Category Archives: William McIlvanney

I Grieve For You*

Everyone has a different way of coping with grief and loss. And there are dozens of things that affect the way we cope. Culture is one factor. So is the sort of loss it is. So is our individual nature. There are other factors, too.

Realistic crime fiction acknowledges that a murder has devastating effects on the people left behind and shows that. So, there are many, many examples of the different ways people cope with their grief. Here are just a few. I know you’ll think of many other powerful examples – more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work with Chief Inspector Japp to find a multiple murderer. The victims don’t seem to have much in common, but there are a few similarities. Before each murder, Poirot gets a cryptic warning letter. And an ABC rail guide is found near each body. One of the victims is twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Barnard, whose body is found one morning on the beach at Bexhill. Poirot pays a visit to her family to find out about her, and meets her parents and her older sister, Megan. Here’s Megan’s reaction when she first sees Hastings.

‘‘I don’t think I’ve got anything to say to you. My sister was a nice, bright girl with no men friends. Good morning.’’

She thinks Hastings is a reporter, and she has no desire to air her private grief in the newspapers, or to ‘speak ill of the dead,’ as the saying goes. And her initial response is an interesting example of people’s tendency to deal with loss in that way. It’s not long before Poirot convinces Megan that she’s better off being honest about her sister. And the information Megan provides helps Poirot get a sense of this victim – and in the end, fit her in with the others. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Hollow.

Some people react to grief and loss with anger, even with a need for vengeance. And it’s understandable, regardless of how we may feel about vigilantism. For example, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing after a night at a disco. Her father reports the matter to the Glasgow police, in the form of Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Laidlaw. At first, Laidlaw doesn’t share Lawson’s concern; after all, it’s only a few hours since the girl was supposed to be home, and there are plenty of places she could safely be. Then, news comes that the body of a young woman who was raped and then killed has been found in Kelsingrove Park. When the body is identified as Jennifer’s, her father is not just devastated, he’s enraged. And he wants vengeance. In one plot thread of the novel, he goes to John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the body was found. Lawton wants Rhodes’ help in tracking down the killer. Rhodes knows very well what Lawton intends to do if he finds the killer, but he has sympathy for the man. And his willingness to help Lawton makes it all the more of a challenge for Laidlaw, who’s trying to catch the killer in a more legitimate way.

As John Grisham’s A Time to Kill begins, two men, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, rape ten-year-old Tonya Hailey and leave her for dead. She survives, and her family, including her father, Carl Lee, finds out what happens. Cobb and Willard are soon caught, and there’s a great deal of local sympathy for Hailey. Still, he’s not sure that the courts will get justice for him. He and his family are black, and the two defendants are white, and this is small-town Mississippi. Besides, he’s enraged at what’s happened to his daughter. So, his grief fuels a plan, and he ambushes Cobb and Willard, killing them and wounding a deputy. Now, he himself is arrested for murder. On the one hand, he did kill two people. On the other, plenty of other folks, including his lawyer, Jake Brigance, admit they might have done the same. This isn’t going to be an easy trial for Brigance, as there are a lot of challenging issues. But he agrees to defend Hailey, and soon finds himself and his client in the middle of a trial in which a lot of powerful, and dangerous, people have a stake.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances opens as up-and-coming Saskatchewan politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk prepares to give a speech at a community picnic. Soon after he begins, he collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is at the speech, and watches in horror as Boychuk dies. He was a personal friend as well as a political ally, so she is in deep grief. As a way of coping with that loss, she decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she gets started, she soon finds that what she’s learning leads her closer and closer to the truth about Boychuk’s death. She also finds a great deal of danger for herself.

Many of our views about grief and loss are impacted by our culture. We see that in John Burdett’s Bangkok 8. Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his police partner, Pichai Apiradee, of the Royal Thai Police, have been on a surveillance operation, tailing a Mercedes. The car eludes them briefly, and by the time they find it again, the driver, William Bradley, is dead. A first look shows that the victim was trapped in the car with poisonous snakes, and likely died of their bites. So it’s fairly clear that this was a murder. Pichai manages to open one of the doors, but when he does, he, too, is bitten and soon dies. On the one hand, Sonchai wants justice for his dead friend. On the other, here is what he says about death:

‘We do not look on death the way you do, farang [foreigner]. My closest colleagues grasp my arm and one or two embrace me. No one says sorry. Would you be sorry about a sunset?

