Category Archives: Alice LaPlante

I’d Rather be Anything but Ordinary Please*

Outside the BoxOne of the things that can make a fictional sleuth or protagonist interesting and memorable is an unusual way of thinking. I’m not talking here about simple creativity of thinking although of course that can be an appealing trait. I’m really talking about a mindset that sees the world in a different way. Like anything else in a crime fiction novel, an unusual way of thinking can be overdone and so pull the reader out of the story. When that happens the sleuth is less believable. But when it’s done well, having a sleuth or other protagonist who looks at the world in a very unusual way can add richness to a story and can make for a very memorable character.

For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Queensland police inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is half Aborigine/half White. His way of looking at the world and his cases is unusual in part because of his cultural background. On the one hand, Bony is well aware of the European way of looking at life. He is a police detective, so he knows police procedure and he understands that way of thinking. At the same time, he is well versed in ‘the book of the bush.’ He thinks in terms of what the signs of the bush and nature tell him, and often gets very useful information from what he sees in nature when he investigates.  For instance, in The Bone is Pointed, Bony investigates the five-month old disappearance of Jeff Anderson, who was working Karwir Station, a ranch near Green Swamp Well, when he disappeared. One morning, Anderson went out to ride the fences on the ranch; only his horse returned. At first, everyone thought the horse (who was known for being difficult) threw him, but there is no sign of his body. No-one misses Anderson very much as he’s both sadistic and mean-tempered. But Sergeant Blake, who investigated the disappearance, now believes that Anderson either was murdered or deliberately went into hiding. Bony is assigned to investigate the man’s disappearance and begins to look into the case. He uses a very unusual but effective combination of his knowledge of the bush and the people who live there and his knowledge of police procedure and working with European-Australians to find out what really happened to Jeff Anderson.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla Jaspersen also has a very unusual way of thinking about the world. She is half-Inuit/half-White and was brought up on Greenland. So by the standards of most people in Copenhagen where she now lives, she doesn’t look at the world in the usual way. She is also a scientist who has learned to think about the world like a scientist does. And in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), she uses her unusual way of thinking to solve the mystery of the death of Isaiah Christiansen. Isaiah is a young boy, also a Greenlander by birth, who lives in the same building where Jaspersen does. When he dies after a fall from the snow-covered roof of the building, everyone puts it down to a tragic accident. But Jaspersen thinks otherwise. First, Isaiah was extremely at home in the snow and wouldn’t have made the kinds of mistakes that can end up in a tragic fall. What’s more, certain aspects of the snow and the marks in it suggest to Jespersen that the boy’s death was more than just a fall. So she begins to investigate. The answers lead Jaspersen back to Greenland and an excavation there where Isaiah’s father died. Throughout this novel, we see Jaspersen’s unusual way of thinking, at the same time both scientific and informed by her cultural background. She understands snow, ice and glaciers in a very traditional, culturally-contextual and deep way; she has a real feeling for them. At the same time she understands them from a scientific point of view and those two ways of thinking give her a very unusual perspective. They also point her in the right direction in solving this mystery.

We see a very unusual way of thinking in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. He’s high-enough functioning to communicate and to do quite a lot for himself. But he doesn’t think like ‘the rest of us’ do. When he discovers that his neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and find out who was responsible. The novel is written from Christopher’s point of view and that gives us a glimpse into how a person with his form and level of autism might see the world. It’s an interesting perspective and although Christopher is not skilled socially, we see that he is highly accurate at remembering details. His unique skills are part of what leads him to the answers he’s looking for – and to a truth about himself that he never knew.

