Don’t Go Around Tonight*

Scarey StoriesA really interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about really frightening stories. You know, the ones you can’t put down, but at the same time, scare the wits out of you. Of course, each of us is frightened by different things, so the stories that have scared you probably won’t be the stories that have scared me.

That said though, and because it’s Hallowe’en, here are a few stories that I found really chilling:
 

The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe

You’ll probably already know that this is the story of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeleine. Usher is suffering from several complications from anxiety disorders; Madeleine is also ill and seems to fall have catalyptic seizures. Usher writes to a friend – the narrator of the story – asking for his help. The narrator arrives and right away is sobered by the grim physical and psychical atmosphere of the home. But he settles in and tries to help his friend. Little by little, the house and grounds seem to take on an eerie life of their own, and although the narrator doesn’t quite want to believe Usher’s claim that the house is sentient, some strange things begin to happen. It all ends in tragedy, and to me, what’s creepiest about this story is how things we imagine can take on lives of their own. In this case, they turn out to be all too real, but even when they aren’t, the mind can conjure up some terrible things.
 

The Trial – Franz Kafka

This is the story of Josef K., an ordinary enough junior bank manager who is accused of a crime by two unidentified agents. They won’t detail the crime, nor will they tell him who employs them. K. isn’t imprisoned, but he is told to wait for further instructions from the Committee of Affairs. K. is summoned to a hearing, but every indication is that he will not really have a chance to make his case – that he has no idea what he might have done wrong, and that the court has made a mistake. Everything about the hearing seems engineered against him. He hires an Advocate who ends up doing no good, and as the story goes on, matters spin more and more out of control. As those who’ve read this story know, the more K. tries to make sense of it all and find out the truth, the more surreal things get, and the more obvious it is that there is only one fate for him. And that’s part of what’s very chilling about this story: that lack of control. There’s also a haunting question of what is and isn’t real, as well as the question of whether our fates are decided for us.
 

The Lottery – Shirley Jackson

This short story takes place in what seems like a normal small town. Everyone’s gathering for an annual lottery, a town tradition. The way the lottery works, each family chooses a member to draw from a black wooden box – the same box that has been used for the lottery since anyone can remember. The story follows the fortunes of one particular family that’s drawn this year’s ticket. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it. I can say this though: what’s chilling about the story is how normal everything seems.
 

Don’t Look Behind You – Fredric Brown

Brown involves the reader directly in this short story, and that adds considerably to its chill. It begins like this:
 

Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’
 

Then the narrator goes on to tell the story of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some dangerous people. The end in particular is very creepy – or was to me.
 

Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

This story starts off normally enough. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train ride to visit his estranged wife Miriam. That’s when he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s also on a journey. The two get to talking and begin to commiserate: Haines tells Bruno about his wife and Bruno tells Haines about his father, whom he hates. Then Bruno suggests that each one should commit the other’s murder. If Bruno kills Haines’ wife, and Haines kills Bruno’s father, there’s no motive to connect either murderer to either victim. Haines jokingly agrees, sure that Bruno isn’t serious. He is though, and as the story goes on, we see how Haines is drawn deeper and deeper into Bruno’s dysfunctional, mentally twisted world. And that’s what’s chilling about this story, at least to me. Oh, and I recommend Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 flim adaptation of the story. It’s a little different, but no less haunting…
 

A Judgement in Stone – Ruth Rendell

This novel has one of the most famous first sentences – and I think one of the most powerful – in the genre:
 

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
 

Right from there we know that the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family is doomed. The story tells how George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman to be their housekeeper. Tragically, they don’t find out much about her, but she seems to suit, and at first, all goes well. But the new housekeeper is hiding something that she is desperate not to reveal. As the story goes on, she gets more and more paranoid, and the Coverdale family gets closer and closer to danger, although they are eerily unaware of it. When one of the family members accidentally finds out the truth, this seals their fate. One of the truly frightening things about this story is how easily everything goes horribly wrong. The Coverdales aren’t stupid, but you could say they’re comfortably unaware of the danger that awaits them. They’re not too different really from a lot of everyday people, and that’s creepy too.

So there you have it – a few stories that I found really frightening. What about you? Do you dare to share?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Hey, folks, have a look at Moira’s list. And while you’re on the hunt for terrifying tales, you’ll also want to visit Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews every Tuesday for Tuesday Terror!! Lots of frightfully good suggestions! You may not want to be alone when you do, though….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.

