Category Archives: Agatha Christie

If Not For You*

Strong Secondary CharactersMany crime novels feature one or perhaps two main protagonists. The stories focus on those people, and in high quality novels, they’re well developed and interesting. But sometimes, one of the secondary characters is at least as interesting – maybe even more so. Sometimes it’s because that character has an air of mystery about her or him. Sometimes it’s because of that character’s strong or unusual kind of personality. Sometimes it’s for other reasons. Either way, those secondary characters may not have leading roles, but they still stand out in the memory. Here are just a few examples; I’m quite certain you can think of more than I could anyway.

One such character, Mr. Robinson, appears in several Christie stories, including Cat Among the Pigeons (in which Hercule Poirot ‘stars’), Postern of Fate (A Tommy and Tuppence Beresford Novel) and Passenger to Frankfurt (a standalone). We never learn a great deal about Mr. Robinson, and that adds to the mystery of his character. We do know that he’s financier who counts among his friends people in high and sensitive government positions. He also does business with all sorts of international clients as well. We know nearly nothing about his background, nor do we know exactly where he lives. He’s quite honest about his interest in the adventures he’s involved in: money. But at the same time, he’s not a cruelly greedy person. Here is how he describes himself and his fellow financiers in Cat Among the Pigeons,
 

‘It is a very old trade… And a lucrative one…We work in with one another and remember this: we keep faith. Our profits are large, but we are honest.’
 

Mr. Robinson might or might not be a good choice for a ‘lead’ character, but he adds an interesting layer to Christie’s work as a secondary one.

We could say the same thing of Eleanor Wish, who appears in several of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. When we meet her in The Black Echo, she’s an FBI agent works with Bosch on a complicated case involving a major carefully-planned bank robbery, the murder of Vietnam veteran, and a group of Vietnamese families who live in Orange County (south of Los Angeles). Wish leaves the FBI and takes up a new career as a professional poker player. She’s still helpful to Bosch in some of his cases (see Trunk Music), and the two develop a relationship. Eventually they marry. The marriage doesn’t last, but they have a daughter Madeleine ‘Maddie’ together. And there are suggestions that Bosch never really stops loving Wish. She is an interesting person with a bit of a mysterious background. She’s also very much her own person with her own way of thinking. Like Mr. Robinson, Eleanor Wish might or might not have been successful as the ‘lead’ character in a novel or series, but as a secondary character, she adds much to the Bosch novels.

Elly Griffiths’ series features Ruth Galloway, Head of Forensic Archaeology at North Norfolk University. It also features DCI Harry Nelson, who benefits greatly from Galloway’s help on his cases. They are the two protagonists, and both are very interesting characters. But one of the most interesting characters in this series doesn’t really get ‘top billing.’ He is Michael Malone, who goes by his Druid name of Cathbad. He and Galloway met years ago on a dig, and have now become friends. We don’t know an awful lot about Cathbad’s past, and that adds a bit of mystery to his character. But he’s interesting for more reasons than that. Cathbad is an unconventional person, even eccentric. But he is extremely knowledgeable about ancient customs in Romano-Britain, and he’s well versed in even older lore. He has a different way of looking at life to the way a lot of other people do, but that doesn’t really bother him. He is loyal to his friends (including Galloway), and he’s quite good with her young daughter Kate. He adds a layer of interest to this series.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a Saskatoon former cop-turned-PI who encounters all sorts of interesting people in his cases. He’s the protagonist of the series, and is a well-developed character in his own right. But some of the secondary characters who figure in the series are at least as engaging. For example, as the series begins, Quant’s neighbour is Sereena Orion Smith. She’s had all sorts of experiences, including plenty with drugs, alcohol and more than one wild party. Now she’s settled into a quieter life, and seems to be content with that. She’s got plenty of money, and as the series evolves we get to learn just a few things about her. But she is still somewhat of a mystery. She pops up in unexpected places and seems to know the most unexpected people. And although he’s curious at times, Quant never really does find out a great deal about her. What he does know though is that she’s a plain-spoken, loyal and supportive friend. She’s the kind of friend who likes Quant enough to tell him the truth, whether or not he wants to hear it. And she proves to be helpful to him in more than one of his cases.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series takes place mostly in Bangkok and features Rafferty, who is an ex-pat American and a travel writer by trade. But he has also proven himself rather good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s also well-enough versed in Bangkok life that he can be very helpful to English-speaking foreigners who visit. He is the protagonist of the series, but he’s by no means the only strong and interesting character in it. His wife Rose is also compelling. Rose is a former bar girl who originally came from one of Thailand’s more remote villages. She has since left the bar life and now owns her own apartment cleaning company staffed by other former bar girls and prostitutes who want to leave that life. Rose is a deeper character than it may sometimes seem on the surface. She is Thai, so she sees life from that cultural point of view. In her way, she is also spiritual, and that adds to the richness of her character. Rose may not be the central character of this series, but she contributes a great deal to it.

That’s also true of attorney Zack Shreve, whom we meet in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn (later Shreve). Joanne is the main character in this series; she’s a political scientist and academic who’s also the proud mother of three grown children and one teenager. Joanne first meets Zack in The Last Good Day, when one of his firm’s law partners dies in what looks like a suicide. The two begin a relationship and as the series progresses, they fall in love and marry. Zack proves to be a very strong character although he’s not really the main protagonist. He’s got a distinctive personality and brings his own background and viewpoint to the series. What’s more, since he’s an attorney, he also brings professional expertise (and several plot points!) to the novels.

Strong secondary characters like these can be a bit tricky to write. After all, they’re not protagonists, and perhaps they wouldn’t do well in series of their own (‘though some might). But they do add much to a series, and may readers follow them almost as avidly as they do the protagonists. Which strong secondary characters do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Michael Connelly, Timothy Hallinan

There’s a Light Burning in the Fireplace*

Creepy InssIf you’ve ever been on a road trip, you may know this feeling. You’ve been driving for a while, and decide to stop somewhere for the night and start looking for a place to stay. After all, you’re tired and you could use a meal and maybe some TV before bed. Then you see it: a light ahead of you beckoning you to a motel or inn where you can spend the night. Sounds warm and comforting, right? Just the ticket. Well… perhaps not. If you read enough crime fiction, then you know that there are all kinds of inns, motels and B&B’s that aren’t at all what they seem. I’ve only got space for a few examples here, but they should be enough to give you the idea.

In Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), a man calling himself Enoch Arden arrives at the village of Warmsley Vale. He takes a room at a local inn called The Stag and settles in. A few mornings later he’s found dead of what looks like a blow from a blunt instrument. Hercule Poirot has already gotten interested in events at Warmsley Vale and he investigates to find out who killed the victim and why. It turns out that the dead man was connected to a dispute among the members of the Cloade family over the will of patriarch Gordon Cloade. Cloade always promised his brothers Jeremy and Lionel and his sister Adela that he’d take care of the family. Then he shocked everyone by marrying a widow Rosaleen Underhay. After his tragic death in a World War II bombing incident, it came out that he’d never changed his will. Now Rosaleen is set to inherit her husband’s considerable wealth, leaving her in-laws with nothing. Before his death, ‘Enoch Arden’ hinted that Rosaleen’s first husband is still alive. If so, then her marriage to Gordon Cloade isn’t legal and she cannot inherit. Now Poirot has to sort out what’s going on in the Cloade family to find out the truth about the death. Christie wrote other stories too that are set in dangerous places to lodge (I know, I know, fans of At Bertram’s Hotel).

One of the eerier inns in fiction is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Mary Yellan travels to Bodmin, on the Cornish coast, to obey her mother’s deathbed wish that she join her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at the inn they run. On the one hand, she isn’t happy about leaving the only home she’s ever known. On the other, she wants to respect her mother’s wish, and she’s looking forward to a reunion with her aunt, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Even the coachman who takes her there warns her about the inn, but Mary is determined to go ahead with her plan. At first all goes quietly enough, although it seems odd that no-one ever stays at the inn. But then Mary discovers the reason. The inn is really a cover for some sinister things going on. As she finds out more and more about what’s really happening, she also finds that she’s in great danger herself. This is one of those novels that people don’t always think of when they think about crime fiction, but at least in my opinion, it qualifies. There is plenty of crime, including murder, in the story…

In Ross Macdonald’s short story The Singing Pigeon, PI Lew Archer is heading north from the Mexican border with California. He decides to stop for the night at a seedy-looking motel called the Siesta. When he first arrives, there’s no-one at the front desk although the main door’s unlocked. After a wait, the motel’s owner finally appears and gives Archer a room. The next morning, Archer is wakened by a young woman’s screaming. He rushes out of his room to the room next door to see what’s going on, and almost immediately it’s clear that no-one is going to tell him the truth. There’s blood on the bed sheets and the young woman who screamed starts to say something about it but she’s soon hushed up. The owner, who turns out to be her father, says that one of the guests had a nosebleed. Archer is sure that the man is lying but since there is no body, there’s not much he can do. He checks out of the Siesta and drives off. Not very far away, he finds the body of a man and makes the obvious inference. He returns to the motel and little by little, he finds out the truth about the dead man and his connection to the Siesta and the family who owns it.

And then there’s the B&B featured in Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. Billy Weaver has just come to London from Bath to start a new job. He plans to stay at the Bell and Dragon, but as he’s on his way there, he happens to pass a small, homey-looking place with a B&B sign. On impulse, he decides to go in. He’s greeted immediately by a pleasant landlady who makes him welcome and assures him that there’s a room for him. The place is clean and comfortable, so Weaver decides to stay there instead of at the Bell and Dragon. Later, his landlady asks him to sign the guest register. As he does so, Weaver notices that two other names in the register are familiar to him. Little by little, he works out why. And by the time he does, well… this is one of Dahl’s creative crime stories. You can read it yourself right here.

Fans of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret will know that he often stays at inns when he and his team investigate a case. That’s what happens in Maigret and the Yellow Dog (AKA The Yellow Dog), which takes place in the village of Concarneau. In that novel, M. Mostaguen leaves the Admiral Hotel, where he’s been spending time with a group of his friends. Somewhat the worse for wear after quite a bit of drinking, he tries to light a cigar. It’s windy though, so he steps into a nearby doorway. That’s when he’s shot and badly wounded by someone who’s been lurking in the house. Maigret and his team are called in and begin to investigate. They take up temporary quarters at the Admiral and get to know M. Mostaguen’s regular group of drinking friends. On the night Maigret meets them though, someone tampers with a bottle of wine that they’re sharing, and the group comes very close to being poisoned. Now it looks as though someone is targeting the town’s leading citizens. Then, there’s a death. Now it’s clear that the detective team is up against a killer. And part of the truth about the events in Concarneau can be found right at the inn where the team is lodging…

So if you’re planning a road trip this weekend, do be careful where you stay. You never know what might be lurking behind that friendly-looking sign for the motel or inn. It might be better to book your room ahead of time online, after a thorough search of the reviews from previous guests…

 

ps. The ‘photo is of one of the more famous creepy inns in crime fiction. This is the set of the Bates Motel, which fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s films will know from Psycho.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard O’Brien’s Over at the Frankenstein Place.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Georges Simenon, Roald Dahl, Ross Macdonald

No One Cares For You a Smidge When You’re In An Orphanage*

OrphanagesMost children are cared for by at least one of their parents. When that’s not possible, they’re sometimes cared for by grandparents or other relations. And in some cultures, it would be unthinkable for any other kind of arrangement to be made. But there are also plenty of situations where there really isn’t anyone who can care for a child, especially when both parents have died and there are no near relations. That’s one reason for which orphanages were established.

If you’ve read Charles Dickens or Charlotte Brontë, you may think of orphanages as horrible places of abuse and neglect. And some of the literary (and real) ones have been just that. But like most places, orphanages aren’t all alike, and they’re not all portrayed in the same way in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It turns out that she was murdered, and that the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, looks into each one’s background to find the killer. The victim was a well-known moneylender (she did business as Madame Giselle) who used secrets about her clients as collateral, so there are several possibilities. One is Jane Grey, a London hairstylist’s assistant who, as it turns out, was raised in an orphanage. Here’s what she has to say about it:
 

‘I don’t mean that we were the type of charity orphans who go about in scarlet bonnets and cloaks. It was quite fun, really.’
 

The mystery of who killed the victim doesn’t hinge on the fact that Jane was brought up in an orphanage. But it’s interesting to see that her experiences weren’t the melodramatic horror stories that sometimes come from such places.

There’s a very different portrait of an orphanage presented in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. In that novel, child psychologist Alex Delaware is asked to assist in the investigation of the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez. The lone witness to the murder is seven-year-old Melody Quinn, and her account is neither complete nor coherent. Milo Sturgis of the LAPD is hoping that his friend Delaware will be able to get Melody to open up and tell everything that she knows. In the process of trying to work with Melody, Delaware finds himself getting more and more drawn into the case. And one part of the trail leads to La Casa de los Niños, an orphanage/residential facility for children with special needs and behaviour issues. As it turns out, the murders, as well as other events in the story, have everything to do with past history. And one part of the truth lies in what’s going on at the orphanage.

One of the ‘regulars’ in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is Mma. Silvia Potokwane. She’s a good friend to Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs the titular agency, and she plays an important role in the local community. Mma. Potokwane runs an orphanage to which she devotes all of her energy. She is a tireless advocate for ‘her’ children, and is always looking for ways to make their lives better. She depends on Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to keep the orphanage’s machinery and appliances running, often long after they really should have given out. She also sponsors several events in aid of the orphanage. But her dedication goes beyond those administrative matters. She knows that the ideal situation for each child is a loving home, so whenever possible, that’s what she tries to arrange for each of the children in her care. In fact, she persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take in two orphans, Motholeli and her brother Puso. So when Mma. Ramotswe marries him, she actually gets a sort of ready-made family. For the children who can’t so easily find homes, Mma. Potokwane works hard to create the most loving atmosphere she can, given a limited budget and the realities of caring for a large group of children. In this series, the orphanage is presented in a very positive way, and it’s largely because of Mma. Potokwane’s efforts.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour. In that novel, the villagers of Ventebrune and Pierrefort, in the French Alps, are unsettled when nine sheep are found with their throats slashed. Everyone thinks at first that it’s a pack of rogue wolves. But then, a sheep breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found dead in one of her sheep pens, murdered in the same way as the sheep. It’s unlikely that this would be the work of a wolf, and some locals say a werewolf is responsible for the killings. What’s more, they think they know who’s responsible: a loner named Auguste Massart, who seems to have disappeared. Three locals decide to go after Massart and see if they can find out what exactly happened to the sheep and to Suzanne Rosselin. But they’re not particularly good at tracking and they end up contacting Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Adamsberg travels to the French Alps to find out the truth about the mysterious events in the area, and discovers that the cause isn’t a werewolf at all. The motive goes back into the past, and what’s interesting is that as Adamsberg puts the pieces together, he discovers that one of the characters spent time in an orphanage. Here’s a bit of the conversation about it between Adamsberg and another commissaire:
 

He was in a home, a sort of state orphanage.’ [Adamsberg]
‘Iron discipline?’
‘No, it seems to have been a reasonable place…’
 

I think I can say without spoiling the story that in this case, the orphanage was a better choice than home life would have been.

That belief – that certain children have a better chance at an orphanage than they would elsewhere – also motivates Frank Harding, whom we meet in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Harding runs the New Life Children’s Centre, located in Pattaya, Thailand. One of New Life’s goals is to match the babies and young children who live there with adoptive families. Once they are matched, volunteers prepare the little ones for their new homes by speaking English (or whatever the child’s new language will be), interacting with them and so on. When one of those volunteers, Maryanne Delbeck, suddenly dies, her father Jim wants to know why. According to the police report, she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck is convinced that his daughter didn’t kill herself. So he hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened. Keeney agrees and goes undercover at New Life to see whether there might be a connection between the victim’s volunteer work and her death. As Keeney learns more about New Life, readers learn about the process of matching children in a orphanage with prospective adoptive parents. We also learn about the intricacies of foreign adoptions.

Orphanages may not be the ideal situation for a child. And some of them are unspeakable. But as crime fiction shows us, they’re as varied as the people who run them and live there are. Which fictional orphanages have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Chamin’s Hard Knock Life.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Fred Vargas, Jonathan Kellerman

An Englishman’s Way of Speaking Absolutely Classifies Him*

Adjusting LanguageThere’s an interesting theory of language that suggests that we adjust the way we speak in order to identify with a particular group. If this theory (it’s called Speech Accommodation Theory, or SAT) is correct, people often do that because they’re members of that group, and feel a connection. Or they want to be accepted into the group, so they adjust their language to express solidarity. If you’ve noticed that you change your way of speaking depending on the group of people you’re with, you know from your own experience how this works.

It happens in crime fiction, too, and it’s an interesting way for authors to show not tell, as the saying goes, what a character is like. It’s also an effective way for a fictional sleuth to ‘fit in.’ Let me just offer a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot takes the Orient Express train through Europe back to London to deal with some new developments in a case he’s working. On the second night of the journey, one of his fellow passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed. M. Bouc, who’s one of the travel company’s directors, is also on board the train and asks Poirot to find out who the killer is. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car as as the victim, so Poirot concentrates his efforts there. It turns out that this murder has everything to do with a past incident. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the way language is adjusted in order to give a certain impression. If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, and you do read it at some point, keep in mind that not everything is the way it sounds…

Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a member of the Queensland Police. He’s in the interesting position of being a part of two cultural communities, since his father was White and his mother belonged to one of the Aboriginal groups. He actually identifies himself in two different ways, and in more than one novel there are references to his dual identity. Bony adjusts his language and his cultural ways to suit the needs of situations in which he finds himself. When he’s with other Aborigines, he uses their language and their ways. When he’s with Whites, he speaks standard Australian English. What’s more, he’s even able to adjust his dialect if it’s necessary. This language adjustment is an authentic reflection of Bony’s own identity; it’s also a way for him to put people enough at their ease that they’re more willing to talk to him than they might otherwise be.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a Navajo Tribal Police officer, and a member of the Navajo Nation. He uses English quite a lot of the time, but he also speaks Navajo, and uses it to express his kinship with that group. Even when he’s speaking in English, if the person he’s talking to is Navajo, you’ll find that Navajo words, phrases and cultural references are sprinkled into what he says. And sometimes, he completely code switches to Navajo when he’s speaking to a fellow Navajo. Chee is a cop, so part of the reason he adjusts his speech as he does is to make others feel comfortable enough to tell him what he wants to know. In other words, it’s a deliberate adjustment made for a specific purpose. But he adjusts his speech that way in more casual moments too, so there’s a good argument that he also does it to belong – to be a part of his community.

