Category Archives: Wendy James

Acting Like a Born Aristocrat*

Casual SnobberyMost of us would probably say we don’t care much for snobbery. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a snub, then you know how alienating that can be. What’s interesting too is that sometimes, the assumptions that underlie snobbery (i.e. I belong to a group that’s inherently better than other groups) is so deeply ingrained that snobs may not even be aware of their own beliefs.

I got to thinking about that kind of snobbery after reading a really interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books. And by the way, if you don’t already follow that excellent blog, I really do recommend it. It’s a fabulous site for daily posts on fictional fashion, culture, and what it all says about us. Snobbery really is woven into a lot of cultures, and it’s certainly a part of crime fiction as well. There are far too many examples for me to list them all in this one post, but here are a few.

Agatha Christie depicts snobbery in several of her novels and stories. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a group of passengers is en route by air from Paris to London. Towards the end of the flight, one of the passengers, Marie Morisot, dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Hercule Poirot, who is on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who is guilty. Among the characters, we find a ‘mixed bag’ of people. Some of them, such as passenger Venetia Kerr, are ‘well born’ and have the assumptions of their class. It’s not that they’re rude or deliberately offensive. But, as one character puts it:
 

‘She walks about as though she owns the earth; she is not conceited about it: she is just an Englishwoman.’
 

There’s also Cicely Horbury, who started as ‘just a chorus girl,’ but has married Lord Stephen Horbury. In her case, she has eagerly taken on the lifestyle of the upper classes, but she doesn’t have those unconscious assumptions. She’s quite a different sort of snob. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile, Lord Edgware Dies, etc.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer gets a new client: Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida, a school for ‘troubled youth.’ Sponti is worried because one of the students, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. Tom’s parents are both wealthy and well-connected, so he’s afraid of what will happen if they find out Tom’s gone. Archer is at the school discussing the case with Sponti when Tom’s father Ralph Hillman bursts in with shocking news. It seems that Tom has been kidnapped and his abductors want ransom money. Archer returns to the Hillman home with Ralph and begins to investigate, in the hopes of finding Tom. It’s soon clear to Archer that this is no ordinary kidnapping case. For one thing, the Hillmans are not nearly as forthcoming about Tom and the family dynamics as you’d expect from a couple desperate to get their son back. For another, it’s quite possible that Tom may know the people who took him, and may in fact be with them willingly. Then, one of the people Tom is with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. As Archer finds out the truth in this case, we see how the Hillmans’ money and power have affected their assumptions about themselves and others. They are snobbish in their way, and that’s how they treat Archer- often without really seeming to be aware of it. What’s more, it’s very important for them to keep up their status in the community.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. One of the clients with whom he works in this novel is prominent attorney Ajay Kasliwal. A few months ago, one of Kasliwal’s household servants, Mary Murmu, disappeared. Now, evidence has come out that suggests Kasliwal raped and killed her. He claims that he’s innocent and has no idea what happened to her. But the police want to prove to the public that they cannot be ‘bought,’ so they’re making an example of Kasliwal. Puri agrees to look into the matter, and he and his team begin to investigate. As they search for the truth, we see how the Kasliwals’ assumptions about themselves and others are woven into what they say and do. On the one hand, Kasilwal is not a cruel, arrogant person. He’s not even particularly unpleasant. But it doesn’t really occur to either him or his wife to communicate with Mary’s family, members of an entirely different social class. And Mary’s life is not really important to either of the Kasliwals: their concern over her has to do with the possible damage to the family’s reputation, not with any concern for her.

We also see that same kind of casual snobbery in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. Much of the action in this novel takes place at Cascade Heights Country Club, an ultra-exclusive community thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Members are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in, and there are several measures in place to keep the ‘outside world’ away. Club members shop and dine in certain places, and it would never occur to them to mix with ‘other kinds of people.’ Tragedy strikes this supposedly safe haven, and things begin to unravel. But even then, we see how people who live in ‘The Heights’ interact with each other and others. At one point, for instance, some of the women who live in the community decide they want to help ‘the less fortunate.’ It would never occur to them to actually get to know any of those people. Instead, they host a charity sale of their used clothes and some accessories. The scenes in which they plan and hold the sale show how unconscious their snobbery is. They really aren’t nasty, cruel people. But they do assume that some people (including them) matter, and some don’t.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney living in Arding, New South Wales. He comes from a well-off ‘blueblood’ family, and it’s always been assumed he’ll do well in life. He has, too: he’s married to an attractive, intelligent wife, Jodie; he has two healthy children; and his career is on the rise. Then everything changes. His daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child Angus didn’t even know about until it comes out now. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks the files, there is no record of a formal adoption. Now the question is: what happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the Garrows’ lives spin more and more out of control, we see how the casual snobbery of people like Angus’ family of origin impacts how they feel about Jodie, and what they think should be done.

ferent sort of snobbery – but just as real – in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, which introduces Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. The body of national model worker Guan Hongying is discovered in the Baili Canal near Shanghai. It’s a politically-charged case, since the victim was somewhat of a celebrity and had several friends among the elite of the Party – the High Cadre. At first, the official theory is that she was raped and murdered by a taxi driver. But other evidence suggests strongly that that’s not what happened. Now Chen and his assistant Yu Guangming have to search elsewhere. Slowly, they trace Guan’s last days and weeks, and find out that way who killed her and why. Throughout this novel, we see clearly how High Cadre people and their families see themselves and others. It’s not that all of them are horrible, cruel people; some are, but some are not. But they do see themselves as entitled, and certainly not in the same class as ‘other people.’

And that’s the thing about that unconscious, casual snobbery. It’s so unconscious that people who have those assumptions may not even be aware of their own skewed thinking. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Herman’s Elegance.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Qiu Xiaolong, Ross Macdonald, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

He’s a Pinball Wizard*

Arcade and Video GamesDo you play video and arcade games? A lot of people do. And arcade (and now video) games have been around for a long time, too – ever since the 1930s. Gamers will tell you that arcade and video games are fun, assist in eye-hand coordination and are great ways to meet other gamers. And with today’s online gaming communities, you can play video games against opponents from all over the world. Or, you can simply try to best your own top score.

Because arcade and video games are so popular, it’s little wonder that crime-fictional characters play them. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. Fans of Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series will know that Hill is a criminal psychologist and profiler who works with police detective Carol Jordan on many of her cases. Hill has plenty of baggage from his past, and his physical health isn’t particularly good. Those things, plus the stresses of his work, can be very difficult to bear. But Hill has an outlet: he enjoys playing video games. They help him de-stress and focus.

And Hill isn’t the only gamer among fictional sleuths. Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle is too. As the series begins, Boyle is a ‘summer cop’ who works with the regular police force of Sea Haven, New Jersey when the tourists come to town. As the series goes on, he becomes a full-time cop himself. Like a lot of seaside towns, Sea Haven has gaming arcades that are very popular with the tourists. But Boyle enjoys them too. Here’s what he says about it in Free Fall:
 

‘The video arcade game Urban Termination II is one of the many ways I hone the cop skill that, not to brag, has made me somewhat legendary amongst the boys in blue up and down the Jersey Shore. I have, shall we say, a special talent.
I can shoot stuff real good.’
 

Boyle will tell you that playing video games is actually a form of professional development.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a building called Insula. One of the shops in that building, Nerds, Inc., is run by Taz, Rat and Gully, whom Chapman refers to as The Lone Gunmen of Nerds, Inc. They are all gaming/computer wizards who deal in hundreds of different video games. They spend more time in front of their computers than they do with live humans, so they are experts in just about any kind of game or computer repair. They don’t exactly have a healthy diet, preferring cheese twists and pizza to anything like a balanced meal. And they don’t come out into daylight unless it’s necessary. Sometimes, Chapman finds them a little difficult to communicate with, since computers are not her specialty. But she does respect their knowledge, and finds them very helpful more than once.

Gaming can be a very social sort of activity, since even online, gamers can compete against each other. And of course in arcades there’s even more interaction. And that interaction is a part of the plot of Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. The real action in the novel begins during the summer of 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan’s parents reluctantly give her permission to spend a few weeks with her cousins Mick and Jane Griffin, and their parents Doug and Barbara. Angela, Mick and some of Mick’s friends spend their share of time at a nearby drugstore, where they play pinball. Angela’s no expert at the game, but the group allows her to join in. One day, Angela plays some pinball with the group as usual, and then says she’s heading back to her aunt and uncle’s house. She never arrives. Not long afterwards her body is discovered strangled. At first, the police concentrate on her friends and family members, but there are no good leads in that direction. Still, they are the most likely suspects. Then, a few months later, there’s another murder. Sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is found strangled in the same way that Angela was. Now the press begins to dub the killer the Sydney Strangler, and an all-out effort is made to catch the murderer. The police aren’t successful though, and the killings go unsolved. Years later, journalist Erin Fury is doing a documentary on families of murder victims and how they’ve been impacted by the tragedies that have happened. As a part of that project, she interviews Jane and her husband, Mick, and their parents. As she does, we learn bit by bit what really happened that summer, and who really killed Angela and Kelly.

Video and arcade games can be dangerous in and of themselves, too, at least in crime fiction. In Lindy Cameron’s Redback, for instance, we are introduced to journalist Scott Dreher, who’s doing a piece of the use of war simulation games to recruit terrorists. He’s on a flight to Japan to meet with legendary game designer Hiroyuki Kaga when he notices a fellow passenger playing a new game called Global WarTek. He gets permission to take a look at the game and soon makes a discovery that links that game to a shadowy group of terrorists. In another plot thread, crack Australian rescue/retrieval team Redback has become aware of a series of disasters, including a hostage situation, a train explosion, three murders and an attack on a US military base. They soon discover that this same terrorist group is behind those tragedies, and work to stop them before there are any more deaths. The key to the group’s goals and identity turns out to be Global WarTek.

See what I mean? Arcade and video games aren’t just fun ways to earn prizes. They’re taken very seriously by a lot of people. Sometimes deadly seriously…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Pinball Wizard. Yes, I know. An obvious choice. You’re welcome.

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Filed under Chris Grabenstein, Kerry Greenwood, Lindy Cameron, Val McDermid, Wendy James

Got a New Wife, Got a New Life*

NewLifeThis is the time of year when a lot of people try to make changes in their lives. You know – ‘This is the year I’ll lose weight/quit smoking/find a partner/get rid of my partner/learn a language/get that great job, etc. .’ Sometimes people do get the chance to start all over, and it’s always interesting to see whether they really can make different lives.

Starting over is a very useful context for crime fiction.There’s always the possibility of the past coming back to haunt. There’s the challenge of trying to live a new life. And there’s all sorts of possibility for conflict as the character tries for a new beginning. It’s a flexible plot point too; the author can make it hopeful or bleak, light or dark and twisted. Perhaps that’s part of why we see so much of this plot point in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie uses the ‘fresh start’ plot point in several of her stories. It’s hard to discuss some of them without giving away spoilers, but here’s one example. In The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. In the letter, Renauld says that his life is in danger, and begs Poirot to come to his aid. Poirot and Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer, where Renauld and his wife and son live. But by the time they get there, it’s too late: Renauld has been found murdered on the golf course that adjoins their property. Poirot works with the French authorities (and sometimes at cross-purposes with them!) to find out who the killer was. He discovers that Renauld wasn’t born in Canada. He moved there to start over completely. Later, he and his wife returned to France. Someone has found out about Renauld’s former life and that knowledge played a pivotal role in his murder.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary. She leads the Cold Case Review Team, and as we first learn in The Coffin Trail, she got that position after she became a ‘sacrificial lamb’ in another case. There were several mistakes made in an earlier investigation and since Scarlett was involved, it was decided to make as much of the problem as possible go away by moving her. The job is seen as a demotion – a dead-end position – but Scarlett determines to make the best of it. And as the series goes on, we see how she tries to do as much as she can with her new start. Oxford historian Daniel Kind, the other protagonist of this series, has also started over. A well-known ‘celebrity historian,’ he got tired of television and the limelight. So he’s bought a place in the Lakes, hoping to focus on his research and his writing. Kind’s expertise in history proves extremely helpful to Scarlett as she discovers local-history links to the ‘cold case’ murders she and her team solve.

Phillip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American writer who ‘stars’ in one of Timothy Hallinan’s series. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer with a home base in Bangkok. He’s also quite good at finding people who don’t want to be found. So he’s a good choice when someone goes missing in Bangkok. Rafferty’s wife is Rose, a former bar girl who has made a new life for herself as the owner of an apartment cleaning company. All of her employees are also former bar girls. Rafferty loves his wife very much, and is happy to accept her exactly as she is. But Rose knows very well that it’s hard to leave the ‘bar girl’ life behind. After all, as she points out in A Nail Through the Heart, what happens when she and Rafferty happen to be out together and encounter one of Rose’s former clients? Still, the two of them work hard to put together a good life for themselves and for Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is in the process of adopting.

