Category Archives: Belinda Bauer

I’d Rather be Anything but Ordinary Please*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 

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

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

You Have Experienced Things I Never Have*

One of the most enriching bonds there is in family life is the bond between grandparents and their grandchildren. For grandparents, grandchildren are a breath of life and a way to connect with the future. For grandchildren, grandparents are a critical connection with the past and an important source of stability. There’s also of course the emotional bond between those two generations. Then too grandparents can provide a safe “landing spot” for grandchildren if it’s necessary. But even when it’s not, grandparents and their grandchildren connect in ways that are unlike any other bonds. That’s certainly the case in real life, and we see it a lot in crime fiction, too.

There’s a really interesting grandparent/grandchild bond in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker. She is chosen to play the part of the victim in a Murder Hunt designed by detective novelist Ariadne Oliver. The Murder Hunt is one of the events at a fête to be held at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Oliver thinks that more is going on than the preparations for a fête, so she asks Poirot to attend as well, and he agrees. On the day of the fête, Marlene Tucker is strangled. As Poirot and Inspector Bland look into the case, they get to know Marlene’s family including her grandfather old Merdell. They find that Marlene was the only one who really paid attention to what Merdell said.  That relationship and one of Merdell’s stories prove to be crucial to solving Marlene’s murder and that of another person.

In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, there’s a very special bond between Gloria Peters and her grandson Steven. Eighteen years before the events in the novel, Gloria’s son (and Steven’s uncle) Billy Peters disappeared. He never returned and his body was never discovered. It’s always been believed that he was killed by Arnold Avery, a convicted murderer who’s currently in prison. But this has never been proven and the family has never really gotten closure. Steven wants to give his family closure and his grandmother some peace so he decides to find contact Arnold Avery to find out if he killed Billy Peters. He writes to Avery, who responds to his letter, and the two begin a very dangerous game of cat and mouse. Steven tries to disguise not only his identity but also his real reason for contacting Avery. Avery has his own agenda in maintaining contact with Steven. The more these two try to manipulate each other, the more risky the situation becomes. Throughout this novel we see how Gloria and Steven depend on each other and need each other; their bond is an important part of the novel.

Ǻsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson feels a special bond with her grandmother even though she’s no longer living. Martinsson spent a lot of time with her grandparents during her growing-up years and they formed a very strong relationship. To Martinsson they represented stability and comfort and she still thinks of them often. In fact, as the series begins, Martinsson travels from Stockholm, where she works as a tax attorney, to Kiruna, where she grew up, to help a friend who’s been accused of murder. While she’s there, she stays in her grandparents’ home and we sense how close they were. Throughout the series, Martinsson’s memories of her grandparents are a source of strength to her.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Donatella Falier, who has a close relationship with her grandchildren Chiara and Raffi Brunetti. For example, in About Face, Leon’s sleuth Commissario Guido Brunetti is investigating the connections among the death of a trucking company owner, illegal toxic waste and shady business deals. The key to it all seems to be Franca Marinello, an enigmatic woman Brunetti meets at a dinner party given by his parents-in-law. Here is one of Brunetti’s thoughts as he is sitting at the dinner table:

 

“The sight of the table, laden with china and silver, exploding with flowers, reminded him [Brunetti] of the last meal he had had in this house, only two weeks before. He had stopped by to bring two books to the Contessa, with whom, in the last years, he had begun to exchange them, and he had found his son there with her. Raffi had explained that he had come to pick up the essay he had prepared for his Italian class and which his grandmother had offered to read…
Raffi, who sometimes bridled when Brunetti disagreed with his view of history or Paola corrected his grammar, seemed entirely persuaded that his grandmother knew whereof she wrote and was busy entering her suggestions into his laptop; Brunetti listened attentively as she explained them.”

 

That’s a very clear portrait of the way grandchildren can connect with their grandparents in a way that they sometimes don’t with their parents.

