Category Archives: Barbara Vine

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.

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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

The Underlying Theme*

ThemesofBooksMost of us read crime novels for the stories. Plots, characters, settings and so on draw us in when they’re done well, and they keep us interested. But if you look a little deeper, you can also often see some larger themes in crime novels. A novel’s theme may not be the reason you choose to read it, or even the reason you richly enjoy it (or don’t!), but a theme can add to a novel and give the reader something to think about when the novel is finished. And it’s surprising how many crime novels and series address larger themes without losing focus on the stories themselves.

For example, the theme of justice is explored in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is on his way across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, he’s stabbed. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same coach. Since Hercule Poirot is among that group, he’s asked to investigate and see if he can find the killer before the train gets to the next international border. The idea is that if he can present the solution to the police, there’ll be less trouble and delay. Poirot agrees and interviews all of the passengers. He also finds out what he can about their backgrounds. In the end, we find that this killing has its roots in a past event. Throughout this novel, questions of justice, what constitutes justice and how we serve justice are raised. It’s really a very important theme here.

Of course, justice is a theme in a lot of other crime fiction too. So is family.  Gail Bowen explores that theme quite often. Her sleuth is Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, an academic and political scientist who has her own family. Several story arcs and sub-plots involve her family members. But Bowen explores family in other ways too. For instance, in The Nesting Dolls, an unknown young woman gives a baby to a friend of Joanne’s daughter Taylor. With the baby is a note identifying the mother as Abby Michaels. Abby makes it clear that she wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody of the child. The situation is very complex, and of course a search is made for Abby. But she seems to have disappeared. She’s later found raped and murdered, her body left in her car. The themes of family in its many forms, family ties and family identity come up clearly in this novel.

Ruth Rendell explores family quite frequently too, both under her own name and under the pen name of Barbara Vine. Of course, those novels (I’m thinking for instance of A Dark-Adapted Eye) often explore families that aren’t particularly healthy. The theme of what family is and how family ties play out is a strong characteristic of her work though.

Honour is explored in a lot of crime fiction too. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight for instance, Superintendent Frank Swann of the Perth Police investigates the murder of brothel owner Ruby Devine. Although they were on opposite sides of the law, so to speak, they were friends, and he is determined to find out who killed her. It’s not going to be easy though. Swann’s run afoul of the ‘purple circle,’ a group of fellow cops he reported for corruption. He’s ‘broken the code,’ so very few people will co-operate with him. Little by little though, Swann finds out the truth about Ruby Devine’s death. The theme of honour, of who has honour and of what it means and can cost is clear in this novel. And yet, the story itself is the main focus.

That’s also true in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. The main plot is the murder one morning of Tasmania Police Sergeant John White. The main suspect in the killing is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley. For various reasons, the police have to tread carefully in this case to make sure that everything is done ‘by the book.’ But in the end, we do find out the truth about White’s murder. Throughout the novel, the theme of loyalty comes up in several ways. For example, there’s the loyalty that White’s colleagues had towards him. There’s the loyalty that’s expected in general among cops. And there are other kinds of loyalty too. We see how that loyalty can be both an important social ‘glue’ and an impediment. But the real central focus of the novel is the murder, its investigation and its effects on everyone involved.

Guilt is a theme that’s often explored in crime fiction. Certainly we see it clearly in Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Inspector Erlendur. One of the story arcs that runs through this series is Erlendur’s search for the truth about his younger brother Bergur’s fate. Years earlier, when the two were boys, Bergur was lost during a terrible blizzard, and Erlendur has always felt responsibility and guilt about this, since he was supposed to be ‘in charge.’ That guilt plays a powerful role in his thinking and choices. Guilt also plays a role in some of mystery plots in this series too. For instance, guilt is woven into the plot of Jar City, in which Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive old man named Holberg. The more they dig into his past though, the more possibility there is that he wasn’t as inoffensive as it seemed. As the case goes on, we see the theme of guilt in Holberg’s life. Guilt is also explored in the way that various people who knew Holberg react. But that theme doesn’t take over. The mystery plot is the focus of this novel.

And that’s the thing about an effective use of theme in a crime novel. Themes can add richness to a novel, and a layer of interest. They can also make the reader remember a novel long after it’s done. But the main focus of the high-quality crime novel is its plot, characters and context.

There’s only been space here for a few themes and examples. Which main themes do you see in the crime fiction you like to read? If you’re a writer, do you consciously address themes?

 

 
 

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

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Barbara Vine, David Whish-Wilson, Gail Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Y.A. Erskine

I Am the Entertainer, the Idol of My Age*

FangirlThere’s something about rock stars, film stars and other idols. People sometimes almost hero-worship them. Now, personally, I can’t imagine being obsessed about, say, a rock star – ahem. ;-) – But there are a lot of people who are. Just check Twitter, Instagram or other social networks and you’ll see that those kinds of stars get a lot of attention. And if you check news stories, that attention can quickly turn to obsession and more. That happens in crime fiction, too.

For instance, there’s a classic example of that kind of obsession in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). Heather Badcock and her husband Arthur have moved into the new council housing that’s come to the village of St. Mary Mead. Heather is extremely excited because her idol Marina Gregg has bought Gossington Hall, right nearby. She and her husband Jason Rudd are planning to carry on the tradition of an annual charity fête, and Heather can’t wait for the opportunity to speak to Marina Gregg in person. The big day comes and to Heather’s delight, she actually gets the chance to have a short conversation with the film star. Shortly after that though, Heather is taken ill and later dies. It’s soon shown that she was poisoned, and at first, everyone believes that the intended victim was Marina Gregg. But Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry discover that Heather was the target all along. Now they have to figure out why.

In Michael Connelly’s The Overlook, LAPD cop Harry Bosch and his new partner Ignacio ‘Iggy’ Ferras are investigating the death of a physicist Stanley Kent. He was killed on an overlook on Hollywood’s Mulholland Drive, and of course Bosch and Ferras want to talk to anyone who might have been in the area and seen something. That’s how they meet twenty-year-old Jesse Milford. Milford came to L.A. as so many people do, to ‘make it’ in the film business. He’s obsessed with entertainer Madonna, and was actually on her property at the time of the murder. He wanted a photograph or some sort of memento to send to his mother to let her know he was all right. He may not be a major character in the novel, but he shows how obsessed we can be with our stars.

In Peter Lovesey’s Stagestruck, rock star Clarion Calhoun is getting a little older, and losing some fans. She wants to stay on top, so she decides to make a move from rock music to theatre. Her choice is a production of I Am a Camera, and everyone is counting on her ‘name draw’ to ensure a long run. When rehearsals start though, the cast and crew discover that Clarion has little acting talent. She insists on keeping her role though, and the production goes on. Then on opening night, Clarion is attacked by what turns out to be tainted makeup. Her makeup artist/dresser Denise Pearsall is the first suspect, but when she’s found dead, it’s clear that something more is going on.  Superintendent Peter Diamond investigates the attack and the murder and when he starts digging, he finds out that as cliché as it sounds, appearances here are deceiving. In the end he discovers that it all has to do with someone’s past.

Peter James’ Not Dead Yet looks even more closely at how obsessed a fan can be. Rock star Gaia Lafayette has decided to do some film acting. She will be starring in a film about Maria Fitzherbert, mistress to King George IV. Everything’s set for the filming to take place in Brighton, where Gaia was born and raised. There are some security concerns though, because Gaia has received a death threat. Then there’s an attempt on her life. Superintendent Roy Grace is assigned to ensure the star’s security during the filming, but he’s got other issues he’s dealing with at the moment. One is a dead body found in a chicken coop. When that body turns out to be tied in with the threats on Gaia’s life, Grace knows that he’s going to have to take this protection case seriously. One of the characters in this novel is Anna Galicia, Gaia’s biggest fan. Anna is obsessed with her idol, and is more than excited when she finds that Gaia is actually coming to Brighton. It’s an interesting psychological portrait of a person who is consumed by her devotion to a star.

