Category Archives: William Ryan

Just Leave Everything to Me*

Unofficial LeadersThere are certain people who become, if you want to put it this way, unofficial leaders in their communities. They don’t have official status (e.g. mayor, department manager, and so on). But they command respect, and they get things done. When the police are investigating a crime, they know that they won’t get nearly as far without the cooperation of these leaders.

That’s especially true in what I’ll call ‘shadow communities.’ By that, I mean communities that aren’t really geopolitical entities such as towns. Rather, these are unofficial groups of people linked by an interest, ethnic background, or some other commonality.

You see this sort of leadership emerge in real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too. Oh, and before I go any further, you’ll notice that this post won’t really have discussion of crime bosses. Too easy

In several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes gets very valuable help from a group of street children he calls the Baker Street Irregulars. These are children who don’t go to school and often don’t have regular homes. In the Victorian world in which Holmes lives, no-one pays very much attention to them, so they can come and go without being noticed. That makes them very useful as Holmes’ ‘eyes and ears.’ They’re an interesting ‘shadow community,’ without an established infrastructure. But they do have a social structure in place, and they work as a group. Their leader is a boy called Wiggins. He obviously doesn’t have official status as any kind of authority. But the others look up to him, and he serves as their liaison with Holmes.

We also see an example of the ‘shadow community’ of street children in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series. These novels take place mostly in Moscow in the years just before World War II. At that time, often called the Great Purge, there were thousands of arrests of people who were considered ‘enemies of the state.’ If they weren’t killed outright, they were imprisoned or sent away, often to Siberia. Many of them left behind children, who were sometimes considered suspicious simply because of their parents’ arrests. These children were often left to fend for themselves as best they could. In The Holy Thief, the first of this series, Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID meets a group of such children. He’s investigating the death of a woman whose body was found in a former church, as well as another, similar murder. Korolev learns that a group of street children was near the scene when the first murder occurred, and he wants to talk to them. He finally tracks them down and learns that they are led by Kim Goldstein, whose

‘‘…parents got caught up in something or other…’’

and is now managing for himself. Goldstein and Korolev establish a kind of rapport, and his help turns out to be valuable in this novel and in The Twelfth Department.

In William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, we meet Jack Laidlaw of the Glasgow police. He and his team investigate when eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing and is later discovered raped and murdered. There isn’t much to go on, and there is a great deal of pressure to find the killer. So Laidlaw decides to visit John Rhodes, who holds court in a pub called The Gay Laddie. Laidlaw says this about Rhodes:

‘‘He’s an honourable thug. He won’t like this kind of thing. He might lend us his eyes and ears for a week.’’

This part of Glasgow has a ‘shadow community’ that’s not really run by the civil authorities, except nominally. Things happen when John Rhodes wants them to happen. He’s not a crime boss, really, but he has connections all through the area, and everyone knows better than to cross him. Laidlaw and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, have a conversation with Rhodes, and after a little staking out of positions, enlist his cooperation. It’s an interesting example of the way these ‘shadow communities’ work.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girl introduces readers to DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss of the Birmingham Police. When fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found murdered, Morriss and her team investigate. It turns out that Michelle was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss wants to talk to other sex workers to see what they might know about what happened. As you can imagine, the ‘shadow community’ of sex workers isn’t eager to talk to the police. In order to get their cooperation, Morriss will need the support of their unofficial leader, Big Val. Val’s been in the business longer than the rest, and has a sort of nurturing interest in the others. For their part, they look to her for advice and support – and a place to relax. Once Morriss is able to convince Big Val to work with her, she gets some useful information from the other sex workers in the area.

There are even some sleuths who are unofficial leaders. For example, you could argue that Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple is one such sleuth. Her village of St. Mary Mead isn’t a ‘shadow community;’ it’s an official town. But there’s plenty that goes on there that’s informal. And in that sense, Miss Marple is a leader. She isn’t the mayor or a member of the council. But everyone knows her, most people trust her, and she certainly has her ear to the ground, as the saying goes. And the police who investigate murders in that area know that they ignore Miss Marple to their peril.

And then there’s Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka. One of the many ‘shadow communities’ in London is its Polish community. Members of it look to their own leaders for advice and support, and one of those leaders is Kiszka. He’s known as a ‘fixer’ – someone who can get things done and make things right. So it’s no surprise that DC Natalie Kershaw of the Met finds it to her advantage to work with Kiszka when she investigates murders that involve the Polish community. Kiszka doesn’t have official authority – not even in the area where he lives. But everyone knows he’s the person to go to in order to make things happen.

And that’s the thing about those ‘shadow communities.’ Like more official communities, they have their leaders. The authority of those leaders doesn’t come from a title or an office. But the police know that it’s just as real as a badge is, and that it pays to work with those leaders.


ps. Just in case you’re wondering…no, I don’t smoke. That’s a bit of ‘trick’ photography…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Jerry Herman song. It might not have been used in the original musical Hello, Dolly, but it was a memorable addition to the film version.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arthur Conan Doyle, Maureen Carter, William McIlvanney, William Ryan

In a Room Where You Do What You Don’t Confess*

Secret RoomsSecret rooms and passages have been standbys in crime fiction for a very long time. They’re extremely useful and convenient for the author, and there really are plenty old places that have them. And let’s face it; they can be fun.

Of course, as with just about anything else in crime fiction, secret rooms and passages are tricky. Too much dependence on them and you lose credibility. In fact, one of the traditional rules for writing crime novels is that there can be no more than one such place in any given story. That’s a fairly wise idea. But there are places and situations where they can be extremely useful.

Anna Katherine Green’s short story Missing: Page 13 features her sleuth, New York debutante Violet Strange. In this story, she is hired to solve the mystery of what happened to a crucial page of an academic paper. A group of people had met for dinner; one of them was a certain Mr. Spielhage, who had just completed a paper which included a formula that might shed a whole new light on a certain industry. He was challenged about his ideas and determined to go over his paper word by word and find out where he might be wrong. The paper had been locked away, and Mr. Spielhage himself was sitting in the private room where the paper was, so that no-one could get at it. But when Mr. Spielhage read his paper, he found that the most important page – Page 13 – was not there. It’s one of those ‘impossible but not really’ cases, and when Violet makes an interesting discovery about the house, she determines what happened to the page.

Agatha Christie used hidden rooms and passages in more than one of her stories. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Hercule Poirot is present at a cocktail party when the Reverend Stephen Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be pure nicotine poisoning. There seems no motive for the murder; Babbington was well-liked and certainly not wealthy. The investigation is underway in that case when there’s another death. This time, the victim is well-known mental health specialist Dr. Bartholomew ‘Tollie’ Strange. He, too, dies of nicotine poisoning. The two cases seem to be closely connected, especially since some of the same people were present at both occasions. But it’s hard to see exactly how; it’s even harder to see what the motive in the first death is. After a third murder, Poirot is able to work out who the killer is and what the motive is. It’s not the cause of the murders, but I can say without spoiling the story that a secret passage plays a role in this story. I hear you, fans of The Seven Dials Mystery…

In one plot thread of Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, we meet Joakim and Katrine Westin, who sell their home in Stockholm and take a home at Eel Point, on the island of Öland. They tell themselves, each other, and everyone else that they plan to renovate their new home and get away from the noise and haste of the city. Soon, though, tragedy strikes the family. Police officer Tilda Davidsson investigates, and learns that the Westins’ home has a dark and tragic history. That history has a lot to do with the present-day tragedy, and a particular room in a particular building plays an important role in getting to the truth.

Steve Robinson’s In the Blood introduces readers to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In this novel, he has accepted a commission from wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift. Tayte has discovered that one branch of the family moved south and then died out. The other, led by James Fairborne, went to England in 1783 with a group of Loyalists. So Sloane sends Tayte to Cornwall to follow up on that branch. When Tayte arrives, he discovers that the modern-day Fairborne family is not particularly disposed to help him. Still, he presses on with his quest. Meanwhile, we meet Amy Fallon, who lives in Cornwall. She is learning to face life again after the death two years earlier of her husband Gabriel. Before his death, Gabriel told her he’d made a discovery in their house, but never told her what it was. Now, some home renovations have revealed a hidden staircase leading to a secret room. In that room is a very old writing box. It turns out that this box is related to Tayte’s investigation, and it’s interesting to see how secret rooms figure into this story.

And then there’s William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, the third in his series featuring Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. In this novel, he and Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are asked to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. It’s a very delicate case, because Azarov was working on a high-level, classified project. Nevertheless, Korolev and Slivka get to work on their investigation. They find a suspect, and at first, it seems the case is solved. But then that suspect is killed. Now the team has to start again. This time, the trail leads them to a much bigger case than they could have imagined. And there are all sorts of secret rooms and places that figure into the story.

And that’s the thing about secret rooms and hidden passages. They add to suspense and they can help a story along. They actually exist, too. Where would crime fiction be without them? I know I’ve only mentioned a few cases: which have you liked best?


*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anna Katherine Green, Johan Theorin, Stever Robinson, William Ryan

It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

Where Are You Now?*

Whatever Happened toSome fictional characters are interesting enough, or sympathetic enough, or in enough of a difficult situation that you wonder whatever happened to them after the events in the story. Those characters may or may not be main characters. They may appear in series or standalones. Either way, their stories aren’t complete by the end of a novel, so the reader isn’t told what, exactly, happened to them.

Each of us finds different characters interesting, so I’d imagine we’ll each have different lists of those ‘whatever happened to…’ characters. Here are a few I’ve wondered about, to show you what I mean. I still would like to know what happened to them.

In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is taking a train to visit her friend Miss Marple. When another train passes by, she happens to glance into its window. That’s when she sees someone strangling a woman. Very much upset, she contacts the conductor and when the train gets to the station, the conductor passes along her worry. But no bodies are discovered, and no-one has reported a missing person. So no-one really believes Mrs. McGillicuddy’s story – no-one, that is, except Miss Marple. She knows that her friend is neither fanciful nor given to lying, so she does a little of her own research and finds out where the body is probably located: on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, the property of the Crackenthorpe family. Knowing she can’t get away with poking about on the grounds, Miss Marple enlists her friend, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Lucy gets a position in the household and, as soon as she is settled in, she begins to search. She discovers the body on the property, but everyone in the Crackenthorpe family claims they don’t know the dead woman. Miss Marple is quite certain that’s not the case, and she looks more deeply into the matter. In the end, we learn who the dead woman was, what her connection to the family was, and why and by whom she was killed. In the course of the story, a few members of the Crackenthorpe family show more than a passing interest in Lucy, and she’s in turn interested in two of them. I’ve always wondered which one she actually chose. Miss Marple seems to know…

C.J. Box is perhaps best known for his series featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, but he’s done some standalones too. One of them is Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. In that novel, travel and tourism professional Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa face every adoptive parent’s worst nightmare: a court order to return their daughter to her biological father. They’ve loved their baby Angelina since they brought her home, and have proven themselves to be more than fit parents. But they learn to their shock that Angelina’s biological father Garrett Moreland never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them, and he’s supported by his father, powerful local judge John Moreland. At first, the Morelands try to persuade, then basically bribe, the McGuanes to give them Angelina. When that doesn’t work, Judge Moreland uses his authority to issue a court order giving the couple twenty-one days in which to relinquish custody. They vow to do whatever it takes to keep their child, and that leads to things neither had imagined. At the end of the story, we do get the answers to the main questions (e.g. why the Morelands are so desperate to get Angelina back). But the story doesn’t end neatly. I’d really like to know what happened to the McGuanes after everything they’ve gone through in the novel.

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice introduces readers to former school principal Thea Farmer. She left her position and had a ‘dream home’ built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, some poor financial planning has forced Thea to give up that lovely house and settle for the house next door – a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ As though that weren’t enough, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the house Thea considers hers, and move in. She considers them intruders and wants nothing to do with them. And for Thea, things get even worse when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim joins the Campbell/Carrington home. After a time though, Thea finds herself developing an awkward sort of friendship with Kim. And she sees that the girl has real promise as a writer. So when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea gets concerned. She can’t really take all of her fears to the police, because they can’t do anything without actual evidence of abuse, neglect, etc. So she decides to take her own measures to deal with the situation. I can say without spoiling the story that I’ve always wanted to know whatever happened to Kim. What sort of life did she make for herself?

In William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev and his partner Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. Since his work is considered essential by the government, this case will have to be handled very carefully. The evidence suggests one suspect in particular, and it looks as though the investigation will be finished soon. But then, that person is also murdered. The NKVD (this series takes place just before World War II) has a particular theory of what happened, and both Korolev and Slivka know that it’s in their interests to ‘rubber stamp’ that theory. But at the same time, neither is satisfied; so, they dig deeper. They find that these deaths are related to something much bigger than either detective imagined. At the end of the novel, I was left wondering what would happen to some of the people caught up in this case. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers, but there is a group of people whose ultimate fate isn’t exactly spelled out. I’d like to know what happened to them.

David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight is the first of his historical (1970s) novels featuring Superintendent Frank Swann of the Perth Police. As the novel begins, Swann’s been out of Perth for a few years, but he returns when his friend Ruby Devine is murdered. There aren’t really any viable suspects except Ruby’s partner Jacky White. But Jacky claims that she’s innocent. And in fact, she herself is viciously attacked. Swann soon suspects that all of this is the work of the ‘purple circle,’ a group of corrupt police officers who use terror and blackmail to stay in power. Swann’s already on their ‘hit list’ because he called for a Royal Commission hearing into corruption in the police department. There are plenty of people who don’t want to talk to him either for that reason or because of their own fear of the ‘purple circle.’ But Swann persists and find out who really killed Ruby and why. Readers learn the answers to the important questions in this story. Still, I’ve always wondered what happened to Jacky. She left that sort of impression on me.

