Saturday, October 9, 2010

We'll See How it Feels Goin' Mobile*

One of the major social changes of the last one hundred fifty years has been mobility. People travel and move now more than ever. And, with the increasing power of communications technology, even when people don’t travel physically, they’re better able than ever to communicate with others all over the world. Case in point: blogs. Crime investigation has gone “global,” too. Now, it’s not uncommon for investigators from different countries to work together to solve crimes. We see that development in crime fiction, too, and that makes a lot of sense; crime fiction is more effective when it’s authentic.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels show the beginnings of this global approach to crime investigation. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender, is on a flight from Paris to London. During the flight, she suddenly dies of what seems at first like heart failure. When the plane lands, an investigation into her death begins, and it soon becomes clear that Madame Giselle was poisoned. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, so he works with Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp to solve the crime. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the flight, and they are not all English. So Poirot and Japp work with M. Fournier of the Sûreté and French attorney Maître Thibault to sift through the clues and find out which of the passengers is the killer. In the course of the investigation, Poirot also works with Canadian and Belgian sources who provide him with valuable information.

We also see some of this global approach to investigation in Ngaio Marsh’s work. In several of Marsh’s novels, Inspector Roderick Alleyn works with authorities in other countries to solve cases. For instance, in Died in the Wool, he works with New Zealand authorities to find out who killed MP Flossie Rubick. She goes out to a wool shed one day to practice a speech, and doesn’t return. Three weeks later, her body is found inside a bale of wool. When her nephew suspects that her death may have something to do with international espionage, he contacts Alleyn, who travels to New Zealand and investigates the case.

In Marsh’s Spinsters in Jeopardy, Alleyn is asked by MI5 and the Sûreté to investigate a drugs ring that they think is operating in the south of France. He decides to combine business with pleasure and bring his family on a holiday. While they’re en route, though, Alleyn and his wife, Agatha Troy, happen to look out of the train window and see what looks very much like a murder. Then, one of their fellow passengers suffers an attack of appendicitis, and needs emergency surgery. The only place where the train can stop is the same château where the murder (if it was a murder) occurred. As it happens, that’s the very place, too, where the drugs ring is supposed to be operating. So Alleyn and Troy, and later their son, get drawn into the drugs ring in a very different way from the way they’d planned, and Alleyn works with French authorities to stop the ring.

There’s an interesting example of that kind of global criminal investigation in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna. In that novel, the body of a young unidentified woman is dredged up from Lake Vättern. Stockholm detective Martin Beck and his team are called to Motala, where the woman’s body was discovered, to investigate the case. After a time, the woman is identified as Roseanna McGraw, from Lincoln, Nebraska. Once that identification is made, Beck and the team work with Detective Elmer Kafka of the Lincoln, Nebraska police. Together, they determine that Roseanna McGraw had been on a trip through the Scandinavian countries. She was taking a cruise in Sweden when she was killed. Now, Beck and his team also have to work with authorities from several other countries, since several of the passengers and crew members on that cruise are not Swedish. In the end, that kind of global view of a case is an important factor in finding out who Roseanna Mcgraw was and why she was killed (and of course, by whom). This novel was first published in 1967, and we can see the limits of the communication of the times. For example, in one instance, Beck has placed an international call to Kafka, and the two have a great deal of difficulty understanding each other, and not just because of the language difference. The long-distance telephone communications of the day were not nearly as advanced as they are now. Still, this is an interesting example of the kind of international co-operation that’s sometimes needed to solve crimes.

Of course, Roseanna was written before the advent of the Internet. Today, web sites, Email, electronic documents and faxes allow for easy communication and exchange of information. That’s how many international authorities keep in touch and work together. Of course, this doesn’t mean that this kind of global approach always works smoothly; sometimes it doesn’t at all. But it’s more instantaneous and efficient than ever. That’s what we find, for instance, in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals. Harald Guntlieb is a German student studying in Reykjavík. When he is found murdered and his body mutilated, the police arrest his former friend Hugi Thórisson. But Gunltieb’s family doesn’t believe that Thórisson is guilty. So they contact Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir and ask her to work with the family banker Matthew Reich to find out what really happened. Thóra is eager for a well-paid case, so she accepts. As she and Matthew look into Harald Guntlieb’s past, they make quite a lot of use of international sources of information. In fact, those sources prove extremely useful as the two sleuths figure out why Harald Guntlieb was really killed.

In Michael Ridpath’s Where the Shadows Lie, we meet Magnus Johnson, a Boston police officer who is also half-Icelandic. Johnson has valuable information on a large Boston-area drug-smuggling operation which puts his life in danger. So when Iceland’s police authorities ask for U.S. help with a new kind of crime wave, Johnson is a natural choice. He’s got his own reasons, too, for wanting to travel to Iceland. He lived there as a child, and he wants to look into the unsolved mystery of his father’s death. So he travels to Iceland to work with the local police. While he’s there, he gets involved in another murder mystery as he waits for his opportunity to testify against the Boston crime lords who’ve targeted him. In this novel, too, we see a global approach to dealing with crime and criminal investigation.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has depended more than once on a global approach to solving crime. For instance, in The Black Ice, Bosch investigates a Mexican drug-smuggling operation and its relationship to the death of police officer Calexico “Cal” Moore. The operation seems to be based in the Mexican town where Moore grew up, so Bosch travels there. In the process of finding out what happened to Moore, and tracing the operation, Bosch works with some members of the Mexican State Judicial Police. It’s interesting in this novel to see how much this kind of global approach depends on mutual respect and the willingness to share information.

This is also apparent in Connelly’s 9 Dragons. In that story, Bosch is investigating the shooting death of a Chinese liquor store owner. The murder is possibly linked to a tong, a Chinese gang, so Bosch begins to go after the gang that he thinks is responsible for the killing. Then, Bosch finds out that his daughter Maddie, who lives in Hong Kong, has been kidnapped. Bosch is convinced that the kidnapping is related to his investigation of tong activity, so he flies immediately to Hong Kong to try to free Maddie. As he searches for his daughter, Bosch has to rely on the co-operation of several people in Hong Kong, including Sun Yee, a bodyguard, and the Hong Kong police, who are anxious to avoid a public scandal about the dangers to Americans living in Hong Kong.

There are a lot of other crime fiction novels where sleuths have to work with people from other countries and take a global approach to crime investigation. I’ve only had space to mention a few. Which ones have you enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Going Mobile.


  1. Oh, globalization. Interesting topic. I don't know many novels that have taken place over different countries. I guess ones with intrigue.

    I think that mysteries are becoming more modern in that often different agencies use different datebases to access info.

    Agatha Christie traveled a lot in her lifetime and so she really knew the world that she talked about.


  2. Clarissa - I think you're right; today, there are so many different databases that agencies can use, that they have access to a lot more information, a lot more quickly than ever before. I have to say I like it, too, when writers are accurate about that.

    And yes, Agatha Christie certainly did do quite a lot of traveling. She was thoroughly familiar, I think, with the world of her day.

  3. Roseanna is one of the few that I have enjoyed. I think I prefer that ´my´ detectives stay at home in their own environment.

    Well, perhaps that will change when I get into The Halloween Murderer as Rhapsody will be on some kind of holiday there. I have been known to change my opinion when I have tried writing about something myself :D

  4. With all of our modern technology, authors have to be really update when having their killer go across state lines or travel to another country. I think that is something that will change how authors have had to do and will do their research. Another interesting post to ponder.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Dorte - I cannot wait to read your Hallowe'en mystery! Rhapsody is a terrific character and I look forward to "meeting" her again. I know what you mean, too, about changing one's mind when one's writing something. I've done the same thing :-).

    Mason - Thank you :-). You make a very interesting point, too; as our technology improves, and mobility does, too, it is more likely that killers (and sleuths) will cross state or national borders. Authors who write that kind of scenario do, indeed, have to be careful as the research, so that it's accurate. Of course, modern technology also means that it's much easier to do research :-).

  6. I am not sure if it is a case of people working together, but the first story of this kind that I remember reading was Sherlock Holmes' Valley of the Dead. I guess it was the character of the protagonist that really stayed with me.
    In fact, Sherlock Holmes seems to have dealings all over, though strictly speaking he never works 'with' anyone.

  7. Rayna - You know, you have a point. Holmes really does work with people from many different parts of the world. I'm thinking, too, of novels like A Study in Scarlet, where a lot of the action happens in another country. I like that perspective on the Holmes stories :-).

  8. These are great examples, Margot, of some books I've recently read and loved or liked very much. It is interesting how Roseanna has not dated, despite its time. Another globalised book I read recently is Three Seconds by Roslund-Hellstrom, in which the main character has been displaced from a childhood home by a change in borders. He is a pretty mobile character, though in a dangerous way.

  9. Maxine - Thank you :-) And you know, you've got a very good point. Roseanna hasn't dated. Even though the technology of today is so very different, The story hasn't gotten old at all.
    And although I haven't read Three Seconds yet, I am planning to. It seems like a very good read.

    Folks, Maxine's terrific review of Three Seconds is here.