Hit and Run

hitandrunShe lay on her back by the side of the road, her left leg bent under, and her arms thrown out. A curtain of long, brown hair covered her face. Justin looked out the driver’s side window at her, and then, crossing his arms on the steering wheel, lowered his head until it rested on his wrists.
‘I didn’t even see her,’ he mumbled a few times. Then he shook his head, sat up, and looked over at Davy. ‘She just came out of nowhere!’ he said.
‘I know,’ Davy said. ‘Nothing you could’ve done. Now, we gotta get the hell out of here.’

Davy was right. Justin’s license was still suspended after that DUI. He’d go to jail this time, and not for just a couple of months. ‘Yeah,’ he said. Then he looked out the window again. ‘What about her?’
‘What about her? Nothing we can do to help her now. If you really want to, we can do one of those ‘anonymous tip’ calls later.’
Justin nodded. Leaving now was the right thing to do. He started the Toyota and pulled away. He tried not to go too quickly, so the tires wouldn’t squeal. There weren’t many houses along this road, but you never knew who might hear what.

After ten minutes of silence, Davy spoke up. ‘We ought to get away, you know. Just for a while. Just in case.’
‘Might not be a bad idea,’ Justin said. He stared straight ahead, his face expressionless. The occasional streetlights cast weird, shifting shadows on it as he drove. ‘But you don’t have to do anything. I was driving.’
‘Hey, we’re friends, right? Besides, it’s my car. I don’t need the cops all over me.’
‘Thanks, Davy. I’ll pay to get the car fixed.’
‘Don’t worry about that. I know a guy’ll fix it without asking questions, you know?’
Justin thought for a moment. ‘All right.’
‘We’re gonna need money, though. I mean cash. Makes things easier.’
Justin nodded. ‘OK. I’ve got a couple of grand in my account. I can get that.’
‘That ought to work,’ Davy said. ‘We’ll go to the ATM, get our stuff, and get outta here.’
Justin nodded again.

Neither man said anything during the three-mile ride to the nearest cash station. When they got there, Justin pulled up to the drive-through machine and did the withdrawal.
‘You want me to hold it while you drive?’ Davy asked.
‘Yeah, thanks.’ Justin handed the cash to Davy, and then pulled back out onto the deserted street. Davy smiled inwardly as he glanced down at the money in his hand. This was going to be easier than he’d hoped.

Davy and Nicole had a couple of different cons they used, depending on where they were and depending on the target. Nicole liked the ‘hit and run’ the best. She always said it was guaranteed. You didn’t get as much at a time as you did with ‘investments,’ but people didn’t ever call the cops, even after they’d figured out they’d been taken. Most people wouldn’t risk implicating themselves in a hit-and-run, especially if there was a body involved. And it was easy enough to find some sap with a DUI or two, and who needed a friend. Sometimes it only took a couple of weeks to pick your target and get him to trust you enough. Davy looked over at Justin as they stopped at the building where he was staying. In a way, he felt sorry for the guy. But, oh, well, everybody has to make a living. And it wasn’t like anyone was really killed.
‘See you in half an hour?’ he asked as he got out of the car.
‘Yeah,’ Justin said. ‘Shouldn’t take me longer than that.’ He started up the car and drove off.

After Justin left, Davy walked up the stairs to his own place, stuffing the two thousand dollars into his pocket. Not as good a haul as he’d hoped, but there’d be other chances before too many people remembered him. He used the bathroom, then looked out the living room window to be sure Justin was really gone. He was. Taking the stairs two at a time, Davy went outside and headed for Nicole’s Hyundai. He glanced around, got into it, and went back the way he and Justin had come. He’d better hurry, or Nicole would be seriously pissed at waiting too long out in the cold.

Davy got to their meeting place at Chuckie’s Roadside Tavern only two minutes after the time he’d told Nicole. Feeling good about that, he went inside. No Nicole. He waited a few minutes, in case she was in the ladies’ room. Still no sign of her. After twenty minutes, he decided he’d have to look for her. Maybe she’d gotten angry about something and went somewhere to cool down. She’d done that before. He pulled his ‘phone out of his pocket and called her. It went to voice mail. Then he texted her. Nothing. Now he started to get annoyed. This was not the time for her to be petty. There was only one thing to do: go back to the scene of the ‘accident.’

