Tag Archives: cold case crime

After I’m Gone: Laura Lippman

“Did you know the more we tell a story, the more degraded it becomes? Factually, I mean. It’s like taking a beloved but fragile object out of a box and turning it over in your hands. You damage it every time.”

63 -year-old retired Baltimore homicide detective ‘Sandy’ Sanchez now works on cold case crimes for the city. The pay isn’t great, but it keeps him busy and gives him the semblance of a life. With his wife dead, and his only son institutionalized, Sandy understands that solving cold cases brings some sense of meaning to his life.

There are no shortage of cold case crimes, but when the book opens, Sandy selects the unsolved murder of Julie Saxony for his attention. Although Sandy prefers to work on the cases of elderly victims, there’s something about the Julie Saxony case that catches his interest. Julie, a one-time stripper, cleaned up her act when her married boyfriend, Felix Brewer, who was facing a long term prison sentence, disappeared in 1976. Rumour has it that Julie helped Felix flee the country. Rumour also has it that Felix left her a wad of cash. While Bambi Brewer, Felix’s wife, floundered with no income stream, Julie morphed from stripper to coffee shop owner once Felix skipped town. Ten years later, in 1986, Julie was on the verge of opening an upscale inn complete with restaurant when she disappeared off the face of the planet. Many people assumed she’d finally joined Felix in exile, but when Julie’s body was found in 2001, that rumour was laid to rest.

After I'm gone

So Sandy begins digging into Julie’s murder which is, of course, connected to Felix’s flight so many years earlier. Reading the files, Sandy concludes that with this case, with this victim, there are  “really two stories, parallel universes.” On one hand here’s Julie Romeo, stripper, and then years later, Julie “respectable business owner.” As he works through the evidence, Sandy encounters a range of people who knew Julie in both of her lives; there’s her sister who’s not telling the whole story, and Julie’s former chef who swears Julie never mentioned Felix and yet he knows a lot of details. There’s also Julie’s friend, a stripper turned housewife, and Felix’s bail bondsman, Tubby Schroeder, who now lords it over the ladies in assisted living.  Tubby is a slippery character, and he obviously knows more than he’s saying. Yet he doesn’t entirely clam up either:

He didn’t answer. He was a smart guy. Smart enough not to talk to a cop at all, if it came to that. But something–Sandy’s not-quite-cop status, Tubby’s boredom in his plush nest–made him want to play this game. More challenging than bridge with a bunch of wistful ladies. 

Sandy is a great character–a man who feels that he failed his wife and son and clings to the detective work he’s good at. He’s calm, non-confrontational and as he talks to these witnesses about a decades old crime, Sandy learns that sometimes it’s not what people say, but how they say it, or what they leave out. 

She knew something. He wasn’t sure what it was, or if she even realized she had something of significance to share He’d prefer that she be a liar, actually. You could break down a liar. 

Sandy also questions Felix’s wife, Bambi, a beautiful trophy, a high-maintenance woman abandoned by her husband. With no money (and yes what happened to Felix’s money btw?), Bambi brings up their three daughters alone, convinced that her philandering hubbie left his mistress every rotten penny. Bambi’s three daughters grow up with memories of a larger-than-life man who apparently adored them yet who easily abandoned them, severing ties completely. 

I’m a Laura Lippman fan, and After I’m Gone written with great sensitivity, is one of her best IMO. Just as Sandy finds that there are two parallel universes in Julie’s life, there are two sets of characters–those who knew Julie in her stripper life and those who knew of her from their cushier nests. These rich, three-dimensional characters leap off the pages almost as though they were waiting for Sandy to come and ask the questions that went unanswered for so long. Some of those questioned by Sandy had things to hide when Julie first disappeared; others held back information as it didn’t seem relevant or they were protective of Julie. Others have had a shift in attitude as the years ground on or simply no longer have anything to lose. There’s Bambi’s best friend, a lawyer’s pampered wife, Lorraine, living in a home of “ruthless perfection” who reveals she knew more about Julie than initially discovered, and then there’s Julie’s best friend whose loyalty has been honed into a searing honesty.  As Sandy moves around Baltimore digging up the past, he confronts his own memories and demons.

Felix appears in the first pages before he does a bunk, and even in his absence, as the book goes back and forth in time, Felix dominates the story.  His abandonment and disappearance force his daughters and his wife to confront the uglier aspects of his life–that his stripper mistresses “were like Cadillacs to him.” “He drove them for two to three years and traded them in.” 

How did this selfish, self-focused man get so many women to love him? His disappearance left a huge void in the lives of those women, and it’s sad as quite frankly he wasn’t worth a tear.

There’s always been this stupid fiction that he comes back, like some benevolent spirit.

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Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham

“We disappeared together, Tash and me. That was a summer of hot winds and fierce storms that came and went like, well storms do. It was on a clear night at the end of August after the Bingham Summer Festival, when the funfair rides had fallen silent and the coloured lights had been turned off.”