There’s also a very special relationship between Karin Fossum’s Oslo detective Konrad Sejer and his grandson Matteus. Sejer’s daughter Ingrid and her husband adopted Matteus from Somalia, so Matteus has had his difficult moments fitting into Norwegian society. But as Matteus grows up, we see that the bond he has with Sejer is an important part of both lives. In When the Devil Holds the Candle, for instance, Sejer and his partner Jacob Skarre investigate several disparate incidences including a purse-snatching, a break-in and the disappearance of a teenager named Andreas. As it turns out, Matteus has some important information about the case and although he’s dealing with his own issues, he provides his grandfather with one of the keys to putting the case together.

Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Reg Wexford also has a close relationship with his grandchildren. For instance, he takes his grandsons Robin and Ben on outings, he tries to keep up with their interests and he and his wife Dora look after them as they’re growing up when their parents are away. He also loves his grand-daughters Mary, Amy and Anoushka and so does Dora. In fact, in the The Vault, that’s one of the chief joys for Wexford of having retired and moved to a converted coach house home belonging to his daughter Sheila. He misses life as a cop, but he does enjoy being a grandfather and Dora enjoys being a grandmother.

There are lots of other examples in crime fiction of grandparents and grandchildren and the bonds that they have. I’ll bet you can think of more than I can. It’s a unique bond that can enrich everyone.

 

 

On Another Note…

 

If you’re celebrating Easter, I wish you and your family a very happy holiday filled with a sense of renewal and connection with one another. If you are celebrating Passover, I wish you and your family a very special holiday. May you feel the connection between the past, the present and the future.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kate Nash’s My Best Friend is You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Belinda Bauer, Donna Leon, Karin Fossum, Ruth Rendell

I Feel Like I’m Frozen in Time*

Terrible tragedies affect people deeply and in different ways. Some people are able to heal and move on. Others have a lot more difficulty moving past what’s happened. That seems to be especially the case if there’s no opportunity for closure; for instance, if a murderer was never caught, or if someone who disappeared was never found. That kind of devastating event can leave a person almost “frozen,” you might say. Crime fiction that portrays this reality can be especially compelling; in seeing how individuals are affected by murder and other horrible events, we also see just how terrible those events are. And that can be at least as gripping as a lot of depiction of violence is.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot is hired by Carla Lemarchant to investigate a “cold case:” the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of the murder, her mother Caroline was assumed to be guilty. There was plenty of motive (Crale had said he was going to leave her for his mistress), and there was opportunity, too. Caroline Crale was even found to be in possession of the poison that killed her husband. But Carla Lemarchant doesn’t believe her mother was guilty and she wants to know the truth so that she can get on with her life. Poirot agrees to take the case and approaches the five people who were “on the scene” the day Amyas Crale was killed. From each of them he gets a written account of the murder. He also interviews each of them. As he gets to know these people better, we see how some of them have been, as you might say, “frozen in time” by the murder. They function; that is, they get up, they go through their days, and so on. But they have not really got beyond what happened. In the end, Poirot finds out who really murdered Amyas Crale and why, and we can see how that knowledge (at the risk of being cliché) sets Carla Lemarchant free to live her own live.

In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the theft of the Wolvercote Tongue, part of a valuable Anglo-Saxon belt buckle owned by Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Laura Stratton, whose family owned the Wolvercote Tongue, is on a tour of historic English cities with her husband Eddie. The plan was for her to publicly donate the piece to the Ashmolean during the tour group’s stop in Oxford. But on the afternoon of the tour group’s arrival in Oxford, Laura Stratton suddenly dies. Then the jewel is stolen. At first it looks as though a thief simply took an opportunity to get something valuable. But the next day, Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean, is murdered. Morse and Lewis are quite sure that the two events are related, and so they are. But this is Colin Dexter, after all, so the events are not related in the way one might think. As Morse gets to know the tourists better, we find out that there is a terrible tragedy in the past of one of those families, and that family has never really gotten closure – never really healed from what happened. That tragedy is closely related to the events that Morse and Lewis are investigating.

There’s also a theme of being “frozen in time” in Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. Eighteen years before the events in this novel, Billy Peters disappeared and was presumed killed. There was never any real closure here, because Peters’ body was never found, nor was anyone arrested for the crime. So although the family has learned to function, in several ways they’re “frozen.” It’s always been believed that Billy Peters was killed by Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for other crimes, but that could never be proven. So now, Billy Peters’ twelve-year-old nephew Steven decides to find out what really happened to his uncle. He finds out how to contact Avery in prison, and writes Avery a letter; he’s hoping that he’ll be able to get Avery to admit to killing Peters and tell where the body is. Avery has his own agenda, so he responds to Steven’s letter. The two begin a very dangerous game of “cat and mouse” as Steven tries to get answers and Avery pursues his own goals. Throughout this novel, we can see how the disappearance of Billy Peters changed everything for his family, and how no-one has really been able to heal.

And then there’s Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City. That’s the story of the murder of Holberg, a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who’s found bludgeoned in his flat one day. Inspector Erlendur and his team are assigned to the case, and they begin their investigation. At first, there seems no reason for the murder; Holberg didn’t seem to have any enemies at his job or in his community. He had no real family, either, and no fortune to leave. But as Erlendur digs a little deeper into Holberg’s past, he discovers another dimension to the victim. It turns out that Holberg had been accused of rape, although he was never arrested or imprisoned for the crime. And the more digging the team does, the more apparent it is that there may have been more than one victim. As the team talks to the various people in Holberg’s past, we see how they’ve been, all in their own ways, “frozen in time” by what happened to them. We see this in particular when Erlendur talks to the sister of one of Holberg’s accusers; she’s never really healed from what happened to her sister, especially since her sister later committed suicide. It’s a compelling undercurrent to this novel, and in the end, Erlendur and his team have to get the people in Holberg’s past to move past their pain and admit what really happened, so the team can get to the truth about his murder.

Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar) introduces us to Rebecka Martinsson, a Stockholm tax attorney. She’s originally from the Norrland town of Kiruna, but because of a personal trauma, she left Kiruna and has no desire to return. Although you couldn’t really call her healthy and happy, she does function. She does her job well and has made a life for herself in Stockholm. Then she gets a call from an old friend Sanna Strångard. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been found brutally murdered in the Church of the Source of All Our Strength. Sanna was the person who found the body, and it’s not long before the police begin to suspect that she may be the murderer. Sanna claims that she’s innocent and wants Martinsson to come back to Kiruna and help her. Martinsson doesn’t want to go; she’s managed to hold her life together by putting aside what happened to her there. But she is eventually persuaded, and returns to her home. Once there, she finds that Sanna Strångard was not the only one who had a motive for murder. In order to clear her former friend’s name, she works with Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke to find out who really committed the murder and why. In the process, she has to confront the tragedy in her own past.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind also addresses the theme of being what you could call “frozen in time.” One beautiful summer’s day, four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing during a school picnic. An exhaustive search is made and the police do everything they can to find out what happened to the girl. But no trace of her is ever found. The family is torn apart by what happened but, each in a different way, the members of the family do their best to get on with life. Fourteen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie is finishing her training as a psychiatrist. She’s continued with her life, and on the surface, she’s doing well. But she has never really healed, and never really moved on. Still, she’s functioning. Then one day, she’s assigned a new patient Elizabeth Clark who’s attempted suicide and is uncommunicative. For a while Stephanie can’t seem to break through to her patient but gradually she learns Elizabeth’s haunting story. Her younger sister Gracie disappeared one night and was never found. The circumstances of her patient’s story are eerily similar to those of Gemma’s disappearance, and Stephanie begins to wonder whether the same person abducted both girls. As she begins to ask questions, Stephanie confronts her own past and faces the fact that she has been “frozen in time.”

Sometimes, a tragedy is so devastating that those left to cope with it find it hard to move on. It can happen after any tragedy but especially when there’s never been the chance for closure. That sense of being “frozen in time” can be compelling when an author portrays it realistically without being melodramatic (not an easy task!). Which novels have you enjoyed that have that theme?

 

 

 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Three Days’ Grace’s World So Cold.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Åsa Larsson, Belinda Bauer, Colin Dexter, Paddy Richardson

Getting Closure

Until a case of murder is solved, those most affected by the death are left with uncertainty. Among other things, that means that they can’t get closure on what’s happened and pick their lives up as best they can. It seems to be a human need to get closure, and crime fiction shows us what a powerful force that need can be. It can spur people on and hold them back.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Carla Lemarchant seeks closure in the murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. One afternoon, Crale dies of poisoning by spotted hemlock while he’s in the middle of a painting session. The most likely suspect is his wife Caroline, who has a strong motive. Crale’s been unfaithful to her more than once and his latest entanglement has been particularly galling to Caroline; Crale’s mistress Elsa Greer is actually staying in the family home at Alderbury while Crale paints her portrait. Caroline Crale is arrested, tried and convicted and dies a year later in prison. Sixteen years later, Carla Lemarachant visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate the case again. She’s convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants the truth about the case. Besides her belief in Caroline Crale’s innocence, Carla also feels that she can’t move on in her own life and her intended marriage until she knows what really happened. Poirot takes the case and interviews the five people who were “on the scene” on the day of the murder. He also gets from each of them a written account of what happened on the day of the murder. From those accounts, Poirot discovers who really killed Caroline Crale and is able to give her daughter the closure she needs.

Lauren Hill wants closure, too, in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. Her father Leander Hill has recently died of a heart attack, but Lauren is convinced that his heart attack was brought on deliberately. So she visits Queen, who’s staying in the area while he’s working on a new novel. Queen’s reluctant to get involved at first, but the case soon has him intrigued. It seems that just before Hill’s death, he received a series of macabre “presents” and cryptic warnings. His business partner Roger Priam’s been receiving them, too. Lauren Hill believes that the sender of those packages is the murderer, and slowly, Queen comes to agree with her. Once he figures out what the cryptic messages and packages mean, he’s able to find out who the killer is and give Lauren Hill the answers and the closure that she needs.

The need for closure plays a very important role in Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called to the Randolph Hotel to investigate a theft. A group of tourists is making a tour of historic English cities, and has stopped in Oxford. During this stop, tourists Laura Stratton and her husband Eddie are to make a public donation to the University’s Ashmolean Museum. The Strattons own The Wolvercote Tongue, part of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle on display at the museum. Late in the afternoon on the day of their arrival at the Randolph, Laura Stratton suddenly dies and The Wolvercote Tongue disappears. Morse and Lewis are in the process of looking into the theft when the next day, Ashmolean curator Theodore Kemp is murdered. Morse and Lewis are convinced that the two cases are related, and so they are (although not in the way one might think). As it turns out, Kemp was murdered because his killer never got closure on a long-past incident.

Andrea Curtin, whom we meet in Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, wants closure, too. She and her husband lived for a number of years in Botswana, and their son Michael loved the place so much that he decided to stay behind when the Curtins returned to their native United States. Michael Curtin joined a small commune of people devoted to eco-friendly agriculture and all seemed well. Then he disappeared. The police did some investigating, but couldn’t get any definite answers, and it was presumed that he was killed by some wild animal. Now, ten years later, Andrea Curtin has returned to Botswana to try to get the truth about her son’s death. She visits Mma. Precious Ramotswe and asks her to investigate. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and travels to the commune where Michael Curtin was last known to have lived. She also visits some of the people who lived there with him. In the end, she finds out what really happened at the commune and is able to give her client some closure.

Sometimes, the lack of closure can damage people and hold them back for years. That’s what happens in the case of the Peters family in Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. Eighteen years before the main events in the novel, Billy Peters had gone missing. He never returned and his body was never found. His family has never really been able to move on, in part because of the unanswered questions and lack of closure. Now, Billy Peters’ twelve-year-old nephew Steven wants to find out the truth about his uncle to try to get some closure for his family. It’s always been believed that Billy Peters was murdered by serial killer Arnold Avery, who’s now in prison. Steven wants to manipulate Avery into admitting that he killed Billy Peters and revealing where the body is, so he begins to write to Avery. For his part, Avery wants to manipulate the boy for his own purposes. So the two begin a high-stakes “game of chess,” and the closer each gets to his goal, the higher the stakes get.

One of the really powerful examples of what lack of closure can do is in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective and proud proprietor of her own agency, Falcon Investigations. Her greatest pleasure is finding out answers and tracking down suspects and she takes her work seriously. One of her favourite places to investigate is the newly-built Green Oaks Mall, where she observes and makes notes on just about everything. Then one day, Kate Meaney disappears. She’s last seen taking a bus with her friend twenty-one-year-old Adrian Palmer, who’s accompanying her to sit an entrance exam at the prestigious Redspoon School. There are no records that Kate took the exam, though, and she never returns home. At the time of her disappearance, everyone thinks that Palmer killed her. In fact, the press and the locals make his life so miserable that he leaves town. Twenty years later, Adrian Palmer’s sister Lisa is still in what you might call stasis. Thirteen years old when her brother left, she’s now in a dead-end relationship and a dead-end job as Assistant Manager at Green Oaks’ Your Music. One night, Lisa meets security guard Kurt, who’s also in stasis. The two become friends and Kurt confides to Lisa that he’s been seeing an odd thing on the security cameras he monitors: a young girl wandering the tunnels in the mall structure. Lisa doesn’t want to be reminded of how her life changed when Kate Meaney disappeared and her brother abruptly left. Still, she’s intrigued and each in a different way, they look for answers. In the end, the discovery of a piece of evidence re-opens the Meaney case and we find out what really happened to the missing girl. We also see how getting some closure makes a real difference in the lives of those involved in this case.

There are also many examples of novels where it’s the sleuth who’s not satisfied with a case and feels the need for closure and answers. I’m sure you can think of as many examples as I could of this sort of motivation. It’s realistic and it makes sense. Cases that are not solved leave gaping holes in people’s lives, so it’s natural to want to fill them. But what do you think of the need for closure? Which novels have you enjoyed that are based on that need?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Belinda Bauer, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, Ellery Queen

This Pain is Just Too Real*

One of the terrible realities of murder is the devastating effect it has on those who are left to pick up the pieces after the killing. When anyone dies, that death leaves a hole in the lives of those who knew and loved that person. That’s as true for the families and friends of murder victims as it is for anyone else. That’s why well-written crime fiction neither glorifies murder nor minimises its effect on those left behind. Of course, some fine crime fiction novels don’t focus as much on that element as they do on other aspects of a murder and its investigation. But the best crime fiction acknowledges the reality of coping with the sudden and violent death of a loved one.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Carla Lemarchant, who wants him to take on an unusual case. Sixteen years earlier, Carla’s father, famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon; her mother Caroline was convicted of the murder and died in prison a year later. Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear Caroline’s name. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. The five people who were “on the spot” on the day of the murder are all still alive, and Poirot asks each one to write out an account of what happened. He also interviews each person. From those accounts and interviews, Poirot is able to deduce who really killed Amyas Crale and why. One of the really interesting elements of this novel is the effect that Amyas Crale’s death has had on those left behind. Crale’s wife, for instance, became a shadow of the strong person she was. His mistress Elsa Greer has become hardened; Christie likens her to what Juliet might be like had she lived on after Romeo’s death – she’s “frozen,” in a way. Crale’s friend Meredith Blake is still haunted by memories of that time; in some ways, they are more real to him than the intervening years have been. And Carla Lemarchant doesn’t feel she can really go on in her own adult life until she gets resolution and closure in this murder. In the end, Poirot is able to provide that for her.

In Christie’s Death on the Nile, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Poirot is on the same cruise and he and Colonel Race investigate the murder. Two other murders follow, and one point, one of the passengers says that

 

“They’re no loss.”

 

That’s when passenger Cornelia Robson points out clearly the loss that’s suffered when someone’s murdered:

 

“I didn’t like ____ much, but her daughter was ever so fond of her and she’s all broken up over her mother’s death. I don’t know much about ____, but I expect somebody was fond of her somewhere and as for Linnet Doyle – well apart from everything else she was just lovely!…And when anything beautiful’s dead, it’s a loss to the world. So there!”

 

It really points out the effect of a death on those still living.

Lauren Hill is devastated by her father Leander Hill’s death in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. Leander Hill died of a heart attack, but Lauren is convinced it was caused deliberately, and that her father was murdered. Ellery Queen has taken a temporary home in the area so that he can get some writing done, and Lauren asks him to investigate. At first, Queen’s reluctant, but the mystery intrigues him. Before Hill’s death, he received cryptic warnings in the form of macabre “presents” and now, his business partner Roger Priam is receiving them, too. Queen finds that the “gifts” are a coded warning, and he uses that code to solve the mystery of Hill’s death. Throughout this novel, Lauren Hill is driven by the need to find out what happened to her father; we can see that his loss has been traumatic for her and it’s interesting to see how she channels that into wanting to solve his murder.

One of the most powerful looks (at least in my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do) at what murder can do to a family is Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. That’s the story of the Peters family. Eighteen years before the novel begins, Gloria Peters lost her son Billy when he disappeared and was presumed killed. It’s believed that his killer is Arnold Avery, a convicted murderer who’s currently in prison. The Peters family has been devastated by Billy’s loss, and has found it impossible to really begin to heal. Then, Billy’s nephew Steven decides to take matters into his own hands. He begins to write letters to Avery, hoping that he’ll be able to get Avery to admit that he killed Billy Peters and tell where the body is. For his part, Avery has his own agenda, so he responds to Steven’s letters and tries to manipulate the boy. The two get involved in a dangerous game of manipulation and each manoeuvre raises the stakes for both. It’s really clear in this story how the loss of Billy Peters has wreaked havoc on his family, and how that sense of loss drives Steven.

Karen Osborn’s The River Road also offers a compelling look at what happens to those left behind after a tragic loss. In that novel, we meet brothers David and Michael Sanderson and Kay Richards, who’s lived next door to the Sanderson brothers for years. The three have been inseparable since childhood and now as young adults, Kay and David are in a relationship. One night while all three are home from college for a break, they go out and end up, drunk and under the influence of drugs, on the French King Bridge near their Connecticut homes. David climbs up on the edge of the bridge and says that he’s going to jump off and swim for shore. He invites Kay to join him and promises they’ll jump off and swim over together. Kay finds David irresistible, so before she knows it, she’s up on the edge, too. Then, in one horrible moment, David’s in the water, drowning. His loss tears his family apart and devastates Kay. What’s worse is that it soon comes out that Kay might have pushed David into the water. If so, she’s guilty of at least manslaughter. Now Kay has to deal not just with her grief and loss, but also with the prospect of a murder trial. This novel explores what David’s death does to both his and Kay’s family by sharing the story from several different perspectives, and it’s also a fascinating portrait of what suspicion, doubt, guilt and secrets can do to relationships.

Alan Orloff’s Diamonds for the Dead also shows how a death (including deaths from murder) affects those left behind. Josh Handleman returns from San Francisco, where he’s been living, to his family’s home in Northern Virginia when his father Abe dies from a fall down a flight of stairs. At first, the death is put down to a terrible accident. But then, Abe Handleman’s best friend Lev Yurishenko tells Josh that Abe was murdered. Josh has enough to deal with; he’s sorting out his feelings for his father, he’s coping with his sense of loss and he’s making funeral arrangements. Besides, he can’t imagine why anyone would want to kill his beloved father. But then, Josh is settling his father’s affairs and finds out that his father was much wealthier than anyone suspected. Josh also finds that his father had a cache of valuable diamonds – and they’re missing. Now, Josh begins to believe that Yurishenko might have been right, and goes on the trail of the diamonds and his father’s killer. Throughout the novel, we follow not just the mystery, but also the way Josh deals with his sense of loss.

Of course, fictional sleuths are also sometimes devastated by this kind of searing personal loss. But I’m not giving examples here; I don’t want to give away spoilers.

When someone dies, including through murder, those left behind are often shattered. Well-written novels acknowledge that, even if they don’t dwell on it. That’s part of what makes such novels believable and absorbing.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Evanescence’s My Immortal.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Belinda Bauer, Ellery Queen, Karen Osborn