Category Archives: Ann Cleeves

Better the Pride That Resides in a Citizen of the World*

Global CitizensSome fictional sleuths are very closely associated with a particular place. It’s not at all that they’re insular or ignorant; rather, their real appeal comes from the way that setting is reflected in the sleuth. I’m thinking for instance of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire or Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope. Other sleuths though are what you might call global citizens. Even if they more or less live in one place, they’ve done a lot of travelling and they’re as comfortable in one part of the world as in another. It’s not that they’re unhappy with their cultural identities; rather, they see themselves as citizens of the world as well as members of a particular national/cultural group. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure you can think of many more than I can.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is Belgian. Christie/Poirot fans will know that he’s quick to remind people of that when they make the mistake of thinking that he’s French. He’s maintained many of his cultural views, customs and the like. But at the same time, he’s been to many different places, and he’s assured and comfortable no matter where he happens to be. He doesn’t care for dirt, bad cooking or clutter, but that’s his passion for order and neatness, not insularity. Poirot’s multilingual too, and that helps him quite a lot. We see that for instance in Murder on the Orient Express and Black Coffee, where he uses witnesses’ and suspects’ own languages to help put them at their ease. Poirot is proud of being Belgian (well, he’s proud in general), but he’s very much aware that there’s a big world out there and he’s seen quite a bit of it and negotiates it quite effectively.

So does Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver. Oliver is a physical anthropologist whose ‘home base’ is Northern California. He is in many ways unmistakeably American. And yet he’s also very much a citizen of the world. He’s gone to lots of different places as his services have been needed. He’s also done a fair amount of travel for pleasure and for research purposes. That’s what takes him for instance to the Amazon rainforest in Little Tiny Teeth.  In that novel, Oliver is on what he thinks will be a getaway adventure trip where he can also learn some things to enhance his professional knowledge. Instead, he gets mixed up in a murder case when a fellow passenger ethnobiologist Arden Scofield is murdered. Oliver belongs to the global community of scholars in general and physical anthropologists in particular. So in that sense, he doesn’t belong to just one cultural group. What’s more, both his education and his travel experiences have given him a global perspective. So although he’s distinctly American, he’s a lot more too.

You could say a similar thing about Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. He is a Saskatoon-based PI who has strong Saskatchewan roots and connections. But Quant has a very global outlook on life. He’s been to many different places in the world, including France, Spain, the Middle East and Mexico. He enjoys travel and my guess is that he would feel restless if he stayed in Saskatoon for too long without taking a trip somewhere. Fortunately for him, his work gives him lots of opportunity to travel and he’s developed a global sort of outlook on life. At the same time though, Quant loves his home town too. He’s comfortable among his friends and in familiar places. And he’s learned that going home can be just as good an experience as packing up can be.

Bidulka’s other protagonist Adam Saint is also a global citizen. Saint is a member of the Canadian Disaster Recovery Agency (CDRA). As a CDRA disaster recovery specialist, Saint travels to any place where a disaster of any kind affects Canada, Canadians or Canadian interests. His home is Saskatchewan, although in When the Saints Go Marching In, we learn that he lives in Toronto. He’s Canadian and of course his job is to protect Canadian interests. And yet, he is as comfortable on a flight somewhere as he is in his Toronto apartment. He settles in wherever he happens to be and he has a very cosmopolitan, global outlook on life. I hope we’ll see more of him.

Ian Hamilton’s Toronto-based forensic accountant Ava Lee is another example of a sleuth who’s just as comfortable in one part of the world as in another. She’s got a life, friends, and so on in Toronto and she’s happy there. She considers herself Canadian in that sense. She is also Chinese, with roots in Hong Kong. In fact, the company she works for, and that’s run by a man Lee refers to as Uncle, is based there. Lee travels all over the world in the course of her work, which is finding stolen money. When people feel that they’ve been bilked out of a great deal of money, they hire her company and it’s Lee’s job to use her accountancy skills to track the stolen funds. She’s multilingual and very good at what she does, so she’s in great demand. Her travels, her multicultural background and her work have given her a very global perspective.

