Category Archives: Walter Mosley

I Ain’t Got Much to Lose*

Not Much to LoseIt’s not easy to investigate a murder, even for police and professional PIs, who’ve signed up to do that work and who have some training. It’s even more so for people who haven’t and don’t. Some people – at least fictional characters – investigate because they’re implicated, or because someone they care about is implicated. There are other people though, who get into investigation because they really don’t have anything else in their lives. So they don’t have much to lose, even if they get into danger.

Characters who don’t have a lot to lose sometimes take chances that others wouldn’t. And if that’s not handled well in a story, it can pull the reader out. But these characters also can bring a certain perseverance and focus to a case because they’re not risking families, successful businesses and the like. There are a lot of characters like that in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

When we first meet him in The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has very little to lose, at least from his perspective. He’s a former New York police officer who left the force after a tragic accident in which a seven-year-old girl was shot as Scudder was going after some thieves who’d killed a bartender. As the series begins, Scudder doesn’t have a home life, or even very much of a place to live. He doesn’t have a steady job, either. So he doesn’t have a lot to lose when successful business executive Cale Hanniford asks his help. Hanniford’s estranged twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has recently been murdered, and he wants to know the kind of person she’d become. The police have arrested the victim’s roommate Richard Vanderpoel, and there is a great deal of evidence against him. So Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the crime. He simply wants to know what sort of life his daughter had, and what would have led to her murder. Scudder agrees to at least ask some questions, and begins following leads. The trail leads to the past for both the victim and the alleged killer, and as Scudder looks into the matter, he finds the pattern that has led to the killing.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we meet Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served a sentence for euthanasia. He can no longer work as a doctor, so he has nothing much to lose when Pietro Auseri offers to hire him. Auseri’s son Davide has been in a deep depression for almost a year, and can’t seem to stop drinking, despite some time spent in treatment. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do that professional treatment can’t, but he agrees to take on Davide’s case. Little by little, he gets to know Davide, and learns the reason for the young man’s depression and drinking. Davide blames himself for the death of Alberta Radelli, whose body was found outside of Milan a year earlier. He says that he met her by chance and offered her a ride and a day in Florence. They had an enjoyable day, but when he prepared to return with her to Milan, she begged him to take her with him – to help her escape Milan. He refused, she threatened suicide, and not long afterwards, her body was discovered. Lamberti believes that the only way to free Davide of his demons is to find out the truth about the young woman’s death. With little to lose, that’s exactly what he sets out to do.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins also gets drawn into investigating in large part because he doesn’t have much; therefore, he has very little to lose. In Devil in a Blue Dress, we learn that he worked at a wartime factory (this series takes place just after World War II). When the war ended, the factory downsized and he became redundant. When DeWitt Albright needs someone to find a young woman named Daphne Monet, Rawlins sees no real reason not to agree. And he’s well-suited for the task. He knows Los Angeles well, and, being Black, he can ‘blend in’ in the local Black community, which is where the missing woman was last seen. This case draws Rawlins into a web of fraud and murder; it also begins to establish his reputation as someone who can find people and get things done.

Fans of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum will know that she had nothing much to lose when she got started investigating. When Plum discovered that her husband was unfaithful, she got a divorce and took a job in a department store to pay the bills. Then, the department store made cuts in its staff, and Plum was laid off. With no real alternative, Plum took a job at her cousin’s bail bond company. She was supposed to work as a file clerk – a nice ‘safe’ job – but instead, ended up as a bounty hunter. It’s not exactly the job her family dreamed of for her, but it’s certainly never dull.

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), we meet Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish mathematician and scientist. Although she grew up in Greenland, she now lives in Copenhagen. She has no close ties to anyone, and not very much to lose personally. So she’s got nothing to hold her back, so to speak, when she decides to ask questions about the death of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen. He, too, was a Greenlander, and lived in the same building as Jaspersen. One day, so the police say, he was playing on the roof of the building and had a tragic fall that killed him. Jaspersen is drawn to the roof where the accident occurred, and when she looks at it, she notices some things about the snow that aren’t consistent with an accidental fall. The trail leads back to Greenland, and as Jespersen looks into what happened there, she finds that this case is much more than a young boy who fell from a roof.

When we first meet Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor in The Guards, he’s been removed from the Garda Síochána for excessive drinking, which led to an incident involving unprofessional conduct with a speeder. Taylor has some friends, and people he knows, but no really close ties. He doesn’t have much to lose when he decides to hang out his shingle as a PI in Galway. He doesn’t have the money for a posh office or a staff, so he uses his local, Grogan’s, as an office. That’s where Anne Henderson finds him when she goes in search of someone to learn the truth about the death of her daughter Sarah. The police called it suicide, but she knows better. Taylor takes the case and ends up involved in a coverup, multiple killings and more.

Some people make the choice to become professional detectives. But for others, the choice to look into a crime (or crimes) happens because they have no real alternatives and not much to lose by investigating. These are just a few examples (I know, I know, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee). Which ones occur to you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Citizen King’s Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out). I almost chose a line from Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s Me and Bobby McGee; both songs are good matches for the topic, I think.

13 Comments

Filed under Giorgio Scerbanenco, Janet Evanovich, John D. MacDonald, Ken Bruen, Lawrence Block, Peter Høeg, Walter Mosley

It’s No Good, There’s No Way Out*

CorneredIn Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow, who was spending the weekend at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell when he was killed. The case seems very clear-cut at first. As Christie fans will know, though, things aren’t exactly as they appear to be. At one point, Poirot is discussing the actions of one particular character. Here’s what he says:
 

‘Have you not seen a dog caught in a trap-it sets its teeth into anyone who touches it.’
 

He has a point. When people (and other animals) feel cornered, they often strike out. That instinct for self-preservation is very strong. Certainly the character to whom Poirot is referring does that; other crime-fictional characters do, too.

For instance, in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to find sixteen-year-old Margaret Billie Sosi, who has gone missing from the school she attends. Her disappearance turns out to be connected to the murder of a distant kinsman Albert Gorman. A Los Angeles Navajo, Gorman had moved to the Reservation not very long before he was killed. Chee tracks Sosi to Los Angeles, but she disappears again. When Chee learns what, exactly, links the missing teenager to the murder, he finds out the truth about both. As he does, we see the effect that feeling cornered has on Sosi. I can say without spoiling the novel that she’s not a ‘demon seed’ ‘baddie.’ But like anyone else, she has an instinct to stay alive.

That same instinct is woven into Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. In that story, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins gets a threatening letter from IRS agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter claims that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars to the agency; if he doesn’t pay, he’ll be imprisoned. Rawlins knows that he can’t pay the debt, and prepares to go to jail. Then, a solution comes in the form of FBI agent Darrell Craxton. Craxton wants Rawlins to help bring down suspected communist Chaim Wentzler. In return, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Seeing no other choice, Rawlins reluctantly agrees. As he gets to know Wentzler, he forms a friendship with the man and becomes less and less inclined to be a part of Craxton’s plans. Then, one of the other residents in Rawlins’ apartment building apparently commits suicide. And there are two other deaths, both clearly murders. Rawlins is innocent, but he was present at both crime scenes, so the LAPD have him in their sights. At the same time, he’s doing his best to resolve his dilemma about Chaim Wentzler. Feeling very much cornered, Rawlins does what he feels he has to do to deal with both issues.

In one plot thread of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, Natasha Doroshenko flees the Ukraine with her daughter Katerina after the murder of Natasha’s husband Pavel. He was a controversial journalist whose stories had angered the wrong people. At first, Natasha thinks she and her daughter have found safety in Denmark. She even falls in love again with Michael Vestergaard. Then, everything changes. Natasha is imprisoned for attempting to murder her fiancé. During her time in police custody, she overhears a conversation that convinces her she hasn’t escaped danger from the Ukraine. She manages to elude the police and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. Natasha’s goal is to retrieve her daughter and flee again. As she tries to do so, we see the effect of feeling cornered on the choices she makes and the things she does.

There are also examples of what people do when they feel cornered in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel. It’s 1947, and Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned from harrowing service in World War II. He’s seconded to the town of Wodonga, where the local police are dealing with a series of robberies committed by a motorcycle gang. The most recent one has ended in serious injury, so there’s a lot of pressure to solve these crimes as quickly as possible. In the process of working this case, Berlin gets involved in another: the body of fifteen-year-old Jenny Lee has been found in an alley. At first, Berlin thinks that her death is connected with the robberies. But he learns that the motorcycle gang was not involved. Now he has to find out the truth about both cases. And I can say without spoiling the story that that sense of feeling cornered, with no way out, plays an important role.

It does in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, too. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam’s been so kept away from the world that he’s completely unprepared for life ‘on the outside.’ This makes him extremely vulnerable. He finds a protector in Billy Benson, a young man who visits the house just as Adam’s preparing to make his escape. Billy takes Adam under his wing, as the saying goes, and helps him with basics like a place to stay, clothes and food. During the week they spend together, the two become friends. They also get mixed up in some very real danger that threatens both of them. As the story goes on, Adam and Billy have to face some very unsettling truths about themselves and their pasts. And throughout the novel, the suspense is built as both of them react to both the danger and those truths. In more than one place, that sense of being cornered plays an important role in what they do.

When people believe they’re trapped, the instinct to stay alive sometimes takes over, as it does when any animal senses that it’s cornered. And the impact of that feeling can make for a solid layer of tension in a novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Lynne’s No Way Out.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Geoffrey McGeachin, Honey Brown, Lene Kaaberbøl, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down*

(FILES) West Berliners crowd in front ofThere are certain ‘watershed’ moments in time that change everything. They force a sort of paradigm shift that’s thrilling and exhilarating, but at the same time can be nerve-wracking. Everything people have known is now different, and it can be frightening to conceive of a new order, no matter how desperately the old order needed to be changed. I’m sure we could all think of examples of those major changes throughout history. I’ve only space here for a few of them; I hope they’ll suffice.

The old social order in the US for many generations was institutionalised racism. And even in places where there weren’t laws mandating it, there was often de facto segregation. Beginning in the 1940s, though, those walls started to fall. First it was Major League Baseball. Then it was the US military. And bit by bit more change happened. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought the issue to the forefront of the national conversation. The paradigm began to shift, and brought with it a whole new social order. Does this mean racism is over? Of course not. There’s still racism, and there’s still awkwardness about race, and those things make having a national conversation about it difficult. We don’t know what kind of a new social order will develop; it’s only been fifty years and we have quite a ways to go. But the end of de jure segregation in the US was a watershed moment in history. Speaking strictly for myself, the moment was captured when Barack Obama took the Oath of Office as the 44th US President. No matter what you think about him, his politics, etc.. (This isn’t really about politics anyway), it changed the rules.

We see that watershed captured in a lot of crime fiction. I’ll just share one instance. In Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a missing Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a group of hippies, so Rawlins begins his search with those people. He hears that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about them so he makes contact with her and arranges to meet her at a restaurant. While they’re there, something happens that surprises Rawlins; here’s his observation about it:

 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’

 

The paradigm shift away from the old order may not be complete yet, but Rawlins’ moment of happy surprise is obvious.

In 1947, India became independent. As you’ll know, the independence movement had been building for some time, but it culminated with the raising of the flag of India in August of that year. It was a joyful, exhilarating time. It was also a time of awkwardness and change, as all watersheds are. There was a whole new paradigm and India had a whole new course to chart, as the saying goes. That’s captured just a bit in H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. In that novel, which takes place in the early 1960s, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector with the Bombay Police and is hoping to take some much-needed time off with his pregnant wife Protima. Instead, he is sent to the town of Mahableshwar to look into the apparent suicide of Iris Dawkins, whose husband is a friend of Ghote’s boss Sir Rustom Engineer. Ghote’s job is to find out what drove the victim to kill herself. When he arrives and starts asking questions though, he discovers that this isn’t as straightforward a case as he thought. It takes time, but little by little, he finds out the truth about what happened to Iris. One of the threads in this novel is the changing dynamic between Anglo-Indians and Indians without a British background. The rules have changed, and the social order is different now. This makes for some awkwardness as Ghote investigates (after all, he’s investigating a lot of White people). India’s independence is only 67 years old as I write this. It’s hard to see what sort of country will emerge as India evolves. But those choices are India’s to make.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison on South Africa’s Robbin Island. That iconic image of him leaving the prison is etched on many people’s memories. And it marked a watershed moment in history. The social order imposed by apartheid (and by common consent even before those laws) was changed. The rules everyone had lived by for a very long time no longer structured people’s lives. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series captures neatly the world of South Africa during the apartheid years. When apartheid ended in the early 1990s, this opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for the country. This paradigm shift meant that the dynamic among Afrikaners, English, Blacks, Indians and others within the country would have to change, and that hasn’t been easy. Of course, it’s only been twenty years as I write this. If you read the work of Deon Meyer, Roger Smith or Jassy Mackenzie, it’s clear that the new social order, whatever it will eventually be, is still evolving. But with that uncertainty has also been the excitement and joy for millions of people of having their futures in their own hands.

As I post this, today marks the 25th anniversary of another watershed: the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. From just after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and its allies had been engaged in a Cold War (which blew hot more than once) with the US, the UK and their allies. Millions of people had never known any other kind of social reality. There was a certain structure to life, and for most people, the concept of living in any other way was unimaginable. When the wall came down though, this event changed everything. It wasn’t a sudden moment of change; pressure had been building in Eastern Europe for democracy or at least for autonomy from the then-Soviet Union (as an example, just look at the Gdansk-based Solidarity movement of the 1980s). And even in the Soviet Union itself, pressure had been growing for personal freedom and for a move towards democracy. But that moment, when the wall was breached and then officially opened, marked a paradigm shift. And when the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the countries of Eastern Europe (to say nothing of the former Soviet states) had a whole new social order to create.

That new reality hasn’t been easy. Anya Lipska addresses that very issue in her novels featuring DC Natalie Kershaw and Janusz Kiszka. Kiszka is Polish, a veteran of the Gdansk uprising and movement towards Polish independence. The new Poland isn’t always to his liking; it’s not as uniquely Polish as he’d prefer, now that it’s so easy to interact with the world. Kiszka lives in London, where he sees even more the impact on the Polish community of integration with the rest of the world. But at the same time, he wouldn’t want the old order restored.

We also see some of the uncertainty in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector and Ian Rankin’s Exit Music. In all of those novels (and there are many others), we see for instance the rise of the Russian and Eastern European Mobs as the economies of Russia and Eastern Europe evolve. We also see how the political processes in those countries have changed as the sociopolitical paradigm has shifted. None of this has been easy.

But (and here’s the important thing), those processes and those changes are now in the hands of the people most directly affected by them. Of course the choices aren’t always pleasant, but there are choices. There are challenges and difficulties, but there are also options and opportunities that were never possible. That’s what watersheds are all about, really: challenges, but wonderful possibilities at the same time.

On this anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, my thoughts are with those who gave their lives to make those opportunities possible.

ps. I wish I had been there to see the wall actually opened. I wasn’t, but Time magazine was. Thank you, Time, for this ‘photo.

 
&Nbsp;
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp and George Green’s Crumblin’ Down.

33 Comments

Filed under Anya Lipska, Deon Meyer, H.R.F. Keating, Ian Rankin, Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn, Margaret Truman, Robin Cook, Roger Smith, Walter Mosley

The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

1960sTo say that the 1960s was a decade of major change is an understatement. It was a time of so many social, political, economic and other changes that some people have called those years ‘revolutionary.’ And perhaps they have a point.

Crime fiction, like other genres, tells the story of those changes and we see them reflected in many different novels, both from and about the era. Space is only going to allow for a few examples, but I’m sure you already understand what I mean.

One of the major changes that took place during the 1960s was the role of students, especially university students. Certainly students had spoken out on campuses before, but in many countries, this decade saw the rise of student protests that really resounded in ways they hadn’t before. In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler, for instance, Hewes College Classics Professor Arnold Weschler is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s not himself particulalry political, but his brother David is. One day, Weschler is called to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrn, who wants to discuss the recent activities of a radical student group that’s come to campus. Dohrn believes that David Weschler is one of the leaders of the group. He wants Arnold to contact his brother and stop the group from causing any more trouble. The Weschler brothers have been estranged for a long time, but Arnold knows that his job may depend on his response. So he reluctantly agrees. That’s how he gets drawn into the group and gets to know the members. He even develops some sympathy for some of their views. That is, until there’s a kidnapping and then a bombing that kills Dohrn. Now Weschler has to find the killer and clear his brother’s name before he’s arrested.

During the 1960s, there was also a deep and serious questioning of ‘Establishment’ politics and economics. Many people, even those who didn’t identify themselves as Communists per se questioned the socioeconomic status quo. And there were plenty who did identify themselves as Marxists. Perhaps the best look at the leftist point of view and goals of that era can be seen in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series featuring Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team. This is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with it if you do. But for me, this series encapsulates a lot of what this set of politics embraced. Each of the ten novels in this series is about a self-contained murder mystery. But throughout the series, there’s a great deal of social critique too. There are critiques of police power, social class divisions, ‘Establishment’ corruption and other important issues with Swedish society.

