Category Archives: Camilla Läckberg

So Shed Those Dowdy Feathers and Fly a Little Bit*

New LooksAn interesting guest post at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what happens when people who generally don’t pay much attention to their appearance are transformed by a new look. We get very, very accustomed to the way people in our lives look and dress, and when that changes, we see them in a whole new way. There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing in crime fiction; let me just share a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion, and people got quite accustomed to her wearing ‘sensible’ shoes and clothes. Then Katherine’s employer dies, leaving her considerable fortune to her former companion. When she learns how much money she’s going to inherit, Katherine decides to do two things. One is to have some good clothes.

 

‘Her first action was to visit the establishment of a famous dressmaker.
A slim, elderly Frenchwoman, rather like a dreaming duchess, received her, and Katherine spoke with a certain naiveté.
‘I want, if I may, to put myself in your hands. I have been very poor all my life and know nothing about clothes, but now I have come into some money and want to look really well dressed.’’

 

Needless to say, the dressmaker is delighted and helps her client to choose a becoming wardrobe. Shortly afterwards, Katherine takes the famous Blue Train to Nice to stay with a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her family. On the way she gets mixed up in a murder case when a fellow passenger Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled.

A new look proves to be more sinister in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. The family settles in and at first all goes well. Then, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something frightening is going on in Stepford. There isn’t much to go on at first; it’s a quiet town with good schools and low taxes. But something is definitely not normal (if there is such a thing) about the people who live there, especially the women. After a certain amount of time, they seem to change drastically. Here’s a description of one of the women before that change:

 

‘She was short and heavy-bottomed, in a blue Snoopy sweatshirt and jeans and sandals. Her mouth was big, with unusually white teeth, and she had blue take-in-everything eyes and short dark tufty hair. And small hands and dirty toes.’ 

 

And here’s the ‘after’ description:

 

‘She looked the way she had on Sunday-beautiful, her hair done, her face made  up. And she was wearing some kind of padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt.’ 

 

The closer Joanna gets to the truth about what’s really going on in Stepford, the more danger there is for her.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka after her parents’ deaths so she can go through their things and sort them all out. While she’s there, a former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner is found dead in what looks at first like a suicide. But very soon it’s proved that she was murdered. In part to deal with her grief at the loss of a friend she hadn’t really seen in twenty-five years, Erica decides to write Alex’s biography. In that way she begins to ask questions about how and why she was killed. In the meantime the police, mostly in the form of Patrik Hedström, investigate the death officially. Patrik and Erica are drawn to each other and we learn that they’ve always liked one another; it’s just that the timing was never really right for either to pursue a relationship. One night Erica invites Patrik over for a home-cooked meal. Usually, she is a very casual dresser who doesn’t take a lot of pains with her appearance. But not tonight:

 

‘The first dilemma had arisen…when, like her favorite literary heroine Bridget Jones, she was faced with the decision of which panties to choose. Should she wear a beautiful, lace-trimmed thong, for the slim eventuality that she and Patrik ended up in bed? Or should she put on the substantial and terribly ugly panties with the extra support for tummy and backside, which would increase her chances that they might end up in bed at all? A hard choice, but…she decided after much deliberation on the support variety. Over them she would wear pantyhose with a tummy-flattening panel. In other words, the heavy artillery…

After another look at the pile on the bed, she pulled out from the bottom the first outfit she had tried on. Black was slimming, and the classic, knee-length dress in a Jackie Kennedy style was flattering to the figure. A pair of pearl earrings and a wristwatch would be her only jewelry, and she let her hair fall loosely over her shoulders.

 

Erica’s change in appearance makes quite an impression on Patrik and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that the two of them begin a relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman isn’t usually one to take a lot of pains with her appearance either. But in Earthly Delights, she makes an exception. In one of the plot threads, there’ve been several deaths of heroin junkies in the area of Melbourne where Chapman has her bakery. In fact, there’s a near-death practically on her doorstep. Together with her lover Daniel Cohen, Chapman looks into what’s been happening. The clues lead to a Goth club called Blood Lines, and Chapman and Cohen decide to attend. They’ll need to be dressed appropriately though or they won’t be admitted, so Chapman turns to her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. Normally, Chapman doesn’t go to a lot of effort in dressing. For her, it’s usually trackies and sweatshirt for baking, and a blouse and trousers for dealing with the bakery’s customers. Here’s how she transforms herself for the visit to Blood Lines:

 

‘She [Mistress Dread] flung it over my head with a practised hand and it settled on me…The dress was a full-skirted number with built-in black petticoats, slashed sleeves and a neckline which could be mistaken for a waist it was so deep. It was a gorgeous shade between venous and arterial blood and as I moved I rustled in the most entrancing fashion. Then she slipped a black leather corset over the dress and began lacing it at the front…’

 

With a few final touches, Chapman’s transformation is complete and she feels gorgeous with her new look. She also finds that it gets her and Cohen easily admitted into Blood Lines, where they find out the truth about the heroin deaths.

Willam Ryan’s Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka usually doesn’t worry too much about the way she looks. She wears her police uniform when on duty, and when off duty she wears utilitarian clothes. But as The Twelfth Department begins, she needs to change her look. She and her boss Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev are on the trail of a criminal and have tracked him to a park. In order not to reveal that she’s a cop, Slivka dresses up a bit:

 

‘Slivka was…wearing a pretty white dress, her short blond hair looking almost golden in the dappled sunshine. Her lips might be a little thin and her expression grave, but she was a good-looking woman and he [Korolev] watched men’s heads turn one after the other to follow her procession through the park. He wondered if they’d be so keen if they knew the hand resting nonchalantly inside her open purse was wrapped around the butt of a service-issue revolver.’

 

The new look works perfectly too as their target is taken completely by surprise. 

Of course sometimes, a transformation can work the other way too. Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Cherry Hayes usually wears rather flamboyant clothes, especially considering that she’s – erm – no longer twenty. But she goes for a different look in Hickory Smoked Homicide. Cherry’s friend Lulu Taylor is investigating the murder of Tristan Pembroke. One of the suspects is Lulu’s own daughter-in-law Sara. Lulu’s sure Sara isn’t guilty so she determines to clear her name. That’s where Cherry comes in. Lulu’s fairly certain that the owner of her ‘regular’ dress shop may know more than she’s saying about the murder. So she and Cherry visit the shop under the guise of finding a new look for Cherry. Here’s what Cherry uses as a ‘cover story.’

 

‘I’m done with shopping at the Hipster Honey, with all their trashy clothing. With my newfound need to spend my spare time in church, I really need a whole new wardrobe – of floral dresses. Just like Lulu.’

 

This is especially funny because usually, Cherry makes fun of Lulu’s wardrobe.

It is interesting what a big difference a change in appearance can make. Thanks to Colm Redmond for the inspiration. And now, may I suggest you pay a visit to Clothes in Books? It’s the place to shop for interesting discussions about fashion and culture in books of all kinds.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Springfield and Jim Dale’s Georgy Girl, made popular by the Seekers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Riley Adams, William Ryan

Early in the Morning, Risin’ to the Street*

EarlyMorningAre you a morning person? Many cops find that they have to get used to the early morning, even if they aren’t fond of it. It’s interesting (although I don’t think surprising) how many fictional calls-to-the-scene take place early in the morning. Little wonder fictional sleuths don’t always get a lot of sleep…

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson may be accustomed to odd hours, being a doctor, but his schedule is quite normal compared to that of his friend Sherlock Holmes. And Watson gets roused awfully early more than once. In The Adventure of the Abbey Grange for instance, Watson is awakened early on a winter morning with a very famous crime-fictional line:

 

‘‘Come, Watson, come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!’’

 

The reason for Holmes’ urgency is that he’s received word (at not long after 3:30 am, no less!) that Sir Eustace Brackenstall has been killed. It looks very much as though this is a case of a burglary gone wrong and that the notorious Randall gang is responsible. But Holmes doesn’t think so. And when it’s found that the Randall gang was nowhere near the Brackenstall home at the time of the murder, Holmes is proven right.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot, Chief Inspector Japp and several groups of local police get involved in a case that looks very much like the work of a serial killer. First, Alice Ascher is found murdered in the newsagent’s shop she keeps. Then, coffee shop waitress Betty Barnard is found strangled with her own belt on the beach one morning. A man’s up early walking his dog when the dog discovers her body. Now the case begins to get a lot of attention, and when the body of Sir Carmichael Clarke is found, everyone’s sure that there’s a deranged murderer on the loose. Poirot discovers that the case is neither as simple nor as complicated as that, but for a time, there’s a real fear that

 

‘He may be in YOUR town.’

 

Of course, one has to feel for the Colonel whose dog discovers Betty Barnard’s body. All he wanted to do was take a morning walk…

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn gets a disturbing early-morning call. Her daughter Mieka has just discovered the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a trash bin outside her catering shop. Mieka is understandably badly shaken, especially since Bernice was one of her employees. The police assume that this murder is the work of the same person who’s committed other murders in the area – a group of killings the police call the Little Flower murders. So this death is investigated at first in that way. Meanwhile, Kilbourn is busy with other matters, especially Mieka’s upcoming wedding. Still, she finds it hard to forget this victim. Then, her son Peter’s ex-girlfriend Christy Sinclair comes back into their lives, even saying she and Peter are back together. When Christy tragically drowns in what looks like a suicide, Kilbourn begins to believe that something more is going on. In the end, these events are all tied up with Christy’s past and some secrets that she was keeping.

Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess introduces us to writer Erica Falck. In this, the first novel of the series, she’s just returned from Stockholm to her family home in Fjällbacka. Her parents have died and she’s planning to sort out their things and arrange for what will happen with their house. Early one morning, she’s taking a walk to clear her head when she’s stopped by a neighbour Eilert Berg. He, too, was out for a walk when he stopped at the weekend home of Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner to check on it in her absence. To his terrible shock he’s found Alex’s body in the bathtub. At first it looks as though she has committed suicide. But the death is soon proven to be murder, so police officer Patrik Hedström begins to investigate it that way. As he’s interviewing the victim’s friends, family members and the like, Erica is doing her own investigation. She and Alex were best friends when they were girls, but hadn’t seen each other for twenty-five years. Erica decides to write a biography of Alex as a way of getting to know the woman that her girlhood friend had become. Slowly, each in a different way, the two sleuths get to the truth about what really happened to Alex Wijkner and why.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri will know that his novels always begin in the morning. Inspector Salvo Montalbano isn’t a fan of being called to a case early, but it happens often enough. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, he’s just finished showering when he’s interrupted by a call from Sergeant Catarella.

 

‘‘Chief, whadd I do, wake y’up?’
‘No, Cat, I was awake.’
‘You sure sure ‘bout that, Chief? Yer not jess sayin’ ‘at to be nice?’
‘No, you needn’t worry. What is it?’
‘Chief, what else would it be if I’m callin’ you foist ting in the morning?’
‘Cat, do you realize that you never call to give me any good news?’’

 

And this morning is no exception. Catarella tells his boss that the body of an unknown young woman has been found near a landfill. The only way of identifying her is that she has a tattoo on her shoulder. Her death turns out to be connected to a group of Eastern European women who’d come to Sicily to look for work. It’s also linked to corruption in a social services agency.

Even sleuths who aren’t fond of early mornings end up having to get used to that time of day. As crime fiction shows us, it’s a busy time for discovering bodies…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s What I Got.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Camilla Läckberg, Gail Bowen

Perhaps We Don’t Fulfill Each Other’s Fantasies*

ExpectationsAn interesting comment exchange with Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling has got me to thinking about the sets of expectations we have when we read work by a familiar author. Often those expectations help us to feel comfortable with that that author’s books and I think that’s in part because we know the kind of story to expect. Often, there’s also a group of ‘regular’ characters we get to know and enjoy.  Before I go on, I’ll give you a chance to check out Carol’s interesting blog.

Right. Back to expectations. On the one hand, that kind of familiarity can be a good thing. For the author, it means a loyal base of readers. For the reader, it means a certain confidence that what one’s about to read is probably not going to disappoint. On the other hand that kind of familiarity can be limiting. It’s treacherously easy for the author to fall into a pattern of what become ‘cookie-cutter’ plots; I’m sure we all can think of series like that. What’s more, when an author changes a character’s personality, or a plot style, or writing style, or something else important in the series, fans can be really put off. You can think of it if you like as ‘reader ownership’ – readers are attached to certain characters, a certain writing style and so on and when that changes it can feel like a personal affront. Like just about everything else, there are positives and negatives about the sort of ‘track record’ some authors build.

One of the more famous examples of this set of expectations is the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. From the time they first came on the scene, the Holmes stories were popular and Conan Doyle’s fan base grew and became intensely loyal (as we all know, there are still many clubs, societies and so on that are dedicated to Holmes). Readers knew what to expect from a story and eagerly consumed each instalment. And then Conan Doyle had Holmes go over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in The Adventure of the Final Problem. As Holmes fans know, this outraged readers. They had developed a set of expectations about these stories and had a sense of ownership of the character as you might say. In fact, readers were so upset that Conan Doyle felt obliged to bring Holmes back, which he did in The Adventure of the Empty House.

At the time that Agatha Christie wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, readers of detective stories had certain assumptions about what to expect, not just from Christie but from the genre in general. For instance there would be a murder, there would be a group of likely suspects and there would be a sleuth who would unmask the killer. Christie had followed that pattern in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links so readers had a set of expectations about what would happen in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But in this case Christie didn’t meet those expectations. She did something completely different and that choice upset a lot of readers. She was accused of ‘not playing fair’ and of breaking the rules of crime fiction if I can put it that way. In hindsight her decision has turned out to be a wise one. Today The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered by many to be one of her best works. But that’s not how her readers felt at the time.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series won her millions of devoted fans. Her sleuth, journalist Jim ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, his love interest Polly Duncan and the other regular characters in the series became favourites for a lot of readers who felt they had a certain amount of ownership. Readers came to expect certain kinds of plots, certain kinds of events and so on. But towards the end of the series many people saw some changes in the novels and they didn’t like it. For instance, Braun’s last novel The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers got quite a lot of negative press. In fact several reviews suggested that she hadn’t written the book herself. To be honest, I read that kind of thing about the last few of her novels. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I do know that even her devoted fans felt put off by what they saw as changes to the style, the focus and so on.

Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series’ featuring PI Kinsey Millhone also has a very devoted group of readers. Fans from all over the world have eagerly followed Millhone’s adventures since 1982 when A is for Alibi was published. And 22 books later, Millhone still has a huge following. And yet, not all of her fans have been happy about all of the developments in the stories. And this is what got Carol and me ‘talking’ about reader expectations. Readers have come to expect a certain writing style, a certain kind of plot, certain behaviours and so on from this series. Graftotn has experimented with different points of view, different kinds of pacing in the stories and other changes that haven’t always been well-received, and part of the reason for that may be that readers’ expectations have run up against the author’s choices. Despite some reader disappointment, I know that millions of readers (I’m one of them) are going to be interested in what Grafton does with Kinsey Millhone #23. W is for When….? ;-)

Camilla Läckberg created a very popular series featuring biographer Ericka Falck and her husband police detective Patrik Hedström. Beginning with The Ice Princess, this series has followed Falck and Hedström through several different criminal investigations, as well as developments in their personal lives. Many people (and I’m one of them) love the fishing-village setting, the mystery plots and the pacing and action. But as time has gone by, some readers have felt that the series has gotten away from what they saw as its initial ‘edginess.’ After The Ice Princess, readers had certain expectations for the kinds of plots that future novels would have, and the focus of those novels. And those readers have been a bit put off by what they see as the increasing focus on the domestic sides of these characters’ lives. That of course is a matter of taste; there are readers who really enjoy that aspect of the series. That’s why it’s such a good example I think of the way readers feel a sense of investment in a series and have very personal reactions when they feel that their expectations aren’t being met.

The whole question of readers’ expectations raises the issue of just exactly what authors owe their readers. The author/reader relationship is a complicated one really. Should authors write in the style and with the patterns that their fans have come to expect (and keep loyal readers but risk ‘sameyness’)? Should they innovate (and stay fresh, but  risk making readers cranky and creating books that simply aren’t good)? What about readers? Do readers really have a stake in series they love? To what extent? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you’re a reader how do you react when you sense a change in what an author is doing? If you’re a writer, what role do reader expectations play in what you write?

Thanks, Carol, for the inspiration and the great conversation.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls. C’mon now, didn’t you expect a Billy Joel lyric from me?  ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Camilla Läckberg, Lilian Jackson Braun, Sue Grafton

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).

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

Baby, What a Big Surprise*

SurprisesAn interesting post from Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about how surprising fictional characters can be. In her post Craig makes the point that there are several ways in which authors can make their characters more surprising and therefore richer. She’s right. Characters who surprise us in some way can add to a story. Of course, as with any other aspect of a novel, one has to be careful with this strategy. A character who’s surprising in an implausible way pulls the reader right out of the story. But adding that sort of depth to a character, even if it’s not the protagonist, can make a story all the more absorbing.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary Miss Lemon asks him to investigate some strange goings-on at the student hostel that her sister manages. Poirot is surprised that Miss Lemon even has a sister and that alone – thinking of Miss Lemon as actually having a family – gives him a bit of pause. When one of the hostel residents Celia Austin confesses to a lot of the strange things that have happened, everyone thinks the matter is settled. But then two nights later Celia dies, an apparent suicide. It’s soon proven to be murder though and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who was responsible. Part of the murder investigation involves searches of the residents’ belongings, and when the inspector and his team conduct those searches they find out some surprising things about some of the other people who live in the hostel.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, crime writer Erica Falck is sorting through her parents’ things after their deaths. She comes upon a Nazi medal that completely takes her by surprise. Certainly no-one in her family had given any hint that there might have been a connection to the Nazi regime. This discovery sheds a whole new light on Falck’s parents so Falck visits retired historian Erik Frankel, hoping that he’ll be able to tell her more about that period of the local history. Two days after that visit Frankel is murdered. It’s soon clear that someone in the present day doesn’t want the town’s history to be unearthed. Falck’s husband police officer Patrik Hedström gets involved in the murder investigation even though he’s supposed to be on paternity leave and in her own way Falck investigates too. In the end they find the connection between the case they’re looking into and World War II-era events.

Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish introduces us to Absaroka County, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. When the body of a local young man Cody Pritchard is discovered not far from the town of Durant, Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti begin to investigate. Pritchard is one of three young men who were convicted two years earlier of the brutal gang-rape of sixteen-year-old Melissa Little Bird. They’ve recently been released from prison, so a logical possibility is that someone in Melissa’s family is taking revenge. Melissa’s uncle, who also happens to be Longmire’s best friend, is Henry Standing Bear. Sometimes called The Bear, he owns The Red Pony, a local bar/restaurant. In part because he and Longmire are friends and in part because of his own family’s possible involvement in this case, The Bear takes an interest in the investigation and helps Longmire in several important ways. But even though he and Longmire have been friends for a long time, he’s still able to surprise the sheriff. For instance, Longmire has the unpleasant duty of asking his best friend where he was on the night of Cody Pritchard’s murder. That’s when he finds out that The Bear is having a relationship with his protégée and bartender Dena Many Camps. The fact of that relationship doesn’t affect the outcome of the novel but it’s a surprising side to Henry Standing Bear’s character and to Dena Many Camps’ character since she can basically have her choice of partners.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche we meet Saskatoon PI Russell Quant. Although Quant’s not in a long-term relationship when the series begins, he does have a circle of trusted friends, neighbours and co-workers. His next-door-neighbour is Sereena Orion Smith, who never fails to surprise Quant. She’s an enigmatic character to begin with and as we learn bits and pieces of her backstory she becomes richer and more interesting. For instance in Flight of Aquavit, Quant investigates a case of blackmail that later turns into murder. At one point in the novel he travels to New York to follow up on an important lead and Smith, who has business of her own there, goes along. They stay at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel where to Quant’s surprise, Smith already seems to be known – by another name. He doesn’t get much of a satisfactory explanation and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that this aspect of Smith’s character isn’t really a major key to the plot. But Bidulka follows that thread – Sereena Orion Smith’s story – in later novels. The fact that she is a surprising character adds to her appeal.

There’s also a surprising character in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Stephanie Anderson is a beginning psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. For the last seventeen years she’s been trying to put her life back together after the abduction of her four-year-old sister Gemma. She hasn’t really ‘gotten over it,’ because one doesn’t. But she has made a life for herself. Then one of her patients Elizabeth Clark tells her a story that’s eerily similar to Anderson’s own. Clark’s younger sister Gracie was also abducted and like Gemma Anderson’s case, no body was ever found, nor was there any evidence of the perpetrator. When Anderson hears this story, she decides to try to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who was responsible for the abductions. So she journeys from Dunedin to her home town of Wanaka to try to look for answers. Along the way she meets Dan, who makes his living as a hunting guide. Although she finds him attractive, Anderson isn’t much interested at all in hunting/survival so when he invites her for a hunting trip, she doesn’t think much of the idea. But then she changes her mind and agrees to go out in the bush for a few days. She goes to Dan’s house to learn how to shoot and is completely surprised to find that he’s not all what she thought he was. Here’s just a bit of a conversation they have when he invites her to stay for dinner:

 

‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Central Otago?’
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’’
 

Part of the interest in this novel is the way in which Anderson finds that Dan is a much richer character than she’d thought.

And then there’s Rajiv Patel, whom we meet in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Patel is filling in for his uncle, who owns and manages a Bangkok bookshop but has been sidelined by a heart attack. That’s how Patel meets PI Jayne Keeney, who enjoys reading, especially crime fiction (How can you not like that in a protagonist? ;-)  ). Patel and Keeney begin seeing each other, although not seriously at first. Then, Keeney is hired by Queensland farmer Jim Delbeck to find out the truth about his daughter Maryanne’s death. Maryanne Delbeck was a volunteer at a child care facility/orphanage in Pattaya when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she was living. Delbeck doesn’t think his daughter committed suicide despite what the official reports say, so he wants Keeney to investigate. She agrees and travels to Pattaya. Throughout the case Patel proves surprisingly helpful in a number of ways and Keeney has to re-think her entire relationship with him and her view of her work. And in the end – no, I’m not going to spoil it for you. Let’s just say Patel really manages to surprise Keeney. If you’re reading this, Angela, I just love that scene!

Characters who surprise the reader can add some real interest to a novel. And when they also surprise the writer (and yes, that happens), they can keep a story or series fresh. Which characters have surprised you? If you’re a writer, do your characters ever surprise you?

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Camilla Läckberg, Craig Johnson, Paddy Richardson