Angela Savage’s PI sleuth Jayne Keeney is Australian. That’s where she’s from and it’s how she identifies herself culturally. She’s happy with that and there are scenes in this series where the reader can see it. And yet, she’s got a very global perspective. She lives and works in Thailand and has learned to appreciate the Thai culture and language. She’s been to other places in the world too, and speaks a few different languages. What’s more important than her multilingualism though is that Keeney doesn’t just see herself as ‘an Australian who happens to live in Thailand.’ She loves living in Thailand, although she’s not blind to the problems and challenges the country faces. She identifies herself as an Australian, but she has no great burning desire to live there. She’s comfortable wherever she goes, and doesn’t feel particularly bound to one place.

On the one hand, there’s something to the sleuth who truly enjoys ‘the comforts of home’ and strongly identifies with a particular place or culture. Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano is like that for instance and it works very well in that series. On the other hand, today’s world is smaller than ever, figuratively and culturally speaking. So it makes sense that there are also plenty of sleuths who think of themselves as citizens of the world and are able to be comfortable no matter where in it they happen to be.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Territories.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Ann Cleeves, Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Ian Hamilton

Might as Well Jump*

Shed - Taking RisksIt seems to be human nature, at least for a lot of people, to want that jolt that comes from being a little scared. I don’t mean of course truly terrified; that’s traumatic. But a lot of people like a little shot of adrenaline. That’s part of why people ride roller coasters, go through ‘haunted houses,’ watch suspense movies and read certain kinds of crime fiction. It’s part of why people allow themselves to be dared to do things, too. It’s little wonder then that we also see a lot of characters like that in crime fiction novels. Not only does that make sense from a human perspective but also, it can be a very effective context for a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Arthur Hastings is returning to London after a business trip. In the same carriage is a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. The two get to talking and it comes out that Cinderella loves reading detective stories and following news of real-life murders. Hastings isn’t exactly thrilled by this aspect of Cinderella’s personality, and is even less so a bit later in the novel when he meets her again. He and Hercule Poirot go to France after Poirot receives a letter from Paul Renauld asking for his help. When they arrive at the Renauld home, they find that he’s been murdered. Hastings is walking around the Renauld property with the aim of having another look at the crime scene when he quite literally bumps into Cinderella. She says that she’s fascinated by the whole thing and wants him to show her round:

 

‘Me for the horrors…’

 

Hastings does so, mostly to impress her with the fact that he’s in on the investigation. It’s interesting to see the contrast between his almost-Victorian sense of what ‘should’ interest a young lady, and his companion’s enjoyment of that rush of adrenaline.

In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, a house party gathers at Black Dudley, the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. Petrie’s just taken over the place from his uncle Gordon Coombe, and is looking forward to having some of his friends there. After dinner on the first night of the party, the guests move to the drawing room, where they notice a dagger hanging over the fireplace. Wyatt is persuaded to tell the story of the dagger. According to him, the family legend was that the dagger would take on a red glow if it was touched by anyone who’d committed murder. The family later developed a sort of ritual about the dagger. The lights would be turned off and everyone would pass the dagger round in the dark. The object of the ritual was to avoid being the last one caught with the dagger. The hint of danger involved in passing a dagger round in the dark in a spooky old house (it is an eerie place) appeals to just about everyone, so the group decides to play the game. It turns all too deadly the next morning when it’s found that Coombe has died.  Dr. George Abbershaw, one of the guests, is asked to sign the death certificate but he soon finds that the victim was likely stabbed in the back with the dagger. With help from Albert Campion, who’s also a member of the house party, Abbershaw finds out who killed Gordon Coombe and why.

In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, school friends Sally Henry and Catherine Ross are coming home from a Hogmanay party. They’ve gotten a lift most of the way but are walking for the last bit of the trip. Then they spot the home of Magnus Tait, an eccentric misfit who lives by himself. Catherine wants to wish Tait a happy new year, but Sally doesn’t. Catherine dares her though, and the two knock on the door. For Catherine it’s a bit of an adrenaline rush, and she rather likes the thrill of being just a little scared. Tait invites the girls in and they toast the New Year. Not many days later, Catherine Ross is found strangled in a field not far from Tait’s home. Because Tait was the last person known to see the victim, he becomes the most likely suspect. It doesn’t help his case that he’s already suspected of having killed another young girl Catriona Bruce, who disappeared some years before. But Tait claims he is innocent, and there is no definite physical evidence that connects him with Catherine Ross’ murder. So Inspector Jimmy Perez has to look elsewhere for the murderer.

Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle introduces us to Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and enjoys taking risks. He savours the adrenaline rush that goes with risk-taking. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Zipp doesn’t share his friend’s love for a bit of adrenaline, but he does value the friendship. So he and Winther do everything together. They get in a little trouble now and again, but thus far it hasn’t been anything really serious. Then one day, Andreas’ love of that ‘jolt’ gets him and Zipp involved in much more than either of them intended. After they part ways at the end of the day, Andreas disappears. His mother Runi wants to make a report to the police but at first, Inspector Konrad Sejer isn’t overly concerned. After all, there’s nothing necessarily ominous about a young man going off for a few days. But when more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer takes the case more seriously. His best source of information on what happened is Zipp, but Zipp is completely unwilling to give Sejer any information at all. Little by little though, Sejer breaks down Zipp’s composure and finds out what happened on the day of Andreas’ disappearance.

In William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, we ‘meet’ thirteen-year-old Frank Drum. He and his family live in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota. In the summer of 1961, a boy Frank knows from school is killed on the railroad tracks near the town. Frank knows he isn’t supposed to be down by the tracks, but he can’t resist the chance to go there and try to make sense of what happened. So he and his younger brother Jake walk along the tracks. Jake’s very reluctant but Frank enjoys the adrenaline jolt. While they’re on the tracks they find a dead man. Near him is a stranger, a South Dakota Sioux they’ve never seen before. When the man invites them down to see the dead man, Jake wants no part of it. But Frank is overwhelmingly curious. After all, as he rationalises it, you don’t see a dead man every day. So the two boys go down to see the body. Tragically, those are not the only two deaths they’ll encounter that summer and Frank has to learn some unpleasant truths about life. He also learns that that jolt you get sometimes from being a little scared doesn’t seem as much fun when you’ve been really frightened.

Everyone’s different of course. Some people love the jolt they get from roller coasters, thriller novels and so on. Others don’t think it’s much fun at all. But either way, it’s an important part of the human experience. Now, want to see what’s inside that old storage shed in the ‘photo?  Dare ya! Erm  – mind I’ve been known to write crime fiction… ;-)

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Van Halen’s Jump.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Karin Fossum, Margery Allingham, William Kent Krueger

Now I Act Like I Don’t Remember*

Painful MemoriesNot very long ago, I did a post on nostalgia and the role that it plays in the way we think and in crime fiction too of course. One of the things that came up in the discussion about that post (thanks, folks!!) is that some memories have exactly the opposite effect to nostalgia. We all have sadness and pain in our past – it’s unavoidable really – and those are often memories we don’t want raked up. I’m sure we could all give examples from real life, and it’s quite true in crime fiction as well.

Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) is all about terrible memories that people want to avoid. Famous artist Amyas Crale has been working on a new painting. He’s invited the subject, his mistress Elsa Greer, to his home Alderbury to take advantage of what he thinks will be the perfect setting. Needless to say, Crale’s wife Caroline is not best pleased about it and she’s even overheard threatening her husband. One afternoon, Crale is poisoned. His widow is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons and in fact she is arrested, tried and convicted. She dies a year later in prison and life goes on for the people in the Crales’ lives. Sixteen years later, Amyas and Caroline’s daughter Carla visits Hercule Poirot. She is convinced that her mother was innocent and now that she’s on the point of getting married, she wants her mother’s name cleared. Poirot agrees and contacts the five people who were ‘on the scene’ when the murder occurred. He also gets written accounts from each one, and talks to some other, less directly involved people. In the end that information gives him the truth about the case. One of the interesting things that keep coming up in this novel is that many people ask why Poirot is raking up the whole painful business again. Only a few people are willing, right from the start, to tell their stories. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is not exactly nostalgic about his past either. As we learn in The Last Coyote, Bosch is the son of Marjorie Lowes, a prostitute who was murdered when her son was eleven years old. The case wasn’t exactly high-priority, so the killer was never found. Thirty years later, Bosch is suspended from duty because of a violent encounter with a supervisor. He’s ordered to undergo psychological treatment and is asked to work with Dr. Carmen Hinojos. While he’s ‘sidelined,’ Bosch begins to look into the case and to face some of his own past. One of the things we learn for instance is that Bosch was placed in the McLaren Youth Facility.  It wasn’t exactly the kind of place one looks back to with nostalgia. Bosch has survived all of these things along with a stint in Vietnam, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys taking the time to savour the memories.

School memories aren’t very nostalgic for Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez either. He was born and raised in Fair Isle in the Shetlands, and went to school in Lerwick. The weather and the difficulty of getting back and forth between his home and the school forced Perez to stay at the school during the week. He visited his family home on weekends when the weather co-operated, and on holidays. For several reasons school in Lerwick was not an enjoyable experience for Perez. He was homesick and couldn’t accustom himself easily to life on Lerwick. What’s more, there were two bullies who made his life miserable. Everything changed when he met and befriended Duncan Hunter. Hunter made his life bearable and that’s part of what makes it so awkward in Raven Black when Hunter becomes a suspect in the murder of seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross. As it is, Perez does not want to be reminded of his awful school days. For another, he feels a gulf between him and Hunter now that several years have gone by. That unpleasant past adds an interesting layer to this story.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, the Davies family has to face some terrible memories from the past. Twenty years before the events in the story, two-year-old Sonia Davies was drowned. Her nanny Katja Wolff was arrested in connection with the death. She’s recently been released from prison and that alone rakes up the past. Then one night, Sonia’s mother Eugenie is killed in what looks at first like an accidental hit-and-run incident. Then her son twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies faces a different kind of crisis. He is a world-class violinist who suddenly finds himself unable to play. He decides to seek psychological help to find out what is at the root of his block. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate Eugenie Davies’ death and find that all of these plot threads are related, and all are tied to the Davies’ family’s traumatic past.

Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything deals with painful memories too. Thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood and her best friend Evie Verver are inseparable. They share all of their secrets and Lizzie can’t really imagine life without Evie. Then one terrible day, Evie doesn’t come home from school. No-one is overly worried at first, but as the evening wears on and she doesn’t come home, her family becomes concerned. They, and later the police, ask Lizzie to tell them anything she may know that will help them find Evie. Lizzie doesn’t know very much about what happened to Evie though, and she can’t be of much assistance. But she does want to know what happened to her best friend. So in her own way, Lizzie starts to ask questions and investigate. She finds that the memories she thought she had of her and Evie might not be accurate. She also learns that she’d built up a lot of assumptions about herself, Evie, and life that covered up some extremely painful truths. Interestingly, Abbott addresses the issue of painful memories in a few ways. At one level, Lizzie has to confront memories that are not as pleasant as she had though. At another, the story begins as the adult Lizzie looks back on the terrible time of Evie’s disappearance.

Most of us have fond memories that we think about with great pleasure. But there are usually some sad ones, too, that we’d just as soon forget. There are far too man examples of this in crime fiction for me to list them all, but I’ve no doubt you already get my point…

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Elizabeth George, Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly

We All Know Someone Else, It All Comes Full Circle*

connectionsIt’s always interesting to think about how our lives intersect in ways we don’t always plan. Let me if I may give you an example of what I mean. I’ve a good friend and work colleague who lives about 9k from me. As it turns out, she was born in the same Pennsylvania hospital where I was born – almost 5,000k from where we both live now. We grew up about a half-hour drive apart and by different paths, have ended up in the same place again. We didn’t meet  until we started to work at the same university, but we were more connected than we knew.  I’ll bet you have those kinds of connections in your life too. If you do, it’s not surprising; it really is a smaller world than we think it is. That’s certainly true in real life, so of course, we see it in crime fiction too. There are dozens and dozens of examples, of which I only have space here for a few. So I’ll depend on you to fill in the gaps I leave.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, a group of people is staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. One of the guests is noted fashion designer Rosamund Darnley. One evening, to her surprise, she gets a ‘blast from her past.’ Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife Arlena and his daughter Linda check into the hotel. Darnley has known Marshall since they were children, but hadn’t seen him in years. Certainly she hadn’t planned to see him at the Jolly Roger. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that neither she nor Marshall has planned this meeting. They each came to the hotel through different connections. Their lives get enmeshed again when Arlena Marshall is murdered. Her husband is the first suspect. For one thing, she was having a not-very-well-hidden affair and he knew about it. For another, there’s a suspicion that he thought he might inherit quite a lot of money at her death. However, Marshall has an alibi, so the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. Hercule Poirot is staying at the Jolly Rger and was quite likely the last person to see the victim alive, so he gets involved in the investigation. One of the things about a hotel, as Poirot points out, is that it draws together all sorts of people; in this case it’s an unlikely meeting place for people who hadn’t seen one another in a very long time.

Three disparate cases face Ellery Queen in Calamity Town, Ten Days Wonder and The King is Dead. In the first, Queen travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville to get some peace and quiet so that he can work on a book. He arranges to stay in a guest house on the property of town leaders John and Hermione Wright. That’s how Queen gets involved in the lives of the Wright family. It’s also how he gets involved when the Wright’s youngest daughter Nora gets re-engaged and then married to her former fiancé Jim Haight – and when Haight is arrested and tried for the murder of his sister Rosemary. Several people that Queen meets in Wrighsville play roles again a few years later in Ten Days Wonder. An old university friend of Queen’s Howard Van Horn is plagued by frightening blackouts. He wakes up from one of them covered in blood and, terrified that he did something horrible, Van Horn seeks out Queen to help him get to the truth about the blackouts and about what he might have done. Queen agrees and the trail leads back to Wrightsville, where Van Horn grew up. While they’re there, Van Horn has another blackout during which his stepmother Sally is murdered. He’s an obvious suspect. Still, Queen doesn’t think his friend is guilty, so he investigates. Because Wrightsville is a small town, the Van Horns know of the Wrights, and both families know other people too. That network isn’t exactly the reason for Sally Van Horn’s murder, but it figures in the novel. We also see that connection in The King is Dead, in which Queen investigates the attempted murder of arms tycoon Kane ‘King’ Bendigo. Bendigo lives on a private island with his wife Karla and his brothers Abel and Judah. When he begins to get threatening letters, Abel convinces him to bring Queen and his father Inspector Richard Queen to the island to investigate. Then there’s attempt on Bendigo’s life and now it looks as though he really is in imminent danger. The trail leads once again to Wrightsville, where the Bendigo brothers grew up and where there are still some people who remember Ellery Queen from his other visits…

There’s another case of ‘small world’ in Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo. In that novel, LAPD cop Harry Bosch has been demoted to the Hollywood Homicide team because of a questionable shooting incident in a former case. He’s getting used to his new position when a man’s body is found stuffed in a drainpipe. At first the case looks like just another junkie who killed himself with an overdose. But this case is different right from the beginning, at least for Bosch. The dead man is Billy Meadows, a former friend of Bosch’s from their days fighting together during the Vietnam War. Both men were ‘tunnel rats’ whose job it was to find and destroy enemy underground bunkers. Meadows and Bosch have ended up, by different routes, in the same place again and that connection is part of what drives Bosch to investigate this murder more carefully. It turns out that Meadows’ death is connected to a larger plan for a bank robbery.

In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, we are introduced to Inspector Jimmy Perez. Originally from Fair Isle, he’s now called to Ravenswick, Shetland to investigate the murder of a young girl Catherine Ross. Her body is found shortly after New Years in a field not far from the home of Magnus Tait, a sort of local misfit. He’s soon the prime suspect in the murder since he was possibly the last person to see the victim alive. What’s more, the locals have always considered Tait responsible for the disappearance of another girl Catriona Bruce some years earlier. Her body was never found and there was never any real evidence against Tait, so the police couldn’t make a case. But that hasn’t stopped the locals from thinking what they think. As Perez traces Catherine Ross’ last days and weeks, he meets up again unexpectedly with someone from his past. Successful businessman Duncan Hunter threw a party at his home not long before Catherine Ross was killed. She was among the people at the party and for a variety of reasons Hunter becomes suspect in her murder. Hunter is also a former schoolmate of Perez’, and the one person at that time who protected Perez from two bullies who were making his life miserable. They haven’t been in touch very often and as adults, they have little in common. That awkwardness makes for an interesting subtext in this novel and that connection with the past adds to both men’s characters.

Wendy James’ The Mistake also features a few unexpected connections with the past. Angus and Jodie Garrow and their children have what everyone thinks is a ‘model life’ in small-town New South Wales. It all changes when their daughter Hannah is in an accident and is taken to a Sydney hospital for treatment. It’s the same hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child Elsa Mary. A nurse who was there at the time remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodei tells her that the baby was given up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal record of an adoption. That’s when the questions begin to arise. What happened to the child? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, was Jodie somehow responsible for her death? Before long, Jodie becomes both a public curiosity object and an outcast as people begin talk quite openly about her role in the baby’s disappearance. In the midst of all this, another unexpected connection provides a real measure of solace for Jodie. She is invited one evening to a book club and, pleased that anyone wants anything to do with her, attends. The meeting turns out to be a disaster and Jodie leaves, humiliated. In fact, she doesn’t even notice that one of the people at the meeting is Bridget ‘Bridie’ ’Sullivan, a friend from Jodie’s childhood. Bridie feels terrible about what happened at the meeting and calls the next day, partly to apologise (although she isn’t responsible for what happens at the meeting) and partly to re-connect. Jodie invites her to the house and says this about their meeting:

 

‘It’s unreal isn’t it? You. Us. Meeting again.’

 

And it happens because Bridie and Jodie are both acquainted with members of the book club. It’s just as unexpected for Bridie, but the two put together their friendship again, and it turns out to be a source of healing for both.

We are all much more connected than we think we are, and when that’s portrayed authentically (i.e. not in a contrived way to suit the author’s purpose), it can add to a story. As you can see, I’ve only had room to mention a few examples from crime fiction. Your turn.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from No Doubt’s Full Circle.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Ellery Queen, Michael Connelly, Wendy James

Make it Stop*

BullyingThere’s an old saying that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ But the truth is that words are powerful enough to cause a great deal of damage. That’s how strong words are. And the thing about words is that even when the person who says hurtful things apologises sincerely, the words don’t go away. If you add to the terrible power of words physical threats, it’s easy to see why bullying can be so devastating. If you’ve ever been bullied, you know exactly what I mean. And the hurt that bullying causes isn’t a passing ‘childhood’ kind of thing. Again, if you’ve ever been bullied, you know exactly what I mean. Bullying leaves lasting scars in real life and we certainly see that in crime fiction too. I’m only going to mention a few examples because my guess is that you already get my point.

Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death features a bully (she is referred to as a ‘mental sadist’ here) Mrs. Boynton. She is the mother of Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ and the stepmother of Lennox, Carol and Raymond. Mrs. Boynton has ruled her family with tyranny and bullying and now, they are more or less cowed. The only member of the family who seems not to be intimidated by her is Lennox’s wife Nadine. When Mrs. Boynton decides to take her family on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East, it seems like a real chance for the family members to be able to live ‘like normal people.’ But what they soon find out is that Mrs. Boynton has her own reasons for taking this trip. When she suddenly dies during a visit to the ancient city of Petra, everyone thinks at first that she’s had heart failure. But Colonel Carbury isn’t entirely satisfied, so he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. It turns out that Mrs. Boynton’s murder has everything to do with her history as a bully, and in that sense one can’t help but feel sympathy for her killer. Throughout this story one sees the evidence of the lasting scars of bullying, even in adulthood.

Although Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black isn’t, strictly speaking, about bullying, we do see it in the novel. Seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross is killed shortly after New Year’s Day near the fictional town of Ravenswick, Shetland. Inspector Jimmy Perez is called in and begins to investigate. As he begins to find out more about Catherine’s life, he learns that she was a relative newcomer to the area. Catherine had a mind of her own and was not easily intimidated. But as Perez looks into the case, he finds out that like most schools, Catherine’s had its share of bullies. Their effect is clear even though the novel doesn’t describe scenes of bullying. Perez can identify in that sense with the victim. We learn in this novel that he came in for his share of bullying as a child. He was sent to a school where two boys in particular bullied him and made his life miserable. Then he was befriended and as he puts it, ‘saved his life.’ That memory complicates Perez’ investigation when that friend ends up being a suspect in Catherine Ross’ murder.

There’s also Simone van der Vlugt’s The Reunion, in which we meet Sabine Kroese. She’s recently begun a new job after recovering from a nervous breakdown. All goes well enough at first. Then Renée, a co-worker whom Sabine recruited and who has since been promoted, begins to make Sabine’s life increasingly difficult. This stirs up old feelings and memories for Sabine, who endured bullying in secondary school. At that time, she was very close to her best friend Isabel, until Isabel joined ‘the cool crowd.’ Then Isabel and her friends began to make Sabine the butt of their jokes and life got increasingly unbearable for her. One night, Isabel disappeared, and there’s never been a satisfactory explanation. Sabine herself has very little memory of what happened that night, but her experiences at her new job bring back those past events and gradually, she begins to recover her memory. As she does so, she comes to see that she may know the truth about what happened to Isabel. This novel shows as much as anything else that bullying happens in adulthood too.

Certainly we see that in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (A Thousand Cuts). One hot afternoon, recently-hired history teacher Samuel Szajkowski goes into a crowded auditorium at the school where he teaches and shoots a fellow teacher and three students. Then he turns the gun on himself. DI Lucia May is assigned to the case, where she’s expected to ‘rubber stamp’ the official explanation that Szajkowski just ‘snapped’ as the saying goes. But as May begins to interview colleagues, administrators and students, she slowly learns that this school nurtured a culture of bullying. May knows all too well what that sort of culture is like; her own workplace has a similar mindset and she has been the target of a fair amount of bullying. As her story and the story of what happened at the school seem to run parallel, we get a firsthand look at the terrible consequences of bullying.

And it does have terrible consequences. Just recently the news has been full of at least two cases in the U.S. of bullying that reached harrowing proportions and resulted in the suicide of the bullying victims. That’s also happened in Nova Scotia and I know it happens elsewhere. We can all think of examples we’ve read about, heard about or worse, seen.

I don’t think anyone would deny that bullying is a problem. The question is what to do about it. Oh, sure, donating money to anti-bullying activist groups is a good thing. And there are several groups that are working on this problem. That’s a good thing too.  But the real root of bullying is the culture that tolerates and condones it. Somehow, young people learn that they can bully and everything will be OK. Somehow, there’s a message that ‘it’s just one of those things that happen at school.’ But they can’t. It won’t. And it’s not.

One way that people get this message that bullying is OK is that others stand aside, for whatever reason, and do nothing when it happens.  Another way people get this message (at least in my opinion) is that young people see the adults in their lives treat one another in sometimes truly awful ways. No wonder they get the message that bullying works.

I know I can’t stop every instance of bullying. But I am going to do two things. I hope you’ll join me. First, I invite you to use your words to build people up. One can do that without gushing and it can make all the difference in the world. Somehow, bullies learn to say terrible things and tear people down. What if instead, the lesson they learned from the beginning was how to use words in a constructive way? The people who have the most to gain and the most to lose by following our example are watching us.

I also invite you to speak up when you see bullying. Please let’s not stand aside while it happens. OK, it’s hard. It can be scary. And it can feel awkward, even judgemental, to say something when we hear certain slurs. But walking away from a situation is not solving the problem. It contributes to the problem.  And it reinforces to the bullying victim that she or he is all alone. Let’s speak up when we hear slurs or see bullying. Let’s talk to our children and grandchildren about how wrong it is to make targets of other people. I think too many real-life people have paid too devastating a price for bullying. Please, folks, let’s do the things we can to make sure that the only stories we read about bullying are fictional.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rise Against.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Simon Lelic, Simone van der Vlugt