Category Archives: Agatha Christie

The Cover Sometimes Makes the Book*

Book Back CoversI think we’d all agree that the quality of a novel has little to do with its cover. Speaking for myself, I’ve read plenty of unforgettable novels that didn’t have remarkable covers, and my share of completely forgettable novels with gorgeous covers. And yet, people spend a great deal of time and effort designing covers. There are cover reveals when books are released, and quite a lot of animated discussion about what should be on those covers when books are being planned.

There are probably several reasons for this. One is that, especially in today’s crowded market, it’s important to get people’s attention quickly. And that often means a great cover. A cover also can serve as a kind of shorthand to tell people about the novel. For instance, have a look at this cover of Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry.

 

Fatal Enquiry

It tells you right away that the story takes place in London. The man’s clothes also tell you that the novel takes place in the past.

This is the cover of Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track.

 

Last Track

Just one look at it tells you that the story takes place in a rural area. And the way the man on the cover is dressed tells you right away that the story takes place in modern times. As it turns out, both things are true.

But covers do more than just give a ‘snapshot’ of what’s inside. They also ‘brand’ a novel. Here, for instance is my edition of Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Yes, I know, it’s been much loved. I had it as a gift when I was a teenager, and no, I’m not saying how long ago that was).

 

Mrs McGinty

If you notice, there’s a figure of Hercule Poirot on the cover. Christie’s novels have of course come out in dozens of different editions. Each one has some way of ‘branding’ it as a Christie novel.

You can see that sort of ‘branding’ with this cover of Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious.

 

Delicious and Suspicious

If you look at the top, it’s ‘branded’ as part of her Memphis Barbecue series. And that can be very effective in getting readers interested. Fans know to look for that little ‘brand mark’ when they’re looking for a Riley Adams novel, even if they can’t recall the title they want.

A cover can also give readers a sense of the sort of crime fiction novel they’re considering. For instance, here’s the cover of Lindy Cameron’s Redback.

 

Redback

The cover tells you right away that this is probably not a light, cosy read. And it’s not. The cover also has a ‘thrillerish’ sort of feel to it, and that’s exactly what this novel is. It involves terrorism, international intrigue, and a crack Australian rescue team that goes up against them. A-hem, Ms. Cameron – still waiting for the next Team Redback novel…..

Now have a look at the cover of James W. Fuerst’s Huge.

 

Huge

It’s bright red, so it’s attention-getting. But it doesn’t suggest a lot of violence or a fast ‘thriller’ pace. And actually, this novel has neither.

Some people pay particularly close attention to covers. For instance, collectors of books with certain kinds of covers, or from certain eras, look for the sort of cover they want. Others only pay attention to a cover if it’s particularly off-putting. Either way, covers are a really interesting aspect of the crime fiction novel, even if they don’t always tell you whether a novel is of high quality.

And…speaking of covers, here’s the cover of Patti Abbott’s forthcoming release, Concrete Angel.

 

CONCRETE ANGEL

You can tell just by looking that it’s got a theme of someone who’s trapped in a tragic situation. And that’s exactly what the novel is about. It’s coming out in mid-2015, and I’m looking forward to it!

What you do think of this whole issue of covers? Do you pay attention to them? Do you collect books from a certain era because of the cover? Do you look for a certain cover artist’s work? If you’re a writer, what are your thoughts on covers for your books?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Miss America.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, James W. Fuerst, Patti Abbott, Riley Adams, Sam Hilliard, Will Thomas

And You Know it Don’t Come Easy*

Investigating FriendsOne of the difficult things about being a detective is having to investigate people you know and perhaps like very much. In larger police forces in larger places, it’s easy enough to simply pull oneself or be pulled from a case (although that certainly doesn’t always happen). But in smaller communities, it’s sometimes unavoidable. It’s very hard on the suspect or witness, and it’s no easier for the detective. That tension and awkwardness can add a layer of suspense to a story, though, and it does happen. So it’s little wonder we see this plot point in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple faces this situation at times. In novels such as The Body in the Library and The Murder at the Vicarage, it’s clear that someone who lives in or near Miss Marple’s village of St. Mary Mead is a killer. In that sort of community, at least at the time these novels were written, everyone knows everyone and that includes Miss Marple. On the surface, Miss Marple is a harmless elderly spinster whom some people dismiss easily. But under that surface she’s really not that sentimental when it comes to finding out who committed a crime. But that doesn’t mean she enjoys suspecting someone who’s lived in the village for a long time. She’s sometimes in a very awkward position when it turns out that someone she’s known has committed murder.