Another major change in society was a change in the roles of women. Bit by bit, women had been seeking full citizenship for a long time, and had made solid strides (e.g. suffrage, working outside the home and so on). But in the US at least, women were still regarded as best-suited for ‘home and hearth.’ During the 1960s this began to be questioned more and more. And it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to work outside the home at financial parity with men (although that was certainly an issue). I’m also talking here of what you might call women’s sexual liberation. There was still very much a double standard when it came to what was expected of ‘ladies’ and what was expected of men. And women began to insist on being as much in charge of their own destinies as men were. You see that in the non-crime-fiction work of writers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But you also see it in crime fiction. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for instance, we meet noted fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a well-off and successful single woman who has no desire to get married and ‘settle down.’ She puts it this way:
 

‘In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.’
 

Certainly she doesn’t identify herself by her ability to cook, clean, sew or look after children. She’s independent both economically and sexually. One night, she’s murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and his son Ellery of course takes part in the investigation. In the end, they find that the victim’s modern way of thinking about herself and the role love should play in her life had a part in her murder.

One of the other major changes of the 1960s was the move of drug use from certain bohemian, artistic and musical circles to the mainstream. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that drugs have been associated with crime fiction for a very long time. But during these years, ‘average’ everyday people had easier access to them and their use spread. There’s a mention of that in Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (published in 1966), in which Norma Restarick and Hercule Poirot don’t exactly get off on the proverbial right footing. She wants to hire him until she actually meets him and concludes that he’s too old to help her. For his part, Poirot isn’t at all impressed with Norma’s appearance or manner. When she disappears, though, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out what happened to her. The trail leads to fraud and murder and real danger for Mrs. Oliver. Drugs have their role to play in this novel, and it’s interesting to note that their use has gone beyond just the ‘artsy’ set by this time.

Questions of relations between the races had been simmering for a long time. But matters came to a head during the 1960s. We see this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Admittedly it’s about an earlier time, but it raises issues that became a major point of conflict during the ’60s. In that novel, Tom Robinson is accused of (and quickly arrested for) the rape of Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, but because he’s Black and Mayella Ewell is White, he’s assumed to be guilty. Prominent local attorney Atticus Finch takes this case and goes to what you could argue are heroic lengths to prove that his client is not a rapist. Although we could hardly say that race is no longer an issue, there were some major strides forward taken during these years. In fact, Walter Mosley discusses this in Little Green, which takes place in 1967. PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a Black man named Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts there. He discovers that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about the group, so he contacts her. At one point, they meet in a local restaurant, where something happens that certainly makes Rawlins think:
 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’
 

Admittedly this story takes place in Los Angeles. In a smaller town things might have been different. But the move forward in race relations was an important part of the 1960s.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues (which takes place in 1967) also discusses many of the changes that took place during the 1960s. I’m just diving into that one, to be honest, so I’m not yet thoroughly enough versed to discuss it on this blog. But I can say this. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has to deal with the drug culture, the hippie movement, and other major social changes as he searches for what could be a serial killer.

There were of course many other dramatic changes in the 1960s – changes in technology, music, popular culture, cinematography and lots more. A decade that started out as looking very much like the 1950s ended up as something completely different. The times they definitely were ‘a-changin’. Which novels evoke this time for you?

ps. Just look at the two ‘photos of the Beatles and you’ll see the changes that took place during the 1960s. From ‘mop-tops’ in suits to hippies….
 
 
 

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

26 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Harper Lee, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Walter Mosley

Where All the Locals Go to Keep Each Other Company*

DinersA lot of people take road trips, and if you’re going to take any kind of a long drive, that means stopping now and again for fuel, food, and so on. Those roadside places can seem like oases, especially if it’s late or the weather is bad. And they’re really effective contexts for murder stories if you think about it. There’s a disparate group of people, any of whom could be at that particular place for any number of reasons. And then there are the people who own and work at such places. They too have their stories. And it’s only natural that sleuths would go to those places too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In G.K. Chesterton’s The Blue Cross, a French police detective named Valentin is pursuing a thief named Flambeau who’s managed to elude police. Valentin has traced his quarry to England, but he doesn’t know where Flambeau might be holed up. Valentin stops at a restaurant almost at random and places his order. When he notices that the salt-cellar is full of sugar and the sugar-basin full of salt, he asks the waiter about it. The waiter’s answer gives Valentin an interesting clue as to what’s happened to Flambeau. He doesn’t understand the significance of the clue at the time, but later, we find out that it has important meaning. So does the soup that was thrown at the wall at the same restaurant…

Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, for instance, takes place at the Quick Stop Diner. A man named Gannon goes there with a specific purpose in mind. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in murder, and now he needs a car to make his getaway. He waits at the diner until just the right kind of patron comes in. His target is Lee Carstairs, who’s doing well enough financially to have a fast, late-model car. While Carstairs uses the diner’s telephone, Gannon hides in the back seat of Carstairs’ car. But Gannon soon learns that he’s picked the wrong car. Carstairs has other plans for his car that change everything for Gannon…

In Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson is taking some time away from her job to deal with the traumatic incidents of The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). While she’s there, she and a colleague happen to stop at the Last Chance Diner, very nondescript sort of roadside place made from a converted car workshop. For a time, Martinsson actually works there as she begins to put the pieces of her life together again. She gets involved in a murder case when a priest Mildred Nilsson is murdered. Martinsson has the thankless task of working with the Church of Sweden to arrange for the house Nilsson had been living in with her husband to be transferred back to church hands.  Police detectives Ana-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder, and they begin with Nilsson’s family and then her congregants. That’s where the Last Stop Diner comes in very handy. It turns out that several of the locals eat there, and their interactions play an important role in the novel.

Much of Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride) takes place in the Norwegian village of Elvestad, where Gunder Jormann has lived most of his life. He’s no longer a young man, but he’s still presentable and hard-working – the steady type. So he is hoping to find a wife, and makes the surprising announcement to his sister Marie that he’s going to look for a bride in India. Despite her misgivings, Jormann goes to Mumbai where he meets Poona Bai, who works at a café there. He’s taken with her and it’s not long before she agrees to marry him. Jormann returns to Elvestad to prepare for his bride’s arrival, while Poona stays behind to tie up the proverbial loose ends of her life in India. On the day of her arrival, Jormann’s sister is in a terrible car accident, so he can’t go to the airport to meet Poona. He delegates that duty to a friend, but the two miss each other. Poona never arrives at Jormann’s home, and when her body is later found in a field near Elvestad, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. Elvestad has a small café/restaurant that serves as a roadside stop as well. The locals tend to congregate there, and without spoiling the novel, I can say that it plays an important role in the novel. So does the gossip that readers pick up there…

There’s also Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967. In that novel, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is recovering from a personal loss and a terrible car accident. He’s getting back on his feet again when his friend (if you can all him that) Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander asks him to find a young Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts with some of the area’s hippie places. He finds out that a young White woman named Coco might know something about the young man’s disappearance, so he tracks her down. In one scene in the novel, he and Coco go to Pete and Petra’s Diner where they place their order. Rawlins asks her to tell him a little about herself. When she asks why, Rawlins says,

 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’

 

To Rawlins, who’s seen more than his share of bigotry, this is a major change in society. But as he soon learns, not everyone has moved on with the times. A white man named Lucas goes up to their table and makes several racist comments. Rawlins is not one to meekly submit to abuse, so he’s more than willing to fight, especially when the man is disrespectful to Coco. The trip to the diner doesn’t solve the mystery. But it’s a fascinating look at the changing times of the late 1960’s.

And then there’s Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole. In that novel, the body of Corporal Shareef Smith is discovered at a roadside stop on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway. At first it looks like suicide, but his car was ransacked, and there’s other evidence too that suggests that this was murder. The evidence shows that he was on his way to Sea Haven, New Jersey, and Sea Haven police detectives John Ceepak and Danny Boyle investigate the case. In this instance, they only have one day to find out who killed the victim, because Shareef’s boss Sergeant Dale Dixon is determined to carry out justice in his own way if the police don’t solve the case quickly.

And that’s the thing about those roadside stops and diners. They attract all kinds of people. Seedy or clean, remote or just outside of town, they are fascinating places on a lot of levels. And they do make excellent contexts for crime stories. Oh, wait, there’s a sign up ahead. Want to stop for a bit?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s House of Blue Light.

17 Comments

Filed under Åsa Larsson, Chris Grabenstein, Donald Honig, G.K. Chesterton, Karin Fossum, Walter Mosley