Category Archives: Walter Mosley

Get Away From These Demagogues*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
 

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

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

It’s Just Apartment House Rules*

Apartment BuildingsFlats, apartments, whatever you call them, can be an attractive alternative to home ownership, especially if you don’t have a whole lot of money. Even if you are doing well financially, living in an apartment often means you don’t have chores such as house painting, grass cutting and the like. And, depending on where you live, you’re not responsible for most repairs, either.

Of course, the experience of living in an apartment can be miserable if your landlord/lady or the management company isn’t professional and responsible. And you live at close quarters with other people, not all of whom may be pleasant.

But apartment buildings can be very effective contexts for crime fiction. People get to know things about each other when they live in the same building. And some apartment communities are more transient, which makes for all sorts of possibilities for hidden pasts and other secrets. It’s little wonder, then, that we see apartment buildings going up all over the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick, a young woman who shares a London flat with Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. One day, she visits Hercule Poirot, telling him that she may have committed a murder. However, she leaves before she even gives him her name, since she says he’s ‘too old’ to be of help. Poirot finds out that his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver, knows the young woman; and, armed with her name, Poirot tries to find her to learn more about this possible murder. So does Mrs. Oliver. But before they can find out the truth about it, Norma disappears. Neither of her flat-mates knows where she is, and her family isn’t any more helpful. Eventually, though, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver learn the truth about the murder and Norma’s part in it. And it turns out that the apartment building in which she lives holds important clues.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, who lives in a Copenhagen apartment building. As the novel begins, she is attending the funeral of ten-year-old Isaac Christiansen, who, so the police say, tragically fell from the building’s roof. Like Smilla, Isaac was a Greenlander, so she felt a sort of bond with him, and is drawn to the roof where he fell. As she looks at the patterns in the snow, Smilla begins to wonder just how accidental the fall really was. So she starts to ask questions. Her search for the truth leads Smilla back to Greenland, and to something much bigger than just the death of one young boy.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlings owns three Los Angeles apartment buildings, including the Magnolia Street Apartments. Even though he’s the actual owner, he does the maintenance work in the building, and keeps a very low profile, letting someone else collect the rent. That way, he can have time for his other work, which we learn in A Red Death is
 

‘…the business of favors.’
 

He doesn’t have an official PI license, but he does have a good reputation for being able to solve problems and find people who don’t want to be found. And he knows everyone in the building, too. Most people there think of him as the handyman, and that’s how he likes it.

At the beginning of Val McDermid’s A Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar and fledgling academic Jane Gresham is living in a London council flat – not a luxurious place to be. It’s what she can afford, though, and she’s doing her best to move on in her academic career. She’s made a sort of friend in thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole, who lives in the same building. That’s what living at close quarters can do. Tenille is extremely bright, and Jane sees in her true potential in literature and writing. But Tenille has a terrible home situation. The first part of this novel has a strong focus on life in council flats. Then, Jane hears that a body has surfaced in a bog in her native Lake District. It is possible that the body may be that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. If it is, then it’s possible that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island as has always been believed. And if that’s true, he may have told his story to his good friend Wordsworth, which could mean there’s an unpublished manuscript out there somewhere. If it exists, that manuscript could be exactly what Jane needs to get her career going, so she goes to stay with her parents in their Lake District home to look into the matter. Meanwhile, one night after a tragic incident, Tenille leaves her home, too, and ends up in the Lake District. Her presence there plays an important role as Jane gets involved in a web of murder and false leads to try to find the manuscript she is convinced must exist.

There’s an interesting use of an apartment building in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. Waldemar Leverkuhn finds out that a lottery ticket he went in on with friends has come out the big winner. So he goes out with those friends to celebrate. Late that night, he is murdered in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate. Of course, the victim’s wife Marie-Louise comes in for her share of suspicion, but she claims she wasn’t home the night of the murder. The team members also speak to the other people who live in the same apartment building as the Leverkuhns, and it’s interesting to learn how much they know about each other. People know who’s been in and out, who does what, and so on. Despite that, though, the investigating team doesn’t get very far at first. Eventually, though, they link Leverkuhn’s death to the events that led to it.

Of course, no discussion of apartment buildings in crime fiction would really be complete without a mention of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Chapman is a baker, who lives and has her shop in a large Melbourne apartment building called Insula. As the series goes on, we get to know the other people who live in the building. They each contribute to the atmosphere of the place, and they all care about each other. They may not be related to the other residents, but the people of Insula have formed a sort of family of their own.

Apartment buildings can have that sort of effect. Of course, they can also be eerie places. That’s why we see so many of them in crime fiction – much more than I can show in one post (I know, I know, fans of Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall). After all, do you really know what the person living next door, above you, or below you is really like?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Høeg, Robert Rotenberg, Val McDermid, Walter Mosley

Only a Pawn in Their Game*

PawnsOne of the character roles that we sometimes see in crime fiction is the person who is being used as a pawn in a larger game. Anyone who reads spy and espionage fiction can tell you that that sub-genre is full of such characters. After all, in the ongoing larger chess match between, say, two countries, the spies for both sides are pawns. I’m not going to focus on spy and espionage fiction, though – too easy. There’s plenty of other crime fiction, too, that includes such characters.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, we are introduced to Violet Hunter, who is trying to decide whether to take a position as governess to Jephro Rucastle’s six-year-old son. On the one hand, the salary Rucastle offers is generous. On the other, some of Rucastle’s requests – he calls them ‘whims’ – seem a little strange. For instance, he asks her to wear a certain dress; later, he asks her to cut her hair. At that point, Violet gets concerned, and so does Sherlock Holmes, when she pays him a visit. But Rucastle increases his salary offer so much that she really doesn’t feel she has a choice. Holmes reassures her that if she ever has need of him, all she needs to do is contact him. Not much later, that’s exactly what she does. Holmes and Watson travel to Copper Beeches, the Rucastle home, as quickly as they can, to try to avert a tragedy. It turns out that without her knowledge, Violet’s being used as a pawn in someone’s dangerous game.

As Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner) begins, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are attending a theatre performance starring Carlotta Adams, an American actress who’s become something of a sensation. Also attending that performance is another actress, Jane Wilkinson. Later, Poirot and Hastings see her again at supper, where she makes an unusual request. She wants Poirot to visit her husband, Lord Edgware, and ask him to agree to a divorce so that she can remarry. Initially, Poirot demurs, but is finally persuaded. Oddly enough, when Poirot and Hastings visit Edgware, he claims that he has no objection to the divorce, and the two leave, more than a little confused. That night, Edgware is stabbed. His widow is, of course, the prime suspect. But for one thing, she had no motive, since he had withdrawn his objection to a divorce. For another, she says she was attending a dinner party in another part of London at the time, and there are twelve other people who will swear that she was there. So Chief Inspector Japp, who’s investigating this case, has to look elsewhere for the killer. Then, Carlotta Adams is found dead, apparently of a drug overdose. Poirot works with Japp to find out how the two deaths are connected. It turns out that Carlotta was being used as a pawn.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we meet detective story novelist Frank Cairnes, who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Six months before the events of this story, Cairnes’ son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident. Cairnes has been inconsolable since then, and has determined to find and kill the man responsible. He does a little sleuthing and learns that the driver was most likely a man named George Rattery. Once he’s fairly certain of his man, Cairnes has to find a way to get close to him, so as to plot his death. For that, he settles on Cairnes’ sister-in-law, an actress named Lena Lawson, who was actually in the car at the time of Martie’s death. She’s no fool, but in this case, she becomes Cairnes’ pawn. The two begin a romance, and Cairnes now has his ‘in’ to the Rattery household. Cairnes takes Rattery on a sailing trip which is supposed to end in Rattery’s death, but doesn’t. When Rattery is later found dead of what turns out to be poison, Cairnes is the natural suspect. But, as he tells gentleman detective Nigel Strangeways, although he originally did plan to kill Rattery, he didn’t poison the man. Now he wants Strangways to find out the truth and clear his name. And as it turns out, more than one person wanted Rattery dead.

Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins becomes a pawn in a larger game in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Rawlins gets a letter from US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in taxes – money he doesn’t have – and that he’ll go to jail if he doesn’t pay. Rawlins is resigning himself to spending some time in jail when FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers him a way out. If Rawlins will help bring down a suspected communist infiltrator, Craxton will make Rawlins’ tax problems go away. This novel takes place in the early 1950’s, when there was real fear about communism in the US. Rawlins agrees (what choice does he have?) and learns a little more about his quarry. The man’s name is Chaim Wenzler. He’s a former Polish Resistance fighter who now volunteers at the First African Baptist Church, and that’s where it’s agreed that Rawlins will get close to him. Things don’t turn out the way they’re planned, though. First, as Rawlins gets to know Wenzler, he finds that he likes the man and has no real interest in his destruction. Second, Rawlins finds himself a suspect when two members of the church are murdered. In the end, Rawlins finds out who’s behind it all, and solves his problem in a most un-pawnlike way.

And then there’s Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom. British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann is given a new and difficult assignment. He’s told to travel to Thailand to retrieve a particular lead-covered box. The box is believed to be in the Andaman Sea, where it’s been resting since the ship it was on went down. For Swann, this is going to be a particularly tricky task. In order to get the personnel, supplies, and protection he’ll need for the job, he will have to get the support of powerful crime boss ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. He has a history with Tuk-Tuk, though. On an earlier assignment, Swann ended up saving Tuk-Tuk’s life, but having to kill his son. So getting the man’s support will be difficult. Still, Swann takes the risk of contacting Tuk-Tuk, and prepares to get the box. After some real danger, and several deaths, Swann ends up retrieving the box. And that’s when the real trouble begins. In the end, he learns that he’s been used as a pawn for someone’s larger purpose.

In real life, people do use others as pawns at times. And that plot point can add suspense and tension to a story, especially when the person being manipulated finds out about the exploitation. Which examples have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nicholas Blake, Walter Mosley

And He’s Stealing the Scene*

Scene StealersMost crime fiction novels have a protagonist or protagonists who are the ‘stars’ of the story or series. The other characters are, hopefully, well-developed, but they don’t have top billing, as the saying goes. And yet, there are some secondary characters who can steal scenes very effectively. They have a way of calling attention to themselves, whether it’s because of a strong personality, an interesting background, or a way of serving as a foil to the protagonist. They can certainly add to a story, and if they’re well drawn, they can do so without taking away from the protagonist’s role.

For example, the protagonist in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit is Anne Bedingfield. After her professor father dies, Anne is left alone in the world without a lot of money. But she does have a sense of adventure. One day, she witnesses a terrible accident in which a man falls (or is pushed) from a train platform to the tracks below. She happens to notice a piece of paper that fell out of his pocket, and later, gets her hands on it. The message on the paper seems cryptic until she works out that it’s a reference to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage on the ship, and ends up getting mixed up in a case of international intrigue, stolen jewels and murder. One of the other passengers on the ship is Suzanne Blair, a wealthy woman a little older than Anne is herself. Suzanne is independent and knows exactly what she wants. She gets it, too. She becomes Anne’s friend, but is really quite a strong character in her own right. And she is most helpful in getting Anne out of trouble.

In Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate when a body is discovered at Holm Coultram College. Renovations are being made at the school, and part of the work involves digging up a statue and moving it to another place on campus. That’s when the body of the college’s former president, Alison Girling, is found. It was assumed she’d died as a result of an avalanche during a skiing trip, so everyone is shocked to find her body so close to home. And it turns out that several people at the school might have had a good reason to want the victim dead. One of the characters we meet in this novel is Franny Roote, who leads a revolutionary student activist group called the Student Union. He’s not what you’d call a nice person. And his fellow activists do their best to disrupt the normal goings-on of life at the campus. And yet, he does have a certain magnetism, and he’s a very interesting (i.e. not one-dimensional) character. As fans of this series know, he makes return appearances, too, in later books (Dialogues of the Dead and Death’s Jest-Book come to my mind). He may be a major thorn in, especially, Peter Pascoe’s side. But Franny Roote can steal a scene.

The setting for most of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the small, rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of the people who lives in that town is poet Ruth Zardo. She is brilliant and observant, but her wit is caustic and she doesn’t really let people close to her. There are a few characters with whom she has what you might call a friendship. At least, she has a sort of back-and-forth/give-and-take repartee with them. But she keeps a very close guard on herself, keeping others away with her prickliness. And yet, she knows a lot about what goes on in town, and she herself is more complex than it seems. She really shares her soul in her poetry more than in any other way. In A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), Ruth wins the Governor-General’s Award for her work, and her name begins to get around more than it has. So she launches her newest book of poems at a Montréal bookshop, and several of Three Pines’ residents go to the event. On the one hand, the book launch doesn’t draw crowds. On the other, we see that despite her manner, Ruth is important to the people of Three Pines.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins series mostly features Rawlins, a PI living in post-World War II Los Angeles. He’s originally from Louisiana, and still knows people from that time in his life. One of those people is his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. Mouse is a complex and interesting character. On one level, he’s dangerous. He has a hair-trigger temper and few boundaries. On the other, he is brave and loyal to Easy. In Little Green, for instance, we learn that he rescued Easy from certain death after a car accident. Mouse tells a compelling story, too. In one scene (also from Little Green) we learn how he survived being shot in the back. In that scene, Easy is recovering from his near-death experience as Mouse tells his story, and even in that short space, we can see how Mouse is able to steal that scene. And in the novel, it’s Mouse who asks Easy to help locate a missing young man named Evander, who seems to have disappeared after getting mixed up with some hippies (the story takes place in the late 1960s). Mouse may be violent at times, but he is also fascinating.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, we are introduced to Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In that novel, he and his team are looking into the sudden death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this investigation is Luparello’s political rival, Angelo Cardemone. In fact, there’s evidence that his son Giacomino was near the scene on the night Luparello died. That’s how Montalbano meets Giacomino’s wife, Ingrid Sjostrom. Originally from Sweden, she’s a race car driver who lives life exactly as she wants. She’s very much her own person, and that adds ‘spicy’ to her character. She and Montalbano become friends, and she can be very helpful. She can steal scenes, too. For instance, in this novel, she and Montalbano test one of his theories about Luperallo’s death. The test involves having Ingrid drive her car down a certain difficult path. She’s quite in control of that scene.

And then there’s Count Kolya, whom we first meet in William Ryan’s historical (late 1930s) novel The Holy Thief. Kolya is Chief Authority of the Moscow Thieves, and as such, lives life on the wrong side of the law. But he has his own code, and he is a complex character. As the series goes on, we learn bits about Kolya, and we see that there are depths to him. What’s interesting about this is that the series actually features Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. He, too is an interesting character, and the well-drawn protagonist of the series. But when Kolya is ‘on screen,’ he is compelling. And he has a habit of popping up unexpectedly. Korolev finds him an unlikely but sometimes very helpful ally.

It all just goes to show that a character doesn’t have to be the protagonist to steal a scene (or more). Which scene-stealing characters have stayed with you?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

Let’s Begin Again*

ReformingIn Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas) Simeon Lee invites the members of his family to the family home, Gorston Hall, for Christmas. Lee is an unpleasant man and a tyrant, so no-one really wants to go. But at the same time, no-one dares refuse the invitation. Lee doesn’t exactly have a blameless past, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. Here’s what he says about it:
 

‘‘Ah, but I’ve been more wicked than most,’ Simeon laughed.
‘I don’t regret it, you know. No, I don’t regret anything.’’
 

In the end, you might say that Lee’s past comes back to haunt him when he is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area for the holiday, and works with the local police to catch the killer.

Lee may not regret his criminal activity, but a lot of former criminals do try to ‘go straight.’ And an interesting post from Col at Col’s Criminal Library has got me thinking about how difficult that can be. While it certainly happens in some crime fiction, there are a lot of obstacles in the path of someone who’s trying to reform, as the saying goes.

For one thing, just because former criminal want to ‘go straight’ doesn’t necessarily mean that their former ‘associates’ are eager to let go. That’s part of the plot line of Max Allan Collins’ Spree, which Col reviewed and which started me thinking about this topic. I admit I’ve not read that novel, but it’s an example of the struggle that former criminals face when people in their old lives want them to do one more job. And it’s a good time to suggest that you pay Col’s great blog a visit. It’s a great resource for book and TV/film reviews.

We see how difficult it is to reform in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. Former con man and burglar William Decker has ‘gone straight,’ mostly for the sake of his toddler son. But he’s really struggling financially, and there aren’t many options for him. One afternoon, he brings his little son into a bar where Spillane’s protagonist Mike Hammer is having a drink. He quickly downs a couple of drinks himself, says goodbye to his son, and leaves the bar. A moment later he’s shot down in the street and run over by the car that was carrying the shooter. Hammer rushes outside, but doesn’t get there in time to save Decker’s life. Still, he determines that he’s going to find out who’s responsible. It turns out that Decker’s decision to ‘go straight’ wasn’t as easy a decision as he’d hoped…

One of Walter Mosley’s sleuths is New York PI Leonid McGill. He is a former boxer; and in another life, he was involved in plenty of criminal activity. But he’s trying to make an honest living now. Still, he needs to pay the rent, too, so in The Long Fall, he agrees to take on a job for a very shady character. His new employer wants him to find four people; and the only information he has to go on is the street names they were known by during adolescence. Then, the people McGill is looking for start to turn up dead, and he begins to suspect that he’s actually been hired by a murderer, and he could very likely be the next victim. So McGill decides to do what he sees as the right thing and stop the killer.

Despite the difficulties of ‘going straight’ (and there are lots of other crime novels that depict that), there are also plenty of novels in which we see characters who’ve successfully made the change. And being a former criminal can certainly give a character some interesting layers, and some insight into the crimes others commit.

For example, when we meet G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau, in The Blue Cross, he’s a notorious thief. In fact, that’s how he comes to the attention of Father Brown, who’s on his way to a gathering of priests. Father Brown has with him a valuable cross set with jewels, which is how he comes to Flambeau’s attention. As fans of these characters know, over time, the two become friends, and Flambeau leaves behind his criminal life. In fact, he becomes a private detective. And he often depends on advice and insight from Father Brown.

There’s also Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel. In that novel, artist Agatha Troy has been commissioned to do a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasmin. So that she can do her work, he’s invited her to stay over the Christmas holidays at Halbards, the family home. Troy agrees and joins Bill-Tasmin’s house party. Her host is a strong believer in the redemptive power of work and purpose, and is convinced that former convicts can make new, productive lives for themselves. So every member of his staff has a prison record, but is trying to ‘go straight.’ Bill-Tasmin has planned a special event for Christmas Eve: his Uncle Fleason ‘Uncle Flea’ is slated to dress up as a Druid and pass out gifts to the local children. On the day of the party, Uncle Flea is taken ill, and can’t attend the party. So his valet/servant Alfred Moult volunteers to take his place as the Druid. The event goes off as scheduled, but right after his appearance as a Druid, Moult disappears. Later, he’s found dead. Troy’s husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, wants her to leave Halbards right away and let the local police handle the investigation. Instead, he’s persuaded to take part in it. And one of the questions he and the local police have to face is: are the members of Bill-Tasmin really living legitimate lives? Or is one of them guilty of murder?

It’s not a settled question whether someone can ‘go straight’ after having been a criminal. There are plenty of cases of people who do, and plenty of those who don’t. Either way, it makes for an interesting layer of character development and of tension in a crime novel. Thanks, Col, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from R.E.M.’s Begin the Begin.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Max Allan Collins, Mickey Spillane, Ngaio Marsh, Walter Mosley