And it’s not just rock stars who are the focus of this kind of obsession. For instance, in Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell’s Gallowglass, a troubled young man named Joe is saved from suicide by a man named Sandor. Sandor convinces Joe that he is destined to ‘serve the chief.’ It’s all part of Sandor’s plan to kidnap one of the world’s most beautiful women, supermodel Nina Abbott. Sandor’s been obsessed with her for some time, and is determined to, as he sees it, free her from imprisonment in the heavily guarded home in which she lives, so she can be with him. Of course, things don’t work out as Sandor intends…

As you can see, there are a lot of obsessed fans out there, both in real life and in crime fiction. I’ve only given a few examples here. And of course, obsession can certainly go too far. But there’s nothing wrong with some posters, t-shirts, memorabilia, music, right? What!?   ;-)

 

Happy Birthday, Mr. Joel!

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Peter Lovesey, Ruth Rendell

You’re Saying I’m Fragile*

FragileOne of the ways that authors keep the reader’s interest is by developing characters in sometimes unexpected ways. For example, a character may seem quite fragile on the surface, but as the story evolves, we learn that the character has strengths that we didn’t realise. There’s always a risk with that, of course, because a character who seems to change too abruptly or who acts too much ‘out of character’ isn’t believable. But discovering hidden strength under surface-level fragility can make a character all the more interesting.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links for instance, Hercule Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld, an ex-pat Canadian who now lives in France. Renauld’s letter refers to threats on his life, and he makes it clear that he wants Poirot to come to France immediately. Poirot and Hastings go to the small  town of Merlinville-sur-Mer, but by the time they get there it’s too late. Renauld has been stabbed and his body found on a golf course being built near the villa where he lived. As you might expect, the police and Poirot interview people who might have seen something or who might have known the victim. So one of their stops is the villa nearest the Renauld home. In that villa lives Marthe Daubreuil, who is the fiancée of Renauld’s son Jack. When they first meet her, Marthe seems fragile and vulnerable. Poirot even calls her

 

‘…a girl with anxious eyes.’

 

But as the story evolves and we learn more about her, we find that Marthe has quite a lot of strength in her.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur, Kerstin Kvist accepts a position as a private nurse at Lydstep Old Hall, the home of the Cosway family. She’s hoping that the move from her native Sweden to England will allow her to spend more time with her lover Mark Douglas. Her job at the Cosway’s home will be the care of thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. Kvist settles into her job, but soon finds that this is no ordinary family. For one thing, the family seems to live and behave as though it were still the Victorian Era. For another, John Cosway is kept heavily medicated on orders from his mother, the family matriarch. After a short time Kvist begins to suspect that the heavy medication is detrimental to her patient so without telling anyone, she begins to withhold it. That decision has tragic consequences that she couldn’t have imagined. As the novel evolves and Kvist gets to know her patient, so does the reader. And although he seems very fragile on the surface – he is a mental patient after all – we learn that there are depths and strengths to his character. He turns out to be quite surprising in his way.

In Shona (S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, we meet grammar school undermaster Alexander Seaton, a former candidate for the pulpit who left the ministry under a cloud of scandal. Since that time, Seaton has tried to stay ‘under the radar,’ taking on a humble job and trying to stay out of trouble. In many ways he’s quite fragile, although not physically so. Then his good friend Charles Thom is accused of murdering local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson. Thom claims he’s innocent and begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and starts to ask questions about the murder. Bit by bit he’s drawn more and more into the investigation. And, trite as it may sound, that process requires him to find strength within himself that he didn’t know he had.

Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride) introduces us to Gunder Jormann, who lives in the small Norwegian town of Elvestad. He’s not the world’s quickest thinker, but he’s a steady worker and has never been in trouble. His sister Marie has always looked after him and in that sense he seems fragile on the surface. Then he decides to do something no-one expected. He decides he would like to get married. He’s no longer a young man, but he’s still in decent physical shape and he has a steady income, so he doesn’t think his marital prospects are hopeless. As if that weren’t surprising enough, he decides to go to Mumbai to find a wife. At first, Marie is against the idea. But when she sees that her brother is determined, she reminds him of all of the details that are involved in international travel. Things start to change when Jormann actually gets to Mumbai. There, he surprises even himself by his ability to get used to being in a totally different environment. He’s successful at finding a wife, too. She is Poona Bai, whom Jormann met when he started going to the restaurant where she works. Within a short time, he has persuaded Poona to marry him and move to Norway. She has to finish up the details of her life in India, so Jormann goes back to Elvestad first, with the understanding that his bride will follow him. On the day of her arrival though, Jormann’s sister is involved in a terrible auto accident and he can’t leave her side. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport. When the two miss each other, Poona continues on towards Elvestad, but never makes it to Jormann’s home. When her body is later discovered in a field near Elvestad, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. Throughout the novel it’s interesting to see the solid strength of Jormann’s character show beneath his superficial fragility.

