In Your Easter Bonnet With All the Frills Upon It*

HatsYesterday I made mention of the role that footwear plays in crime fiction. Never one to leave things half-done, I thought it only right to do a ‘head to toe’ job of it and take a look today at the way hats figure into the genre.

You may think that people don’t wear hats as they did in times past. But you’d be surprised how much of a role hats play in crime fiction. For example, the character of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will probably always be associated with the deerstalker hat. And where would the genre be without the fedora?  It’s a classic ‘PI’ sort of a hat. Just check out Tipping My Fedora, a fantastic crime-fictional blog, if you don’t believe me.  And that’s to say nothing of criminals who wear balaclavas, sleuths who wear toques outdoors when it’s cold, and a lot more too.

Now, let’s get into a few specific examples to show you just how important hats are in crime fiction. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissionaire Peterson brings an unusual case to Sherlock Holmes. He discovered a battered hat and a goose lying in a street where their owner had dropped them after a run-in with some hooligans. Peterson’s wife cooked the goose for Christmas dinner and discovered a valuable jewel in the goose’s crop. It all makes no sense to Peterson, but Holmes finds the case interesting. Here is a bit of a conversation he has with Dr. Watson about the matter:

 

‘But you are joking. What can you gather from this old battered felt?’ …
He picked it up and gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion which was characteristic of him. ‘It is perhaps less suggestive than it might have been,’ he remarked, ‘and yet there are a few inferences which are very distinct, and a few others which represent at least a strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.’ 

 

All of this from one battered felt hat. Holmes follows up by explaining how he made each deduction, and it turns out that he is correct in every detail. Those deductions help him track down the hat’s owner and solve the mystery of the jewel. 

In Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery, successful attorney Monte Field attends a production at New York’s Roman Theatre. By the time the production is over, Field is dead of poisoning. Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate the case and soon find out some important things. Field was a blackmailer, so it’s likely that whoever killed him was one of his blackmail victims. This gives the sleuths a number of possible suspects, several of whom were in the theatre the night of the murder. And yet, all of the seats around the victim were empty although the production was sold out. So it’s hard to see how anyone could have gotten close enough to poison him. And the really interesting detail is that Field’s top hat, which he wore to the show, is missing. That hat’s disappearance and its location turn out to be vital clues to the murder.

In several of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories, hats are used to help disguise a person’s identity. I won’t mention specific examples so as to avoid spoilers, but I can say that she takes full advantage of the fact that certain styles of hat can hide a person’s face.

There’s also a sort of funny hat-related scene in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Hercule Poirot has come to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer is her lodger James Bentley; in fact, he’s been convicted of the crime and is awaiting execution. But Superintendent Spence wasn’t sure of Bentley’s guilt, so he asked Poirot to look into the matter. One day, Poirot is taking a walk when he encounters detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who is on her way by car to visit one of Broadhinny’s residents Robin Upward. Upward is a playwright who is planning to adapt one of Mrs. Oliver’s novels for the stage. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver have a moment or two of conversation, and then Mrs. Oliver says,

 

‘What have I done with my hat?’
Poirot looked into the car.
‘I think, madame, that you must have been sitting on it.’
‘It does look like it’, agreed Mrs. Oliver, surveying the wreckage. ‘Oh, well,’ she continued cheerfully, ‘I never liked it much. But I thought I might have to go to church on Sunday, and although the Archbishop has said one needn’t, I still think that the more old-fashioned clergy expect one to wear a hat.’

 

It’s an interesting look at the culture.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor, whose barbecue restaurant has been in the family for years. One of the restaurant’s regulars, and one of Lulu’s best friends, is Cherry Hayes. She is a volunteer docent at Elvis Presley’s home Graceland, and is a little eccentric. For example, she often wears a motorcycle helmet with Presley’s picture on it. Her theory is that danger could come at any time and it’s best to be prepared for it with a proper helmet.

Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh is a Sikh, and wears his turban with pride. Although he is not a strict observer of his religion, he wouldn’t be without the turban:

 

‘…his wife had once referred to his turban as his comfort blanket…’

 

It’s a very important part of his look and his identity.

And that’s the thing about hats. They can be quite distinctive and very often they reflect important parts of their owners’ personalities. Just ask D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington. As the series featuring him begins, Heatherington is a milliner whose family has been in the business for a long time. He has keen instincts about people and is skilled at matching client to hat. He’s got a thorough knowledge of hats, too of course, and the history of different kinds of hats. And in Hats Off to Murder, he makes good use of those skills and that knowledge.  It all starts with an unusual request from a new client Delilah Delibes, who is searching for her missing mother. But it ends up in some very odd incidents and two murders. Heatherington’s love for hats doesn’t end when he retires, either. He still keeps a shed that he uses as a hat workshop and a place to contemplate.

So which hat style suits you? Trilby? Homburg? Cloche? Beret? Fedora? Something else?

 

Want to know more about hats? Do visit D.S. Nelson’s fantastic site. There’s all sorts of interesting hat-related information, support for writers, and good fiction to be hat – er – had. ;-)

 

On Another Note…

 

My best wishes for a joyous and peaceful Easter to those who celebrate it. If you’ve been celebrating Passover, I hope it’s given you a sense of connection, renewal and reflection.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, D.S. Nelson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Shamini Flint

But Don’t You Step on My Blue Suede Shoes*

ShoesNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books wrote a very interesting piece for the Guardian book blog about shoes in literature. Footwear really does say a lot about us, which is why it plays such a prominent role in crime fiction. Before I go any further about that, let me invite you to check out Clothes in Books – a treasure trove of insights about shoes, clothes, culture and what it all says about us in fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes always learns quite a lot from what people wear, and that includes their shoes. In A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Holmes and Watson haven’t seen much of each other lately, but here is what Holmes says:

 

‘How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?’ 

 

The answer to that question is shoes. Holmes can tell by slit marks on the inside of Watson’s left shoe that mud was scraped from it by someone very careless. Simplicity itself, as Holmes says. Granted, the focus of this particular mystery isn’t Watson’s shoes, but it’s an interesting example of the way Holmes uses evidence that he finds in footwear.

So does Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Although he generally isn’t one to look for things like cigarette ash and footprints, he does use physical clues at times. Just as one example, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Poirot is leaving the office of his dentist Henry Morley when he sees a woman getting out of a taxi. She’s wearing a pair of shoes with buckles on them and accidentally tears off one of the buckles. In a rather funny scene, Poirot returns the buckle to her and she goes into the office while he goes on his own way. Poirot learns later that Morley has been shot and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. And part of that process is interviewing all of the people who visited the dentist on the fatal day. One of those people is Miss Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, the owner of the shoe with the torn-off buckle. Not long after that interview, there’s another death. And then Miss Sainsbury Seale disappears. It’s clear now that there’s more going on here than the murder of one dentist. In the end, Poirot and Japp find out the truth, and one important clue comes from that torn-off shoe buckle.

Christie fans will know that Poirot himself would never consider worn-down or broken shoes. He much prefers his polished, pointed-toe, patent leather shoes. He even wears them at times when something more comfortable would be much more appropriate. But as he puts it, he likes to be soigné.

Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman sees Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte traveling to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall. Bony is working on that case when there’s another death. Itinerant worker John Way seems to have committed suicide in the same isolated hut where Kendall’s body was found. This is a complex and carefully-planned series of events, but Bony finds out who’s behind them and what the motive is. And one of the things that help him get to the truth is a particular kind of footwear.

Shoes also figure in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath. LAPD Detective Peter Decker is investigating a series of rapes committed by a man dubbed the Foothill Rapist. So far he and his partner Marge Dunn haven’t had a lot of luck. Then comes the news that there’s been a rape at a secluded yeshiva – an Orthodox Jewish community and place of learning. At first Decker and Dunn think that this rape has also been committed by the Foothill Rapist. But there are some differences between this incident and the others. One of them is shoes. The other victims were all wearing high-heeled shoes, but this victim was wearing sandals. It’s not conclusive evidence that this is a different culprit, but it does make Decker wonder. Then, there’s a brutal murder at the same yeshiva. Now it’s clear that something is going on there that’s likely quite separate from the Foothill Rapist cases. Decker works with Dunn and with Rina Lazarus, who lives at the yeshiva, to find out what’s behind the events there.

