Category Archives: Angela Savage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
 

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

18 Comments

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

Just One Look, That’s All it Took*

Rose1Not long ago, I read an interesting post from D.S. Nelson about things that it’s best not to say to pregnant women. The post is both witty and spot-on – well-written and well worth a read. And it inspired me to think about the issue from a different perspective: the adoptive family. Adoptive mothers don’t get the pointed remarks about cravings and the well-meant advice about childbirth that pregnant mothers do. But people still have points of view about it. Trust me. And I’ll get to some of the things it’s best not to say to an adoptive parent later in this post.

Adoption hasn’t always been regarded as positively as it is now. In Agatha Christie’s short story Dead Man’s Mirror for instance, we are introduced to the Chevenix-Gore family. It’s an old, proud and distinguished family, and no-one is more conscious of that than the present patriarch Gervase Ghevenix-Gore. He is obsessed with family name and reputation, so when he suspects that someone is cheating him, perhaps someone in his family, the last thing he wants is to make it a public matter. So he summons Hercule Poirot (who is not to keen on being ‘summoned!’) to the family home to investigate. On the night of Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is shot in what looks at first like a suicide. No-one really believes that, but there doesn’t seem a way that anyone else could have shot him. Poirot investigates and discovers that this crime isn’t as ‘impossible’ as it seems. One of the suspects in the case is the victim’s adopted daughter Ruth. She’s been told very little about the adoption, and in fact refers to herself as ‘only adopted.’ While the fact that Ruth is adopted isn’t exactly what you’d call scandalous, it’s certainly not discussed frankly as adoption is now.

There’s a very interesting and sometimes intimate portrait of an adoptive family in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Mma. Precious Ramotswe owns Botswana’s only female-owned-and-run private investigation business, and the series of course features the various cases that she and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi take. The series also shares Mma. Ramotswe’s home life with her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Early in the series, after the couple’s engagement but before their marriage, he takes on the responsibility for two orphaned children Motholeli and her brother Puso. Mma. Ramotswe is very surprised at first, since he didn’t discuss the matter with her first. But she knows that he can give the children a good home. The four of them become a solid family as the series goes on, and Mma. Ramotswe and her husband gain at least as much from the family bonds as do their children. And that’s the way it works in most adoptive situations. Trust me.

There’s also an interesting look at an adoptive family in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series. Rafferty is a Bangkok-based ex-pat American travel writer. He’s got a knack for solving problems and finding people who don’t want to be found, so he’s a good choice if you’re looking for a PI. Rafferty has a personal life too. He is married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own apartment cleaning business. And he and Rose have an adopted daughter Miaow, a former street child. This series actually shows a few things about adoption. One is that in many cases (certainly not all!) the people who work for adoption agencies do want children to find healthy and loving homes with parents who will care for them and love them. Another is that because of that, the adoption process can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. There are background checks, home visits, financial solvency checks and more. Trust me. There is no such thing as privacy if you’re a prospective adoptive parent. Still, the ‘vetting’ process makes sense if the goal is ensure the safety and well-being of each child.

Everyone has to make a lot of adjustments when there’s an adoption. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack. They are the adoptive parents of Taylor, a gifted artist whose mother was murdered when she was very young. Taylor is bright and loving, and she has developed strong bonds with her adoptive family. But she has her own issues to deal with, and it’s not always easy to be around her. Her parents too have their share of ‘baggage,’ as we all do. They have a good marriage and they love each other, but things don’t always go smoothly. And Joanne has three adult children from her first marriage; that presents another level of complexity. But through it all, the commitment that the Shreves have made to Taylor and vice versa is obvious. The ‘family’ story arcs in this series really show, among other things, what adoption means on an everyday basis.

Adoption can be a complex process, especially if it’s handled legally and ethically, even when the biological parents have died. It’s even more so when one or both is alive. Add in the fact of international adoption and you have a very complicated situation. We get a look at that in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne died in Pattaya after a fall (or jump, or push) from the roof of the building where she was living. The official police report says that the death was a suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe that. Keeney travels to Pattaya and begins to look into the victim’s life there. She discovers that Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre, an agency that prepares adoptable Thai babies for life with international adoptive parents. There’s more going on at New Life than it seems on the surface, and Keeney finds that out too. She also learns what, exactly, happened to Maryanne and why. In the course of the novel, we follow the story of one baby named Kob. When he is made available for adoption, he’s matched with an American couple who are absolutely joyful about the news. Honestly, there’s nothing like that ‘phone call. It’s…indescribable. One of the plot threads concerns their trip to Thailand to get their new son, and Keeney’s involvement in that process.

Adoption is a unique way of building a family. It brings with it all the joys of any other kind of parenthood, and some of its own. It brings with it different kinds of complexities and different kinds of issues. Just ask any adoptive parent…

And now, here are

 

Five Things Not To Say To An Adoptive Mother

 

  • How much did it cost? Really? You’d ask something that personal? You don’t even know me!! The only people I don’t mind asking that question are prospective adoptive couples whom I know and who are trying to plan their future. Anyone else, please kindly mind your own business.

  • Are you going to tell him/her? (AKA Does s/he know?) Of course we told our daughter she’s adopted! It’s as much a part of her identity as her physical appearance is. I especially mind this question if it’s asked in a hushed, anxious voice, as though discussing some sort of illness. Adoption is not an illness.

  • Why did you have to adopt? Is there something wrong with adoption? This question always implies (to me anyway) that adoption is some sort of ‘second-class’ parenthood – a fallback position. Our daughter is not second-class. And neither are we.

  • Oh, well, at least you didn’t have to deal with labour pains and delivery. You had it easy. Easy? EASY? OK, all respect (and I’m being quite serious) to those who give birth. It’s painful, sometimes lengthy, and sometimes risky. And pregnancy has its own challenges. But adoption is not easy. Not if you do it ethically. It’s nerve-wracking, it’s complicated, it’s time-consuming, it’s sometimes heartbreaking and you get no privacy. It can be very expensive, too, and all kinds of people who don’t really know you (some who’ve never even met you) get to judge you. The adoption process and the birth process are different. Neither is easy. But both end in the joy of having children. Please, let’s leave it at that.

 

And finally… my least favourite question:

  • What do you know about his/her real mother? Excuse me? I know her very well, thank you. I see her in the glass every time I look into it. Who do you think sits up with my child at night? Takes my child to the doctor? Insists that schoolwork be done and friends be appropriate? Listens to my child’s dreams and fears? Knows my child’s favourite films and books? I won’t go on. You get the idea. I really dislike this question. I really do.

 

So please, next time you talk to an adoptive parent, think about what you’re saying. Especially if that parent is a crime writer ;-) –  Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration.

 

 
 

ps. The ‘photo is the first look we ever got at our daughter, when we were matched with her. She was three months old when that was taken. One look was all it took…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Doris Troy and Gregory Carroll’s Just One Look.

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, Timothy Hallinan

There Were Incidents and Accidents*

So-Called AccidentsSome deaths are quite obviously murders. In those cases, at least in crime fiction, the killer doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was murder. Rather, the murderer may work hard at an alibi, or may work hard to prove there was no motive. But really, it’s much easier to disguise the murder as an accident if it’s possible. And sometimes, that makes it awfully difficult to prove that a death was murder.

Examples of murders made to look like accidents run all through crime fiction, possibly because it’s really credible that someone would want to cover up a murder that way. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of examples – many more than I could list in one post. But here are a few.

Agatha Christie uses the so-called accident in several of her stories. To take just one example, in Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The enigmatic Mr. Shaitana gathers four sleuths (including Poirot) and four people that he hints have gotten away with murder. After the meal, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the evening, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were in the room at the time – the very four people Shaitana more or less accused of murder. Now the four sleuths are faced with the task of figuring out which of these equally-plausible suspects is guilty. One of them is Anne Meredith. At one point, she’d served as companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning by hat paint. Apparently, she confused the hat paint with her medicine, a very plausible accident. Or was it?

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), a young boy Isaiah Christiansen tragically dies after a fall from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had befriended fellow Greenlander Smilla Jasperson, and she is upset at his death. She’s drawn to the scene of the accident, and when she gets there, she sees signs in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. She begins to ask questions and soon discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. She persists though, and her search for answers takes her back to her homeland, where she finds the connection between Isaiah’s death and some secrets hidden in Greenland.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). The novel actually tells two stories, one of which is a recounting of the PCU’s first case. In 1940, the Palace Theatre is set to do a production of Orpheus. Then one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania dies in what some say is a freak accident. The police are investigating that death when Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed by a piece of scenery. Again it’s regarded as a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Still, it’s beginning to look very much as though someone is determined to stop the production. When another death occurs, and then a disappearance, Bryant and May and their team come under intense pressure to solve the case before there are any more tragedies.

