And Expert Guidance Had Been Sought*

ExpertsThe police can’t always solve crimes with just their own expertise. For example, if the crime involves stolen art, the police consult with art historians and art experts to try to trace the missing work. There are a lot of other ways, too, in which experts in different fields can be extremely helpful to the police. Such experts can also be helpful to attorneys who are either defending clients or prosecuting defendants.

Given the number of times that experts are tapped in investigations, it makes sense that we also see plenty of them in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of lots more.

In Agatha Christie’s Funerals are Fatal), wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie dies rather suddenly. When his family gathers for his funeral, his youngest sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that she knows her brother was murdered. Everyone immediately hushes her; she herself even asks everyone to ignore what she’s said. But privately the various family members begin to suspect that she may be right. And when she is murdered the next day, that suspicion grows even stronger. The family’s attorney, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to help investigate, and Poirot agrees. One of the minor characters in this story is an art expert, Alexander Guthrie, whose knowledge of art turns out to be quite important.

So does the art knowledge of Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere, whom we meet in Aaron Elkins’ Loot. One day, Revere gets a call from pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. He’s just gotten a new painting in his shop, and he thinks it may be valuable. When Revere sees the painting, he suspects that it might be a Velázquez, in which case it is indeed worth an awful lot of money. Revere wants to do a little more research, so he asks Pawlovsky to let him put the painting somewhere safe while he does. Pawlovsky insists on keeping the work in his shop, and finally, a reluctant Revere leaves to do his research. By the time he returns, Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Guilty at leaving his friend in such a vulnerable position, Revere decides that if he can trace the painting from its last known place – among pieces of art ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis – he can find out who took the painting to the shop, and who probably killed Pawlovsky. He persuades the police that his lead might be worth exploring, and he takes off for what turns out to be a very dangerous adventure…

In Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling, Port Dundas, Onatrio, DI Hazel Micallef and her team are faced with a bizarre set of murders. In each case, the evidence shows that the murderer was admitted willingly, and that the victim put up no resistance. Very slowly, the team starts to put together some evidence that may link the deaths. One piece of evidence comes from photographs of the victims’ mouths. They don’t mean much until speech reader Marlene Turnbull lends her expertise to the investigation. That’s when things start to make sense to Micallef; the help Turnbull provides is important to putting the team on the right trail.

In Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, we are introduced to Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate and oceanographer Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He is an expert on wave patterns, and is using his knowledge both to complete his degree and to solve a mystery of his own. Then he meets Basanti, a young girl who was trafficked from India to Scotland. She is looking for her friend Preeti, who was also trafficked, and suspects that McGill may be able to help. Once he discovers what he thinks happened to Preeti, his next step is try to get the police to use what he’s found out. That proves to be more difficult than it may seem. Among other things, he’s already been on the police blotter for environmental activism that wasn’t completely legal. But he convinces D.S. Helen Jamieson that he may be right. When she uses the expertise he provides, she’s able to track the traffickers.

Keigo Higashino’s Tokyo police detective Shunpei Kusanagi and his team sometimes have some difficult cases to investigate. But they don’t have to rely just on their own knowledge. Kusanagi often turns to mathematician and physicist Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In The Devotion of Suspect X, for instance, Galileo uses his mathematics ability to help solve the murder of Shinji Togashi. Togashi’s ex-wife Yasuko Hanaoka is the chief suspect, but Kusanagi doesn’t have any real evidence to use against her. So he consults with Galileo, who is able to find out what really happened. In this case, his mathematics expertise comes in especially handy, since he is up against someone with plenty of mathematics knowledge.

There are plenty of other novels and series, too, in which experts from all walks of life work with the police to help them solve cases. Such experts really are helpful in real life, and they can add a layer of interest and some character development to a crime novel or series. Which ones have stayed with you?

Oh, and you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any of the myriad forensics, medical and anthropology experts out there in crime fiction. Too easy ;-)


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Robert Wyatt’s Mob Rule.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Inger Ash Wolfe, Keigo Higashino, Mark Douglas-Home, Michael Redhill

I Knew Right Away, From the Very First Day*

Powerful BeginningsPublishers, editors, and agents all stress the importance of the beginning of a story. There are good reasons for that, not the least of which is that readers usually decide very quickly whether they’re going to invest themselves in a book or not. Some readers decide within ten pages; others take a little more time. Either way, it’s very important to get the reader’s attention right away, and invite the reader to come along for the ride.

