Category Archives: Barbara Vine

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.


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.


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

I Need Attendance From My Nurse Around the Clock*

NursingWithin the last fifty years, the nursing profession has become a highly skilled and demanding field. Today’s nursing is far more than just checking blood pressure and giving medicines that the doctor orders. And yet, most people pay a lot more attention to the doctor than they do to the nursing staff. In part that’s because of the way society has traditionally viewed physicians. But the fact is, nurses are vital members of the health care team. Among other things, they get to know their patients very well and have a better idea of their health and their responses to treatment than a doctor might. And a wise detective, whether real or fictional, knows that nurses often have valuable insights that can help solve a case. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice that I’m not going to mention novels that are considered ‘medical thrillers’ (e.g. the work of Michael Palmer). That would be too easy…

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot gets quite a lot of information from Amy Leatheran, a nurse who is engaged to help look after Louise Leidner. Louise is the wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, and goes with him to an excavation a few hours from Baghdad. One afternoon, Louise is murdered in her bedroom. At first, everyone thinks that a stranger must have committed the crime, but it’s soon shown that no strangers were at the house where the dig team is staying. So Poirot has to look among the members of the team to find the killer. One of the first people Poirot interviews is Amy Leatheran, who tells him that Louise had been fearful and had seen faces at her window, heard hands tapping and so on. It turns out that Louise was afraid because she’d gotten threatening letters from her first husband, whom she thought long dead. She was convinced her former husband had returned to kill her. This angle to the case gives Poirot some important information and he’s able to use it to find out who really killed the victim. What’s very interesting about this story too is that Poirot pays close attention to what Amy Leatheran tells him, but not in the way she (or first-time readers) may think.

Nurses also feature in Christie’s Sad Cypress. When Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous letter about her wealthy Laura Welman, she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman travel to the family home Hunterbury. When they get there they discover that Aunt Laura has had a stroke. District nurse Jessie Hopkins and private nurse Eileen O’Brien take charge of the patient under the supervision of Dr. Peter Lord. While Elinor and Roddy are at Hunterbury, they renew their acquaintance with a childhood friend Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. Roddy soon finds himself besotted by her and almost before Elinor knows what’s happened, he’s in love with Mary. Then Aunt Laura dies without having made a will and as her next of kin, Elinor stands to inherit a fortune. One afternoon, Mary Gerrard is poisoned while having lunch at Hunterbury. Elinor becomes the prime suspect. She’s arrested for the crime and is about to go on trial. But Peter Lord wants her name cleared, so he visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into the case. Poirot discovers that there were several things about Mary Gerrard that weren’t generally known, and that her past is the reason she was killed. The two nurses turn out to have valuable information about the case, and we can see from their interactions with each other and with Poirot how being closely involved with a patient gives them a lot of ‘inside information.’

That’s also true in Barbara Vine (AKA Ruth Rendell’s) 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’s eager to take the position because it will allow her to be closer to her lover Mark Douglas. Soon after arriving at the family home Lydstep Old Hall, Kerstin gets the feeling that something is very, very wrong. For one thing, the family seems to live and behave as though it were still the Victorian Era, which is strange enough. Kerstin also finds that her patient is kept under heavy sedation by order of his mother, the family matriarch. Kerstin is convinced that he doesn’t need such heavy medication so, concerned for his health she begins to withhold the dugs without telling his mother. Her decision leads to real tragedy and we learn about that tragedy and about the inner workings of this family through a diary that she keeps.

In P.D. James’ The Private Patient, we meet investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn, who makes arrangements with noted cosmetic surgeon George Chandler-Powell to have a facial scar removed. For that, she’ll be treated at his private Dorset Clinic Cheverell Manor. Soon after her arrival though, Rhoda is brutally murdered. Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team are named to investigate the murder and they begin to look into both the victim’s life and what goes on at the clinic. Then there’s another murder. Now the team has to try to find out what might connect the two victims. It turns out that part of the truth can be found in the past, and that one person who knows more than she is saying is a nurse. Giving her name would give away part of the plot, but it’s an interesting example of the way nurses can know things that other people might not get to know.

Nurses play pivotal roles in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds. One night there’s a blackout at Löwander Hospital, a private facility. During the blackout, a nurse Marianne Svärd is murdered. Göteborg detective Irene Huss and her team are just beginning their investigation when another nurse Linda Svensson disappears. Her body is later found in an unused hospital attic, hung in the same place where fifty years earlier, another nurse Tekla Olsson committed suicide. It’s soon clear that something is going on at the hospital, so the investigation team looks into the history of the facility and the people who work there. In doing that they get some valuable information from another nurse Siv Persson, who’s been at the hospital for a long time and who knows its history.

