Category Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

But Don’t You Step on My Blue Suede Shoes*

ShoesNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books wrote a very interesting piece for the Guardian book blog about shoes in literature. Footwear really does say a lot about us, which is why it plays such a prominent role in crime fiction. Before I go any further about that, let me invite you to check out Clothes in Books – a treasure trove of insights about shoes, clothes, culture and what it all says about us in fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes always learns quite a lot from what people wear, and that includes their shoes. In A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Holmes and Watson haven’t seen much of each other lately, but here is what Holmes says:

 

‘How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?’ 

 

The answer to that question is shoes. Holmes can tell by slit marks on the inside of Watson’s left shoe that mud was scraped from it by someone very careless. Simplicity itself, as Holmes says. Granted, the focus of this particular mystery isn’t Watson’s shoes, but it’s an interesting example of the way Holmes uses evidence that he finds in footwear.

So does Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Although he generally isn’t one to look for things like cigarette ash and footprints, he does use physical clues at times. Just as one example, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Poirot is leaving the office of his dentist Henry Morley when he sees a woman getting out of a taxi. She’s wearing a pair of shoes with buckles on them and accidentally tears off one of the buckles. In a rather funny scene, Poirot returns the buckle to her and she goes into the office while he goes on his own way. Poirot learns later that Morley has been shot and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. And part of that process is interviewing all of the people who visited the dentist on the fatal day. One of those people is Miss Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, the owner of the shoe with the torn-off buckle. Not long after that interview, there’s another death. And then Miss Sainsbury Seale disappears. It’s clear now that there’s more going on here than the murder of one dentist. In the end, Poirot and Japp find out the truth, and one important clue comes from that torn-off shoe buckle.

Christie fans will know that Poirot himself would never consider worn-down or broken shoes. He much prefers his polished, pointed-toe, patent leather shoes. He even wears them at times when something more comfortable would be much more appropriate. But as he puts it, he likes to be soigné.

Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman sees Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte traveling to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall. Bony is working on that case when there’s another death. Itinerant worker John Way seems to have committed suicide in the same isolated hut where Kendall’s body was found. This is a complex and carefully-planned series of events, but Bony finds out who’s behind them and what the motive is. And one of the things that help him get to the truth is a particular kind of footwear.

Shoes also figure in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath. LAPD Detective Peter Decker is investigating a series of rapes committed by a man dubbed the Foothill Rapist. So far he and his partner Marge Dunn haven’t had a lot of luck. Then comes the news that there’s been a rape at a secluded yeshiva – an Orthodox Jewish community and place of learning. At first Decker and Dunn think that this rape has also been committed by the Foothill Rapist. But there are some differences between this incident and the others. One of them is shoes. The other victims were all wearing high-heeled shoes, but this victim was wearing sandals. It’s not conclusive evidence that this is a different culprit, but it does make Decker wonder. Then, there’s a brutal murder at the same yeshiva. Now it’s clear that something is going on there that’s likely quite separate from the Foothill Rapist cases. Decker works with Dunn and with Rina Lazarus, who lives at the yeshiva, to find out what’s behind the events there.

Footwear plays a very important role in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead. Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson has lived on the island of Øland all of his life, and knows most of its residents and a lot of its secrets. One day, he gets a shocking package – a sandal belonging to his grandson Jens. Jens was wearing those sandals when he disappeared twenty years earlier, and no trace of him has ever been found. His mother Julia was so distraught at his disappearance that she left the island, planning never to return. When she finds out about the sandal, she reluctantly returns to Øland to help find out the truth about Jens. As Julia and her father face the past, we learn how the island’s history and secrets people have been keeping still have an effect.

Chief Inspector William Wisting of the Stavern, Norway police has to deal with a grisly collection of shoes in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs. The main action in that novel begins with a left foot clad in a training shoe washes up on the beach. Soon after that, another left foot, also wearing a shoe, is discovered. And then another. The media and the public come up with all sorts of theories, including the possibility that some kind of twisted serial killer is at work. Wisting and his team know that the more quickly they figure out who the feet belonged to, the more likely it is that they’ll solve this case. So they go back through the records of missing persons. They discover that list of people missing could very well be related to the case of the shoes and feet that have been discovered. Bit by bit, the team ties the two major threads of the case together.

Shoes are very important to Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In fact, in a few of the novels, they even speak to her. And in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she learns the importance of buying shoes that are not just attractive, but comfortable too. One day she and her boss, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, are out together when she sees a beautiful pair of blue shoes with red linings. They’re elegant, but not particularly practical, and Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t think they’ll be comfortable. But she knows that Mma. Makutsi loves shoes. So she doesn’t say too much when the purchase is made. But when Mma. Makutsi wears them to work the next day, it’s obvious that she’s uncomfortable:

 

‘…there were some pairs of shoes that would never be broken in. Shoes that were too small were usually too small for reason: they were intended for people with small feet.’

 

Mma. Makutsi runs into more shoe trouble in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, when she wears a pair of dressy shoes to a job placement agency. She and Mma. Ramotswe have had a serious difference and she’s looking around for a new position. On her way back from what turns out to be a difficult time at the agency, Mma. Makutsi breaks the heel of her shoe. It’s not a good day for her.

Fans of Anne Zouroudi’s enigmatic sleuth Hermes Diaktoros will know that he always wears white sneakers which he takes great pains to keep pristine. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh has the same footwear preference.  And that’s the thing about shoes. We all have our own preferences and unique way of walking in our shoes. In that way, they are arguably nearly as individual as people are. Little wonder they matter so much in crime fiction.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. Listen to his version and Elvis Presley’s version and decide which one you like better.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anne Zouroudi, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Faye Kellerman, Jørn Lier Horst, Johan Theorin

While the Roadies Rig the Video Surveillance Van*

SurveillanceDetectives know that it’s not enough to just ask questions of witnesses and suspects. After all, people lie, or they don’t remember things accurately, or they find it convenient not to mention certain things. So detectives sometimes engage in surveillance. That might involve watching a certain place to see who comes and goes. Or it might involve following a certain person or people. Surveillance is time-consuming and it can be tedious, especially if there are a long periods of inactivity. But it’s a part of many real-life investigations. And it’s a part of crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he frequently does surveillance. That’s part of the reason for which he keeps somewhat odd hours. Dr. Watson does his share of surveillance too. In one instance, The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Violet Smith hires Holmes to help her solve an odd mystery. She is employed as a piano teacher at Chiltern Grange and lives there during the week. On Fridays she goes to London to visit her mother and on Monday mornings she returns to Chiltern Grange. All goes well enough until one Friday when Violet notices that a man is following her as she rides her bicycle to the train station. On Monday when she returns, the same man follows her from the station towards Chiltern Grange. The man doesn’t get close enough to be physically threatening but Violet is understandably worried. Watson travels to the Chiltern Grange area and takes up a stakeout near the part of the road where Violet has reported seeing this strange man. Sure enough, she is telling the truth. He and Holmes look more closely into the matter and find out that Violet is in a great deal more danger than she might have thought. Surveillance plays a key role in this story.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot generally eschews surveillance, preferring to use his ‘little grey cells’ to solve cases. Besides, as he will admit, he doesn’t have the resources to be everywhere at once. So as a rule, he leaves surveillance to others. Yet it still crops up in Christie’s work. For instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot, who does business as Madame Giselle, is on a flight from Paris to London. During the flight she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the flight, one of whom is Hercule Poirot. He works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed Madame Giselle and why. One of the other passengers is London hair stylist’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s not a very likely suspect but of course, being mixed up in a murder case does impact her. One evening she and another passenger Norman Gale are having dinner when they notice that yet another passenger is at the same restaurant. He is detective novelist Mr. Clancy, whom the police already suspect (after all, we know that mystery novelists are quite suspicious ;-) ). On impulse Grey and Gale decide to follow Mr. Clancy and see where he goes after he finishes his meal. It’s a funny set of scenes as they practice the art of discreetly following someone. And Mr. Clancy certainly acts suspiciously…