Max Kinnings’ Baptism is the story of George Wakeham, a London Underground driver for the Northern Line. He’s by no means weak-willed, but in some ways he’s quite fragile. He’s always wanted to do something creative with his life – something that would have a lasting impact. But although he was part of a band and tried writing as well, he hasn’t felt he succeeded. In that sense he’s quite insecure. Still, he has a stable marriage, two healthy children and a steady job. Then one morning, three people invade his home and take his family as prisoners. They tell Wakeham that if his family is to live, he must do exactly as they say. They give him a special mobile ‘phone which they will use to instruct him, and tell him to report for work as usual, making sure to do everything he is told. With no other option, Wakeham goes to his duty station and takes his place in the cab of his train. The hostage-takers board the train as well, with his family in tow. Then, in the middle of a tunnel, he is ordered to stop the train. Now Wakeham learns to his horror why he was targeted and what the hostage-takers want. In the meantime, DCI Ed Mallory and his team have been alerted to the hostage situation. Mallory is an experienced negotiator, so he tries to work with the hostage-takers to find out exactly what they want. Meanwhile Wakeham works to keep himself and his family alive, and to try his best to protect the 400 passengers on the train. In that process we see that he has a lot of strength that he didn’t know he had.

Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is the central focus in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Durga has been temporarily placed in a prison because she is under suspicion for having committed multiple murders. One night, thirteen members of her family were poisoned. Some were stabbed as well, and the house was burnt. Durga has survived, but she won’t talk about that night. It looks very much as though she somehow ‘snapped’ and is guilty of the crimes. However, there are clues that instead, she was bound and raped, so she may be a victim herself. The only way to find out what really happened is to get Durga to talk, so social worker Simran Singh is asked to travel from her home in Delhi to the Punjab town of Jullundar to help. Simran knows the town well, since she was brought up there, and it is hoped that she’ll be able to break through Durga’s ‘wall of silence.’ Slowly and piece by piece, Simran finds out about the Atwal family, about Durga’s life there, and about some very dark secrets that the well-to-do family had hidden. As the novel evolves, we see that although Durga seems quite fragile on the surface (and in some ways, she really is), she is actually much stronger and more resilient than it seems.

When characters seem one way on the surface, but turn out to have different sorts of depths to them, this can make them all the more interesting. And that’s part of what keeps readers turning and clicking pages. This post only gives me enough space to mention a few examples of fragile characters who turn out not to be so fragile. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Leather and Lace.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Karin Fossum, Kishwar Desai, Max Kinnings, Ruth Rendell, Shona MacLean

She’s Ahead of Her Time*

Anachronistic CharactersIn any good novel, whether or not it’s a crime fiction novel, a big part of what draws the reader in (or doesn’t) is the set of characters. Characters tend to be most believable if they fit in as you might put it with their place and time. But sometimes it can add some interest to a novel if a character is anachronistic,  whether it’s seeming to come from an earlier place and time, or being ahead of her or his time. There are people like that in real life, and anachronistic characters can lend an interesting perspective to a story too.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) for instance, we meet Meredith Blake. He, his brother Philip, and three other people are on hand one terrible day when famous painter Amyas Crale suddenly dies of what turns out to be coniine poisoning. The most obvious suspect is Crale’s wife Caroline, who knows that he’s having an affair with another woman, and who has been heard to threaten him. In fact, she is arrested, tried and convicted. But sixteen years later, her daughter Carla Lemarchant asks Poirot to clear Caroline Crale’s name. Carla is certain that her mother wasn’t guilty and wants proof of that. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each one of the days up to and including the murder. One of those people is Meredith Blake, who is in many ways more of a Romantic or Victorian character than a modern one. We see that in what he says about Caroline Crale:

 

‘‘Caroline-I had always-well, I had always been very fond of Caroline. There was a time when-when I hoped to marry her. But that was soon nipped in the bud. Still, I remained, if I may say so, devoted to-to her service.’
Poirot nodded thoughtfully. That slightly old-fashioned phrase expressed, he felt, the man before him very typically. Meredith Blake was the kind of man who would devote himself readily to a romantic and honourable devotion. He would serve his lady faithfully and without hope of reward. Yes, it was all very much in character.’  

 

We also see it in Blake’s distaste for raking up the matter again and discussing unpleasantness like murder.

We see a more disturbing side of anachronistic characters in Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur. Swedish nurse Kerstin Kvist is hired by the Cosway family to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. She accepts the position and moves into the Cosways’ home Lydstep Old Hall. Right from the start, she is struck by the fact that the Cosways seem to live and behave as though they were in the Victorian Era. In some ways, there’s been a disconnect between their lifestyle and modern life. What’s more, Kvist soon sees that her patient is kept heavily medicated by order of his mother, the family matriarch. Kvist comes to believe that that much medication is detrimental to her patient so, without telling anyone, she begins withholding it. Her choice has terrible consequences and leads to real tragedy, and throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how that connection to the Victorian Era plays out in the family.

Kerry Greenwood’s Melbourne-based Corinna Chapman series features several interesting characters, including the anachronistic Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk. Monk is one of several people who live in Insula, the large Romanesque building where Chapman has her bakery. Monk is a brilliant former educator who is extremely well-versed in the Greek and Roman Classics. He’s certainly aware of and interested in modern life and what’s going on around him, but in some ways, he inhabits a different time and place. You can see it in his speech patterns and in the way he treats others. Here, for instance, is a bit of a scene between him and Chapman (taken from Earthly Delights). He’s had a leg injury so hasn’t been able to get around much, and Chapman brings him some bread from her bakery:

 

‘‘Corinna! Sweet nymph!’ he declaimed. ‘Seconds before I expired of ennui. How people can watch television for hours I cannot imagine…
‘I was watching the oddest thing,’ he said. ‘A woman’s program. Her name was…Oprah, I believe. The things that people were saying! It was most indelicate.’
I resolved never to tell Dionysius Monk about Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones.
‘I’ve got bread and you’ve got breakfast,’ I said. ‘Tea?’
‘If you please,’ he said hungrily…
‘Panem et circenses,’ he said. ‘Bread and circuses. I think I would rather have the bread than the circus. And perhaps you could move that table closer so that I can get to my Aristophanes? It’s been beckoning to me for hours, poor thing.’

 

Professor Dion may be anachronistic, but he is brilliant and often has useful information that helps Chapman.

Of course, there are also anachronistic characters who are far ahead of their times. One of the most famous of these is Irene Adler, whom we meet in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. She is an actress who was involved in a relationship with the king of Bohemia. The affair ended but Irene still has a photograph of them together. The king is about to be married, and doesn’t want the photograph to surface and create a scandal. So he hires Holmes to get it back. Holmes agrees and much to his surprise finds his work cut out for him as the saying goes. Irene Adler is a very forward-thinking person who manages to best Holmes at his own game. In many ways, she speaks and behaves as women of her time and place do. But she is ahead of her time in the way she takes control of the situation, the way she views life and the way she goes about dealing with Holmes.

In Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, we are introduced to Adelia Aguilar, a doctor who lives and works in 12th Century England. She travels from Naples’ University of Salerno to England at the request of King Henry II. The king is faced with a case of the murder of a child, and popular opinion is that somehow, the Jews were responsible. But they represent a lucrative source of income to the king, so he doesn’t want a backlash against them. His hope is that the discovery of the real killer will prevent that. In the England of this time, it was illegal and fatally dangerous for a woman to have anything to do with the medical profession, so Aguilar has to be very careful as she investigates. But she is a skilled doctor – a ‘mistress of the art of death’ – and she’s able to find out who the killer is. Although Aguilar is a product of her times, she has a very modern outlook on medicine (i.e. using science rather than superstition to deal with the medical) and of course, on the roles women should play.

It’s always a risk when an author integrates an anachronistic character. After all, it’s hard to create a credible character who doesn’t reflect her or his own time and place, at least to an extent. But there are anachronistic people in real life, and in crime fiction, they can add some interesting leaven to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ariana Franklin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Kerry Greenwood, Ruth Rendell