Category Archives: Wendy James

Mama, Just Killed a Man*

FamousCasesThere are certain criminal cases that capture people’s imagination, even years later. Sometimes they inspire crime fiction; but even when they don’t, they have a hold on our consciousness in some ways.

I’m not talking here of those rare cases of psychopaths who kill. Those stories may get the headlines for a while, but as a rule (with a few exceptions, of course), they don’t quite hold the public consciousness in ways that certain other cases do.

Not having a background in psychology, I don’t have the exact, definitive explanation for why certain cases get our attention. But if you read enough crime fiction, you see that they’ve certainly made their way into the genre.

Some cases, I think, hold our imagination because they’ve never really, conclusively been solved. The Whitechapel Murders – the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ – killings in London at the end of the 19th Century serves (at least to me) as one example of this kind of case. There’ve been many, many attempts to learn who ‘Jack the Raipper’ really was, and several different theories.  But to my knowledge, no-one has yet posited a theory about the case that everyone agrees is probably the truth. As far as I know, there’s never been a credible confession.

This sort of case invites people to speculate about what really happened, which is part of why there’ve been so many fictional stories inspired by this case. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is said to have been inspired by the Whitechapel Murders case. And it’s not the only one, by any means.

Another case that remained open for a long time was the case of Azaria Chamberlain, who died as an infant in 1980. Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, claimed that she was killed by a dingo, but there was also evidence that implicated them. They were convicted and went to prison, but later evidence supported them; and they were eventually released and compensated. Yet there was debate for quite a long time about this case. Recent DNA evidence has shown, to the satisfaction of many people (including the Northern Territories coroner) that Azaria did die as a result of a dingo attack. Still, there are those who aren’t satisfied. It’s exactly the sort of case that people speculate about because it isn’t conclusive – at least at first. Little wonder it’s shown up in books such as Wendy James’ The Mistake, which concerns the case of Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s the wife of a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children; in short, she’s living a life many would envy. But then comes the shocking news that she had a child years earlier – a baby not even her husband knew existed. She claims the baby was given up for adoption, but there are no formal records to support what she says. That’s when the questions begin, and soon enough, talk begins that she might have had something to do with the child’s disappearance. There are several people who compare Jodie to Lindy Chamberlain.

Some cases fascinate people not because they are unsolved, but because they are unusual, or shocking (at least for the times). Here, there is sometimes ‘shock value,’ but there’s also the larger question: What would make someone do that? For instance, in 1928, Ruth Snyder was execute for the murder of her husband. Her partner in crime was her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray. This case got a lot of publicity in part because her execution was caught on camera, and a photograph like that gets people’s attention. But the question of what, exactly, would have driven Gray to participate in a crime like this is also interesting. James M. Cain speculated on just that sort of question in Double Indemnity, which is loosely based on the Snyder case. There, too, we have a woman who decides to kill her husband and takes out a double-indemnity insurance policy on his life. While other details aren’t the same, the novella explores that question of what makes people behave as they do.

We also see this in the 1931-33 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, a Phoenix medical secretary who was found guilty of killing two of her friends, allegedly over the affections of Jack Halloran. The case has been referred to as ‘the Trunk Murders case’ because the bodies of the victims were discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders. The case raised several questions. What would make someone commit murders like this? Could love be such an obsession? What would these people be like? These questions are addressed in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is based on this case. In the novel, she explores the relationships among the people involved, and shows how the whole thing might have come about.

And then there’s the case of James Bulger. He was killed in February, 1993, at the age of two by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were both ten years old at the time. There was, of course, great public sympathy for the victim’s family and shock that he was so young. Just as shocking was the youth of his killers. There were many questions raised about how to deal with offenders who are this young. On the one hand, the two boys committed a horrendous crime. On the other hand, they were children. Most justice systems aren’t set up for such young offenders who are guilty of such horrific crimes.

Along with this set of questions is another set of questions about what would drive boys of this age to commit such a crime. And are children really capable of the kind of premeditation that adults are? Ruth Dugdall’s Humber Boy B addresses this sort of question. It’s not, per se, based on the James Bulger case. But it takes up the topic of juvenile criminals, and brings up the kinds of challenges that those who work with them face.

And that’s the thing about some famous cases. They capture our imagination, even decades or more afterwards, because they raise these difficult questions. Or they’re unsolved. Or they are of real psychological interest. There are also cases (which I’ve not had space to bring up here) that raise really important legal questions. All of these things can keep people interested in a case for a very long time.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.


Filed under James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Megan Abbott, Ruth Dugdall, Wendy James

I Think of Childhood Friends and the Dreams We Had*

Changes OVer LifeIf you think back to the time when you were in your teens and early twenties, there’s a good chance you’re not living the life you imagined for yourself at that time. Most of us don’t. There are all kinds of reasons for that, too. Young people tend to be idealistic, and don’t always know how life can get in the way of, well, life. And there are unexpected good things that happen, too – things that young people don’t plan on happening. People mature and evolve, too; as we get to know ourselves better, we adjust our life’s course. So perhaps it’s not always a bad thing that we aren’t the people we might have thought we would be.

The way people change over time can be really interesting in real life. It is in crime fiction, too. That element can add a layer of character development, and it can add a solid plot point.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), for instance, Hercule Poirot is hired to find the killer of famous painter Amyas Crale. The case is complicated by the fact that the murder happened sixteen years earlier. It’s made even more difficult because Crale’s wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the case. She died a year later in prison, so she can no longer be of assistance in the case. Even at the time, she didn’t do much in the way of defending herself, so everyone has always thought she was guilty. But her daughter Carla doesn’t. So Poirot interviews the five people who were there at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each one about the events of that day. From that information, he’s able to determine who the killer was. This novel includes a ‘big reveal’ scene in which all of the suspects are gathered together. Most haven’t seen each other since the time of the murder, and it’s very interesting as we learn how much they have and haven’t changed since their younger days.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of Jodie Evans Garrow. She has a good life with her successful husband Angus and two healthy children. She is content with the way things have turned out for her, until her past comes back to haunt her. Jodie’s daughter Hannah is injured and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie herself gave birth years ago to another child. She’s never told anyone about the child, not even her husband. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overcurious nurse can’t find any official adoption records. Now questions begin to come up, first privately, then quite publicly. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As more and more gossip spreads around, Jodie becomes a social pariah. In the midst of all this, she has an unexpected reunion with a friend from childhood, Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan. The two were inseparable until Bridie moved away, and Jodie hadn’t seen her for years. Now Bridie comes back into her life, and there’s an interesting plot thread that shows the reader how different they are to what they thought they might be.

In Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is spending some time in Saskatoon, where her two oldest children are at school. There, she reunites with an old friend from childhood, Sally Love. They’ve been estranged since they were thirteen, when Sally’s father died and Sally went away to art school. Now Sally has become a renowned, if controversial, artist, and she’s having an exhibition at the Mendel Gallery. So Joanne decides to attend, and perhaps try to renew their friendship. The two do re-establish contact, and we see how life has worked out quite differently for them than they thought, despite Sally’s focus on her art. Then, gallery owner Clea Poole is murdered, and Sally becomes a likely suspect. It’s a difficult and very sad case with a lot of personal connections for Joanne.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse begins when Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help in a murder investigation. The victim is Angel Macritchie, and his murder closely resembles a murder that MacLeod is working on, so there’s a good possibility the two murders were committed by the same person. Macleod was born and raised on Lewis, so for him, this is a homecoming, albeit not one he relishes. He hasn’t seen anyone he knew as a child since he left for university, and that was how he wanted it. But now he has to renew his acquaintance with a lot of old friends, and people who weren’t friends. One important plot thread in this novel is the relationships among those people, both then and now. And it’s interesting to see how their lives have turned out, as compared to how everyone thought things might be.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingo, New Iberia, Louisiana, police officer Dave Robicheaux is working on building up a case against New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. In the course of this investigation, he happens to meet up again with an old flame, Bootsie Mouton Giacano. The two of them were lovers as teens, but their relationship ended when Robicheaux went to Vietnam. As they get to know each other again, we see how different their lives are to what they thought their future might be. As fans will know, they discover they still have feelings for each other, and Bootsie becomes Robicheaux’s wife in a series story arc.

It’s always interesting to think back on what we thought we might become, and what we actually have become. And it adds some interesting layers to stories, too. Which ones have stayed with you?


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke, Peter May, Wendy James

Do You Need Anybody?*

Kindness of StrangersLots of crime fiction tells stories of people who try to be kind to someone, only to have it end up going very, very badly. And there’s something to that sort of story; it can be a very suspenseful premise for a plot. You know the sort of thing I mean: driver stops to help when a car is stranded, only to find real trouble. And in deft hands, novels with that plot point can be memorable.

But sometimes it’s also nice to remember that kindness to strangers isn’t always dangerous. In fact, it’s part of the glue that holds us together. And it can lead in all sorts of directions. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny. He’s there to look into the death of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. But Superintendent Spence has begun to think that Bentley was innocent, so he’s asked Poirot to investigate. One of the people he meets is Deirdre Henderson, who is one of the few villagers with a kind word to say for Bentley. It seems that Bentley once helped her rescue her dog from a trap. She hasn’t forgotten, and that’s part of why she isn’t convinced Bentley is a killer. Fans of this series will know that that one kind act has repercussions, which are brought up in another book, Hallowe’en Party.

Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors begins with a gesture of kindness to a stranger. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a road trip one New Year’s Eve when they get into a car accident and left stranded. The Reverend Theodore Venables, vicar of a nearby church, comes upon the two men and helps them get their car to a repair shop. He even offers them lodging at the vicarage until the car can be fixed. Very grateful, Wimsey and Bunter accept, and are soon taken to the vicarage. That evening, Wimsey gets the chance to return the kindness. It seems that one of the church’s bell ringers has gotten ill and can’t do his part of the traditional change-ringing. So Wimsey takes his place, and the change-ringing goes off well. When Wimsey’s car is ready, he and Bunter go their way. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables, asking him to return, and help with the odd mystery of a corpse that has turned up unexpectedly at another person’s gravesite. Although this mystery is really sad in its way, one bright point is the friendship that strikes up between Wimsey and Venables, all because of one kind gesture.

In one plot thread of Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano and his team are raiding a brothel. Once they’ve made the arrests, Lescano does a final walk-through of the premises. That’s when he discovers a young woman, Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. Without really thinking too much about it, Lescano rescues her and shelters her in his home. Part of the reason is that she looks very much like his wife, Marisa, who has died. But he also doesn’t want to see Eva get into trouble. It’s late in the 1970’s, when just about anything can lead to a person ‘disappearing’ in Argentina. At first, Eva isn’t sure why Lescano hasn’t denounced her, nor what he wants. He doesn’t demand sexual ‘rewards,’ he doesn’t blackmail her, and he continues to protect her. That kind gesture turns out to be very important to the novel as we see what happens to both characters.

There’s also a kind gesture in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That’s the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who starts life on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. One day, when she’s about eight, she happens to meet a girl about her own age, who’s just gotten some money in a dare. Then, she notices Jodie.

‘‘Hi, there,’ she says breezily. ‘He’s given me a dollar. You can get fifty cobbers for that up at Rafferty’s. You want to share?’’

Jodie’s unaccustomed to such a treat, and happy to accept. The other girl turns out to be Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, who comes from more money than Jodie has, and much more freedom. The two become inseparable until Bridie moves away. Years later, Jodie has good cause to remember that friendship when Bridie comes into her life again. Jodie has become a social pariah, since a devastating news story has broken about her. It seems that she gave birth to a baby who, shortly afterwards, disappeared. Was the child simply adopted? If so, why are there no records? Did the child die? If so, did Jodie have something to do with it? In the worst of it all, she meets Bridie again, and the two pick up their friendship. In fact, Bridie’s the one person who helps Jodie keep sane, if I can put it that way.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. In one plot thread of this novel, a young boy named François gets into trouble for stealing food from other children. Ordinarily, such a child would end up in the hands of authorities, but this child is different. His mother Karima seems to have gone missing, and the boy is just doing the best he can to eat. It soon turns out, too, that she may be mixed up in a murder investigation that Inspector Salvo Montalbano is conducting. He has sympathy for the boy, and decides to try to take care of him. As it happens, his long-time lover Livia is visiting, and she helps him to look after François. The two bond; and in fact, Livia considers whether she might want to adopt the boy when it’s discovered that his mother has been killed. That plan doesn’t pan out, but the boy is given a good, safe home with the sister of Montalbano’s second-in-command Mimì Augello. The kind gesture of taking care of François ends happily both for himself and for the family who adopts him.

And that’s the thing about kindness to strangers. You never know what will happen. And they happen in real life, too. Picture this – true story, as Wendy James’ Bridie Sullivan would say. It was a sweltering, and I mean sweltering, August day – my first full day of university. Never mind how long ago. I’d spent the morning unpacking my things, and was ready to go get something to eat. So I went to one of the university cafeterias. I was waiting my turn to get food when the heat overcame me and I began to get dizzy. Barely keeping my feet, I stumbled to the nearest table and slumped into a chair, arms on the table, head dropped onto them.  I sat there for a few moments that way, thoroughly embarrassed both at my dizziness and the attention I knew it would bring. I’d so wanted to make a good impression on that all-important first day ‘in public,’ and passing out was not what I’d had in mind. All of a sudden I heard a voice beside me, asking me if I was OK. I nodded, hoping desperately that whoever it was would leave me alone and let me slink away.

It didn’t happen. That person saw that I was in need, and went to get me a fruit juice, then sat beside me so I wouldn’t be alone, until I felt better. That glass of fruit juice, and the friendship that started because of it, made all the difference in the world to me. This many years later, we are still friends.

If you’re reading this, you know who you are. You may have forgotten that day, but I never will.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Dorothy Sayers, Ernesto Mallo, Wendy James

You’re So Scared and All Alone*

Families of the AccusedAn interesting post from Mason Canyon at Thoughts in Progress has got me thinking about the families of those accused of murder. People who are suspected of murder often have parents, children, siblings, or other relatives; those people are deeply affected by the fact that one of their own may have killed someone. Their stories can add a compelling layer to a crime novel; they can allow readers to see just how much impact such an accusation can make, whether or not it’s true.

Agatha Christie addresses this in several of her stories. For example, in Ordeal By Innocence, Rachel Argyle is murdered with a fireplace poker. The evidence points to her stepson Jacko, who is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Later, he dies in prison.  Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary visits the Argyle family home, Sunny Point. He’s there to give them news that he thinks ought to please them: he can conclusively prove that Jacko Argyle was not a murderer. Calgary wasn’t able to provide that evidence at the time of the murder, because he was suffering from a case of amnesia. He’s since recovered, and now wants to put things right. To his shock, the Argyle family isn’t happy at all about his return or his news. If he’s right, it means that someone else within the family circle is a murderer. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow and of Five Little Pigs.

In Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, we meet Juliet Spence, an herbalist who lives with her thirteen-year-old daughter Maggie in the village of Winslough. One evening, Robin Sage, Vicar of Winslough, has dinner with the Spences. He dies soon after in what turns out to be a case of poisoning by water hemlock. At first it’s put down to tragic accident. But that’s not how it seems to Simon St. James, who’s staying in the area with his wife Deborah. He asks his friend, Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley, to look into the matter, and Lynley agrees. Maggie Spence has a particularly difficult time during this investigation. For one thing, she is of course, worried about her mother, who is now the chief suspect in a murder case. For another, she has to deal with schoolmates and others who see her as a murderer’s daughter. It’s an awful situation for her, and George makes that clear.

It’s the Garrow family who comes under fire in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who’s being spoken of as the possible next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s from a proud, ‘blue-blood’ family, and is highly regarded in the field. Everything changes when his wife Jodie becomes a murder suspect. It all starts when their daughter Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. That hospital happens to be the same place where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even Angus, knew about this baby. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says that she gave the infant up for adoption, but the nurse can’t find any formal adoption records. Now, some very ugly talk starts. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? That murder accusation changes the Garrow family forever.

Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake introduces readers to John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake, and own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Murder strikes Crooked Lake when the body of Harvey Kristoff is discovered on the green at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The police start to investigate, and it’s not long before they settle on Nick Taylor, former head greenskeeper of the course. There’s evidence against him, too. For one thing, he blames Kristoff for getting him fired from his job. For another, it turns out that his wife Wilma had an affair with Kristoff. And the murder weapon belongs to Taylor. Still, Taylor claims that he’s innocent. And his lawyer Frank Hendrickson wants to defend his client as best he can. So he asks Bart, Taylor’s oldest friend, to help. Bart isn’t at all certain that Taylor is innocent, but he does agree to do what he can. As the story goes on, we see the impact on the Taylor family of a murder accusation. It’s all made even worse by the fact that Crooked Lake’s a small town; everyone knows everyone else. Even the Bartowskis feel the strain of being ‘on the Taylors’ side.’

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. According to Kasliwal, he had employed a maid, Mary Murmu, in his home for a time. Then, several months ago, she went missing. New evidence has come up that suggests that she was raped and murdered, and that Kasliwal might be responsible. The media is watching this case carefully, as there’s a sense that Kasliwal will get special treatment because of his social status. The police are well aware of this, and are determined to show that they don’t toady to the rich. And that’s Kasliwal’s problem. He says that he is innocent, and doesn’t have any idea what happened to his maid. He wants Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. Puri agrees, and he and his team get to work on the case. As they look for answers, we see what happens to a family when a member is accused of murder, even if that family has high social status. It’s difficult for all of them.

The Blligh/Dickson family has a terrible time of it, too, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Several years ago, Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam were murdered one horrific afternoon. Only their daughter Katy survived, because she wasn’t home when the killer struck. At the time, Angela’s brother Connor Bligh was suspected of the crime. The evidence against him was compelling, so he was arrested, tried and convicted. Since then, he’s been in Wellington’s Rimutaka Prison. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of this case at a crucial time for her. She’s reached a plateau in her career, and is looking for a story that will ensure her spot at the top of New Zealand journalism. So when she hears that there’s evidence Bligh may not be guilty, she’s interested. If he is innocent, this could be the story she’s been wanting. Thorne begins to re-investigate the case, and soon learns that no-one in the family really wants to help her. One reason is that they believe Bligh is guilty. But just as important is the fact that it’s been awful for them to have family members murdered, and probably by a relative. Now, they just want to get on with their lives, and not rake things up again.

It’s very hard to be accused of murder, whether or not one’s guilty. It’s at least as hard on family members. But that, too, is a reality of criminal investigation. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction, too.


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

Criticising All You See*

Uninformed OpinionsWhenever a major news story comes out, people weigh in with their views. That makes sense in a society that supports freedom of expression. And in today’s world of instant communication and social media, it takes very little time before people from all over the world have their say on stories.

On the one hand, I don’t think many people would say we shouldn’t have the right to speak our minds. On the other, the price for this is that people sometimes do so before they have all the facts. And that can make it much harder to get to the truth about something. It can also make things terribly difficult for the people involved in such news stories.

That said, people do share their opinions, sometimes quite publicly, and that can add an interesting layer of tension to a crime novel. It also makes for an interesting point of conflict.

Even before the days of the Internet, people spoke out publicly, whether or not they had all the facts. Agatha Christie, for instance, uses this plot point in several of her stories. To take one example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence visits Hercule Poirot to ask him to look into a case. James Bentley has been arrested for murdering his landlady. There’s evidence against him – enough, in fact, that he’s been convicted. But Spence has come to believe that Bentley is innocent. He wants Poirot to investigate and find out the truth before Bentley is executed. Poirot goes to the village of Broadhinny to learn what actually happened, and very soon discovers that popular opinion is very much against Bentley. Everyone assumes that he is guilty, and many people are surprised that Poirot is even interested in the matter. There are those who claim they always ‘knew’ Bentley was dangerous, and plenty more who are happy to give Poirot their opinions as to Bentley’s guilt. But there’s more to this case than a misfit lodger who killed his landlady, and Poirot soon finds that more than one person might have had a motive to kill Mrs. McGinty. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs… 