Footwear plays a very important role in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead. Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson has lived on the island of Øland all of his life, and knows most of its residents and a lot of its secrets. One day, he gets a shocking package – a sandal belonging to his grandson Jens. Jens was wearing those sandals when he disappeared twenty years earlier, and no trace of him has ever been found. His mother Julia was so distraught at his disappearance that she left the island, planning never to return. When she finds out about the sandal, she reluctantly returns to Øland to help find out the truth about Jens. As Julia and her father face the past, we learn how the island’s history and secrets people have been keeping still have an effect.

Chief Inspector William Wisting of the Stavern, Norway police has to deal with a grisly collection of shoes in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs. The main action in that novel begins with a left foot clad in a training shoe washes up on the beach. Soon after that, another left foot, also wearing a shoe, is discovered. And then another. The media and the public come up with all sorts of theories, including the possibility that some kind of twisted serial killer is at work. Wisting and his team know that the more quickly they figure out who the feet belonged to, the more likely it is that they’ll solve this case. So they go back through the records of missing persons. They discover that list of people missing could very well be related to the case of the shoes and feet that have been discovered. Bit by bit, the team ties the two major threads of the case together.

Shoes are very important to Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In fact, in a few of the novels, they even speak to her. And in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she learns the importance of buying shoes that are not just attractive, but comfortable too. One day she and her boss, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, are out together when she sees a beautiful pair of blue shoes with red linings. They’re elegant, but not particularly practical, and Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t think they’ll be comfortable. But she knows that Mma. Makutsi loves shoes. So she doesn’t say too much when the purchase is made. But when Mma. Makutsi wears them to work the next day, it’s obvious that she’s uncomfortable:

 

‘…there were some pairs of shoes that would never be broken in. Shoes that were too small were usually too small for reason: they were intended for people with small feet.’

 

Mma. Makutsi runs into more shoe trouble in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, when she wears a pair of dressy shoes to a job placement agency. She and Mma. Ramotswe have had a serious difference and she’s looking around for a new position. On her way back from what turns out to be a difficult time at the agency, Mma. Makutsi breaks the heel of her shoe. It’s not a good day for her.

Fans of Anne Zouroudi’s enigmatic sleuth Hermes Diaktoros will know that he always wears white sneakers which he takes great pains to keep pristine. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh has the same footwear preference.  And that’s the thing about shoes. We all have our own preferences and unique way of walking in our shoes. In that way, they are arguably nearly as individual as people are. Little wonder they matter so much in crime fiction.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. Listen to his version and Elvis Presley’s version and decide which one you like better.

21 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anne Zouroudi, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Faye Kellerman, Jørn Lier Horst, Johan Theorin

What a Brave New World We Live in*

Limits of TechnologyIn Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot is talking to two young people about the brand-new world they want to create:

 

‘In your new world, my children, let there be freedom and let there be pity…that is all I ask.’

 

He touches on an important point. What should be the limits to our technological and sociological development? To put it another way, just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

It’s a complicated question and I don’t have the complete answer. But it’s addressed in a lot of novels including crime fiction. Let me just give you a few examples.

In Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Home Secretary Sir Derek O’Callaghan has prepared an Anarchy Bill which is specifically directed against leftist revolutionaries and their activities. One day he suffers a ruptured appendix during a speech in the House, and is rushed to a private hospital run by his physician Sir John Phillips. He is taken into surgery, but dies shortly after the procedure. At first it looks as though it’s a tragic case of ‘nothing the doctors could do.’ But it’s not long before it’s proven he was poisoned. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate the murder and soon find that there are several suspects. And because of the sequence of events, almost all of them had the opportunity. When Alleyn and Fox put the pieces of the puzzle together, they find that the killer believed that because something can be done, it should.

Several of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers also explore the limits of what medicine can and should do. To take just one example, there’s an interesting debate about stem cell research in Seizure. US Senator Ashley Butler has been an outspoken opponent of stem cell research. But when he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he knows that barring some sort of miracle, he will never achieve his dream of becoming President of the US. So he secretly contacts Dr. Daniel Lowell, who runs a biotechnology company that does stem cell work. The agreement that they work out is this: Butler will quietly withdraw his objection to stem cell research if Lowell operates on him. Plans are made to perform the controversial operation Lowell has in mind at the Wingate Clinic in the Bahamas. The surgery is carried out, but it has some frightening unforeseen consequences. This novel addresses both the important benefits and the potential terrible consequences of certain kinds of medical research and procedures.

One of the story arcs in Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy (Anger Mode, Project Nirvana, The Missing Link) has to do with a ‘wonder drug.’ Stockholm County CID Inspector Walter Gröhn and Detective Jonna de Brugge investigate what appear to be a series of killings that are committed for no apparent reason other than rage. That investigation leads to a much larger exploration as the novels go on of what science and biotechnology are capable of doing – and whether it should be done. The trilogy also explores the ramifications of the wrong people getting hold of certain kinds of technology.

In Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek, which takes place in 1957, Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin gets involved in a dangerous investigation that starts with a funeral. Berlin’s wife Rebecca asks him to speak to a friend of hers Beryl Moffit, whose husband Cyril recently died. There was an oddity about the funeral and Beryl isn’t exactly sure what to do about it. Berlin agrees to talk to her and soon finds himself drawn into something much larger than he thinks. What looks on the surface like odd procedures at a funeral home is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in a larger case of intrigue, high-level cover-ups and murder. And at the core of it all is a set of serious questions about whether ends justify means. Does being capable of doing something mean it should be done? And what are the larger consequences if it is done?

 These kinds of questions are also explored in William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, which takes place in pre-World War II Moscow. CID Captain Alexai Korolev and Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are asked to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. As it is, the matter is delicate because Azarov was working on a top-secret government project. But the detectives begin their investigation. Then there’s another murder; this time, the victim is someone Korolev and Slivka thought might be a suspect in Azarov’s murder. The Powers That Be have a theory about the killings, and that’s the one they want Korolev to ‘rubber stamp.’ But he and Slivka are fairly certain that it doesn’t explain everything. So they decide to continue with their investigations. In the end they uncover something both chilling and unexpected. And that discovery raises again the disturbing issue of the limits to which we should go.

Science, medicine and technology have moved us forward in critical ways. We need those fields, and supporting them is essential. But as crime fiction shows us, this raises some important questions. How do we support scientific and technological development, and at the same time retain our humanity if I may put it that way? How do we balance medical achievement with protecting individual people?  Just because we can push the button, so to speak, does this mean we should? The answers are not easy. What do you think?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Adrian Belew’s Brave New World.

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Ngaio Marsh, Robin Cook, Stefan Tegenfalk, William Ryan

Well, It’s a Rainy Night in Paris and I’m Sitting by the Seine*

paris-riverseine9There’s something about Paris. Whether it’s the world-class food and wine, the art, the music or the fabled romance of the place, people are often drawn to that city. There’s something almost magical about it for some people. But besides everything else, Paris is a large, modern city. And there’s crime there, just as there is in other places. Let’s take a look at some crime fiction that takes place in Paris and you’ll see what I mean.

Although Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot makes his home in London, he travels to Paris too when it’s needed. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, Poirot is faced with an unusual case. Marie Morisot, a Paris moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle, suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It’s soon shown that the victim was poisoned and Chief Inspector Japp begins to investigate. The only possible suspects in this case are the other passengers, one of whom was Hercule Poirot. In fact, the jury at the coroner’s inquest suspects him of the crime. Poirot works with Japp and with French authorities to find out who the killer is, and part of the trail leads to Paris, where Madame Giselle lived and did business. In fact, Poirot finds several useful clues during his trip there.

Fans of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret will know that he is a member of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris, the criminal investigation division of France’s Police Nationale. Maigret does of course investigate crimes that occur in the French countryside and in other French cities. But he and his wife live in Paris. Fans will know that he’s acquainted with just about every café and bar in the city, as that’s where he often does his best observation and deduction.

Also set in Paris are many of Fred Vargas’ Commissare Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg, also of the Police Nationale, works with a disparate group of people whom others might consider eccentric, even misfits. But he and his team actually form a very effective group of detectives. These novels have an almost surreal feel about them, but they also offer a picture of what it’s like to live and work in Paris. Adamsberg is an unusual sort of detective. He doesn’t necessarily follow obvious clues or go after obvious suspects. He also solves cases and settles problems in sometimes-unorthodox ways, to the occasional chagrin of his team members. But he and his team (including of course, Snowball the office cat) get there in the end.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer offers, among other things, an interesting look at the way Paris has become increasingly diverse in the last decades. Catherine Monsigny is a newly-minted attorney who volunteers for a group that works with undocumented immigrants who get into legal trouble. She has a full-time paid position too, but this volunteering gives her valuable experience. It’s also the way she learns of the case of Myriam Villetreix, an immigrant from Gabon who’s been accused of poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston. With support from her employer and mentor, Monsigny takes this case and prepares to defend Myriam. It turns out that this case will force Monsigny to confront a terrible incident from her own past. As a three-year-old, she witnessed her mother’s murder, which took place not far from where the Villetreix case is unfolding. The two cases aren’t, strictly speaking, related. But Monsigny finds the answers to both sets of questions. And in this novel, we get a solid sense of Paris as well as an interesting look at French jurisprudence.

We also get a look at modern-day Paris in Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman. This novel features Chief Nico Sirsky, head of the Paris CID La Crim’, and his team. The body of Marie-Hélène Jory is found in her Paris home. It’s not a typical robbery-with-murder sort of killing, and although the murder is brutal, there’s not much to go on in terms of evidence. Then there’s another murder. The second victim is Chloé Bartes, who is murdered in the same brutal way as the first victim. This time, the killer has left a message: seven days, seven women. Now the team sees that the murderer has a specific plan and that they’ll have to act fast if they’re to prevent more killings. Besides the murder plot itself, Molay also gives readers a look at the way a Paris criminal investigation of this magnitude is carried out, and how different agencies (police, crime scene experts, psychologists, the courts, etc.) work together.

There are also plenty of novels in which the protagonist travels to Paris, even if the main investigation takes place elsewhere. For instance, in Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime, Barcelona private investigators (and brothers) Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez are hired by powerful politician Lluís Font. He believes that his wife Lídia is having an affair, and he wants the brothers to find out if he is right. A week of following her produces no results, and the Martínez brothers are inclined to report to their client that he’s wrong about his wife. Then one evening they do get a possible lead that she may be hiding something, quite possibly an affair. Before they can follow up on that lead though, Lídia is poisoned. Her husband becomes the obvious suspect even though he is wealthy and powerful. So he insists that the Martínez brothers stay in his employ and find out who killed his wife. Although they’ve never investigated a murder before, the brothers agree. One key to this mystery is a painting that was done of Lídia by an artist who may in fact be her mysterious lover, if there was one. To track down the artist, the brothers travel to Paris. At first, the city doesn’t impress Eduard very much. It seems to have changed a lot since he was there many years earlier, and no longer has the appeal for him that it did. But Paris works magic on him as it does on a lot of people, and by the end of that short trip there, Eduard remembers what he loved so much about it. And in the end, the Martínez brothers find out who killed Lídia Font and why.

And that’s Paris for you. It’s got its share of crime, nasty history and secrets. But it’s got an irresistible appeal, delicious food and wine, and wonderful art and music. Little wonder so many stories and series are set there. I’ve only mentioned a very few. Your turn.

 

ps  Thanks to A Paris Guide for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.

37 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Georges Simenon, Sylvie Granotier, Teresa Solana

For You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings*

Inspirational TeachersIf you’ve ever had a teacher who really made a positive difference in your life, you know how important that can be. In today’s world, some students spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents, and a skilled teacher has a great deal of insight into the characters of her or his students. Sometimes those insights can be very useful, too. Let me just share a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Much of Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The school is rocked one summer by several events. First, there’s the shooting death of games mistress Grace Springer. Then there’s the kidnapping of one of the students. Then there’s another murder. Throughout all of this, the school’s headmistress Honoria Bulstrode puts the welfare of her staff and pupils above everything else as she works with the police and later, with Hercule Poirot, to find out what’s behind all of these occurrences. Part of the story is told from her perspective, and in that, we see just how devoted she is to each student. She knows her pupils, she understands their strengths and needs and she has earned their respect.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to lexicographer and amateur detective Gideon Fell. In this novel, recent university graduate Tad Rampole has been advised by his mentor to visit Fell and he makes plans to do so. On his way to Fell’s home in Chatterham, Rampole meets Dorothy Starberth and becomes smitten with her. When he finally meets Fell, he learns an interesting fact about the Starberth family. For two generations, members of the family were Governors at nearby Chatterham Prison, which has now fallen into disuse. Although the family is no longer associated with the prison, they’ve retained one custom from those years. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, each Starberth heir spends the night in the Governor’s Room at the abandoned prison. While there, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions on a note that’s there. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin. His twenty-fifth birthday ends in tragedy though, when he is killed by what seems like a fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. Rampole has been keeping vigil with Fell, and the two of them work with Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold to find out who killed the victim and why. Throughout this novel we see how Rampole’s mentor and Gideon Fell both take a personal interest in the young man. Admittedly that’s not the main plot of the story, but it’s a thread that runs through it.

In Margaret Millar’s Mermaid, twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jasper visits the law offices of Smedler, Downs, Castleberg, MacFee & Powell. As she tells junior attorney Tom Aragon, she’s there to learn about her rights. Very quickly Aragon notices that Cleo is not like other young women; in fact, she has a form of mental retardation. She’s fairly high-functioning though, and seems to be doing well. She attends Holbrook Hall, an exclusive day school for students with certain special needs. When Cleo disappears, her older brother Hilton asks Aragon to find her and persuade her to return home. Aragon is no private investigator, but he agrees to ask some questions. One of the places he visits is Holbrook Hall, where he meets Rachel Holbrook, head of the school. She has a ‘dragon lady’ reputation, but it’s clear that she knows her students well and cares about them. Through her, he learns that the teacher who knows Cleo best is Roger Lennard. At first Aragon makes the obvious inference about Lennard’s interest in Cleo, but when he finds out that Lennard’s gay, he knows he’s wrong about that. What he does learn though is that it’s been Lennard who has supported Cleo’s drive towards understanding her rights and being independent. That new way of thinking plays a major role in the rest of the events of the story.

One of the plot threads in Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns concerns the murder of a high school shop teacher Eric Dorsey. Dorsey does his best to inspire his students to create things that are useful as well as aesthetically appealing. He cares about his students and is quick to encourage them. When he is murdered, there isn’t much to go on at first, but Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee find that his death is related to a missing teenager, a murder at an important ceremonial event, and some underhanded business dealings.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. Academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn may get exasperated with her students at times, but she is dedicated to them. We see that commitment in this novel, where Reed Gallagher, one of Kilbourn’s colleagues in the Department of Journalism is murdered. One key to the murder might be in the person of Kellee Savage, a journalism student who is also in Bowen’s class. When Kellee stops coming to class, Kilbourn gets concerned and asks around among her other students. Bit by bit she learns that Kellee had been out with some of them on the evening she disappeared. Kilbourn starts tracing the young woman’s movements and discovers that they’re closely related to Gallagher’s murder. As Kilbourn works with the students, we can see that she cares about them, wants to support them, and has high expectations for them. Here’s what one says:

 

‘Kibourn’s all right. She’s kinda like my coach – tough but generally pretty fair.’

 

It’s especially meaningful because it’s not said within Kilbourn’s earshot.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet Ilse Klein, who is a secondary school teacher. One of her most promising students is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. Even though she’s not supposed to ‘pay favourites’ among her students, she can’t help but be delighted in Serena’s promise and her passion for learning. For her part, Serena likes Ilse also and respects her. Although she doesn’t quite put it in these terms, she gets the vital message that she has worthwhile ideas, and that she can be somebody as the saying goes. For Serena, this is the first time an adult has really taken an interest in her. Then everything changes. Serena stops caring about school, stops coming to class and stops participating when she is there. Ilse is very concerned, and at one pivotal point, reports her concerns to the school’s counselor. That decision plays a critical role in the rest of the story, and Ilse’s concern for Serena is key when Serena disappears.

There are a lot of other novels in which a dedicated and caring teacher has a real influence on a student – in a positive way. And if you’ve ever had a teacher like that, you know it happens in real life too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Silbar and Larry Henry’s Wind Beneath My Wings, made perhaps most famous by Bette Midler, although it’s been recorded by many other artists too.

30 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr, Margaret Millar, Paddy Richardson, Tony Hillerman