Don’t Hear Words That I Didn’t Say*

It’s surprisingly easy to misinterpret what you see and hear. After all, we may not see or hear accurately. Or, we may see or hear accurately enough, but not understand what’s really going on. Sometimes, those misinterpretations are funny; sometimes they’re downright embarrassing.

In crime fiction, misinterpretations can be dangerous. At the very least, they can bring their own challenges. I’m not talking here of deliberate misdirection. That’d be too easy! Rather, I’m talking about a simple misunderstanding. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery concerns the murder of Charles McCarthy. His son, James, was overheard quarreling with the victim right before the murder, and he had motive, too. So, the police quickly settle on him as the chief suspect. But his fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced that he is innocent. So, she goes to the police and asks them to re-investigate. Inspector Lestrade may have his faults, but he doesn’t want an innocent man hung. So, he asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the matter, and Holmes agrees. It turns out that a single misinterpreted phrase is an important clue to the real murderer. Once Holmes works out what that phrase meant, he finds out who the guilty person is.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work with the police to find a killer who has murdered several people. Each death is prefaced by a cryptic warning note to Poirot. And, an ABC railway guide is found near each body. The second victim is Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Barnard, whose body is found on a beach early one morning. Her older sister, Megan, hears the news and, of course, immediately travels from London, where she lives and works, to Bexhill-on-Sea, where her family lives. When she gets to her parents’ home, Poirot and Hastings are already there with the police. She misinterprets their purpose and says,

‘‘I don’t think I’ve got anything to say to you. My sister was a nice, bright girl with no men friends. Good morning.’’ 

When Hastings explains that he’s not a reporter, she sees that she’s misunderstood, and turns out to be helpful to them.

In Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, we meet Guy Haines, who is on a cross-country rail trip to visit his estranged wife. During the journey, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, and the two men strike up a conversation. They end up sharing their stories, and Bruno comes up with an idea. He has reason to want his father dead, and there’s no love lost between Haines and his wife. So, Bruno suggests that each commit the other’s murder. His view is, if Haines kills his father, and he kills Haines’ wife, neither has a motive, and both will get away with the crime. Haines passes off Bruno’s suggestion as a joke, or at most, idle chat, and agrees in the same spirit. But he has misinterpreted Bruno, who was actually being quite serious. That misunderstanding leads to some tragic places.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost features ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who wants very much to be a detective. In fact, she has her own agency, Falcon Investigations. A new mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, has been constructed, and she decides that it’s a good place to look for suspicious people and activity. She spends quite a lot of time there, and watches what people do. And it’s interesting to see how she misinterprets those activities, considering them highly suspicious, when in fact, they’re not. Kate is perfectly content with her life, but her grandmother, Ivy, thinks she ought to go away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate takes the bus to the school, but she doesn’t return. A thorough search doesn’t yield any clues, either – not even a body. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt starts seeing strange images on his camera – a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, who’s an assistant manager at one of the mall stores, and who knew Kate. They form an awkward sort of friendship and, each in a different way, go back to the past, and we learn what happened to Kate.

Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness introduces attorney Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari. He gets a new client, Abdou Thiam, who’s been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam says that he’s innocent, but this isn’t going to be an easy case. There is evidence against him. Still, Guerrieri goes to work, and starts gathering information and speaking to witnesses. And, in the end, he finds that one misinterpretation has made a major difference in this investigation. Once he uncovers that misinterpretation, he’s able to learn more about the truth of what happened to the boy.

It’s easy to misunderstand or misinterpret what we hear and see. That’s especially true if we don’t know the real story, so to speak. It’s little wonder that these misunderstandings come up as they do in crime fiction. And it can add much to a story when that happens.


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Eva and Magaldi/Eva, Beware of the City.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine O'Flynn, Gianrico Carofiglio, Patricia Highsmith

Please Come to Boston*

If you’ve ever visited Boston, then you know that it’s a beautiful city, rich in history and culture. Greater Boston is home to some of the world’s finest educational institutions, museums, restaurants, and medical facilities. It’s little wonder, then, that the city is a popular tourist destination.

But Boston is by no means a perfect place. There’s plenty of crime there – at least if you read crime fiction. Whether it’s in an exclusive Boston hospital, or the seamy side of Dorchester, anything can happen…

As Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need (which he wrote as Jeffery Hudson) begins, Arthur Lee, an obstetrician at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, has been arrested for performing an abortion. It’s 1968, and that procedure is illegal in the United States, so this is a serious matter. Lee claims that he did not perform the abortion, and, in fact, counseled the patient against it. But the patient is Karen Randall, daughter of J.D. Randall, one of the most influential doctors at the hospital. What’s worse, Karen did undergo an abortion, and died because the procedure was botched. So, as you can imagine, Randall is determined that the police will pursue the case against Lee. Lee asks his friend, pathologist John Berry, to help him clear his name, and Berry agrees. He begins to look into what happened, and finds that some things are not consistent with a botched abortion and a doctor who lied about it. But it’s not long before Berry also learns that some very powerful people who want the case left alone. And the more he finds out about Karen Randall, the more he sees that her life was a lot more complicated than anyone knew.

Several of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers/mysteries take place in the Boston area, too. For instance, in Acceptable Risk, noted neuroscientist Edward Armstrong accepts an offer to work for a breakout biotechnology company called Genetrix. He’ll be working on a new psychotropic drug designed to combat depression. He and his research team have already been working in the area, and have some promising ideas, so it’s exciting that he’ll have a company to back his efforts. At the same time, Armstrong meets a Boston-area nurse, Kimberly Stewart. She’s renovating a home that’s been in her family for a few hundred years, and Armstrong takes an interest in the project (and in her). He’s even more interested when he learns that ergot has been found below the house’s basement. He persuades Genetrix to set up a lab for him and his team on the property, and they get to work. The end result is terrifying, and it shows just how much pressure there is on researchers to come up with ‘the big cure.’

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, we meet Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. One day, he gets a call from his friend, pawn-shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. He’s gotten a painting into his shop that he thinks might be valuable, and he wants Revere to authenticate it. Revere agrees and goes to the shop. To his shock, the painting seems to be a genuine Velázquez. Revere wants to do some research on the painting to help his friend establish its provenance and worth. Revere doesn’t want such a valuable piece of art to be left in the pawn shop, but Pawlovsky refuses to let it go. So, a reluctant Revere leaves it there, and goes to find out more information. When he returns two hours later, Pawlovsky is dead. It’s obvious that he was murdered for the painting, although it is still in the shop’s safe. Revere feels guilty for leaving his friend, and that’s part of what motivates him. He decides that if he can trace the painting from the time it was ‘taken by the Nazis for safekeeping’ until it ended up in the shop, he can find Pawlovsky’s murderer. The trip takes him to several different European places, but it all starts in Boston.

Much of Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone takes place in the working-class Dorchester section of Boston. In it, PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro get a new case. Four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing, and a massive hunt hasn’t turned up any clues. Amanda’s Uncle Lionel and Aunt Beatrice McCready want Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate.  The PIs not sure what they can do that several police departments and a public alert haven’t done, but they decide to take the case. They  start with Amanda’s mother, Helene, but they don’t’ get much help there. She’s not exactly an attentive mother; in fact, she left the child alone on the night she was taken. As Kenzie and Gennaro piece together the truth about what happened to Amanda, the search takes them through several parts of Dorchester, and we see what life is like in this part of Boston.

And then there’s Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale, which takes place in 1758. When Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are found murdered, it looks on the surface as though they were killed by hostile Indians (which wouldn’t be surprising, given this is during the Seven Years/French and Indian War). But the Indians in the area (North Carolina) where the bodies where found are not enemies. What’s more, an unusual brooch with Masonic symbols on it was found at the scene. Local constable James Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard decides to look into the matter more deeply. He thinks that, if he can trace the brooch to its origin, he can find out more about the murder.  So, he follows the brooch’s trail to Boston (and later, to Québec). The Boston that Woodyard finds is much more urban and sophisticated than his plantation is, and there’s resentment there against what is seen as British highhandedness. The American Revolution itself is twenty years off, but there’s already deep unhappiness at the status quo, and it’s quite the topic in Boston. It’s an interesting look at the Boston of that era.

Whatever era one’s in, Boston is an interesting city. It’s a world-class destination for education, medicine, and more. But that doesn’t mean it’s crime free…


Thanks to for the lovely ‘photo!


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dave Loggins.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Dennis Lehane, Donald Smith, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Robin Cook

Here’s to My Bride-to-Be*

An interesting book review from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking of what a lot of people call ‘May/December’ marriages. It may not be as popular now in Western cultures. But it used to be quite normal for an older man to marry a much-younger woman. And it wasn’t seen (as it often is now) as ‘gold-digging’ on the part of the woman. Sometimes, such marriages have been seen as useful alliances. Other times, they’ve been seen as effective ways for a girl without much money or ‘prospects’ to be taken care of by someone with some wealth. There are other reasons, too, for which such marriages have been made, and still are.

There are plenty of ‘May/December’ unions in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. For one thing, they weren’t, as I say, uncommon in the past. For another, they can make for interesting character development. And that’s to say nothing of the possibilities for suspense and plot points.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Retired Coulourman, Josiah Amberley hires Sherlock Holmes to find his much-younger wife, who’s gone missing. Amberley suspects that she’s run off with his friend and frequent chess opponent, Dr. Ray Ernest. Also missing is a great deal of money in cash and securities, so Amberley’s first thought is that his wife and Ernest were lovers who’d run off with the money. Holmes agrees to look into the matter, but he’s busy with another case. So, it’s really Dr. Watson who does most of the ‘legwork’ in the matter. And he finds that this isn’t at all as simple as two people who fell in love and went away together.

Agatha Christie’s Crooked House is the story of the Leonides family. Wealthy patriarch Aristide Leonides lives with his much-younger wife, Brenda, at Three Gables, the family home. With them live several members of their extended family. When World War II ends, Leonides’ granddaughter, Sophie, returns to Three Gables, only to find that her grandfather has been poisoned with his own eyedrops. Sophie’s fiancé, Charles Hayward, knows that she will not marry him until the mystery of who killed Leonides and why is solved. So, Hayward is highly motivated to find out the truth. And he soon learns that there are several possible suspects in this case. Was Brenda a ‘gold-digger,’ out to get her husband’s fortune? What about the other members of the family? They all had reasons for wanting the victim dead.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder features the Van Horn family. Howard Van Horn has been having troubling blackouts, which are worrisome enough. Then, one day, he wakes from one of them to find that he has blood on him, and it’s not his own. Terrified that he did something horrible, Van Horn visits his old college friend, Ellery Queen. He tells Queen of his concerns, and Queen agrees to help him get to the truth. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, so Queen and Van Horn go there. There, they stay with Van Horn’s wealthy father, Dietrich, and Dietrich’s much-younger wife, Sally. During their visit, Sally is strangled. It looks very much as if Van Horn murdered his stepmother during one of his blackouts, but there isn’t definitive proof. And Queen doesn’t think his friend is guilty. As he works towards a solution to the mystery, we get to know a bit about Dietrich and Sally Van Horn. She grew up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of town,’ and doesn’t have the background or education that her husband does. But she is beautiful, and glad to have someone with money to take care of her. It’s an interesting dynamic that plays its part in the novel.

In Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, we are introduced to fledgling attorney Catherine Monsigny. In one plot thread of this novel, she gets her chance to make her mark as a lawyer when Myriam Villetreix is arrested for poisoning her wealthy husband, Gaston. Myriam is much younger than her husband; and on the surface, she seems to be a very likely suspect. She, however, claims that she is innocent, and is being framed by Gaston’s cousins, who dislike her because she is foreign – originally from Gabon – and never wanted her to marry Gaston in the first place. What’s more, they want whatever they can get of his fortune, and they don’t want to share it with her. Catherine agrees to defend Myriam, and she gets to know a little more about her and about Gaston. As she does, it’s interesting to see how very different the marriage seems, depending on who’s describing it (Myriam or Gaston’s cousins).

And then there’s Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings. In that novel, we meet news columnist Nell Forrest, who lives in the small town of Majic, Victoria (she herself makes fun of the town’s name). One day, she learns that there’s been a fire at the home of her mother, Lillian ‘Yen.’ Yen is safe, but the garage has been damaged. As if that’s not enough, a man’s body has been found in the ruins. He is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen, and with whom she’d had a loud argument on the evening of his death. And, his body was found on her property. So, she’s certainly ‘of interest’ to the police. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is a murderer, though, so she starts to ask questions. And she soon learns that more than one person could have had a motive. For instance, there’s the victim’s much-younger wife, Beth, whom he’d abused. There are other local people, too, with whom Craig had had disagreements. And, in the end, that network of relationships turns out to have a lot to do with the murder.

‘May/December’ marriages do still happen, even if they’re less common in the West than they were. And they certainly play a role in crime novels. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, please treat yourself and go visit FictionFan’s great blog. Fine reviews, wit, and a porpentine await you…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s To Life.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Ilsa Evans, Sylvie Granotier

Crime Fiction News Break


Links You’ll Want

The Wolfe Pack and the Nero Award

And Then There Were Six  at the Stage 


Cat Connor

A Greater God  

Brian Stoddart


Filed under Uncategorized

In The Spotlight: Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Besides the crime/mystery of the main plot, some crime stories also offer perspectives on other cultures, and interesting ‘windows’ into the way other people live. Let’s take a look at that sort of book today and turn the spotlight on Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones.

As the story begins, PI Ray Lovell is recovering in a hospital from what we soon learn is a poisoning. He gradually becomes aware of his surroundings, and it’s not long before he starts to be aware of who he is and where he is. Then the story shifts to the beginning of the events that led to Lovell’s being poisoned.

It all really starts when Lovell gets a visit from Leon Wood, who wants Lovell to find his daughter, Rose. Apparently, she went missing several years ago after a short marriage to a man named Ivo Janko. The real reason Wood wants to hire Lovell is that Lovell is half-Roma, and all of the families involved are Roma. Wood fears that no-one will want to talk to a PI who isn’t ‘one of us.’ Lovell agrees to take the case, and he starts to ask questions. The first person he wonders about is Wood himself. After all, why would he wait so long to try to find his daughter? But there are plenty of other people who might know something, or even be involved. For instance, there’s Rose’s husband, Ivo. And that’s where Lovell heads next.

Soon enough, Lovell meets a few members of the Janko clan, and they all tell him the same story: Rose did marry Ivo, but ran off after their son was born. Even when Lovell finally meets Ivo, he hears the same story. But some things about it don’t completely ring true, and he continues to ask questions.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to James ‘JJ’ Smith, a fourteen-year-old Roma boy. As his part of the story begins, he and his family are on their way to Lourdes, hoping for a miracle cure for JJ’s six-year-old cousin, Christopher ‘Christo.’ It seems that Christo has an incurable illness that has kept him from developing normally. Through JJ’s eyes, readers follow along as the family visits Lourdes, and then returns to the UK.

As the novel moves along, the stories of Rose, of JJ, and of Ray Lovell, who’s trying to put it all together, merge. And, in the end, we learn the truth about what happened to Rose. We also learn why and by whom Ray was poisoned.

Most of the characters in the novel are Roma, so readers learn quite a bit about the Roma way of life. Since Lovell is half-Roma, he’s considered ‘one of us,’ or at the very least, acceptable. So, he doesn’t have uninformed notions of what the Roma are like. And, since many parts of the story are told from his perspective, the portrait we get of the Jankos and of other Roma people is not the superficial depiction that one might hear in stories or legends.

Penney places the reader distinctly within the Roma community, in terms of lifestyle, culture, values, and even some of the language. It’s a ‘warts and all’ exploration, too, told from the point of view of people who are proud Roma, as well as that of people who aren’t. Penney also explores the way the Roma are viewed by gorjios (non-Roma people). We see this especially as we follow JJ’s story, since he has to negotiate his own world and the world of school.

This is a PI story, so readers also get a look at the way modern PIs go about their work (the novel was published originally in 2011). Lovell and his business partner, Henry ‘Hen’ Hamilton-Price, have more than one case going at a time.  They’re concerned about the financial aspect of their business. They meet with clients, develop relationships with people in the police force and the media who will help them, and so on.

It’s hard in the Wood/Lovell case, though, to use the Internet and other public records,  as Roma people often aren’t reflected in those records, and rarely on social media. Those who travel often don’t stay in one place, so, even if there is some sort of public record, there’s no guarantee of locating a given person. So, Lovell uses his Roma identity to get the word out (e.g. ‘I’ll ask around. See if anyone knows anything.’).

The story is told from Lovell’s perspective (first person, mostly present tense), and JJ’s (also first person, present tense). So, we get to know their characters. Lovell’s marriage to his wife, Jen, has ended, although that’s not what he wanted. In fact, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s a sub-plot concerning divorce papers. He’s a bit at odds with himself, but he’s not a demon-haunted, drunken detective who can’t handle his life. Rather, he’s trying to make a sort of new life for himself.

For JJ’s part, he’s dealing with the issues many young people do: finding a social place for himself (and possibly a girlfriend), doing schoolwork, and so on. He also has questions about what happened to his father (all his mother will say is that his father was a gorjio who wouldn’t marry her, and who left when she got pregnant). As is the case with many teens, he’s also trying to be grown-up, when sometimes, he feels very young indeed.

The solution to the mystery of what happened to Rose is very sad, and finding it out doesn’t make anyone happier or better off. Readers who prefer endings where everything is all right again will notice that. But the questions are answered, and it’s clear that life will go on, and might even be good for some of the characters.

The Invisible Ones is a close look at modern Roma people, and what happens to a close-knit community when long-buried questions come up. It features a sleuth who’s a part of that community in his way, and a young man who’s trying to find his Roma way in a gorjio world. But what’s your view? Have you read The Invisible Ones? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 10 December/Tuesday, 11 December – Too Late to Die – Bill Crider

Monday, 17 December/Tuesday, 18 December – All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe

Monday, 24 December/Tuesday, 25 December – In Cold Blood – Truman Capote


Filed under Stef Penney, The Invisible Ones