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen decides to take some time away to work on his writing. So he travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he plans to stay in a guesthouse owned by the town’s social leaders John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen’s visit naturally puts him in contact with the Wright family; and he learns a sad part of their history. John F. and Hermy’s youngest daughter Nora had been engaged to Jim Haight; in fact, the guesthouse in which Queen is staying was intended as their first home. But Haight left town suddenly, jilting his fiancée. When he returns just as suddenly, everyone is already prejudiced against him. But Nora is determined to renew her relationship with him, and to everyone’s dismay, the couple marry. Then, Haight’s sister Rosemary comes to Wrightsville for an extended visit. On New Year’s Eve, she dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Haight is arrested for murder, and people are soon very quick to voice their opinions, both verbally and in letters to the editor of the local newspaper. One opinion builds from another, and the outcry becomes so intense that Haight’s attorney Eli Martin has a very difficult job assembling his case. In the end, the only people who believe that Haight might be innocent are Queen and Nora’s sister, Pat. And they work to find out who really committed the crime.

There’s a similar sort of ‘fanning the flames’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. When Tom Robinson is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, there’s an immediate public reaction. Without knowing any of the real facts involved, everyone assumes that Robinson is guilty. It doesn’t help matters at all that he is Black, and Mayella Ewell is White. Word spreads quickly and Robinson’s life is at risk. But local attorney Atticus Finch isn’t convinced that things happened the way everyone thinks they did. He takes Robinson’s case and digs more deeply. His job is made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone’s sure of what happened, without having actual information. Oh, and talking of Harper Lee….her new novel Go Set a Watchman is due to be released on 14 July. I’m proud to be co-hosting a blog tour to celebrate its release. You can check out the details right here, and get involved if you’d like.

In the US, one of the big questions people have weighed on is what really happened to President John F. Kennedy. Despite the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in that murder, people have voiced all sorts of views, including views not supported by facts. The same is true for the famous O.J. Simpson case. Editorials, blogs, books and articles have been written on that case; it’s still a subject for discussion over twenty years later. And people are still convinced one way or the other without always carefully reviewing the facts.

One of the clearest examples of people having their say has been Australia’s Lindy Chamberlain case. The 1980 death of Lindy Chamberlain’s daughter Azaria sparked a major outcry and a great deal of media interest. The question of whether or not ‘Lindy did it’ was a very hot topic for a long time. And it’s found its way into a few books in which we see that theme of people sharing their opinions regardless of whether they’re informed.

One of them is Wendy James’ The Mistake. In that novel, Jodie Evans Garrow has what seems to be the perfect life. She’s smart and attractive, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. Everything changes when her daughter is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even her husband, knows about the child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the nurse can find no formal record of that. Now the gossip starts. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, what happened to her? If she is dead, is Jodie responsible? The outcry gets louder and more public, and Jodie becomes a social pariah. And a lot of vitriol comes from people who don’t have the facts. Interestingly, in one scene, Jodie is invited to a book club meeting at which the group is discussing a book about the Chamberlain case. We do learn the truth about Jodie’s first baby, but it’s despite, not because of, public views.

There’s an oblique reference to the Chamberlain case in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. When Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson report their infant son Noah missing, there’s a huge amount of public support for them at first. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, editorials and more urge the return of the baby and express sympathy for the couple. But when questions come up about the incident, the tide of public opinion sways. Before long, people begin to be sure that Joanna had something to do with the baby’s disappearance. Now social media outlets burst with condemnation and worse. We do learn what really happened to Noah, but it’s no thanks to the uninformed blog posts, comments, Tweets and so on.

And that’s the thing about having a say. It can lead to all sorts of heated debate, informed or no, about a case, event or person. And sometimes that means one’s got to wade through all sorts of commentary to get to the truth.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Back Chat.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, Helen Fitzgerald, Wendy James