Category Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

Thank You For Opening Your Door*

HouseguestsOne of many things people have to prepare for at this time of year is house guests. People often take time to visit friends and relatives, and those visits can be wonderful. But they also involve lots of logistics, from food, to where everyone will sleep, to things such as extra towels and bedding, and many other details. And then there’s the dynamics of people sharing a home when they’re not accustomed to it. With all of that going on, it’s no surprise that house guests can make a terrific backdrop/context for a murder mystery.

You’ll notice in this post that there won’t be a mention of the traditional ‘country house murder,’ where a group of people are gathered and one of them becomes a victim – too easy! And there are lots of other ‘house guest’ contexts. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective fiction writer Ariadne Oliver accepts an invitation to visit Judith Butler, a woman she met on a cruise of the Greek islands. During her stay, she helps out at a local children’s Hallwe’en party at another home. On the afternoon of the party, one of the guests Joyce Reynolds boasts that she’s seen a murder. Everyone hushes her up and no-one believes her. But that night at the party, Joyce is murdered. It’s certainly clear to Mrs. Oliver that there probably was a murder and that the killer overheard Joyce’s comments. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to travel to Woodleigh Common, where Judith Butler lives, and investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the case. He finds that this murder and another that occurs are linked to the town’s history. At one point, Poirot asks Mrs. Oliver if there is space in her London home to accommodate guests. Here is her response:
 

‘I never admit that there is…if you ever admit that you’ve got a free guest room in London, you’ve asked for it. All your friends, and not only your friends, your acquaintances or indeed your acquaintances’ third cousins sometimes….say would you mind just putting them up for a night? Well, I do mind. What with sheets and laundry, pillow cases and wanting early morning tea and very often expecting meals served to them, people come.’
 

In this case, though, Mrs. Oliver ends up making an exception.

One plot thread of Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls concerns an important Government Man who consults Mma. Precious Ramotswe on a private matter. He believes that his new sister-in-law is poisoning his brother and plotting to kill him. He wants Mma. Ramotswe to look into the matter and stop his sister-in-law before it’s too late. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to take the case, and travels to the Government Man’s home village, where his brother and sister-in-law live. There she gets to know the various members of the household. She feels a little uncomfortable exploring her client’s suspicions and still being treated as a guest, and matters are not made easier by the tension in the household. Then one afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she recovers a bit, Mma. Ramotswe pieces together what happened. She finds out some surprising truths about the household too.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack introduces readers to Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, a Buenos Aires police officer at a time (the late 1970s) when it’s very dangerous to live in Argentina. One day, he and his team raid a brothel. They make a few arrests, but several people get away because they have ties to people who are in power. Lescano is making a final walk-through when he discovers a young woman Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. She looks eerily like Lescano’s dead wife Marisa, so almost as a reflex action, he shelters her in his home. Eva is grateful to be rescued (we learn as the story goes on why she was hiding). But she has no reason at all to trust Lescano. He’s a police officer and in her experience, the police are brutal and sadistic. But he asks nothing of her. Lescano finds himself drawn to Eva, at first because of her resemblance to Marisa. As time goes by though, he gets to know Eva just a bit (she is not forthcoming), and finds her own personality appealing too. Eva’s stay with Lescano certainly has its awkwardness. Neither really trusts the other, especially at first. But they become allies.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, fledgling psyciatrist Stephanie Anderson meets a new patient Elisabeth Clark. After several sessions, Elisabeth begins to open up just a little. She has had mental and emotional problems since the abduction of her younger sister Gracie several years earlier. Gracie was never found, and the experience still haunts the family. It also haunts Stephanie, who lost her own younger sister Gemma in a similar way seventeen years earlier. Little by little, Elisabeth starts to put her life together again, and Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who wrought this havoc on both families. She travels from Dunedin, where she’s been living and working, to her home town of Wanaka. As one of her stops, she is invited to stay with Elisabeth’s father Andy, who is deeply grateful for his daughter’s returning mental health. In fact, he’s so grateful to Stephanie that he insists she stay as long as she wants at the lodge he owns, free of charge, as his guest. Although she doesn’t really even know Andy, Stephanie finds herself beginning to relax for the first time in a long time, and the visit prepares her to face the devastation her family suffered.