4 Comments

Filed under Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Fredric Brown, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson

I Was Checking You Out*

Sizing People UpSleuths have to develop the skill of being be able to ‘read’ people fairly quickly. It helps the sleuth in figuring out whether to take a case, what sort of person a suspect or witness is, and so on. Of course, sleuths can be wrong about their first ‘sizing up’ too, and that’s interesting in and of itself. But wrong or right, sleuths do, over time, learn to get a sense of what a person is like just from that person’s clothes, comments, bearing and so on.

We see a lot of this in crime fiction and that makes sense. It’s only human nature for us to size people up. And for the author, it allows for ‘showing, not telling’ what a character is like. There’s not enough space in this one post to mention all of the examples out there; here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a master of summing people up just from what he sees of them. And in fact, sometimes he doesn’t even need to meet a person to get a great deal of information. For instance, in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissionaire Peterson brings an interesting mystery to Holmes and Dr. Watson. He discovered a battered hat and a goose lying where someone had dropped them after a skirmish with some hooligans. Then, when his wife cooked the goose, she discovered a valuable gem in its craw. The mystery makes little sense to Peterson, so he wants Holmes’ impressions. Here’s what Holmes says after one look at the hat:
 

”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.”
 

Holmes goes on to explain how he deduced each of these facts and later in the story, we find out just how right he was.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple is recovering from a bout of illness, and so has been under the too-watchful eye of hired housekeeper/nurse Miss Knight. One afternoon while Miss Knight is out doing the shopping, Miss Marple decides to take a walk. She ends up in the new council housing development where she accidentally falls and twists her ankle. She’s immediately rescued by Heather Badcock, who lives in the development with her husband Arthur. As she’s sitting in the Badcock home recovering from her fall, Miss Marple gets a chance to ‘size up’ her rescuer. And it’s not long before she’s reminded of someone else in the village with similar personality traits and a similar sort of story. And that worries Miss Marple because that person ended up dying. Sure enough, Heather Badcock dies too, of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry look into the murder and they find that the victim’s history has a lot to do with the murder. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs

Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes begins when New York City police officer Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk. He notices a small, expensive handbag lying on the ground with its contents spilled out. Just by those things he can tell that the owner is a person of a certain social class and has certain tastes. What he can’t work out yet is why those things should have been spilled in what looks like a deliberate way. Shortly afterwards, he sees a young woman getting ready to jump from a bridge. He gets to her just in time and persuades her to come away from the bridge. His first impression of her is that she is both well-off and attractive. So there seems no reason (at least on the surface) for her to attempt suicide. He takes her to an all-night diner where he finally gets her to tell her story. She is Jane Reid, and as Shawn had guessed, she comes from a wealthy background. Her life has been turned upside-down lately because she is terrified that her father, with whom she is close, is about to die. As Shawn listens to her story, he is more and more intrigued by it, and decides to do what he can to help prevent what seems to be an inevitable death.

In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, Sydney PI Cliff Hardy makes a none-too-flattering first summing-up of a client just from a telephone call. One day, wealthy and powerfull Bryn Gutteridge calls to basically summon Hardy to his home. Hardy isn’t impressed with Gutteridge’s manner, but a fee is a fee, so he keeps the appointment. Here’s his first reaction to meeting the man in person:
 

‘Mr. Gutteridge didn’t look like he’d be nice to work for, but I felt sure I could reach an understanding with his money.’
 

And Hardy’s first summing-up is fairly accurate. Gutteridge isn’t pleasant or particularly polite. He’s self-involved, self-entitled and obviously spoiled. But he does have a problem that he’s willing to pay to solve. His twin sister Susan is being harassed and getting threats, and he wants it to stop. Hardy takes the case and begins to ask questions, starting with Gutteridge himself. As he gets deeper into the investigation, Hardy learns that there are several people who might want to threaten Susan and target the Gutteridge family.

Sometimes, sleuths can get a somewhat accurate sense of someone, and still be wrong. That’s what happens in Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood. Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett is head of the Cold Case Review Team; as such, she often hears of old cases, and has to decide which ones to re-open. That’s why Orla Payne calls her one day. Twenty years earlier, Orla’s brother Callum disappeared. No trace of him has been found – not even a body. And Orla wants answers and justice for her brother. Unfortunately, Orla is mentally fragile to begin with, and is drunk when she calls in, so Hannah isn’t inclined to take the case seriously at first. Still, once she hangs up the ‘phone, she begins to feel guilty for her attitude and takes a second look at the case. Then, Orla dies, apparently by suicide. Now it’s clear that something more is going on here than a drunken call about a runaway brother.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh is persuaded to travel from where she lives in Delhi to her home town in Punjab when she gets a call from an old university friend. Now Inspector General for the State of Punjab, her friend wants her to work with the police on a horrible case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested in connection with the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members. Some were also stabbed. What’s more, someone set fire to the Atwal house. Durga may or may not have been involved in what happened, but the police can’t get any information from her, since she has not spoken of the tragedy since the night it occurred. It’s hoped that if Simran talks to her, she’ll be able to get the girl to open up and talk about the killings. Simran’s reluctant; at the same time though, she doesn’t want to see Durga ‘railroaded’ if she is innocent of any complicity in the killings. So she agrees to see what she can do. When she finally gets the chance to meet the girl, here’s her initial summing-up:
 

‘Durga is not pretty, but she has a healthy, pink complexion like most Punjabi girls from semi-rural India, who have been brought up on fresh milk and homegrown food. Yet, she hunches as she sits down, anxious not to be noticed. Or at least, not have any attention drawn to her. Her clothes are loose, and even though she is tall and well built, she gives an impression of frailty, further enhanced by her meek demeanour.’
 

Simran is also immediately struck by how young and vulnerable Durga is. At first, Durga doesn’t trust her at all (why should she?), but Simran knows that her best chance of finding out what really happened to the Atwal family is to get Durga to tell her.

Sleuths aren’t always correct about their first ‘sizing up’ of people they speak to, any more than any of us is. But over time, they have to learn that skill, as it often proves to be very useful…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone Any More.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornell Woolrich, Kishwar Desai, Martin Edwards, Peter Corris

I Never Claimed to be a Hero, And I Never Said I Was a Saint*

Non-Sleuth ProtagonistsMany crime novels are told from the point of view of the sleuth. The sleuth may or may not be a professional (i.e. police or PI), but in either case, we see the story unfolding from that vantage point.

But there are also plenty of crime stories where the protagonist, or at least the narrator, isn’t a sleuth at all. I’m not talking here of those stories where you find out what a serial killer is thinking as the novel goes on, or where the story alternates between the sleuth’s perspective and the murderer’s. Rather, I mean stories where the protagonist or narrator is a different person entirely – sometimes even a criminal.

For instance, John D. MacDonald’s short story Homicidal Hiccup takes place in the small town of Baker City, where Johnny Howard and his gang run everything. Then, Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. He wants to run a clean business without having to pay protection or sell drugs to his teen customers. After a time, several other local business owners join forces with Maybree and help to guard his store. Now Howard faces a big problem. If he allows Maybree to get away with this defiance, he’ll lose respect. And that will likely mean he’ll lose his stranglehold on the crime business in the area. So he desperately wants to get rid of Maybree. He and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan to do just that. She’ll go into the store posing as a high school student. Then, at just the right moment, she’ll use a drink straw to shoot poison at Maybree. But, as the narrator tells us, things don’t work out the way they plan. In this case, the narrator, ‘though never named, is apparently part of the crime network – someone who’s in on the rivalry and politics of the criminal underground.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank gives readers an inside look at the plans for a major bank heist. Mike Daniels is a professional thief who, with his teammates, decides to pull off the robbery of a lifetime from London’s City Savings Deposit bank. The bank is well constructed and well guarded, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, the team will need expert help. This they get from Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect who’s become desperate for a source of income. Booker is driving a night cab when he meets Daniels for the first time, and before too long, Daniels convinces him to join forces with the thieves. The group puts together a foolproof plan, and at first everything goes smoothly. Then a sudden storm comes up unexpectedly and changes everything for the robbers. This novel is told in the third person, but not from the point of view of the police or of bank officials. Rather, it’s told from the viewpoints of Daniels and Booker. This choice allows the reader to see the intricacies of planning such a robbery. It also gives the reader a fuller and even somewhat sympathetic picture of a professional thief’s life.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to retired school principal Thea Farmer. Her original plan was to have a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, but poor financial decisions have meant that she’s had to give up that perfect home. She’s been forced to settle for the house next door, a house she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, she soon learns that her dream home has been bought and that new people will be moving in. They are Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and right from the beginning, Thea doesn’t like them. In fact, she calls them ‘the invaders.’ When Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with the couple, Thea is prepared to dislike her heartily as well, but slowly she finds herself developing a kind of bond with the girl. That’s especially true when she discovers that Kim is a very promising young writer. Then Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Since no actual harm has come to the child, the police aren’t inclined to do anything about it, so Thea works out her own plan for dealing wth the situation. Thea isn’t a professional sleuth; she’s really not a sleuth at all. But we see the events of the story through her eyes, and that gives an interesting perspective on Frank, Ellice and Kim, as well as a fascinating look at how Thea sees herself.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Underworld trilogy (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence) features a different kind of protagonist also. Callum MacLean is a hitman who works for Glasgow crime bosses. He looks at his profession the way most people look at theirs. It’s what he does for a living and he takes pride in doing it well. In fact, although he walks a very thin line at times, given the volatile nature of the underworld, he manages to stay alive and even succeed. His reputation is a good one. The stories are told partly from his point of view, and partly from the points of view of others involved in the underworld. While Mackay doesn’t gloss over what MacLean does, nor what the Glasgow underworld is like, he still shows these people as humans.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. This novel tells the story of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. At first the police suspect that someone in her family may have killed her, as is so often the case. But then, not very long afterwards, another young girl Kelly McIvor is also found dead. Like Angela’s body, Kelly’s is found with a scarf around her neck and head. Now it looks as though a multiple murderer (the press dubs the killer the Sydney Strangler) is at work. Neither murder is solved, and since there are no similar murders after them, the press and therefore the public gradually lose interest. And that’s just fine by Jane Tait, Angela’s cousin. She and her brother Mick and their parents have had to live with the aftermath of Angela’s death, and for her, it’s just as well people don’t really ask her about it any more. That is, until journalist Erin Fury decides to make a documentary about the effect of murders on the family left behind. Reluctantly, and mostly because her daughter Jess wants her to, Jane decides to talk to Erin. Through her eyes, as well as those of some other family members, we learn the truth about what really happened to Angela and to Kelly. None of these people is an official investigator, and it’s hard to say that any of them is a protagonist for whom we’re supposed to cheer. That choice allows James to slowly reveal what happened and what went on behind the news stories and police reports of the day.