What about you? Are there fictional characters whose ultimate fate you’d like to know? If you’re a writer, do you deliberately leave readers wondering what happened to certain characters?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ Air of December.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, David Whish-Wilson, Virginia Duigan, William Ryan

I Was Listening In*

Listening InPrivacy matters to a lot of people. And that includes their conversations. It’s unsettling to imagine that anyone might be able to hear what you think is a private conversation. And yet, sometimes we don’t have as much privacy as we’d like to think we have. As uncomfortable as it may make us feel in real life, the plot point of someone listening in on a conversation can add real tension and suspense to a crime novel. There are lots of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot is asked to investigate the death of family patriarch Richard Abernethie. When the members of his family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone dismisses what she’s said. Even she tells everyone not to pay attention to her. But when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone begins to believe that she was probably right. In the course of the story, one of the characters remembers a vital clue. When that person follows the family attorney’s instructions and telephones him about it, someone listens in on that conversation, and it has real consequences.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series takes place mostly in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. At that time and in that place, having someone listen in on a private conversation was not trivial. Anything might be reported to the Nazi authorities, and the consequences of that were often hideous. In the series, Vogel is a journalist who often has to be careful of every word she says. On one level, she investigates stories that the Nazi authorities do not want reported. For instance, in A Game of Lies, she’s reporting on the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. The authorities want to present a peaceful, pleasant face to the world. But the reality is quite different, and as Vogel gets closer to the truth, she has to be extremely careful of what she says, when and to whom. She has to be careful at another level too. The people she loves and cares about most are at as much risk as she is, and to protect them and herself, she has to avoid being listened in on by the wrong people. That plot point adds a thread of real suspense to this series.

William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series also depicts a society in which listening in on conversations is a regular occurrence. These novels take place mostly in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow. Any conversation one has may be overheard and used as ‘ammunition’ in a denunciation. And being branded as disloyal to the Party means at the very least prison and/or banishment, with serious consequences for one’s family too. What’s more, when a person is suspected of disloyalty, the authorities have no qualms about installing listening devices to make it even easier to overhear everything. So conversations have to be conducted carefully and private conversations even more so. In this atmosphere, Captain Alexei Korolev works for the Moscow CID, where his job is to catch criminals and support the Party’s vision of a crime-free ‘worker’s paradise.’ But he is keenly aware of the power of the NKVD and other Party authorities. So when the trail leads to highly placed people, as it does in The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), he has to move with extreme caution. Privacy isn’t easy to obtain, and the possibility that someone may be listening in adds suspense to this series.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein and her mother Gerda. They emigrated from what was then East Germany during the height of the Soviet Era. Gerda in particular remembers clearly how careful people had to be of everything they said and did. The Stasi – the secret police – had spies everywhere who reported any conversation that might be considered traitorous. And once suspected of disloyal activity, people were subjected to even more listening in. For example, telephones were bugged and tiny holes drilled in walls and ceilings so that ‘neighbours’ could overhear everything. For Gerda, New Zealand has been a welcome haven. Ilsa sees things differently because she was just a child when the family left Leipzig, but she too has settled into life on the South Island. Both women’s lives are changed when Ilsa begins to be concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman. Formerly a top achiever with academic ambitions, Serena has lost interest in school. When Ilsa decides to intervene, she finds herself drawn into something much more than she imagined. 

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh has made a life for herself in Delhi and has little motivation to return to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. But she agrees to do just that when she gets a call from a former friend who is now Inspector General for Punjab. He wants Singh’s assistance with a difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is believed to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen members of her family, and for a fire that burned the family home. At the same time, there is some evidence that she may have been a victim herself, who just happened to survive the incident. Durga isn’t talking though, so the police can’t move on the case. It’s hoped that if Singh can get Durga to talk about what happened that night, the authorities can get to the truth. There are several influential people though who do not want certain facts about the Atwal family to come out. So Singh finds that her telephone calls are monitored and her things searched. She does find out what really happened, but she also learns that a lot of people cannot be trusted, and that her private conversations have to be planned.

Sometimes the people listening in are the supposed ‘good guys,’ who aren’t so good. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Fire, Perth cop Frank Swann returns to his ‘home patch’ after being away for a few years. He’s learned that a friend of his Ruby Devine has been murdered and he wants to find out what happened. He soon discovers that he’s up against ‘the purple circle,’ a group of corrupt cops who are already against him because he’s reported them for corruption. ‘The purple circle’ may have been responsible for Ruby’s death though, so Swann perseveres. In the course of his investigation, he finds that ‘the walls have ears,’ as the saying goes, and he has to be very careful what he says and to whom. And several people he talks to are reluctant to say anything for exactly the same reason. That plot point adds a solid layer of suspense to this story.

Listening in on conversations is also of course, a major plot thread in espionage fiction. There are lots of spy thrillers (you could probably list more than I could) in which the plot is moved along through bugged telephones and other listening devices. That’s why there are a lot of ‘walks in parks’ where spies discuss things they don’t want overheard.

That possibility – that a private conversation is being overheard – is a creepy one. It’s little wonder we see it so often in crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.


Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, Kishwar Desai, Paddy Richardson, Rebecca Cantrell, William Ryan