One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing team’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. More than once, Bess becomes a guest in someone’s home as she investigates mysteries. In A Duty to the Dead for instance, she is invited to visit the Graham family at Owlhurst in Kent. She nursed Arthur Graham before his death from battlefield wounds; in the process, he came to know and trust her and the feeling was mutual. So he gave her a very cryptic message, insisting that she commit it to memory and that she deliver it in person to his brother Jonathan. Bess is reluctant, but an injury of her own gives her the opportunity to pass along the message during her convalescence in England. The visit to Owlhurst is a very difficult one. For one thing, there is a great deal of tension in the family. For another, Bess learns that this family has many secrets. Having delivered Arthur’s message, Bess would actually just as soon end her visit, but she’s drawn into an emergency situation. Before she knows it, Bess is also drawn into a larger case of past murder and present death, all relating to that message.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. One afternoon, Paul Fowler and some friends are tossing a football around when he suddenly collapses. It’s soon determined that he was killed by a sniper’s bullet, and New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare investigate. They look into the lives of Fowler’s ex-wife Trina as well as the lives of his friends, and make some interesting discoveries. One of them is that Fowler had been laid off from his job, and was staying with a friend Seth Garland. When the team visits Garland’s home, they find a stark difference between the two men’s lifestyles. Garland is neat and orderly; Fowler…was not. I can say without spoiling the story that that difference isn’t the reason Fowler was killed. But it’s that sort of thing that can make being (or hosting) a house guest a challenge.

Whether you’ve been one or had them, the house guest situation can be delightful. But it’s also got lots of logistical and other challenges. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here because I’ve got to go count towels and sheets and plan food shopping. Your turn…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Wiggly Tendrils’ Song of the Grateful House-Guests.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Paddy Richardson

There Doesn’t Seem to Be Anyone Around*

Remote LocationsCrime fiction fans like their stories to be believable. And in a real-life murder, one of the challenges the killer faces is what to do with the body of the victim. In some cases, the body can be left at the scene of the murder. But in other situations, doing so could point the proverbial finger right at the murderer. For example, if the victim is killed in the murderer’s home or office, suspicion usually falls fairly quickly on the culprit. So the body has to be moved. Modern police forensics testing can determine whether a body’s been moved, but even so, moving a body can make it more challenging in a lot of ways to catch a killer. So of course, fictional murderers take this into account too.

When it’s possible, a lot of killers (at least fictional ones) like remote and inaccessible places. Even if the body is discovered at some point, enough time usually has gone by to make the detection process very difficult. That’s what the killer counts on in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow. In that novel, Algonquin Bay (Ontario) police detectives John Cardinal and Lise Delorme investigate when the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. She’s been missing for five months by that time, and as we learn in the novel, the trail has gotten cold. So Cardinal and Delorme face a difficult challenge in connecting her with her killer. In fact, it’s not until there’s another murder that they can really get some of the leads they need to find out the truth.

Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe is a Wellington-based missing persons expert. So she is consulted when the body of an unknown man is discovered in Rimutaka State Forest. The place where the body was found is in remote part of the forest, so it’s not surprising that it’s been there for a very long time. In fact, Rowe learns that the body has been there since the mid-1970s. At this point there’s vey little evidence to go on, but Rowe uses the little bits of information she does have to try to find out who the man was. The fact that the body was found in such an inacessible place certainly doesn’t make her task any easier, but Rowe eventually learns the truth about this ‘John Doe.’

