Monday, January 25, 2010

Stop the Presses!

Crime stories – especially murders – often make for attention-getting news headlines. That’s especially true for “unusual” murders (if there is such a thing as a “usual” murder), as in the case of multiple murders or murders with a lurid sex or money “angle.” For whatever reason, we find murder fascinating. Not being a psychologist, I’m not qualified to say exactly why, but people like to read about murders. Newspaper publishers know this, so they assign investigative reporters to cover murder stories. That often leads to a very uneasy alliance between law enforcement and news reporting, both in real life and in crime fiction. On one hand, the police often want to investigate covertly, and may have good reasons not to want a story publicized. That can bring them in direct conflict with the news industry. On the other, reporters can often find out useful information. Also, there are times when the police want a story publicized widely (e.g. when they’re looking for a fugitive). In both kinds of cases, the press plays a role in crime detection and reporting, both in real life and in crime fiction.

In some crime fiction, a journalist is the sleuth. That’s the case in Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon series. Bengtzon is a crime reporter for Kvällspressen, a Stockholm-based tabloid. She’s often called to the scene when a body is discovered or a major crime has been committed. Through her eyes, we get to see the inner workings of the newspaper as she graduates from summer intern to full-time crime reporter. We also get to see how reporters use their contacts, research skills and intuition as they investigate. Readers also learn about the infighting and jealousy that sometimes plagues newspapers.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran is also a journalist. He writes a feature column for the Moose County Something, a small-town paper that serves the fictional town of Pickax and surrounding areas. Qwilleran didn’t start out at the Something, though. At one time, he was a noted crime reporter for a large big-city daily paper. Personal troubles and a bout with alcoholism nearly finished him, but a friend in the publishing business stepped in and gave him a features-writing job. Through a fluke inheritance, Qwilleran’s become very wealthy and has moved to a rural atmosphere where, instead of reporting crime, he writes a twice-weekly column. He hasn’t lost his “nose” for news, though, or his sleuthing skills.

We also meet a journalist sleuth in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. He’s Mikael Blomkvist, publisher of Millenium, a Swedish magazine. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first novel in the series, Blomkvist has just lost a libel suit to wealthy and powerful industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. He’s sure that Wennerström is guilty of corruption and worse, but Wennerström’s money and position have prevailed in court. Now, Blomkvist is faced with the loss of his publication. Henrik Vanger, another wealthy and powerful magnate, offers Blomkvist a way out: Vanger agrees to give Blomkvist the money he needs to save Millenium. He also agrees to help get the evidence Blomkvist needs to prove that he was right about Wennerström . In return, Blomkvist agrees to put his investigative talents to use and solve the forty-year-old mystery of the disappearance of Vanger’s great-niece, Harriet. Blomkvist is helped in both investigations by his research associate, Lisbeth Salander, a computer genius and social misfit who has her own agenda.

Dorothy Sayers’ short story The Milk Bottles (which appears in In the Teeth of the Evidence) is an amusing example of what can happen when a journalist gets curious. Hector Puncheon of the Morning Star gets interested when he notices several milk bottles standing outside of a rather dilapidated flat. He imagines all sorts of scenarios and writes a short column about the milk bottles; the column’s ignored for several months and then one day, an edited version of it is published. The Morning Star then gets a letter from the milkman who delivered those bottles of milk, saying he’s been wondering whether he should go to the police about something he knows. So Puncheon goes to visit the milkman and through him, learns about the Wilbrahams, who occupy the flat. That interview leads to other introductions and before long, Puncheon seems to be on to a murder story, as the rumor is that Hugh Wilbraham has killed his wife. The end of the story has a very humorous twist to it; you can read it here.

There are, of course, lots of other stories where a journalist is the sleuth. There are also many stories where the journalist is the victim. That’s not surprising, given that investigative journalists frequently find out things that dangerous and powerful people do not want revealed. For instance, in Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules, Russian journalist Aleksandr Lubin has amassed a frightening dossier on a very wealthy and powerful Russian businessman, Ivan Kharkov. Lubin wants to pass what he’s learned on to Israeli Intelligence, and he wants to do so only through Gabriel Allon, Silva’s sleuth. Allon plans the meeting with Lubin, but before Lubin’s able to pass the information on, he’s stabbed with a fatal poison. Now, Allon has to find out what Lubin knew about Kharkov and his associates.

Interestingly enough, Jan Burke’s Good Night, Irene (the first of her Irene Kelly series) includes both a journalist as a victim and a journalist as the sleuth. Irene Kelly, a former reporter, is a Southern California public relations worker. One night, her friend and former mentor, Kenneth O’Connor, is killed by a bomb sent in a package. Kelly finds out that O’Connor was obsessed with a case he was investigating – a thirty-five-year-old murder of an unidentified young pregnant woman. Kelly believes that O’Connor’s interest in that case is related to his murder, so she decides to look into that case as well as O’Connor’s death. She gets a job with the Las Piernas Express, where she once worked, and follows up on the story O’Connor was planning. Along the way, she’s helped by her former lover, homicide police officer Frank Harriman. In the end, Kelly and Harriman find out that the deaths are connected, and both deaths are related to other murders that occur during their investigation.

Even when a journalist is neither the victim nor the sleuth, reporters and reporting still play important roles in crime fiction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot joins Scotland Yard and several police officers from local towns in a hunt for what seems to be a serial killer. The killer sends a warning to Poirot before each murder, and leaves an ABC railway guide near each body. At one point in the novel, the investigators debate whether to release what they’ve learned about the killer to the press. They want everyone on the alert; however, it seems that the killer wants publicity, so printing the story in the papers could simply be doing exactly what the killer wants. In the end, the team decides to let the newspapers print the story. Before long, the police are inundated with leads, both promising and false. In the end, though, interestingly enough, stories about the killings lead one of the minor characters to make a connection that helps Poirot solve the case. In one interesting tidbit about The ABC Murders, Poirot actually gets a small clue about the murders early in the novel by pretending he’s a journalist looking for a story. At first, he doesn’t realize where what he learns fits in, but later in the novel, it becomes part of the pattern that helps him solve the case.

Poirot also gets useful information from a journalist in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. In that novel, he’s investigating the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. When Poirot finds out by chance that Mrs. McGinty wrote a letter two days before she was murdered, he visits the recipient of that letter, a Sunday paper editor who’d written a column about past crimes. She tells Poirot what was in Mrs. McGinty’s letter, and that information gives Poirot a vital clue – the motive for the murder.

In other Christie novels (e.g. Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) and After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), journalists don’t have such a positive image. In fact, in those novels, the characters speak disparagingly of them (so does Christie, in her way), and they’re given short shrift whenever possible.

Journalism and murder investigations seem to be a natural “fit;” perhaps that’s why news reporting is featured in a lot of crime fiction. Which are your favorite “journalistic” novels?


  1. Those are some great examples, Margot. I actually just read a debut novel from Minotaur that was pretty good: "Faces of the Gone," (Brad Parks.) The protagonist was a young investigative reporter. Grittier than my usual fare, but good.

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  2. Elizabeth - Thanks : ) And thanks for mentioning Faces of the Gone I always love hearing and sharing about good debut novels.

  3. I've read good things about Faces of the Gone, too. (I know this because it is one of several hundred items in my Amazon shopping basket, which I use as a reminder to myself that I want to read a book. However, I have no idea why I put these books in there after a few weeks so it is good to remember why I put this one there, thanks!).

    I love journalism crime but oddly I hate reading about true crime, either in the papers or in books. I just can't stand it. I obviously love crime fiction for other reasons but I am not sure if I can fully articulate those, even to myself.

    I was looking forward to the Irene books but I have to say I didn't enjoy Goodnight Irene that much. I think I've mentioned Elaine Viets before- she wrote four or five great journalism crime novels set in New Orleans (pre-Katrina) - well worth digging out and reading. She really gets the tensions of modern journalism, economics and so on, but the books themselves are full of dry humour. (And a subplot is the rehabbers, who recreate the beautiful old houses of the city - which of course thinking of now is extremely tragic).