The night was even darker than it had been, but Davy found the place. There she was, still lying on the ground.
‘Nicole, baby, it’s me. It’s OK. It’s all done now, you can get up.’ No movement. Not even a twitch.
‘Nicole! Come on now, stop playing!’ Nothing. Now Davy was worried. He went up to her and cautiously touched her hand. It was cold. So was her upper arm. His stomach knotted up and a wave of nausea hit him.

Ten miles away, Justin pulled over at a fast food place. He wiped the car key with the bottom of his shirt, and then dropped the key on the driver’s seat, using the shirt again to wipe the door handle as he opened it. He got out of the car and looked up. Good thing the weather had held. It was cold, but dry. He was only about a quarter of a mile from the nearest bus stop, but he hated getting wet in the rain.

Justin looked around once more. He didn’t see anyone, so he started walking towards the bus stop. When he got where he was going, he’d call in a tip about the car and the body. Davy had been an idiot to let him drive, but then, he’d found that most people were idiots. Take Nicole. He’d liked her when he’d first seen her in Chuckie’s, where she worked, but she’d turned out to be stupid, too.  All it had taken was a couple of dinners and drinks after he’d met her to get her to tell him everything – the whole plan. She hadn’t named names, but he’d filled in the blanks. Oh, well, a quick trip back to where Nicole was still waiting, and he’d taken care of two problems at once.

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In The Spotlight: Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s An Easy Thing

>In The Spotlight: Rex Stout's Fer de LanceHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Paco Ignacio Taibo II is one of Mexico’s best-known and most prolific writers. And his series featuring PI Héctor Belascoaran Shayne is highly regarded. It’s more than time that this feature included some of Taibo II’s work, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on An Easy Thing, the second of his Belascoaran Shayne novels, and the first to be translated into English (For those interested, Days of Combat/Días de Combate is the first Belascoaran Shayne novel).

Héctor Belascoaran Shayne is a half-Basque/half-Irish independent detective living in Mexico City. He shares his offices with a plumber, an upholsterer, and a sewer and drainage specialist. While he usually doesn’t have a long list of clients, he finds himself with three new cases.

In one case, a man he meets at a bar wants him to find the legendary Emiliano Zapata. The novel takes place in the mid-1970s, so if Zapata is alive, he’d be in his nineties. All of the evidence suggests he was killed in a shooutout decades earlier, but the man who hires him is convinced Zapata is alive.

There’s also actress Marisa Ferrer. She hires Belascoaran Shayne to prevent her seventeen-year-old daughter Elena from committing suicide. It seems that Elena’s had two accidents that her mother thinks are really suicide attempts. She’s hoping that the detective will be able to get the girl to trust him enough to tell him what has upset her so much that she’d want to kill herself.

And then there’s the case brought to him by the Santa Clara Industrial Council. An engineer named Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli was murdered in his office at the Delex consortium. The council wants Belascoaran Shayne to find out who the murderer was, and bring them the proof.

The detective takes all three cases, and begins to work on them. The Zapata case is complicated by the legend surrounding the man, and by the fact that almost no-one believes he could still be alive. Not even Belascoaran Shayne really thinks he is. There are also complications to the Elena Ferrer case. For one thing, she’s unwilling to tell the detective what’s got her upset and what she knows. And then she’s abducted. And as for the third case, matters are made difficult by serious conflict between the union and management at Delex. The situation is simmering as it is, and gets more serious as the novel goes on. And when Belascoaran Shayne finds out that the council has its own agenda when it comes to catching the killer, things get even more difficult.

It’s not that Belascoaran Shayne doesn’t care about earning his fees. But he is fascinated by Zapata, even if he doesn’t really believe he could be alive. He cares about what happens to Elena Ferrer, too. And as the story goes on, he has his own reasons for wanting to get to the truth about Cerulli’s death. So, despite the obstacles, he perseveres.