Sue Grafton’s PI Kinsey Millhone occasionally does investigative work for California Fidelity Insurance Company, in exchange for which she has the use of office space in their suite. One of the sub-plots of A is for Alibi concerns a California Fidelity case that Millhone takes on. Marcia Threadgill is claiming disability related to a fall, and the insurance company wants Millhone to follow up on that claim. The idea is that Millhone will ‘rubber stamp’ the insurance company’s approval of the payout. So Millhone follows Threadgill, takes ‘photos and observes her carefully. What she finds is that Threadgill is committing insurance fraud. The original claim was credible enough for the company to be prepared to pay; it takes surveillance to prove that it was fraudulent.

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series features Mma. Precious Ramotswe, a private detective who does her share of surveillance in her way. But in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive it’s her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni who does the surveillance. Much as he loves his work as the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, he’s been looking for something a little different to do from time to time. He gets his chance when a new client Faith Botumile wants to hire Mma. Ramotswe’s agency. She believes that her husband has been unfaithful and wants to know who the other woman is. Mma. Ramotswe happens to be out when Mma. Botumile arrives, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni takes down the information. Since he is the one who had the first contact with the client, Mma. Ramotswe thinks it makes sense for him to follow up on the case. Mma. Botumile is rude, harshly critical and unpleasant, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni can well understand how the husband of a woman like her might stray. But she is a client so he takes up working on the case. Part of his task is following Mr. Botumile to find out what he does after work. So Mr. J.L.B. Matakoni does that, and turns up some surprising results.

It isn’t just private investigators who conduct surveillance. The police do their share of it too. Let me just give two examples. In one plot thread of Jane Casey’s The Burning, DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met are on the trail of a killer whom the press has dubbed the Burning Man because he tries to destroy his victims’ bodies with fire. At one point the police catch a man they think is the murderer, but then another body is discovered. So they have to start over again. After more time goes by with no real leads, it’s decided to set up a surveillance operation in a local park – the sort of place that has so far appealed to the killer. Kerrigan joins one of the surveillance teams and everyone settles in for a long night. With one of the cops serving as ‘bait,’ everyone watches and waits. It’s a really interesting depiction of how cold, uncomfortable and frustrating surveillance can be. And how dangerous it can be. It’s little wonder that the cops don’t generally set up large-scale surveillance operations on a whim.

In Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, New South Wales Police Detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the murder of Paul Fowler. He’s tossing a football around with a few friends one afternoon when he’s shot. Part of the process of finding out who killed Fowler is talking to everyone in his life, including his ex-wife Trina. The police duly interview her, but although she talks to them, it’s soon clear that she’s hiding something. It could be something relatively innocent, but the police can’t risk the chance. And Trina is good at keeping her own counsel. So it’s decided to follow her, to find out where she goes and whom she sees, and to follow up on any of her ‘phone calls. That surveillance proves to be very useful in solving the Fowler case.

And that’s the thing about surveillance. It can be frustrating and time-consuming, even with modern CCTV cameras. But it can also yield important information. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather). Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Working Undercover For the Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Casey, Katherine Howell, Rex Stout, Sue Grafton

Everything is Changing But the Song Remains the Same*

BritMuseumChange is inevitable in any culture. Sometimes those changes are for the better, and sometimes they bring trouble. But always they affect the way we think. The tension between new developments and cultural change on the one hand, and the comfort of tradition on the other, can make for a really interesting subtext in a novel. And since cultural change is a fact of life, that sort of tension is also realistic.

Agatha Christie held up a mirror to a lot of the cultural changes that came to her society, especially after World War II. To take just one example, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of wealthy Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral and the reading of the will. During that gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and Cora herself urges the rest not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, the family members do begin to wonder. When Cora is murdered the next day, it seems even more likely that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and arranges for the family members to gather at the family home Enderby to choose mementos from among Abernethie’s things. Among other things that come up for discussion is the set of cultural changes that have led to the breakup of the old Victorian estates, and the new generation that has quite different cultural values. Oh, and that weekend yields an important clue to the murderer.

There have been many fundamental changes to Chinese culture over the last hundred years. And within the last twenty-five years there’ve been even more, as China has integrated some elements of capitalism into her economy. The tensions among traditional Chinese culture, Mao-style communism and modern Chinese-style capitalism form an interesting undercurrent in Qiu Xiaolong’s series featuring Shanghai police inspector Chen Cao. Besides his police work, Chen is a poet who reads and enjoys classic Chinese poetry. He also does translations of some English-language work into Chinese, so he has a sense of modern Western thought. The Shanghai in which he works still has elements of the Mao years, and many of the characters we meet in the novels remember the years of the Cultural Revolution and all of its effects. And yet, Shanghai is also in some ways a very modern city in which elements of capitalism are now becoming woven into the social fabric. In the characters’ actions, viewpoints and so on, we see how the many changes China has gone through have resulted in some fascinating larger questions. For instance, can China embrace elements of capitalism without also embracing all of Western culture? Where do traditional Chinese family structure, values and philosophy fit in, if they do? The Inspector Chen series is certainly a crime fiction series, but it also addresses these larger questions.

We also see some of tension that change has brought to the Chinese culture in Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Susan Tan is First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in China. She has requested that Inspector Singh of the Singapore Police be sent to Beijing to find out what has happened to her son. Justin Tan was killed one night in what the police have called a robbery gone very wrong. And there is evidence to support that theory. That’s also the theory that both governments find most expedient, if tragic. But Tan suspects there’s more to the story, and Inspector Singh has developed a reputation for finding answers. So very reluctantly, he travels to Beijing where he begins to look into the case. As he investigates, readers see some of the cultural changes that have come to that part of China, and the tensions they’ve caused. There is still a strong element among some of the characters of family loyalty, filial duty and traditional Chinese values and beliefs. We also see the effect of Maoist cultural and political values; in fact, there is an interest in reviving some of those values. We also see the element of modern capitalism. Here is what one character says about the effect of some of these changes:

 

‘‘The government pays lip service to his [Mao’s] memory, but the hero worship of past eras is over.’
‘And what about the ordinary people?’ [Singh]
‘The so-called proletariat?’
‘Yup.’
‘They’ve found another god to follow.’
‘Xi Jinping?’ referring to the current leader’
‘Money’…’

 

Throughout this novel it’s interesting to see how Singh, who is an outsider, perceives all of the changes and their effects on modern China.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe sees the changes that have come to Botswana and the effect that they’ve had. She’s certainly no prude, but she doesn’t always like what she sees, especially among those who seem to have forgotten traditional Botswana values. The topic comes up for instance in Morality For Beautiful Girls, in which Mr. Pulani hires the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He runs a famous beauty pageant and wants the agency’s help in choosing the winner for this year. Mma. Ramotswe is otherwise occupied, so her assistant Mma. Grace Makutsi takes the case. She interviews the four finalists and in her discussions with them, there’s a larger discussion about modern values, traditional values and how they have affected Botswana.

The Thai culture has changed a great deal over the years as it’s come into contact with Westerners. And we see some of that change in Angela Savage’s series featuring Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney. One the one hand, there is a strong thread of traditional Thai culture, family structure, values and spirituality. It’s woven into the lives of several of the characters who appear in Savage’s novels. Keeney herself is not Thai, but she has learned about these traditional ways and respects them. At the same time, the culture is changing. There’s an influence of Western music, food, and of course, Western values. In some ways this change has helped Thailand to be a part of the global community. But in others, we can see that the changes have not all been positive. That tension adds a solid thread of both context and conflict to these novels.

Culture change and the tension that it can bring are a reality of life. So it’s not surprising that they also form a solid undercurrent to crime fiction.

 

ps. The ‘photo? I think it shows cultural change in action. That’s the very traditional and lovely British Museum. The people there are the face of modern London, with all of the cultural change that’s happened in that city.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Qiu Xiaolong, Shamini Flint

Let’s Make a Difference People*

Charity FundraisingWriters notice things about human nature; that’s how believable characters come to life. The writer can take a given trait and make it work in any number of ways in a story, too. Just as an example, let’s consider a trait that I admire in people – human generosity. Many people are happy to donate their time, talent or money for a good cause or to help each other. That’s one aspect of human nature that gives me cause for hope. I think we need it and I think we’re better as a species when we nurture it. 

If we look at some of the ways crime fiction authors explore this trait, we see how it can be used to further a story, too, even if the story is about murder. It’s really a matter of tapping into something humans do and are in real life and using that to serve the story. Exploitative? Maybe a little. But that’s part of the way the author adds credibility to characters. 

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), famous actress Marina Gregg and her husband Justin Rudd have purchased Gossington Hall in St. Mary Mead. In part to win over the locals, the new owners decide to carry on the Gossington Hall tradition of an annual charity fête. Nobody could be happier about this than Heather Badcock, who is a fan of Marina Gregg’s, and is very excited to see her idol. On the day of the fête, everyone gathers at Gossington Hall to support a good cause and of course, to see the house, the grounds, and their famous owners. Heather gets the chance to actually speak to Marina Gregg and she’s delighted. But soon afterwards she gets terribly ill and later dies from what turns out to be a poisoned drink. At first it’s believed that Marina Gregg was the intended victim and there are certainly suspects if that’s the case. But soon enough, we learn that Heather was the intended victim all along. Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry work together to find out who killed the victim and why. 

Rex Stout’s Champagne For One features another charity event, this time a dinner/dance to benefit the women of Grantham Hall, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. Part of the agenda for this annual event is that some of these young ladies will be introduced to life among ‘the better classes’ and perhaps even meet young men. It’s been hosted for quite a while by wealthy socialite Louise Robilotti, and this year’s dinner/dance promises to be as much of a success as the others have been. A very reluctant Archie Goodwin is persuaded to take a friend’s place at the event, so he’s on the scene when one of the guests Faith Usher suddenly dies of cyanide poisoning. Goodwin was told earlier in the evening that Faith had brought cyanide with her, and had planned to commit suicide. So there’s every reason at first to believe that she carried out her threat. Goodwin doesn’t believe it though. So despite a great deal of pressure to leave the case alone, Goodwin begins to ask questions. In this case, we see how the busy setting of a charity event can be an effective setting for a murder. And it’s also interesting to see how this benefit is perceived by the young women themselves. 

In Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), we meet CC de Poitiers, who’s become famous as a lifestyle guru. In her personal life though, she’s abusive and unpleasant, so she quickly alienates everyone when she moves with her family to the rural Québec town of Three Pines not long before Christmas. The local custom is an annual holiday pancake breakfast and curling match event in aid of the local hospital and de Poitiers and her family attend. During the curling match, she suddenly dies of what turns out to be electrocution. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate the case, and they soon discover that there are several people who could have wanted the victim dead. Before they find out who the killer is, the team members will have to find out how the murderer got to the victim in full view of everyone at the event. Penny explores the human desire to help others and be charitable in other ways too in this novel, but I don’t want to give away spoilers. 

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide also features an important benefit event. This time it’s a charity dinner and art auction hosted by socialite and beauty-pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. She may be hosting a benefit event, but Tristan is certainly not a kind, generous person. She’s malicious and vindictive, and the event certainly isn’t motivated by genuine altruism. Still, a lot of people show up for the dinner and art auction. One of the featured artists is Sara Taylor, who’s had a serious argument with Tristan about one particular painting. When Sara’s mother-in-law Lulu discovers Tristan’s body during the big event, both she and Sara come under suspicion. In order to clear their names, Lulu looks into the case to find out who else would have wanted to commit the murder, and it turns out that there are several possibilities. The human tendency to want to give to and help others plays a role in this story (no spoilers) that goes beyond just the benefit, and it’s interesting to see how it’s worked in. 

A high-profile charity art auction forms an important element in Gail Bowen’s The Gifted. In one plot thread of this novel, former academic and political expert Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack are involved with the Racette-Hunter Centre. That’s a community building intended as the central focus of a redevelopment project for North Regina. As a part of this effort, fundraising Chair Lauren Treadgold and her husband Vince have planned a gilt-edged fundraising art auction. Joanne and Zack’s fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor has had two of her paintings chosen for the auction. On the one hand, this is a real coup for Taylor, who is both truly gifted and truly passionate about her art. On the other, her parents are concerned. They don’t want her to grow up too fast, and the recognition that she’ll get as a result of the auction will, as one character says, ‘change everything’ for Taylor. Still, Taylor’s work is included in the auction. Her parents have seen one of her pieces, but not the other. On the night of the big event, the other piece of art is revealed, and that has drastic consequences for many of the people involved. 

Of course, not all charity and fundraising events end that way. For instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, local orphanage director Mma. Silvia Potokwane plans a benefit event in aid of the orphanage. One of the things that will be featured is a parachute jump. Mma. Potokwane has a way of getting people to do what she wants, so against his better judgement, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni agrees to do the parachute jump. After all, it’s for a very good cause. The closer the event gets though, the more uncertain he is about going through with the jump. Still, he doesn’t want to let Mma. Potokwane down. Finally, with help from Mma. Precious Ramotswe, he comes up with a solution. One of his assistants is persuaded to take his place. The assistant is all too happy to get his name in the paper and get some attention (mostly from girls). Mma. Potokwane will get the funds the orphanage needs. And Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni won’t have to actually do the parachute jump himself.

The trait of being willing to give to others and be generous is an important way that we keep moving on. I’m glad it’s part of who we are as humans. It’s also a fascinating trait to explore in crime fiction. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. I’ll bet you can think of lots more than I ever could.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Los Lonely Boys’ Believe

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Riley Adams

Around the Corner the Skies Are Blue*

Rays of HopeWhether it’s fictional or real, murder is of course a horrible crime, and well-written crime novels don’t make light of that. But on the other hand, a novel in which there is no ray of hope or reason to be positive can be awfully depressing. That’s why it can add much to a novel if there is a character with a positive outlook on life: one who can make us see that everything will work out somehow or other. I’m not talking here about comic relief; that’s another topic entirely. Rather, I mean characters whose overall positive outlook on life can lighten an otherwise dark story.

One such character is Robert Crais’ L.A.-based PI Elvis Cole. Part of Cole’s appeal is that he has a sometimes wisecracking sense of humour and he isn’t overly pessimistic. He knows how horrible murder is and he doesn’t look at investigating as a fun, happy pastime. But at the same time, overall, he has the sense about life that it will be all right. For example, in The Monkey’s Raincoat, Ellen Lang hires Cole to find her husband Mort, who’s disappeared and taken their son Perry with him. Cole knows that plenty of people disappear because they want to disappear. Still, he is concerned about the boy’s safety, so he agrees to look into the matter. The situation becomes urgent when Mort is found dead, with no sign of Perry anywhere. Now Cole has to find out who killed the victim if he has any hope of finding his son. Throughout the novel, Cole does his best to support Ellen Lang and give her as much hope as he can while still being truthful. He doesn’t make light of the situation but he does take a positive attitude.

So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is no stranger to life’s sadness. The former wife of an abusive husband, Mma. Ramotswe has lost a child and her father, so she knows that life often brings sorrow. But she has an overall optimistic and positive attitude that provides a great deal of comfort and solace for her clients. For instance, in Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Ramotswe is hired by an important Government Man to find out whether his sister-in-law is, as he believes, trying to poison his brother. Mma. Ramotswe travels to the Government Man’s home village, where she begins to get to know the people in his family. One afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she is able, Mma. Ramotswe has conversations with everyone, and uses her own recall to piece together what happened. She learns how and by whom everyone was poisoned, and she uses her positive outlook on life to help resolve some issues within the family.

Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez also has an overall positive attitude about life. When he and his brother Eduard take on their first murder investigation in A Not So Perfect Crime, Eduard isn’t sure they’re prepared to look into a crime like that. He tends to be cautious and would rather focus the brothers’ efforts on cases that are more similar to what they’ve done before. But Borja has an upbeat, ‘It’ll all work out’ view of life. Besides, the client Lluís Font is powerful and wealthy. When he is accused of murdering his wife Lídia, it’s in the Martínez brothers’ interest to clear his name and build their reputation. And they do discover who the murderer is, despite some (sometimes very funny) setbacks. Throughout the novel, Borja’s positive outlook on life may be a bit on the ‘happy-go-lucky’ side, but it does serve to keep the investigation going and to complement his brother’s occasional pessimism.

It’s not always the sleuth whose positive attitude can really serve a crime novel. Sometimes other characters do that too. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a group of people who live in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Chapman herself owns a bakery in that building and through her eyes we get to meet the other residents. One of them is (retired) Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk. He’s getting on in years and at times he’s hurt or laid-up with illness. But even then, he has a more or less optimistic attitude about life. He’s an expert in the classics and often uses references from those writings to make sense of life. He’s had his own sorrows, but he proves a solid source of overall optimism and steadiness that proves a real comfort. And he has old-fashioned manners and courtesy that remind the other residents of the way it is possible to treat others.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer sometimes has very difficult and ugly cases to solve. And although he has a close relationship with his daughter Ingrid and his grand-son Matteus, he has his own share of life’s sorrows. He’s a widower who still misses his wife Elise, and he has seen some terrible things in the course of his work. But there is also optimism and hope if you will in his life. Beginning with He Who Fears the Wolf, Sejer develops a relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel. She helps him to understand some of the people who figure in that novel. That understanding helps Sejer as he investigates the murder of Halldis Horn, whose body is found in her front yard. Since she lived alone in a remote place, there aren’t many witnesses. But one likely suspect is a troubled young man named Errki Johrma who was seen in the area. The case isn’t that simple though, and Sara provides helpful insights. She is realistic and doesn’t shy away from life’s sadness. But she is also a generally optimistic, sometimes-spontaneous person who adds a bright note to Sejer’s life.

And then there’s Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, whom we meet in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That story features Jodie Evans Garrow, who meets Bridie during their childhoods. Jodie hasn’t had a lot of happiness in her life, but Bridie is positive and optimistic, with big dreams. She brings a proverbial ray of sunshine to Jodie and the girls become inseparable. Then Bridie moves away and life goes on for both of them. Later, Jodie marries Angus Garrow and settles down to what seems like an enviable life. Angus is a successful attorney, Jodie has a comfortable home and upper-middle-class lifestyle, and they have two healthy children. One day their daughter Hannah is involved in a car accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital – the same hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another baby girl whom she’s never discussed with anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal records. Now the whispers start and soon the media gets hold of the story. If the child is alive, where is she? If not, what happened to her? Did Jodie kill her? Before long the accusations become very public and Jodie is made a social pariah. Then by chance, she meets Bridie again at a book club meeting. Bridie proves the same source of support she was during the girls’ childhood and her basically positive outlook on life provides real solace for Jodie.

And that’s the thing about people and fictional characters who offer hope and have positive outlooks on life. They don’t deny that life can be hard, but they firmly believe that things will get better. Which ones do you like best?

 

In Memoriam…

 

ShirleyTemple and SidCaesar

 

This post is dedicated to the memories of two people who gave much hope and ‘sunshine’ when people needed it. This past week we lost both Shirley Temple Black and Sid Caesar. They both had private troubles, but kept on going and offered the world a hopeful look at life. For that, I am grateful. They will be much missed.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roger Edens’ and Earl Brent’s Around the Corner.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Robert Crais, Teresa Solana, Wendy James