There isn’t only one way to do that, and different approaches attract different readers. But there are some crime novels that really do have powerful beginnings. I’m not necessarily referring to the first sentence in the story; rather, I mean the first major scene or revelation. Here are some novels with beginnings that I’ve found particularly powerful. Your list will be different, but I hope this will suffice to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced begins as various residents of the village of Chipping Cleghorn open their copies of the Gazette. In it, they find the following advertisement:


‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 5th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30 pm. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’


It’s an irresistible invitation for the guests. It’s also irresistible for readers. It’s difficult not to wonder whether this is a game, whether there will be a murder, and if so, who the victim will be. When there is, indeed, a killing, Inspector Craddock investigates. With help from Miss Marple, he learns that someone’s done a very effective job of mental manipulation to accomplish the murder.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone has a very famous and powerful first line:


‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ 


As I say, a powerful beginning is more than just a strong first sentence. But this line sets the tone for the whole book. In it, we learn that the wealthy and educated Coverdales hire Eunice Parchman to serve as their housekeeper. They don’t know, though, that she is keeping a secret – one she is desperate not to reveal. When a member of the family accidentally discovers that secret, this seals everyone’s fate. Rendell uses that strong first sentence and builds the tension as we learn the background to this tragedy.

The first scene in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect is also quite powerful – at least to me. Eighty-year-old George Wilcox is standing next to the body of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke, whom he has just killed. Right away, the reader knows who the victim is, and who the killer is. That’s powerful enough that it invites the reader to come along and find out the motive and the story behind the murder. When RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg gets word of the case, he begins the investigation. Wilcox is one of his first interviewees, since he called the police. But Alberg doesn’t suspect Wilcox at first. Even after he begins to believe Wilcox may be guilty, he doesn’t know what the motive would be. What’s more, it’s hard for him to get any direct evidence to support his case. Among other things, this is an interesting matching of wits between Wilcox and Alberg.

The first scene in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip takes place on a cruise of the Florida Everglades. Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone has taken his wife Joey on a trip to celebrate their anniversary, so he tells her. But here’s what happens:


‘At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Joey was too dumb-founded to panic.
I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves…

Joey remained conscious and alert. Of course she did. She had been co-captain of her college swim team, a biographical nugget that her husband obviously had forgotten.’


Right away the reader is invited to wonder why Joey was pushed overboard, and what’s going to happen to her. It turns out that her husband’s been involved in (quite literally) some dirty business. He’s a marine biologist who’s found a way to fake water sample tests so that they come out ‘clean.’ His employer, Samuel ‘Red’ Hammernut has found that skill very useful for keeping eco-minded lawmakers and citizens from disturbing his agribusiness. Joey is rescued by former police officer Mick Stranahan, and together, they come up with a plan to make Chaz pay for what he’s done…

In the first scene of John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his police partner Pinchai are following a grey Mercedes-Benz. They briefly lose their quarry, but by the time they find it again, the driver, William Bradley, is dead of bites from snakes that were trapped in his car with him. Here’s how Burdett puts it:


‘The African American Marine in the grey Mercedes will soon die of bites from Naja siamensis, but we don’t know that yet, Pichai and I (the future is impenetrable, says the Buddha).’


That opening scene is compelling, and it invites the reader to find out who would want to kill Bradley, why that method was chosen, and what the motive is.

And then there’s Scott Turow’s Innocent. That novel begins as Kindle County judge Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is sitting on the bed where his wife, Barbara, lies dead. As his son Nat, says, that’s not really where the story begins. But it’s the powerful first scene in this novel, and is made all the more powerful because he’s been in that room with her body for almost twenty-four hours. As the novel unfolds, we learn about their history, we learn how she died, and we follow along as Rusty is tried for murdering her. In this novel, things aren’t always what they seem, but from the first bit, we’re presented with a compelling scenario.

There are many different ways for the author to get the reader’s attention and invite the reader to engage in the story. In whatever way the author chooses, the beginning of a novel is really important, as that’s where the reader makes the choice to finish the story or not.  Which beginnings have you found most powerful?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Smokey Robinson’s You’re the One For Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, John Burdett, L.R. Wright, Ruth Rendell, Scott Turow

We Spend Hours Now Online*

Online CommunitiesAn excellent post from author and fellow blogger Rebecca Bradley has got me thinking about the new online world in which we live. I’m very fortunate and privileged to have met some of the finest people you could ever want to have in your life through this blog and my other online connections. And it’s been wonderful to meet some of you both face-to-face and in the online crime book club that Rebecca was kind enough to facilitate. It’s all been a great experience, and I truly hope to meet more of you in person as time goes by.

But the thing is, online life isn’t always that safe, enjoyable and rewarding. People aren’t always what their online personas seem to be. And although different social media outlets can suspend accounts and so on, that’s not much protection. And that’s to say nothing of how difficult it can be to verify information you find online. So, online interactions really do involve a leap of faith, as the saying goes. I’ve been most fortunate in mine, but not everyone is. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

In Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s The Calling, Port Dundas, Ontario DI Hazel Micallef and her team investigate a series of bizarre killings, beginning with that of eighty-one-year-old Delia Chandler, who was already terminally ill. There doesn’t seem to be much of a motive for killing her; yet this isn’t a suicide. Still, the evidence shows that she admitted her killer and put up no resistance. So it’s definitely not the sort of murder you find in, say, a home invasion or a more personal killing. Then, there’s another murder. This time, the victim is twenty-nine-year-old Michael Ulmer, who had multiple sclerosis. Bit by bit, the team links these deaths to others that have occurred. And one key to the mystery is a website that they had in common…

Cat Conner’s Killerbyte introduces readers to FBI special agent Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway, an ex-pat New Zealander with a love of poetry. In fact she co-moderates a poetry-themed chat room called Cobwebs. When Conway bans one of the members, Carter McClaren, from the chat room, he shows up at her home to ‘pay her back.’ He’s arrested, but makes bail. Later, he’s murdered and his body found in Conway’s car. With it is a Post-it note on which there’s a poem. Conway and her fellow moderator/lover Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly are trying to find out who might have killed Carter when there’s another murder, also of a chat room member. Again, a poem is left by the body, and taunting emails are sent to both Conway and Connelly. Now, they have to sift through all of the members and find out which one is the murderer, and why that person is targeting other members.

In Alafair Burke’s 212, we are introduced to Megan Gunther, an undergraduate at New York University (NYU). She’s joined an online community called Campus Juice, in which people post news, upcoming events, and gossip going around campus. One day, she’s looking at the site when she sees, to her dismay, that someone has posted her class schedule. What’s more, whoever it is has also posted information about her personal schedule (e.g. when she goes to the gym). The post ends with a cryptic warning:

‘Megan Gunther, someone is watching.’

When Megan is later stabbed, NYPD detectives Ellie Hatcher and J.J. Rogan are assigned to the case and begin the investigation. Soon enough, they discover that this is not just a case of a dangerous stalker who’s used the online community to target one person. Rather, it’s connected to two other murders…

There’s an interesting online community in Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China. In that novel, Shanghai police detective Chen Cao is assigned to a delicate case. Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, has apparently committed suicide. It’s not a complete surprise, since he was under investigation for corruption. In fact, he’d been arrested and was under police guard in a hotel room when he died. But when Chen starts to look at the case, he sees some signs that this might have been murder. It’s going to be difficult to carry on with this investigation, though, because the Party officials to whom Chen is responsible want a simple ‘rubber stamp’ of suicide. As the case moves on, Chen finds out that Zhou’s activities came out through the efforts of a group of ‘netizens’ who posted them online. These people have found that the only successful way to really speak out about China is through online communities where they feel they can get factual information, rather than official government information. They have to be careful, though, because at the same time as the government benefits from the information they find, it also wants to be in control of what they say. So things can get dangerous.

Some online communities are themselves dangerous. The same online camaraderie that people share when they talk about recipes, clothing, cars or sport can also be used for uglier purposes. For instance, in one plot thread of Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight, LAPD detective Harry Bosch re-opens the case of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid, who was found raped and murdered. Michael Harris was arrested and convicted in connection with the crime, but he has claimed his confession was, to put it mildly, coerced. If that’s true, reasons Bosch, then someone else murdered Stacey. Bosch’s investigation leads to a web site called Charlotte’s Web Site, which is not a community you’d want taking an interest in your young daughter.

There are also more recent books featuring the phenomenon of online communities. Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? is the story of Yvonne, a new mother who’s just moved from London to Ireland. She turns to an online community called NetMammy for support, and soon finds a group of other mothers who are also dealing with the stresses of new babies. Then, one of those members goes ‘off the grid,’ and Yvonne eventually begins to suspect that something is wrong, especially after a body is discovered…   There’s also Angela Clarke’s Follow Me, which explores the modern phenomenon of social media celebrity and the reality of how anonymous people can really be online. I confess I’ve not (yet) read these two novels. But they both serve as examples of what today’s online communities can be like.

