Category Archives: Gianrico Carofiglio

What’s the Use of Wonderin’ if He’s Good or if He’s Bad*

Being arrested/accused of murder takes a real toll on people who are close to the accused. Whether or not the suspect is actually guilty, the experience tests any relationship. Of course, there are some people who trust implicitly in the accused person, even to an unhealthy extent. Those people will stand by the accused, no matter what, whether or not that person is actually a murderer.

We certainly see examples of that sort of person in real life. There are plenty of characters like that in crime fiction, too. Sometimes their faith is justified; sometimes it’s not. Either way, it can make for an interesting layer of character development. It can move a plot forward, too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, we are introduced to Alice Turner. She is engaged to James McCarthy, so she is devastated when he is arrested for murdering his father, Charles. There is evidence against him, too. He was seen quarreling with his father shortly before the murder, and physically appearing to threaten him. McCarthy says he left his father alive. When he returned shortly afterwards, his father was already near death. The case against McCarthy is strong, but Alice believes in him, and asks Inspector Lestrade to look at the murder again. He asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate, and Holmes agrees. He finds that the dead man’s last words give an important clue as to the murderer. In this case, Alice’s faith in her fiancé is justified.

Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress is the story of Elinor Carlisle. She’s engaged to Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, and the two are planning their future together. Part of that plan includes Elinor’s expectation that she will inherit from her wealthy Aunt Laura. Roddy is related to Aunt Laura, too, on the other side of the family. So, regardless of which of them inherits, they seem financially secure. Then, Elinor receives an anonymous letter hinting that someone is out to get Aunt Laura’s money. She and Roddy travel to Hunterbury, the family home, to visit and, truth be told, to see if that letter is telling the truth. There, they reacquaint themselves with the lodgekeeper’s daughter, Mary Gerrard. Roddy is quickly smitten with her – to the point where he and Elinor break off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Mary is poisoned. With at least two separate motives for murder, and the opportunity, Elinor is soon arrested and held over for trial. The local GP, Dr. Peter Lord, has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared. He asks Hercule Poirot to do just that and makes it clear that he doesn’t care whether Elinor is really innocent or not. Poirot investigates, and finds out the truth about Mary’s death.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is arrested and put on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. As it happens, Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and finds himself falling for the accused. When the jury cannot reach a verdict in the case, Lord Peter decides to clear Harriet’s name, so that he will be free to marry her. He’s got a month in which to do it, and soon sets out investigating. He finds that there are other possible suspects in the murder, and eventually gets to the truth of what happened.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow begins as the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mineshaft on Windigo Island. She’d gone missing several months earlier, and Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police Department investigated that case. Now that she’s been found, it falls to him to inform her mother and look into the murder. There’s a good possibility that this abduction and murder is related to two other disappearances. Matters get even more urgent when another teenager goes missing. Cardinal works with Detective Lise Delorme to get find out the truth about these cases. An important part of the case involves an almost blind loyalty to someone, regardless of what that person has done.

And then there’s Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness, which introduces his sleuth, Bari attorney Guido Guerrieri. In the novel, he gets a visit from Abajaje Deheba, and with it, a new case. Deheba tells him that her partner, a Senegalese immigrant named Abdou Thiam, has been arrested and imprisoned for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For one thing, he admits that he knew the boy. For another, he can’t reliably account for his whereabouts at the time of the crime. And there’s a witness who claims to have seen him in the area where the boy was abducted. But Deheba believes that Thiam is innocent. She wants Guerrieri to defend Thiam. Guerrieri agrees to meet with Thiam, and finds that his client says he’s innocent, but has become almost resigned to spending the rest of his life in prison. Still, he agrees to work with Guerrieri, and the two get started. It turns out that Thiam is not the only person who could have abducted and killed Francesco.

Sometimes, faith in someone who is accused of murder is justified. Sometimes it’s unhealthy – even dangerous. Either way, it’s interesting to see how that quality plays out in crime novels. These are only a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s What’s the Use of Won’drin’.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gianrico Carofiglio, Giles Blunt

I Wanted Just a Minor Part*

I think it’s safe to say that we all prefer novels where the characters are more than just ‘cookie cutter’ placeholders. Not every character need be thoroughly developed, but we want a sense that the characters are realistic, and that means some development.

Sometimes, very minor characters play a role in a story. They can even be memorable, not so much because they’re the focus of a plot, but because they’re interesting in and of themselves. It can be tricky to create such characters without making them too eccentric. But when they’re done well, those minor characters can add to a story.

Agatha Christie used interesting minor characters in several of her stories. In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She had threatened his life, and it was known that she wanted a divorce from him, so that she could marry someone else. She says that she was at a dinner party in another part of London, though, and twelve other people are prepared to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. Then, there’s another death. Carlotta Adams, who’s been doing a very successful one-woman show, is found dead in her room, apparently of a drug overdose. Poirot isn’t sure this death is an accident, though, and he wants to learn more about her. He discovers that she wrote a letter to her sister, Lucie, and posted it just before her death. Poirot contacts Lucie and asks her for the letter. We never meet Lucie Adams in person, so to speak. But her character is interesting, and she sheds light on her sister.

There are plenty of minor characters in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  That’s the fictional re-telling of the murders of Herb and Bonnie Clutter and two of their children. The novel follows both the Clutter family and their murderers, Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith, in the lead-up to the killings as well as the events that happened later. Readers follow along as Hickock and Smith make their plans, commit the crimes, and then go on the run. Readers also follow along as Detective Alvin Dewey and his team investigate. The police talk to a number of people, as you can imagine. One of them is the landlady at a cheap Las Vegas rooming house where Smith stays at one point. She may not run an upmarket establishment, but she’s shrewd and smart, and her personality is clear. She doesn’t play a central role in the story, nor does she solve the case for Dewey, but she does provide helpful information.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Bev Morriss and her team investigate when fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found dead. She was a sex worker, so the police look for leads among the other local sex workers, their clients, and their pimps. One likely suspect is Michelle’s pimp, Charlie Hawes. Another possibility is that one of the clients is guilty. And then there are some local residents who are very much opposed to having sex workers in the area and might go as far as murder. As a part of the investigation, Morriss gets to know some of the other sex workers, including one named Jules. Jules isn’t a major character; she’s only ‘on stage’ briefly. But she is an interesting character, and she sheds light on the business:

‘‘My sister, Mand. She’s eighteen. She works in an ‘airdressers five days a week. Brings home fifty-five quid. I make twice that in an hour – and I ain’t on me feet all day.’’

That perspective helps in understanding how the world of sex work operates.

Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness begins when attorney Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari, gets a visitor. She is Abajaje Deheba, an immigrant from Egypt, and she’s there on behalf of her partner, a Senegalese man named Abdou Thiam. It seems that Thiam has been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam admits that he knew the boy, but he claims that he is innocent. There’s evidence against him, though, and he can’t conclusively prove his alibi. It doesn’t help matters that he is a ‘non-European.’ Deheba wants Guerrieri to represent Thiam. She has a compelling way about her, and Guerrieri agrees to at least meet with Thiam. Besides, if the man is innocent, he shouldn’t be imprisoned. Little by little, attorney and client get to know each other, and Guerrieri slowly finds out the truth of the matter. Deheba only plays a small role in the novel, but she has a presence, if I can put it like that, that adds to the story.

There are several interesting minor characters in Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother, which takes place in a small Newfoundland community. In that novel, Sylvanus and Addie Now and their son, Kyle, are coping with the death of their older son, Chris. He died three years earlier in an Alberta oil rig accident, and the family was devastated. They’re all slowly trying to get on with life when a local bully, Clar Gillard, is murdered. He was an abusive husband, and most people in town have been his victims at one point or another, so no-one will miss him. Little pieces of evidence suggest that the killer might be a member of the Now family. So, the police look carefully at each one of them, and that suspicion takes its toll on the family. Slowly, the police sift through the evidence and learn the truth about Gillard’s murder; and, just as slowly, the Now family begin the painful process of healing. Throughout the novel, there are various minor characters that give readers insight into the local culture and into the Now family. In one scene, for instance, Kyle goes to a nearby bar. He’s having a drink when several of his friends come in. There’s banter, conversation, and more. Those friends don’t play major roles in the story. But their personalities are interesting, and the interactions among them add to the story.

And that’s the thing about useful minor characters. When they’re well-drawn, they add insight and perspective. They can be interesting in their own right, too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore’s Blue Flower.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Morrissey, Gianrico Carofiglio, Maureen Carter, Truman Capote

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

So Why Even Bother With it?*

Many crime novels feature a plot point where a character is accused (sometimes arrested and convicted) of a murder, and tries to prove innocence. That makes sense. Prison isn’t pleasant, and in any case, people shouldn’t pay the price for crimes they didn’t commit.

Sometimes, though, a character doesn’t try too hard to prove innocence. And it’s not always because the character is actually guilty (or is trying to protect someone who is). Sometimes, it’s because the character doesn’t see much point in making the effort (i.e. ‘No-one’s going to believe me, anyway…’). In those cases, some of the tension comes as the sleuth tries to convince that character otherwise.  There are plenty of examples of that plot point in the genre; here are a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks her unpleasant lodger, James Bentley, is guilty. In fact, he was arrested, tried and convicted, and is shortly due to be executed. But Spence thinks he may be innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and finds to his surprise that Bentley doesn’t do much to defend himself. His view is that he hasn’t any friends, no-one believes him, and it’s not much worth trying to clear his name. In fact, Poirot has quite a time convincing Bentley to try to fight for himself.

Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint introduces his sleuth, Sergeant Jacob Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police. In the novel, he decides on the spur of the moment to visit one Erwin Schlumpf, who’s been arrested on suspicion of murder. He is believed to have killed travelling salesman Wendelin Witschi, the father of his sweetheart, Sonja. Studer arrives at the prison just in time to prevent Schlumpf from committing suicide. Schlumpf has obviously given up hope, but Studer begins to wonder whether he might be innocent. If so, then someone else killed Witschi. Studer decides to look into the case again and see if there’s something he’s missed. When he does, he finds that Schlumpf is by no means the only one who might have had a reason to want Witschi dead.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder features Howard Van Horn, a college friend of Ellery Queen’s. He’s been having blackouts lately, which is enough of a problem. But then, one day, he wakes from a blackout to find blood on him – blood not his own. Now terrified that he’s done something horrible, Van Horn visits Queen to ask for his help. Queen doesn’t think his friend is a killer, so he agrees to look into the matter and see what he can find out. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, and Queen and Van Horn travel there. As the story goes on, we see that Van Horn doesn’t do very much to defend himself. He is convinced that he’s done something awful, so it’s really Queen who takes up the cause, so to speak, and tries to clear his friend’s name. It’s not an easy case, and I can say without spoiling the novel that it causes Queen to re-think everything.

In Gianrico Carofiglio’s  Involuntary Witness, we are introduced to Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works (he is an attorney) in Bari. One day, he gets a new client, Abdou  Thiam, who has been arrested for abducting and killing nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam says that he isn’t guilty, but he has very little hope of getting justice. For one thing, he did know the boy. For another, he is a Senegalese immigrant, who knows full well the bias there is against what are called ‘non-Europeans.’ In fact, he is seriously considering opting for a shorter legal procedure, where his case will be heard by a judge, and where he will almost certainly be found guilty. It means a shorter prison sentence than if he insists on a full trial, and Thiam thinks that’s at least something. But he still doesn’t want to go to prison. So, although he has little hope, he instructs Guerrieri to prepare for a full trial. Everything is schedule, and some very surprising things come out at that trial.

And then there’s Aline Templeton’s Last Act of All. That novel begins as Helena Radley returns to her home in the village of Radensfield after having served time for the murder of her first husband. She and her new husband, Edward, settle in and try to start over. Detective Sergeant (DS) Frances Haworth has never been entirely convinced that Helena was guilty, and she wants to look into the case. Not only does she have a sense of guilt for arresting the wrong person, but she also wants to make sure that justice is done. Helena is reluctant to do anything to help at first. She has her own feelings about having served time for a murder she didn’t commit. And she’s not sure what good it will do to rake everything up again. But she slowly sees that, if the real murderer is still out there, that person could target her. So, she decides to co-operate with the investigation. And it leads to an unexpected place.

You’d think that people wrongly accused or imprisoned would do as much as possible to defend themselves. And that does happen. But there are also plenty of cases where there seems so little hope that the accused doesn’t even want to try. And that’s when the sleuth has to be even more insistent on finding out the truth.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Callahan’s A Hit.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Aline Templeton, Ellery Queen, Friedrich Glauser, Gianrico Carofiglio

Open Your Mind*

A recent powerful post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about the dangers of arrogance about one’s point of view and perspective. Before I go any further, let me urge you to take a few moments and read her excellent post. Oh, and you’ll want to have a look at her excellent blog while you’re there. Fine reviews, lovely ‘photos, and fascinating discussion await you.  Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

Back now? Thanks. All of us like to think we’re right, but the fact is, there are times when we’re wrong. All of us. It’s part of being human. If we’re unwilling to concede that, and unwilling to be open to others’ views, we never learn anything. In fact, that willingness to be wrong, and to be critical of our own motives and research findings is an important part of any Ph.D. candidate’s preparation. Research goes forward as people conduct studies, produce results, and have those findings reviewed by others. That process can sometimes mean that one’s results are supported. But it also sometimes means that they are refuted, even proven wrong. And that is an important part of moving forward. We make progress as ideas are put forward, tested, and either found correct or reshaped.

That’s certainly true in real life, and we see the cost of blind arrogance in crime fiction, too. If a sleuth has one particular idea about a crime, and is unwilling to be open to other possibilities, then the crime may never be solved. That sort of arrogance may not make for an appealing character, but it can add tension to a story.

For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a firm believer in testing theories about a crime instead of assuming things. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Holmes says,

‘‘There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you.’’

He does have a high opinion of his skills as a detective, but he is open to being proved wrong. And he gets quite impatient with the detectives of Scotland Yard, who latch onto a theory of a crime and are unwilling to entertain any other possible explanation.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he also has, shall we say, a high opinion of his own skills. But he is the first to admit when he has been wrong. More than once in the stories that feature him, he’s the one who calls himself out for being blind to the truth. There’s an interesting case of arrogance in one of his investigations, The Murder on the Links. In that novel, Paul Renauld has been stabbed, and his body discovered on a golf course near his property. M. Giraud of the Sûreté investigates the murder, and he has a very clear perspective on what happened and how to look into the matter. Because of his unwillingness to consider any other point of view or possible explanation, he misses some vital clues, and ends up arresting the wrong person. He also ends up thoroughly annoying Poirot, who has another idea about what happened…

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces his sleuth, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, he’s been assigned to head up a new department, ‘Department Q,’ that will focus on cold cases. In part, it’s a political move to show that the police are not lax or neglectful. The first case Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad, investigate is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. It was always thought that she went overboard in a tragic ferry accident, but there’s now some evidence to suggest that she might still be alive. If so, she may be in grave danger. As Mørck looks into the case, he finds several areas where the original investigator, Børge Bak, didn’t follow up on leads that didn’t support the official theory of accident. It’s not that he’s particularly lazy or incompetent; it’s more that he didn’t focus on what he thought was unimportant. And when Mørck confronts him with his blindness to other possibilities, Bak’s not happy about it. He’s

‘…a detective with a capital D.’

So he’s upset when he is shown that he missed some important things because of what you might call arrogance about what he thought had happened.

Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness features his sleuth, attorney Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari. In this story, he gets a new client, Abdou Thiam. It seems that Thiam, a Senegalese immigrant, has been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. There’s evidence against Thiam, too. For one thing, he knew the victim. For another, although he can account for his movements on the day of the murder, there is other evidence that he was in the area of the crime at the time the boy was taken. Thiam claims that he’s innocent, although he doesn’t believe he’ll be treated fairly. In fact, he’s resigned himself to prison. Guerrieri agrees to defend Thiam and goes to work. As it turns out, one person’s beliefs, and refusal to consider that those beliefs might be wrong, is an important part of this case, and it’s not until Guerrieri discovers that fact that he’s able to get to the truth.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest joins the investigation of the murder of geologist Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. According to the evidence, the victim had gotten into a drunken quarrel with John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge and was killed shortly afterwards. So, the police believe that Wireless’ is the killer. In fact, Tempest’s boss, Bruce Cockburn, is completely convinced of that explanation. So, he refuses to listen when Tempest tries to tell him about some evidence that suggests another explanation. Tempest is strong-willed, and she’s unwilling to obey Cockburn’s order to do as she’s told and not go asking questions on her own. On the one hand, Tempest pays dearly for investigating on her own. On the other hand, Cockburn’s refusal to consider that he might be wrong costs the investigation a great deal.

And that’s the thing about being unwilling to consider other perspectives. It’s usually not fun to be wrong, especially if one’s shown up in public. But we all are wrong sometimes. And even when we’re not ‘officially’ wrong, we don’t get a broad, accurate perspective on things unless we are willing to consider other points of view and other possible ways of thinking.

Thank you, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration!


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


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gianrico Carofiglio, Jussi Adler-Olsen