Category Archives: Lynda Wilcox

I Asked Him to Say What Had Happened, How it All Began*

When old cases are re-opened, there’s usually some sort of initial ‘spark.’ Police departments or attorneys might have a new witness come forward. Or, there might be new evidence that comes to light. There are even cases where witnesses change their stories for whatever reason, and that throws a whole new light on a case. There are other reasons, too, for which a case might be re-opened.

Crime writers have some latitude and flexibility when it comes to the way a case is re-opened. And it’s interesting to see how different authors bring in that plot element. When it’s done effectively, it can move a plot forward in an interesting way.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, Rosemary Barton, her husband, Gerald, and a group of people are out to dinner. Suddenly, Rosemary collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. It’s ruled a suicide, and the case is closed. Six months later, Gerald receives anonymous notes that claim Rosemary was murdered. The notes spur him to action, and he wants to see if it’s possible that accusation is true. So, the same people (minus Rosemary, of course) are invited to dinner, with the idea of forcing a confession from the murderer. Instead, Gerald is poisoned, just the way his wife was. Colonel Race (whom Christie fans will know from other stories) is a friend of Gerald’s and he works to find out who killed both of the Bartons. Christie fans will know that this novel is an expanded (and changed) version of the short story, The Yellow Iris.

Anonymous notes also play an important role in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden. Ten years before the events of the novel, landscaper Warren Howe was murdered with one of his own tools. At the time, his wife, Tina, was suspected, but the police didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute the case. Now, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was guilty. So, the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, under the supervision of Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Hannah Scarlett, re-opens the case. As they slowly look back at the evidence, they find that more than one person wanted Howe dead.

In Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it’s a business proposition that re-opens an investigation. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has lost a libel suit against powerful Swedish business executive Hans-Erik Wennerström. The court costs and other expenses will likely force him to close his publication, Millennium. Then, Blomkvist gets a chance to save his business. Wealthy and prominent Henrik Vanger wants Blomkvist to solve a mystery. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece, Harriet, went missing and has never been found. But recently, Vanger’s been receiving dried flower arrangements as gifts – exactly like the ones he used to get from Harriet. He wants to know if Harriet is still alive; and, if she is, where she is. In exchange, Vanger will give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström, and the financial backing he needs to save Millennium. It’s an offer Blomkvist really can’t refuse; so, he and his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, get to work on the case. In the process of solving it, they find out some very dark secrets in the Vanger past.

Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass introduces pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman. She lives in London with her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ The family’s doing well in London, but Yossi would like very much to move to New Zealand. For Claire, it would be a homecoming, as she’s from Auckland. But she has her own good reasons for not wanting to make the move. It’s very important to Yossi, though, so she finally agrees. She gets a job in an Auckland hospital, and all goes well enough. Then, she discovers a tumour on the kidney of one of her patients. She wants to remove it, but the boy’s parents refuse on religious grounds. The conflict between them and the hospital gets a lot of media coverage; and, as Claire is the face of the hospital in this instance, she gets media notice, too. And that’s just what she wanted to avoid. We soon learn that, in 1970, her father, Patrick, was arrested and charged in the disappearance and presumed murder of seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips. He was even jailed, but there was never enough evidence to make a conviction stick. Now, with Claire in the media spotlight, the old case is brought up again. Simon Flaxstone, who’s writing a book about the case, has concluded that Patrick Bowerman may be innocent. He wants Claire’s help to try to find out the truth. For Claire, it may be the only chance she has to end the questions.

Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long has a very interesting reason to look up old cases. She is the assistant to well-known crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Part of Verity’s job is to research old unsolved cases that her boss later uses as plot inspiration for her books.  In the course of her work, Verity finds all sorts of cases that have either been left to ‘go cold,’ or that might not have been solved satisfactorily.