It’s not surprising that more authors are exploring online groups in their crime fiction. They are a part of modern life for a lot of people. And I, for one, am better for the online communities of which I’m a member. But they’re not without danger…

Talking of online… May I suggest you visit Rebecca’s terrific blog. There you’ll find terrific reviews, and you’ll get the chance to enjoy her crime novel Shallow Waters. Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ken Block’s We Don’t Talk Anymore.


Filed under Alafair Burke, Angela Clarke, Cat Connor, Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Connelly, Michael Redhill, Qiu Xiaolong, Sinéad Crowley

Why, We Only Live to Serve*

Service StaffAn interesting comment exchange with Bryan, who blogs at The Vagrant Mood, has reminded me of how much fictional (and real) sleuths can learn from those service people we don’t always notice. People such as receptionists, secretaries, delivery people and so on can be extremely helpful when the police are trying to establish someone’s whereabouts or the course of events. And wise detectives know not to ignore those folks.

Agatha Christie’s stories frequently include clues, or at least information, from such people. For instance, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot goes to see his dentist, Henry Morley. Later Chief Inspector Japp visits Poirot, and tells him that Morley has been shot. Poirot and Japp begin the investigation, with their focus on those who were in the surgery at the time of the murder. For that information, they turn to Morley’s houseboy Alfred Biggs. One of his duties is to escort patients and other visitors from the reception area to the dentist, so he knows who’s arrived and who wasn’t there. He may not be able to pronounce the names correctly, but Alfred has more information about this case than anyone really knows at first.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, Lochdubh constable Hamish Macbeth investigates the shooting death of Captain Peter Bartlett.  He was one of several houseguests staying with Colonel Haliburton-Smythe and his wife for a weekend party. Early one morning, he went out hunting for grouse, but was murdered instead. Macbeth happens to be on the scene when Bartlett’s body is discovered, because he wanted to speak to the Haliburton-Smythe’s daughter Priscilla, with whom he has an on-again/off-again romance. He starts asking questions, and, despite interference from DCI Blair, he’s able to prove that Bartlett’s death was no accident. As he tries to find out who was responsible, Macbeth relies on help from the Haliburton-Smythes’ maid Jessie, who has a particular liking for him. And in one funny scene, she proves resourceful, too. Macbeth doesn’t want Blair to know that he’s still at the Haliburton-Smythes after being more or less dismissed.

‘Hamish had not left. He had had no lunch and wanted to see if he could manage to get some tea and scones. He had slid quietly down behind a large sofa by the window and was sitting on a small stool.
Jessie, the maid, had a soft spot for Hamish. She quietly handed him down a plate of scones and tea when Jenkins [the butler] wasn’t looking.’

Jessie may be a little ‘dizzy,’ but she can be very helpful.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish Greenlander who’s now living in Copenhagen. As the novel begins, she’s attending a funeral for Isaiah Christiensen, a boy who lived in the same building, and who had what looks like a tragic fall from its roof. Jaspersen feels a bond with Isaiah, since he too is a Greenlander. So she’s drawn to the roof where the accident took place. While she’s there, she sees signs in the snow that suggest this was no accident. So she starts asking questions. The trail leads to the Cryolite Corporation of Denmark, and to a bookkeeper, Elsa Lübing, who worked there. When she discovers that Lübing was promoted directly from bookkeeper to head accountant, she knows that the woman probably has very useful information. And so it turns out to be. In the end, Jaspersen links Isaiah Christiansen’s death with some events in her own land.

Emily Brightwell’s long-running Victorian-era series features Mrs. Jeffries, who serves as housekeeper for Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. As housekeeper, she’s not officially entitled to give her opinion on the cases that Witherspoon investigates. But he often finds himself discussing them with her; and, in her own way, she offers insight that proves very helpful. She doesn’t do it alone, though. She in turn relies on her staff (cook, housemaids, footman, driver, and so on). These staff members are the ones who deal with delivery people, shopkeepers and others who see and know things that their ‘betters’ might not. And most of them would rather not talk to the police. So Mrs. Jeffries’ staff is tailor-made to find out information.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in 1970’s Argentina, a very dangerous time to live in Buenos Aires. Through it all, Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano does his job as a police officer the best he can. One morning, he’s called out to a riverbank, where he’s been told two bodies were dumped. When he gets there, though, there are actually three. Two of them bear the hallmarks of an Army-style execution, and in the times in which he lives, Lescano knows better than to ask questions about them. The third body, though, is a little different. The victim is successful pawnbroker Elías Biterman, who doesn’t seem to have been killed in the ‘regular’ way. So Lescano begins what turns out to be an extremely dangerous investigation. Most people don’t want to help, since it could get them killed. But a few people do. One of them is Marcelo, who works as a court office boy. He finds some important, incriminating information, and manages to get it to Lescano. It’s a dangerous and brave thing to do, and it makes a major difference in this case.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. In that novel, successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to catch and stop a blackmailer. Guest is married and ‘settled,’ but he’s had a few secret trysts with men; apparently someone’s found out about them and is now prepared to go public. The trail leads to the Persephone Theatre, so Quant visits the place, hoping to get some information on the actors who work there. He encounters a receptionist, Rebecca, whom he has to persuade to part with some information. When he finally does,

‘She lethargically opened a drawer that must have weighed several tonnes given the effort she expended to do so and pulled out just the documents I was looking for.’

Then, he has to convince her to let him have a look at the actors’ résumés. It’s not easy, but he finally manages to get Rebecca to collect the information he wants. It’s a funny scene, but it also shows that receptionists can be both help and hindrance for the sleuth.

And it’s not just receptionists. Secretaries, delivery drivers, domestic staff, hotel chambermaids, and other service staff can all be extremely useful resources. Sleuths ignore them at their peril.

Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be The Vagrant Mood? It’s a great resource for reviews, and you can also treat yourself to Bryan’s historical mystery series. One features actress Kay Francis; the other ‘stars’ 1940’s British Secret Service agent Peter Warlock.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Be Our Guest.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Emily Brightwell, Ernesto Mallo, M.C. Beaton, Peter Høeg

Another Feeling, A Different Culture*

Culture in Crime FictionIf you’re kind enough to read this blog on a regular basis, you may remember that I’m working on some research into the way crime fiction teaches idioms, language and culture. One set of questions I asked in this research has to do with readers’ interest in culture. Are readers aware of and interested in the cultural details and context that they encounter in their crime fiction? Here are a few things I found when I looked at the data that you folks were kind enough to help me get.

One question I asked was whether crime fiction readers choose novels because of their cultural content. That is, do readers choose a novel because it’s set in one or another cultural context?


Novels Based on Culture


As you see, culture is an important factor in choice of book, at least among the participants in this study. One hundred seven (just over 86%) of the 124 participants said that they often or sometimes choose a crime novel because it’s set in a different culture. This, to me, suggests strongly that crime fiction readers are interested in other cultures and in cultural content.

It’s one thing to be interested in culture. It’s another to follow up on that interest. So I also asked about topics that readers explore further after they’ve read a crime novel. I wanted to see whether readers are interested enough in culture and language to look up extra information and read more. Here’s what I found.
Culture and Further Exploration


Of the 124 participants, 65 (52%) said they look up further information on culture or idioms/language. This certainly isn’t an overwhelming trend. But it does suggest that readers are interested in learning more about culture, and that crime fiction may play a role in sparking that interest.

Regardless of whether readers want to explore culture in depth, it seems very clear from the data I examined that readers do want cultural authenticity in their crime fiction. I asked participants how important it is to them that their crime fiction represent culture in authentic ways. Here was the response:


Cultural Authenticity


It’s very clear that readers find authenticity important; 114 (almost 92%) of this study’s participants reported that it’s either very or somewhat important to them that their crime fiction be culturally authentic. To me, this implies that culture is interesting and important enough that readers want it portrayed accurately. It seems that, just as readers want their characters to be believable and the plot elements to be credible, they also want the cultural context to be realistic.


In Other News…


I’m planning to present this data at a conference next week. Where? I thought it might be fun to invite you to use your own detective skills to find out. So I’ve invented a little game/competition. Here’s how it will work:

  • Each day, beginning today, I’ll provide one clue as to my destination.

  • Anyone who’s interested is invited to put the clues together and see if you can work out where I’ll be.

  • The first person to get the right answer wins!


What’s the prize?

I will write a special short crime story just for the winner. That means the winner gets to tell me where the story will take place, what kinds of major characters are involved, and so forth. I’ll use those details and write the story. Then, I’ll post it right here on this blog.

If you’re the winner, you can send me a ‘photo to inspire the story, or you can simply tell me what you want the story to be about; you can even have me put you in the story if you wish. I only have two conditions: I won’t write ‘torture porn’ or extremely violent kinds of stories; and I won’t write stories in which harm is done to children or animals. Otherwise, I will be your ‘story genie’ ;-)

Wanna play??

Here is your first clue:




I will need this in order to get where I’m going. Good luck!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sass Jordan’s Going Back Again.


Filed under Uncategorized