There’s also the unique perspective of Dr. Jennifer White, whom we meet in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. White is a skilled Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in hand reconstruction. She has also been diagnosed with dementia. As the novel begins, White is still able to function fairly well although she has had to retire from active work. Her daughter Fiona and son Mark have arranged for her to have a live-in caregiver Magdalena. One night, White’s neighbour Amanda O’Toole is murdered and Detective Luton is assigned to the case. Forensic tests show that O’Toole was mutilated in a way that points to a murderer with highly developed medical skill, so Luton begins to wonder whether White might be guilty. But the evidence isn’t completely convincing, so Luton isn’t sure White is the murderer. White’s advancing dementia means she has progressively fewer lucid times and even if she did think the way ‘the rest of us do,’ Luton knows she wouldn’t be likely to admit to the murder if she is guilty. So Luton has to use all of her abilities to get to the truth about Amanda O’Toole’s murder. It turns out that the O’Toole and White families have a long history together and that this murder has everything to do with their pasts. Since this novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, we get to see the case unfold through the eyes of someone who thinks in a very unusual way.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost introduces us to ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who has a unique way of looking at the world. As the novel begins, Kate dreams of being a detective, and has already started her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. Her partner is Mickey the Monkey, a stuffed monkey who travels everywhere in Kate’s backpack. Kate’s favourite occupation is looking for suspicious characters and activity and there are few better places to do that than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center. Kate doesn’t have a lot of friends, and she doesn’t think the way other people do, but that doesn’t bother her. She’s perfectly content to live the way she’s living. But her grandmother Ivy, who is her caregiver, thinks Kate would be better served by going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate is finally persuaded to go when her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer agrees to go with her to the school. The two board the bus together but Kate never returns. No trace of her is found, and everyone blames Palmer for her disappearance. In fact, his life is made so difficult that he leaves town. Twenty years later his sister Lisa is the assistant manager at Your Music, a store in Green Oaks. Her job is to put it mildly uninspiring and she’s in a dead-end relationship. But life changes for her when she meets Kurt, a security guard at the mall. Kurt’s been seeing strange things on his security cameras: a vision of a young girl with backpack that has a monkey sticking out of it. Lisa is reminded of Kate, whom she met a few times, and each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt explore the past as we learn what really happened to Kate. Throughout this novel we see that Kate thinks in a way that’s unlike just about anyone else. That aspect of her personality makes her perhaps the most alive person in the novel, even twenty years after she’s disappeared.

More recently, Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker introduces us to Patrick Fort, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Fort’s father was struck by a car and killed when Fort was young and it’s partly for that reason that Fort is fascinated by what makes people die. He enrols at university in Cardiff to study anatomy mostly because of his fascination with the causes of death. Part of this novel is told from Fort’s perspective as he and his peers study a cadaver. Patrick notices some things about the cadaver that don’t tally with the official reports and that makes him curious about this death. Bit by bit we learn through Patrick’s very unusual way of looking at the world what happened to the dead man. Another thread of this story which is later tied in with Patrick’s experience is told from the perspective of Sam Galen, who’s in a coma in a neurological unit but hasn’t lost his ability to think. As he slowly re-unites with the world, we learn what happened to him and what life is like in that unit.  We get another perspective on the same unit from Tracy Evans, who is a nurse there. I confess I haven’t yet read this novel, but it was such a good example of a protagonist (in this case Patrick Fort) with a unique way of looking at the world that I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

Sarah Ward at Crimepieces has done a terrific review of Rubbernecker. Her review is what got me thinking about protagonists who don’t think like ‘the rest of the world’ so thanks, Sarah, for the inspiration. Folks, Sarah’s excellent blog is well worth a spot on your blog roll if you’re not already following it.

Characters with unique ways of thinking have to be drawn deftly or the story risks contrivance and melodrama, to say nothing of the risks to believability. But when such a character is done well, having an unusual way of looking at the world can add depth to a novel and set it apart from others.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s Anything but Ordinary.

16 Comments

Filed under Alice LaPlante, Arthur Upfield, Belinda Bauer, Catherine O'Flynn, Mark Haddon, Peter Høeg

Put Our Service to the Test*

Domestic StaffFor the most part the days are long past when people had households consisting of maids, butlers, valets and so on. And yet, lots of people still hire others to cook or clean, mind children, look after elderly parents and so on. Even if those folks don’t live in, they still have keys and lots of access. If you think about it they are vulnerable too so hiring someone to work in one’s home entails quite a lot of mutual trust. There’s an odd sort of intimacy too between employer and employee. All of those factors mean a rich source of characters and plot lines for crime fiction.

