Category Archives: William Ryan

I Still Look in Your Window When I Pass Your House*

Did you ever have the uneasy feeling that you were being watched? I don’t mean stalking – that’s a different sort of thing. Rather, it’s the feeling of vulnerability that comes from feeling as though you’re under the proverbial microscope. It’s part of the reason that many people prefer to pull their window shades or blinds down after dark.

The feeling that someone’s looking can add a lot of suspense to a story. And, for an author, it offers lots of possibilities for a plot point. Is the person who’s watching a witness to a crime? Is the person being watched a victim? A killer? There are other plot points, too, that involve that creepy feeling of being watched.

Agatha Christie uses that plot point in more than one of her stories. In 4:50 From Paddington, for instance, Elspeth McGillicuddy is on her way by train to visit her friend Miss Marple. At one point, another train, going in the same direction, passes Mrs. McGillicuddy’s train, and she happens to look into one of the windows of that other train. To her shock, she sees what very much looks like a man strangling a woman. But there is no body found on the other train, and no-one has reported a missing person who answers the woman’s description. So, the train authorities and the police are not inclined to believe Mrs. McGillicuddy. But Miss Marple does. She does her own sort of experiment and finds out where the body would likely be – on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, which is the property of the Crackenthorpe family. Then, she convinces a friend, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to get a position there. Lucy does some sleuthing, and she discovers the body more or less where Miss Marple predicted it would be. Now the police are called in, and Miss Marple works with them and Lucy to find out who the woman was, and why (and by whom) she was killed.

Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said is the story of one fateful summer in the lives of two teenage girls. As the story begins, the unnamed narrator of the story is waiting for her friend, Harriet, to return from a trip to Wales. In the meantime, she happens to meet Peter Biggs, a middle-aged man who’s unhappy in his marriage, and generally dissatisfied with his life. The two find that they enjoy each other’s company, and the narrator feels the beginnings of the ‘hormone rush’ that signifies attraction. But she doesn’t dare do anything about it until Harriet comes back. When she does, Harriet insists that her friend not get too emotionally involved with Biggs. Instead, she wants this to be an objective observation, like other experiences the girls have had. So, the two plan to spend some time spying on Biggs, and then, says Harriet, they’ll find a way to ‘humble’ him. One day, they’re carrying out their plan, watching through one of the windows of Biggs’ house. They see something they’re not meant to see, and everything changes. Their plan also changes, and morphs into something much worse than it had been. Then, things spin out of control, and it all leads to real tragedy.

Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel takes place mostly in the small Dutch town of Zwinderen. Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk has been seconded there to help investigate a strange series of events. Several of Zwinderen’s residents have been getting vicious anonymous letters. The letters have had such a powerful impact that they’ve led to two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find the person responsible, so Van der Valk has been asked to look into the matter. Zwinderen is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. People think nothing of looking into one another’s windows, and there’s plenty of gossip. In fact, one’s considered odd at best, and suspicious at worst, if one doesn’t leave the window shades up, so to speak. So, at first, it’s hard to find out who sent the letters. Van der Valk also finds that few people will talk to him about the letters they’ve gotten. There’s a sense in the town of always being under scrutiny, so no-one wants to seem to be doing anything that might start even more gossip. In the end, though Van der Valk gets to the truth.

Peter Robinson’s Gallows View introduces his protagonist, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks. In the novel, Banks has recently been transferred from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He and his family are working on the process of settling in, but there’s not a lot of time for that. The police are on the trail of a peeper who’s been making the lives of Eastvale women miserable. It’s very unsettling, and plenty of people are upset that the police aren’t doing more to catch this person. Then, there’s a series of home invasions and robberies. And a murder. Now, Banks and his team have to deal with multiple cases. They find that, in their way, the cases are connected, and once Banks finds that fragile link, he’s able to get to the truth.

William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in Moscow, in the years just before World War II. Stalin is firmly in control of the USSR, and the dreaded NKVD has agents everywhere. To add to that, ordinary citizens are encouraged to denounce even friends and family members. So, everyone knows better than to trust others. And everyone knows that anyone might be watching, at any time. Against this backdrop of paranoia, Captain Korolev of the Moscow CID has to go about his job of finding the truth about murder cases. It’s often a delicate balance for him. On the one hand, he’s required to do his job. On the other, the trail sometimes leads to very high places. And anyone who dislikes him could easily denounce him, with all of the consequences that would have for him.

We also see that sort of ‘being watched’ in one plot thread of Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Gerda Klein, her husband, and their daughter, Ilse, live in Leipzig, in the former East Germany. It’s the early 1980’s, and the Cold War is still in full force. The Stasi have ‘eyes and ears’ everywhere, including in people’s private homes. Everyone knows that people look through windows, listen in on telephone conversations, and more. It’s an atmosphere of real uneasiness and lack of trust. And that’s part of the reason for which the Kleins decide to leave East Germany. It’s a major risk, but they make their escape and end up in the small town of Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. There, they start a new life. Ilse becomes a secondary school teacher, which is how she gets involved in the life of one of her most promising students, Serena Freeman. When Serena stops showing interest in school, and then disappears entirely, Ilse gets concerned. Her involvement in Serena’s life draws her into more than she had imagined.

It really is an eerie feeling to wonder if you’re being watched. So, it’s little wonder that authors use this plot point. So do filmmakers, don’t they, fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chad Price’s All.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicolas Freeling, Paddy Richardson, Peter Robinson, William Ryan

A Bomb or Two and Very Few Objected*

Very often, fictional sleuths have to move a bit carefully as they do their jobs. They may be investigating powerful and/or very dangerous people. Or (for police sleuths), they may have been told not to focus their energies on certain cases. There are other reasons, too, for which a sleuth might have to be very careful in investigating.

Sometimes, it’s the larger political situation that limits or even threatens what a sleuth can do. That context can add an interesting layer of suspense to a novel or series. In those situations, the sleuth has to go up against not just a group of suspects, but also political and other authorities that can be even more dangerous. One post isn’t enough space to list all of the novels and series that have this context; I know you’ll think of more examples than I could, anyway.

After the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s, ordinary citizens soon learned that they had to be extremely careful about where they went, what they did, what they said, and so on. Anything that brought them to the notice of the authorities could potentially result in a death sentence or worse. Several authors have used this climate of fear as a background for their novels and series. For example, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series begins in 1936, when the Nazis are fully in power. Gunther is a former police officer who’s turned private investigator, and sometimes, the trails he follows lead to some high places. He often has to balance finding out the truth against staying alive.

The same is true of Rebecca Cantrell, whose Hannah Vogel series begins in 1931. Vogel is a crime reporter who’s well aware of how powerful and dangerous the Nazis are. In several of the novels in this series, she has to come up with very creative ways to avoid calling attention to herself. When she does find herself in Nazi crosshairs, she has to find ways to stay alive, and it’s not always easy. Even when something isn’t directly happening to Vogel, it’s clear that she’s living in the sort of fearful atmosphere in which no-one can be trusted.

There’s a similar atmosphere in William Ryan’s series featuring Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. These novels take place just before the outbreak of World War II. Stalin is firmly in power, and the dreaded NKVD is, as the saying goes, everywhere. Citizens are encouraged to denounce anyone who says or does anything that could be conceived as disloyal to the Party or its leadership. So, people have learned, sometimes the hard way, not to trust anyone. Against this backdrop, Korolev is charged with solving crimes, which sometimes include murder. And sometimes, the crimes he investigates get very close to very highly-placed people. So, he and his assistant, Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka, have to be extremely careful as they do their work. It doesn’t help matters that Moscow’s criminal underworld is also dangerous, and sometimes takes an active interest in the crimes that Korolev and Slivka investigate.

Fans of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels can tell you that they, too, take place against the background of Party power and in a climate of distrust and fear. As the series begins (in Gorky Park), Renko is a Moscow homicide detective. As he investigates, he often finds himself in conflict with high Party officials, corrupt bureaucrats, and sometimes criminal gangsters. And he discovers that that corruption doesn’t end when the Soviet Union breaks up.

From 1948 to 1991, South Africa’s official policy was apartheid. This set of laws had powerful impacts on every aspect of people’s lives. The rule governed where one lived and worked, whom one could marry, and where one’s children went to school. They also governed the sort of social relationships one had. And there were several government agencies whose task it was to enforce the laws, often brutally. People know that speaking out, being seen with someone from a different race, or otherwise questioning the system, could get you killed. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series takes place in this environment. Beginning in the early 1950s, it tells the story of Cooper, who is a Johannesburg-based Detective Sergeant (DS) with the police. As he looks into cases, Cooper frequently has to cross racial lines. That in itself is risky, especially since people are strongly encouraged to report any suspected anti-apartheid activity. And Cooper isn’t universally liked, especially when the trail leads to people in authority. So he has to be very careful whom he trusts.

That’s also true of Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. He is a Buenos Aires-based police detective at a very dangerous time (the late 1970s) in the country’s history. The military government wields supreme power, and anyone seen as ‘trouble’ is quickly ‘disappeared.’ Often, such people are later found dead. Lescano knows that anyone might denounce him to the authorities, so he is very careful in his choices of confidants. That doesn’t entirely keep him out of trouble. But it keeps him alive.

And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen Cao lives and works in late-1990s Shanghai. At that time, Chinese society is integrating a few elements of capitalism, and ‘pure’ Maoism isn’t as common as it was. But the government is still very much in control what people see, read, and so on. And it’s not wise to go against the wishes of those who are high on the Party’s ‘ladder.’ More than once in the series, Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, have to move very quietly and carefully as they look into cases. That’s especially true when what they find goes against the official government line.

It adds real challenge to a fictional sleuth’s investigation when it has to take place against a sociopolitical climate of fear and lack of trust. That element can add suspense and conflict to a novel or series. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s The Lady’s Got Potential.

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Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Malla Nunn, Martin Cruz Smith, Philip Kerr, Qiu Xiaolong, Rebecca Cantrell, William Ryan

I Bet You Set Me Up to Fall*

You’d think that someone who hired a PI or got the police involved in an investigation would want the mystery solved. But that’s not always the case – at least not fictionally. There are plenty of novels and stories in which a PI is hired either by the killer, or by someone who actively wants the PI to fail. There are others in which a police detective is assigned to a case with the hope/expectation that it won’t be solved.

Sometimes this happens because the guilty person wants to keep tabs on the investigation, or hopes to sabotage it by manipulating the sleuth. Sometimes it’s because a police ‘rubber stamp’ is needed to cover up corruption or worse. There are other reasons, too.

Whatever the motivation, it’s tricky to pull such a story off, because it can stretch credibility. But if it’s done carefully, such a plot point can be suspenseful as well as intriguing. And, for readers who like to ‘match wits’ against the author, it can provide a very engaging ‘match.’

A few of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories include this plot point. I won’t give titles, or even sleuths, in order to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that, just because a person asks one of her sleuths to solve a case, or wants a name cleared, doesn’t mean that person really wants that to happen. Sometimes the very person who does the hiring (or requesting) is the guilty one.

As Nicholas Blake, Cecil Day-Lewis wrote a long-running (1935-1968) crime fiction series featuring a poet, Nigel Strangeways, who is also a PI. Strangeways is a reflective sort of person, who considers many different possibilities when he’s on the case. And that’s a good thing, because he’s learned not to trust everyone who asks him to get involved in an investigation. Again, I won’t get more detailed because of spoilers. But Strangeways has learned the value of suspecting everyone.

One of the interesting sorts of crime plots happens when a police detective is, if you will, set up to fail – or at least to help convict the wrong person. In Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, for instance, we are introduced to New York homicide detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. In the futuristic New York where he lives, the population is basically divided between Spacers and Earthmen. Spacers are the descendants of humans who explored space and then returned. They’ve embraced the idea of space travel. Earthmen, on the other hand, are the descendants of humans who remained behind, and who believe that humans will survive best if they remain on Earth. Among the many differences between the two groups is that Spacer society includes positronic robots. Earthmen hate and fear them. When noted Spacer scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered, it’s believed that an Earthman was responsible. In order to make the investigation as balanced and transparent as possible, Baley (who is an Earthman) is assigned to investigate. He’s given a Spacer partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, who is a positronic robot. Together, the two begin to look into the matter. They find out who killed Sarton and why, but readers also learn that someone far up on the police ‘food chain’ didn’t want them to find out the truth…

That also happens in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. In that novel, Shanghai Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, investigate the murder of a young woman named Guan Hongying. The victim was a national model worker, and for that reason, somewhat of a celebrity. That’s reason enough to be very careful about investigating her murder. It complicates matters that she moved in some high Party circles, too, so some important people could be involved in her death. Chen and Yu begin to trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and it soon comes out that she took a taxi ride not long before she was killed. Now that the taxi driver is a possible suspect, Party officials want the investigation stopped. So, the message comes down that the taxi driver is the killer, and that’s what needs to be on the report. Chen and Yu aren’t convinced, though, and continue looking for the truth. But some very important people do their best to ensure that this case isn’t going to be really solved. On the surface, it seems that the police brass and government are endorsing the investigation. But underneath, the exact opposite is happening.

William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID faces a related situation in The Twelfth Department, which takes place just before World War II. In that novel, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Nadezdha Slivka, are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. The two sleuths follow the leads and settle on a suspect. Then, that suspect is murdered. Now, they have to start again. This case is especially delicate because Azarov was working on a top-secret government project, and the NKVD has an interest in it. Another possible suspect in both murders comes to light, and Korolev and Slivka are more or less instructed to identify that suspect as the guilty party and consider the case closed. But both of them believe that person’s been set up. Together, they decide to keep investigating, and it’s soon clear that some very important people do not want the truth about this case to come out. At the same time as Korolev and Slivka have been assigned to the case, they’re also being hampered.

Fictional characters can have several reasons for hiring a PI even if they’re the killers. Fictional police detectives can be assigned to cases by the very people who have the most to lose if they’re solved. That plot point isn’t easy to do well. But in deft hands, it can be very suspenseful.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rasmus’ Dangerous Kind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Nicholas Blake, Qiu Xiaolong, William Ryan

Down to Elvis Presley Boulevard Where All the Faithful Cried*

As this is posted, it’s 40 years since the death of Elvis Presley. Whatever you think of his music, Presley was a worldwide phenomenon, and millions of people still make the pilgrimage to his home at Graceland. Oh, and by the way, you’ll want to check out Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, which takes place in Memphis, and which has plenty of mentions of (and even a big event at) Graceland.

Presley’s passing left his legions of fans grief-stricken. There are even those who swear that he’s still alive; that’s how much he meant to them. But it’s often that way when someone you’ve put on a pedestal dies. If it’s a famous person, there’s a wide outpouring of emotion. If it’s someone you’ve personally had as an idol (say, a colleague or friend or mentor), the grief may not be as public, but it’s no less there. Certainly, that’s true in real life, and it is in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife, Gerda, are among a group of people invited to spend a weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area and has been invited for lunch, arrives just after the shooting; in fact, at first, he thinks it’s an ‘amusement’ staged for his benefit. Very soon, though, he sees that it’s all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the murderer is. As he does, we see just how many people put Christow on a pedestal. And even for those who didn’t do that, we see clearly that his death has left a gaping hole, if I can put it like that.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate when eighteen-year-old Andreas Winther disappears. When Andreas’ mother, Runi, first reports him missing, Sejer isn’t overly concerned. There are, after all, plenty of reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he’s going. But when more time goes by, and he doesn’t return, Sejer begins to look more seriously into the matter. He begins with Andreas’ best friend, Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. I can say without spoiling the story that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does know a lot more than he’s saying about their last day together, and about what might have happened to Andreas. And, as the story goes on, we see that, in a way, Zipp hero-worshipped his friend, and is dealing with his own kind of grief and sense of loss.

Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) is the story of the murder of Viktor Stråndgard. His body is discovered in a Kiruna church called the Church of the Source of All Our Strength. The victim was an up-and-coming church leader who was sometimes called The Paradise Boy. He had many, many followers, so his death makes national news. In fact, that’s how Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson hears about the murder. It’s especially shocking to her because she grew up in Kiruna, and knew the Stråndgard family. Then, she gets a call from the victim’s sister, Sanna, a former friend. Sanna says that the police suspect her of the murder, and she needs Martinsson’s help. At first, Martinsson refuses; she had her own good reasons for leaving Kiruna in the first place, and has no desire to return. But Sanna finally persuades her to go. Martinsson hasn’t been there long when Sanna is actually arrested for the murder and imprisoned. Now, if she’s to clear her former friend’s name, Martinsson will have to find out who the real killer is. As she looks into the case, we see how Viktor Stråndgard’s death has impacted the church, his followers, and plenty of other people as well.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is the first in his series featuring Shanghai police detective Chief Inspector Chen Cao. One morning, the body of a woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. Very soon, she is identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. That means this investigation is going to have to be done very delicately. The victim was somewhat of a celebrity, and her death has been reported widely, leaving many people upset. What’s more, she had high political status, and moved in circles with some important people. So, it’s going to be critical that the case be handled as carefully as possible.

A similar thing might be said of William Ryan’s The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), which takes place in the then-USSR in the years just before World War II. It’s the story of the murder of Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya, a dedicated Party worker and up-and-coming actress. When she’s found dead at a filming location, it looks at first as though it might be a suicide. But there are enough questions about it that Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev is seconded to Odessa to find out the truth. And that’s going to be a problem. If the victim died by suicide that’ll be put down as a tragedy, but no more. If it’s a murder, though, the matter could turn very ugly for some important people. And, since the victim was a celebrity, albeit a minor one, there’ll be news reports, and word will get out. So, Korolev will have to tread very, very lightly as he investigates.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. The real action in this novel begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan goes missing and is later found dead, with a scarf round her head. At the time, the police concentrate heavily on her family, especially her aunt, uncle and cousins, with whom she’s staying during the summer. Then, a few months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is killed. She, too, is found with a scarf. Now, the Sydney police seem to be dealing with a mass killer that the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. No-one is ever arrested for the crimes, though, and the cases go cold. Years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on the families of murder victims. She approaches Angela’s cousin Jane Tait, who gives very reluctant permission to be interviewed. She also interviews Jane’s brother, Mick, and their parents, Barbara and Doug Griffin. As the story goes on, we learn the story of that summer, and we learn what really happened to both Angela and Kelly. Admittedly, Angela is not a film or music idol. But Jane put her up on a pedestal, in a way, and her loss struck a devastating blow from which the family still hasn’t really recovered. It’s an interesting case of a person who isn’t famous, but who is still someone’s idol.

The loss of an idol can have a profound impact on a person. And that can make for an interesting crime plot or layer of character development. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Elvis Presley Boulevard.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Karin Fossum, Qiu Xiaolong, Riley Adams, Wendy James, William Ryan

Is That You, Baby, or Just a Brilliant Disguise?*

At first glance, this ‘photo might look like a bunch of mulch and earth, and some bushes. Look again, though, and you’ll see something else. Did you see the lizard? Like a lot of animals, lizards hide from both predators and prey by blending in with their environment, so that you don’t notice them.

If you read enough crime fiction, you see that a lot of characters do that, too. Being able to blend in is a very useful skill. There are far too many examples for just this one post, but even these few should show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, we are introduced to the members of the Abernethie family. When patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies, the members of his family gather for his funeral and the reading of his will. At the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and she herself retracts what she said. But privately, everyone starts to wonder whether she was right. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that Abernethie was killed. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot, and asks him to investigate, and Poirot agrees. He finds that every one of the family members benefited from Abernethie’s will, so there are several possibilities, if the man was really murdered. And being able to blend in plays an important role in this novel. I know, I know, fans of Cat Among the Pigeons.

Being able to blend in and camouflage oneself is a critical skill in espionage stories. The one thing that moles don’t want to do is call attention to themselves, after all. For instance, in Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, we are introduced to Bernard ‘Bernie’ Samson. He’s a former MI6 field agent who’s now got a desk job at the agency’s London Central office. In one plot thread of this novel, the agency becomes aware that there’s a mole in a very high place. So Samson starts investigating to find out who that person is. He’s good enough at his job, and experienced enough, to know that anyone could be the culprit. So, he has to consider colleagues, bosses, and other people he doesn’t want to believe are guilty. The outcome of this investigation plays a very important part in what happens in the other two books in this particular trilogy.

In Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom, British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann gets a new assignment. He’s to travel to Thailand and retrieve a lead-covered black box that ended up in the Andaman Sea when the ship it was on was sunk. Swann’s not told what’s in the box, nor why the British government wants it. All he’s told is that he needs to bring it back to the UK. For Swann, this assignment has an added danger. He’s made some powerful enemies as a result of a previous trip, and he’s going to have to work with those enemies if he’s going to get the resources he needs to do his job. But as it turns out, even Swann’s friends aren’t as trustworthy as he thinks they are. He’s got quite a dangerous enemy he’s not even aware of when he takes on this assignment.

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that these novels include several story arcs. One of them concerns police politics, corruption, and some enemies that Gamach has made in the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is savvy enough to know that these are people with enough power to influence others, including those he works with on a regular basis. And it turns out that he’s right to be wary. Some of the police characters we meet in the series turn out to be rather well-camouflaged.

William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in Moscow, just before World War II. As a member of the Moscow CID, Korolev’s job is to catch criminals, preferably immediately. The Party, with Stalin firmly in charge, wants to prove that the Soviet Union is crime-free, so there’s a lot of pressure to succeed in all investigations – and severe consequences for not doing so. Korolev wants to solve crimes, too, but he has to move very carefully. When the trail leads to high places, especially to members of the Party, Korolev knows that he could be in bigger danger if he catches a murderer than if he doesn’t. What’s more, people are encouraged to denounce one another. Anyone, including a colleague, a friend, or the person next door, could be a well-disguised enemy. That mistrust adds a layer of tension to this series. You’re right, fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series. There’s a sort of similar atmosphere there, too.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?, in which we are introduced to Yvonne Mulhern. She, her husband, Gerry, and their newborn daughter, Róisín, have recently moved from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of an important career opportunity. Yvonne is overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for a young infant. And Gerry isn’t much help, as he spends a lot of time at work. What’s more, Yvonne’s never lived in Dublin, so she doesn’t have a network of friends or family there. Then, she learns of Netmammy, an online support group for new mothers. She joins, and soon finds the friendship, support, and commiseration she so badly needs. When one of the members of the group seems to go ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne gets very concerned. But there’s really not much she can do about it. She contacts the police, but they can’t really do much, either, at this point. Then, the body of an unidentified woman is discovered in an abandoned apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle, also an expectant mother, is assigned to the case. The dead woman’s profile seems to be similar to that of Yvonne’s missing online friend. If it is the same person, then what might that mean for the members of Netmammy? After all, anyone can be anyone online… The case does turn out to be connected to the online forum, but not in the way you might think.

It takes skill to create a character who blends in in this way. It’s got to be done credibly, or the story loses authenticity. But when they’re done well, such characters can be interesting, and can certainly add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Brilliant Disguise.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Len Deighton, Louise Penny, Sinéad Crowley, William Ryan