He’s a devout Buddhist who sees death as just another part of existence.

There are as many different ways to grieve as there are people who grieve. And when those different ways are woven into a story, the characters can seem more authentic, especially if it’s not done in too heavy-handed a way. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s I Grieve. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, John Grisham, William McIlvanney

No One Dare Disturb the Sound of Silence*

One of the major challenges that police and private investigators face is people’s reluctance to talk to them. Sometimes that’s because those people have their own secrets, and they’d rather the police didn’t find them out. Many times, though, it’s because they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they do co-operate.  If there’s a lot of what I’ll call peer pressure not to be involved in an investigation, people find that hard to resist.

For instance, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Laidlaw is faced with a very troubling case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body discovered in Kelvingrove Park. In that part of the city, there is a lot of pressure not to talk to ‘the polis.’ Everyone knows who co-operates with the authorities, and those people are not made to feel welcome. Laidlaw knows this, so he takes a different approach to finding information. He and his second-in-command, Detective Constable (DC) Brian Harkness, pay a visit to John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the victim was found. If Rhodes wants something to happen, it will happen. Laidlaw also knows that Rhodes has a certain ethic. He’s not going to be pleased about the rape and murder of a young woman on ‘his patch.’ So, Laidlaw and Harkness appeal to that ethic, and Rhodes agrees to put the word out for anyone who knows anything to come forward. Sure enough, that strategy turns out to be successful, and Laidlaw gets some useful information.

In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumprint, we are introduced to Sergeant Jacob Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police. He is responsible for the arrest of Erwin Schlumpf on the charge of murdering his sweetheart Sonja’s father, travelling salesman Wendelin Witschi. Studer decides to visit Schlumpf in prison, and arrives just in time to prevent the man’s suicide. He’s developing a liking for Schlumpf, so he decides to investigate Witschi’s murder again. There was certainly enough evidence against Schlumpf to arrest him, but Studer finds that there are other possibilities when it comes to the murderer. He faces a major challenge, though: very few people are willing to talk to him. It’s not so much that they dislike Schlumpf. Rather, they have to live in the small town where the murder occurred, and don’t want to upset the proverbial apple cart, especially considering that some suspects have quite a lot of local power.

There’s a similar sort of concern in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In that novel, Amsterdam police detective Piet van der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen. There’s been a spate of anonymous ‘poison pen’ letters, and the matter has gone far beyond annoying. The letters have been responsible for two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find out much information, chiefly because Zwinderen’s residents are close-mouthed. They have to live in this town, where everyone knows everyone’s business. If anyone is seen as helping the police, there’s immediately talk as to why. Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, travel to the town, and settle in. Because of the natural suspicion, van der Valk pretends to be a bureaucrat conducting a study for the Ministry of the Interior. In that guise, he slowly gets to know the residents; and, in the end, he finds out who wrote the letters and why.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girls introduces readers to Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss. The body of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas has been found by a local school caretaker, and the police begin their investigation. One of their first tasks is, of course, to find out as much as possible about the victim. When they learn that she was a sex worker, a natural next step is to talk to other local sex workers and find out about any enemies she’d made. That proves more difficult than it might seem. These women have to live in town and do their jobs. If they’re seen as helping the police, they’ll alienate some of the very people who are their support system. That’s not to mention that several of them work for Charlie Hawes, a dangerous pimp who’s not afraid to use violence to keep ‘his girls’ under control. He’s happy to use the same tactics against anyone else who crosses him, too, so people are inclined to keep quiet. Morriss knows how difficult it’s going to be to get Michelle’s friends and co-workers to talk, so she slowly develops a rapport with some of them, outside of the police station. Little by little, they learn to trust her, and she learns quite a lot of useful information.

Harry Bingham’s DC Fiona Griffiths faces the same challenge in Talking to the Dead. When part-time sex worker Janet Mancini and her six-year-old daughter, April, are killed, Griffiths joins the team that investigates the murders. She tries to make contact with some of the other sex workers in the area, but few of them are willing to talk. They still have to earn their livings. Besides, there are some very dangerous people who might be involved in the killings. It makes no sense to put their own lives in peril if anyone suspects they’ve been co-operating with the police. Still, Griffiths slowly finds out some of Mancini’s background. And she gets some important information about the killings.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which takes place in late-1970s Perth. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from the area for a few years, but returns when he learns of the death of a friend, Ruby Devine. He soon finds that almost no-one is willing to talk to him about her death, though. For one thing, Swann has convened a Royal Commission hearing to look into possible corruption among a group of police known as the ‘purple circle.’ That’s already made him a marked man. And the people who might know something sill have to live in and around Perth. They have to deal with the consequences if it gets around that they helped Swann. It’s a difficult situation for everyone, but Swann eventually finds out the truth.

And that’s the thing about getting people to talk. The police need to get answers, but the people who could help them still have to go on with their lives, perhaps next door to someone they’ve accused. Or perhaps the next target of someone who doesn’t want to be ‘known to the police.’ Either way, this can make it very challenging to get information.


*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.


Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Friedrich Glauser, Harry Bingham, Maureen Carter, Nicolas Freeling, William McIlvanney

I Heard it Through the Grapevine*

How do you decide which mechanic to use? Where to bank? Where to go to eat? You can’t rely completely on advertisements, of course. Even if you could, it wouldn’t be possible to absorb every ad from every company. So, many people depend on what they hear from friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Today’s word of mouth is often online, through sites such as Yelp and other rating services. But even in the days before such options, people used word of mouth to find out about other people and about businesses. Businesses depend on it, too (how often have you been asked to rate a business’ service, or ‘like’ it on Facebook?).

Word of mouth plays important roles in crime fiction, too. That’s how many fictional PIs develop a reputation. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot had a distinguished career with the Belgian police. And he’s solved any number of difficult cases since then. But it’s still word of mouth that opens doors for him. In stories such as Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), he is deemed ‘one of us’ because his reputation precedes him. People in high places talk to their friends, who are also in high places. Those people talk to others, and so it goes. He’s even ‘forgiven’ for being a foreigner because of that word of mouth.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins isn’t, at least at first, a licensed PI. But he knows a lot of people in the Los Angeles area where he lives. And he fits in there; he’s part of the fabric of the area, so to speak. And people have learned that he’s the man to go to if you want to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. He doesn’t put ads in newspapers, or put up flyers. Rather, people hear about him from friends who know friends who know…

The same is true, really, for other ‘unofficial’ PIs. For instance, Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American who lives and works in Bangkok. By profession he’s a ‘rough travel’ writer. But he also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. And he speaks both Thai and English. Word about him has gotten about, so that sometimes, complete strangers start asking around for him. And I’m sure you can think of other ‘unofficial’ PIs, too, where this happens.

Word of mouth works especially well when what you do can’t be easily described. For example, Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka is a Polish émigré to London. He does have a ‘day job,’ but more than that, he’s known in the Polish community as a ‘fixer’ – a man who can get things done. That might include helping with complicated paperwork, getting someone a job, finding someone who’s gone missing, ‘making arrangements’ with people who owe money, and so on. He’s earned respect in his community, and he knows most of the members of it. But there really isn’t a job description or official title that accurately describes what he does. People know about him because he’s helped a cousin. Or a friend. Or…

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is actually a licensed PI. So, in that sense, it’s not that hard for him to advertise his business. He also happens to be gay, and is an active part of Saskatoon’s gay community. And, in Tapas on the Ramblas, that’s exactly why he is hired. Wealthy business tycoon Charity Wiser is convinced that someone in her family is trying to kill her. So, she hires Quant to find out who that person is. She invites Quant to accompany the family on a cruise, so that he can ‘vet’ the various family members; he soon discovers that this is a gay cruise, and that his client hired him because he’s gay. Quant goes along with her plan, only to find that there’s much more to this than he thought. What’s supposed to be a sort of work/vacation cruise turns out to be fraught with danger – and ends up in murder. Quant doesn’t specifically advertise his orientation. Instead, word gets around that he’s gay.