An Easy Thing was first published in 1977. So, the Mexico City Taibo II presents is the city of that era. There’s a great deal of union unrest, and many people feel strongly about the existing class differences. There are drugs, but this story takes place before the real rise of more recent drug lords and kingpins. So, the drugs trade isn’t as strong an influence. Corruption, on the other hand, is rife. And yet, the city has its attractive side, and although Belascoaran Shayne sometimes hates it, he also loves it. As the story goes on, we see the sometimes-ugly side of life in Mexico City, but Taibo II doesn’t neglect the vibrant, beautiful side of life there.

Taibo II is a political activist and has been heavily involved in the union movement. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that one element in this novel is political. Corruption, class issues, and the entrenched ‘haves’ play their roles in the story. So does Belascoaran Shayne’s attitude towards those in high positions.

The novel is told from Belascoaran Shayne’s point of view (third person, past tense). So, we get to know his character quite well. He is philosophical, even a bit fatalistic. He knows that solving these cases isn’t going to change very much about Mexican society. Here, for instance, is what one of his office mates has to say about Mexico:
 

‘In Mexico, nothing ever happens, and even if something does, still nothing happened.’
 

Belascoaran Shayne agrees:
 

‘Even if _____ went to jail in the midst of a colossal scandal, ___’d still get out two years later when the dust settled.’
 

And yet, he does his best for all three cases. And without spoiling the story, I can say that he has his ways of settling scores and levelling the proverbial playing field.

Readers who enjoy stories where the guilty party is led away in handcuffs will notice the fact that there isn’t a climactic scene like that in this novel. In that sense, it’s not a happy novel. But there are some moments of dark wit. And there’s a very pragmatic feel to what happens in the story.

The novel is gritty, so there’s violence in it, some of it ugly. And Taibo II doesn’t gloss over what happens. But the violence isn’t in there for shock value. The same might be said of the language.

This is a PI novel, but it’s not what you might call a typical (if there is such a thing) example. The pace isn’t rapid-fire, and there are several scenes that are almost more literary than crime-fictional. Readers who like jolt-a-minute stories will notice this. That said, though, Belascoaran Shayne doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet, as the saying goes.

An Easy Thing is a portrait of Mexico City during the simmering mid-1970s. Its focus is three cases that show different sides of the city, and it features a detective who belongs in that setting. You might even say he personifies it in his way. But what’s your view? Have you read An Easy Thing? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 23 January/Tuesday, 24 January – What Remains Behind – Dorothy Fowler

Monday, 30 January/Tuesday, 31 January – Murder in Bollywood – Shadaab Amjad Khan

Monday, 6 February/Tuesday 7 February – In the Woods – Tana French

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The Name on Everybody’s Lips is Gonna be…*

high-publicity-casesAs this is posted, it’s 70 years since Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. This still-unsolved murder case got a great deal of public attention at the time, and it’s not hard to see why. A young, attractive woman, found brutally murdered, would be sure to attract interest, especially when the killer was not found. It was a sensational killing, and the press dubbed Short ‘The Black Dahlia.’ Since the murder, there’ve been any number of theories about the killing, and dozens of people have confessed, or have pointed the police towards someone. No leads have held up to scrutiny, though.

There’ve been other murders that have gotten that sort of hype, both in real life and in crime fiction. Sometimes it’s because it’s a particularly gruesome killing. Other times it’s because the victim is famous, or wealthy, or particularly appealing.

We see this, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall travels to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Accompanying her are her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter, Linda. Not long after the family’s arrival, Arlena engages in a not-too-carefully hidden affair with another (married) guest, Patrick Redfern. It’s the talk of the hotel, and when Arlena is found strangled one day, the killing becomes a public sensation. At first, the police suspect Marshall of killing his wife. But it’s soon shown that he couldn’t have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the real killer is. Even though he’s been cleared of suspicion, Marshall is still subject to a lot of scrutiny, and it’s very hard for him. I see you, fans of The ABC Murders.

Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town takes Queen to the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s arranged to stay in a guest house on the property of wealthy social leaders John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen gets drawn into the family’s private affairs when Jim Haight, former fiancé of the Wrights’ youngest daughter, Nora, comes back to town after leaving three years earlier. Against all advice, Nora rekindles her romance with Jim, and the two marry. Then, some letters emerge that suggest that Jim is planning to kill Nora. Nora doesn’t believe it, and the two settle in together. Matters get even more complicated when Jim’s unpleasant sister, Rosemary, comes for an extended visit.  On New Year’s Eve, Rosemary drinks a cocktail that turns out to be poisoned. The police investigate and immediately, the case becomes a public sensation. It involves the most important family in town and it’s a lurid murder case. So, naturally, everyone has something to say about it. When Jim is arrested for the murder (the theory is that the cocktail was intended for Nora), almost no-one believes his claims of innocence. Queen does, though, and it’s interesting to see how his investigation is impacted by the publicity surrounding the murder.

Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces readers to Met PC Maeve Kerrigan. She’s been working with a team investigating a series of murders where the killer tries to incinerate his victims. The press has dubbed the murderer the Burning Man, and the murders have gotten quite a lot of media and public attention. In part, that’s because there’s a series of killings. In part, it’s because of the fires. In any case, the Met is getting an awful lot of pressure to catch the killer, and that doesn’t make anyone’s job easy. Then comes the murder of Rebecca Haworth. At first, her death looks like another Burning Man killing. But certain aspects of the murder are different enough that Kerrigan isn’t sure it’s the same killer. She wants to stay on the team investigating the Burning Man killings, but her boss has other ideas. If Haworth’s murder is a Burning Man killing, then any progress in solving it is progress towards solving the other murders. If it’s a ‘copycat’ killer, then the Met will come under heavy criticism for neglecting it if leads aren’t pursued. So, Kerrigan is assigned to follow up on the Haworth murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at how a case’s level of publicity can impact police decision-making.

In Tarrquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we learn of Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission, and that of the institute he founded, is to debunk fake spiritualists – people he calls ‘the godmen.’ One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. During the meeting, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. As you can imagine, the press and public make much of this, and many people say that Jha was killed because he was leading people towards becoming infidels. News commentators everywhere have their say, and the incident leads to an upsurge in attendance at shrines, and other worship. Delhi PI, whose client Jha once was, is not convinced this death has a supernatural explanation. He takes an interest in the case, and decides to investigate. As he and his team look into the matter, it’s very interesting to see the role that the case’s publicity plays.

Nelson Brunanski’s Frost Bite is the second of his novels to feature John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. Bart and his wife, Rosie, life in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. They own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fly-fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Most of the time, life for the Bartowskis doesn’t involve a lot of press or publicity. But that changes when Bart finds the body of Lionel Morrison under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. For one thing, Morrison was a well-known, well-connected agribusiness CEO; as a ‘heavy hitter,’ his death would naturally get attention. And this is no ordinary death. So, there’s soon a media ‘feeding frenzy’ and the case gets a lot of public attention. Bart’s already connected to the case, since he found the body. And the victim had recently spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge. So, even though Bart’s really not one to covet media attention, he gets drawn into this investigation.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. When Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam, were murdered, the most likely suspect was Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh. In fact, he’s been in prison for years for the murders. But now, little hints have suggested that he might be innocent. If so, this could be the case to solidify Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne’s place at the top of her field. So, she starts to look into the matter. And, as she does, she finds herself getting closer than is safe to it. Among other things, it’s a really clear look at how publicity affects those involved in a murder.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of fictional cases that get a lot of public attention (you’re right, fans of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry). And it’s interesting to consider which sorts of cases do get that sort of publicity, and which don’t. I wonder what that says about us…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Roxie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Helen Fitzgerald, Jane Casey, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall

I Couldn’t Sleep at All Last Night*

insomniaMost of us have circadian rhythms that guide us to be awake during the daylight hours, and asleep at night. We might be ‘morning people’ or ‘night owls,’ but we tend to get our sleep sometime during the night.

Not always, though. There are people who have insomnia, which means they cannot easily fall asleep or stay asleep. Anyone can have an occasional sleepless night; a worrying situation, not feeling well, or even being in a strange place such as a hotel can interrupt sleep. But people with chronic insomnia have frequent difficulty sleeping.

There are any number of possible causes of chronic insomnia. Some people who have it get treatment for it; others learn to live with it. Either way, insomnia can make for an interesting trait in a crime-fictional character. It can add a layer of depth, and can allow the author some flexibility in terms of the action in a story.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he often has an erratic sleeping schedule. When he’s working on a case, Holmes is able to stay awake, as Watson reports, for days at a time. At other times, he doesn’t do that at all. Holmes doesn’t seem to work very hard, either, to change his sleeping patterns to more conventional ones. He makes use of the nights when he’s wakeful.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we are introduced to Emily Arundell. She’s got a large fortune to leave, and several relatives who are desperate to get their hands on her money. Her usual response to them is that they’ll get their share when she dies. But some of them are finding it hard to wait that long. Miss Arundell has bouts of insomnia, and uses those late-night hours to check the household account books, write letters, and so on. She’s taken her inability to sleep in stride. One Easter weekend, her nieces, Theresa Arundell and Bella Tanios, visit. Also there are Theresa’s brother, Charles, and Bella’s husband, Jacob. While they’re visiting, Miss Arundell has one of her bouts of insomnia, and starts to go downstairs late one night. Someone’s laid a trap for her though. She trips over a piece of thread, and falls down the stairs. This unsettles her greatly, and she decides to find out who’s responsible. She writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking him to investigate the matter. But she doesn’t specify what it is that she wants him to do. Still, he’s intrigued, and he and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing. They’re too late, though; by the time they arrive, Miss Arundell has died. Poirot feels a duty to his client, and he and Hastings investigate. In the end, they find that Miss Arundell was right to be worried…

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover also has periods of insomnia. She’s a retired English teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. Unwilling to be ‘put out to pasture,’ even though that’s what her police-chief son would prefer, Myrtle finds herself getting involved in murder investigations. When she has trouble sleeping, Myrtle sometimes takes late-night walks, or goes outside to sit for a while. But being outdoors isn’t always as soothing as you’d think. In more than one story, Myrtle’s habit of being awake very late at night puts her in real danger. Still, she’s taken her insomnia in stride, and works around it.

In Peter May’s Entry Island, we are introduced to Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec. He usually works in Montréal, but is sent to Entry Island, one of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine/Magdalen Islands, when James Cowell is murdered there.   Mackenzie is a native speaker of English, although he speaks fluent French. And, since most of the residents of Entry Island are also native speakers of English, it’s thought that he’ll be successful at getting information from them. Almost as soon as he arrives, Mackenzie feels a strong connection to the island, although he’s never been there. He also feels a connection to the victim’s widow, Kristy, although they never met. So, although a lot of the evidence points to Kristy as the killer, he decides to look into the case more deeply. Mackenzie has frequent periods of insomnia, and sometimes goes a few days in a row without sleeping. His insomnia doesn’t solve this case, but it’s interesting to see how it’s become a part of his life.

Insomnia plays an interesting role in Craig Johnson’s The Dark Horse. In that novel, Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, goes undercover as an insurance agent. It seems that Wade Barstad locked his wife, Mary’s horses in their barn and burned the barn. In response, Mary shot her husband six times. She’s even confessed to the crime. But Longmire isn’t sure that’s what really happened. So, he poses as an insurance agent to talk to people and find out who else might have wanted to kill Barstad. And he finds out that there are plenty of other people who might have wanted to see him dead. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Mary, who’s now about to be tried for a crime Longmire doesn’t think she committed, has been treated for chronic insomnia. It adds an interesting layer to her character, and interesting possibilities to the plot.

Chronic, clinically-diagnosed insomnia can be tricky in a character. It needs to be done authentically. But when it is done well, insomnia can make for an interesting character trait. It can also make for an interesting plot point.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from  Ritchie Adams and Malou Rene’s Tossin’ and Turnin’.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Peter May

See You, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard*

schoolyards-and-playgroundsWhen children are in the classroom, they’re supposed to behave themselves, and many do. What’s more, classroom activities are usually structured and choreographed by the teacher. So, they’re not always realistic, natural looks at what children are like.

But you can learn a lot about children and their families by watching them in the schoolyard or on the playground. Whether it’s before school, after school, or at recess/lunch/break, children tend to be more unguarded there. And, even when their parents or caregivers know that other people may see them, they’re sometimes unguarded, too. That can lead to all sorts of interactions.

Those can be the basis for interesting, and even suspenseful, plot points in crime fiction. There are a number of examples of these sorts of scenes. Here are just a few.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg discovers that her husband, Henrik, has been unfaithful. She’d had the illusion that she, Henrik, and their six-year-old son, Axel, had the perfect suburban life, so the news of Henrik’s affair is devastating. When Eva learns who Henrik’s mistress is, she decides to plot her own revenge. Her plan spins out of control, though, and leads to tragedy. In one plot thread of the story, she has a different sort of worry. One day, she’s driving Axel home from school when she notices he has a new toy. Then, he tells her about the man who gave it to him:
 

‘‘…he was standing outside the fence by the woods and then he called me while I was on the swing and said he was going to give me something nice.’’
 

Naturally, Eva’s frightened at the thought of what could have happened. Axel, as it turns out, is unhurt. But the man does figure into the plot, and the playground scene could frighten any parent.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red concerns the murders of Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. The only survivor that day was their daughter, Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the killings. For years, Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh, has been in prison for the murders. But now, there are little hints that he might not be guilty. And if he is innocent, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks she’s found the story to guarantee her place at the top of the list of New Zealand journalists. She starts asking questions, and takes the opportunity to meet several people, some of whom are convinced Bligh is guilty, and others who aren’t so sure. She also meets with Bligh himself, and persuades him to tell her his story. He takes her at her word, and sends her a long letter, telling her about his life. It’s not been a very happy one, either. He’s unusually intelligent, and never really fit in at school, because he was so far ahead of the other children intellectually. The letter tells of brutal play yard bullying, among other things. But then, Thorne learns that his story is different to the stories that his former schoolmates tell. The playground incidents aren’t the reason for the murders. And they don’t really get Thorne any closer to the truth about those killings. But they certainly shed light on what playground activities can be like when the adults aren’t around.

Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder tells the story of Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel. When they return to their home on the island of Fårö after two months away, they’re dismayed to see terrible messes everywhere. At first, it looks like a case of horrible tenants. But some of the family photographs have been damaged in a very deliberate way that looks much more personal. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin to look into the case, and see two possibilities. One is that one of the tenants had a personal grudge against the family. The other is that someone who knows the family found a way to get inside the house. The police aren’t sure what sort of case this is until the day that seven-year-old Ellen disappears from school. According to her friend, Matilda, Ellen was lured into a white car that stopped by the playground at the school she attends. That’s enough for the police to set a major search in motion, and certainly convinces them that this family is being targeted. Now they have to discover who’s behind everything, and what the motive is.

Some of the key action in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies takes place on the playground of Piriwee Public School, on the Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The story’s focus is three families who send their children to Kindergarten at the school. One of those children is accused of bullying by the mother of another child, and before long, this causes a major conflict. Many parents take the side of the accusing parent, because she’s one of the school’s leaders. Others, though, are not so quick to accuse, and take the side of the boy who’s been accused of bullying. The truth is, it was a playground incident, so no adult actually saw what happened. So, it’s hard to know who did what. There are other conflicts among some of the families, too, and other dynamics going on. It all simmers until Trivia Night, which is supposed to be a fundraiser for the school. The food doesn’t arrive on time, so everyone has too much to drink and not enough food to absorb the alcohol. Tempers flare and the end result is tragedy. The police investigate, and we slowly learn what really happened on the playground, and what really happened on Trivia Night.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, a retired academic and political scientist. In Kaleidoscope, her adult daughter, Mieka, opens a combination playground/meeting place she calls UpSlideDown in Regina’s struggling North Central district. Young parents in that area do not always have the support they need to help their children. So, Mieka has designed UpSlideDOown as a place where parents can meet, let their children play, get parenting advice, and find support. It’s so successful that Mieka opens UpSlideDown2. Admittedly, neither place is the scene of a murder, or an investigation. But both places play roles in the stories. And they’re both examples of the ways in which a playground can be a very positive place.

Playgrounds and schoolyards are where the action often is when it comes to young people’s interactions. And it’s where you sometimes see their parents in very unguarded moments, too. That’s part of what can make them so effective in crime novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.

    

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Filed under Gail Bowen, Håkan Östlundh, Karin Alvtegen, Liane Moriarty, Paddy Richardson