Vicki Delany’s Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith faces the same sort of awkwardness. She grew up in Trafalgar, British Columbia, and now serves the community as a police constable. Many of the people she interacts with watched her grow up, or went to school with her, or in some other way have known her for a long time. And that can make things difficult when she’s on a murder case. For instance, in In the Shadow of the Glacier, Smith discovers the body of developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley. It’s soon established that he was murdered, and Smith works with Sergeant John Winters to find out who the killer is. For Smith, part of the process involves interviewing suspects and witnesses that she’s known for a long time. And there are several possibilities; Montgomery was a partner in a new resort/spa that’s planned for the area. Many of the local people don’t want the resort, as they’re concerned about its effect on the environment and on the local culture. And like everyone else, Montgomery had a personal life that also needs to be explored. That aspect of the case is awkward for Smith, especially since she’s new on the job. Despite that though, Smith and Winters find out the truth about Montgomery’s murder.

In Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake, we meet fishing lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake, where they’re raising their two children. Bart gets involved in a murder investigation when his friend Nick Taylor is accused of murder. Taylor was recently fired from his job as Head Greenskeeper at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. When he learned of his separation, Taylor had a loud and public argument with Harvey Kristoff, who’s on the course’s Board of Directors. He believes Kristoff is behind a move to ‘railroad’ him and blames him for what’s happened. So Taylor is the most logical suspect when Kristoff is found murdered on the golf course. But Taylor claims that he’s innocent. Bart was one of the last people to speak to Taylor before the crime, so his insights are important, and Taylor’s lawyer wants his help in clearing his client’s name. Bart agrees to help, but there is evidence against his friend and that makes him uncomfortable. And matters don’t improve even after he learns things that cast real doubt on Taylor’s possible guilt. If Nick Taylor is innocent, it means someone else – quite probably someone Bart has lunch with or does business with – is guilty. That tension adds a real layer of interest to this novel as Bart goes about finding out who killed Harvey Kristoff.

Several entries in Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series take place in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Bruno has lived there for some time, and in a town like St. Denis, everyone knows everyone anyway. He’s established solid ties with the local residents and in turn, they more or less trust him. On the one hand, that makes for strong community relations, which does make it easier to do police work. On the other, it means that sometimes Bruno has to deal with the awkwardness of interviewing witnesses and suspects he knows well and likes. We see a situation like this in Black Diamond, which begins with the closing of a local sawmill that has been in business for a long time. New pollution regulations from the EU, plus a vocal and active group of environmentalists, have meant that the factory is having to close. Bruno isn’t looking forward to the event, because it will mean job losses for the area. It’ll also mean very hard feelings since he has to protect the factory’s owner, whom he knows and with whom he has some sympathy. It doesn’t help matters that the factory owner’s chief critic is his own estranged son. As Bruno fears, the closure doesn’t end well, and it means trouble for St. Denis. So does the discovery that illegal smuggling may be undercutting the valuable local truffle trade. When one of Bruno’s good friends is murdered, it seems this death may be connected with that smuggling, since he was tracking it. But as you can imagine, it’s not that simple…

And then there’s Julia Keller’s Bitter River, which takes place mostly in the small West Virginia town of Acker’s Gap. When the body of sixteen-year-old Lucinda Trimble is pulled from Bitter River, it looks on the surface as though she drowned as the result of her car plunging into the river. But soon enough it’s proven that she was dead of strangulation before the car went in. Now it’s a murder investigation and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong has to interview people he’s known for years – people he doesn’t want to believe are guilty. For example one of the people Fogelsong has to talk to is Lucinda’s mother Maddie, with whom Fogelsong had a relationship many years earlier. Prosecuting attorney Belfa ‘Bell’ Elkins works with Fogelsong to find out who killed Lucinda and why. Elkins is from Acker’s Gap, so she too faces the uncomfortable prospect of interviewing people she’s known all her life.

And that’s the thing about working among people one knows. On the one hand, there’s a lot to be said for strong community relations. They’re important. On the other hand, that means that sometimes, the detective ends up having to investigate acquaintances and friends, even very good friends. And that can be terribly difficult. I’ve mentioned a few examples. Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ringo Starr’s It Don’t Come Easy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Julia Keller, Martin Walker, Nelson Brunanski, Vicki Delany

Of Course Mama’ll Help to Build the Wall*

Helicopter ParentsMost parents have hopes and dreams for their children. If you’re a parent, then you know the feeling of wanting your children to have everything life has to offer. It’s a fairly natural desire if you think about it. What’s more, for many parents, their children are a reflection on them. If one’s child has a problem, does something wrong, etc., it says something about the parents. Whether that’s true or not, there are a lot of parents who see it that way.

If you put those two feelings together, it’s easy to see why there are parents who protect their children too much from the consequences of their actions. In the world of (at least US) education, these are called ‘helicopter parents’ – parents who swoop in to rescue their children even when it’s not appropriate to do so. They’re certainly out there in real life, and although their desire to protect their children is perfectly natural, that sort of rescuing can have very negative consequences. It happens in the real world, and it happens in crime fiction too. Here are a few examples; I know you can think of many, many more.

In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen to Dinner), we meet American actress Jane Wilkinson. She’s currently married to George Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware, but she wants to get rid of him. Her reason is quite simple: she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton and wants to marry him. So she asks Hercule Poirot to intervene on her behalf and ask that Lord Edgware withdraw his objection to a divorce. Surprisingly, Edgware agrees and Jane is now free to marry the Duke. Shortly after that, Edgware is murdered one night, and the police are convinced that Jane is responsible. The only problem is that she has an alibi vouched for by a dozen other people. She tells the police that she was at a dinner in another part of London at the time of the murder. So Chief Inspector Japp and Poirot have to look elsewhere for the killer. At one point, Poirot gets a surprising visit from the Dowager Duchess of Merton, the Duke’s mother. She dislikes Jane Wilkinson intensely and feels that she’s a bad influence on Merton. So she wants Poirot to stop the wedding that will likely take place now that Edgware is dead. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Poirot doesn’t agree to interfere. And it’s an interesting example of a ‘helicopter parent…’

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker is concerned for the safety of his family. He’s not pleased with the kinds of people his two children Angie and Paul may be associating with, and he wants to protect them. So he moves his family to a new home in a suburban housing development called Valley Forest Estates. One day, Walker goes to the main sales office to complain about the workmanship in his house and ask for repairs. While he’s there he witnesses an argument between a sales executive and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker discovers Spender’s body near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker and his family are drawn into a far more dangerous situation than any they faced in the city. In this case, his attempt to rescue his children backfires badly.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit tells the story of Gates and Mason Hunt. They grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father, but they’ve somehow managed to survive. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s had and is now preparing to be an attorney. Gates, though, has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from the young men’s mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Later that night, on the way back from a ‘night on the town,’ the Hunt brothers have another encounter with Thompson and the argument starts anew. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother hide the evidence and life goes on for the two brothers. Throughout these years, Sadie Grace does her best to ‘rescue’ Gates. She gives him money and in other ways tries to protect him from the consequences of what he does. But then, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a stiff jail sentence and begs his brother, who’s now a commonwealth prosecutor, to get him out of jail. At first Sadie Grace supports Gates and asks Mason to help him. But this time, Mason refuses. Then Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When it becomes clear that he intends to do just that, Sadie Grace stops rescuing him. This time, she renounces him. And now, Mason has to do everything he can to clear his name.

In one story arc early in Gail Bowen’s series, her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, has to accept the fact that her daughter Mieka isn’t going to finish at university. Mieka has dropped out to begin her own catering business. On the one hand, Kilbourn loves her daughter and wants to see her succeed. On the other, she’s well aware that the business world is not always kind to small start-up businesses, and Mieka won’t have a university degree to help her. So Kilbourn has a strong desire to rescue her daughter from what she sees as a bad situation. Mieka of course doesn’t see it that way, and she and her mother have some difficult conversations about what she’s doing. As a result of an uneasy truce, Mieka goes ahead with her business, and it turns out to be much more successful than her mother thought it would be.

Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer has to deal with ‘helicopter parents’ in more than one of his investigations. In Black Seconds for instance, he faces a terrible case. Nine-year-old Ida Joner decides to ride her bicycle to a local kiosk to buy some candy. When she doesn’t return, her mother Helga becomes anxious and starts the frightening process of trying to find out where her daughter is. Her search turns out to be fruitless and she becomes more and more panicked as the hours go by. Eventually Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called in and begin a professional search. As we learn what really happened to Ida, we see the role that wanting to rescue one’s child plays in the events. I can’t say much more without spoiling the story; suffice it to say that Sejer has to get past that reality to find the truth.

