Category Archives: Colin Cotterill

When Death Came Calling Today*

Medical ExaminersOne of critical tasks in any criminal investigation is finding out exactly how the victim died. For that, police rely on medical examiners. They have slightly different roles in different countries, but in general, their job is to perform autopsies and determine cause of death. Often that leads to a conclusion on manner of death too (accident, suicide or murder). The police rely heavily on that medical information to help make their cases, and medical examiners’ reports are also very useful for attorneys, whether they’re prosecuting or defending someone. It’s no wonder at all then that these professionals figure so often in crime fiction.

Several series feature medical examiners as sleuths, which makes sense when you consider what they do and the information they learn. For instance, Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar lives and works in 12th Century England. She’s what’s called a ‘mistress of the art of death,’ a doctor who was originally at the University at Salerno. At the request of King Henry II, she’s sent to England to investigate a murder and remains there. She may not have modern technology or science at her disposal, but she understands how the human body works, and she is good at determining cause of death.

Although he is not a doctor by profession, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael plays much the same role . He’s a Benedictine monk, and an herbalist. He’s learned many of the telltale signs of different causes of death and that helps him draw his conclusions. And since he’s thoroughly familiar with different kinds of plant life, he’s especially good at finding small pieces of evidence that suggest where the victim was killed and in cases of poison, which kind of poison was used.

Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dodie’ McCleland is a medical examiner who works in the London of the early 20th Century. There’s a real interest in the profession at this time, as it’s the era of the Crippen case and not that many years after the Whitechapel murders. It’s a profession that’s just opened to women, so McCleland faces her share of sexism and cultural barriers. Still, she’s good at what she does. And what’s interesting is that Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous real-life pathologist, figures into the series. In fact, Young has written that the inspiration for Antidote to Murder, the second novel in the series, came from Spilsbury’s case notes.

Garrett Quirke, the creation of Benjamin Black, lives and works in 1950’s Dublin. In The Silver Swan, Quirke gets involved in the investigation of the death of Deirdre Hunt. And in this case, we see how important the observations of a medical examiner can be. When the victim’s body is found off the rocks near Dalkey Island, the police believe that it’s a case of suicide. Deirdre’s husband Billy accepts that explanation and wants the matter to go no further. In fact, he appeals to Quirke (they’re old friends) not to conduct an autopsy, saying that he can’t bear to think of his wife’s body cut up and dissected. Quirke agrees to see what he can do, but his suspicions are raised when he discovers a mark from hypodermic needle on one of Deirdre’s arms. That mark casts a whole new light on this death, but it isn’t noticed until Quirke conducts his examination.

And then there’s Colin Cotterill’s 1970s-era Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Dr. Siri is Laos’ only medical examiner, so he deals with all sorts of different cases. He faces several challenges too. For one thing, he has very little equipment or technology as his disposal. He has to make do sometimes with very rudimentary solutions, but he manages to get answers. Another challenge is that the government of Laos at this time is in the hands of socialist leaders who demand unquestioning co-operation and obedience. They expect that Dr. Siri’s results will tally with official explanations. That doesn’t always happen though, and Dr. Siri has to be cautious and clever as he goes about his work. But Dr. Siri has a strong and loyal team: Nurse Dtui and mortuary assistant Mr. Geung are highly skilled at their jobs. In fact Mr. Geung knows more about mortuary procedures than Dr. Siri does. This series offers an interesting look at the life of a non-Western medical examiner.

There are also of course many modern-day fictional medical examiners, such as Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton. They live and work in New York City, but as readers of this series know, they also travel in the course of their work. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan is another example of the modern medical examiner.

Medical examiners also play important roles in novels and series even when they’re not the protagonists. For instance, Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace depends a lot on Cleo Morey, a medical examiner with Brighton and Hove Mortuary. Fans of this series know that while these two begin as colleagues, their relationship changes and they become partners. Morey’s expertise is critical to Grace’s investigations. And Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn, who serves as Coroner for Shrewsbury, depends very much on her team members for accurate results in the cases she hears. In Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aries medical examiner Dr. Fusili is very helpful, despite great personal risk, to police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano when he investigates a murder that some highly-placed people want ‘rubber stamped.’

Medical examiners have what may seem like eerie jobs. But their expertise is extremely important, and their cases can be very interesting, too. Which fictional medical examiners have stayed in your memory?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Mountain Goats’ The Coroner’s Gambit.

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Filed under Ariana Franklin, Benjamin Black, Colin Cotterill, Ellis Peters, Ernesto Mallo, Felicity Young, Kathy Reichs, Peter James, Priscilla Masters, Robin Cook

‘Cause It’s My Culture, So Naturally I Use It*

Cultural PerspectivesMuch of what we think, do and value is impacted (sometimes dictated) by our culture. We don’t stop to think about each of our decisions or thoughts, but if you do stop and reflect, it’s not hard to see how deeply culture is woven into our lives and thinking patterns. You may notice it in particular if you spend time in another culture or if you read about characters from another culture. The ways in which those characters think, act and choose may seem strange or even wrong. But they may make more sense if you think about it from the point of view of that other culture. Let me show you what I mean with just a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, which is owned by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, to help his friend Ariadne Oliver. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête, but has come to suspect that more is going on at Nasse House than a planned event. Poirot isn’t there long before he too begins to think that something is wrong. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is. As a part of that process, he interviews the people involved with the fête, including Amy Folliat, whose family owned Nasse house for generations, and who actually introduced Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. As Mrs. Folliat explains to Poirot, Lady Hattie is of subnormal intelligence and after her family died, was under her (Mrs. Folliat’s) care. When Sir George proposed marriage, Amy Folliat urged her ward to accept, with the idea that she would be well provided for and not have to make her way alone. It wasn’t really a love match, and Mrs. Folliat’s concerned about Poirot’s reaction to that. But from Poirot’s perpective, which is impacted by his culture, it’s a wise choice:

 

‘It seems to me…that you made a most prudent arrangement for her. I am not, like the English, romantic. To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’

 

If you’re from a culture where marriage choices are based mostly on love and romance, Mrs. Folliat may seem almost coldly pragmatic. But it’s perfectly reasonable from a different cultural perspective.

We also see how culture impacts the way characters think and behave in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath.  LAPD Detectives Peter Decker and Marge Dunn investigate when a rape occurs at Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, a secluded Orthodox Jewish community. At first, the detectives think it may be the work of a serial rapist they’re already tracking. But there are enough differences that it could also be someone else. Then there’s a murder at the yeshiva. Now it looks as though whatever is going on has to do with the people there. In the course of the investigation, Decker also works with Rina Lazarus, a teacher at the yeshiva school. She and Decker are attracted to each other and each admits it. But even though she likes Decker, she doesn’t go out with him. If you’re from a culture where people who like each other go on dates, you might wonder why on earth Rina doesn’t say ‘yes,’ to a date. After all, it’s just dinner. But in the Orthodox Jewish culture, it’s not appropriate to spend time alone with a man to whom one isn’t married. Rina’s neither prudish nor afraid of Decker. But she is deeply affected by her culture, so dating as many of us conceive it is not a part of her thinking.

There’s a fascinating look at culture’s impact on people’s thinking and choices in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series. These novels take place in 1970’s Laos, where Dr. Siri is the country’s chief (well, really only) medical examiner. He has very few resources at his disposal, but he is a skilled doctor. He prefers logical, scientific explanations for life, and tries to provide them in the context of his work. But the traditional Laos culture in which he lives sees the world differently. To members of that traditional culture, certain things simply do not have Western-style scientific explanations, and have to be attributed to something else. The Laotian government authorities try to discourage those traditions, but Dr. Siri learns to see the merit of them. As the series goes on, he gets better able to see the world that way and he finds that it’s a very useful ‘cultural lens.’

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she lived. Her father Jim has hired Keeney to find out the truth about her death, so Keeney goes undercover at New Life to find out whether someone there may have had a motive for murder.  One of the things that come out in this novel is the Thai custom of disparaging one’s own baby:

 

‘My Kob has ears like an elephant,’ Mayuree added…
‘Kob has such beautiful eyes,’ Wen said, ‘whereas my poor Moo has small eyes and they aren’t even a nice color.’

 

If you’re not from the Thai culture, you may wonder how any loving mother could speak that way about her own child. But in the Thai culture it makes sense. It’s a way of protecting a baby from malevolent spirits who might be jealous of a smart, physically appealing child. From the Thai perspective, these two women behave like the loving mothers they are.

Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective introduces readers to Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India’s Bedia group. Their families are financially desperate, so an arrangement is made for the girls to join the dhanda – a name used for India’s sex trade. The idea is that they’ll work in that business for a few years and send their earnings back to their families. At the end of that time, they’ll return to their villages and settle down. The two girls are both nervous, but they agree. Then they’re shipped to Scotland where they fall into the hands of some very nasty people. Basanti manages to escape, but in the meantime, she has lost contact with Preeti. Her search for Preeti leads to oceanographer and Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who helps Basanti find out the truth about her friend. You may very well wonder how anyone could allow a daughter to be a part of the sex trade, or how any teen could agree to it. But in that culture, family and family duty are of the utmost importance. These girls see it as their responsibility to help their families. Preeti even sees it as a source of pride. From the families’ perspective, it’s far better than allowing other children in the family to starve. This cultural and financial perspective doesn’t make underage prostitution a good thing. But it does help explain how it happens.

There’s a really interesting case of cultural impact in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein is a secondary school teacher in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s become concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman, who’s stopped coming to class regularly, and stopped being a part of the group when she’s there. Ilsa’s choices about helping Serena have much more far-reaching consequences than she could have imagined, and through it all, there’s an interesting debate. There are many social services available in New Zealand for students who are struggling. Admittedly sometimes they work well and sometimes they don’t. But most social service professionals try to do their best. Ilsa and her mother Gerda, though, come from Leipzig, in what was once East Germany. To them, trusting any government agency is out of the question, especially from Gerda’s perspective. Government workers were responsible for a great deal of denouncement, spying, and so on that led to the disappearances and deaths of many East Germans during the Soviet era. That cultural ‘rule’ – that you don’t trust any agency – may seem strange if you come from a culture where those agencies do a lot of good. But to these women, from that culture, it makes perfect sense.

And that’s the thing about culture. It impacts the way we see the world, ourselves, others, and their actions and values. It even affects the way we see fictional characters and the way they see each other. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Living Colour’s Pride.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Colin Cotterill, Faye Kellerman, Mark Douglas-Home, Paddy Richardson

It Starts When You’re Always Afraid*

Witch Hunts and Mass HysteriaThere’ve been all sorts of fictional and historical accounts of the ‘witch trials’ in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692 and 1693. Those events have captured a lot of people’s imaginations and the term ‘witch hunt’ has become synonymous with group hysteria that can lead to injustice and much worse. And if you read history you’ll know that Salem was by no means the first instance of mass hysteria about witchcraft. There’s a line between concern for public safety and the public good on the one hand, and mass hysteria on the other. It’s sometimes hard to say precisely where that line is, but there are many cases where it’s been crossed. A quick look at crime fiction shows some interesting examples.

Hysteria about witches plays a role in Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is doing research on anti-depressants. He’s introduced to a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, and the two are soon involved romantically. Kimberly is a descendant of Elizabeth Stewart, who was hanged for witchcraft during the 17th Century wave of anti-witch hysteria. As Armstrong learns about the family history, he also sees another possible avenue for research. It turns out that bread baked in the Stewart home was contaminated with ergot, which has certain psychotropic effects. The house is still in the Stewart family, and Armstrong wants to experiment with the ergot that grows there to see if it has promise as an anti-depressant. The first results are truly exciting and Armstrong and his research team think they’ve made a major medical breakthrough. Then, some disturbing things begin to happen. Before long it’s clear that Armstrong, Stewart and the rest of the team are in far greater danger than anyone imagined.

During the ‘Cold War’ between the US and the UK and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, there was a great deal of fear about communism. There was reason to be concerned about Soviet spying, and that concern led to fear and even hysteria. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some unusual events at a hostel for students. Odd things have been disappearing there and, as the manager Mrs. Hubbard is the sister of Poirot’s secretary Felicity Lemon, Poirot agrees to visit the hostel. On the night of his visit, one of the residents Celia Austin admits having taken some of the things. When she does, it’s believed that the matter is settled. When Celia dies two nights later, her death is put down to suicide, but it’s soon proven she was murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the backgrounds and personal lives of the other hostel residents to find out who would have wanted to kill Celia and why. In the process, they discover quite a bit of anit-communist sentiment. That discussion forms an interesting thread in this story.

We see that same sort of hysteria reflected in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is an amateur PI in post-World War II Los Angeles. One day he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes and threatening jail if he doesn’t pay up. Rawlins doesn’t have that kind of money so he starts to resign himself to the very real possibility of a jail term. Then he gets a way out. FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. The FBI wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, a Polish war refugee. Wenzler does a lot of volunteer work for the First African Baptist Church, and Craxton wants Rawlins to use that volunteer work to get close to Wenzler and inform on him. Rawlins isn’t interested but he sees no other way out of his tax trouble. So he agrees to the plan. As he gets to know Wenzler, he discovers that he likes the man and becomes less and less eager to set him up. Then there are two murders at the church. Since Rawlins was there at the time, he’s a natural suspect. Then the LAPD link him to an earlier death. It’s now clear that someone’s trying to frame him for murder. So Rawlins has to clear his name and strike a very delicate balance between keeping to his agreement with Craxton and keeping Wenzler out of trouble if he can. Throughout the novel there’s a strong thread of anti-communist hysteria and Rawlins is appealed to as a ‘patriotic American’ to do his share.

Anti-Western hysteria shows up in a lot of crime fiction too. For instance, William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in pre-World War II Moscow. During those years of Stalinist rule, anyone perceived as having any kind of pro-Western or anti-Soviet sentiment was considered an enemy of the state. Such people were often executed or sent off to gulags for ‘re-education.’ Life was hard for their family members too. In this atmosphere people live in dread of being betrayed to the NKVD as traitors. In fact, Korolev himself has to be very careful. As a CID police investigator, he and his team are responsible for catching criminals. It’s in the Soviet interest to have a strong record of catching and punishing those who break the law. But at the same time, Korolev finds that the trail sometimes leads to the NKVD or to other highly respected and powerful Soviet citizens. To suggest that they may be involved in crime is to run the risk of being declared an enemy of the state.

We also see that kind of anti-Western ‘witch hunt’ in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, the third of their Nina Borg series. In one plot thread of this novel, two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up in the Ukraine during the terrible famine years of 1934-1936. Everyone is exhorted to make sacrifices for the greater good of the State, but that doesn’t fill people’s stomachs. Yet people who complain or worse, who seem to be too well-fed or have too much food, are in real danger. They’re perceived as traitorous and are denounced. At that time, even the slightest denunciation was enough to consign a person or family to Siberia or worse, as this was the time of Stalin’s Great Purge of people he saw as enemies. That climate of fear and the ever-increasing circle of denunciations play an important role in this plot thread of the novel. Years later, this story casts a shadow when Natasha Doroshenko and her daughter Katerina flee the Ukraine after the murder of Natasha’s journalist husband Pavel. They make their way to Denmark where at first Natasha thinks she’s found a haven. That turns out to be tragically false when she’s imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé Michael Vestergaard.  Then, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. So she escapes police custody and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. That’s when the real danger starts for her, for Katerina and for Nina Borg.

There are other series too, such as Colin Cotterill’s  Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970’s Laos, that address themes of what you could call ‘witch hunts.’ In series like that, people are encouraged to denounce others, even friends and family members, as traitors. That climate of fear adds a layer of tension to a novel or series. It’s even more disturbing when we think how close those novels come to real life.

ps. The ‘photo is part of an illustration of Pedro Berruguete’s Auto-da-fé, which hangs in Madrid’s Prado Museum. It’s a haunting reminder that widespread fear and the fear of being denounced have a long history.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Stills’ For What it’s Worth.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Colin Cotterill, Lene Kaaberbøl, Robin Cook, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

They Have Made a New Condition*

New InitiativesLike most of us, real and fictional detectives have to deal with new policies and initiatives that come down from ‘the top.’ So do other fictional kinds of sleuths such as attorneys, academics and so on. If you’ve ever been in a meeting like the one in the ‘photo, where new policies are announced, you know what I mean. Sometimes those policies can be beneficial to the people who have to implement them. Sometimes, that’s not the case. And when it isn’t, it’s often because those policies and initiatives don’t come from the people who are most directly affected by them. But whether they do or don’t work to everyone’s benefit, they’re a part of many people’s lives. And in crime fiction, they can add some interesting tension to a story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Chief Inspector Japp investigates the murder of Henry Morley, a dentist who was found shot in his surgery. Morley happens to be Hercule Poirot’s dentist and in fact, Poirot had an appointment there on the morning of the shooting, so Japp is interested in Poirot’s input. This is a case of special interest too, because one of Morley’s other patients is Alistair Blunt, a powerful banker with plenty of (especially political) enemies. So there’s every chance that someone shot Morley in an attempt to get at Blunt. Japp and Poirot have just begun looking into this case when the news comes that one of Morley’s patients has disappeared. Then another is found dead of what seems to be an overdose of anaesthetic. Japp and Poirot are working on the case when all of a sudden word comes down from Japp’s superiors that this case is to be left alone. As you can imagine, Japp is not best pleased, but it’s Scotland Yard’s policy to make Home Office requests a priority. And this time, the Home Office has specifically requested that the case be left alone for security reasons. Japp’s hands, as the saying goes, are tied, but Poirot’s are not, so he continues the investigation and finds out who shot Morley and why.

In Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men, DI John Rebus finds himself caught up in a new initiative for helping detectives like himself who have trouble working in groups and with authority figures. He and his team are investigating the murder of Edinburgh art dealer Edward Marber, and the case isn’t going very well. During a tense meeting about it, Rebus throws a mug of cold tea in the direction of DCS Gill Templar, who’s leading the meeting. It’s decided that he should be a part of this new initiative, so he’s remanded along with some other detectives to Tulliallan Police College. Rebus of course isn’t happy about this, not least because he can’t do anything to solve the Marber case if he’s off on this new program. But he isn’t given any choice. What’s more, he’s given a special assignment to carry out while he’s there (no spoilers). As an exercise in team-building, the ‘Resurrection Men’ as they’re called are given a ‘cold case’ to solve, the murder of gangster Rico Lomax. As Rebus is working on this case, he’s also working privately with DS Siobhan Clarke on the Marber case. In the end, it turns out that these murders are connected.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has to learn several skills when she takes over the leadership of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. One of those skills is how to cope with her own and others’ frustration at initiatives and policies that may seem good ‘on paper,’ but don’t work well in practice. For example, ACC Lauren Self has passed down the constabulary’s new healthy eating Initiative, which limits the kind of food that’s available on the premises. All the food served at meetings and events is to be organic, and it’s to be nutritious. In the abstract, it’s a good idea to eat healthy food. And in the abstract, it makes sense to support healthy eating at the institutional level. But in practice, it’s a failure. In both The Cipher Garden and The Serpent Pool, there are examples of detectives who find their own ways of circumventing this initiative. Here, for instance, is what Scarlett’s friend and colleague Fern Larter says about it (from The Serpent Pool):

 

‘I’m pig-sick of the ACC’s healthy eating initiative. I refuse to spend the rest of my life worrying about clogged arteries.’

 

It’s an interesting thread of tension that also adds some humanity to Edwards’ characters.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series takes place in 1970s Laos, at a time when the then-new communist government had made profound changes in the way things were done. This of course entailed a raft of new initiatives, policies and so forth that were enacted to further the government’s goals. And as Laos’ chief medical examiner, Dr. Siri has to deal with a lot of them. As we learn in The Coroner’s Lunch, for instance, the government has set up a new program for getting municipal and other community projects completed. Villagers ‘volunteer’ to dig canals, paint youth centres and the like. Since everyone is expected to work at regular jobs throughout the week and often on Saturdays too, this ‘volunteer’ work takes place on Sundays. Those who don’t participate come to the notice of authorities, and this can have its own policy-based consequences. So although Dr. Siri is not happy about being wakened early on his only ‘day off’ to dig an irrigation canal, he knows the risks of not going along. And this leads to another initiative mentioned in this novel. Those who don’t comply with ‘handed-down’ initiatives are sent to another part of Laos for ‘re-education.’  Dr. Siri ofen finds himself at odds with the government policies that affect his life. But he also finds ways to get around them.

There is a tense, serious and thought-provoking discussion of the effects of initiatives and policies in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White is stabbed to death while he and probationer Lucy Howard are investigating a break-in. Since the victim is a fellow police officer and a well-respected one too, the cops are determined to punish the culprit. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from a poor area of Hobart. Since Darren is part Aboriginal, this investigation is strictly circumscribed by recent initiatives put into place in order to ensure that Aborginal citizens’ rights are protected. There are also policies in place that are intended to protect juveniles. On the one hand, there are good reasons for those initiatives and good reasons to codify what police can and cannot do. On the other hand, as the novel plays out, we also see that these policies don’t always have the intended effects. What’s more, Erskine explores the reaction of the ‘regular cops’ to having to comply with policies that were ‘handed down’ from people who aren’t on regular police duty.

In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, social worker Simran Singh is asked to help with a terrible case that the State of Punjab is facing. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for poisoning thirteen members of her family, and stabbing several of them. She also allegedly set fire to the family home. The case is complicated by the fact that there are signs Durga was bound and raped. It’s also complicated by the fact that Durga hasn’t spoken since the crime took place. It’s believed that if Simran can get Durga to talk about what happened that terrible night, the police will get closer to the truth. One of many, many hurdles that Simran encounters is the fact that Durga is currently being held in a prison instead of in a more appropriate juvenile home. But recent reports of corruption and more at the juvenile home led to a raid and a new policy about the place. So Durga has had to be accommodated with a makeshift ‘solitary confinement’ setup at the prison.

And that’s the thing about some initiatives and polices, especially if they’re ‘handed down’ from people who don’t have to implement or live with them. They may seem like real solutions in the abstract, and sometimes they are. But in reality it doesn’t always work out that way.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s (The Lorries’) This Today.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Cotterill, Ian Rankin, Kishwar Desai, Martin Edwards, Y.A. Erskine

What’s it All About?*

Making Sense of LifeIt seems to be human nature that we want the things that happen to us to make sense. We don’t want to think that it’s all random. Perhaps that’s because humans seek ways to organise things in their minds, and it’s hard to make a pattern if everything that happens to us is random. That’s arguably one reason for which people study science; they want things to have an explanation. That’s also arguably why people look to spirituality for life’s answers; they want explanations too. That quest for things to make sense is an important part of what it is to be human, and it governs quite a lot of behaviour, so it isn’t surprising that we find it in crime fiction. Just the fact that fictional detectives want to solve mysteries is an example of that. There are a lot of others.

We see that search for things to make sense in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, which features a polygamist group that lives in an isolated compound called Purity. PI Lena Jones and her investigation partner Jimmy Sisiwan are hired to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from the group after her father Abel promises her in marriage to the group’s leader Solomon Royal. The rescue comes off and Rebecca is returned to her mother Esther, who is divorced from Abel. In the process of retrieving the girl, though, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and badly wounded. She calls the police anonymously, thinking that’ll be the end of her involvement. But the next day Jones finds out that Royal has died, and that Esther is the prime suspect. In order to clear her client’s name, Jones goes undercover, posing as a new member of Purity. As she learns more about the sect, she finds that women there are treated as, at best, third- or fourth-class citizens. She makes other discoveries too, some of them very disturbing. So one of the questions Jones asks herself is, ‘Why don’t the women just leave?’ One answer to that is that several of them have been raised in the group and believe that things make sense as they are. They’ve been given explanations for life by the group leaders and that’s how they see life. Others joined the group after leaving difficult or dangerous lives in the ‘outside world.’ For them, becoming a part of the group was the product of their own search for what it all means and why they ended up in the situations they faced. Of course, not all of the group’s members feel that way, but it’s an interesting undercurrent in the story.

Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch introduces readers to Dr. Siri Paiboun, who’s been ‘volunteered’ to serve as Laos’ chief medical examiner. The novel takes place in the 1970’s, and Laotians are expected to serve the new revolutionary regime. But Paiboun is already in his 70’s and ready to retire. What’s more, he no longer believes the revolution’s explanations for everything; he’s gotten cynical. But he’s pragmatic enough to know that he doesn’t have much choice but to go along with what he’s told to do, so he takes up his duties. Then he’s faced with two puzzling cases. One is the case of Comrade Nitnoy, who is poisoned during an important luncheon. At first her death is put down to a severe allergic reaction to some seafood she was eating but it soon turns out that she was murdered. The other case is even more delicate. Two bodies are discovered in the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Khamuan; a third soon joins them. The victims are Vietnamese, so there’s the difficult question of whether they were spies. At the same time as Paiboun is negotiating this political land mine, he faces an even more difficult set of questions. He’s a doctor and a person of science. He wants things to make sense scientifically. And yet in the process of this investigation, he has some experiences that have no scientific explanation. The process of making sense of it all – of figuring out how it all fits together – is an interesting part of Paiboun’s character development as well as an interesting thread through this novel.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing has as one of its major themes people’s attempts to make sense of life.  Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of exposing religious charlatans – he calls them ‘the Godmen’ – and showing them for what they are. In fact, he is the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), a group dedicated to promoting scientific explanations for life and debunking religious myths. One morning, Jha is killed in a bizarre incident. According to witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and murders Jha in retribution for turning people away from her worship. Jha was once a client of Delhi private detective Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri, so he takes an interest in this unusual case. At one point, the trail leads to an ashram run by spiritual leader Maharaj Swami. His spiritual group has become increasingly popular as people look for answers, and in the voices of some of the group members we see that human desire for things to make sense. Swami may be regarded as a cult leader, but that doesn’t mean he murdered his nemesis Suresh Jha, so Puri sends one of his team members, who goes by the name of Facecream, undercover at the ashram to find out what she can. It’s a fascinating look at the way people seek explanations.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series often takes a look at people’s desire for things to make sense. Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a large Roman-style building called Insula. One of her neigbours is Miriam Kaplan, who usually goes by her Wicca name of Meroe. Meroe has a lot of wisdom, and answers life’s questions through her knowledge of traditional lore, an understanding of human nature, and Wicca spiritualism. Chapman isn’t at all a religious person and she doesn’t study Wicca or attend Wicca events as a rule. But she does respect Meroe’s wisdom and often relies on it when she’s trying to make sense of a case. There’s another perspective on making sense of life in the case of Chapman’s parents, hippies who live in a commune in Nimbin:

 

‘My parents had believed in going back to the land, and that meant candles. And an earth closet…And no shoes, even in winter.’

 

Chapman’s parents, who go by the names of Starshine and Sunlight, have answered life’s big questions by rejecting formal religion and living, so to speak, at one with nature. Chapman has a difficult relationship with them and part of the reason for that is that she wants life to make sense in a much more practical way. Besides, she prefers to wear shoes, especially when it’s cold.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has seen plenty of things in life that don’t make sense and might lead a person to despair. Although he acknowledges that those things happen, he still tries to make sense of them – to put it all in perspective. He’s not a religious person but he does have a sense of spirituality in his way. He has come to believe that things have a way of coming back to a person, if I can put it like that. It’s one of the reasons for which he has a habit of visiting churches and lighting candles for people who have died. In the way Scudder processes the things he experiences, we see that human urge to make sense of sometimes terrible things – to impose some sort of order on the otherwise random.

This is a fairly big theme, and it’s treated in an awful lot of crime fiction. I’ve only the space to mention a few examples here. So now it’s your turn…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s I Don’t Know How to Love Him.

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