And that’s what makes such protagonists/narrators interesting. They can show readers what a case is like from a very different perspective. And it’s an innovative approach to telling a crime story. Which stories like this have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Temptation.

18 Comments

Filed under John D. MacDonald, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan, Wendy James

It All Keeps Adding Up, I Think I’m Cracking Up*

BuildupofPressureI’m sure you’ve heard of the old expression, ‘It’s always the quiet ones…’ As any crime fiction fan can tell you, there are all kinds of murderers, both loud and quiet. But even though it’s really not true, not even in fiction, there is this lingering idea of the murderer as the ‘the quiet type.’

Perhaps one reason might be that very often, those who are relatively quiet and unassuming tend to be taken for granted. Sometimes, this can mean that the pressures of life that can get to any of us build up without anyone taking notice. And then the proverbial kettle boils over.

Crime writers sometimes use this strategy – of the pressure building up and up – to add suspense to a novel or to shed light on why a character might commit murder. It’s got to be done thoughtfully of course; otherwise there’s the risk of characters who don’t act credibly. But when it is done with care, that quiet character who is more and more pressured can add a lot to a novel. Here are just a few examples.

Agatha Christie used that sort of character in several of her stories. It’s difficult to choose one without giving away spoilers, but here goes. In Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. The family is headed by tyrannical matriarch Mrs. Boynton, who has made a life of keeping every other member cowed. One afternoon, during a family visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. But even though the explanation makes sense (Mrs. Boynton was getting on in years and not in good health), Colonel Carbury isn’t completely convinced it’s a natural death. Hercule Poirot is also in the area, so he agrees to look into the matter. As he interviews the various family members and fellow sightseers, we see just how much pressure Mrs. Boynton put on everyone. Christie gives us a sense of the buildup of pressure too, right from the beginning of the novel. In fact, the first sentence is:
 

‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’
 

It turns out to have been spoken by one of the suspects, and shows how desperate all of them had become.

In Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery are summoned – that’s really the best word for it – to Bendigo Island, a private island owned by munitions magnate Kane ‘King’ Bendigo. It turns out that there have been threats on Bendigo’s life and, although he himself doesn’t take them seriously, others do. And Bendigo’s safety matters greatly, since his business is seen as pivotal to the world’s balance of power. The Queens are asked to find out who has threatened Bendigo’s life and stop that person. The island is a heavily-guarded private place, so there aren’t many suspects. The most likely are Bendigo’s two brothers Abel and Judah, and his wife Karla, so Ellery Queen begins there. Right away we sense the dysfunction in the relationships among those living on the island, and we also see how ‘King’ Bendigo earned his nickname. While he’s not sadistic or cruel, he is very much in charge, and doesn’t tolerate the least resistance to his wishes. It seems that Bendigo is well-enough protected, but one night, he’s in his hermetically-sealed study with Karla when he is shot. Badly wounded, he’s given immediate treatment. It’s now clear that someone really does intend to kill him. But the Queens’ first question is: how did the would-be killer manage it? The study was sealed shut; there was no gun anywhere in it; and it can be proven that neither Karla nor her husband fired a gun. Judah Bendigo is a likely suspect, since he bitterly resented his brother. What’s more, both of his brothers are contemptuous of him and exclude him from all business decisions. The only problem is that Judah was with Queen at the time of the shooting. He has an iron-clad alibi, as the saying goes. So Queen is faced with an ‘impossible-but-not-really’ mystery as he tries to figure out who shot King Bendigo. The trail leads him to the Bendigo brothers’ home town of Wrightsville, where he finds out some surprising truths about the family. The more he learns, the more we see how pressure building up can have grave consequences.

We also see that in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin have been named as a special investigative team with a focus on crimes of special interest – crimes that are likely to generate a lot of media attention. Such a crime is the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church one morning. Along with his body is the body of a tramp Harry Mack. Part of the job of investigating the murder is, of course, looking into the lives of Berowne’s family members and others living in the house. One of them is Evelyn Matlock. The Berowne family took her in after her father was convicted of murder; since then she’s become the family housekeeper as well personal assistant to family matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne. The family isn’t abusive to her, but at the same time, she’s never been treated as an equal. As the novel goes on, we see how the stress of her situation has impacted her. In fact, when the investigating team finds out who killed Paul Berowne and Harry Mack, here’s what Evelyn has to say:
 

‘This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.’
 

Part of the way James builds suspense in this story is by hinting at this pressure early on and showing readers how it’s slowly built up over time.

Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery is the story of the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and some of his friends have gone in together on the purchase of a lottery ticket. Much to their joy, the ticket is a winner, so the group of them go out to celebrate. Later that night Leverkuhn is stabbed to death in his own bed. Intendant Münster of the Mardaam police leads the investigation into this murder, and he and his team naturally begin with the victim’s family and friends. Also considered are of course the other residents of the building where the Leverkuhns live. There are several motives, too. For one thing, Leverkuhn’s death means that his fellow lottery winners each get more money. And then there’s the family itself. While there’ve been no ‘official’ reports of problems, there are always secrets in a family. There are also the other people who live in the building, who may have had their own reasons for wanting Leverkuhn dead. Bit by bit, the investigating team follows up leads and slowly discovers the truth. It turns out that the slow building up of pressure has played an important role in this story.

It does in Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street too. Artemus Ackerman, mayor of the small city of Calendar, wants the town to have a museum of magic. The idea is that it’ll bring in tourists and therefore, more revenue. The plan is to convert the old Baldwin Theater for the purpose, and Ackerman has hopes that he can get the funding he needs for the project. Then, there’s a fire on the same street as the site of the proposed museum. No-one’s killed, but the property destruction worries everyone. Matters get worse when there’s another fire. And another. Now it’s clear that an arsonist is at work. Ackerman’s assistant and publicist Maggie Wakeling works with Fire Marshal George Copeland to find and stop the arsonist before there’s any more damage or any loss of life. When they find out who that person is, we discover that the slow buildup of stress has had a lot to do with the events in the story.

It isn’t always ‘the quiet ones’ who commit crime. But the slow buildup of stress and trouble can have all sorts of terrible consequences. These are a few examples. Your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Green Day’s Basket Case.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Håkan Nesser, P.D. James, Shelly Reuben

In The Spotlight: Alison Joseph’s The Dying Light

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When many people think of nuns, they think of convents or cloisters, the wearing of habits, or perhaps religious school teachers they may have had. But the fact is, today’s nuns don’t all have that kind of life. To get a sense of what life is like for a lot of modern nuns, let’s turn the spotlight today on Alison Joseph’s The Dying Light, the fifth in her Sister Agnes Bourdillon series.

Sister Agnes has been seconded to Silworth, a London women’s prison, to serve in its Roman Catholic chaplaincy. She’s gotten to know some of the inmates and tries to work with them as best she can. Then one inmate Cally Fisher gets the news that her father Cliff has been shot. The police suspect Cally’s boyfriend Mal is responsible, and it doesn’t help his case that he’s been in trouble with the police several times. What’s more, Cliff didn’t like Mal and tried to keep him away from Cally. Still, Cally claims her boyfriend is innocent. As she can’t do much to clear his name, she asks Sister Agnes to help.

Agnes isn’t an experienced police officer, but she does take her spiritual duties, not to mention her ethical duty to Cally, very seriously. She knows that it took a great effort for Cally to trust enough to ask for help, and she doesn’t want to rupture that bond. Besides, if Mal isn’t guilty, he shouldn’t go to prison. So she begins to ask some questions. The first task is of course getting the people involved in the case to trust her enough to talk to her. And that’s not easy, as Cally’s friends, fellow inmates and family members aren’t particularly forthcoming. But little by little, Agnes learns more about Cliff.

And what she learns leads her to believe that there are several people who might have shot him. As she looks at Cliff’s personal relationships and business dealings, she sees that this is more than a case of ‘angry boyfriend shoots girlfriend’s father.’ Then there’s another murder. Now there’s a distinct possibility that the two killings are related. So Agnes will need to work quickly to find out who the killer is. And in the end, she discovers that the killings have everything to do with past relationships and family history.

Family history is also at the forefront in the other plot thread of this novel. Agnes gets word that her mother, who lives in France, is ill, perhaps fatally so. The two have a badly damaged relationship, so Agnes has mixed feelings about the news. Still, she feels obliged to go to France and gets leave from her order to do so. In the course of her short visits there, Agnes learns some surprising truths about herself, her mother and her family background.

Many of the scenes in the novel take place in the prison, so readers get a sense of what a modern UK woman’s prison is like. There’s the daily routine of prison life, the conflicts (some of them serious) among the inmates, the bureaucracy of visits, the parole process and so on. As we get to know some of the inmates, we also see some of the circumstances of life that have brought them there. Each one has a different history, and through their stories, readers get a sense of what prisoners are like as individuals. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that some of the inmates’ stories are connected to the mystery, so their backstories add to the overall novel.

We also get a look at the lives of the people who work with them. For instance, one of the people Agnes works with is Ian Marsden, a parole officer who’s worked with several of the inmates. He feels deeply the frustration of not being able to help all of the people on his roster, and chafes at the limits to what he can do. There’s also Eleanor, the prison governor. She does her best to help the women in her charge, but she also has a prison to run.

And then there’s Agnes herself. Far from a conventional Roman Catholic nun, she has her own ideas about spirituality, prayer, and religion. She doesn’t behave in ways most people associate with nuns, either. She goes out with her friend Athena, she smokes once in a while, she enjoys a drink, and she wears street clothes. In fact at one point, Ian asks her,

 

‘Are there many nuns like you?’
‘I hope not. One of me’s enough for any order.’

 

Agnes spent her childhood in France, and as fans of this series will know, left a violent and abusive husband with the help of her friend Father Julius, who makes several appearances in this novel as well. It was after that that she decided to enter the convent. She is spiritual in her own way, but at the same time, she’s both practical and pragmatic. And those traits turn out to be very useful in the prison setting, where the inmates are not much interested in traditional views of religion.

For all that though, Agnes does respect the requirements of her order. She attends chapel services, she goes where her order sends her, and she (usually) does what her Mother Superior expects. Although she doesn’t always adhere to the ‘letter of the law,’ you can’t really call her a rebel or a maverick.

Agnes struggles with her relationship with her mother. Although she feels a sense of duty, she also knows how difficult her mother is (and she is!). There’s a long history of pain between the two, and Agnes has suffered from it. But she isn’t obsessed with it, or with her former husband, and readers who are tired of demon-haunted protagonists will appreciate the fact that Agnes goes on with her life.

A good deal of the novel takes place at the prison. But there are several scenes that take place in other parts of London, so readers get a sense of that city as well:

 

‘She [Agnes] walked fast, crossing Bermondsey Street, past the excavation site at London Bridge, then skirting Southwark Cathedral to the embankment.’

 

Agnes sees parts of London that the tourists never get to see, and couldn’t really imagine living anywhere else.

The Dying Light is the story of the way family pasts can catch up, and what happens when they do. It features an ‘inside look’ at a woman’s prison and the lives of those who live and work there. It also features an unusual sort of nun who lives out her religious calling as best she can in a very imperfect world. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dying Light? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 3 November/Tuesday 4 November – The Suspect – Michael Robotham

Monday 10 November/Tuesday 11 November – A Duty to the Dead – Charles Todd

Monday 17 November/Tuesday 18 November – The House Without a Key – Earl Der Biggers

27 Comments

Filed under Alison Joseph, The Dying Light