One of the most powerful examples of what I mean is in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. Wealthy and well-educated George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper. In a tragic lapse, a too-trusting Jacqueline doesn’t check into her new housekeeper’s background carefully enough. Still, all goes well at first. Then little incidents suggest that something about this housekeeper isn’t what it seems. From Eunice Parchman’s perspective, her new employers are getting far, far too close to finding out a secret she’s keeping. Then, George Coverdale’s daughter Melinda discovers what the housekeeper has been so desperate not to reveal. And that seals the family’s fate one awful Valentine’s Day. In this novel, we know what happens right from the beginning of the novel. The real suspense is in the backstory and the buildup to the story’s climax. And one of the themes in the novel is the way the Coverdales and their housekeeper see each other.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, the focus is on the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is a particularly gifted world-class violinist. Then one night he finds that he can’t play at all. He’s terrified by the incident and decides to get psychological help to understand why he’s had this block of his skill. The process of psychotherapy leads Davies to understand that his past has a lot to do with what’s happened. In the meantime Davies’ mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a terrible accident – a hit-and-run incident. Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate Eugenie Davies’ death, and that trail leads them to a horrible event in the family’s past. Twenty years earlier, Eugenie Davies’ two-year-old daughter Sonia was drowned in what appeared at first to be a horrible accident. When it began to look as though more was involved their nanny Katja Wolff was arrested and imprisoned. She’s recently been released from prison and as the story unfolds, we see how the drowning and the nanny’s imprisonment and release are all tied in with what’s happened to Gideon Davies and to his mother.

There’s a very appealing relationship between Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran and his housekeeper Iris Cobb. One of the appealing things about it is that the relationship develops over several books in the series. When the two first meet, Qwill is a feature-writer for a large city’s newspaper. When he uncovers corruption and murder in the city’s antiques business, he encounters Cobb, whose husband is an antiques dealer. As it turns out, she is not only quite knowledgeable about antiques, but she is a gifted cook as well. When circumstances leave her alone in life Cobb moves to Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ There she goes into business with a local art/antiques dealer and also becomes Qwill’s housekeeper. She and Qwill really do look out for each other and Braun is to be credited for making their relationship a solid friendship and a case of mutual respect rather than the all-too-easy blossoming romance.

A cleaning lady turns out to be an important source of information in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. In that novel, Göteborg homicide detective Irene Huss and her team investigate the death of Richard von Knecht, who apparently committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of his penthouse. When forensics evidence suggests that von Knecht was murdered, the team pursues the case. One of the people they want to interview is von Knecht’s cleaning lady Pirjo Larsson. The only problem is that she seems to have disappeared. The explanation becomes tragically clear when her body is later discovered in the charred remains of an apartment von Knecht used as a business office. It turns out that Larsson had some key information about the von Knectht case and was killed because of what she knew.

And then there’s Magdalena, whom we meet in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. Magdalena works as housekeeper and caregiver for Dr. Jennifer White. White is a former surgeon who’s has been diagnosed with dementia and has been forced to retire. Although she has plenty of lucid moments as the novel begins, those moments become fewer and farther between as the novel goes on. Then White’s seventy-eight-year-old neighbour Amanda O’Toole is found murdered. Although there’s no direct proof, there are suggestions that only a surgeon with White’s skill would have been able to leave some of the forensic evidence that was found. What’s more, we learn that White and O’Toole had a long relationship that wasn’t always warm and friendly. In fact they had a terrible argument shortly before she was murdered. The story is told from White’s increasingly scattered and incoherent point of view, so we don’t know for a very long time exactly what happened on the night of the murder, nor whether White really is a murderer. But we get the sense all along that Magdalena knows more than she is saying. We also learn that she has her own secrets to keep. She’s an interesting character and in her interactions with White and White’s children Fiona and Mark, we see the unique relationship that develops between caregivers and family. They aren’t really family but they aren’t really not family either.

And of course no crime-fictional post about modern domestic employees would be complete without a mention of Adelina Cirrinciò, housekeeper, cook and cleaning staff for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano. She feels she owes him a debt for the help he’s given her; her son’s been in legal trouble and Montalbano has been not just supportive but also of practical assistance. For Montalbano’s part he is quite dependent on Adelina and he knows it. She is a superb cook and more than efficient at her other tasks too and Montalbano will go very far to keep her happy and mend fences when she gets angry. Adelina feels quite proprietary about her boss too, and is not at all happy with his choice of lover Livia Burlando. And Adelina makes it quite obvious how she feels about Livia. She also is quite forthright in her way when she’s worried about Montalbano, or when she thinks he’s making a mistake. Camilleri has made of her an interesting and shrewd character while at the same time using her character to weave some domesticity and sometimes comic relief through the series.

Today’s house cleaners, child minders, caregivers and other domestic employees play important roles in family life. Their stories are integrated with those of family members so it makes sense that we’d meet them in crime fiction too. Which ones have stuck with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Be Our Guest.

14 Comments

Filed under Alice LaPlante, Andrea Camilleri, Elizabeth George, Helene Tursten, Lilian Jackson Braun, Ruth Rendell

So Drive, Go Ahead Drive*

One of the main characteristics of crime fiction is that, well, there’s a crime. Very often there is more than one crime and in a lot of crime fiction, that crime is murder. Sometimes, though, in some mystery novels, the crime and its investigation almost seem to take a “back seat” to another feature of the novel, such as its setting or the characters involved. That doesn’t mean that the crime is ignored, but other facets of the novel capture our attention more.

Agatha Christie’snovels are for the most part driven by the crime(s) and the investigation. And yet, there are some in which the mystery is less important (although of course, it’s very much there). For instance, in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda are invited for a week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also in that house party will be several other members of the Angkatell family. As the novel begins, we see the preparations for this weekend and several conversations that give us backstory about the family and its relationships. The Christows and the other guests arrive at the Angkatell house and settle in, and we see their interactions. On the Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited for lunch. When he arrives, he’s much annoyed to find that the Angkatells seem to have provided an “amusement” for him: there’s a body lying by the pool and what looks to be the murderer standing over it. All too soon, though, Poirot realises that this is real; John Christow has been shot. Inspector Grange is called in and Poirot assists in the investigation. Of course witnesses are interviewed, clues are found, and in the end, the murderer is revealed. But in this novel, the story is as much about the Angkatell family and their relationships as it is about anything else.

The same is true of Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest. That’s the story of a large Irish Catholic family and what happens to the family when one of its members returns after a long absence. This family, led by a matriarch known only as Mam, gathers when eldest daughter Bridget “Bridie” returns to the family after ten years of living in a convent. Another sister DeeDee has also returned. She left the family after her divorce from Terence, and is now bringing her new fiancé James to meet everyone. Needless to say, there’s a lot of tension when everyone gets together. One of the big reasons for it is that Mam has never accepted DeeDee’s divorce, and still sees Terence as DeeDee’s husband. Terence sees it that way, too. Mam has also not accepted the fact that Bridie is no longer in the convent; she believes that her daughter will go back to her religious life. The tension and underlying resentments in the family surface one night when everyone has gathered at Mam’s house. At one point, James and Terence are having a loud argument and everyone rushes up the stairs. So everyone’s “on the scene” when DeeDee takes a fatal fall down the stairs. At first, James is the only one who believes that DeeDee didn’t die by accident. And in the end, with help from DeeDee’s brother Kevin and Kevin’s wife Eleanor, he is proven right. What’s interesting about this novel is that although there is a murder, and we do find out what happened, the main focus of the story is on the family itself, its dysfunction and the effect of denial on everyone.

Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is also an interesting case of a murder mystery where the crime and its investigation are arguably not as central as other aspects of the story. In that novel, New York City detective Elijah “Lije” Baley is assigned to investigate a particularly delicate case. Noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton has just been murdered and Police Commissioner Julius Enderby wants Baley to take the case. This case has serious political implications because in the futuristic New York where the novel is set, humans are divided into two adversarial groups. One group, the Earthmen, are descended from humans who never left the planet. The other, the Spacers (of whom Sarton was one), are descended from people who did leave the planet. The two groups have completely different outlooks on life, including the use of robots. Spacers rely on them as partners; Earthmen fear them. In order to keep this investigation from unleashing violence between Earthmen and Spacers, Baley is assigned a partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. He’s not happy about it, but his dislike turns to dismay when he learns that Olivaw is a robot. Despite the delicate nature of the case and Baley’s dislike of Olivaw, the two begin to work together to solve it. They do, in fact, find out who killed Sarton and why, and the novel shows that process. But perhaps more important is the look that the novel gives at what life on Earth might be like in the distant future. Much attention is devoted to living arrangements, food, work life and so on. There’s also a detailed look at prejudice. Those elements of the novel are so important that you might say the mystery takes a “back seat” to them, although it’s certainly there.