    Denise Hamilton writes good journalism crime- well, I liked the first two or three but not the most recent one so much. Set in LA and usually focusing on some aspect of Asian-American or Latino-American society/crime.

  4. PS I should mention in my defence that I bookmark these titles in Amazon when I read reviews because reviews are usually simultaneous with publication, i.e. expensive hardback. I bookmark so I can revisit the Amazon page after 6-12 months to get the paperback.

  5. I find I really don't like fictional journalists. As characters they tend to get on my nerves fairly quickly - which is odd given that out in the real world I've never had a problem with anyone involved in journalism.

  6. Maxine - No need to defend yourself; I really like your idea of bookmarking Amazon titles. Like you, I get interested in so many books that it's hard to keep everything organized. Besides, at a place like Amazon, one can read a synopsis of a book that can help one remember why one wanted to read it. I know of other people who bookmark reviews of books they want to read - same reason. But bookmarking Amazon lets one buy when one's ready.

    I've actually heard that Elaine Viets' work is good; I'll have to look around for it. You're right about how tragic it is, given Katrina. I had the chance to visit New Orleans for a conference two years before Katrina hit; looking back, it's just heartbreaking what happened to the city. What a unique city! Definitely a place with its own personality.

    It was so interesting to read that you're not a fan of reading true crime. I have to admit; I like fictional crime much, much more than true crime as well. I'm not sure why, actually; perhaps knowing that a crime really happened just brings it too "close to home." Whatever the reason, I agree with you. The only exception is that I do sometimes enjoy true crime stories if the murder happened long ago. Then I think I enjoy the intellectual challenge that's faced in solving an old crime. Otherwise, my preference is crime fiction, too.

    Cassandra - Isn't it funny how there are certain kinds of characters that we just don't ever enjoy? Even when we haven't had unpleasant real-life experiences with those types of characters, they still put us off. I wonder if there's a certain personality type that "goes with" being a journalist (or anything else..). Thanks for the interesting thought...

  7. I seem to read more mysteries where the protagonist is an amateur or a police officer or a PI. It makes me pause and wonder why I don't choose more books where the main character is a reporter. Hmmm.

    Straight From Hel

  8. Helen - Thanks for your comment : ). News reporting does seem a natural "fit" for a sleuth, doesn't it? It seems to me, anyway, that similar skills are needed. Maybe my protagonist missed the boat by being a professor ; ).

  9. As a former journalist, I love it when a main character is a reporter although there are certain types of reporter that turn me off completely - pushy investigative reporter or one who only cares about the story, no compassion. Reporters are invariably nosy so they do make good sleuths.

  10. I enjoyed the first 4-5 novels featuring Annika Bengtzon very much, but I have grown tired of her lately (shouldn´t tell you as these books are not out in English yet - but then you did ask me, didn´t you?)

    So my current favourite is Andrew Taylor´s Jill Francis (The Lydmouth series).

  11. You've raised a very interesting point, Margot; an investigative journalist as the sleuth is indeed a very good fit. My mind is racing with the character possibilities as at the same time I'm mentally kicking myself for not thinking of this before.

    Then again, I've never been a journalist.

  12. Rural View - Thanks for your comment : ) You've hit on a really, really important point, I think. In real-life, pushy, rude journalists are not pleasant and not well-liked. I've never been a professional journalist, so I don't know from experience, but I'll bet they also don't get those little favors that news sources can so often grant, either. But curious? Even nosy? I thihnk most journalists are that way, so they do make good sleuths : ).

    Dorte - Maybe it's not such a bad thing that the last few Marklund novels haven't been translated if Annika's lost her "spark." I like her character in The Bomber and Prime Time.... As far as the Jill Francis series, I confess that I haven't dipped very much into that one yet, but what I have read is good; I like her character very much.

    Elspeth - I never thought of it either, until I started reading stories that feature journalist sleuths. It's such a natural fit that the back of my pants are dusty from my own boots, too, so to speak. I'm putting that idea into my hopper for a future series someday... : )