One of Martin Edwards’ series features Harry Devlin, a Liverpool attorney who works with a somewhat down-and-out firm. Although he’s educated and uses standard British English, Devlin can easily adjust his speech to the Scouser variety of English that’s common in the Liverpool area. And he finds that that’s to his advantage in All The Lonely People. In that novel, Devlin is surprised to say the least when his estranged wife Liz comes back into his life, asking if she can stay with him for a bit. Devlin accepts, hoping that this may mean she is interested in a reconciliation. Two nights later, Liz is stabbed and her body found in an alley. Devlin is determined to find out who killed her, and it’s in his pragmatic interest anyway, since that will clear his own name. So he starts to ask questions. The trail leads through some of Liverpool’s poorer and more dangerous areas, and Devlin knows that he’s not likely to be trusted, to say the least, if he uses his own way of speaking. So he adjusts his speech and adopts
 

‘…a congested Scouse accent…’
 

when he talks to some of those he meets. That change doesn’t solve Liz’ murder, but it does mark Devlin as ‘one of us,’ in some people’s eyes, and that gets him information he probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a proud francophone Québécois, as are several members of the police with whom he works on his cases. And it’s very interesting to see how they interact when they’re speaking with other francophones as opposed to when they’re speaking with native speakers of English. For instance, in Still Life, Gamache and his team go to the small town of Three Pines to investigate the murder of former school teacher Jane Neal. Here’s a snippet of what happens when he speaks to a local police officer Agent Robert Lemieux. Lemieux was first on the scene, and secured the area, so his input about what and whom he saw is important:
 

“Bien sûr! I saw that man over there [indicating a possible witness]. An Anglais, I suspected, by his clothes and his pallor. The English, I have noticed, have weak stomachs.’…
It had also been Lemieux’s experience that the English had no clothes sense, and this man in his plaid flannel shirt could not possibly be francophone.’

 

Lemieux identifies closely with fellow francophones, so he adjusts his language (and his comments!) to express solidarity with them. Fans of this series will know that as a rule, things are different when the team members are speaking with anglophones.

One of Anya Lipska’s protagonists is Januscz ‘Janek’ Kiszka, a Polish immigrant who now lives in London. Kiszka speaks fluent English, and when he interacts with native speakers of that language (such as Lipska’s other protagonist DC Natalie Kershaw), he uses English. He sometimes misses Poland, but he’s comfortable enough in England. However, he’s culturally and linguistically Polish, and uses that language to identify with other Poles. Even when he’s speaking English with fellow Poles, he uses Polish expressions and makes Polish cultural references. He adjusts his language in great part to express solidarity with people from his own background. Kiszka’s ability to adjust his language to fit in is part of why he’s got a reputation in his own community as a ‘fixer.’ He helps his fellow Poles to get things done, to arrange paperwork, to negotiate life in London and so on. And that’s why Kershaw also finds his input useful. In Where the Devil Can’t Go and Death Can’t Take a Joke, she investigates cases that reach into the Polish community. Kiszka is a member of that group and provides valuable insights.

We may not consciously be aware of it, but we do adjust the way we speak, and there’s a solid argument that we do so at least in part to identify with a particular group (or to identify ourselves as not belonging to a given group). So it’s little wonder that we see these language adjustments in crime fiction too. Which ones have stood out in your mind?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Overture/Why Can’t the English.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arthur Upfield, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Tony Hillerman

Baby, We Were Born to Run*

RisktakingIt’s common among young people (and sometimes, not-so-young people) to believe in the ‘it can’t happen to me’ myth. That myth of indestructibility is arguably part of the reason for which many young people take the kinds of risks that they probably wouldn’t take if they were older. You see this myth playing out in a lot of crime fiction, and it can be both compelling and poignant. After all, young people are not indestructible. I’m only going to be mentioning a few examples here, but I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie includes several characters in her stories who seem to believe in their own indestructibility. I’ll just mention one. In And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), we meet Anthony Marston, a young man who’s received an invitation to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. He accepts the invitation and travels to the island, where he finds that a group of other people have received and accepted invitations. After dinner on that first night, each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. In Marston’s case, he’s accused of having killed two small children in a reckless driving incident. Later that evening, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Then there’s another. Now it’s clear that someone lured these people to the island and seems bent on killing them one by one. The survivors will have to find out who that person is if they hope to stay alive. More than once in this novel, Marston’s youth, apparent strength and seeming invincibility are mentioned, and that gives his death all the more impact. I know, I know fans of The Man in the Brown Suit’s Anne Bedingfield…

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman. His parents Ralph and Elaine have placed him at the Laguna Perdida School, a boarding school for ‘troubled students.’ One day Tom disappears from the school. Dr. Sponti, who is head of Laguna Perdida, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy before his parents discover that he’s missing. But it’s already too late. During their meeting, Ralph Hillman bursts into the office saying that Tom has been kidnapped. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Tom’s parents to try to get him back. Almost immediately something seems ‘off.’ For one thing, the Hilmmans aren’t nearly as forthcoming about Tom as you’d expect from parents who were distraught about a missing child. For another, there’s some evidence that Tom may have joined the kidnappers willingly. If so, he may be part of a plot to extort money from them. Archer’s trying to track down leads when one of the people Tom’s with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. Now it’s clearer than ever that this is not an ‘textbook’ kind of kidnapping. Throughout this novel, we see ways in which Tom (and some of the other young people at the school) have behaved in that ‘indestructible’ way. Many of them take risks that they probably wouldn’t if they really contemplated the danger involved.

We see a bit of that perception of invulnerability in Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food too. Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman is concerned when two of her employees Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge begin behaving very oddly. In fact, they behave so strangely that Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen think they may be on a new kind of drug. It turns out that the girls bought weight loss tea at a club one night and were poisoned by it. Now Chapman wants to find out who poisoned the tea and why. At one point, she also makes another discovery. Kylie and Goss are always worried about gaining any weight at all, so instead of reading the instructions and taking the tea as directed, they took a much larger and stronger does than was recommended, so they’d lose weight faster. Their choice to buy this tea from someone they barely knew, and to take it in the way they did, is a reflection of how young people often don’t think through the consequences of what could happen to them. After all, ‘it won’t happen to me.’

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer investigates the disappearance of Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and likes nothing better than a little adventuring. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, who goes along with Andreas’ plans more out of a desire for the friendship than any enjoyment he gets out of their adventures. One day the two meet as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. When his mother Runi first goes to the police about it, Sejer isn’t too worried. Lots of young men take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. But as more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre look into the matter. To do this, they trace Andreas’ movements on the day he disappeared. Although Zipp isn’t at all forthcoming, especially at first, he eventually tells Sejer what happened that day. But even he doesn’t know what happened to Andreas. As it turns out, Andreas was convinced that everything would be all right – nothing bad would happen to him. But the truth turns out to be quite different…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, there’s an interesting sub-plot about an upcoming event. Mma. Sylvia Potokwane plans a benefit in aid of the orphanage she directs. One of the attractions is to be a parachute jump, and she wants Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs a local garage, to do the jump. Secretly he’s afraid to jump, especially from such heights, but of course he won’t admit that to Mma. Potokwane. Besides, she is strong-willed and persuasive. So he reluctantly agrees. As the day draws closer he gets more and more nervous about it. But his wife Mma. Precious Ramotswe has an idea that works out well for everyone involved. She suggests that Charlie, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistants, might be glad for the chance to do the jump. That way he can do some good and impress the local girls. And that’s exactly what happens. Charlie is a little nervous, but he feels indestructible enough (and is interested in enough in being admired by the young ladies) that he’s eager to do it. It’s an interesting look at the way young people as opposed to more mature adults view risk-taking.

Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who’s growing up in a small Welsh town during the 1950s. Gwenni’s a bit of a dreamer, and doesn’t always fit in. But life goes on for her, her sister and her parents until the day that a one of the locals Ifan Evans disappears. Later, he’s found murdered. Gwenni wants to find out why he was killed and by whom, so she starts her own kind of investigation. She’s not completely heedless as she goes about it, but she doesn’t really appreciate the risks she’s taking nor the danger she could bring on herself.

And that’s the thing about a lot of young people. They have that sort of myth of indestructibility that sometimes leads them to take all sorts of risks. In that sense, they’re both brave and extremely vulnerable. Which characters like that have stood out for you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Mari Strachan, Ross Macdonald