That also happens in several of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. Dalhousie is a philosopher and edits the Journal of Applied Ethics, so several of the novels focus on larger philosophical and ethical issues. There are certainly mysteries, but they are not always the main focus of the novels. For instance, in The Right Attitude to Rain, Dalhousie gets a visit from her American cousin Mimi McKnight and Mimi’s husband. During the course of that visit, Dalhousie gets a chance to meet the McKnights’ friends Tom Bruce, also an American, and his new fiancée Angie. Both Dalhousie and Mimi McKnight have the strong feeling that there’s tension between the couple; at one point, Tom even tells Dalhousie about a troubling incident in which he nearly fell from a cliff, and Angie did nothing to help him. The McKnights’ visit ends and they return to the U.S. Shortly afterwards, Dalhousie gets a letter from her cousin that includes the awful news that Tom Bruce’s home burned down, and Bruce himself barely escaped alive. It’s possible that Angie started the fire. It’s possible that Tom Bruce himself did. In the end, although Dalhousie has a theory of what happened, and does take some action, we don’t know exactly what happened. In that sense, this story is much more about the characters and their interactions than it is about the mystery surrounding Tom and Angie.

In Mark Haddon’sThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we meet fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, so he doesn’t see the world in the way that most of us do. When he discovers the body of a neighbour’s dog one day, he decides to find out who killed the animal and why. He wants to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes. Although he’s limited by his difficulty with social interactions, Christopher Boone is a smart boy, and eventually, he does find out the truth about the dog. He also finds out an important truth about his family that changes everything for him. And it’s really that story – of Christopher and his family – that’s more important than anything. The interactions that Christopher has with his family members, neighbours, and other people are as much the focus of this story as anything else is. So is Christopher’s own growth.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. When she’s found dead, Detective Luton is assigned to find out the truth about her murder. The most likely suspect is O’Toole’s neighbour, sixty-five-year-old Jennifer White. But Luton’s investigation of White is hampered by the fact that White has dementia and is slowly losing her grip on what most of us think of as reality. Still, Luton is convinced that White knows all about the crime and may in fact have committed it. This novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, and we see the events through her increasingly hazy and detached eyes. And that is the central focus of the story really. We learn about her life and personal history, the way she sees things, what her relationship with O’Toole was and the history between the two families. We also see a stark portrait of someone who is slipping gradually away. Yes, we find out who killed O’Toole and why, but in the end, that’s not as important in a way as the story of Jennifer White’s experience with dementia is.

And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which tells the story of Larry Ott and Silas Jones. Ott’s the town loner of Chabot, Mississippi, who’s always been considered a little strange, especially since the night 25 years earlier when he took Cindy Walker out on a date, and she never came back. Everyone’s always thought him guilty of murder although he was never arrested or tried. Now, another girl, Tina Rutherford, has gone missing and all eyes, so to speak, are on Larry Ott. In fact, it’s so much assumed that he’s guilty that he’s attacked and shot. Jones is the town constable. He lived in Chabot as a child and at the time, became close friends with Ott. But the two had a rupture in their friendship. Jones moved north and went to university. Now he’s back and he has a disappearance and a severe wounding to solve. He also has to face his own past and the past he shared with Ott. This novel is about the disappearances of Cindy Walker and Tina Rutherford. But really, it’s about Ott and Jones; it’s about racism and small-town politics. It’s bout dealing with one’s personal past, too. The crimes are there and it’s not that they don’t matter. But those other elements figure in very strongly.

There are other crime fiction novels like that, too, where the crime itself is there, but really, our attention’s on something else. Do you enjoy novels with that approach, or do you prefer crime fiction where the crime “does the driving?”

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Drew Davis’ Drive.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Alice LaPlante, Isaac Asimov, Marian Babson, Mark Haddon, Tom Franklin

Like the Circles That You Find in the Windmills of Your Mind*

One of the most interesting things about crime fiction is the way it reflects our developing understanding and the way we think. You can even use crime fiction as a way to look at some of the new developments in our knowledge over time. That’s certainly true of our understanding of the human mind. Many people find the human mind and human psychology fascinating. And as we learn more about the way people think, what motivates them and how psychology works, we see that come through in crime fiction. That’s one reason that well-written psychological novels can be so compelling.

There are certainly what you could call psychological motives in early and early-classic crime fiction. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes investigates the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson. Both men are Americans, staying at a rooming house during a trip to London. Drebber dies first and it’s assumed that Arthur Charpentier, whose mother owns the rooming house, is guilty. That’s because Drebber made unwelcome advances to Charpentier’s sister Alice. But then Stangerson is murdered, and it becomes clear that the two deaths are linked. Holmes and Watson investigate and discover that these murders have their roots in the men’s pasts. The motive here is revenge, which you could call a psychological motive. But it’s not a very deep exploration of the human mind.

By the time that Agatha Christie began writing in the early 1920’s, Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking work in psychology had made human motivation and human thinking a worldwide topic of interest. You can see that interest in psychology coming through in several of Christie’s novels, too. For instance, in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Hercule Poirot is invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Poirot is therefore present when one of the other guests, beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington, is poisoned. There seems no motive for the murder, and little progress is made on the case. Then, noted doctor Sir Bartholomew Strange is poisoned in the same way when he has a gathering at his Yorkshire home. It’s soon clear that the two deaths are linked, and Poirot begins to see how the murders might have been accomplished. Then there’s a third death. In the end, Poirot discovers how the deaths are linked, and although you could say that the primary motive is basic fear, this novel is also an interesting exploration of the psychology of the murderer. Once we understand how that murderer thinks, the murders fall into place, you might say. Several of Christie’s later novels also explore how human psychology motivates what we do.

We see a real movement towards the psychological crime novel in the mid-to-late 1950’s with the work of authors such as Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson. In Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, for instance, Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno are fellow passengers on a cross-country train journey. They meet by chance and begin talking. Before long, the two confide in each other as fellow passengers sometimes do. Bruno, for instance, has an unpleasant, insufferable father. Haines is unhappily married. The conversation takes a sinister turn when Bruno suggests that the two men make a compact to commit murder for each other. Bruno offers to kill Haines’ wife if Haines kills Bruno’s father. Haines brushes Bruno off, convinced that Bruno wasn’t being serious. To his dismay, he soon discovers that Bruno was all too serious when Bruno kills his wife and demands that Haines “repay the favour.” In this novel, Highsmith explores Bruno’s unehealthy psychology as well as the more stable mind of Haines, who’s suddenly thrust into a situation he couldn’t have imagined earlier.

Jim Thompson explores the unstable human psyche in The Killer Inside Me. That’s the story of Central City, Texas’ deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Everyone sees Ford as a “good guy,” if a bit dull and plodding. Ford himself knows better. When local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is severely beaten, and that incident is followed by a murder, it becomes clear that Ford may not be the person everyone thought him to be. In fact, Ford himself refers to this as “the sickness.” That slowly-developing awareness of what’s really happening adds a layer of suspense to this novel and it shows very clearly the way our increasing understanding of human psychology found its way into crime fiction.

Psychological thrillers such as those by Margaret Millar, Margaret Yorke and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell have delved even more deeply and with more understanding into human thinking and human psychology. Of course, these are very talented authors. But we can also see how our continually increasing knowledge of psychology has found its way into their novels. For example, Margaret Millar’s Mermaid takes a look at the psychology of guilt, exceptionality, fear and attachment, among other things. Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead explores the psychology of deception as a part of the story. And Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine has explored many, many aspects of human thinking, human psychology and human motivation. Although her Reg Wexford series certainly touches on these topics, it’s really her standalones that delve into these topics. There are also other fine authors, such as Val McDermid and Håkan Nesser, who explore psychological themes in their novels. In fact, in today’s crime fiction world, even authors in other sub-genres (e.g. police procedurals, cosies, etc.) explore psychology at least a bit in their novels. And as we get to understand psychology better, we see more accurate and sometimes very interesting depictions of human thinking.

As time goes by, we’re also understanding psychological and mental disorders better, too, and it’s interesting to see that reflected in crime fiction. There are several novels in which either the sleuth or one of the main characters has a mental disorder; I’ll just mention two recent ones. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the story of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has autism. When Boone finds the body of his neighbour’s dog, he decides to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and find out who the culprit is. In this novel, we see a careful and thoughtful portrait of what autism is like; in fact, that’s one of the “pluses” of this story.

In Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, we meet retired orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. White’s been diagnosed with dementia; as this novel is written from her point of view, we follow along in a harrowing way as her disorder progresses. When White’s neighbour is murdered, she becomes the prime suspect, and it’s fascinating if very disturbing to see how the crime and the other events in White’s life are seen through her eyes.

Novels like these show what we’ve learned about psychology through the last hundred years, and how interesting psychology and human motivation remain. They really seem to hold a fascination for us. But what’s your view? Do you like crime fiction that focuses on psychology, or do you prefer more traditional whodunits?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s Windmills of Your Mind.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Håkan Nesser, Jim Thompson, Margaret Millar, Margaret Yorke, Mark Haddon, Patricia Highsmith, Val McDermid

Ain’t That What Justice is For*

One thing many people enjoy about crime fiction is the sense of closure they get when the “bad guy” is revealed. And for a lot of people, it’s important to get a sense that the criminal is going to be brought to justice. In some way, the criminal will pay for what s/he did. The thing is, though, that life’s not always that neat. Even if the police find out who the criminal is, they may not have enough evidence to get a conviction. Sometimes criminals are very highly-placed and powerful, so it’s hard to pursue a case against them. There are other reasons, too, for which a guilty person might not end up convicted of a crime. So when that happens in crime fiction, it can lend an air of authenticity to a novel. That’s one reason most crime fiction fans can accept a criminal not being brought to justice if there’s a really believable reason for it and so long as they know whodunit (I honestly think most crime fiction fans get frustrated if the culprit isn’t revealed).

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage near the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Even he admits to a bit of snobbery, so he’s quite pleased when the Angkatells invite him for lunch one Sunday. When he gets there, he’s dismayed to find what looks like an “amusement” arranged for his dubious benefit. The body of John Christow, one of the Angkatells’ house guests, is arranged by the swimming pool, and the murderer is standing next to the body, holding the weapon. Very quickly, though, Poirot realises that this is no tableau. Christow really has been shot. The police are called in and Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. At first it seems clear that Christow’s wife Gerda is guilty. But soon, several pieces of evidence turn up suggesting that she’s innocent. And as Poirot and Grange look into the matter, they find that more than one other person had a motive to kill Christow. In the end, Poirot discovers who the murderer is, and it’s interesting to see how Christie deals with the whole question of bringing the killer to justice.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, postman Joseph Higgins has suffered a fractured femur. He’s rushed to Heron’s Park military hospital, where plans are made to set the bone. The next morning, he’s taken into the operating room where, tragically, he dies on the table. Inspector Cockrill is sent to the hospital to put a “rubber stamp” on the incident but as he soon discovers, this is no accidental death. First, Higgins’ widow claims he was murdered. One might put her claims down to denial or to the desire to “lash out.” But then one night at a cocktail party, Sister Marion Bates has too much to drink and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. What’s more, she says, she has proof of that. Later that night, she’s found stabbed to death in the operating theatre and her body is stretched out on one of the tables. Now it’s clear that Cockrill is dealing with a double murder, and he goes to work to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. In the end, Cockrill finds out whodunit and (what’s really quite interesting) howdunit. A very creative twist, though, means that this killer isn’t brought to justice in the way that Cockrill had planned.

In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, Harry Bosch hears over the police radio that an apparent suicide victim’s been found not far away. Bosch is annoyed that he wasn’t informed officially, since this is his patch of turf. So he goes to the scene himself where police have discovered the body of Calexico “Cal” Moore, a fellow L.A.P.D. cop. Some aspects of the scene make Bosch begin to wonder whether Moore really committed suicide, but he’s quickly shuttled off the case. In fact, he’s given other cases to solve. But when one of the cases turns out to be tied in with the Moore case, Bosch plunges back into the death of Cal Moore. Evidence suggests that Moore “went dirty” and committed suicide because of that. So there’s little wonder that the top brass doesn’t want this case to make headlines. But Bosch doesn’t think it’s as simple as that, and goes looking for the truth. His search takes him to the heart of a Mexican drugs ring – and to Moore’s boyhood home. In the end, Bosch finds out who killed Cal Moore, but the killer doesn’t get locked up and tried in the usual way. There’s a very creative twist in this story that gives the reader answers without it ending in the traditional way.

Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent also contains a very creative approach to justice being served, so to speak. In that novel, chief deputy prosecutor Rožat “Rusty” Sabich is given a very difficult task. The body of fellow prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus was discovered in her apartment and Sabich’s boss Raymond Horgan wants her murderer caught. Not only are there personal feelings involved, as Polhemus was a co-worker, but also, Horgan is up for re-election. He’s facing tough competition, and he’s afraid he’ll lose the election if Polhemus’ killer is not brought to justice. What makes this case difficult for Sabich is that he himself had been involved with Polhemus up until a few months before her death. Nevertheless, Sabich begins the work of looking through police files and trying to make sense of the evidence. As he looks into the case, he finds that Polhemus was a very complicated person on many different levels. So more than one person in her personal and professional lives could have had a motive for murder. When the truth about Sabich’s relationship with Polhemus comes out, he finds himself suspected of the crime. In fact, he’s arrested for it. Now, he’s on the other side of the case, so to speak, as he tries to clear his name. In the end, we do find out who killed Carolyn Polhemus. We also find out why. But there isn’t a cathartic scene in which the killer is led away in handcuffs.

The killer isn’t led away in handcuffs in Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark, either. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called to the home of Ryszard Malik, who’s been killed with two neat shots. It’s a very professional “hit” so there’s little evidence. The team is just beginning its investigation of that murder when there’s another, nearly identical one. And then another. As they look into the histories of the victims, Van Veeteren and the other team members realise that they’re going to have to work fast if they’re going to prevent another killing. In this novel, we know who the killer is from early in the novel. As the story goes on we learn the motive, too. Van Veeteren and the team learn those things, too, but in the end, the killer isn’t arrested or jailed. So you could say that justice isn’t served. Or perhaps it is…

In Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, Detective Luton is assigned to investigate the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. As Luton looks into the case, she begins to suspect O’Toole’s neighbour, sixty-four-year-old orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. The two families have had a long relationship and have a real history together. What’s more, White and O’Toole were witnessed having a loud argument before O’Toole’s death. The clincher, though, is that O’Toole’s body has been mutilated in a very professional way that only a surgeon would be likely to know. The problem with Luton’s case is that Jennifer White has been diagnosed with dementia, and is slowly slipping away from what most of us think of as reality. So Luton can’t really get reliable answers from White. This novel is told from Jennifer White’s point of view, so readers don’t really know exactly what happened on the night of O’Toole’s murder. We do learn about the families’ history, and about O’Toole’s personality. We also learn how both of those things might have contributed to the murder. Still, because of the progression of White’s dementia, we don’t really know the details of the murder for quite a while. In the end, readers do learn what really happened and why. But the killer isn’t arrested and taken off in handcuffs.

For most crime fiction fans, it’s important to find out who the killer is and most fans want to know the “why” and “how,” too. But is it always important that the killer be brought to justice? There are some very well-written books in which that doesn’t happen. And it can be very authentic when something really believable prevents the killer from being arrested, tried and so on. After all, real life is often not particularly neat. What do you think about this question? Is it important to you as a reader that the killer pay the price? If you’re a writer, do you feel it’s important to have the “bad guy” arrested and pay the price for the crime?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Famous Last Words.

34 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Christianna Brand, Håkan Nesser, Michael Connelly, Scott Turow