Eric Burdett’s Bangkok 8 introduces readers to Sonchai Jitplecheep, a member of the Royal Thai Police. For Sonchai, his career as a police officer is an important way of starting over. He and his best friend Pichai Apiradee were involved in a murder. According to the Buddhist tradition, this has badly damaged their karma, even though the victim was a drug dealer. The way to repair the damage, so they’ve been instructed, is to become police officers and try to work for the good of the community. In Bangkok 8, Pichai is tragically killed during the investigation of the murder of US Marine Walter Bradley. The strong desire to avenge his friend’s death is part of what drives Sonchai to go after Bradley’s (and Pichai’s) killer. He is also motivated by his commitment to using his new life to do good.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans. Brought up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ she seems in a way destined to live the same lower-class, economically disadvantaged life that her mother has had. But Jodie is both intelligent and driven. She is determined to have a new life for herself. Her ambition and brains are enough to get her a scholarship to the ‘right’ sort of school and eventually into the company of Angus Garrow. Angus is from a ‘blueblood’ family, so as you might expect, his mother is not happy about his relationship with Jodie. But the two marry and over the years, Jodie becomes a part of the upper-class circles within which Angus has always moved. All seems well until Jodie’s past comes back to haunt her. One day her daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years earlier to a daughter Elsa Mary. No-one knows about that child – not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption; but when the nurse checks into the matter, she finds that there are no records of the adoption. So she begins to ask questions. Those questions soon become public property and before long, Jodie is the focus of a scandal. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie, Angus and their children face the accusations, it’s clear that sometimes, no matter how much you try to make another start, it’s not as easy as it seems…

That’s certainly what Natasha Doroshenko finds in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale. She has fled her home in the Ukraine to escape the thugs who killed her journalist husband Pavel and threatened her life and that of her daughter Katerina. At first, it seems that Denmark, where they’ve ended up, will be a safe haven for them. In fact, Natasha even falls in love again and becomes engaged to Michael Vestergaard. But everything changes when Natasha is imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé. One day she happens to overhear a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. She manages to escape police custody and goes to Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. Her plan is to get Katerina and go away somewhere where they can start over again. But the trip to Coal House Camp is only the beginning of real danger for her, her daughter, and Red Cross nurse Nina Borg.

People often do want to make a fresh start and do things differently this time. And sometimes it’s very successful. But it doesn’t always work out that way. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill). Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. I know I’ve used that song before. You’re welcome. ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, John Burdett, Lene Lene Kaaberbøl, Martin Edwards, Mickey Spillane, Timothy Hallinan, Wendy James

I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here*

Rags to RichesMost of us have probably imagined what it would be like. The official letter from the attorney’s office informing you that you’ve inherited millions. Or perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime lottery win. Or maybe meeting that perfect someone who’s also really wealthy. However it actually happens, the ‘rags to riches’ dream captures people’s imaginations. I’m sure we could all think of films and books in which that’s the main plot point.

It shows up in crime fiction, too. But of course, it doesn’t always work out perfectly, despite the fantasy. The ‘rags to riches’ phenomenon is a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include this plot point. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s had a very modest life in the village of St. Mary Mead for ten years, where she’s been paid companion to Mrs. Harfield. When her employer dies, Katherine gets the exciting and surprising news that she’s been named as sole heir to Mrs. Harfield’s considerable fortune. She’s now going to be quite a wealthy woman, and things begin to change immediately for her. In one amusing scene, for instance, she gets a letter from a Harfield cousin, who tries to persuade and then bully her into parting with the money. Then, she gets a letter from one of her own distant relatives Lady Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Rosalie has found out about her cousin’s good fortune and suddenly decides that it might be nice to have her visit. Katherine is no fool, and knows exactly what Lady Rosalie has in mind. But she has always wanted to travel, so she arranges to go from London to Nice, where Lady Rosalie lives, on the famous Blue Train. That’s how she meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on her way to meet her lover Armand de la Roche. The two end up having a long conversation, so when Ruth is murdered, the police want whatever information Katherine can provide. Hercule Poirot is on the Blue Train as well, so he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why.

In Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, Queen and his new business partner Beau Rummell set up a private investigation firm. One of their first clients is wealthy and very eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and hasn’t established bonds with anyone in his family. He wants Queen and Rummell to track down his relations so that they’ll be in a position to inherit when he dies. Then, Queen becomes ill, so Rummell has to take on the ‘legwork.’ He follows the trail to Hollywood, where Kerrie Shawn is an aspiring actress. She hasn’t had much success though, and shares a dingy place with her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day. Word comes that Cole has died, and Rummell gets the distinct pleasure of telling Kerrie that she is set to inherit a large fortune. Cole’s will stipulates that she and the other heir, Margo Cole, must share his home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit, so she and Vi move to the house. As you can imagine, trouble soon begins, since such a large amount of money is at stake. Then, Margo is shot and Kerrie becomes a suspect. By this time Rummell has fallen in love with her, so he wants to clear her name. If he does, it’ll be a real case of ‘rags to riches’ for both of them.

When Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series begins, her sleuth James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is trying to get his life back together. He’s a former big-city crime reporter and author who’s hit some hard times and gotten far too familiar with the bottle. In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, he gets a chance to start over when his former boss Arch Riker hires him as a features writer for the Daily Fluxion. At first, he lives the sort of paycheck-to-paycheck existence that you might expect. A bit later in the series (The Cat Who Played Brahms has the details) Qwill inherits a vast fortune from his mother’s friend Francesca ‘Fanny’ Klingenschoen. The only proviso is that in order to inherit, Qwill must live in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere’ for five years. If he chooses not to do that, the fortune passes to Atlantic City. When word gets around that Qwill is set to inherit so much money, there’s resentment at first, since many of the locals were hoping the money would be used in the town. But they’re even more upset at the thought of having all of that money go to Atlantic City. As fans know, Qwill finds a way to make it work. He’s not comfortable with vast wealth anyway, so he remains in Pickax and sets up a charitable fund, the Klingenschoen Foundation, that supports many town projects. And that still leaves him with more money than he could ever need.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, readers are introduced to Jodie Evans. She’s been brought up, as the saying goes, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ near Sydney. Her home life is not good, and she would like very much to get free of it and out of poverty. Her first chance comes when she does well enough in school to get a scholarship to an upmarket secondary school. Then later, she meets Angus Garrow, an up-and-coming law student from a ‘blue blood’ family. He falls in love with her and the two marry, very much against the wishes of his mother, who was hoping he’d choose someone from his own social class. For a long time, it seems that Jodie has successfully gone from ‘rags to riches.’ She and Angus remain married and she has two healthy children. There’s certainly a difference between her perspective and that of her new social circle, but she’s learned to fit in. Then everything changes. Her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a girl she named Elsa Mary. No-one knows about the child, not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie says she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption, but when the extra-vigilant nurse does some checking, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked, first privately and then very publicly. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As the story spreads, Jodie becomes a social pariah to the well-off people she’s been living among for so long, and she learns who her real friends are.

Even winning the lottery isn’t necessarily a great way to go from ‘rags to riches.’ Just ask Waldemar Leverkuhn, whom we meet in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. After a lifetime of working for a living, he and some of his friends go in together on a lottery ticket that turns out to be a big winner. He goes out with those friends to celebrate; but later that night, he is brutally murdered. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate. When they learn about the lottery ticket, one of their questions is whether someone was anxious to keep Leverkuhn’s winnings. The truth is more complicated than that, but it goes to show that riches can’t always protect you.

There’s just something about the ‘rags to riches’ fantasy. I’m sure you can think of lots of good examples of it that I’ve not included here. Just as well, as I’ve got to see what’s in this letter. You never know…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Håkan Nesser, Lilian Jackson Braun, Wendy James

If You Think I’m Feeling Older and Missing My Younger Days*

RetiredCopPolice officers see and learn a lot over the course of their careers. So when they retire, they’re often treasure troves of information about different cases and often, about the history of an area. Their perspectives can be helpful and certainly they can add richness to a crime novel. When retired cops are consulted, they can give the fictional sleuth a lot of insight and, provided they are well-drawn, can be really interesting characters in and of themselves. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that Hercule Poirot works with Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence on more than one case. By the time of Hallowe’en Party, Spence has retired to the village of Woodleigh Common, where he lives with his sister Elspeth. Poirot knows the value of Spence’s experience and wisdom. So he pays Spence a visit when a village girl, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds, is murdered during a party. On the afternoon of her death, Joyce boasted that she’d seen a murder, but wouldn’t give any details about it. The fact that she’s now dead leads Poirot to believe that she might have seen something. So he asks Spence about the history of the area, and Spence is able to give him some valuable input. And in fact, Joyce’s murder has everything to do with past history and past crime.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate when the remains of two women are found on the property of Pity Wood Farm in the Peak District. The farm was owned for many years by brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek has died but his brother is still alive and living in a care home. The police interview him, but he can’t add much to their investigation, as he sold Pity Wood Farm before the bodies were buried there. The current owner is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development, and has no connection to it or to the area. While the Suttons and Goodwin aren’t completely crossed off the suspect list, Fry and Cooper do see that they’ll need to look into the history of Pity Wood Farm and the nearby village of Rakedale. They soon discover though that Rakedale is a very insular community. No-one seems willing to talk to outsiders, and certainly not about any of the local ‘dirty laundry.’ But there is one person who’s lived there a long time, and who may be able to help. He is ex-PC David Palfreyman, who was the local bobby for thirty years before he retired. Cooper and Fry pay Palfreyman some visits, and it’s interesting to see what his perspective adds to the story. He gives them some background information on the Sutton family and about Rakesdale, and it’s clear that as they talk, he enjoys being part of an investigation again and that he’s missed his ‘police’ role.

Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence features detective Antsi Ketola. After years with the Turku police, Ketola has retired and is just beginning the next phase of his life. But he is still obsessed with one case that he never solved. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen disappeared and later was found in a field, raped and murdered. Ketola followed all the leads, but was never able to catch the criminal. A new case comes up when Sinikka Vehkasalo rides her bicycle to volleyball practice one day and never makes it. Her bicycle is later found, covered in blood and with the handlebars twisted round, in exactly the spot where Pia Lehtinen’s body was found. Inspector Kimmo Joentaa soon suspects that the same killer is responsible for both murders, so he decides to seek Ketola’s help in finding out who killed these two girls and why. And it turns out that Ketola’s knowledge of the old case and the area are very helpful in getting to the truth.

Reginald Hill’s novella One Small Step takes place in the future (well, it was the future when Hill wrote it in 1990). In this story, Superintendent Andy Dalziel has retired, and Peter Pascoe is now the Commissioner of the EuroFed Police. An international team of scientists and astronauts is conducting research on the moon, when one of them, a French astronaut, is murdered. Pascoe takes charge of the investigation and benefits greatly from the input and help he gets from Dalziel. This may not be regarded as Hill’s finest work, but it’s an interesting look at how he imagined the future might be.

Fans of Håkan Nesser will know that at the beginning of his Maardam series, Inspector Van Veeteren is a homicide detective who leads the investigating team. But after decades on the force, he has plans to move on with his life. In the course of the series, he leaves the force and becomes part owner of an antique bookshop. He enjoys his new life, but he still misses solving investigation puzzles. And for their parts, his former team-mates miss working with him and getting the benefit of his experience and his skill at detection. So in stories such as The Unlucky Lottery and The Weeping Girl, his former colleagues informally consult with him on their cases. In the former, Intendant Münster taps Van Veeteren’s wisdom as he solves the murder of retiree who’d just won a lottery. In the latter, Inspecter Ewa Moreno gets involved in the investigation when eighteen-year-old Mikaela Lijphart disappears. Moreno met the girl once and hasn’t been able to forget her. She finds that Makaela’s disappearance is connected with the disappearance of her father and with two murders.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls concerns two murders that took place in 1978. One is the murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. The other is the murder of sixteen year-old Kelly McIvor. The police investigated both deaths, but were never able to solve them. Now, journalist Erin Fury is making a documentary on the effect of murders on the victims’ families. As part of the film, she wants to interview Angela’s family members. Her parents are no longer alive, but her cousins Jane Tait and Jane’s brother Mick Griffin are. So are Jane and Mick’s parents Doug and Barbara Griffin. Doug is a retired police officer who could likely shed a great deal of light on the case and Erin wants very much to interview him. The problem is that he’s been diagnosed with possible dementia. He’s not spoken in a very long time, and seems to be losing his connection to the outside world. So he’s now living in a care home and there’s very little likelihood that Erin will be able to interview him. She finds her own way to gain access to him though, and we learn a surprising amount from what he has to say.

And that’s the thing about retired cops. They’ve seen a lot and been through a lot. They may be ‘straight arrows’ or ‘bent,’ and they may be willing or unwilling to talk about old cases. But they all provide a fascinating perspective on policing, and they often can give some very good insight and advice. Which retired police characters have stayed with you?
 

In Memoriam
 
WarrenClarke

This post is dedicated to the memory of Warren Clarke, who brought Superintendent Andy Dalziel to life on the small screen. He will be much missed.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Keeping the Faith.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Jan Costin Wagner, Reginald Hill, Stephen Booth, Wendy James