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe Mma. Precious Ramotswe meets a new client, American ex-pat Andrea Curtin. Ten years ago, she and her husband were living in Botswana with their son Michael. When his parents returned to the US, Michael chose to remain behind and join an eco-commune. Not very long after joining that community he disappeared and was presumed killed by an animal. Now Andrea has returned to try to get some closure and find out what really happened to her son. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to find out what she can. Little by little, she traces Michael’s last months and weeks and in the end, she discovers the truth. Throughout the investigation though, her efforts are made all the more difficult by the fact that the community is in such a remote area that just about anything could have happened, and no-one would know.

Some fictional killers opt for bodies of water as places to leave bodies. The advantage of that is that lots of evidence gets washed away or at the very least considerably altered. That can often include evidence like time of death. That’s what happens for instance in Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Superintendant Peter Diamond. One evening, the body of an unknown woman is found at Chew Valley Lake, near Bristol. It’s difficult to discover who the victim is at first, in part because of having been submerged. After a few false starts, the woman is identified as TV personality Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman. Because the body’s been left at the lake, it’s very difficult to trace the body back to the scene of the actual murder, and thus to the killer. Superintedant Peter Diamond and his assistant John Wigfull start of course with the victim’s husband. But there’s no clear evidence against him; nor is there an obvious motive. And there turn out to be other suspects too. As it turns out, the fact that the body was left in the lake add several complications to the case.

The first of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels, Roseanna, begins with the discovery of the body of an unknown woman in Sweden’s Lake Vattern. By the time the body is discovered, it’s been several months since the murder, and that’s one reason for which it’s very difficult to find out who the woman is. But after some time, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was visiting Sweden when she was killed. The water has not just hidden the body, but also obliterated obvious evidence. So it takes a great deal of time and effort for Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck and his team to connect the victim with her killer. In the end though, and after a lot of perseverance, the team solves the case. There are of course lots of other examples too of fictional killers who use water as a place to leave a body (I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase and of Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach).

For a different and darkly funny take on moving bodies, you may want to check out Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed. When Tadgh Maguire wakes one more morning after a night of drinking, he has much bigger problems than just his hangover. The body of local gangster Tony Marino is next to him in his bead. Maguire knows how short his life span will become if it gets around that he killed Marino, so he decides that the only thing to do is move the body. And that’s when the real trouble begins…

The less evidence there is, the harder it is for the police to link a murder victim to a killer. And the harder it is to find a body, the more time goes by and the less evidence is available. So it’s little wonder there are so many fictional examples of bodies left in remote areas or iin water. Ther are dozens of examples in crime fiction; which ones stand out for you?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of the Mojave Desert of Eastern California and Western Nevada. Lots of likely places there…
 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ritchie Cordell’s I Think We’re Alone Now, made famous by Tommy James and the Shondells.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Donna Malane, Dorothy Sayers, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter Lovesey, Rob Kitchin

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

Move Along, Move Along, Just to Make it Through*

StayingStrongIn Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife Gerda were visiting Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell at their country home at the time he was killed, and among other possibilities, Poirot and Inspector Grange consider all of the people in that house party. One of them is Christow’s mistress Hentrietta Savernake, who’s a well-known sculptor. It’s not spoiling the story, I think, to say that she loved Christow, probably more than she wanted. So his death has devastated her. That’s not to mention the difficulty of being involved in a police investigation. Yet, here is what Poirot says to her:

 

‘But you are one of those who can live with a sword in their hearts – who can go on and smile –’

 

He’s right. Henrietta isn’t by any means perfect. But she is a strong character who goes on and survives despite the things that happen to her.

That sort of character can be very refreshing, especially considering the number of ‘demon-haunted’ fictional sleuths who find it very hard to go on with life. It’s a tricky balance to create such a character too. On the one hand, it wouldn’t be realistic if characters had no ill effects from things they’d been through in life. When we go through tragedy, it affects us deeply. On the other hand, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of creating a character who drowns sorrows in drink, or who can’t possibly have functional relationships. For a lot of readers, that sort of character has become so commonplace as to be almost a trope now, and that can be off-putting. But there are crime-fictional characters who strike that balance. Here are just a few.

Tony Hillerman’s ‘Legendary Lieutenant’ Joe Leaphorn has had his share of sadness and tragedy. As a young person, he was put under enormous pressure, as were many members of his generation, to give up his Navajo ways and adopt Western clothes, beliefs, lifestyle and so on. Even now, Leaphorn sometimes feels quite separated from his cultural identity, although he is accepted as ‘one of us’ by his people. He married a more traditional Navajo woman Emma, who turned out to be the love of his life. When Emma dies in the course of the series, Leaphorn is devastated. He’s lost a part of himself. And yet, he doesn’t drown himself in drink or behave self-destructively. He picks up his pieces, as the saying goes, and moves on with his life. In fact, as time goes on, he meets another woman Professor Louisa Bourbonette, who studies anthropology and gets involved in few of his cases. The two develop a relationship that works for both of them. It’s not the marriage he had with Emma; it couldn’t be. But it shows his ability to make a life after tragedy.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve shows a similar kind of strength. In the first of this series Deadly Appearances, we learn that she was widowed when her husband Ian was murdered one night when he stopped to help a stranded couple. She’s had to raise their three children by herself and of course, cope with her own grief. In the course of the series, other things happen in her life too, and some of them are frightening and very, very sad. But she doesn’t succumb to those things. Even at her worst moments, she moves along as best she can with her life. In fact, she has other relationships and even marries again. In Joanne’s character, Bowen balances acknowledging the very real loss and grief that happens when you lose a loved one with strength of human spirit.

The same could be said of Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer. An Oslo police inspector, he lost his beloved wife Elise to cancer after twenty years of marriage, and he continues to feel her loss deeply. He misses her all the time. And yet, Fossum doesn’t fall into the trap of making Sejer a pitiable wreck who drinks too much, can’t interact, and …well, you get the idea. Sejer builds his life again the best that he can. He has a strong relationship with his daughter Ingrid and dotes on his grandson Matteus. He develops a relationship too with psychiatrist Sara Struel. The two are not obsessed with each other, but each fills an important place in the other’s life.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She made a disastrous choice of marriage partner in musician Note Mokoti, who turned out to be abusive. She also had to face admitting as much to her father Obed Ramotswe, who’d always suspected as much, when she moved back in with him. What’s more, she lost her only child. That’s enough grief to set anyone back for a long time, perhaps permanently. And Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t deny that she has had her share of suffering in life. And yet, she gets on with the business of living, even after the death of her beloved father. She starts her own detective agency, she remains a part of the community’s social life, and she even marries again. Her second husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni proves to be a much better choice of partner, and Mma. Ramotswe learns to find contentment in her life. She also finds that she’s quite good at the detection business.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is also made of sturdy stuff. A WWII veteran, he’s seen his share of death and inhumanity in the war and at times it haunts him. He’s had a difficult time settling back into peacetime Australia, too. He’s had other sadness in his life as well, and we could understand it if he gave up completely. But as we see in The Diggers Rest Hotel, Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues, he doesn’t crumple up. He makes a real life for himself, complete with a wife Rebecca whom he loves, and two children whom he also loves deeply. Life has its bad moments for Charlie Berlin, but he gets back to the business of living. At the same time, he doesn’t deny some of the awfulness of what he’s seen and had to do.

That’s a difficult balance to achieve, but when it works, the result can be a really memorable and even admirable character. I’ve only touched on a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the All-American Rejects’ Move Along.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Karin Fossum, Tony Hillerman

From the Beginning*

Book BeginningsIt can be very tricky to write the beginning lines of a book. Many readers decide within the first paragraph whether they’re interested in reading the story or not. And even for readers who wait a bit longer to decide how they feel about a story, the first few words are important ‘hooks.’ So most authors put a lot of thought into how they’ll start a story. Perhaps that’s even a bit of the reason that some writers find it challenging to begin the actual writing of a novel.

Crime novels start in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes, the first sentence tells the reader right away that things are not going to go well. One of the best examples of that (at least in my opinion) is the famous first sentence of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone:
 

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

Of course Rendell goes on to explain how it all started, who the Coverdales are, who Eunice Parchman is and so on. But right from the very start we know that something terrible is going to happen.

That’s also true in Liza Marklund’s The Bomber, which begins this way:
 

‘The woman who was soon to die stepped cautiously out of the door and glanced around.’
 

Later that night, she is indeed killed, and her body discovered in the wreckage of a bomb blast. When Kvällspressen crime editor Annika Bengtzon is told about the blast, she rushes as quickly as she can to Victoria Stadium, in the Olympic Village that’s been recently constructed for the upcoming Games. The dead woman is later identified as Stockholm business/civic leader Christine Furhage, and immediately the suspicion is raised that the bombing is the work of terrorists. There are other possibilities though, and Bengtzon and her teammates work to find out who really killed the victim and why. The tension continues throughout the story, but we know from the first sentence that something is going to go very, very wrong.

Of course, not all stories start that way. Some authors choose to build suspense by contrasting what happens later in a novel with a more optimistic beginning. Here, for example, is the first bit of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile:
 

Linnet Ridgeway!’
‘That’s her!’ said Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the three Crowns.’
 

Burnaby and his friend are referring to the wealthy and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway, who’s just purchased Wode Hall. In the first few pages of the story, we learn that she seems to have it all: looks, money, brains. She’s the kind of young woman many other people envy. Christie chooses to slowly build the suspense by contrasting that bright beginning with what happens later in the novel, as Linnet marries Simon Doyle, former fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort. They take a honeymoon cruise of the Nile, and on the second night of that trip, Linnet is shot. Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are aboard the same ship and they work to find out who the killer is.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives also begins on a bright, optimistic sort of note:
 

‘The Welcome Wagon lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity…twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, ‘You’re really going to like it here! It’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a better choice!”
 

And at first, the small, pretty town of Stepford, Connecticut does seem like an idyllic place for Joanna Eberhart, her husband Walter and their two children Pete and Kim. They settle in and before long they’ve made friends and begun to become a part of community life. Slowly, though, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something is very, very wrong in Stepford and it turns out that they’re all too right…

There are also authors who choose to use the beginnings of their stories to set the scene and give the reader a sense of time and place. That can be effective too, as a sense of atmosphere and setting can add much to a novel. Here, for instance, is the beginning of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency:
 

‘Mma. Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter.’
 

McCall Smith goes on to describe the part of Botswana where Mma. Ramotswe’s agency is located. In this first novel in the series, he also introduces Mma. Ramotswe’s first cases, and gives background on her and her family. This approach gives the reader a strong sense of place and culture, and invites the reader to be drawn into the stories once the scene is set.
 

That’s also the case in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead, which begins this way:
 

‘The wall was made of big, rounded stones covered in grayish white lichen, and it was the same height as the boy…Everything was gray and misty on the other side.’
 

Theorin goes on to explain that this is a garden wall, and describes the boy’s first journey to the other side of that wall. Soon afterwards the boy, whose name is Jens, disappears. His family is of course devastated. In fact, his mother Julia is so distraught that she leaves Öland, where the story takes place, intending not to return. Twenty-five years later, Jens’ grandfather Gerlof Davidsson receives a strange package that contains one of the sandals Jens was wearing on the day he disappeared. Hoping he’ll at last get answers, Davidsson contacts Julia, who reluctantly returns to Öland. The two then work to find out what happened to Jens on that terrible day.

There are of course other ways to begin a novel. There isn’t a set ‘rule’ for how to start. The key is that whatever the author chooses needs to get the reader wanting to find out more. What’s your view on this? Do you prefer novels that start by letting you know something terrible is going to happen? Do you like optimistic beginnings that soon change to something quite different? What about beginnings that set the scene? Perhaps you have another preference? If you’re a writer, how do you prefer to get readers ‘hooked?’
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Greg Lake.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Johan Theorin, Liza Marklund, Ruth Rendell