Louise Penny’s Still Life is our introduction to the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of its residents Jane Neal is killed during the Thanksgiving holiday in what looks like a hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to the scene, and he soon finds that this death was actually a murder. The question though is who would have had a motive. The victim was a beloved former teacher whom everyone seemed to respect. Gamache and the team get to know the town, though, and some of its history. And it’s in the past that they find the motive and therefore, the killer.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone thinks he’s found a great new way to make money. He’s a marine biologist (well, in name at least) who’s hired by agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut’s company has been accused of pouring toxic waste into Florida’s Everglades, and Hammernut needs proof that his company doesn’t pollute. Perrone offers that in the form of a way he’s developed to fake the results of water testing so the water looks clean. The two begin to do business and all goes well enough at first. Then, Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, and threatens to report it. Now he needs to get rid of her, so he tells her they’re going on an anniversary cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the trip, he pushes Joey overboard, thinking that’s the end of his problems. At first everyone, including the police, thinks it’s a terrible accident and there’s much sympathy for Perrone. What he doesn’t know though is that Joey didn’t drown, and she’s made her own plans for revenge…

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man. In the late 18th-Century Lady Drusilla Davenish lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. The family is excited about Lucie’s upcoming wedding to Giles Saxborough. Everything changes though, when Giles’ father (and Lady Drusilla’s godfather) Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a tragic riding accident. But things don’t quite add up for Lady Drusilla. Her godfather was an expert horseman. It’s highly unlikely that he’d have died in that way. So she starts to ask questions. Not long afterwards, Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed in what’s put down as a horrible yachting accident. But Lady Drusilla is convinced that it’s more than that. And there’s more than one possible explanation. It might be connected to a smuggling operation she’s recently discovered. Or it might be someone with a vendetta against the Saxborough family. Or it might be something else…

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report suggests it might have been suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t think so. It could also have very well been an accident. Whatever the cause, Delbeck wants to know the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney takes the case and travels to Pattaya. As a part of her investigations, she decides to learn more about at New Life, going undercover as a volunteer. As she gets closer to the truth about Maryanne’s life and death, she finds out that some people do not want their secrets revealed…

At least in fiction, murders designed to look like accidents can serve a lot of purposes. They can give murderers effective ways to hide their crimes. They can also give the author a way to build suspense and interest. And they can allow the author the chance to lead the reader up the proverbial garden path. After all, sometimes an accident is just an accident. There are so many other examples of this plot point in crime fiction – many more than I could name. So…what gaps have I left?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.

13 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Fowler, Dawn Harris, Louise Penny, Peter Høeg

We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?

 

ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

37 Comments

Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan

I Must Be Strong and Carry On*

Funeral CustomsPeople who die usually leave behind friends, colleagues and loved ones who need to go through the process of grieving. And for a lot of people, that process involves a funeral or memorial service. Many people find that a ritual service helps them accept the death and begin the difficult process of letting go. And each culture has its own way of letting go of those who’ve died. Since death is so much a part of crime fiction, it’s no surprise at all that we see many examples of funerals, memorial services and so on in the genre. There’s only space in this one post for a few examples, but I’m sure you can think of more than I could, anyway.

Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) starts with the funeral of patriarch Richard Abernethie. As is the custom at that time and in that place, the family members gather at the Abernethie home Enderby after the service. Among the mourners is the family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle, who’s been through this before with other clients. He knows the ritual very well and at the expected time, he informs the family of the terms of Abernethie’s will. At this gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and even she tells the group to pay no attention to her. But secretly everyone wonders whether she was right. When she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was. Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. In the end he finds out the truth about both Abernethie’s death and that of his sister. It’s interesting to see how people’s beliefs about what is ‘the proper thing to do’ at funerals comes into play at the beginning of the novel even though Christie doesn’t depict the service itself.

In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte visits the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall, whose body was found in an isolated hut. He’s just arrived when one of the town’s most respected citizens Ted Bennett dies of a heart attack. Bony’s in the process of looking into the Kendall case when there’s another grisly discovery. Transient worker John Way’s body is found in the same hut, and it seems he committed suicide. Bony doesn’t think that’s true though, and certain aspects of the two deaths seem to connect them. It turns out that Bony’s right, and in the end he finds out what really happened to both men, and how it’s connected to the death of Ted Bennett. On the day of Bennett’s funeral, a storm threatens, and it’s interesting to see how everyone rushes to make sure all of the decencies are observed before the storm hits.