There are other sorts of ‘sparks’ that can spur a fictional character to look at a case again, even one that’s been closed. And that gives an author flexibility when it comes to working an old case into a plot.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Pilate’s Dream.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Lynda Wilcox, Martin Edwards, Stieg Larsson, Sue Younger

Who Tells Your Story?*

As this is posted, it’s 61 years since mobster Albert Anastasia was murdered in a barber’s chair in New York. This particular murder caught the interest of Mayra Montero, whose novel Dancing to ‘Almendra’ takes a look at that murder, putting it into the perspective of Mafia activity in New York and Havana at the time. In that novel, journalist Joaquín Porrata hears of this murder, and believes it’s because Anastasia got too interested in other Mob bosses’ interests in Havana. But Porrata’s editor points him to another story instead. When that story proves to be related to the Anastasia killing, Porrata is more determined to find out more about Anastasia. It takes a change of employer, but Porrata finally gets the chance to look more deeply into the murder. When he does, he quickly finds that some powerful people want to shut him up.

Montero is by no means the only author to have been inspired by a murder or other news event that perhaps didn’t get worldwide press at the time, but is nonetheless of interest. And sometimes, those stories can make for an engaging novel. It takes skill, because such stories do need to be credible. But when it’s done well, it can make for an absorbing read.

James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential begins with a real-life incident. On Christmas Day, 1951, a day later called ‘Bloody Christmas,’ seven civilians were brutally attacked by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. It took a groundswell of protests and demands for action before the department investigated what happened. Discipline and indictments followed, but not until the department was basically forced into action by the public outcry. Ellroy explores this incident through the eyes of three very different police officers who play different roles in it. Then, he follows those officers’ careers, and shows what happens to them two years later, when there’s a late-night shooting at a diner. The novel follows the investigation of the shooting, and also shows the fallout from Bloody Christmas.

In 1998, Colorado police detective Dale Claxton was murdered by a group of right-wing militia activists. There was a massive hunt for the fugitives, and several law enforcement groups, including the FBI, were involved. But those responsible for Claxton’s murder were never apprehended. Many people believe that’s because of FBI bungling, although that’s never been proved. This real-life murder is part of the inspiration for Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn investigate a theft from a Native American casino. A group of right-wing militia activists have stolen the money to buy arms, and of course, the FBI and local police want to find them. At first, a part-time casino security officer, Teddy Bai, is believed to have been the ‘inside person’ in the job, but he claims innocence. It turns out that this robbery is connected to an old Ute legend, and to murder.

Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross has as its inspiration the real-life 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute. At the time, Peter Kürten was arrested, tried and convicted of the crime. He even confessed to it. But, although he was guilty of other murders (he was dubbed ‘The Düsseldorf Vampire), he later recanted his confession. And there was no direct evidence linking him to Emma Gross’ killing. Kürten was executed in 1931, and Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. Seaman explores this case through the eyes of his sleuth, Düsseldorf Detective Inspector (DI) Thomas Klein. In the novel, Klein thinks he has finally found evidence that links Kürten to several murders. But there is one murder, that of Emma Gross, that is still unsolved. It could be that Kürten is guilty of that murder, but Klein has come to believe that’s not the case. It could also be that another man, Johann Stausberg, is guilty. The police originally arrested him for some of the crimes, but then Klein seemed like a more likely possibility. Or, Emma Gross could have been killed by a completely different person. Klein starts to ask questions; and, eventually, he gets to the truth about this murder.

There are other cases, too, that, perhaps, don’t get the media attention that the Crippen case in the UK, or the ‘Zodiac’ case in the US did. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting. So it’s not surprising that authors are inspired by them sometimes.

In fact, there’s even a crime fiction series that features this sort of inspiration. Lynda Wilcox’s protagonist, Verity Long, is assistant/researcher for famous crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Her job is to look up unsolved cases that might serve as the basis for a new novel. And sometimes that research gets her involved in solving those cases. Her work also gets her involved in solving present-day cases, some of which are tied to the unsolved cases she researches.

There are plenty of interesting cases that don’t necessarily make the headlines, but that are interesting, or thought-provoking. Those cases can serve as inspiration for crime fiction; and, when they’re done well, can keep readers engaged. These are only a few examples. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

ps. Thanks, Mob Museum, for the photograph of Albert Anastasia!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Finale (Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story)

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Filed under Damien Seaman, James Ellroy, Lynda Wilcox, Mayra Montero, Tony Hillerman

Why Are There Always So Many Other Things to Do?*

One of the things that writing requires is discipline. Sticking with a project, not letting yourself get too distracted, and seeing it through, are all difficult to do. That’s especially true with today’s social media and instant accessibility through email, text, and so on.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of writers do their writing at home. So, there’s always laundry, bills, pets, gardening, and all sorts of other things to pull the attention away from that manuscript. Trust me. Am I right, authors?

It’s that way in crime fiction, too. Writers try to make time to write, and when they’re on deadline, that’s even more important. And, yet, they do get pulled away from the manuscript, especially when there’s a murder investigation. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples.

Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver is a detective story writer. She’s well-enough known and popular enough that her publisher knows her books will sell. But that doesn’t mean she has no pressure to write. She does get distracted, though. For instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, she’s working on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage when she gets drawn into a case that Hercule Poirot is investigating – and that ends up impacting her, too. Of course, Mrs. Oliver doesn’t welcome all distractions. Late in the novel, Poirot telephones her for a very important reason. She, however, sees it another way:
 

‘‘Have you got to ring me up just now? I’ve thought of the most wonderful idea for a murder in a draper’s shop…’’
 

She’s not happy to be interrupted, but what she tells Poirot helps to solve the case. Of course, fans of Mrs. Oliver know that sometimes, she welcomes distractions…

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen takes some time away in the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s there to get some writing done, and he’s looking forward to some peace and quiet while he stays in a guest house owned by John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. But soon enough, he gets distracted by family drama among the Wrights. It seems that their youngest daughter, Nora, had been engaged to a young man named Jim Haight. He jilted her, though, and left town abruptly. Now, Haight’s back, and everyone hopes that Nora will give him short shrift. Instead, to everyone’s shock, she takes up with him again and, in fact, they marry. Then, evidence comes up that Haight may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Queen isn’t sure that’s true, but there’s no denying the evidence. Then, on New Year’s Eve, Haight’s sister Rosemary, who’s been staying with the family, dies after drinking a poisoned cocktail. The assumption is that Haight is the murderer, and that the cocktail was intended for Nora. Haight is duly arrested and put on trial. The only people who question his guilt are Queen, and Nora’s sister, Pat. Together, the two look for the real truth behind Rosemary’s death. Queen fans will know that this isn’t the only time when Queen is pulled away from his writing…

Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a newspaper journalist (he’s written a book, too). As a result of an odd series of events, he ended up in the small town of Pickax, in rural Moose County. Now, he does a twice-weekly column, Straight From the Qwill Pen, for the local paper. He’s become somewhat of a celebrity in the area, too. Like most journalists, Qwill is naturally curious. And he follows up when he thinks there might be a good story in something that’s happening. Since he’s in the newspaper business, he understands about deadlines, and he does his best to keep them. But, because he’s curious, he often gets involved in murder investigations. And sometimes, that distracts him from filing his stories promptly. In more than one novel, he rushes to the newspaper office with his copy just in the nick of time (much of this series was written before it was common to email copy).

Linwood Barclay’s Zack Walker is a science fiction author whom we meet in Bad Move. He’s worried about his family’s safety, living as they do in a big city. So, he persuades his wife, Sarah, to go along with his plan to move to a new suburban development, Valley Forest Estates. Along with the increased safety, Walker is looking forward to having more space, and hopefully more time, for writing. And that’s what he’s working on when he starts to get distracted. First, there are some problems with the new house the family has bought. So, Walker goes to Valley Forest’s sales office to lodge complaints and requests for service. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the company’s sales executives, and a local environmentalist named Samuel Spender. Then, later on the same day, Walker finds Spender’s body near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker’s drawn into a web of murder and intrigue in his quiet, suburban development, and drawn away from his writing.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long, whom we meet in Strictly Murder. Long isn’t, strictly speaking, a writer, herself. She’s PA to successful crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. While Davenport is popular and sells well, that doesn’t mean she can be heedless of deadlines and commitments to her publisher. So, Long has to do her job, too. And her job is mostly to find and research old unsolved crime cases that Davenport can use as inspiration for her work. But Long does get distracted from her research at times, especially when she stumbles across cases of modern-day murder.

See what I mean? Writers really need to have focus and discipline. Otherwise they get distracted by all sorts of things, including murder. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to work on my novel. Oh, wait, there’s that laundry to do. And shouldn’t I be looking over this month’s bills? And there’s that meeting later on…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Distractions.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Linwood Barclay, Lynda Wilcox

Stars on TV Screens*

You see them on TV all the time. You may even feel that you know them, they’re that familiar. Yes, I’m talking about TV presenters. They may host a quiz or celebrity show, or they may host some other sort of show. Either way, they’re a part of our lives.

They may seem to live charmed lives, but TV presenters are humans, as we all are. And they work in what can be very highly-charged, tense atmosphere. So, it’s not surprising that they also show up in crime fiction. After all, where would we be without those shows and their hosts?

In Julian Symons’ A Three-Pipe Problem, we are introduced to television star Sheridan ‘Sher’ Haynes. He is the lead in a popular Sherlock Holmes series, with Basil Wainwright as his Watson. Although Haynes is a popular television personality, the show has been slipping in ratings. What’s more, Haynes has his share of problems with the show. He is a dedicated fan of the Holmes stories, and isn’t happy at all with the changes that the show’s creators have made to the stories and some of the major characters. Then, Haynes gets an idea to save the series and show that his more purist view of the show will prevail. There’s been a series of bizarre murders, called the ‘Karate Killings.’  The police haven’t made much progress, but Haynes thinks that if he uses Holmes’ method, he can find out who the killer is. It’s a strange idea, and plenty of people in Haynes’ life are not happy about it. But he persists and starts to ask questions. He gets into his share of trouble, but in the end, he finds out the truth.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, we meet TV presenter Frank Allcroft. As the novel begins, he’s at rather a crossroads in his life. He’s doing well at his show, he’s happy with his wife, and a proud father. But he doesn’t feel settled. He’s also dealing with the death of his predecessor, friend, and colleague, Phil Smedway. It seems that Smedway was jogging one morning when he was killed in a hit-and-run incident. In his restlessness, Allcroft is drawn to the scene of Smedway’s death. He notices some things that make him wonder. For one thing, the road is straight and clear. For another, the weather on the day of Smedway’s death was dry. There’s no reason a driver wouldn’t have been able to swerve to avoid hitting Smedway. Now, Allcroft begins to wonder what really happened. Among other things, the novel gives real insight into what it’s like to be a TV presenter.

Christopher Fowler’s Ten Second Staircase features London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). Arthur Bryant and John May and the rest of the PCU investigate a bizarre set of murders. It seems that someone is targeting minor celebrities and seems to be doing it to become a star himself. One of those the killer targets is Danny Martell, the host of a popular ITV teen lifestyle show. He’s in the gym one day, trying to work off some stress and lose a bit of weight when he’s mysteriously electrocuted. It’s a strange set of crimes, and the PCU team has its hands full as it tries to make sense of the only clear clue: an eyewitness who says the killer was wearing a cape and a tricorner hat.

Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder is the first of her novels to feature Verity Long. She is research assistant to famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Mostly, her job is to research old crime cases that Davenport can use as the basis for her work. Long gets involved in her own murder case when she decides to look for a new home. A house agent is showing her a place when she discovers the body of celebrity TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Since Long found the body, she’s of interest to the police, and she gets involved in finding out who killed the victim. And it turns out that there are several suspects. The behind-the-scenes atmosphere wasn’t at all pleasant, since Johnson wasn’t exactly beloved among her colleagues.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford. She was a successful TV presenter who hosted a show called Fakes & Treasures. But she got ‘burned out’ from the stress of being in the media limelight. Her plan had been to open an antiques business with her mother, but everything changes in Murder at Honeychurch Hall. In that novel, Stanford discovers that her mother has abruptly moved to the Devon village of Little Dipperton. Shocked at her mother’s choice, Stanford rushes there, only to find that her mother’s been injured in a minor car accident. She stays on to help while her mother heals up and gets drawn into a murder mystery.

