Uptown, Downtown ;-)

TheCitiesQuizThere’s nothing like a city for dining, shopping and a whole host of other things to do. And in many big cities, you can find what you want 24 hours a day. And that includes crime! All this about crime in cities has me thinking of….
 
 
 
 
 

a quiz!!! Oh, please! It’s not as though you didn’t know how dangerous it can be to visit this blog! ;-)

Cities can be exciting, but they can be dangerous too. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know your city-based crime novels and series, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question with the correct answer and see how well you do.

Ready? Get on the bus for downtown… if you dare ;-)

 

BusForQuiz

 

Note: You’ll notice I’m using a new quiz platform this time. It’s not as easy as you might imagine to find an effective way to make and share quizzes without either spending an awful lot of money or putting users through a lot of annoyance. I’ve tested this tool several times, and it seems to be stable and smooth. It also doesn’t attack the user with advertising, or ask you to register or provide personal information. I hope this will work for you folks. Please let me know if you run into any problems.

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Hey, What’s That Sound?*

SoundSound plays a very important role in most people’s perceptions and memories. I’ll bet, for instance, that when you hear certain songs, you’re reminded of a date or other event, a time in your life, or perhaps a person. Certain other sounds, such as a siren behind you, trigger other reactions. And a lot of scientific evidence suggests that a baby’s cry evokes all sorts of physical and emotional responses.

As important as sounds are, it makes sense that they also play important roles in crime fiction. Witnesses to a shooting are often asked, for example, how many shots they heard. And as any crime fiction fan knows, the ‘evidence of the ears’ can also be misunderstood or deliberately manipulated.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse named Silver Blaze, and the death of his trainer John Straker. The most likely suspect is London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson; the theory is that he abducted the horse to rig the race. But there are also clues that point away from Simpson. One of them is the clue of what the stable dog did on the night that the horse went missing. Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregory points out that,
 

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’
 

That, says Holmes, is exactly what is curious. His point is that if someone the dog didn’t know (e.g. Simpson) approached, the animal would have barked. Since there was no barking noise, the logical deduction is that the dog knew the person who took the horse. That turns out to be an important clue.

In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, we are introduced to Rachel Innes, a middle-aged ‘maiden aunt,’ who takes her grown nephew Halsey and his sister Gertrude for a summer stay at a large, rented country house called Sunnyside. The plan is for everyone to have a relaxing time away from the city. Soon after their arrival though, things begin to go very wrong. There are some odd noises that become very unsettling. The housemaid Liddy Allen thinks that the creaks, taps and other sounds mean that the house is haunted. But Rachel thinks there’s a more prosaic explanation for what’s going on, and she is later proved right. One night, everyone hears a shot coming from the card-room. When they get there, they discover the body of Arnold Anderson, son of the owner of Sunnyside. His murder turns out to be connected to the strange sounds; and those sounds are important clues to the mystery.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The only possible suspects are the other people in the first class coach of the famous Orient Express train. As a part of his investigation, Poirot asks each person for an account of what happened on the night of the murder. He also considers his own memories of that night. Sound plays an important role in this story; and Poirot has to sift through the various thumps, knocks, voices, bells, and so on to find out which ones are clues and which ‘red herrings.’ I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, we are introduced to jet-setting playboy John Levering Benedict III. He happens to encounter Ellery Queen, and expansively invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to use his guest house for a getaway weekend. The Queens accept, and duly settle in to relax. They soon discover that Benedict’s three ex-wives, his secretary, and his attorney are also spending the weekend. As you can imagine, the atmosphere is more than a little strained. That night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says that he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the main house, but by the time he arrives, it’s too late: Benedict is dead of a blow to the head. The weapon is a statuette with a heavy base. The only clues are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves. Each item belongs to a different person. Now Queen has to sift through those clues and find out who the killer is. As it turns out, Benedict told him who the killer was during their telephone conversation. The problem is that Queen misinterpreted the evidence of his own ears, and it’s not until later that he makes sense of that dying statement.

Edward D. Hoch’s short story Captain Leopold Finds a Tiger takes place mostly in a small zoo run by Jack and Maggie Drummond. One morning, Maggie’s body is found in the tiger pit, and everyone assumes that the tiger is responsible. But soon enough, the evidence shows stab wounds, rather than claw wounds. Now Captain Leopold and his team have to find out who would have wanted to kill Maggie. There’s more than one suspect, too, as Leopold finds when he lifts up the proverbial lid on what’s going on at the zoo. In the end, an animal provides Leopold with the vital clue that he needs to put him on the right trail. In this story, sound, both real and manufactured, plays a vital role in what happens.

It does in Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead too. In one plot thread of this novel, Garda Ben Devlin is asked to respond to a very odd case. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry in her baby monitor, and says that it’s not her son. What’s odd about this is that she and her partner do not have children. They had planned a family, but their son was stillborn. The manufacturer of the baby monitor says that sometimes monitors may pick up other crying babies if they are very near. However, no other babies live near Christine and her partner. Devlin finds that this mystery is tied in with another case he is investigating.  During the search for the body of Declan Cleary, Devlin and his team discover the body of an infant who died about the same time as Cleary probably did. At first, Devlin is told that the baby’s death cannot be investigated, since it was found in the course of work for the Commission on the Location of Victims’ Remains. This commission is charged with finding the remains of those who died during the early days of the Troubles in Ireland. Those remains are then returned to the families for burial and hopefully, for closure. The rule is that there can be no investigation or prosecution in any of the commission’s work. The reason for this is to make people feel more comfortable reporting what they may know about one or another of the Disappeared, as those who died are called. In general, Devlin respects policy, but he also wants to offer closure to the parents of the dead infant if he can. So he finds ways to look for answers. And the sounds Christine Cashell hears turn out to be important.

People may misinterpret what they hear, but sounds are still a fundamental part of how we make sense of the world. Little wonder they’re so tightly woven into crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian McGilloway, Edward D. Hoch, Ellery Queen, Mary Roberts Rinehart

In The Spotlight: Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed

>In The Spotlight: Ross Macdonald's The Far Side of the DollarHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Scottish crime fiction runs the proverbial gamut from darkest noir to fun, light ‘romps.’ And Scottish authors focus on a wide variety of themes and eras in their work. So it’s hard to make a lot of general remarks about crime novels based in Scotland. That said, here’s a ‘snapshot’ of one place in Scotland, during one era. Let’s turn today’s spotlight on Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, the first of his Douglas Brodie novels. This series takes place immediately after the end of World War II.

Former Glasgow police officer Douglas Brodie has returned from war with his share of what we now call PTSD. He’s got a small place in London, and is trying to break into journalism. Then he gets a long-distance call from Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan, an old friend from Glasgow. Donovan has been arrested for the kidnap and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson, and is scheduled to be executed in four weeks. There are suspicions, too, that he’s responsible for the disappearance of four other young boys.

Brodie doesn’t see what he can do to help. What’s more, he’s not at all convinced that Donovan is innocent. There is, after all, plenty of evidence that implicates him. The boy’s things were found in his home, for one thing. For another, he knew the child (Rory was the son of Donovan’s former love interest Fiona MacAuslan). Finally, evidence shows that Rory had heroin in his system, and Donovan has the habit. Still, Donovan claims that he had nothing to do with the murder, or with the disappearance of the other boys. In any case, Brodie isn’t inclined to help Donovan; at one time, he and Fiona were lovers, until Donovan came into the picture. Brodie still smarts from that.

Still, a reluctant Brodie agrees to at least ask a few questions. And that decision puts him in touch with Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She is hoping very much to find some new evidence that might spare her client, but there are several strikes against her. The evidence police have found is compelling. And although she’s smart and capable, she’s a little inexperienced for such a complicated and high-profile case. It doesn’t help matters that she’s a woman in what’s very much a man’s world.

Campbell’s determination to do her utmost for her client convinces Brodie to stay around for a bit and see what he can do. Almost immediately, the two run into obstacles. The police involved in the investigation are unwilling to consider that they might have the wrong man. And they’re certainly not interested in having anyone meddle in their business. When Brodie tries to talk to other people who might have information, he finds a similar unwillingness to co-operate. And the more he and Campbell dig into the case, the more proverbial doors are shut in their faces. It’s now clear that Donovan was framed by someone powerful enough to manipulate a lot of people behind the scenes. Brodie and Campbell work together to try to find out who really killed Rory Hutchinson before Shug Donovan is executed. As they do so, they form a relationship; but readers who dislike romance woven into their novels will be pleased to know that this isn’t a stereotypical ‘boy meets girl through a case of murder’ sort of story.

This novel takes place in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, and Ferris places the reader there in many ways. In geography, in daily life, and in local culture, this story is distinctively Scottish. Readers who know that part of Scotland will no doubt find many of the towns and street names familiar. There are also places where the Glasgow dialect is used. Readers who prefer standard English needn’t worry about understanding that dialogue though; Ferris makes the meaning quite clear.

World War II and its aftermath are also important elements in this novel. Just because the war is over doesn’t mean everything is well again. There’s still rationing, and although you can get things for a price, life is not easy. The war has also left its scars in another way. Brodie suffers from what we now know as PTSD. He doesn’t drown himself overmuch in alcohol; nor is he obviously self-destructive. Readers who are tired of demon-haunted detectives will appreciate that. But he does have the occasional flashback, and the war has hardened him. Donovan, too, has terrible scars. A wartime incident left him horribly burned and injured; even after a number of operations, he still keeps the brim of his hat down to spare himself others’ stares. He also has a heroin habit that keeps the pain from his injuries temporarily at bay. His status as a war hero doesn’t change the fact that he is now shattered.

This isn’t really what you would call a political novel. Still, there are social and political issues woven into the plot. The treatment of returning soldiers is one of them. There isn’t a lot of awareness of the damage war can do to those who fight it, so there’s little support for former combatants. Although there is respect for what they did, they are expected to simply get back to the business of living. There’s also an interesting hint of some of the religious differences in the area. For instance, Donovan is Roman Catholic; Brodie was raised Protestant. That difference has been the source of plenty of playful insults between them. The Irish fight for independence is also mentioned in the novel. The IRA and other groups don’t confine themselves to Ireland; that conflict has also made its way into the West of Scotland. It’s not spoiling the story to say that this isn’t a novel about gun-running or political sabotage. But feelings about Northern Ireland run high and play a role in the novel.

Another element in the story is the way that corruption can find its way into all sorts of different places. Many characters who could help Brodie and Campbell choose not to do so, and there are several characters who are not what they seem. So part of the task is to discover who can be trusted, and who’s been tainted.

As it turns out, there is a lot of taint. This isn’t an upbeat novel with an optimistic end. There is a great deal of sadness, and no-one is left unscathed. Although Brodie and Campbell do find out the truth about the mystery, this makes nothing all right again. And yet, there are moments of wit in the story. At one point, for instance, Brodie has finally managed to convince an officious officer to let him in to visit Donovan in prison:
 

‘‘Half an hour only, Mr. Brodie. And of course – ahem – we will require you to be searched beforehand. If you don’t mind. Can’t be too careful, you know…’ He trailed to an end and I left him to gnaw at his desk or whatever he did to control his inner rages. Practise his elocution, perhaps.’
 

Those moments of wry wit show part of how Brodie copes with some of the things that happen in the novel.

The Hanging Shed is a uniquely West of Scotland post-war story that features a complex, damaged character who makes the best of what comes his way. It’s a very sad mystery, but with the possibility that life can still go on. But what’s your view? Have you read The Hanging Shed? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 27 April/Tuesday 28 April – Black Water Rising – Attica Locke

Monday 4 May/Tuesday 5 May – The Bat – Jo Nesbø (The people have spoken! This one was tied with The Redbreast for most votes. A coin toss settled the matter).

Monday 11 May/Tuesday 12 May – Dancing to ‘Almendra’ – Mayra Montero

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Filed under Gordon Ferris, The Hanging Shed

The Law Won*

Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post.  Enjoy!
 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jonathan Kellerman, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Palmer, Tess Gerritsen

I Leave a Big Tip With Every Receipt*

ReceiptsIf you look among your things, you’ll probably see random receipts and cash slips for things. They can clutter up a pocket or handbag. And when it’s something simple like getting fuel, it may seem a waste to get a cash slip. But those little pieces of evidence can be very useful.

Anyone who’s on an expense account or who gets reimbursed can tell you that keeping receipts is important. Detectives use those pieces of information too. A cash slip, newspaper clipping or even a passport stamp can either support or refute what a witness or suspect says. So that kind of ‘paper trail’ can be of real value when the police are investigating a crime, or when a PI is looking into a case. Little wonder then that we see things like receipts and stamps all throughout crime fiction.

Agatha Christie uses these details in more than one of her novels. For instance, in Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, who had more than one motive for murder. In the first place, Elinor’s fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman had become smitten with Mary, which ended their engagement. What’s more, Elinor’s very wealthy aunt, Laura Welman, had taken a great interest in Mary, and might very well have altered her will to leave Elinor out of it entirely. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. And in the case of one character, he finds that passport stamps put the lie to what that character claimed.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the poisoning murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for overseeing exams given in other countries that follow the British education model. The detectives start with those closest to the victim, and soon find that several members of the Syndicate might have had a good reason to want Quinn dead. For one thing, his appointment to the Syndicate was by no means universally supported. For another, he’d learned some secrets about some of the different members. One aspect of this investigation is finding out where each person was on the afternoon of Quinn’s death. As they piece together what happened that day, Morse and Lewis find that ticket stubs from an adult cinema are very informative.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly is among other things, the story of the death of Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at one of Venice’s glass blowing factories. At first it all looks like a terrible accident. He’d been working independently on a glass project and the evidence suggests that an accident with the oven caused his death. But Commissario Guido Brunetti is not so sure. Tassini had been a very vocal critic of the glass blowing factories’ procedure for getting rid of toxic waste. He claimed that they were illegally dumping it, putting everyone at risk. Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello discover who is responsible for Tassini’s murder, but they’ll find it very hard to prove what they know. Then one evening, Brunetti gets exactly what he needs: a receipt from a canal boat. That piece of paper puts the lie to what the killer said to the police, and allows for an arrest.

The Michael Stanley writing duo introduces us to Botswana police detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu in A Carrion Death. He is drawn into an investigation when the remains of an unknown man are found on the property of the rural Dale’s Camp. At first, it looks as though the man was attacked by hyenas. But soon enough, forensics tests suggest that he was murdered. Forensics experts also provide a very important clue: a cash slip found by the body. It turns out to be a receipt from the Number One Petrol Station, and for Kubu, that’s a valuable lead. When he follows up on it and finds the station, he learns that the vehicle in question was a Land Rover painted a garish shade of yellow. Such vehicles are owned by the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC). And that information puts Kubu on a trail that eventually connects someone associated with that company to this murder and to another that occurs.

There’s also Tess Gerritsen’s Vanish, which follows two major plot threads. In one, Boston medical examiner Dr. Maura Iles discovers to her shock that one of the body bags in the mortuary contains a young woman who’s still alive. Iles gives the alert, and the woman is taken to the nearby hospital. The unidentified woman recovers quickly, and rushes from her hospital room after killing a security guard. Then, she goes to the hospital’s Diagnostic Imaging Department, where she takes a group of people hostage. One of them is Boston police detective Jane Rizzoli, who’s there for a sonogram. The police, a SWAT team, and hostage negotiators now have to figure out what the hostage-taker wants, and how to rescue her captives. In the meantime, the other plot thread concerns seventeen-year-old Mila, who left her home in Belarus, lured by promises of a good job in the US and a better life. To put it mildly, things haven’t worked out as planned. The two plot threads are related, ‘though not as you might think. One of the leads that the police get on this case is a credit card receipt for a fuel purchase. That information helps them to piece together at least part of the mystery.

Receipts and odd pieces of paper might just seem like so much junk. But they can prove absolutely invaluable to detectives. They’re also very useful to attorneys on both sides of a case who want to establish a person’s whereabouts or purchases. That oft-repeated bit of advice about saving receipts is actually fairly solid…

 

On Another Note…

There’s still time to vote for the Jo Nesbø novel you’d like to see me spotlight. If you’d like to let your voice be heard, check out my poll right here.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Michael Stanley, Tess Gerritsen