read.

James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential begins with a real-life incident. On Christmas Day, 1951, a day later called ‘Bloody Christmas,’ seven civilians were brutally attacked by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. It took a groundswell of protests and demands for action before the department investigated what happened. Discipline and indictments followed, but not until the department was basically forced into action by the public outcry. Ellroy explores this incident through the eyes of three very different police officers who play different roles in it. Then, he follows those officers’ careers, and shows what happens to them two years later, when there’s a late-night shooting at a diner. The novel follows the investigation of the shooting, and also shows the fallout from Bloody Christmas.

In 1998, Colorado police detective Dale Claxton was murdered by a group of right-wing militia activists. There was a massive hunt for the fugitives, and several law enforcement groups, including the FBI, were involved. But those responsible for Claxton’s murder were never apprehended. Many people believe that’s because of FBI bungling, although that’s never been proved. This real-life murder is part of the inspiration for Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn investigate a theft from a Native American casino. A group of right-wing militia activists have stolen the money to buy arms, and of course, the FBI and local police want to find them. At first, a part-time casino security officer, Teddy Bai, is believed to have been the ‘inside person’ in the job, but he claims innocence. It turns out that this robbery is connected to an old Ute legend, and to murder.

Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross has as its inspiration the real-life 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute. At the time, Peter Kürten was arrested, tried and convicted of the crime. He even confessed to it. But, although he was guilty of other murders (he was dubbed ‘The Düsseldorf Vampire), he later recanted his confession. And there was no direct evidence linking him to Emma Gross’ killing. Kürten was executed in 1931, and Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. Seaman explores this case through the eyes of his sleuth, Düsseldorf Detective Inspector (DI) Thomas Klein. In the novel, Klein thinks he has finally found evidence that links Kürten to several murders. But there is one murder, that of Emma Gross, that is still unsolved. It could be that Kürten is guilty of that murder, but Klein has come to believe that’s not the case. It could also be that another man, Johann Stausberg, is guilty. The police originally arrested him for some of the crimes, but then Klein seemed like a more likely possibility. Or, Emma Gross could have been killed by a completely different person. Klein starts to ask questions; and, eventually, he gets to the truth about this murder.

There are other cases, too, that, perhaps, don’t get the media attention that the Crippen case in the UK, or the ‘Zodiac’ case in the US did. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting. So it’s not surprising that authors are inspired by them sometimes.

In fact, there’s even a crime fiction series that features this sort of inspiration. Lynda Wilcox’s protagonist, Verity Long, is assistant/researcher for famous crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Her job is to look up unsolved cases that might serve as the basis for a new novel. And sometimes that research gets her involved in solving those cases. Her work also gets her involved in solving present-day cases, some of which are tied to the unsolved cases she researches.

There are plenty of interesting cases that don’t necessarily make the headlines, but that are interesting, or thought-provoking. Those cases can serve as inspiration for crime fiction; and, when they’re done well, can keep readers engaged. These are only a few examples. Which ones have stayed with you?


ps. Thanks, Mob Museum, for the photograph of Albert Anastasia!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Finale (Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story)


Filed under Damien Seaman, James Ellroy, Lynda Wilcox, Mayra Montero, Tony Hillerman

‘Cause You Say What I Need to Hear*

No-one is perfect. We all make errors in judgement, and we all make mistakes. That’s why it’s so helpful to have someone in our lives who will tell us the truth, whether we want to hear it or not. That person doesn’t have to be cruel or harsh, but does have to be able to bring us up short when it’s necessary.

For instance, I’m a writer. Some of what I write is not good at all. It helps that I have a husband an honest critic who will tell me when what I’ve written doesn’t make sense. Or isn’t realistic. Or isn’t interesting. Or…

Fictional characters need those honest people, too. In crime fiction, sleuths sometimes need someone to tell them, for instance, that they’re getting too close to a case. Or that they’re forgetting something important. Or…

In a lot of cases (certainly not all), that honest person is a spouse or partner. For Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti, it’s his wife, Paola Falier. She is not at all afraid to tell him when he’s not seeing things clearly, or when he’s forgetting something. For example, in Fatal Remedies, she takes a drastic measure to call police attention to a travel agency that’s mixed up in sex tours of Thailand that sometimes involve children. She ends up getting herself (and her husband) into trouble over the matter, but she does serve as his conscience. She doesn’t allow him to become complacent, or to stop doing his job the best he can.

Tony Hillerman’s Emma Leaphorn plays a similar role at times. Her husband, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, is a member of the Navajo Nation, and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). Emma is a solid judge of character, and she has a keen sense of people. So, her husband often tries out his theories on her as he’s working out what probably happened in a given case. She’s not at all afraid to tell him when he’s completely wrong, too. She doesn’t do it in a harsh way; but she is honest when she thinks he’s on the wrong trail or misjudging someone.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Moves, we meet science fiction writer Zack Walker. He’s concerned for his family’s safety, since they live in a city. So, he moves the family to a new home in a suburb called Valley Forest Estates. His practical wife, Sarah, agrees to the move, but she has her reservations. Still, everyone settles in. Then, Walker witnesses an argument between one of Valley Forest’s sales executives and a local environmentalist. When he later finds that same environmentalist dead near a local creek, Walker gets drawn into a murky case. More than once throughout the novel, Sarah tells him he’s getting too involved, and tries to warn him of the consequences. And he knows she’s right. He can’t help himself, though, and ends up in real danger. Sarah’s not afraid to let her husband know when he’s being rude, or selfish, or….  And, although she makes her point clear, she’s not a nag. She’s just a very honest person.

Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is learning to depend on her partner, Rajiv Patel, to tell her what she sometimes doesn’t want to hear, but needs to hear. When they first meet, in The Half-Child, he is fascinated by her PI work, and wants to join her. What’s more, he finds her attractive, so he’s motivated to work with her. But Keeney is accustomed to making her own choices and living independently. It takes her some time to learn that Patel has much to offer as a business partner as well as a partner in life. She doesn’t always agree with what he has to say, but she knows he is smart, perceptive, and truthful with her.

That trustworthy person – the one who will tell you what you need to hear – doesn’t necessarily have to be a partner. For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon-based PI Russell Quant isn’t married (although he’s had a few relationships). But he does have a group of friends who care enough about him to tell him the truth. One is his mentor, Anthony Gatt, who owns a very successful upmarket menswear business. Gatt’s known Quant for a long time, and isn’t afraid to give him good advice, and even ‘rein him in’ when it’s necessary. And the advice he gives isn’t just sartorial. Another person who will tell Quant the truth, even when it’s not exactly pleasant, is his enigmatic friend Sereena Orion Smith. As the series begins, she lives next door to Quant, and they take care of each other’s dogs when one or the other is out of town. She is also a friend, and she isn’t afraid to tell Quant when he’s wrong or is making a mistake. And it’s interesting to see how Quant reacts to these two people, who are among the few he really heeds.

It’s actually a good thing to have someone who will tell the truth when we need to hear it. It’s not fun to be told you’re wrong, or that you’re about to make a big mistake, or that you need to do something. But advice like that can be very helpful. Do you have someone in your life like that? If you’re a writer, who do you depend on to let you know when something you’ve written – er – needs a little work?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mark Mendy’s Down (with Stban and Julie Elody).


Filed under Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Linwood Barclay, Tony Hillerman