Television presenters may seem to lead magical lives, but things don’t always go very smoothly. Those conflicts and stresses can make things difficult for the presenter, but they can add much to a crime novel. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Catherine O'Flynn, Christopher Fowler, Hannah Dennison, Julian Symons, Lynda Wilcox

Unknown Enemy*

There are a number of ways to build tension and suspense in a crime novel. And that suspense is an important part of keeping the novel engaging for readers. One of the approaches crime writers sometimes use is to include what you might call an unknown enemy.

I’m not talking here of the evil villain out to take over the world. Rather, I mean situations where a character is targeted by an unknown person. If you think about it, that is an eerie feeling. Most of have a fairly good sense of who might be gunning for us. But what if you had no idea who was targeting you? That anxiety, and the wondering whom to trust, would likely add to your unease.

We see that in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, we are introduced to Jerry Burton and his sister, Joanna. They’ve recently moved to the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can continue his recovery from a wartime injury. They’ve not been there long when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, the Burtons learn that they’re not the only victims. Other people in town are also receiving such ‘poison pen’ letters, and it’s got everyone upset. Then, a letter to a local solicitor’s wife leads to a suicide. And then there’s a murder. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case when the local vicar’s wife, who knows her, suggests she might be able to help. Part of the tension of the novel comes from the fact that people don’t know who this unknown enemy is, and why that person might be targeting them.

There’s a similar plot point in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. Amsterdam Inspector Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small town of Zwinderen to help with an unusual problem. Several people in town have received ugly anonymous letters. This is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so one’s local reputation matters a lot. The tension caused by the letters is so high that the result has been two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t made much progress, so it’s hoped that Van der Valk will be able to help. And in the end, he and his wife, Arlette, find out who wrote the letters and why. One important cause of unease in the novel is that the local residents don’t know who their enemy is, if I may put it that way.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, we are introduced to London psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. He gets involved in a murder case when the body of a former client, Catherine McBride, is pulled from Grand Union Canal. Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz wants whatever insights O’Loughlin may have about this case, so he persuades a very reluctant O’Loughlin to help out. Then, there’s another murder – one that very much implicates O’Loughlin. Now, Ruiz actively wonders whether his consultant may know more about the case than he’s letting on. What’s more, the leads that O’Loughlin has given Ruiz don’t seem to pan out. Before long, it’s clear that someone has set O’Loughlin up, and is framing him for multiple murders. The problem is, O’Loughlin doesn’t know who would deliberately target him. He’ll have to go back to his own past, and go after a very dangerous killer, if he’s going to clear his name. And part of the suspense as he does so comes from the fact that he doesn’t know who’s after him.

Neither does Merete Lynnggard, who is featured in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). In the novel, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck is assigned to head up a new police initiative, ‘Department Q.’ This new department will be devoted to cases ‘of special interest’ (i.e. cold cases), and is at least in part designed as a way to demonstrate that the police take all of their investigations seriously. Shortly after Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad take up their duties, they begin to look into the five-year-old disappearance of Lynnggard, who was a promising politician. Everyone thought that she went overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But new evidence suggests that she may still be alive. If so, Mørck and Assad may not have much time to find her. I can say without spoiling the story that part of its tension comes from the fact that Lynnggard didn’t even know who was targeting her.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder, the first of her series featuring research assistant Verity Long. She works for famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport, who uses old cases as inspiration for her novels. When Long goes house-hunting, she discovers the body of well-known TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Badly shaken up by the experience, she’s happy on one level to let the police handle the investigation. At the same time, though, she found the body, so like it or not, she is involved. And she’s both curious and skilled as a researcher. So, she starts to ask questions. And it’s not long before she runs into serious danger. More than once in the story, it’s clear that someone is targeting her. And part of the suspense comes from the fact that she doesn’t know her enemy.

There are, of course, a lot of other crime novels in which someone has a secret enemy. That plot point can add suspense, even drama, to a story if it’s done effectively. And it can add to character development.
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Lynda Wilcox, Michael Robotham, Nicolas Freeling