Category Archives: 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 But for one thing, she had no motive, since he had withdrawn his objection to a divorce.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.

22 Comments

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.

33 Comments

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.

18 Comments

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

Everywhere You Look Now There’s Murder Incorporated*

Changing Bad GuysWell-written crime fiction shows us ourselves – who we are as people. We can learn a lot about what we wish for, fear, and more as we read in the genre. For instance, if you consider the ‘bad guys’ in certain crime novels, you see that they reflect sociopolitical events, societal fears and sometimes prejudices. You also see how those have changed as the world has changed.

For example, if you look at early crime fiction, or historical crime fiction that takes place during the late Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era, you see that the ‘bad guys’ were frequently members or leaders of shadowy syndicates and crime rings. The best known example that I can think of is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Fans will know that he is a highly intelligent master-criminal who gives Sherlock Holmes quite a run for the money, as the saying goes. But he’s not the only criminal of that type. You see that influence also in Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry. In that novel, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn go up against Sebastian Nightwine, a dangerous opponent whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. When Nightwine returns to London, Barker is sure that trouble is going to follow, and he’s right. Barker ends up accused of murder and on the run, with all of his assets frozen. Then there’s another murder. He and Llewelyn will have to work hard to clear his name and take down Nightwine’s.  A few of Agatha Christie’s novels (The Big Four being one of them) also set up shadowy syndicates as ‘the enemy).

More modern novels, such as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano stories, have a more contemporary take on the crime syndicate. Sometimes, as in Camilleri’s work and that of authors such as Michael Dibdin and Tonino Benacquista, the syndicate takes the form of what we call the Mafia (sometimes in the US, it’s called the Mob). There are also modern takes on crime syndicates from other places, too, such as the Glasgow underworld that we see in William McIlvanney’s and Malcolm Mackay’s work.

World War I and World War II had profound influences on people’s conceptions of ‘bad guys.’ Several of Agatha Christie’s stories (N or M? and Postern of Fate, for instance) set up first the Triple Alliance, then the Axis powers (specifically the Nazis) as ‘the bad guys.’

And by no means is Christie the only author who’s used Nazis, their associates, and their modern-day incarnations as antagonists. You see that in a lot of crime fiction and thrillers, actually. Just to take a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, and Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders.

In fact, the Nazis-as-enemies have had a profound influence even in modern crime fiction that simply touches on the World War II years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, and Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). In those novels (and many more), we see how modern relationships, interactions, and even crime has its roots in the war, in Nazi occupation and in loyalties of that time.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that theme as time goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people whose parents/grandparents/great-grandparents lived through World War II.

In the post-World War II era, one of the most important geopolitical realities was the Cold War between the UK, US and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies. This arguably set up the KGB and other Soviet-bloc spy agencies as very effective ‘bad guys.’ Read the work of authors such as John le Carré, Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum, and you’ll see that in a lot of those novels, the enemy is usually the KGB or other such agency in some form or another. Sometimes it’s one person who’s a member of such a group, but that person often represents the Soviet Union and its policies. You can even see such sentiments in books that aren’t exactly what you would call spy thrillers. For example, there’s Martin Cruz Smith’s work featuring Arkady Renko. And Walter Mosley’s The Red Death has his sleuth Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins being asked to take down a suspected Communist. As I think about the Cold War era, I often wonder what impression I’d get if I could read Russian well enough to read some of the novels of those years that are written in that language.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the world changed, and so did crime fiction. There are arguably two kinds of ‘bad guys’ that have populated crime fiction since that time. One is the Eastern European crime gang that we see in novels such as Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. Another, very closely related, outgrowth is arguably the Eastern European/Russian human trafficking gang (check out Tess Gerritson’s Vanish as an example). The other sort of ‘bad guy’ is the Russian oligarch/shady businessman. With official Communism at an end, these businessmen came to the fore in terms of their power and ruthlessness. Several of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels mention them (especially Exit Music). There are also some thrillers (such as Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules) that touch on such people as ‘the bad guys.’

Another recent development in terms of ‘bad guys’ is the terrorist group, particularly the Middle Eastern terrorist group. Novels such as le Carré’s 1983 The Little Drummer Girl are earlier examples of such crime fiction, but by no means the only ones. Lindy Cameron’s Redback includes such terrorists as ‘bad guys.’ So do many other novels. In the wake of more recent terrorist events, we’ve seen a lot more such ‘bad guys,’ even in novels that aren’t billed as ‘thrillers.’

There’s also been another development in the sort of ‘bad guy’ authors choose: big corporations and their leaders.  I’m sure you’ve read as many novels as I have in which big developers are depicted as antagonists. Some novels (I’m thinking of Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope) present a more complex picture of development. But many depict big companies and developers quite negatively. For instance, there’s Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, several of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, and more.

Not all crime novels feature this sort of plot. Many are more personal plots, if I can put it that way. They feature crimes where one person (or a group of people) commit murder for reasons such as revenge, fear, or personal greed. That said though, if we look at crime plots over time, we really do see, I think, how they often use certain antagonists to reflect the kind of fears and prejudices that we have. I wonder which group will be next to be depicted in this way…

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.

26 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Larsson, C.J. Box, Camilla Läckberg, Daniel Pembrey, Daniel Silva, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Lindy Cameron, Malcolm Mackay, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Philip Kerr, Robert Gott, Robert Ludlum, Tess Gerritsen, Tonino Benacquista, Walter Mosley, Will Thomas, William McIlvanney

It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:
 

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’
 

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.

12 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan