Category Archives: Catherine O’Flynn

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

When Black Friday Comes*

Black FridayIt’s already happening. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Christmas holiday shopping season has well and truly started. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, it’s hard to deny that the holiday means big, big business. So it’s become quite commercialised. On the one hand, companies really do depend on holiday sales, and charitable groups depend on holiday giving. On the other hand, I think most of us would agree that there’s a saturation point. And that’s the thing about commercialism. There’s a fine line between wanting to make a profit (which most of us would say is perfectly fine) and tasteless ‘overkill.’ It’s not easy to define that line since it may be different for each of us. But we all know it’s there. That sense of over-commercialism is certainly there in crime fiction, too.

For example, both Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly and After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) take place at least in part in traditional family homes that have been intact properties for generations. In both novels there’s discussion of the fact that wartime privation and financial straits have made it necessary to sell a lot of those homes and turn them into commercial Guest Houses. There’s a lot of wistfulness expressed about the days before that commercialism, too. While that change is not the reason for the murders in these stories, it does make for an interesting social commentary. On the other hand, 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) begins as Elspeth McGillicuddy is en route to visit Miss Marple after having done some Christmas shopping – three days before Christmas. I’d guess the Christmas rush didn’t start as early then…

There aren’t many places with more commercialism than Hollywood. In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts for instance, Queen has been under contract at Magna Studios, but hasn’t done any productive work. Then, he’s asked to work on the screenplay for a brand-new biopic featuring famous actors John Royle and Blythe Stuart. The two had a very public and stormy love affair and since it ended, have had nothing to do with each other. Each married someone else and each now has a grown child. The Stuart/Royle feud has been passed on, too, to Stuart’s daughter Bonnie and Royle’s son Ty. To everyone’s shock, both Stuart and Royle agree to do the film and at first, the studio executives plan to exploit the feud for all it’s financially worth. Then, in an even bigger surprise, Royle and Stuart re-kindle their romance and decide to marry. In an effort to find another way to profit from the famous couple, the management team decides to plan a Hollywood-style wedding, with all of the hype you’d expect. The couple is married on an airstrip just before boarding a private plane for their honeymoon. During the flight, both die of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other. But soon enough there turn out to be other suspects. Commercialism isn’t the reason for these murders, but it’s certainly an important theme in the story.

It’s also an important theme in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. Three sisters, Meredith Winterbottom, Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe live in Jerusalem Lane, one of London’s historic districts. When Meredith unexpectedly dies, the first theory is that she committed suicide. It’s not a far-fetched theory either as she was elderly and in financial difficulty. But DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla aren’t completely satisfied and Kolla begins to investigate. It soon turns out that there are good reasons to believe Meredith was murdered. For one thing, a huge development project is underway that will completely gut Jerusalem Lane and turn it into a commercial zone and tourist district. Meredith refused to sell and she and her sisters have been among the last ‘hold-outs.’ And then there’s her son Terry, who stands to gain quite a bit from the sale of his mother’s property, which he inherits on her death. There are other reasons too, and Kolla and Brock have to dig through the area’s history and the network of relationships in the sisters’ lives to find out the truth.

There’s a haunting theme of the effects of commercialism in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. The novel begins with the opening of Green Oaks Shopping Center in 1984. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who dreams of being a detective, spends a lot of time there honing her detective skills and looking for suspicious activity. One day she and her friend Adrian Palmer take a bus to the exclusive Redspoon School where she’s to sit the entrance exams. When Kate doesn’t return, everyone blames Adrian although he swears he had nothing to do with it. An extensive search yields nothing, not even a body. It’s not until twenty years later that any answers turn up. By then, Adrian’s sister Lisa is the assistant manager of Your Music, one of the stores in Green Oaks. One night she meets security guard Kurt, who’s been seeing some strange things on the footage of the security cameras. He’s been seeing images of a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. When he tells Lisa about it, the two of them, each in a different way, go back to the past if you will. In the end we learn what really happened to Kate and why. Throughout this novel, there’s a theme of the commercialism and the ‘plastic’ life that malls can bring to an area. There’s also a theme of what happens to ‘High Street shopping’ when commercialism takes over.

Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) begins shortly before Christmas. C.C. de Poitiers and her family move to the small Québec town of Three Pines.  She’s a self-styled ‘life guru’ whose book Be Calm has sold quite well. She’s commercialised the concept of a meaningful life and done quite well financially. But in her private life, things are quite different. She’s abusive and cruel, and it’s not long before she alienates nearly everyone. When she is electrocuted during a Boxing Day curling match, Sûreté Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate. In this novel, there’s a great deal of commercialism in the way that de Poitiers has marketed herself. There’s also a hint of commercialism in one scene in the novel when a few of the Three Pines residents go to Montréal to do their Christmas shopping. It’s a really fascinating contrast to the quiet life of Three Pines.

And then there’s Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. That novel takes place shortly after the bursting of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic ‘bubble’ of the 1990s. The booming economy of that period led to a lot of development and many people took a great deal of financial risk to get their share of that commercial prize. Among them was Dublin banker Emmet Sweetman. When he is found shot in his own home, DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate. One of the themes in this novel is the way commercialism put a lot of people at a great deal of risk; that theme adds a layer of interest to the story.

Most people would say that there’s nothing wrong with earning a fair profit for one’s work. But as crime fiction shows us, there’s definitely such a thing as over-commercialisation and it has consequences.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I mustn’t miss those holiday bargain sales! ;-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s Black Friday.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Catherine O'Flynn, Ellery Queen, Gene Kerrigan, Louise Penny

Well You Only Need the Light When It’s Burning Low*

Blown-out candleIt just seems to be human nature that we sometimes don’t value what we have until it’s gone. If you’ve ever had to scramble to get to work because the car you always depend on wouldn’t start, you know what I mean. It’s very easy to take things, places or people for granted, but as Benjamin Franklin wrote, ‘When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.’ It’s a very human reaction, so it’s not surprising that we see this plot thread in crime fiction too. After all, well-written crime fiction reflects realistic people.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet the Cloade family. They’ve always been able to depend financially on wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade and in fact, he’s encouraged that. He’s promised the family members that they could rely on his financial support and on expectations from his will. Then everything changes. First, Cloade falls in love and marries a young widow Rosaleen Underhay. Then, he is tragically killed in a bomb blast. Since he married before his death, and since he never made a will, Rosaleen is set to inherit Cloade’s considerable fortune. Now the other family members are faced with not having the money they had always taken for granted. When a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden hints that Rosaleen’s first husband may still be alive, the Cloades are eager to find out if that’s true. If so it would mean that Rosaleen was not legally married to Gordon Cloade and therefore cannot inherit. When ‘Enoch Arden’ is killed, Hercule Poirot gets drawn into the case. The investigation is of course an important thread in this novel. But so is the Cloades’ reaction to having to plan life without the money they had been so accustomed to having.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction author Zack Walker, his journalist wife Sarah, and their children move from the city to a new suburb named Valley Forest Estates. The idea is that the lower cost of living in the suburb will make it possible for Walker to write full time. What’s more, suburbs are safer than cities, and Walker wants his family to be safe. It turns out that Valley Forest Estates is far from a peaceful, quiet place to live. For one thing, there are plumbing and other problems with the house. For another, some of the Walker family’s new neighbours are not what they seem. One day, Walker goes to the main sales office for the development, hoping to get a resolution to the house’s ongoing maintenance problems. Instead, he witnesses an argument between one of Valley Forest’s sales executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body at a nearby creek. Now, despite his best efforts to stay out of it all, Walker finds himself drawn in to what turns out to be a case of multiple murder and theft. As the novel goes on, Walker learns just how much he misses the city that the family had taken for granted.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn meets Keith Harris, who is also a political scientist. The two don’t agree politically but they do ‘click’ personally, and are soon romantically involved. Then, Harris gets an irresistible job offer in Washington. At first, the two have a long distance relationship. But gradually they drift apart and Harris meets someone else. Kilbourn knows that the decision to end the romance was mutual, but that doesn’t stop her thinking about what she’s lost and trying to figure out how she feels about Harris with someone else. It’s an interesting story arc.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant doesn’t have a spouse or children. But he does have a group of close friends who are supportive of him. One of them is his next-door neighbour, the enigmatic Sereena Orion Smith. As the series moves on, we learn that she has a mysterious past, and she has a habit of turning up unexpectedly. Quant likes her, and it’s not that he really discounts her. But he does get used to having her in his life. So in Tapas on the Ramblas, he’s shaken when she doesn’t return from a Mediterranean cruise. What’s more, her house is up for sale, so she obviously doesn’t intend to stay there. Sereena’s disappearance forms a plot thread in Stain of the Berry, as Quant resolves to look for Sereena. It’s a very interesting case of not really being aware of how much a person means to one until that person is gone.

That’s also an important plot thread in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost.  The novel begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a budding detective; in fact, she’s opened her own agency Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the mall, hoping to find evidence of suspicious activity. She’s quite content with her life but her grandmother Ivy thinks she should go away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. At first Kate refuses but then her friend Adrian Palmer convinces her to at least try the exams. He even arranges to take the bus with her to the school for moral support. When Kate never returns from the school, Palmer is the most likely suspect in her disappearance. He claims he’s innocent but his life is made so miserable that he leaves town. Twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa works at a dead-end job at Green Oaks. One night she meets Kurt, a mall security guard. He’s been seeing some strange images on his cameras – a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. Each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt look into the past and the reader learns what really happened to Kate. In the process, we see that several of the characters in this novel weren’t really aware of the role Kate played in their lives until she disappeared. Among other things, the novel is a powerful look at one person’s impact on others, and at our tendency not to be aware of what we have until it’s gone.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind introduces us to Stephanie Anderson. One summer day when Stephanie is fourteen, she and her family attend a school picnic at Lake Wanaka. For Stephanie, the picnic is a chance to get noticed by a boy she likes. She certainly doesn’t want to spend time with her twin brothers or her four-year-old sister Gemma. Stephanie loves her family, but like a lot of people, she doesn’t really think about how much they mean to her. Then, Gemma disappears. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the girl is found – not even a body. The family is devastated and Gemma’s loss has permanent effects on everyone. But the members of the Anderson family, including Stephanie, carry on as best they can. Then seventeen years later, now a fledgling psychiatrist, Stephanie hears of a haunting case from one of her patients Elisabeth Clark. Elisabeth’s younger sister Gracie was abducted in the same way that Gemma was, and the story brings back all of the pain of Gemma’s loss. The case is eerily similar too. So Stephanie decides to face her own ghosts and find out who is responsible for the girls’ abductions. As she does so, we see how the losses of both girls have impacted their families. It’s a haunting case of having to get along without someone you thought would always be there.

But that’s what we humans do. We don’t always think about what we have until we don’t have it any more. These are just a few examples from crime fiction. Your turn.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael David Rosenberg’s (AKA Passenger) Let Her Go.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Linwood Barclay, Paddy Richardson