A few years ago I read Australian author Michael Robotham’s Suspect, the first in the Joe O’Louglin series.  In this novel, the London-based clinical psychologist, just diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, is drawn into a murder investigation and lies about his past relationship with the victim. Say You’re Sorry is the sixth novel in the series (Suspect, Lost, Shatter, Bleed for Me, & The Wreckage). Since I have a weakness for books that feature psychologists, I’d been meaning to get back to this series, but somehow, 4 of them have passed me by, so here I am with number 6. I’ve missed a bit along the way. Joe has moved back to London, and he takes medication for Parkinson’s which seems to be helping. He’s separated from his wife, Julianne, and his daughter Charlie is now a rebellious teenager. Joe works 2 days a week for the NHS and the rest of the time he works on “referrals [from] the Crown Prosecution Service.” There’s the sense that Joe’s work has become a little too routine and predictable, but all of that is about to change when Joe is pulled away from his commitments to make a psychological evaluation of a murder suspect.

The plot revolves around two crimes: the disappearance three years earlier of the two 15-year-old “Bingham girls” Piper Hadley and Tash McBain, best friends from school. Good-looking and confident Tash came from a rough home life and had a bad reputation. Fully aware of her attractiveness, she played teasing games with many of the males in her circle. Piper, who came from an upper-class background, seems an unlikely friend for Tash, and when Piper’s friendship with Tash began to lead to trouble, her parents shipped her off for to a re-education centre. But intervention from Piper’s parents inevitably backfired, and the two girls disappeared without a trace one summer night. The consensus is that the girls ran off to London.

The second crime takes during a blizzard at the remote farmhouse which used to be the home of Tash’s family. Joe is heading for a long weekend in Oxford “to talk at a mental health symposium” when he’s co-opted to provide a psychological evaluation on the suspect of a bloody double homicide. Initially the crime has the hallmarks of a classic home invasion. The husband was trying to run when his assailant bashed in his skull with a blunt object. Nasty, but the wife met a worse end. She was tied down onto the bed and set on fire. The police have a suspect–Augie Shaw, a handyman employed by the victims. The handyman has a history of mental problems and he’d recently been fired over a matter of missing underwear. The police are happy with an open and shut case, but Joe can’t fit the crime to the handyman, and then again there are some very troubling clues at the crime scene that leads Joe to think that the double homicide was linked to something else that occurred at the farmhouse.

Joe makes an interesting series character, and in this novel, former Det Insp. Vincent Ruiz (from Suspect) is back and joins Joe in his hunt for the truth. Joe finds himself investigating the cold case of the missing Bingham girls, and just as a crime scene can become contaminated as people inadvertently trammel clues, the stories about the girls have become distorted with time, and Joe has to wade through the myths built up around the two missing teenagers.

Everyone had a story about us–even the people who never liked us. We were cheeky, fun loving, popular, hard-working; we were straight A students. I laughed my ass off at that one.

People put a shine on us that wasn’t there for real, making us into the angels they wanted us to be. Our mothers were decent. Our fathers were blameless. Perfect parents who didn’t deserve to be tormented because of the posters and my collection of crystals  and my photo-booth portraits of my friends.

Narrated in turn by Piper Hadley and Joe O’Loughlin, Say You’re Sorry is the perfect distraction read, and by that I mean that you can be on a train or a plane or surrounded by annoying conversationalists, but you won’t hear them; you’ll be turning the pages of this book. On the down side (and this may seem a strange comment), I didn’t want to put this book down as by doing so, I was prolonging a crime. There’s an uncomfortable complicit feeling of reading a book while a crime is in process. I had the same feeling when I watched the film, The Cell. Almost fast forwarded the DVD for that one.

While Say You’re Sorry is a crime novel with a strong psychological bent, it’s also qualifies as a thriller towards the end. I didn’t guess the perp for this one, and the book kept me guessing to the end….

Mirrors have an interesting effect in interview rooms. People struggle to lie when they can see themselves doing it. They become more self-conscious as they try to sound more convincing and truthful

Review copy.

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The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

“In every investigation, there was always a moment when a detective fervently wished that he could have met his victim when he or she was alive.”

Discovering a new crime fiction series presents a dilemma in the form of the number of new books that I may feel compelled to read, so I tend to approach a new series with some inherent skepticism along the lines of: “What separates this series from other books in the genre? This series has to be good enough, original enough to convince me that I want to commit to the lot.” Enter Carl MØrck and The Keeper of Lost Causes by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen.

Detective Carl MØrck is recovering (and I’ll use that word loosely) from a horrendous shooting incident that left one partner dead and another paralysed. Although he suffered a head wound in the incident, nonetheless, he feels guilty that he didn’t react differently to the violent situation. He’s always been considered a problem by his fellow officers, and he’s certainly not the sort of person anyone would consider a “team player” (a horrible term in my book). With his partners dead or out-of-commission, Carl, depressed and feeling guilty that he survived, presents even more of a problem than usual. His ‘superiors’ would like to get rid of him, but under the circumstances they can’t, so instead, responding to political pressure regarding several cold crimes, Carl’s boss devises a solution to isolate Carl so that he does the least damage to the department and morale.

