Nobody Should Hear What We’re Saying*

Real and fictional sleuths know that people aren’t always comfortable giving them information. In some cultures, it can be dangerous to be seen talking to the police. In other cases, a person doesn’t want to be seen as an informant. There are other reasons, too, for which a person might not want a meeting with the police to be public. So, there are plenty of clandestine meetings, especially in crime fiction.

There are several, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt. Sir Stafford Nye is a low-level British diplomat who gets drawn into a web of international intrigue, murder, and more. He’s in an airport in Malaya, waiting for his flight back to the UK, when he is approached in an airport by a young woman. She tells him that her life is in danger, and that she needs to get out of the country. He lends her his passport and diplomatic credentials (much easier to do when this book was published than it is now!), and she leaves. His things are returned to him, and he soon learns that she is mixed up in a major plot. They have a few clandestine meetings, including one on a bridge, and one at an opera. She also whisks him away from an embassy party. In the end, we find out what’s behind all of the secrecy, and a major international plot is exposed.

William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in Moscow, during the last years before WWII. Korolev is a police detective with the Moscow CID at a time when that can be a very dangerous occupation. Stalin is firmly in charge, and any hint of disagreement or dissent can get a person exiled or worse. So, there is a lot of pressure for Korolev to follow the ‘Party line’ when it comes to the cases he investigates. At the same time, he is a dedicated cop who wants to solve crimes, and who is under pressure to show that the police are doing their jobs, and that, basically, there is no crime. So, he has to work very quietly and delicately. He is helped sometimes by an enigmatic man named Kolya, who is a leader of the Moscow Thieves. Kolya has his own agenda, but when it suits that agenda to work with Korolev, he does. And they do have a sort of respect for each other. They can’t meet in any obvious way, because that would mean disaster for both of them. But Kolya finds ways to meet with Korolev in very discreet places, so that they can work together unobtrusively.

David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight introduces his protagonist, Superintendent Frank Swann. In the novel, he’s recently returned to his ‘home base’ in Perth after an absence, mostly because he’s learned of the murder of a friend of his, Ruby Devine. Swann believes that a group of corrupt police called the purple circle are responsible for her death. He can’t prove it, though; and, in any case, he’s not going to get much help. He called for a Royal Commission hearing into corruption on the force, so he’s a ‘dead man walking’ as far as many people are concerned. Still, there are a few people who will tell what they know. But they don’t want to be seen obviously cooperating with Swann. So, there are several meetings in out-of-the-way places, and more than one secret conversation.

In John Clarkson’s Among Thieves, we are introduced to James Beck, who owns a bar in Red Hook, New Jersey, just outside New York City. What few people know is that he also owns the building next door. He bought it after a successful wrongful-conviction lawsuit (he served eight years for a crime he didn’t commit). His fellow owners are all people he met in prison, who are now getting their lives together, trying to work legitimate jobs, and so on. Then, one of those people, Emmanual ‘Manny’ Guzman, gets a visit from his cousin, Olivia Sanchez. She claims that she’s been sexually harassed and hounded out of her position at an upmarket investment firm. What’s more, she claims that Alan Crane, whom she says harassed her, has gotten blacklisted from the other New York investment firms. He’s also threatened her, because she’s planning to file a lawsuit. Manny wants to take care of this in his own way, but Beck convinces him to hold off, and see if there’s a more legitimate way to handle the matter. Beck and his friends soon find themselves mired in a much bigger situation than a ‘he said/she said’ dispute. And there are very dangerous people who are determined to support Crane. There’s a lot at stake, and Beck and his friends are up against some powerful people. So, there are several clandestine meetings. Beck meets secretly with a gang-banger, a dubious Russian businessman whose wealth Crane is managing, and other people, too.

In Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, which takes place in 1919, Captain Sam Wyndham of the Kolkata/Calcutta police investigates the murder of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal. It’s a delicate case, because of MacAuley’s position, and because a note found at the body suggests that the killers might be pro-independence terrorists. Several people don’t want to be seen as talking to the police. And, there are those who are afraid (and with good reason) of talking about MacAuley. There’s also the fact that anyone seen as working with the British may be targeted by terrorists. So, Wyndham sometimes has to arrange clandestine conversations with people who have information he needs. It’s a very difficult business, and it’s not made any easier by the victim’s status.

Clandestine meetings can add tension to a story (Will someone overhear the conversation? Can the person be trusted?). If they’re not overdone or melodramatic, they can add to a plot, too. And did you notice? They’re not just in espionage stories…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Parlor’s Secret Conversations.

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Filed under Abir Mukherjee, Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wiilson, John Clarkson, William Ryan

All I Want is a Couple Days Off*

Fictional or real, most sleuths are hardworking, dedicated people. But that doesn’t mean they never want to take some time off from their work. Like anyone else, sleuths sometimes want to relax, spend time with their families if they have them, and take a break. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

If you’ve ever had the experience of getting ready for a few days off, only to have a work emergency come up, then you know how frustrating it can be. It’s the same for a fictional sleuth, and that can add some interesting tension to a story.

Agatha Christie’s short story The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge sees Hercule Poirot in need of some time off, so that he can recover from influenza. He and Hastings get a visit from Roger Havering, who lives at Hunter’s Lodge, Derbyshire. It seems that Havering has had a telegram from his wife, telling him that his uncle, Harrington Pace, has been murdered. Havering wants the case investigated. Poirot desperately needs some time away, so he sends Hastings to Derbyshire in his stead. There, Chief Inspector Japp is already investigating, and he and Hastings work together to find out who the killer is. As the case unfolds, they stay in contact with Poirot via telegram, and he puts the pieces of the puzzle together.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen decides to take some time away so that he can work on his writing. He’s rented a place in the Hollywood Hills, and he’s looking forward to making some progress. Then, he gets a visit from nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. She says that her father, Leander Hill, recently died of a heart attack that was deliberately induced. He’d been receiving some weird, even ghoulish, ‘presents,’ and Laurel is convinced that that’s what brought on his heart attack. She also tells Queen that her father’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘gifts.’ Queen doesn’t want to get involved at first. He’s trying to get away from ‘it all.’ But the mystery does intrigue him, and Laurel won’t be put off. So, he starts to ask questions. And, in the end, he finds out who sent the parcels (and, therefore, killed Leander Hill) and what it all means.

Fans of Martha Grimes’ Inspector Jury/Melrose Plant series will know that Jury has some ongoing friction with his boss, Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Racer. So, Jury is prepared to be annoyed when Racer calls him just as he’s packing for a weekend trip to visit Plant in the village of Long Piddlington. It seems that a human finger has been discovered in another town, Littlebourne, and Racer wants Jury to investigate. Jury explains that he’s off on a trip, but that cuts no ice with Racer. A seriously irritated Jury lets Plant know he won’t be visiting, and then heads to Littlebourne. Not long after the discovery of the finger, the rest of a human body is found. It turns out that the dead person is Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary agency. She’d been sent to Long Piddlington to interview for a job, but never made it to that interview. Plant joins his friend in Littlebourne, and, each in a different way, they search for the truth about the murder. It turns out that this death is related to a vicious attack on another villager, and to a robbery a year earlier.

At the beginning of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia, Louisiana, police detective Dave Robicheaux decides to take some time away from work. He’s recently been through the traumatic experience of losing his police partner to a line-of-duty killing. Now, he just wants to ‘step back,’ spend time with his daughter, Alafair, go fishing, and relax. But that’s not to be. He gets a visit from an old friend, former DEA agent Minos Dautrieve. It seems that Dautrieve has been appointed to the Presidential Task Force on Drugs, and he wants to involve Robicheaux in one of the task force’s plans. The task force wants to bring down New Orleans crime boss and drugs dealer Tony Cardo. Dautrieve proposes that Robicheaux pretend to ‘go dirty,’ and befriend Cardo so as to get close to him. Then, he can be brought to justice. Robicheaux wants no part of it at first. But then, Dautrieve mentions that one of Cardo’s associates is the man who killed Robicheaux’s police partner. This operation will give Robicheaux the chance to go after that man. This persuades Robicheaux to agree to the operation. But it turns out to be much more complex than it seems, and Cardo is much more complicated than he seems…

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat. In it, Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his lover, Livia Burlando, had planned to take a holiday to beat the intense Sicilian heat of August. But that changes when Montalbano’s second-in-command, Mimì Augello, has to change his own travel plans. Now, Montalbano has to stay in Vigàta. When he tells Livia what’s happened, she suggests that she and some friends could take a beach house, so that she could at least see him when he’s not actually at work. Montalbano’s not overly happy at the idea, but he goes along with it. Then, he gets drawn into a murder mystery when the son of Livia’s friend goes missing and is found in an unused tunnel that runs beneath the house – a tunnel that also contains a trunk with a corpse in it…

You would think that sleuths would be entitled to some time off once in a while. After all, they certainly work hard enough when they’re on duty, at things most of us wouldn’t want to handle. But it often doesn’t work out that way. And that tension can add to a story, right, fans of Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief?).

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Huey Lewis and the News’ Couple Days Off.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, James Lee Burke, Martha Grimes

Round About Their Homes*

One of the decisions that authors make when they tell a story is how to share point of view. Will the story have only one point of view? If so, whose? If not, how will different points of view be shared? There are a lot of different successful ways to do this, really; it all depends on the context and on the author’s goals.

When the story is about a relatively small community, where there is a limited group of characters, it can be effective to share those different perspectives. It’s a bit like a camera ‘zooming in’ on different households as events unfold.

Agatha Christie did that quite frequently in her novels and stories. To take only one example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny when his friend, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks him to look into a case. James Bentley is soon to be executed for the murder of his landlady, but Spence thinks he may be innocent. As Poirot investigates, we get glimpses into the homes of the various characters who figure into the story. There’s the Summerhayes family, owners of a Guest House; there are the wealthy and dysfunctional Wetherbys; and, there is up-and-coming politician Guy Carpenter and his wife, Eve. Also living in the village are the local GP, Dr. Rendell, and his wife, Shelagh, and Laura Upward and her playwright son, Robin. As the story goes on, we get to know these characters as there are various scenes in their homes. That set of perspectives offers a broader look at the village, as well as some interesting character development. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Moving Finger and of A Murder is Announced.

In Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, we meet professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and he’s trying to ‘go straight.’ Then, he gets the chance to visit an exclusive Manhattan apartment building and decides to rob the entire building. As the story unfolds, and Anderson makes his plans, we meet the various residents in the building. The entire story is told in the form of transcripts, letters, notes, and so on, so the points of view aren’t shared in the traditional way. Still, we ‘zoom in’ on the various apartments and their residents. And we get the police perspective as well.

Truman Capote uses a similar approach in In Cold Blood, the fictional retelling of the murders of the Clutter family in 1959. Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith killed Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon, because they’d heard that Clutter kept a great deal of money at his home. Capote tells the story from different points of view, including the Clutters, some of the families they knew, and others who lived in their small Kansas town. The novel begins with the lead-up to the murders, and then goes on through the tragedies themselves, the police investigations, and the trials of the two killers. Through it all, the different perspectives allow the reader to see how the murders impacted this small community.

Louise Penny’s novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec take place very often in the small town of Three Pines. Because it’s a small town, the local families know each other, and each is affected when murder strikes. And Penny chooses to show the points of view of the different characters as the stories go on. We get to know, for instance, Clara and Peter Morrow, both of whom are artists. We also follow Gabri and Olivier, who own the local bistro/B&B, and Ruth Zardo, resident poet. There are other characters, too, whose lives we follow and whose points of view Penny shares. That multiple viewpoint works well in this series, quite probably because there is a limited cast of ‘regular’ characters, so the number of perspectives is limited.

And then there’s Shirley Wells’ Into the Shadows, in which she introduces her sleuths, forensic psychologist Jill Kennedy and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Max Trentham. Kennedy has recently moved to the Pennines village of Kelton Bridge, hoping for a quiet life. She’s recently left her successful career, and now she wants to start over. Then, in one plot thread, the vicar’s wife, Alice Trueman, is murdered. It seems very clear on the surface that her son, Michael, is responsible. He was found standing over the body with the murder weapon. But he won’t say anything about what’s happened. So, Trentham asks Kennedy to work with the young man and try to get him to open up. It’s not going to be an easy task, but Kennedy agrees to at least try. As Trentham and his team work to find out the truth about this murder, we get an ‘inside look’ at the other families in the village. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of some of those people, and that allows the reader to see the sleuths and the investigation from different points of view.

Showing different perspectives – ‘zooming in’ on different characters and families – can be complicated, especially if there’s a large number of people. But when those perspectives are done well, and when it’s a smaller sort of mystery, those different points of view can be interesting. They can add character layers, plot points, and more to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Johnston’s China Grove.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Lawrence Sanders, Louise Penny, Shirley Wells, Truman Capote

A Funny Thing Happened…

The blank screen was staring at me, silently accusing me. Which really wasn’t fair, because it wasn’t my fault. You can’t just write down any old thing. I wanted a real inspiration for my novel – something that would get people to sit up, pay attention, and ‘click here to purchase.’

My home office wasn’t going to inspire me today. I packed up the laptop and went to the local coffee shop to try my luck there. It’s just three blocks away, and they do have good coffee and croissants. And WiFi. When I settled in, I went to the counter and ordered my coffee and an almond croissant. They were ready quickly, and I headed back to my table.

By the time I got there, the table next to mine was occupied. She looked to be a little older than I am, with a medium-length light-brown bob and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. Our eyes met briefly, and she smiled. I gave a quick smile and a nod and sat down to work. There was that damned blank screen again. I took a sip of my coffee and tried to focus. A minute later, I heard a voice.

‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t help noticing. Are you a writer?’ The woman at the next table gave me a friendly look as I glanced up.
‘Yes, I am.’ I wasn’t going to go on, but then I thought I probably ought to at least mention my work. ‘I write novels.’
‘You do? That’s wonderful. What sort of novels do you write?’
‘I write crime fiction.’
‘Oh, I love a good mystery novel! What have you written?’

Well, who could resist that? I mentioned a couple of my titles, and the woman smiled again. ‘I’ll have to look them up.’ I thanked her and went back to work. Soon I heard her voice again.

‘You know, I know about a true crime – a real murder. And no-one ever solved it.’
‘Really?’ I asked, my interest now piqued.
‘Oh, yes. It happened right around here, too. It happened a long time ago, though,’ she added when she saw my confused expression.

Now I was really interested, and I invited her to go on.
‘Well,’ she began, ‘There was this married couple. Just a normal couple. They hadn’t been married long. Anyway, the wife went out of town on business. While she was gone, her husband died. The thing was, there was poison in his system.’
‘He was poisoned?’ I asked. Now, my mental gears were spinning. That would make for a great story. ‘How did it happen? Did anyone find out?’
‘The news reports said he ate fast food – maybe Chinese? – the night he died. I guess the poison was in that. But why would anyone in a fast food place put poison in a man’s food? It didn’t have bacteria or anything. It was poison.’
‘And nobody had a motive?’
‘Not that I ever heard about. The police wondered about the wife, of course.’
‘I did, too, to be honest.’
‘But the thing is, she was out of town. She couldn’t have done it.’
That was a puzzle. ‘Now, I’m curious,’ I said. ‘I’m going to think about that one. Thanks for telling me the story.’
‘Of course. It is interesting, isn’t it?’

I turned back to my non-existent novel and thought for a few minutes. Then it hit me. I looked up. The woman was still there, quietly sipping her coffee and reading something on her Kindle. ‘I’ve got an idea,’ I said.
‘Really? What do you think happened?’
‘OK, the man ordered Chinese fast food, right?’
‘I think so.’
‘What if he did that on a regular basis? What if he had some sort of sauce that he kept at home – duck sauce, maybe? What if his wife poisoned the sauce before she left? He’d eat it, and she’d be far away.’
‘Yes, but wouldn’t the police have looked for poison in the other food in the house?’
‘If the wife did it, she could have gotten rid of the jar before the police looked for it. I mean, she gets the call that her husband died, nobody knows how yet. She rushes back from wherever, she gets rid of the jar before anybody starts testing anything, and she’s covered herself. Was she far away at the time?’
‘Oh, I don’t remember now. But that is a very clever solution. You really are a detective.’
I gave a little shrug. ‘I don’t know about that,’ I mumbled.

The woman looked at her watch. ‘I must be going now. It was nice to meet you. Do you work here often?’
‘Sometimes.’
‘Well, then, maybe I’ll see you again.’
I nodded, the woman left, and I went back to work.

I thought about the murder for the rest of the day. Thought about how I could make a great story from it. You never know what might happen between couples that would make one partner kill the other. And, if I said so myself, I did think it was clever about the duck sauce.

The next day, I went back to the coffee shop. Maybe yesterday’s inspiration would work its magic again, and I could get some writing done. I was just planning out some of the characters I wanted to create when the woman I’d talked to yesterday came in again. She stopped at my table.
‘Well, hello,’ she said.
‘Hi.’
‘So nice to see you again.’
I smiled, and she went up to the counter to get her coffee.

A few minutes later, I got up to use the restroom. When I got back, the woman was just leaving, with her coffee and a small muffin bag in her hand. She waved at me and said, ‘Good luck with your novel. You really are awfully clever, you know.’

I thanked her and got back to work, sipping at my coffee from time to time. After about forty minutes, I started to feel woozy. Probably the flu or something. I left as quickly as I could and went back home. I was sick a few times, but I still don’t feel any better. In fact, I’m feeling worse. I think I’ll just lie down…

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I Wish I Knew You*

If you ask ten people to tell you what someone is like, you’re likely to get ten different answers. Those answers might have a lot in common (e.g. everyone might say the person tells a good joke). But there are bound to be differences, because each of us has a slightly different perspective on people.

Sleuths, both fictional and real, have to keep this in mind when they’re investigating cases. It’s crucial to get a sense of what a murder victim was like; the victim’s personality, background, and so on often have a lot to do with the crime. But everyone sees that person a little differently, so the sleuth has to sift through those sometimes-conflicting accounts in order to get a true picture of the crime.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot investigates a series of murders. They’re all linked by cryptic warning notes that Poirot receives before each event, and by the fact that an ABC railway guide is found next to each body. The second of the murder victims is twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard, who worked as a waitress in a café. As Poirot looks into that case, he talks to various people who knew her, and gets sometimes-conflicting portraits. Betty’s parents thought of her as a ‘good girl,’ who wasn’t nearly as ‘wild’ as some others are. Her co-workers at the café saw her as somewhat aloof – not one to mix with the others. Her sister, Megan, calls her ‘an unmitigated little ass’ who liked to flirt, and to be taken out dancing and to films, even though she had a steady boyfriend. Gradually, Poirot puts all of these different pieces together to form a picture of Betty; in the end, that helps him work out who killed her.

Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back is the story of the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. When her body is found by a tarn near the Norwegian village of Granittveien, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate. Annie was well-known in the village, and well-liked. From different people in her life, they learn about different sides of her personality. Her teachers say that she did well in school. Her handball coach says she was a disciplined, skilled athlete, but Sejer finds she’d recently quit the team with only a perfunctory excuse. Her mother and stepfather say that she was mature and reliable. She had a boyfriend, but she wasn’t obsessed with him. All in all, she just doesn’t seem like the sort of person to get herself killed, as they saying goes. Little by little, Sejer and Skarre get put the pieces together and get a more comprehensive portrait of the victim. And when they do that, and trace her movements, they’re able to work out who would have wanted to kill her and why.

Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates is the story of the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body is discovered under a Tokyo train early one morning. Inspector Imanishi Eitaro is assigned to investigate, and the work begins. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. For one thing, there’s very little information about the victim. He wasn’t from Tokyo (it turns out that he’d come there from Okayama). So, there are no local family members or close friends to interview. When Imanishi traces Miki’s movements back to Okayama, he finds that the victim was well-liked and well-respected there. He was a simple retired store owner, with no vast fortune or bitter relatives. Little by little, Imanishi gets a gradually-developing portrait of the victim and learns that he had more depths to him than it seems at first, and a definite purpose in going to Tokyo. As the police talk to different people who knew the victim, or had met him, they learn about some things that someone wanted to keep quiet and was willing to kill to hide.

In Simon Wyatt’s The Student Body, Auckland Detective Sergeant (DS) Nick Knight is appointed to lead the Suspects Team in the investigation of the murder of fifteen-year-old Natasha Johnson. She was attending a school camp at Piha Beach when she was killed, so Knight and the team naturally focus plenty of attention on the other people at the camp. But they don’t forget Natasha’s family and other friends. From all of these people, Knight gets an emerging portrait of what the victim was like. Her parents report that she did well in school, was interested mostly in her studies, and didn’t have a boyfriend. She wasn’t known to be involved in drugs, gangs, or other dangerous activities, either, so it’s hard to find a viable motive. But, as the team talks to other people, and slowly finds out the truth about Natasha, they find that more than one person might have wanted her dead. Finding the killer is going to involve sifting through all of the contradictory statements about the victim, and really getting to the person she was.

And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, in which we are introduced to Captain Sam Wyndham. It’s 1919 Kolkata/Calcutta, and Wyndham has recently arrived to take up his duties with the police. He’s just gotten started when the body of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal, is found in an alley behind a brothel. There’s a note stuffed in his mouth warning that ‘blood will run in the streets.’  The note seems to be a threat from a pro-independence group, so that’s one important avenue for exploration. And that will be a delicate matter, since the relations between the British and India are strained to say the least. What’s more, the victim was a high-ranking official. And it doesn’t make things easier that he was found in a compromising place. Still, Wyndham and his team get to work. One of their tasks will be to find out more about MacAuley, to see who might have wanted him dead. Little by little, as they get more information, they get a gradually-developing portrait of the man that’s sometimes conflicting. But, in the end, they find out who the killer really is and what the motive was.

Whenever there’s a murder, the police find out whatever they can about the victim, as it helps make it easier to find out who the killer is. Talking to witnesses and others who knew the victim can make for complications, as everyone sees a person differently. But, in the end, it also makes for a complete portrait of the victim. And, it can add interest to a story as we find out more about that person.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Abir Mukherjee, Agatha Christie, Karin Fossum, Matsumoto Seichō, Simon Wyatt