People also use word of mouth when what they want to get or do isn’t exactly legal. For example, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw is faced with a horrible case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body found in Kelvingrove Park. There’s very little evidence to go on, and there aren’t any obvious suspects. But Laidlaw knows that, in most murder cases, someone has seen something. It’s a matter of finding out who saw what. The problem is that there are plenty of people who do not want to talk to the police. Laidlaw finds a way around that, though. He and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, track down a man named John Rhodes. He’s unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the murder occurred, and he wields quite a lot of power there. If he wants something to happen, it happens. And he’s not afraid to get violent if that’s what it takes. He’s not any happier about Jennifer Lawson’s murder than the police are, and he certainly didn’t sanction it. To Rhodes, women and children are strictly off-limits when it comes to ‘conducting business.’ So, he puts the word out, and his assistance proves to be very helpful. Fans of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy will know that word of mouth plays a big role in those novels, too. After all, you can’t really easily advertise your services as a professional killer…

Whatever one’s selling, word of mouth is often an effective way to get the word out. It certainly is in real life. And it is in crime fiction, too. Now, if you enjoyed this post, please feel free to ‘like’ it on Facebook, mention it on Yelp…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Hilary Mantel, Malcolm Mackay, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William McIlvanney

They Are Three Together*

TrilogiesAn interesting guest post on mystery novelist Patricia Stoltey’s site has got me thinking about trilogies. Before I go on, let me encourage you to visit Patricia’s blog. Interesting posts about writing, and updates on the Colorado writing scene, await you. And this particular post includes some useful input on writing a trilogy, for those who may be contemplating that.

Trilogies aren’t a new phenomenon, of course. When it comes to crime fiction, they’ve been around for quite a while. And there are plenty of examples. Space won’t permit me to discuss all of them, but the few I mention here should give an idea of what’s out there.

William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy features Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw. Consisting of Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalties, this trilogy is argued to be the first example of ‘Tartan noir.’ The novels are tied together by Laidlaw’s presence and some other elements. However, each of the novels has a different case and focus. So (and this is important in a trilogy) the books can stand on their own in terms of the individual stories.

McIllvanney’s Laidlaw series isn’t the only trilogy set in Glasgow.  There’s also Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Underworld trilogy. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence offer the reader a look at Glasgow’s criminal world and those who inhabit it. Many of the main characters are professional killers, and the books show how these people go about their jobs. Again, the trilogy is held together by some of the characters’ personal stories, and by its overarching theme. But each novel tells a different story.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy features Stockholm County CID police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. Anger Mode, Project Nirvana, and The Weakest Link are thrillers that include elements of the police procedural. There are international plots, there’s high-level corruption, and so on. There are also plot threads involving Gröhn and de Brugge’s work lives. Each novel has an individual plot. At the same time, though, there are arcs that cross all three novels. And there are characters besides Gröhn and de Brugge who recur.

There’s also Carlo Lucarelli’s historical (WWII and post-WWII) trilogy featuring Commissario de Luca. In these novels (Carte Blanche, The Damned Season, and Villa Della Oche), we see how de Luca has to negotiate the landmine that is the political landscape of Italy during this time. As Mussolini’s regime slips from power and then is defeated, de Luca has to deal first with the fascist regime, and then with the backlash against it. The whole time, he has to find a way to survive the changes in power as well as do his job.

And I don’t think I could discuss crime-fictional trilogies without mentioning Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy and Len Deighton’s Bernie Sansom trilogy. Both feature main characters who are, if you will, caught in the tide of larger events and movements, and try to do their best in what’s sometimes a very dark world. The trilogies are quite different (‘though both are noir trilogies), but both main characters are essentially decent but cynical people who have to do their best to survive in a climate of world-weariness and sometimes hopelessness. There are lots of other trilogies out there, of course, and they’re not just crime-fictional trilogies, either.

There are good reasons to choose the trilogy format, both for authors and for publishers. For authors, the trilogy allows for character development and story arcs along the lines of what’s possible in a longer series. There’s also flexibility, so that the author can explore different main plots within a trilogy. What’s more, for both author and publisher, a trilogy allows for a commitment without risking too much. And for the publisher, the trilogy can mean more sales, as it may motivate readers who’ve enjoyed the first book to purchase the other books.

And that brings me to the benefits for readers. Many crime fiction fans don’t have the time (or perhaps, the motivation) to read a long series. Unless one’s a real admirer of a given author, it’s hard to make that commitment to a long-running series. But a trilogy – only three books! – is easier in terms of the investment of time and reading energy. And it allows the reader to follow some stories-across-stories. For many readers, it’s an effective balance between enjoying an author’s work and making too much of a commitment.

Trilogies do have their drawbacks, of course. For one thing, they can limit both author and publisher. If the main characters in a trilogy really do become popular, ‘fleshed out,’ and of continuing interest to the author and publisher, what happens? Some publishers will agree to a fourth (or fifth, or…) outing in a series. But it can be awkward. It can be a bit confusing, too. For another thing, a trilogy means that the author has to sustain the plot threads and story arcs over three – but only three – novels. That means, in a sense, planning a series, with individual plots, but threads that tie the novels together. Those threads arguably have to be stronger than those that bind a longer series, too, since it’s a trilogy.

What do you think of the trilogy? Do you enjoy story arcs that last over three novels? Or do you prefer longer series, where the characters really evolve over time? Perhaps you prefer standalones? If you’re a writer, have you planned or written a trilogy? How is it different for you to planning a standalone or longer series?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Helplessly Hoping.


Filed under Carlo Lucarelli, Jean-Claude Izzo, Len Deighton, Malcolm Mackay, Patricia Stoltey, Stefan Tegenfalk, William McIlvanney

I Know Your Deepest, Secret Fear*

Deepest FearsBoth Ian Rankin and Stephen King have made the point (‘though in different ways) that, among other things, writing helps to exorcise those fears and personal demons that plague just about all of us. And certainly writing can be very cathartic. That’s part of why so many people keep journals.

It’s possible that reading crime fiction can be cathartic, too. There are, of course, many reasons people read crime fiction. One of them might be that it lets us face some of our fears and darker thoughts in a very safe way. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if you look at some of the topics and themes in the genre, you certainly see that it addresses some of our deepest fears.

For example, people are social creatures. We need to depend on each other. That’s especially true for people in our ‘inner circles.’ And that’s why we’re perhaps most vulnerable to family members, partners and close friends. Stories that address that fear quite possibly give us a safe outlet for thinking about it. And there are plenty of them.

Novels such as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, and even Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives explore this sort of fear. In all of them (and many others, too, that I haven’t mentioned), the plot raises the question of how well we really know even those closest to us. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one example of a film that does the same thing. Such stories touch a raw nerve for a lot of people, and bring that fear out into the open.

Along with that is the fear many people have of being outcasts. Most of us don’t mind having our own little quirks and eccentricities, but we still want to be accepted and included. Plenty of crime fiction novels address that deep-seated need we have to belong.

We see this sort of fear in novels such as Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Wendy James’ The Mistake. In all of these stories (and plenty of others), part of the plot involves a character who is made a social pariah. That experience adds tension to the stories. But it also speaks to a deeply human fear of being all alone in the world, and the target of others’ contempt (or worse).

One of the biggest fears people have is the fear that they might be mentally ill – that their sanity is slipping away. When some people say, ‘Am I crazy?’ it’s because they want reassurance that others feel the same way, or saw/heard the same thing, or have the same perception. The alternative – questionable sanity – is so deeply frightening that it’s difficult to really comprehend.

Several crime novels address this fear, too. One of the main characters in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, for instance, starts to doubt her sanity when she begins to have a sense of déjà vu – about a house she doesn’t ever remember visiting before. And the protagonist in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is slowly losing a battle with dementia. Since that story is told in first person, readers get a strong sense of what it’s like to feel that one’s losing touch with reality. We also see this sort of fear addressed and explored in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson is in his eighties, and has developed short-term memory problems. So he keeps a notebook in which he records everything that happens, so that he’ll be able to recall it later.

It’s hard to imagine a worse nightmare for a caring parent than the loss of a child. That may be particularly true in cases of abduction, where parents don’t know what happened to their child. That makes it even harder to come to terms with the loss.

I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, in the last few decades, there’ve been several books in which authors address that awful possibility. Just a few examples are William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, and Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. There are others, too, of course, many more than I have space for in this one post. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has been explored quite a lot in recent years. And, like our other deep, dark fears, it’s in part a way to explore that darkness in a safe way – a way that allows us to keep our distance, as it were.

These certainly aren’t the only truly dark fears that people have. And it might be the case that crime fiction allows those demons to be called out and sent off in a way that doesn’t do damage. It certainly lets authors flush them out.

What do you think? Do you find it cathartic to read crime fiction? If you’re a writer, do you think people write to let out the demons? I’d be really interested in your opinions.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Spy.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Alice LaPlante, Ellery Queen, Garry Disher, Helen Fitzgerald, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, Mike Befeler, Paddy Richardson, S.J. Watson, Sarah Ward, Stephen King, Wendy James, William McIlvanney