Called in to talk to his boss, Carl, who’s morose, depressed and suffering from “profound indifference,” is surprised to learn that he’s been given a promotion of sorts. He’s to be the head of Department Q–a department devoted solely to the solution of cold case crimes. Carl soon discovers that the reality is a converted basement office and a ‘department’ of one. Carl’s attitude towards his new assignment is basically to play cards and generally coast out the time until his retirement, but then he’s given an assistant, Assad, a curious character whose murky origins include contacts with the criminal underworld and a taste for unconventional techniques and weaponry.  Assad is ostensibly employed to clean department Q and do the occasional odd-job, but his natural curiosity is contagious. Almost against his will, Carl becomes engaged in a cold case crime file.

Carl divides the stack of files that represent the cold crime cases into three piles, and then selects the case of the disappearance of an up and coming politician, Merete Lynggaard. Merete was an extremely attractive young woman whose bright political future was cut short when she disappeared without a trace while on a ferry years earlier. It’s assumed that she was a suicide, and the only possible witness to what happened is Uffe, Merete’s institutionalised, mentally damaged brother.

It doesn’t take long for Carl to uncover some suspicious circumstances in the case–after all Merete had many political enemies, but the fact that Merete maintained a heavily guarded private life doesn’t help Carl’s investigation a great deal. His methodical investigation, aided and abetted by Assad, slowly peels away layers of the past, and Carl becomes convinced that Merete was a victim of foul play.

It’s imperative that a series character is interesting. In Carl, author Jussi Adler-Olsen has created an original, intriguing and sympathetic character. Carl copes with the sort of personal problems many middle-aged men face: loneliness, an argumentative teen and an inability to approach women. Carl’s clumsy attempts to date a woman caused this reader to wince. Years spent at the mercy of his erratic wife, Vigga, have left Carl in a state of emotional limbo: 

First his wife took off. Then she decided she didn’t want a divorce, but instead took up residence in the allotment garden. Next she went through a whole series of young lovers, and she had the bad habit of ringing Carl to tell him all about them. Then she refused to let her son live with her in the garden cottage any more, and in the throes of puberty the boy had moved back in with Carl.

Vigga is painted as annoying rather than evil. In a moment of stray generosity, we might call Vigga a “free spirit” but it would be more accurate to call her exploitative. She wants her freedom from the constraints of motherhood and marriage, but she expects Carl to fund her latest nonsense (an art gallery which features the ridiculous art she and her young lover create). Carl is unable to tell Vigga to take a hike, and so he responds to her demands and seems unable to resolve his ever-extending commitment to her. Obviously this is a subject that will raise its head in future novels, and it’s an interesting twist to the story. Also the relationship between Assad and Carl grows from annoyance to mutual respect. Carl begins to listen to Assad’s suggestions even as he understands the man’s limitations when it comes to questioning suspects. Although this is a crime novel, the plot includes its share of humour, and most of the humour is found in the unlikely relationship between these two men. Assad has a unique appreciation of a female office worker Carl can’t stand (he calls her Ilse the She-Wolf), and Assad causes departmental eyebrows to raise when he begins bringing fragrant baked goods and tea into the basement. Ultimately Carl and Assad work well as a team because they complement each other and they are both outcasts.

The novel is full with of carefully drawn characters and attention to detail. Here’s Carl returning from work:

When Carl got home, he leaned his bicycle against the shed outside the kitchen, noting that the other two occupants of the house were both there. As usual, his renter, Morten Holland, had turned the volume all the way up as he listened to opera in the basement, while his stepson’s downloaded shred metal was blasting out of a window upstairs. A less compatible collage of sounds couldn’t be found anywhere else on the planet.

Morbidly obese Morten, Carl’s renter, a 33-year-old video store clerk, is the “best housewife” Carl has ever known. Morten cooks and cleans for the all-male household:

He’d spent the last 13 of those years diligently studying all kinds of subjects other than the ones having any direct bearing on the three degree programmes in which he was officially enrolled. The result was an overwhelming knowledge about everything except the subjects for which he was receiving financial support and which in future would presumably earn him a living. 

Morten is just one instance of author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s marvellous detailed characters:

An overgrown adolescent and androgynous virgin whose personal relationships consisted of remarks exchanged with random customers at the Kvickly supermarket about what they were buying. A little chat by the freezer section about whether spinach was best with or without cream sauce. 

The disappearance of Merete is a page turner, and the result is a superior, tense crime novel. But much more than that, in The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jussi Adler-Olsen created a set of characters I want to return to. Soon.  

Translated by Tina Nunnally

Copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on my kindle.

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