There’s another example of ‘helicopter parenting’ in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a visit one day from successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. He’s been accused of the rape and murder of a family servant Mary Murmu. Mary went missing a few months ago, and it’s assumed that she’s dead. Kasliwal claims that he isn’t responsible for her disappearance, and that the police are simply trying to make an example of him to show that they’re not beholden to wealth and power. He wants Puri to find out what happened to Mary and clear his name. Puri doesn’t make the mistake of assuming his new client is telling the truth, but he takes the case. When he discovers the truth about Mary’s disappearance, we learn the role that that urge to rescue has played in the case. We see it in two other cases Puri handles in this novel as well. Those cases are requests for background checks on potential spouses – the sort of case that’s the ‘bread and butter’ of Puri’s agecy. In both of those situations, anxious parents want to rescue their children from the marriage partners they’ve chosen.

And then there’s C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Travel development specialist Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the devoted adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. One day their world is turned upside down when they discover that the baby’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. As you can imagine, the McGuanes refuse point-blank. Then Garrett’s father, powerful judge John Moreland comes to his son’s rescue, if you want to call it that. He and Garrett pay a visit to the McGuanes. During that conversation, he makes it clear that if the McGuanes relinquish their rights, he’ll see that they have both financial and legal support for another adoption – a quick and easy one. He makes it just as clear that if they don’t agree, there will be serious consequences. When they call his bluff, Moreland issues a court order giving them twenty-one days in which to surrender Angelina to the court. Both McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to fight this order. And ‘whatever it takes’ turns out to be much more than either imagined. This story shows a chilling side of being a ‘helicopter parent.’

It’s perfectly natural to want to rescue one’s child and keep him or her safe from trouble. But sometimes, facing the consequences of their actions isn’t a bad lesson for young people to learn…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Mother.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Linwood Barclay, Martin Clark, Tarquin Hall

And You’ve Gone Too Far ‘Cause You Know it Don’t Matter Anyway*

Self-EntitlementThere’s a certain phenomenon that seems to go along with having influence and power, or at least with having wealth. It’s what I call the culture of entitlement. Of course, there are plenty of self-entitled people who aren’t extremely wealthy or powerful. Teachers and university-level educators have rafts of stories about students and their parents who want ‘an exception made in my (or my child’s) case.’ And I’m quite certain that police officers in just about very country can give you long lists of examples of people they stopped who didn’t see why they should have to drive safely. But it often seems that the culture of entitlement is especially associated with those who have money, power or both. We can all think of lots of examples from real life. And perhaps that’s a bit of why people are often especially glad when the rich and powerful are held accountable for what they do (e.g. ‘See? You have to live by the rules just like the rest of us do!’). There are plenty of cases of the culture of entitlement in crime fiction too. Here are a very few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Madame Giselle is en route from Paris to London when she suddenly dies. At first it looks as though she had heart failure resulting from an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. But it’s soon shown that she was poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on that flight, so Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp concentrate on those people. As it turns out, several of them could have had a very good motive for the murder. One of the suspects is Cecily Horbury, a former chorus dancer who married Lord Stephen Horbury and is therefore now a member of the ‘upper class.’ When she and the rest of the passengers are informed that they’ll have to wait at the airport after landing so that they can be interviewed, she takes a very self-entitled attitude. She’s incensed at being expected to wait like everyone else, and even asks the all too common question,
 

‘Don’t you know who I am?’
 

Lady Horbury’s self-entitlement isn’t the reason for the murder, but it reflects that view clearly. Christie addresses this in other stories too (I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs, Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express).

We also see the culture of entitlement in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. Crown Minister Sir Paul Berowne and a local tramp Harry Mack are murdered one night in a church. Given his position, Berowne’s murder is likely to attract a lot of media attention, so a special team is dispatched to investigate the case. The team consists of Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin. One of the first places they look for motive and suspects is of course within the Berowne family. There’s plenty of history and several secrets to be found there too. But the team doesn’t unearth them very easily. This is a wealthy and powerful family, and several members of it see no reason why they should have to co-operate with a police investigation the way everyone else does. That entitlement is also reflected in the high-handed way they treat the investigation team. The family attitude doesn’t stop the team finding out the truth, though…

In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, insurance investigator-turned-PI Cliff Hardy takes a case for wealthy and powerful Bryn Gutteridge. He and his twin sister Susan are the children of a wealthy business tycoon, so they’ve been insulated more or less from having to wait their turns like everyone else, so to speak. And that self-entitlement comes through from the very beginning, when Gutteridge first calls Hardy. Instead of asking Hardy to meet to discuss the case, Gutteridge summons him. Needless to say, that’s not exactly to Hardy’s taste, but a fee is a fee. So Hardy goes to the Gutteridge home to learn more about the case. Gutteridge tells him that his sister is being harassed and threatened, and he wants it stopped. Hardy doesn’t care much for his client, but he goes to work. Throughout this novel, we see how the culture of self-entitlement has impacted Bryn and Susan Gutteridge. Their family may have some dark secrets in the past, but they’ve never been held to the same standards as ‘the rest of us.’

Neither have the members of the powerful Miletti family, whom we meet in Michael Dibdin’s Ratking. When family patriarch Ruggerio Miletti is abducted, the Perugia police are notified, but don’t seem able to make much progress in finding out who is responsible. Aurelio Zen, who’s been working in the Ministry of the Interior in Rome, is seconded to Perugia to help out in the case. It’s going to be difficult too. The abductors have told the Milettis not to involve the police in any way. And they have enough power and influence that the police are inclined to stay out of their way. On the other hand, it won’t look good if the police appear to be in the family’s pay. So Zen has to negotiate a very difficult situation. Little by little, as he gets more information about what happened and what the reality of life in Perugia is, Zen learns just how entitled the Milettis really are. They are, all of them, accustomed to having the rules laid aside when it’s convenient. It doesn’t mean that any of them is happy, but it’s a fact of their lives.

In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, Superintendent Roy Grace has a difficult situation on his hands. Along with other cases he’s investigating, he’s told that superstar Gaia Lafayette will be spending time in her home town of Brighton to do a film that’s being shot there. There’s already been an attempt on her life, so there’s a lot of concern for her safety. What’s more, the Powers That Be have no interest in the bad publicity that would result if anything happened to her. So Grace is told that he will be responsible for ensuring her safety. On the one hand, Grace certainly doesn’t wish the star any harm. On the other, he has to face the reality of limited budgets and staff. Still, he’s been given an assignment and intends to meet his obligations. There are several examples of the self-entitlement of ‘superstars’ in the novel. Here are just two. In more than one scene there’s a discussion of the differences between firearms laws in the US and firearms laws in the UK. And several members of Gaia Lafayette’s entourage simply don’t see why they should have to abide by UK laws. Also, there’s a negotiation about how to arrange for the superstar’s safety. Given the logistics, the Brighton people want her to stay at the hotel, where they can arrange for careful monitoring. But that’s not how she and her people see it. She wants to visit the city, take her son out for pizza and so on. The cost of providing all of that extra protection is more than the Brighton team can afford, so they insist that the star pay for it. Her top people though see no reason why she should. She, after all, is Gaia Lafayette, the famous singer/actress. She’s doing Brighton a big service by ‘coming home.’ That self entitlement runs throughout the novel.

And I don’t think I could do justice to a post on the culture of entitlement without mentioning the work of Donna Leon, who explores that in several of her novels. Her sleuth Commissario Guido Brunetti lives and works in Venice. In several of the cases he investigates, it turns out that people who are rich, powerful and influential have committed crimes including murder. Brunetti’s boss, vice-questore Giuseppe Patta is quite happy to go along with the culture of entitlement. He’s a toady to those with influence, as he wants to advance his own career. Brunetti doesn’t let that stop him, though. He’s willing to take risks to solve cases, even if the culprit turns out to be someone who is self-entitled.

I’m sure you’ve met up with plenty of self-entitled people in your own life. They’re out there. And they make realistic and sometimes interesting characters in crime fiction too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must make a few ‘phone calls. It seems there’s this ridiculous policy about where I can park my car and someone left a ticket on it. I don’t see why I can’t park where I want. I shouldn’t have to pay a fine! ;-)
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Daryll Hall and John Oates’ Rich Girl 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin, P.D. James, Peter Corris, Peter James

So Dance in the Light of the Land That They Call Cape Town*

cape-town-photoFor a lot of people, Cape Town has a sort of exotic mystique about it. Possibly because it’s been an important port for hundreds of years, it’s been influenced by many cultures, food traditions, language backgrounds and so on. As you’ll no doubt know, Cape Town has been the home of indigenous African people; Dutch, French and English settlers; Afrikaners; and people from India and other parts of Asia.

The Cape region of South Africa is visually beautiful, too, and there’s a lot to love about it. There’s good food, world class wine (trust me), fine music, rugby and more. And when I was there, I met plenty of courteous, helpful people from all sorts of different ethnic groups. But that doesn’t mean it’s a idyllic place. Cape Town has a high population, a great deal of diversity, and socioeconomic divisions. Like the rest of South Africa, it’s also facing the challenge of forming a new kind of post-apartheid society. All of these factors, plus the challenges that all modern countries face, can make for tension and conflict. So it’s no surprise at all that there’s plenty of crime fiction set there.

Agatha Christie mentions Cape Town in a few of her stories. In one of them, The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Bedingfield. She’s recently lost her father and is now alone in the world as the saying goes. She’s got very little money, but a strong sense of adventure. One day, she happens to be in an underground station when she witnesses a man fall to his death from the train platform. In the chaos that follows the recovery of the dead man’s body, Anne happens to get hold of a piece of paper the man had. When she first reads it, it doesn’t make much sense to her but it’s not long before she deduces that it refers to an upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. With nothing much to keep her in London, Anne buys passage on the ship and soon gets involved in a web of intrigue, jewel theft, and fraud. Cape Town may not be exactly a peaceful place, but for Anne, there’s as much excitement as there is real danger.

While Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series isn’t really set in Cape Town, it gives a solid sense of life in South Africa during the first decades of apartheid. It was a time when every aspect of life (professional, personal, spiritual, medical, etc…) was segregated by ethnic group, and when the non-White majority population were disenfranchised. Apartheid as an institution ended twenty years ago. Still, South Africa is coming to terms with what those policies really meant, what removing them means for a new society, and how to move on. We see that uncertainty in several crime fiction novels and series.

One of them is Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon when their car is ambushed and goes over an embankment. Dell survives, but the other members of his family are killed. It’s not long before the police go after Dell, accusing him of murdering his wife and children. He claims he’s innocent, but it’s soon clear that someone has set him up. Before he knows it, he’s been imprisoned. He has an unlikely rescuer in the form of his estranged father Bobby Goodbread. Goodbread and his son fell out over, among other things, their different views about apartheid. Goodbread was pro-apartheid and fought against the government’s dismantling of those policies. Dell on the other hand feels quite differently. In fact, one of the major sources of contention between the two men is that Rosie was non-White. Despite their differences, the two men have one thing in common. Each wants to go after the man who ambushed Dell’s car: Inja Mazibuko. He’s a native of Zulluland who’s on his way there to get married. As Goodbread and Dell go in search of Mazibuko, we get a look at some of the difficult issues that South Africa is facing as the country works towards a new social order.

Like most of South Africa, Cape Town and the Cape region are home to hundreds of species of rare animals and plants. Protecting that ecosystem means that South Africa has to balance the needs of those species with the realities of economics, valuable tourism and the demand for development. It’s not an easy balance to achieve and it’s taken up in, among other books, Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Jacobus le Roux was an avid conservationist who worked on a project at Kruger National Park. When he disappeared twenty-five years earlier, everyone assumed he’d been killed in a skirmish with poachers. But one day, his sister Emma sees a television show about a wanted man named Cobie de Villiers – a man who looks exactly like her brother. Could the two men be the same person? If so, why hasn’t Jacobus ever contacted her? Emma wants answers, so she hires Cape Town professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her to the Lowveld and find out the truth. It turns out that the real truth about Jacobus le Roux is tied up in greed, corruption and ugly environmental and sociopolitical realities. Throughout the novel, one of the topics of debate is how South Africa should preserve the ecosystem, and whether that can be done without sacrificing the economy.

And then there’s Margie Orford’s Gallows Hill, the fourth in her Clare Hart series. Hart is an investigative profiler who’s called in when a dog makes a grisly discovery: a large group of bones in the area where Cape Town’s gibbets used to be. Most of the bones are upwards of 200 years old, and could be slaves or condemned prisoners. But there’s one set of bones that’s quite different. These bones, the remains of an unidentified woman, are only about 20 years old. The finding of the bones causes a lot of controversy, since the area had been set aside for a big development project. And there’s the important question of who the woman was and how her body ended up among the much older remains. SAPS Captain Riedwaan Faizal, who is Hart’s partner as well as her professional colleague, works with her to find out the truth about this murder. Among other things, this novel brings Hart and Faizal up against corporate greed, the politicians who benefit from that greed, and corrupt police who help make sure that nothing changes.

Cape Town is of course only one part of a varied country. It’s beautiful, vibrant, energetic, sometimes violent, and full of history. These are just a few novels that take place there. Which have you enjoyed?
 

ps. The ‘photos I took there during my trip weren’t particularly good. So….thanks, African Outposts, for this beautiful one.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fourplay’s Cape Town.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Malla Nunn, Margie Orford, Roger Smith