Wendy James’ The Mistake shows exactly how observant and alert nurses can be. In that novel, Jodie Evans Garrow goes to a Sydney hospital in a panic when she gets word that her daughter Hannah has been admitted there. Hannah’s been in an accident and although it’s not life-threatening, she needs medical care. While Jodie’s there, she has a reunion of sorts. Debbie West, a nurse-midwife at the hospital, remembers Jodie from a visit she made there years ago. At that time, Jodie gave birth to a girl Elsa Mary whom she’s never told anyone about – not even her husband Angus. Debbie asks Jodie about the baby, and Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption. But then Debbie takes it on herself to do some searching and finds that there are no records of such an adoption. Now questions are raised, first privately and then very publicly, about what happened to Jodie’s first baby. There is even a strong possibility that she might have killed the baby. As the questions continue Jodie becomes a social pariah. Little by little, we learn what really happened when Ella Mary was born and we learn that things are not as simple as they seem.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s Dance of the Seagull. That novel begins with the disappearance of Vigatà police sergeant Giuseppe Fazio. His boss Salvo Montalbano is eager to find out what’s happened to one of his best team members, so he begins to look into what happened just before Fazio went missing. It turns out that Fazio was working on a major case involving illegal trafficking, a vicious murder and some highly-placed Mafia people. Montalbano and his team know they’ll have to go up against some dangerous enemies, so when they find a wounded Fazio, they arrange for him to be transported to Fiacca Hospital where it’s hoped he’ll be kept safe. That’s where Montalbano meets Angela, a hospital nurse who ends up proving to be very important to this case.

Nurses are smart, educated and observant professionals; they are integral to good medical care. Little wonder they have so much knowledge about what goes on around them. Little wonder too that they are so often central to a crime fiction case. Now it’s your turn. What gaps have I left?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gregory Isaacs’ Night Nurse.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Barbara Vine, Helene Tursten, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Wendy James

Make Me Respectable, Man*

RespectabilityAn interesting post on Patti Abbott’s terrific blog has got me thinking about respectability. Patti’s post focused on respectability in the lower-middle class, but really it’s an interesting question for just about any class. Patti’s blog is a treasure trove of interesting questions, great music and film clips, short stories and more, so please, do yourself a favour and follow it if you aren’t already. What counts as ‘respectable’ has changed a lot over the years, but the question I started thinking about was: Do people care about being respectable? Is the whole concept of respectability still relevant? Of course we can give a lot of examples of people who don’t care what others think of them. But honestly, I think the desire to be considered respectable still matters to some people. Certainly it’s a factor in a lot of crime fiction.

As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell deals with the theme of respectability in A Dark-Adapted Eye. The Longley family has always prided itself on its middle-class respectability, but what a lot of people don’t know is that the family has a dark secret in its past. Years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was arrested, tried and hanged for murder. Since then the Longley family has buried that fact as best they could, mostly because of this desire to be seen as respectable. Then journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the past for a story he’s doing on the Hilliard trial. He approaches Vera’s niece Faith Longley Severn and asks her to help him put together the family’s history. In doing so, she has to face her family’s past and pull away the veneer of respectability that the family valued so much.

Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour takes an interesting look at respectability. In that novel, Sir Clixby Bream, Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, is preparing to retire.  He’s faced with the question of who will succeed him and narrows his choice down to two candidates: Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. Both men are equally qualified and have good reputations. Both also have the air of respectability that can make a big difference in a choice like this. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens begins to dig around a bit into the past and discovers that one of the characters in this novel is not quite as respectable as it seems. He decides to confront that character with what he knows and see if he can earn a profit for keeping quiet on the matter. When Owens is murdered, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate to find out whose desire to be thought of as respectable made it worth committing murder.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck returns from Stockholm to her family’s home in Fjällbacka to sort out her parents’ things after their deaths. She’s not been there long when a neighbour discovers the body of Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner, who appears to have committed suicide. Falck is especially shocked by this death because she and Alex were best friends as children. She and Alex hadn’t really been in touch for twenty-five years and it occurs to her that she didn’t really know her former friend. So she decides to try to get to know the woman Alex became and write a biography of her. As local police officer Patrik Hedström investigates officially, Falck begins to ask more informal questions about the death. Each in a different way, they learn that Alex’s death was murder not suicide. And behind it all is the strong desire for being considered ‘respectable.’

Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit introduces us to successful accountant Daniel Guest, who is ‘respectably’ married and has a good reputation in business. But he’s also had some secret relationships with men. He is shocked when someone who seems to know about his trysts blackmails him. Guest is very concerned about being considered ‘respectable’ so he hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find the blackmailer and get that person to stop. He’s even willing to pay the blackmailer just to make the whole thing go away. Quant suggests that it would all be a lot easier if Guest simply ‘came out,’ but Guest refuses. He is determined to maintain his veneer of ‘respectable married life.’ So Quant begins to investigate the matter. The trail leads to New York, a murder, and eventually right back to Saskatoon. The urge to be considered respectable isn’t the reason for the murder, but it’s a fascinating theme that runs through this novel.

Respectability is a very important theme in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri’s business comes mostly from families who want to ‘vet’ potential spouses for their children. They hire Puri to do background checks and find out anything he can so that they can ensure their children marry respectable people. Puri gets a very different kind of case though when successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal hires him. Kasliwal has been accused of raping and murdering a family servant Mary Murmu who disappeared a few months ago. He swears that he is innocent and wants Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. So Puri and his team start asking questions. They run into obstacles right away because the police are determined to prove that they do not look the other way when wealthy and successful people commit crimes, so they’re making an example of Kasliwal. Still, Puri manages to get the information he needs and together with his team, he finds out the truth about Mary Murmu. It turns out that a lot of what happens is because of wanting to preserve the air of honour and respectability.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. She lives what just about anyone would call a respectable life. She’s married to a successful lawyer, she has two healthy children who more or less stay out of trouble, and she herself behaves circumspectly. Everything starts to unravel though when Jodie’s daughter Hannah has an accident and is taken to hospital. It turns out that it’s the same hospital in which Jodie herself gave birth to a daughter years earlier – a daughter she’s never told anyone about, not even her husband. A nurse who is still working at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption but when the overzealous nurse looks into the matter, she finds that there are no records of the adoption. Soon there are murmurs and then very public questions. What happened to the baby? If the baby died, is Jodie somehow responsible? It’s not long before Jodie becomes a pariah. Even her husband Angus distances himself from her. Not only is it possible that she is not the woman he thought she was, but his name is being mentioned as the next mayor. To win that office, he’s going to need the most respectable reputation he has, and this matter with Jodie isn’t helping. As we learn the truth about what happened to Jodie’s first baby, and as we see what happens to her as this story grows and grows, it’s clear that respectability is still important to a lot of people.

Respectability isn’t important to everyone of course. There’ve always been lots of cases of people who simply don’t care what their reputations are. But I honestly think it’s still a factor. In fact, as I planned this post I kept thinking of other modern novels where the desire to be considered respectable plays a big part. There just wasn’t room for them all. What’s your view on this? Do you think respectability still matters? Which novels have you enjoyed that treat this theme?

Thanks, Patti, for the inspiration.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Blue Collar Man (Long Nights).


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Barbara Vine, Camilla Läckberg, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

Baby Lead Me On*

ManipulationI’m going to let you in on a little secret. OK, perhaps it’s not such a secret after all. Crime writers are out to manipulate readers. It’s true. Oh, I don’t mean in the negative sense of exploiting readers; that isn’t ‘playing fair’ (I’ll get back to that point in a bit). But crime writers do want readers to ‘buy into’ a story. That sort of manipulation is an important skill too. If it’s a ‘whodunit’ the author has to distract the reader from the real killer. If it’s a ‘whydunit’ the author has to get the reader to believe someone would kill for a given motive. If it’s a psychological thriller the author has to make the reader question just about everyone’s motives and trustworthiness. And all of that requires some manipulation.

Most crime fiction fans don’t mind that. If the story is well-written and there’s payoff if I can put it that way, readers are willing to let the author work some magic. When there is no payoff, or when the manipulation seems unfair or contrived, then readers tend to get cross. I know I do. The line between the manipulation that authors need to do to tell a good story and unfair manipulation is a fuzzy one. That’s not helped by the fact that every reader has a different line. But when that manipulation is both deft and fair, it can be an effective tool to draw readers into a story.

One of my favourite examples of that kind of deft manipulation is in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, Hercule Poirot has retired to the small village of King’s Abbot (or so he thinks). He’s soon drawn back into active investigation when wealthy retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed. Ackroyd’s niece Flora is very much afraid her fiancé Captain Ralph Paton will be arrested for the crime since he is the most likely suspect. So she begs Poirot to find out the truth about the crime and clear Paton’s name. Christie manipulated readers’ assumptions about what clues mean and how the story is ‘supposed to’ progress so that the dénouement took readers utterly by surprise when the story was first published. In fact Christie took a lot of criticism for that. But careful readers will note that she ‘plays fair’ throughout the story. It’s a really powerful example of how manipulation can be handled brilliantly.

Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is another case where the author manipulates unwary readers straight towards the wrong solution. Roger Sheringham is a correspondent for the Daily Courier. His plans for a holiday are upended when his employer sends him to Ludmouth Bay in Hampshire. Elise Vane was killed in a fall over a cliff and there are hints that the death may be murder. Sheringham’s assignment is to follow the case and submit articles on it. When he arrives in Hampshire Sheringham begins by talking to the various people in the victim’s life. As it turns out, Elise Vane was an unpleasant person and very few people are upset at her death. Sheringham also connects with Inspector Moresby, who’s in charge of the investigation. Sheringham and Moresby don’t team up but they do share information and in the end we learn the truth about who killed Elise Vane and why. Throughout this novel, Berkeley manipulates readers by calling attention to all of the little pieces of evidence that point to one or another suspect and disguising the real evidence.

Some authors manipulate readers by making it unclear exactly whom one can trust. There’s a brilliant example of that in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red.  Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne has reached a plateau in her career. She’s well-regarded and has a popular television show, but she’s keenly aware that there are ‘hungry’ younger journalists coming up behind her. What Thorne needs is the story that will establish her at the top of national broadcasts. She thinks she finds that story in the case of Connor Bligh. Bligh is in prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the murders. Everyone assumes that Bligh is guilty. But then little hints surface that suggest he may be innocent. If he is, then he’s been wrongly imprisoned and that will be a sensational story. Thorne begins to look into the case and talk to the various people involved. She also interviews Bligh himself and encourages him to tell her his side of the story. There is certainly evidence of Bligh’s guilt, but Thorne also finds evidence that someone else is responsible. Is Bligh guilty? Is he manipulating Thorne? Are the people who want him in prison manipulating the system? Those questions of whom to trust keep the reader (well, this one anyway) deeply involved in the story.

T.J. Cooke does a similar kind of manipulation in his Kiss and Tell. London lawyer Jill Shadow is a single mother who’s worked hard to put a life together for herself and her daughter Hannah. All’s going well enough until she agrees to take the case of Bella Kiss, who’s been arrested for drugs smuggling. Bella admits she brought illegal drugs into the country, but she won’t tell who paid or coerced her to do so. She’s obviously covering up for someone and afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t. Because she isn’t very helpful in her own case, Shadow drops her as a client, but then changes her mind when she sees just how vulnerable Bella is. Bit by bit, Shadow uncovers a network that involves some very powerful and ruthless people. Then there’s a murder. That murder is connected to an earlier death and to Shadow’s client. Now, some very dangerous people are determined that Shadow won’t take her investigation any further. As the novel goes on, Cooke makes it clear that some people are not what they seem. That strategy is a very effective way to manipulate the reader into one kind of solution to the case when Cooke really has something else in mind.

Another way crime writers manipulate readers is with the use of secrets that characters keep. Readers want to know those secrets; they want to find out the truth. Slowly revealing those secrets not only adds to the tension in a novel, but also can lead the reader to care about characters. Readers often get invested in characters when they know their secrets.  Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) A Dark-Adapted Eye for instance is the story of long-held secrets in the Longley family. Years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was executed for murder. The family has done all it could to erase that part of the past and live a very respectable, middle-class life. Then journalist Daniel Stewart gets interested in the Hilliard case and wants to know more about the case and the family. So he asks Vera Hilliard’s niece Faith Longley Severn to help him put the pieces of the puzzle together. As the two interact, Severn has to come face to face with her family’s past – and with several secrets. It’s one of those secrets that actually inspired this post. We don’t know the truth about one member of the Longley family until the end of the book and that secret keeps readers invested all the way through.

Most crime fiction fans know they’re being manipulated as they read. That’s part of the game. And if that manipulation means a terrific surprise ending, interesting revelations about characters or a good match of wits between author and reader, that can add to a novel. And crime fiction fans like that. When it’s done unfairly though, so that readers don’t get important information they need, or if there’s no payoff for that manipulation, then readers get pulled out of the story.

What about you? If you’re a reader, do you mind having your thinking manipulated? What’s your line between ‘it’s all part of the game’ and ‘this is not fair?’ If you’re a writer, how do you keep on the ‘playing fair’ part of that balance?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Lead Me On.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Barbara Vine, Paddy Richardson, Ruth Rendell, T.J. Cooke