Tag Archives: WPLongForm

We Were Just Young and Restless and Bored

Have you ever gotten so busy that you almost wish you could be bored? You might even think what a luxury it is to have enough time for boredom. But, before you get too envious of those who are bored, keep in mind that it has its own challenges.

If you look at crime fiction, you see all sorts of negative consequences that come from being bored. Boredom, especially among young people, can get one into serious trouble. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of lots more than I could.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, we are introduced to two young men, Andreas Winthur and Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They are best friends; in fact, you could say that they’re each other’s only real friend. They are also bored with life, and without much purpose. Their search for something to do gets them into trouble more than once. And, on one fateful day, it has terrible consequences. Andreas and Zipp spend the day together. Later, Andreas disappears. His mother, Runi, is worried about him, so she goes to the police. At first, Inspector Konrad Sejer isn’t overly concerned. After all, Andreas isn’t a young child. But when more time goes by, and he hasn’t returned, Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, start investigating. Naturally, one of their first interviewees is Zipp. But he’s not much help. Zipp says he and Andreas parted company before Andreas disappeared. Sejer is sure that Zipp knows more than he’s telling, but it’s not going to be easy to find out the truth.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls is the story of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. In 1978, she gets permission to spend some of the summer at the home of her Aunt Barbara and Uncle Doug Griffin, near Sydney. Angela, her cousin, Mick, and Mick’s friends, are a little bored, with no school, no sport contests, and so on. So, they spend a lot of time playing pinball at a local drugstore. One day, the group goes to the drugstore as usual, but Angela doesn’t come back. She is later found dead, with a scarf over her head. The police investigate, and they focus their attention on Mick and his friends, but they can’t find any evidence of wrongdoing. Then, a few months later, another young girl is found dead, again with a scarf around her head. The theory now is that someone is targeting young girls, and people do worry. The press even dubs the killer, the ‘Sydney Strangler.’ No more killings are reported, though, and the murders are never solved. Years later, filmmaker Erin Fury decides to do a documentary on families who’ve lost a loved one to murder, and she approaches the Griffin family. They eventually agree to be interviewed, and we slowly learn what really happened to Angela.

In Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain?, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. There’s not much for him in the small town in which he lives, and he’s bored and restless. Then, he meets professional assassin Simon Marechall. And it turns out that he’s got something Marechall needs: a driver license. Marechall needs a driver to take him to Cap d’Agde, on the French coast, where he wants to do one more job before he retires. Bernard isn’t doing anything else with his life, and he is bored. So, he agrees to serve as driver, and the two plan their trip. But Bernard doesn’t know what his new boss does for a living. By the time he finds out, it’s too late, and things start to spin out of control.

Of course, it’s not just young people who get bored with their lives. In Ian Rankin’s Doors Open, for example, wealthy Mike Mackenzie has gotten bored with his life, and he’s looking for some excitement. He and his banker friend, Allan Cruikshank, share a love of art. So, together with art professor Gissing, and with help from local gangster Chib Calloway, Mackenzie and Cruikshank devise a plot. They want to rob the National Gallery of Scotland, and replace some of its valuable holdings with forged art. They choose the gallery’s Doors Open day, when the public gets to view the warehouses and other ‘behind the scenes’ places associated with the museum. The robbery goes off as planned, but the group soon learns that there’s more to benefiting from art then just stealing it…

Sometimes, of course, boredom has more positive consequences. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, brings him an unusual problem. Her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, manages a hostel for students where some perplexing things have been happening. Odd things have been disappearing, and there seems no explanation for what’s going on. Here are Poirot’s thoughts on the matter:

‘Hercule Poirot was silent for a minute and a half.
Did he wish to embroil himself in the troubles of Miss Lemon’s sister and the passions and grievances of a polyglot Hostel? …
He did not admit to himself that he had been rather bored of late and that the very triviality of the business attracted him.’

Poirot agrees to look into the case, and it turns out that this is much more serious than someone stealing things for fun.

As you can see, boredom has all sorts of consequences. Some of them can be positive, as boredom can spur us on to find new ways to be productive. But other times, boredom can lead to disastrous consequences. There are all sorts of examples in crime fiction; which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Night Moves.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Pascal Garnier, Wendy James

After All This Time You’re Still Asking Questions*

Even after a jury renders its verdict, that doesn’t mean a case goes away. The real truth about some cases doesn’t always come out, which means there are lingering questions about its outcome. We’ve certainly seen that in real life. For example, in 1892, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Borden was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother. And there are several theories as to who was really responsible. But at the same time, plenty of people continued to believe she was guilty. And there are historians who think the same thing.

The same questions come up in crime fiction, and it’s interesting to see the roles they can play in the genre. Those lingering questions can be the basis for a legal appeal. Or, they can prompt Cold Case teams to look into the case again. Sleuths, too, can be drawn into cases because of those questions.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned one afternoon. His wife, Caroline, is the main suspect, and she certainly has motive. She is tried for the crime, and is defended by a very skilled lawyer. But she’s found guilty and sent to prison, where she dies a year later. Most people don’t question the jury’s verdict, either. But years later, the Crales’ daughter, Carla, does. She believes that her mother was innocent, and she questions the outcome of the trial. She hires Hercule Poirot to take the case and find out who the real killer is. Slowly, he learns that there were a few questions at the time, but even those who thought Caroline Crale might be innocent faced one major challenge: if it wasn’t Caroline, then who else had a motive? Poirot gets written accounts of the murder from the people who were there at the time; he interviews them, too. That information leads him to the truth about the murder.

In Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life, Superintendent Andy Dalziel returns to a 1963 case – the murder of Pamela Westrup. At the time, Cissy Kohler was arrested, tried, and convicted in connection with the crime. But there were always some questions about whether she was guilty. Now, she’s been released from prison, and the questions continue to mount. There’s talk that she was innocent, but that the investigator in charge of the case, Wally Tallentire, hid evidence that would have supported her case. Dalziel is sure that’s not true, though, and it’s no small matter that Tallentire was his mentor, so he has a personal stake in the case. Dalziel goes back over the events in questions, and slowly gets to the truth about the Westrup murder.

Michael Robotham’s Lost features the case of seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle. Three years earlier, Mickey went missing. Everyone thinks that she was abducted and killed by a paedophile named Harold Wavell. In fact, Wavell was arrested, tried and imprisoned for the crime. But there are still questions about the case. Was Wavell really guilty? If not, what happened to the child?  Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz is looking into the case, when he is badly injured. After the injury, he has little memory of what happened. But, with help from psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, Ruiz slowly begins to recover his memories of the case. Once he does, he is able to find out the truth about Mickey.

Paddy Richardson’s Wellington-based journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of lingering questions about a case in Traces of Red. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for murdering his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the murders. There are lingering questions about the case, though. Was Bligh really guilty? There is some evidence that suggests he might be innocent. If he is, then this could be the story to ensure Thorne’s place at the top of New Zealand journalism. She starts looking into the case again and finds herself getting much closer to it than even she thinks is wise. In the end, she learns the truth, but it’s definitely at a cost.

In Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland with her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ She’s not particularly eager to make the trip, but it’s important to Yossi, so she goes along with the plan. There’s a good reason, too, for which Claire doesn’t want to go back to Auckland. In 1970, her father, Patrick, was arrested and imprisoned in connection with the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips. There was never enough evidence to make a conviction stick, so he didn’t remain in prison. But there are still plenty of people who think he’s guilty. And there are a lot of questions about the trial and about the disappearance. Still, Claire goes back to Auckland with her family. Then, she gets involved in a very high-profile case. A two-year-old in her care is diagnosed with a tumour. His parents object to any surgery on religious grounds, and this puts them squarely up against the hospital. It’s a difficult matter, and it puts Claire in exactly the situation she didn’t want: under the proverbial microscope. Her father’s case is made much of in the media, and all of the questions surrounding it are dragged out again.

There are certain cases like that, though – cases where there’s been an arrest, and possibly a trial and conviction, but there are still questions. Such situations can make for interesting plot lines in a crime novel. And in real life, those cases can make for much speculation.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Goldfinger’s Anything.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Michael Robotham, Paddy Richardson, Reginald Hill, Sue Younger

The Pawn Game

The watch must have come off when she hit the ground. It was a nice one, too – a Bulova. See, that’s why I even saw her in the first place. I noticed it lying there on the street. You don’t see Bulovas just anywhere. When I went over to pick up the watch, I could just see her hand and part of her arm showing from behind the dumpster. I didn’t want to go any closer. There was no way I was going to get mixed up in it if someone was dead. I’m not heartless, though. She was somebody’s sister, or girlfriend, or something. So, I went down a couple of blocks and found an open bar. The guy there let me use their telephone when I told him mine was dead. I called the cops and told them about the body, but I didn’t give my name.

My next stop was Rusty Brader’s place. He’s got a pawn and loan shop not too far away.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside, and it looks like even less from the inside. But I like Rusty. He’s a pretty good guy. When I got to the shop, I pulled open the door, and heard the ‘door open’ chime go. Just because Rusty’s got a small shop doesn’t mean he’s stupid. There’s an alarm system, cameras, the whole thing. Rusty looked up from his computer screen and gave me a grin.
‘Kevin! How are you, man?’
‘I’m good. You?’
‘Good. You got something for me?’
‘Yeah, I do. And I really think it’s worth something.’

Rusty raised an eyebrow. He’s used to me bringing him old CDs that no-one listens to, that kind of thing. When I first got laid off, what I sold him was worth some money. You know, my extra TV, my video camera, and a few other electronics. But it’s been a while since I’ve had anything good. I still come in whenever I’ve got something, though. I found a part-time job, but it’s retail and pays nothing. The pawn thing helps me get closer to making ends meet.

‘Let’s take a look,’ Rusty said. He reached out his bear paw of a hand, and I pulled the watch out of my pocket. The light in the shop isn’t very good, even on sunny days, so Rusty turned on the jeweler’s lamp that he keeps behind the counter. He spread the watch out under the lamp and looked at it for a long time. Then, he turned it over and looked at the back of it.
‘Where’d you get this?’ he asked.
‘I found it on the street.’ It was weird Rusty even asked where I got the watch. Usually he doesn’t ask a lot of questions. Now, he gave me a strange look. I didn’t blame him, either. How many people drop expensive watches on the street like that?
‘Swear to God, that’s where it was,’ I said, holding up my right hand, palm towards him. He shrugged, muttered something I couldn’t make out, and looked at the watch again. Finally, he nodded.

For the next few minutes, we talked about the price. He started at fifty dollars. I started at five hundred. We shook hands at one seventy-five, and I was on my way. I know, he’s better at this than I am. But one seventy-five is the electricity paid, plus a little extra.

When I got home, I turned on the TV and caught the news break. One of the stories was about the body behind the dumpster.  They said her name was Camilla Brader. Something about that name was familiar. Then it hit me. Brader’s not an unusual name, but still, I wondered if she and Rusty were related. I was just about to look up the pawn shop’s number when I heard a knock. Two policemen were at the door.

‘Are you Kevin Marshall?’ one of them asked.
‘Yes, that’s me,’ I said. What were they doing here? Of course! The watch. But wait? How the hell could they know I’d found it and taken it to Rusty’s shop? And, anyway, where’s the crime? I swallowed hard. ‘What’s this about?’
‘Do you know someone named Camilla Brader?’

The next hour or so was a blur. I didn’t know the dead woman – never heard of her. But it turned out she was Rusty’s wife (poor guy!). No wonder he’d acted funny about the watch. But still, why wouldn’t he just ask me what I was doing with his wife’s watch? I tried to explain the whole thing, but the cops wouldn’t listen to me. They kept asking more and more and more questions.  Finally, they left. I poured myself a double shot of some cheap whisky I had and sat down to think. After about a half hour, I tried to call Rusty at the shop, but nobody answered. No big surprise there, if he’d just found out his wife was dead.

The police came back the next morning. This time, they didn’t waste a lot of time asking me questions. They took me down to the station, saying they had new evidence they wanted to discuss with me.
‘What new evidence?’
‘Your financial situation. We hear you’ve been pawning a lot lately. So, you saw someone wearing a good watch, and you went for it. Maybe you meant to kill her, maybe not. But it happened.’
‘What? That’s crazy! I told you. I found the watch! She was already dead.’

When we got to the station, the police took me to an interview room. On our way there, we saw Rusty coming in the other direction.
‘Rusty! My God! I am so sorry to hear –’
‘You’re sorry? You’re sorry? You goddamned murderer! You killed my wife!’ He made a move for me, but one of the cops held him back.
‘I didn’t kill anyone!’
Rusty made another move, but he stopped himself. As he turned away, I saw him smile.
He was smiling? What the hell?
‘Rusty! What the hell did you do to me?’ I yelled as the police practically frog-marched me to the interview room.


Filed under Uncategorized

In The Spotlight: Eoin Colfer’s Plugged

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime fiction is what you’d call very darkly comic. It takes skill to balance the elements in a novel like that, so that the very dark aspects of it aren’t overly gruesome or bleak, and so that the comic aspects of it don’t take away from the ‘crime’ parts of the story. Let’s take a look at this sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Eoin Colfer’s Plugged (yes, the Eoin Colfer of Artemis Fowl fame).

As the story begins, Daniel McEvoy works security at a sleazy nightclub/casino called Slotz, in the (fictitious) town of Cloisters, New Jersey. McEvoy is ex-pat Irish, who served as a peacekeeper in the Middle East. Now, he’s got a second-rate job in a third-rate club. One night, a shady lawyer named Jaryd Faber gets in trouble at the club for groping one of the hostesses, Cornelia ‘Connie’ DeLyne. He’s removed from the place, but the trouble isn’t over.

Not long after Faber leaves, Connie is found murdered in the street outside the club. The police are called in, in the form of Detectives Deacon and Goran, and they interview everyone, including McEvoy. He’s a ‘person of interest,’ because he had a relationship with the victim (more ‘friends with benefits’ than anything really permanent). But he knows he isn’t guilty. And he wants to find out who killed his friend.

Meanwhile, McEvoy has other problems. During a visit to his friend and hair replacement doctor, Zebulon ‘Zeb’ Kronski, McEvoy encounters Macey Barrett, a ‘lieutenant’ for Mike Madden, a local gangster. It’s soon clear that something’s going on between Madden and Kronski, but McEvoy isn’t interested in getting involved. He has no choice, though, when Barrett tries to kill him, and his only option is to defend himself. It doesn’t help matters that Kronski has gone missing.

Now, McEvoy’s trying to stay out of Madden’s way, find out who killed Connie, and dodge the police (he doesn’t want them digging too deeply, because of the Barrett murder). And there’s the matter of what happened to Kronski. He’s in a very serious mess, and it’s going to take all his skill to get answers without getting killed in the process.

This is a dark story in some ways. McEvoy’s a sort of ‘everyman’ who just can’t seem to catch a break, as the saying goes. And he gets mixed up with some nasty people. Readers who do not like violence will want to know that there’s plenty of it in this novel. And not all of it is ‘offstage.’ The same is true for the language used in the novel. McEvoy gets himself in more than one very bad situation.

The story is told (first person, mostly present tense) from McEvoy’s point of view, so we get his perspective. He has his issues, but readers who are tired of dysfunctional characters who cannot manage being adults will be glad to know that he’s not one of them. He really is just trying to live his life. And he does have a certain wit. Here’s his thought, for instance, when he sees Barrett in Kronski’s waiting room.

‘I tell myself to be calm. After all, hoodlums get bloated stomachs, too. Maybe he’s just here for some aloe.’

That wit adds to the ‘comic’ aspect of the novel. And there are some funny parts. For instance, the delusional woman who lives upstairs from McEvoy starts out by hating him, and then becomes obsessed with him when she becomes convinced he’s a former partner. And there’s the ongoing plot thread of McEvoy’s hair replacement (hence, the novel’s title). He doesn’t like it discussed, and that’s a running bit through the story. There’s also the fact that the missing Zeb Kronski seems somehow to be talking to McEvoy in his mind. McEvoy himself knows how improbable and crazy that seems, and their conversations add wit to the story.

The story is set in the gritty part of a small New Jersey town, and Colfer places the reader there. The nightclub isn’t exactly five-star; nor are its patrons. And some of the people McEvoy deals with are just as gritty as the club. The town itself, though, is a basic, suburban place with single-family, detached homes, pizza places, and so on.

There are several twists and turns (and deaths) in the story as McEvoy tries to find out the truth. There’s action, too, and some narrow escapes. And a few of the people in the story turn out not to be who they seem. In that sense, the novel has a few elements of the thriller. Like many such stories, this one asks for some suspension of disbelief. Readers will have to decide how much is ‘too much.’

For the most part, though, Plugged is the story of a ‘regular guy’ who’s just trying to make a life for himself, and who keeps getting caught up in trouble. It takes place in small, somewhat seedy little town, and features thugs, hair plugs, a casino, several dead people, and a few strange situations. But what’s your view? Have you read Plugged? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 25 June/Tuesday, 26 June – A Cut-Like Wound – Anita Nair

Monday, 2 July/Tuesday, 3 July – Involuntary Witness – Gianrico Carofiglio

Monday, 9 July/Tuesday, 10 July – Death on Demand – Carolyn Hart


Filed under Eoin Colfer, Plugged

I’m a Sergeant Out of Perrineville Barracks Number 8

It’s interesting how people’s views of the police can vary. That’s true even if you consider just law-abiding people (after all, those who have a habit of breaking the law aren’t likely to welcome the police). People’s views of the police are affected by lots of factors (social class, culture, whether there are police officers in the family, and so on.

One attitude is expressed neatly in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. In that novel, Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who shot Dr. John Christow. The victim and his wife, Gerda, were weekend guests at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell when Christow was shot. So, naturally, Grange and his men want to talk to all of the members of the household. Here’s what the cook, Mrs. Medway, says when one of the kitchen maids tells the police something she saw:

‘‘It’s common to be mixed up with the police, and don’t you forget it.’’

The belief is that respectable people, regardless of their social class, do not get involved in crime. Many people still have a little of that assumption.

Also inherent in Mrs. Medway’s remark is the belief that the ‘better class’ of people wouldn’t have anything to do with crime. We see that also in Anne Perry’s Face of a Stranger, which takes place in Victorian London. In it, Inspector William Monk searches for the killer of a ‘blueblood’ named Joscelin Grey, who was found killed in his own home. As you might imagine, Monk wants to talk to the members of Grey’s family, to see if any of them might be able to shed light on the matter. Immediately, it’s made clear to him that no-one in a family like the Greys could possibly, in any way all, be mixed up with a sordid crime. He’s better off, he’s told, going after the ‘riffraff’ who committed the crime, then bothering a socially prominent family. Interestingly, in the novel, the police are treated as not very different from tradespeople – certainly not people to be obeyed automatically.

Many people, of course, respect the police, and see them as people to turn to in time of need. There are hundreds of crime novels in which people depend on the police to solve a family member’s murder, or to find a missing loved one. One example is Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. In one plot line of the novel, Benny Frayle is devastated when her friend, financial advisor Dennis Brinkley, is killed. On the surface, he died in a tragic accident in the room where he kept his collection of ancient weapons. Benny doesn’t believe this death was an accident, though. So, she goes to the police to ask them to take another look at the case. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby hears her out, and duly looks over the reports from the initial investigation. He doesn’t see any cause for concern, though. The officers involved did their jobs efficiently and professionally, and they found no reason to call this death anything but an accident. But Benny insists otherwise. Then, there’s another death. A self-styled medium named Ava Garrett dies of what turns out to be poison. Her murder comes shortly after she holds a séance in which she mentions details of Brinkley’s death that she couldn’t have known. Now, Barnaby is convinced that the two deaths are murders, and are related. So, he and his team look into the cases carefully, and find the link between the cases.

There are also plenty of people who don’t want to be involved with the police more than absolutely necessary. Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid of the consequences if they do have anything to do with the police. Sometimes it’s because they distrust authority. Sometimes they see the police as interfering. We see this sort of attitude in Peter May’s The Blackhouse. In that novel, we meet Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod, an Edinburgh police detective who’s been seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help solve a murder that’s very similar to one he’s already investigating. It’s believed that, if the two murders were committed by the same person, then it makes sense to share information. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up on the Isle of Lewis. But he had his own reasons for leaving, and he isn’t especially thrilled to be back. Woven into the story is the local people’s natural distrust for ‘the polis.’ That’s also quite evident in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, which sees Glasgow Inspector Jack Laidlaw investigating the murder of a young woman who went missing after a night at a disco.

For some people, their view of the police is impacted by negative experiences they’ve had. In other words, the police themselves are the problem. We see that in Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, for example. In it, Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has just been stationed in Tiverton, in rural South Australia. His new assignment is a punishment for ‘whistleblowing’ during an Internal Affairs investigation in Adelaide, so as it is, he’s not particularly popular with his new colleagues. Then, the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by the side of Bitter Wash Road. As Hirsch looks into the case, he learns that several of the local people don’t want to cooperate with him. They assume that he’s in league with the other local police, and they have very good reason not to trust those police. Little by little, though, Hirsch finds out the truth. There are plenty of other novels, too, where people don’t talk to the police, because they know that the police are not to be trusted.

It’s interesting to see how many different views there are of the police. They’re impacted by a lot of different factors, too. And that means that a crime writer has a lot of flexibility when it comes to how the police will be regarded in a novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Caroline Graham, Garry Disher, Peter May, William McIlvanney