Burial customs play an important role in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee investigates the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who went missing from the school she attends. Chee believes that this case is related to another case he’s investigating, the disappearance and later murder of Albert Gorman. Gorman was a Los Angeles Navajo who’d moved to the Reservation. Chee is right that there’s a connection, and the trail leads him to Los Angeles, where he finds out important things about Gorman’s history. He also finds out the truth about why Gorman’s been killed. At one point in the novel Chee goes to the home of one of Gorman’s kinsmen where he believes Gorman may have been hiding out. That’s when he discovers that Gorman’s dead. The body is prepared in the traditional Navajo way, but there are just a few things about that preparation that aren’t consistent with tradition. That’s what begins to put Chee on the right path. This novel also discusses Navajo beliefs about the dead and about rituals used by those who come in contact with the dead.

One of the story arcs in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series concerns the death of Kilbourn’s first husband Ian. He was a rising politician who was murdered one night when he stopped to help a young couple whose car wasn’t working. When he refused to take them to a party, the young man, Kevin Tarpley, murdered him. Tarpley was convicted and imprisoned for the crime. In A Colder Kind of Death, Tarpley is shot while he’s exercising in the prison yard. Then his wife Maureen, who was with him on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is also killed. Now suspicion falls on Kilbourn. It’s soon shown that she had nothing to do with the killings, but she still wants to deal with the grief that that this experience brings up. Part of the way she does that is by looking at old footage of her husband’s funeral. That process helps both her and her son Angus, who is also dealing with his father’s murder. It’s not vital to the case, but it’s interesting to see how each of them reacts to the footage, and what each remembers about the funeral.

Alan Orloff’s Diamonds For the Dead is the story of the death of Abe Handleman, who had a fatal fall down a flight of stairs. His son Josh returns to the family home in Northern Virginia to arrange his father’s funeral. That’s when he discovers that his father had a cache of very valuable diamonds – and they’re missing. What’s more, his father’s best friend Lev Yurishenko tells Josh that his father didn’t die accidentally, but was murdered. At first Josh doesn’t want to believe it, but the missing diamonds seem to support that theory. So he begins to ask some questions. He finds out that there was more to his father than he knew. He also finds out the truth about his father’s death. As a part of this novel, we see the traditional Jewish custom of burial as soon as possible after the death. We also see the custom of sitting shiva – a week-long period of mourning that’s observed in traditional Jewish homes.

Police sometimes attend funerals and memorial services of murder victims, particularly if they believe they can get some insight into who the killer might be. That’s what happens for instance in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met are investigating a series of killings committed by a murderer who tries to destroy his victims’ bodies by fire. When the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it looks at first as though she may be the so-called Burning Man’s latest victim. But little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise. Partly to follow up on that possibility, Kerrigan is asked to focus on the Haworth case. She attends Haworth’s funeral and in one moving scene, she gets the chance to speak to the victim’s parents. She knows it’s the worst possible time to ask them any questions, but she also wants to solve the case as quickly as possible. In the end, something she sees at the funeral gathering helps Kerrigan to put some of the pieces together.

Funeral and memorial rites often help people let go and we see that in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. American ex-pat Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is a Bangkok-based travel writer who has a reputation for being able to find people and solve problems. So Australian Clarissa Ulrich seeks him out when she goes in search of her Uncle Claus. The two were close when she was growing up, but she hasn’t heard from him and she’s worried for him. Rafferty agrees to ask questions and is soon drawn into an ugly case of murder, awful hidden secrets and more. One murder in particular hits Rafferty very hard. His wife Rose, who’s a former bar girl, and his foster daughter Miaow, who’s a former street child, both understand that this is tearing Rafferty apart, and will only get worse. They are also products of the Thai culture, and have a set of culturally-based beliefs about death and about letting go. With their help, Rafferty goes through a particular ritual, and it’s clear that it has a cleansing effect on him.

We see a similar effect in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. PI Jayne Keeney is an ex-pat Australian who lives and works in Bangkok. She goes north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner Nou is murdered. The official police theory is that Didi is responsible and one night he is killed in what police say was an incident of violently resisting arrest. Keeney doesn’t believe that though. She thinks the police are covering up the real reason for both killings and she begins to ask questions. Her search leads her to the Thai sex trade, human trafficking and corruption. In the end she finds out the truth about these deaths and she’s able to officially have her friend’s name cleared. At the very end of the book, she finds her own way to ritually let go of Didi in a poignant memorial scene.

Funerals and memorial services are woven into crime fiction partly because in real life, they often help people start the healing process. Of course they can also be useful for detectives. And that’s not to mention the many times that funerals are used to cover up illegal activities (there’s an interesting case of that in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek). They are deeply rooted in our various cultures. I’ve only had space for a few instances from the genre. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton and Will Jennings’ Tears in Heaven.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Jane Casey, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman