Category Archives: Catherine O’Flynn

I’m Old-Fashioned*

Old FashionedIn many ways it’s good – very good – to live in modern times. There’s better technology, better medical care and lots of other societal improvements. And while there is still bigotry and that may always be, there are fewer ‘-isms’ that limit people now than there were. But some of those things we may think of as ‘old-fashioned’ can actually be pleasant. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction to show you some things that may be old-fashioned but that perhaps people actually miss…

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Hastings is on his way back to London by train. Sitting in the same coach is a young woman who is in many ways very modern in her outlook. They strike up a conversation, and she pokes a little fun at him for his old-fashioned ways. But on a more serious note, she says,

 

‘You’ve been dug out of the backwoods, you have. Not that I mind that. We could do with a few more of your sort.

 

Hastings and the young woman, who calls herself ‘Cinderella,’ part company and at first it looks as though they won’t meet again. But when Hastings and Hercule Poirot travel to France to investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, Hastings and Cinderella have what you might call a reunion. Although she is a modern young woman, she appreciates Hastings’ somewhat traditional outlook on life.

Isaac Asimov is perhaps best known as an author of science fiction, but he also wrote detective stories, including a trilogy featuring New York City police officer Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. In The Caves of Steel, Baley and his new partner R. Daneel Olivaw are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton. This isn’t going to be an easy case though. For one thing, life is difficult in the futuristic New York that Asimov depicts. Earth has become overcrowded and most humans have little better than a subsistence lifestyle. For another, there is an ongoing feud, which sometimes flares, between Earthmen (descendants of those who never left the planet) and Spacers (descendants of those who have explored outside the planet). Baley is an Earthman and the victim was a Spacer. What’s worse, R. Daneel Olivaw is a positronic robot. If there’s anything that Earthman dislike more than Spacers, it’s robots. That’s because they are perceived as a threat to humans. Despite these challenges though, Baley and Olivaw work together to solve the murder. In one plot thread in this story, there is a real mistrust among humans of old-fashioned, traditional things such as spectacles (instead of contact lenses). In fact, the interest in such things is known as Medievalism and is regarded as holding people back. And yet, there is a secret group of people who think fondly of what even Baley admits were simpler times. The question of preserving these things forms an interesting layer in the story.

In some ways, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is old-fashioned. There are several examples of this in the series featuring him; we see one in The Daughters of Cain. In that novel, Morse and Sergeant Lewis are on the trail of the person who killed a former don Felix McClure. At first it seems that the murderer was McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. But when he disappears and is later found dead, things aren’t quite that simple. In the course of the investigation, Morse meets Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who may be connected with the case. The two develop an interest in each other despite the fact that she’s a suspect in a murder investigation. Smith is a very modern young woman. She wears nose rings, uses language that Morse would prefer a woman not use and so on. But at one point, he gets the chance to see her dressed more traditionally and without her nose rings and he admits he likes her better that way. For her part, Smith is attracted to Morse’s view of the world, even though she doesn’t really envision herself settling down, marrying and so on in the traditional way. Even Morse’s insistence on standard English doesn’t bother her…

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is in part the story of what happens to a traditional English town when a new mall comes in. The story begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective, and she’s sure that there’s lots of crime to investigate at the mall, so she spends a lot of time there. One day she goes missing and despite a thorough search, is never found. Her friend Adrian Palmer is blamed for her disappearance, although he claims innocence. He’s treated so badly though that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is working at a dead-end job at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard who’s employed there. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and each in a different way, look back into the past to find out what really happened to Kate. One of the themes in this novel is what happened to traditional English ‘High Street’ shopping with the coming of the mall culture. And the mall that replaces those shops turns out to be somewhat ‘plastic’ as opposed to the more genuine shops. As we learn in the novel, the mall culture hasn’t really made life in the area better.

In one of Anthony Bidulka’s series, we get to know Russell Quant, a Saskatoon PI. One of Quant’s haunts is Colourful Mary’s, a local restaurant that serves ‘down home’ cooking. In fact, Quant describes it this way:

 

‘Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’

 

It’s not a formal restaurant, but it serves traditional, old-fashioned (i.e. not pre-packaged) food. Little wonder it’s so popular with customers.

Most people don’t think of millinery shops as exactly modern and up-to-date. But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a hat custom-designed for you. And that’s exactly the business that D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington has been in for years. He’s very skilled at knowing exactly what kind of hat would best suit each client, and delights in making them. In Hats Off to Murder, One For the Rook, and soon Model For Murder, Heatherington puts those old-fashioned skills to use to when murder strikes first his shop and then his allotment. In some ways Heatherington is old-fashioned, but that’s precisely what makes his character appealing.

The ‘good old days’ certainly had many serious problems. I doubt most of us would want to go back. But if you’ve stayed at an old-fashioned hotel with old-fashioned customer service, you know how pleasant it can be. If you’ve been to a restaurant or shop with old-fashioned service, you know how pleasant that can be too. And old-fashioned courtesy on anyone’s part is a refreshing thing. Perhaps not all modern changes have been for the better…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Isaac Asimov

Ah, Yes, I Remember it Well*

Strong Memories of BooksA recent comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about what we remember when we read. And speaking of reading, you’ll want to visit Bitter Tea and Mystery often. It’s a terrific place to read excellent book and film reviews.

Once you’ve read a lot of crime novels, it’s easy to forget the details of what happens in them. There are just too many characters, events and other things for anyone to remember it all. So our memories become necessarily selective and even somewhat fuzzy. But some things simply stay in the memory. Sometimes it’s a scene, or a conflict. Sometimes it’s a character or an ingenious plot twist. We all have different ‘standout’ memories of what we’ve read, and there are a host of reasons for which one or another aspect of a novel stands out for us. Here are just a few examples. I hope you’ll share your own.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. He gets drawn into a murder investigation though when retired magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. The most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, and there is solid evidence against him. But his fiancée Flora is convinced he’s innocent, so she asks Poirot to look into the matter. There are of course lots of detective novels in which a character protests a loved one’s innocence and persuades the sleuth to investigate. The standout in this novel (at least for me) is the plot twist at the end. It’s ingenious. There are other aspects of the story that are memorable but the plot twist is especially so.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice is the second in his Harry Bosch series. In it, Bosch hears of a suicide that took place on his ‘watch.’ What’s worse, the suicide is a fellow cop, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. It looks like an open-and-shut case of suicide, and the reason seems straightforward too. There’s evidence that Moore had ‘gone dirty,’ and could easily have committed suicide out of regret or if he thought he might be caught. But Bosch isn’t sure that this is a suicide. Some aspects of the case just aren’t consistent with that explanation. So he starts asking questions. That immediately gets him into trouble with the Powers That Be, who want this case kept quiet because it’s an embarrassment to the department. That doesn’t stop Bosch, though, and he continues to investigate. There are a lot of things that Connelly fans like about this series and this novel. One major thing that makes it memorable though, at least for me, is the finely drawn thread of conflict. There’s the conflict between Bosch and Moore’s killer. That conflict adds quite a lot of tension to the story. There’s also the conflict between Bosch and his superiors. That too adds to the story’s suspense. These conflicts are important parts of the story, but they are at the same time not so overdone as to be implausible.

Sometimes the most memorable aspect of a novel is one of its characters. In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost for instance, the character of ten-year-old Kate Meaney stands out. She wants to be a detective and in fact, has started her own agency Falcon Investigations. Together with her partner Mickey the Monkey, who travels in Kate’s backpack, she looks for suspicious activity and crimes to solve. And no place seems a more likely spot for suspicious activity than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she spends a good deal of time. Kate’s quite content with her life. Her grandmother Ivy though believes that she’d be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but her friend Adrian Palmer persuades her, promising to go along with her for moral support. The two take the bus to the school, but only Adrian comes back. Despite an exhaustive search, no trace of Kate is found, not even a body. Twenty years later, Adrian’s sister Lisa is working at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard there. The two form an odd sort of friendship and each in a different way go back to Kate’s disappearance. In the end, we find out what happened to Kate and part of what makes the truth so memorable is that Kate herself is unforgettable. She has a unique perspective, she’s interesting, and a look at the other characters in the novel shows how much a part of their lives she’s been.

For some books, setting and lifestyle stand out the most. That’s the case for me anyway with M.J. McGrath’s White Heat. Edie Kiglatuk is a very skilled High Arctic hunting guide. She gets mixed up in a case of multiple murder, greed, theft and political intrigue when she takes a client Felix Wagner and some friends on an expedition. Wagner is shot and the first explanation is that it was a tragic accident. Kiglatuk isn’t sure that’s true though, and begins to ask some questions. So does Derek Palliser, the senior of Ellesmere Island’s native police officers. Each in a different way, he and Kiglatuk investigate what’s going on and in the end, they find out the truth. One of the truly memorable things about this novel is its depiction of life in the High Arctic. Eating customs, living arrangements, daily life, etc., are all portrayed authentically.

That’s also the case with Adrian Hyland’s novels featuring Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest. The mysteries themselves hold the novels together and so does Hyland’s writing style. But one of the real standouts of these stories (at least from my perspective) is their depiction of the Outback setting and the lifestyle there. Readers get a real sense of the cultures, the daily life and the physical landscape. Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels are a bit similar in that way.

And sometimes it’s one scene in a novel, whether it’s a dramatic scene, a funny scene or a poignant one, that stays in the memory. For example, in Donna Leon’s About Face, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate a murder that’s tied in with illegal waste dumping. The Venice setting is distinctive and the mystery moves along. But for me at any rate, one of the standout memories in this novel is a scene between Brunetti and his wife Paula Falier. Early one morning, Brunetti wakes to find that it’s snowed. He can’t resist making a handprint in the fresh coating and then decides to put that snow-covered hand on Paola, who he thinks is sleeping.  She’s not, though:

 

‘’If you put that hand anywhere near me, I will divorce you and take the children.’
‘They’re old enough to decide themselves,’ he answered with what he thought was Olympian calm.
‘I cook,’ she said.
‘Indeed,’ he said in acknowledgment of defeat.’’

 

It’s a funny scene, but it also serves to highlight the importance of Brunetti’s family life in this series.

There are also several memorable scenes in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson, who is Black, has been accused of raping a White woman Mayella Ewell. And in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, just the accusation is enough to put Robinson’s life in danger. Well-known attorney Atticus Finch defends Robinson, and as he looks into the case, he comes to believe that Robinson is innocent. He almost doesn’t get the chance to make his case though. On the night before the trial, he’s visiting his client at the jail when a group of angry men arrive. Their plan is to drag Robinson from the jail and pronounce their own kind of sentence. Finch’s children Jean Louise ‘Scout’ and Jem, and their friend Dill, have come to the jail in search of Atticus. When they see the men arrive, Scout runs towards her father and she, Jem and Dill end up facing down a lynch mob with Atticus. It’s one of the more powerful scenes in the novel. In part that’s because it isn’t violent, yet the tension is high enough to make it unforgettable.

We all have a different way of remembering what we read, and different things resonate with us in different ways. We may not remember everything about what we’ve read, and some of it may be a little fuzzy. But we all have those ‘standout’ memories that can be quite clear. So now it’s your turn. What are some strong memories you have from the crime fiction you’ve read?

 

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s I Remember it Well.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Catherine O'Flynn, Donna Leon, Harper Lee, M.J. McGrath, Michael Connelly

Bus Stop, Bus Goes*

BusesLike many people, I like the idea of using public transit. Take buses for instance. Besides the benefits to the environment of having fewer cars on the road, it’s nice to be able to read, work or just rest instead of actually driving. And it can be convenient to take a bus. For a writer, buses are also terrific places for people-watching and therefore, inspiration.  Here’s what Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver says about that in Hallowe’en Party:

 

‘I did sit across from someone in a bus just before I left London, and here it is all working out beautifully inside my head. I shall have the whole story soon. The whole sequence, what she’s going back to say, whether it’ll run her into danger or somebody else into danger. I think I even know her name.
Her name’s Constance. Constance Carnaby.’

 

And that’s not just something Christie made up for this particular novel. Writers really do get inspired sometimes in just that way. Trust me.

A lot of people also think it’s safer to take the bus as it cuts down on the number of traffic accidents. But as crime fiction shows us, it’s not always safe. Not at all.

For example, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team are stretched very thin, as the saying goes. The American Embassy in Stockholm has been the target of a harassment campaign in the form of protests, letters and the like because of the Vietnam War, and extra police are needed to protect it. Then word comes of a terrible tragedy. A gunman has murdered eight people on a bus; one of the victims is Åke Stenström, a fellow police officer. At first the murders look like a terrorist attack, but it’s shown that the gunman ‘hid’ Stenström’s murder among the others. He was the real target. The team looks into his personal life and the cases he was investigating. One of them was the murder of a Portuguese woman Teresa Camarão, whose murder hadn’t been solved. That case proves crucial to finding Stenström’s killer.

Colin Dexter’s Last Bus to Woodstock is the story of the murder of Sylvia Kaye. She and another young woman are waiting at a bust stop one night when it becomes clear that they’ve got the times wrong and aren’t going to be able to catch a bus. Sylvia decides to take the risk of hitchhiking and goes off. Later that night, her body is found outside a pub. Now Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have two jobs really. One is to find out as much as they can about the victim, so as to discover who might have had a motive to murder her. The other is to trace her last movements. And those last interactions and movements turn out to be very important to the solution of the mystery.

Dona Laureta Ribeiro finds out how dangerous buses and bus stops can be in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. One day she goes to Rio de Janeiro’s Twelfth Precinct and asks to speak to Inspector Espinosa. When told that he’s in a long meeting, she says that she’ll come back later. Shortly afterwards, she’s with a group of other people waiting at a bus stop when she falls, or is pushed, under an oncoming bus. When Espinosa finds out that the bus accident victim is the same woman who’d come to see him earlier, he begins to wonder whether this was an accident. As he traces Dona Laureta’s movements on the day of her death, Espinosa slowly puts the pieces of her life together. Then, there’s another death that seems to be related to the first. Espinosa finds that these two deaths are linked to his own past.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, a bus mysteriously swallows up ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Or at least that’s how it seems. She’s a budding detective with her own agency Falcon Investigations. Kate’s content with her life, but her grandmother Ivy thinks she’d be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. At first Kate refuses. But her friend Adrian Palmer talks her into going, promising that he’ll go along with her for moral support. The two board the bus for Redspoon, but Kate never returns. Palmer claims he doesn’t know what happened to Kate, but the police don’t believe him. They don’t have enough evidence for an arrest though. Still everyone is so convinced that he’s responsible for her disappearance that Palmer leaves town, planning never to return. Twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa has a dead-end job at a local mall. One night she happens to encounter Kurt, who is a security guard at the mall. They form an unlikely kind of friendship, and Kurt tells Lisa that he’s been seeing something odd on his security cameras: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate, carrying a stuffed monkey who looks a lot like Kate’s companion Mickey the Monkey. Bit by bit, as Kurt and Lisa figuratively return to the past, we find out what really happened to Kate.

And then there’s Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. One afternoon, Emma Curtis is taking a bus home from work when she is witness to a tragedy in the making. Three young people board the bus and begin to bully another passenger Luke Murray. Everyone’s upset about the bullying, but only one person does anything to stop it: Jason Barnes. When he intervenes, the harassment stops temporarily. Then, Luke and Jason get off the bus at the same stop. So do the bullies though, and the bullying starts all over again. It continues all the way to Jason’s front yard. When it’s all over, Jason has been fatally stabbed and Luke is gravely injured. The police investigate, and it turns out that Luke may not have been a random victim. As the police go after the young people involved, Staincliffe addresses questions of bullying, responsibility and the effect of being in a crowd. She also looks at the devastating impact of sudden death and terrible injury on families.

See what I mean? Buses have a lot going for them. Really, they do. But they can also be very dangerous. Now if you’ll excuse me, here’s my bus – don’t want to miss it!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Graham Gouldman’s Bus Stop, made famous by the Hollies.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

On a Long, Lonesome Highway*

Deserted RoadsIf you’ve ever taken a long drive, you know how empty and lonesome a road can be. There are certain stretches of road where it’s very unwise to drive unless you have a car that’s in dependable shape, and plenty of fuel. But even those things don’t always keep a person out of trouble when the road is long and fairly empty. That sort of setting is tailor-made for a crime fiction story for obvious reasons. So it’s little wonder we see it an awful lot. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with a lot more.

In Agatha Christie’s The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Hercule Poirot gets a visit one evening from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Prime Minister David MacAdam has apparently been kidnapped while en route to Paris for an important speech he was scheduled to make. World War II is in the offing and MacAdam had planned a ‘rally the troops’ speech. But there are many important people who want to bring down MacAdam’s government and move England in the direction of appeasement. So this particular speech is of critical importance. Poirot and Captain Hastings are given one day to find MacAdam and catch his kidnappers, since the speech is supposed to take place the next evening. They get started immediately and in the end, they find out what has happened to the prime minister. They discover that a certain stretch of lonely road played an important part in the story’s events.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia, Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport Jimmie Lee Boggs and Tee Beau Latiolais to Louisiana’s state prison at Angola. Both men have been convicted of murder, but Tee Beau’s grandmother Tante Lemon claims that he’s innocent. She says he was with her at the time of the murder for which he’s been convicted, but that no-one will listen to her. She’s asked Robicheaux to help her clear Tee Beau’s name, but Robicheaux doesn’t think there’s much he can do about it. He does get drawn into the case though. While he, Benoit and their two prisoners are en route to Angola, Boggs and Tee Beau escape, leaving Benoit dead and Robicheaux badly injured. Here’s how Burke describes the place where the escape happens:

 

‘The rain struck my face, and I rolled the window up again. I could see cows clumped together among the trees, a solitary, dark farmhouse set back in a sugarcane field, and up ahead an old filling station that had been there since the 1930s. The outside bay was lighted, and the rain was blowing off the eaves into the light.’

 

Not a place where one wants to be injured. Still, Robicheaux survives. He gets his chance to go after Jimmie Lee Boggs, too. An old friend Minos Dautrieve, who’s now with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) asks Robicheaux to go undercover to bring down New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. Robicheaux isn’t willing to do the job until he finds out that Boggs has been working with Cardo. When he learns that, Robicheaux sees his chance to get Boggs.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances we meet political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn. In this, the first in this series, we learn that Kilbourn is mourning the loss of her husband Ian, who was murdered one night on the way back from a colleague’s funeral. Both Deadly Appearances and A Colder Kind of Death tell the story of how Ian Kilbourn was returning to Regina when he stopped to help a young couple, Kevin Tarpley and Maureen Gault, who were having car trouble.  They were on a lonely stretch of road, apparently on their way to a party, when their car gave up the ghost. When Kilbourn refused to take them to the party, Tarpley killed him. That murder has several consequences beyond the obvious grief that it cases the Kilbourn family. The story arc concerning Ian Kilbourn’s murder plays an important role in a few of the novels in this series, and it adds to the interest.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are introduces readers to TV presenter Phil Smedway, who worked for a regional series until he ‘hit it big’ and went national. Then one day he was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was jogging on a more or less deserted stretch of road. His successor Frank Allcroft (whom Smedway also mentored) feels drawn to the place where the accident occurred. Oddly enough, it’s a straight length of road, so even an impaired driver would have been able to see Smedway and swerve to avoid him. What’s more the weather was dry and clear at the time of Smedway’s death. So Allcroft can’t see how this could have been an accident. He decides to find out what really happened to Smedway and in the process, finds out some unexpected things about his mentor.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson have just arrived in Melbourne from Scotland with their nine-week-old son Noah. Then they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their son. Immediately the Australian media begins to make much of the story, and a massive search is undertaken. But there is no sign of Noah. Gradually some questions come up about, especially, Joanna. Did she or Alistair have something to do with Noah’s disappearance? Gradually, and through a few people’s points of view, we learn what happened to Noah. One of the places that play a role in the story is a lonely stretch of road on the Tullamarine Freeway that links Melbourne to the airport. Here’s how Fitzgerald describes it:

 

‘Were there really no towns or buildings in sight? Just the straight road behind them and the straight road ahead with black, ominous sky looming over its horizon?’

 

As this is Joanna’s first trip to Australia, it’s not exactly a warmly welcoming bit of scenery…

Of course, you never do know what’s going to happen on a long stretch of road. That’s what bank manager Martin Carter finds out in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty and F***ed!  Carter finds out that he’s being retrenched, and it doesn’t help matters that his marriage is ending too. On his last day at the bank, he can’t resist the chance to get his hands on a million-dollar payroll and start all over. With the aid of a stolen police 4WD, Carter takes off. His plan is to meet up with an old friend, but the trip certainly doesn’t go as planned. Along the road he meets up with a librarian who’s got her own problems, a group of New Age bikers, and lots more interesting sorts of people. It’s certainly not a peaceful drive through the country.

As I say, you never do know what’s going to happen on a long, deserted stretch of road. Perhaps best keep the windows closed and don’t stop. For anything. ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Turn the Page

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Helen Fitzgerald, James Lee Burke

Here in Status Symbol Land*

Status SymbolsEvery culture and even social group has different values. So the things that confer high status on someone vary a great deal. But just about every culture does have some way of conferring higher status on some people than on others. And those status symbols sometimes take on extreme importance. Status symbols are woven throughout culture in real life, so it makes sense that they are also woven throughout crime fiction. Let me just give you a few examples of what I mean.

In some cultures, ‘blue blood’ confers high status on people, even more than money does. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels touch on this sort of status symbol. In Death on the Nile for instance, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are aboard the Karnak on a cruise of the Nile. One night, fellow passenger Linnet Doyle is shot and Poirot and Race begin to investigate. The most likely suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Linnet married. But Jackie couldn’t possibly have committed the murder, so Poirot and Race have to look among the other passengers. One of those passengers is Marie Van Schuyler, a ‘blue blood’ American who takes ‘birth status’ very seriously. In fact, she barely speaks to anyone on board the cruise because most don’t have a ‘good enough’ background. When Poirot asks her if she knew Linnet Doyle or anyone in her family, here is Miss Van Schuyler’s response:

 

‘My dear mother would never have dreamed of calling upon any of the Hartz family [Linnet’s mother’s family] who, outside their wealth, were nobodies.’

 

Poirot himself is just a bit of a snob, but even he sees what a status symbol ‘blue blood’ is to Miss Van Schuyler, and in a sub-plot of the novel, he has an interesting way of making use of that.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, status doesn’t come from a particular surname or birth circumstance. It comes from cattle. If you think about it, that makes sense too, as someone who can afford a lot of good cattle is likely to have more means than someone who can’t. And it’s not just amount of cattle either. Even more status is accorded someone whose cattle is healthy, strong and of high quality, as that implies that a person is wise enough to choose cattle well. Such a person is Obed Ramotswe. He isn’t extremely wealthy, but he is very skilled at choosing good cattle, and he’s amassed a herd that gives him high status. When he passes away, he leaves the cattle to his daughter Precious, who understands how important good cattle are. She uses the proceeds from the sale of the cattle to open her own detective agency, and fans of this series know that she credits her father with making her agency possible. There are a few other plots too in this series in which we see how much of a status symbol cattle is in this culture.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series takes place in Delhi, where an important status symbol is to have a driver. Even if one is perfectly capable of driving oneself, it’s still important to have a driver. And in Delhi traffic conditions it makes a lot of sense to have a driver who is very familiar with the area. Puri isn’t a particularly wealthy man. And he doesn’t have a high-status job such as a diplomat or a famous surgeon might. But he has a driver whom he calls Handbrake. Handbrake knows the roads in and around Delhi intimately and is often able to get Puri where he wants to go much faster than Puri could on his own.

Teresa Solana pokes some fun at Barcelona status symbols in A Not So Perfect Crime. In that novel, powerful politician Lluís Font hires brothers Josep ‘Borja’ and Eduard Martínez to find out if his wife Lídia is having an affair. The brothers take the case and follow her for a week, but see no evidence at all of infidelity. Then one evening Lídia is poisoned. Her husband is, of course, the most likely suspect, and he’s arrested. But he claims to be innocent, and asks the Martínez brothers to continue to work for him and find out who really killed Lídia. Neither brother has any experience on murder cases, but there’s a lot of potential here in terms of money and future clients, so they continue to investigate. At one point early in the novel, we get a clear and witty look at status symbols in the circles in which the Fonts move:

 

‘..when lunching with a lady friend, women from a certain social class first go shopping in order to appear in the restaurant laden with bags and, so much the better if they’re the exclusive designer variety. It’s a matter of quality rather than quantity. This way I’ve learned that a single Loewe or Vuitton bag beats any number from Bulevard Rosa or the Corte Inglés, that Armani and Chanel level peg, and that Zara is a no-no. That is Borja’s Bags’ Law. And it’s not the only unwritten code that reigns in particular zones of Barcelona’s upper reaches.’

 

In this case, it’s the name on a shopping bag that confers status.

The prison culture is unique and has different ways of conferring status on people. There is of course, the custom of tattoos that indicate why the person is in prison, which gang the prisoner belongs to and so on. Those tattoos are important status symbols. So is the prisoner’s reputation. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, for instance, Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth when brothel owner Ruby Devine is shot. The investigation hasn’t gotten very far, in part because Ruby wasn’t an ‘important person’ and in part because it’s possible that her killer was a corrupt cop, a member of the so-called ‘purple circle.’ If so, the members of that ‘purple circle’ will do everything they can to prevent the truth about her death from coming out. Swann persists though, and learns that Ray Hergenhan, who’s in prison for armed robbery, may be the murderer, possibly paid by the cops. During one of their conversations, Hergenhan admits that he’s never denied killing Ruby because being considered guilty of murder is a prison status symbol. But he also says that he really isn’t guilty. It’s an interesting example of what ‘counts’ as a status symbol in a given culture.

And then there are retirement communities such as those we encounter in Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are and Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes Are Murder. The two books are quite different, but each one takes place at least in part in retirement homes. In those social groups, an important status symbol is number of visits, especially from one’s children and grandchildren.

Culture has a lot to do with what becomes a status symbol, but just about every culture has them. Little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Catherine O'Flynn, David Whish-Wilson, Mike Befeler, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana