Category Archives: Agatha Christie

I Won’t Back Down*

DaresMost of us don’t want to appear weak in front of others. That’s arguably why people often don’t tell their troubles to a lot of people or admit their mistakes. That desire to appear strong and brave is also part of the reason people take dares and bets. Backing out of a dare or challenge can be seen as cowardly, so people go through with sometimes foolish and dangerous dares and bets to avoid that label. I’m sure you’ve seen it in real life, and that plot point runs through crime fiction too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, we are introduced to Violet Smith, who’s taken a position as piano teacher/governness at Chiltern Grange. During the week, she stays there. At the weekend, she goes to London to visit her mother. Lately, she’s noticed that a strange man on a bicycle has been following her on the way to and from the train station. He’s never threatened her or even spoken to her. But she’s beginning to worry for her safety. She’s also curious about who the man is and what he wants. So she engages Sherlock Holmes to get to the bottom of the mystery. He and Dr. Watson investigate, and they soon find that Violet Smith is in great danger. Unbeknownst to her, she’s a pawn in a very high-stakes game, as the saying goes. And it all started because of the need to appear strong and not back down from a challenge, in this case, a card game.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook is the first in his Gideon Fell series. In this novel, Tad Rampole has recently been graduated from university, and has come to England at the suggestion of his mentor, who knows Fell. Rampole is on the way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, when he meets Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten with her, so he takes a special interest when Fell tells him about the mysterious history of the Starberth family. For two generations, the Starberths were Governers of the now-disused Chatterham Prison. Even though the prison has been abandoned for a hundred years, the Starberths are still associated with it through a family ritual. Each Starberth heir spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During the evening, the heir opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions inside it. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin. He’s not particularly eager to take on this challenge; the Starberth heirs have a habit of dying suddenly and violently. But he doesn’t want to back down and appear a coward. So he goes along with the ritual. During the night he stays in the prison, Martin Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But Fell is able to prove that the death was quite purposeful.

Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) features a group of residents who live in a hostel for students. The hostel is managed by Mrs. Hubbard, whose sister Felicity Lemon is, as fans will know, Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly competent secretary. Mrs. Hubbard’s concerned about a series of odd and seemingly meaningless petty thefts going on at the hostel, so Miss Lemon asks her employer to look into the matter. This he agrees to do, and he pays a visit to the hostel. That evening, one of the residents Celia Austin confesses to the thefts, so it seems that the matter is settled. But when she dies two nights later, it’s clear that there’s more going on here than thievery. Poirot and Inspector Sharpe establish that Celia was murdered, and begin to investigate. As they do, they discover that just about everyone in the hostel is hiding something. One of the things they find out, for instance, is that a few of the residents got involved in what seemed like a harmless bet. They were joking around about being able to commit murder without being caught. Jokes led to a bet, which led to poisons being in the hostel at the time of Celia Austin’s death. And no, that’s not a spoiler, ‘though it may seem to be…

Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body is the story of the murder of Sister Mary St. Anne, who was a part of the community at the Convent of St. Anselm. When her body is discovered at the foot of the convent’s basement stairs, Berebury Police Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant Constable William Crosby investigate. Their first interest is of course, the network of relationshps at the convent, and they interview all of the people who live and work there. But they don’t neglect other possibilities. For example, there’s Sister Anne’s family. Also, close to the convent is an Agricultural Institute. It wouldn’t seem that anyone there would have a reason to kill Sister Anne, but on Guy Fawkes day, some of the students follow the college’s tradition of burning a guy. This time, though, the guy is dressed in a nun’s habit and what turn out to be Sister Anne’s spectacles. So it’s very clear that someone at the school was at the convent. Sloan and Crosby find that that element of the mystery has to do with a prank and some students’ desire to take on a challenge.

And then there’s Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black. On New Year’s Eve, Sally Henry and Catherine Ross are on their way home from a party when they pass by the house of Magnus Tait, who’s generally regarded as a misfit and a strange person. Catherine dares her friend to knock on the door and although she’s reluctant, Sally doesn’t want to appear cowardly. So she agrees and the two go to the house. Tait invites them in, and finds himself accused of murder when Catherine is killed a few days later. Inspector Jimmy Perez is assigned to the case and interviews the people in Catherine’s life, including Tait. There is evidence against him, but Tait claims that he’s innocent, and Perez comes to believe him. It’s interesting in this novel to see how that simple dare gets Tait mixed up in the girls’ lives.

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s short story Trick or Treat begins as a young boy goes up to the door of Crow House, which has a creepy reputation. He’s been dared to knock on the door and of course, he doesn’t want to back down, so he knocks. When he’s admitted, he finds a trick he couldn’t have imagined…

Most of don’t want to seem weak, so it’s only natural not to want to back down from dares, bets and challenges. But as crime fiction shows us, it might just be safer all round to risk that…

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Go ahead, pick a card. Dare ya! You’re not afraid, are you???
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by Tom Petty.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, John Dickson Carr

I Didn’t Get a Chance to Defend Myself*

ArrestedWhen the police investigate a crime, they have to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But evidence doesn’t always immediately point to the actual criminal. Sometimes that means that an innocent person is arrested or even convicted. It happens in real life, and that plot point adds tension and suspense to a crime novel too. It’s incredibly hard on a person to be arrested for a crime, especialy for those who aren’t accustomed to the justice/prison system. That stress can affect one deeply, and that can add to a crime story too, in terms of character development and suspense.

Agatha Christie deals with this issue in several of her novels. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, James Bentley is arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the murder of his landlady. He isn’t a particularly pleasant, friendly person, so he doesn’t have many supporters. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence, who gathered the evidence in the case, believes Bentley may be innocent. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and goes to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder took place. It’s not long before he learns that there are several other possibilities; Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about people, and she’d found out something it wasn’t safe for her to know. As the novel goes on, we see how the experience of being wrongly accused of a crime has affected Bentley. He is convinced that no-one cares what happens to him, and certain that he won’t get a fair deal, as the saying goes. Christie doesn’t discuss too much what happens to Bentley when the real murderer is caught, although in Hallowe’en Party it’s mentioned that he’s gotten married. It’s not hard to imagine though that re-integrating himself into everyday life can’t have been easy. (I know, I know, fans of Ordeal by Innocence and Sad Cypress).

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder introduces readers to Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy business magnate Dietrich Van Horn. He’s been troubled lately by blackouts during which he has no idea what happens. He becomes especially frightened one day when he wakes up covered in blood. Sure that he’s done something terrible, he visits his old college friend Ellery Queen and asks his help. Queen agrees and thogether, the two men try to piece together what’s happened. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, where his father and stepmother Sally live. While they’re there, there’s another blackout incident. This time, Sally Van Horn is killed. Howard is accused and becomes convinced that he is guilty. And the experience of being the focus of a murder investigation (and believing he is a killer) takes a terrible toll on him. Although Queen finds out the truth about the case, that doesn’t really change much for his former friend. Queen fans will know that this plot point – the terrible experience of being arrested when one’s innocent – is also a part of Calamity Town.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is arrested for the rape of Mayella Ewell. Since Robinson is Black and Ewell is White, this is a particularly emotionally-charged case. Robinson claims he’s not guilty, but almost no-one believes him. Prominent attorney Atticus Finch takes the case and begins to look into what really happened. As he does, we see how difficult it is for Robinson. Finch finds out the truth, but that doesn’t mean that life becomes perfect again. It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties Robinson has in getting back to something like a normal life after his experiences.

Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton includes a similar plot point. Alexander Seaton is the undermaster of a grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He gets drawn into a criminal investigation when the body of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is found in Seaton’s classroom at the school. Local music master Charles Thom, who is a friend of Seaton’s, was Davidson’s romantic rival, so he’s the immediate most likely suspect. He’s quickly arrested and imprisoned, although he claims he’s innocent. When Seaton visits his friend in prison, Thom asks Seaton’s help. He claims again that he’s innocent and asks Seaton to clear his name. Seaton reluctantly agrees and begins to ask some questions. Little by little, he finds out that this case is more complicated than it seemed on the surface, and that plenty of other people could have wanted to kill Davidson. As the novel goes on, we also see how difficult it is for Charles Thom to languish in prison, with no really effective way to defend himself.

And then there’s Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl. One morning, Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer John Ceepak is having breakfast at a restaurant with summer cop Danny Boyle. While they’re eating, twelve-year-old Ashley Hart stumbles up the street screaming incoherently. Ceepak and Boyle manage to calm the girl enough to tell them what’s wrong. She and her father, wealthy developer Reginald Hart, were taking a morning ride on the Turtle Tilt a Whirl, a ride at the town’s amusement park. Then, Ashely tells the police, a strange man with a gun shot her father and then ran off. When the police go to the scene, they see Hart’s body and the evidence Ashley described. The trail soon leads to a local homeless man nicknamed ‘Squeegee’ because he sometimes works at a car wash business. He’s disappeared, though, so tracing him won’t be easy. Ceepak and Boyle finally track ‘Squeegee’ down, and it does seem as though he could be guilty. But as Ceepak points out, that’s only one possibility. The police do find out who killed Hart and why, but in the meantime, it’s very hard on ‘Squeegee,’ who can’t really do much to defend himself.

There’s also Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake. John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie own a fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They live further south, in a small town called Crooked Lake, where everyone knows everyone. Because the town is so small, Bart learns about it very quickly when his friend Nick Taylor is fired from his job as head greenskeeper at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. Needless to say, Taylor’s furious about it, particularly since he doesn’t believe he’s done anything to deserve being separated. He blames Board of Directors member Harvey Kristoff, so he’s the natural suspect when Kristoff’s body is found later that day on the grounds of the golf course. The police are called in, and they follow the trail of evidence where it naturally leads – straight to Taylor. He’s soon arrested and charged. But he claims that he’s innocent, and his attorney Frank Hendrickson believes him. Bart doesn’t want to believe Taylor’s guilty either, so he’s only too happy to help clear his name. As it turns out, Taylor’s by no means the only one with a motive for muder, and Bart finds out who the real killer is. But it’s clear throughout the novel that being charged with murder is very hard on Nick Taylor. It doesn’t help matters that Crooked Lake is a small town, so everyone knows him and knows about his arrest.

The process of being arrested and charged with something as serious as murder takes a major toll on a person. Even knowing one’s innocent doesn’t always help much. It can add suspense and substance to a crime novel plot when the author acknowledges that.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buddy Guy and George Buddy’s Innocent Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, Nelson Brunanski, S.G. MacLean, Shona MacLean

I Know It’s Building Up Inside of Me*

trysmsallpressuresHave you ever said (or at least thought), ‘If you do/say that one more time, I’m going to kill you!’? In actuality of course, we’d never follow through on those threats. But it goes to show how little things can add up to real stress. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of murders, both fictional and real, aren’t the ‘big, splashy’ murders you may read about on the news or in thrillers. They’re committed because of small things that build and build.

It can be challenging to sustain the suspense in a story like that. But those stories often do reflect the way real people sometimes react to life’s pressures. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, the Abernethie family gathers when patriarch Richard Abernethie dies. When the family returns to the house after the funeral, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone hushes her up and even Cora asks the family not to pay any attention to what she says. But privately, the other family members begin to wonder whether she might have been right. When she herself is killed the next day, they’re even more sure of it. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees and travels to the family home at Enderby Hall to look into the matter. As he gets to know everyone involved, he finds that this case isn’t about huge amounts of power or millions of pounds. It’s a ‘quieter’ sort of murder that’s all about, among other things, pressure building up.

So is Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croyden is a meticulous and quite straitlaced banker who prides himself on always carrying the family name with pride. He has a very quiet life that includes his work and his hobby of working ciphers. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea, and everything changes. At first, she seems quiet, ‘ladylike’ and a solid match for him. But he soon finds that she is livelier and more vivacious than he thought, and he’s not particularly pleased about that. What’s more, she’s started rearranging the furniture in his home, adding brighter colours and a different look. That in itself makes him uncomfortable, as do some of her other habits (she even shops without a list!). Then one day, Althea pushes too far. She destroys some of the ciphers her husband was working. So Horace takes his own approach to dealing with his domestic problem…

In Glenn Canary’s short story Because of Everything, a man named Ernie finds himself in trouble when he discovers that two men are looking for him. He’s well aware of what that means, so he decides to see if he can stay with his wife Cherry for a few days. He left her a year ago, so he’s not sure of the reception he’ll get, but he can’t think of anything else to do. Besides, they are still married, and he knows that Cherry loved him. She’s not exactly thrilled to see him, but when he tells her why he needs to stay with her, she lets him. As the story goes on, we learn about the little things that built up between the couple; Ernie was not exactly a steadily-working, faithful husband. And in the end, we see how those things figure in to what happens in the story.

There’s also Martin Edwards’ short story 24 Hours From Tulsa. In that short story, a sales and marketing director called Lomas finds his ordered world falling to pieces. For one thing, people’s buying habits have changed with the advent of online shopping, and Lomas can’t seem to adapt his sales strategy to respond to that change. For another, he’s finding that his business is relying more and more on modern technology that he dislikes and mistrusts. He’s expected to be comfortable with mobile ‘phones, computers and so on, but he isn’t. Even the road system has changed beyond his recognition. And then there’s the matter of his children, who no longer seem to live in the same world he occupies. Little by little, all of these things and others build up. In the end, the stress they all create drives Lomas to take a very drastic step.

Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back finds Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigating the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much of a motive for murder. Annie was well-liked, popular in her village and reasonably successful at school. She had a boyfirend, too, and they seemed happy together. It doesn’t take long though for Sejer and Skarre to discover that this wasn’t a random killing by a deranged stranger. Someone Annie knew is responsible for her death, and little by little, the detectives uncover the stresses, strains and series of events that led to it. It turns out that small, daily stresses and the way they build up have a lot to do with what happens in the novel.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson take their nine-week-old son Noah from Scotland to Melbourne. When they arrive, they begin the long drive from the airport to their final destination in Victoria. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The couple alert the police and immediately the Australian media makes much of the case. There are pleas for the baby’s safe return, many volunteer search parties and national and international fundraising efforts. As time goes on though, some questions begin to come up about Noah’s disappearance. Could one of his parents have been responsible? If so, which one and why? Soon enough, the couple have as many detractors as they once had supporters, and there’s soon a full-scale investigation. As the story goes on, we see how little pressures, stresses and strains have led to what happens in the novel.

And that’s the thing about those ‘domestic’ murders (and I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them). They don’t usually result from a a major ‘splashy’ event. Rather, it’s the buildup of pressure, stresses and one thing after another that can lead to a tragic end. It’s not easy to pull off this kind of story, as it can be challenging to keep the suspense building credibly. But these murders really do happen, so it makes sense that we see them in crime fiction too. I’ve given a few examples; your turn.
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Glenn Canary, Helen Fitzgerald, Karin Fossum, Martin Edwards, Talmage Powell

Imagine There’s No Countries*

GLobalismIt’s no secret that modern technology has dramatically increased the contact we have with people from, quite literally, all over the world. This globalisation has meant that more and more, we’re aware of and influenced by other cultures and ways of doing things. The global nature of communication certainly presents its share of challenges. Different cultures have of course different values, priorities and ways of looking at the world. So negotiating meaning can be a challenge. So can the personal preferences, biases and so on that we all have. There are other challenges too such as language differences. But the payoff can mean that some major issues that affect everyone can be addressed as a wealth of expertise and innovative perspectives can be brought to bear.

It can work in real life, and it does in crime fiction too. There are lots of crime fiction novels and series where the investigation crosses geopolitical borders, and even when there are challenges, the end result is often more productive than it would be without that kind of co-operation.

In Agatha Cristie’s Death in the Clouds, for example, Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when a fellow passenger Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the flight, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp sift through the various possibilities to find out who would have wanted to murder the victim. She was a well-known moneylender who did business as Madame Giselle, and more than one of the suspects might have had good reason to want her dead. Madame Giselle was French, so British and French authorities will have to work together to solve the case. And in this particular instance they do. There are a few moments of awkwardness, but in the main, the investigation is successful. And it’s clear that without that co-operation, it might very well not be. Fans of Christie’s work will know that The Murder on the Links presents a slightly different view of a joint effort between French and British police. And such ‘team efforts’ don’t always work smoothly. But when they work well, they lead to better investigation.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna offers an interesting look at the way Swedish and American police work together to solve a case. When the body of a young woman is dredged up from Lake Vättern, it’s extremely difficult at first to find out who she is. But eventually she is identified as twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, a native of the US state of Nebraska. She was touring Sweden when she was killed, and at first there seems no motive for the murder. Little by little though, we get a more detailed portrait of her personal life and of those who interacted with her. And that leads slowly to the killer. In the end, Beck and his team find out who the murderer is. But it would arguably have been impossible without the information provided by Detective Lieutenant Elmer Kafka of the Lincoln, Nebraska police. At the time the novel was written, this kind of global approach to crime solving involved cables, sometimes-unreliable international telephone calls and letters. It’s a lot easier with modern communication.

In Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team investigate the murder of schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius and his parents. At first, the murders seem to be the work of a Satanist group. That’s not a far-fetched theory, as Schyttelius’ father is a member of the clergy. But it’s not long before that theory is disproved. Now the possibility arises that someone is killing the members of the family for more personal reasons. If that’s the case, then Schyttelius’ sister Rebecka could very well be the murderer’s next target. She lives in London, so Huss and her team will have to work with UK authorities to protect Rebecka Schyttelius and solve the case. Huss travels to London and works with Inspector Glen Thompson of the Met. Although Huss speaks English, Thompson’s knowledge of the local scene and his connections are essential to solving the case. Huss’ knowledge of the family background and of the murders themselves is just as important.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch deals with a global sort of a case in 9 Dragons. When Los Angeles liquor store owner John Li is shot, Bosch and his partner Ignacio Ferras investigate. Evidence suggests that Li was making protection payoffs to one of Los Angeles’ triads, or ‘protection groups’ with connections to Hong Kong. Bosch is starting to follow up that lead when he gets a call from his daughter Maddie, who’s living there with her mother (and Bosch’s ex-wife) Eleanor Wish. Maddie says that she’s been kidnapped, so Bosch immediately travels to Hong Kong to find her. In the end, we find out what happened to Maddie; we also find out the truth about John Li’s murder. And throughout the novel, we see how the global nature of today’s world impacts these cases.

Ian Hamilton’s Toronto-based sleuth Ava Lee is a forensic accountant. She works for a Hong Kong-based company whose specialty is recovering large debts. In The Water Rat of Wanchai, The Disciple of Las Vegas and The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, Lee travels to many different parts of the world as she traces lost money. This series takes a very global perspective on the way money is earned, stolen, managed, transferred and hidden. Because today’s technology allows transactions to be global, financial investigation has to be global as well.

Crime fiction also shows us globalism on a small scale too. For instance, Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series takes place in and around Paradise, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That part of Michigan is of course very close to the border with the Canadian province of Ontario. So in several of McKnight’s stories, there’s a lot of communication and interaction between Canadian and American people, and that includes police authorities. As Hamilton shows, globalism has several facets. On the one hand, there are sometimes-subtle but distinct differences between the Canadian way of doing things and the American way. They’re different cultures. They see life differently and that’s portrayed in the series. And yet, we also see the easy communication, the overall willing co-operation, and the recognition that each side benefits from the other’s knowledge. What’s even more interesting (at least to me) is that that area of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan has its own unique culture, distilled from the Indigenous cultures, the Candian culture and the American culture. It’s a global way of looking at life at a very local level.

In today’s world, easy travel and even easier communication have arguably resulted in a more global perspective on life. Certainly crime has ‘gone global.’ So it makes a lot of sense that perspectives on investigation would do the same. I’ve only touched on a few examples here. So now, it’s over to the rest of you folks in the global crime fiction community…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Imagine. He would have been 74 today as this is posted. Imagine…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Hamilton, Irene Tursten, Maj Sjöwall, Michael Connelly, Per Wahlöö, Steve Hamilton

Trying to Get the Balance Right*

RestoringBalanceIt seems to be human nature that we want to set things back in balance when they’ve gone awry. For example, if people don’t have a balance of work, leisure and so on in life, things don’t feel comfortable or ‘right’ until that balance is struck. And part of the reason people feel guilt when they’ve hurt someone is arguably that whatever has happened has set the relationship out of balance.

Balance is also arguably part of the reason so many people love crime fiction. A crime fiction story is very often a story of things being out of balance (because of a murder or other crime), and then set right, at least in a way. Of course not all crime novels end with the culprit being led away in handcuffs, but in a lot of crime novels, there’s a sense that solving the crime puts things at least a little right. So it’s no surprise that we see that search for balance throughout the genre.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is aboard the famous Orient Express train on a trip across Europe. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed to death. M. Bouc, a director of the company that owns the train, asks Poirot’s assistance in solving the case so that the solution can be offered to the police. Poirot agrees and begins to investigate. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the train, so he interviews them and puts together the pieces of what actually happened on the night of the murder. As it turns out, Ratchett’s murder has everything to do with something that happened in the past. And it has everything to do with an attempt to put things back into balance.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. In many ways, Chee is a traditional Navajo; in fact, in several novels in this series, he is studying to become a yata’ali, or Navajo singer/healer. Because of his sense of identity with the Navajo culture, Chee takes seriously the Navajo concept of hozro – beauty – which really means harmony. When things are out of harmony, whether because of a disagreement, an illness, or something else, there’s a need to bring them back into balance. And Chee feels that need at various times in the series. For example, in The Ghostway, Chee investigates a case of multiple murder that’s connected to the disappearance of a Navajo teenager from the school she was attending. Chee finds out who’s behind the events in the story, and in that sense, matters are put right. But he still senses that he is out of harmony because of some of what happens in the novel. So he engages in a Navajo healing/cleansing ritual to re-establish that harmony.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a new client. Mr. Molofelo is a successful civil engineer who also keeps an ostrich farm. After a very dangerous encounter with some poachers, he decides to set some things right in his life – to re-establish the balance in it. Years ago, when he was a student, Mr. Melofelo stole a radio from the Tsolamosese family, with whom he lodged. At the same time in his life, he was involved with a young woman Tebogo Bathopi. When she became pregnant, he did little to support her. Mr. Melofelo knows he can’t take back the past, but at least he wants to find those people again and try to make things right if he can. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to see what she can do. After a search, she finds out what happened to the family and to Tebogo Bathopi, and it’s interesting to see how she helps her client restore some balance.

Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series begins with The Ritual Bath, in which we see another example of this desire to restore balance. Much of the novel takes place at Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, an Orthodox Jewish community and place of religious study. It’s located in a remote area outside of Los Angeles, and in general, the people who live and worship there are left alone, apart from some anti-Semitic graffiti. Then, in one plot thread, one of the residents Sarah Libbey is raped as she is leaving the community’s mikvah – its ritual bath. LAPD detectives Peter Decker and Marge Gunn look into the case, and immediately face a problem. In order to catch the rapist, they want Sarah to go through an examination so they can get whatever DNA and other evidence they can. However, Sarah Libbey has strong Orthodox Jewish beliefs that include the need for a ritual cleansing after a terrible incident like rape. What’s more, Sarah is unwilling to discuss the rape, and doesn’t want to have a doctor examine her. With help from the mikvah‘s supervisor Rina Lazarus, the police are able to work out an arrangement that will allow Sarah to go through the process of restoring balance in her own way, and still get at least some of the evidence they need.

And then there’s Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, the first in his Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series. Rafferty is a travel writer who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s made a home for himself in Bangkok, and shares his life with Rose, a former bar girl who’s now the owner of her own apartment cleaning company. He also has made a home for Miaow, a former street child he wants to adopt. Clarissa Ulrich has come to Bangkok from Australia to look for her Uncle Claus, whom she hasn’t heard from in several months. She makes contact with Rafferty, a man she’s heard can do the job, and hires him to find her uncle. The trail leads Rafferty into a web of murder, theft, and more. It all comes down to things that have happened in the past, and how those events have affected people, even years later. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Rafferty goes through a great deal in the story, and Rose and Miaow have a sense that he is in need of a way to get back into harmony. So they arrange a ritual to help Rafferty re-establish his sense of balance.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series also takes place mostly in Bangkok. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. As we learn in Bangkok 8, before they joined the force, Sonchai and his police partner Pichai were once involved in the murder of a drug dealer. To Sonchai, who is Buddhist, the murder put many things out of balance, including his own life. As a way of regaining that balance, he and Pichai both became police officers. Their choice of profession won’t bring the dead drug dealer back to life. But having a career dedicated to making life safer for others does something to restore harmony, if I may put it that way.

We see a similar search for harmony in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. When Maryanne Delbeck falls (or jumps, or is pushed) from the roof of the Pattaya building where she lives, the police put it down to suicide. But Maryanne’s father Jim doesn’t believe his daughter killed herself. So he hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to look into the matter. She travels to Pattaya where Maryanne volunteered at an orphanage/adoption facility called New Life Children’s Centre. It’s possible that Maryanne’s death might be linked to her work there, so Keeney goes undercover as a volunteer to find out if there is a connection. In the end, she finds out what really happened to Maryanne Delbeck. She also discovers the role that the need to restore balance and to set things right, so to speak, plays in the things that happen in the novel.

Sometimes we all feel out of balance, whether it has to do with health, relationships or something else. It’s human nature to want things to be in harmony, so it makes sense to see this in fiction, too. There are just a few examples. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is title of a song by Johnny Duhan, recorded by Mary Black.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Faye Kellerman, John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman