Category Archives: Deon Meyer

It’s a Light and Tumble Journey*

Wildlife SanctuariesI’ve been fortunate enough to visit animal preserves and sanctuaries on three different continents. They can be breathtakingly beautiful places, and certainly give one a perspective on a lot of things. At least they do me. And it is fascinating to see all sorts of animals that you can’t see anywhere else.

But animal preserves and sanctuaries have a dangerous side to them too. There are all sorts of political and economic issues around them, and that’s to say nothing of the animals themselves. So it’s no wonder that this setting comes up in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you can think of lots more than I could.

Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon is a US National Park Service Ranger. In that capacity, she is sent to a variety of different US parks and preserves, and she knows first-hand how dangerous those places can be. For instance, in Track of the Cat, she’s been assigned to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There she discovers the body of a fellow ranger Sheila Drury one morning. At first, it looks as though Drury was killed by a mountain lion, and there’s the local outcry about it that you’d expect. It doesn’t help matters that the locals have never liked the fact that mountain lions living within the boundaries of the national park are off limits to hunters. They resent what they see as the damage caused by the animals and the government’s unwillingness to protect their land. Pigeon isn’t so sure that the culprit was a lion though, and she certainly doesn’t want mountain lions to become the targets of hunters. So she begins to ask questions. In the process she discovers that the victim’s death had a very human cause…

Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest national park, features in Vicki Delany’s Under Cold Stone. In that novel, Lucy ‘Lucky’ Smith and her partner Paul Keller (Trafalgar, British Columbia’s Chief Constable of Police) have decided to take a trip to Banff, in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Their plan is for some relaxing ‘just the two of us’ time. But that’s not how it works out. Keller’s estranged son Matt disappears. And since he’s experienced at camping and living in the outdoors, he could be anywhere and it would be very hard to find him. What’s more, he may very well be guilty of murder. Banff isn’t within the jurisdiction of Lucky’s daughter, Trafalgar Police Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. But she travels there to be of whatever support she can to her mother. Then Matt’s girlfriend begs her to clear his name, claiming that he’s innocent. So Molly begins to ask some questions. And you thought bears, cougars and wolverines were the biggest living threats in the park…

In Michael Sears’ and Stanley Trollip’s (AKA Michael Stanley) A Carrion Death, Professor of Ecology Benani Sibisi has taken a trip to Dale’s Camp, on the verge of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. He’s out in the field one day when he discovers the body of an unknown man. At first it looks as though the man was killed by wild animals; certainly hyenas have already paid the body a visit. Botswana CID Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to the scene and supervises sending the remains for forensics testing, mostly to try to identify the victim. Results of that testing suggest that the man was murdered. Now it’s even more important to find out who he was and what he was doing at the Reserve. So Kubu and his team begin to look more closely into the case. They find a connection between the dead man and the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), a powerful voice in the country’s economic and political arenas. That connection makes this case delicate, since the Botswana government has a major interest in making sure that the company remains a going concern. In the end, though, Kubu is able to find out who the dead man was and how his murder is related to events and interactions at BCMC.

Much of Michael Allan Mallory and Marilyn Victor’s Killer Instinct takes place at the Minnesota Wolf Institute (MWI), which in part functions as a preserve for wolves. Zookeeper Lavender ‘Snake’ Jones is invited to the MWI to film an episode of her television documentary series Zoofari. When she arrives, she finds herself in the middle of a dangerous controversy. Her friend Gina Brown, a biologist associated with the MWI, is a passionate defender of wolves and their preservation. That pits Brown against several locals, led by Ivar Bjorkland, who want to see the wolves exterminated. In fact, they have a very public dispute about the matter when four wolves are illegally killed. Then, Bjorkland is found murdered. Jones is worried that her friend might have been involved in the killing, although she doesn’t want to think so. Then there’s another murder. And another. Now Jones has to help clear her friend’s name and stop the killer before there’s another death. Wolves are by no means the most dangerous species in this novel…

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out the truth about her missing brother Jacobus. He disappeared twenty-five years earlier in what everyone thought was a skirmish with poachers. But now Emma thinks he’s still alive. So she wants to trace his history from Kruger National Park, his last known whereabouts. She and Lemmer arrive in the area only to find out that this is much more than the case of a man who was killed by dangerous poachers. In the end, they find out that the truth about Jacobus le Roux is related to coverups, corruption and ugly realities about politics and environmentalism. Along the way, they visit more than one animal preserve, and it’s interesting to read the different perspectives and views on taking care of South Africa’s unique ecosytems while at the same time nurturing the economy.

New Zealand’s Rimutaka State Forest is the scene of some of the action in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Wellington missing person expert Diane Rowe is hired by Inspector Frank McFay to trace the identity of a ‘John Doe’ whose body has been found in the forest. There isn’t much to go on at first, but with the help of pathologist Grant ‘Smithy’ Smith, Rowe slowly learns that the man was in his twenties when he died, and that he died sometime during the early1970s. Bit by bit, Rowe puts the pieces together and finds out who the man was. At the same time, she’s on another case of her own choosing. Her sister Niki was murdered a year ago. Now, the man who claims he was paid to kill Niki has himself been murdered in the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed the ‘hit man,’ she’ll find out who’s responsible for her sister’s murder. Although the wildlife in the forest doesn’t hold the key to Niki’s death, the forest does have its role to play in the events in the story.

And that’s thing about animal preserves and sanctuaries. They can seem like peaceful places, and their natural beauty is practically unmatched. But safe? Erm – possibly not. I’ve only had space here to mention a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Ann Cleeves’ The Crow Trap and Blue Lightning). Which stories with this context have stayed in your mind?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s At the Zoo.

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Filed under Ann Cleeves, Deon Meyer, Donna Malane, Marilyn Victor, Michael Allan Mallory, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Nevada Barr, Stanley Trollip, Vicki Delany

We Can Change the World*

Change the WorldLet’s face it; we don’t live in a perfect world. And I’m sure all of us see particular things (e.g. poverty, the state of the environment, bigotry, etc.) that we would especially like to change. That’s often why people become volunteers, engage in protests, make donations and the like. That desire to change the world can be a very strong motivator and like all driving forces, can get us into trouble. And yet, most of us would agree that somebody has to be out there working for change. There are plenty of characters in crime fiction who are driven by the desire to make the world better. Some, we might argue, are at the very least misguided. Others are people we might even call noble. Either way, they make for interesting characters in crime novels. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we meet Howard Raikes. He’s a young political activist who wants badly to overthrow the current British government and economic system and start over with a new world order. It’s his belief that the cautious government and banking system hold back positive change and progress. In one sub-plot of the novel, he’s struck up a friendship with Jane Olivera, the American niece of wealthy and powerful banker Alistair Blunt. To Raikes, Blunt is the epitome of everything that needs to be swept away, and he wants Jane to leave her home with Blunt and join him in his effort to change everything. She likes Raikes and agrees with some of his beliefs. But at the same time, she’s not nearly as militant and she is fond of her uncle. One day, Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery, and it’s not long before the police begin to wonder whether the original target was actually Blunt, since he’s made his share of enemies. It turns out that Raikes was there that morning, so he becomes one of the suspects in the murder. Hercule Poirot was also at the surgery that morning, so Chief Inspector Japp asks his help in finding out who really killed the dentist and why. Throughout the novel we can see how committed Raikes is to making a better world, even if we don’t agree on his methods or all of his ideas.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly has as most of its context Venice’s glass-blowing industry. It’s a very old and very lucrative business, and Giovanni de Cal has made plenty of money from his glass-blowing factory. But there is evidence that those factories are major polluters and are very bad for the environment. So a group of activists stages protests of de Cal’s factory. One of the leaders of that group is his own son-in-law Marco Ribetti. When Ribetti is arrested during a protest, he asks his friend Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello for help. Vianello agrees to see what he can do, and he and his boss Comissario Guido Brunetti arrange for Ribetti’s release. But that’s far from the end of the story. One of de Cal’s employees is night watchman Giorgio Tassini, who is convinced that the company is dumping toxic waste, and who tells his story to anyone who will listen. One night Tassini is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Brunetti isn’t sure his death is accidental. So he and Vianello look into the matter. In the characters of both Ribetti and Tassini, we see that strong desire to change the world and make it better.

Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You introduces us to JoLayne Lucks, a lover of the environment who gets her chance to do some real good when she wins a lottery worth US$14 million. She plans to do her bit to change the world by purchasing a piece of land in Florida and turning it into a nature preserve to keep it out of the hands of developers. But then her ticket is stolen by a group of neo-Nazis who want the money to fund a militia. Features writer Tom Krone of The Register is assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne, but instead finds himself drawn into her plot to get the ticket back. This brings Krone up against the thieves, some land developers and their thugs, and a religious scam.

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to escort her from Cape Town to the Lowveld. Emma has discovered that her brother Jacobus, who was thought dead for years, may actually be alive. If he is alive, she wants to find him. If not, she wants to know that too, and the trail has led to his last known whereabouts in the Lowveld.  One possible lead is at the Heuningklip Wildlife Preserve, so the two visit the place. It’s run by Stef Moller, a true lover of the environment who’s not keen on tourists visiting. He’s far more interested in the animals and other wildlife and not interested in making money from the tourist trade. And in fact that passion for the environment and for changing the world through preserving it plays an important role in this novel.

And then there’s Riel Delorme, whom we meet in Gail Bowen’s series featuring academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. In Kaleidoscope, we learn thatDelorme is a Métis activist who is one of the leaders of the Warriors, a group that’s dead-set against development. He also happens to be one of Joanne’s former graduate students. He and the other activists oppose the creation of a new community designed to improve the economically depressed North Central area of Regina. Their claim is that the new planned community will only put money into developer Leland Hunter’s pocket. When one of Hunter’s employees is killed, it’s quite possible that Delorme had something to do with it, but matters aren’t that simple. What’s more, it turns out that Joanne’s daughter Mieka is romantically involved with Riel, so the case is quite complicated on a personal level as well as on the larger level. And this novel addresses the whole issue of how to make the world, or at least that small part of it, a better place. There are conflicting views about how to address issues such as the disenfranchisement of the poor, racism and other social problems.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer takes place in an apocalyptic world in which climate change has wreaked havoc and life is descending little by little into complete anarchy. Only people with a great deal of money feel any sort of safety and that’s because they can afford the services of private security companies. It’s a dangerous and bleak world, and many people have given up on it. Against this backdrop, poet Tapani Lehtinen risks his life to find his wife Johanna, a journalist who has disappeared. Lehtinen learns that she was pursuing a story about a man calling himself the Healer. He’s claimed responsibility for the deaths of several corporate executives he holds responsible for the destruction of the planet. The murders have been committed, says the Healer, to call attention to the ruin of the planet and to avenge those whose lives have been destroyed because of it. Lehtinen follows the story, hoping that the trail will lead him to his wife. As he gets close to the truth about the Healer, he also gets closer to the truth about Johanna. Among other things, this novel addresses the whole issue of trying to make the world better. We may be against the Healer’s methods, but the more Lehtinen learns about the Healer, the more we can see where the motivation comes from.

And that’s the thing about some of those who try to change the world. Sometimes their methods are at the least misguided. Sometimes they do incredible amounts of good. And sometimes there’s a razor-thin line between the two…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Chicago.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Carl Hiaasen, Deon Meyer, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen

I’m Gonna Let it Shine*

This Little Light of MineThere are people who try to do good, sometimes against very difficult odds. They know they’re taking real risks at times to do what most of us would agree is the right thing, but they do it anyway. Certainly those people exist in real life, and the world is better because of them. But they also exist in crime fiction. The trouble with writing such characters is that if they seem too perfect, it’s hard to accept them as authentic. So it’s important that they be realistic. But when they’re well-drawn, those characters give us hope. They add to a story or series too.

You’ll notice that I’m not going to mention sleuths or other protagonists who are like that. They’re out there of course, but the examples in this post will be characters who aren’t protagonists.

Admittedly that line between protagonist and ‘not the protagonist’ can be a little blurry at times. For example, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we meet attorney Atticus Finch. He lives and works in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama at a time when racism was both institutionalised and rigidly enforced. When Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White, there’s a lot of pressure to assume that he’s guilty and turn to ‘vigilante justice.’ But Finch is unwilling to do that. For one thing, he’s not entirely certain that Robinson is guilty. For another, even if he is, Robinson deserves a fair trial, like every other citizen. So Finch takes the case despite the fact that the town will likely turn against him. He knows that his choice to defend Robinson may have terrible consequences, but he also knows that it’s the right thing to do. So he goes ahead with his preparations, and in the end, he finds out the truth about the Robinson/Ewell case.

One of the recurring characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series is Sister Mary. Among her other projects, she is in charge of the Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen that delivers food, non-alcoholic drinks, blankets, clothes and medicine to Melbourne’s street people. She is a tireless advocate for those who’ve been forgotten or at least not served by the system, and she persuades, cajoles and bullies for donations, for volunteers and for the necessary legal permits to undertake her work. She’s got a strong enough personality that no-one dares to disobey her if I can put it that way. Sister Mary is down-to-earth and practical. She’s neither smug nor self-righteous, and she doesn’t expect that anyone will subscribe to her religious beliefs. That doesn’t matter to her as much as does helping those in need in Melbourne, and everyone respects her for what she accomplishes.

Sara Paretsky’s Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel is another example of those who are forces for good despite the odds. She and her family escaped the Nazis and she ended up in the US. Since then she’s moved to Chicago and is now the close friend of Paretsky’s sleuth V.I. Warshawski. Herschel works with those who are least well served by the medical care system and is always willing to lend her medical expertise where it’s needed, whether or not the patient can pay.  She’s an advocate for children’s health, especially those children from low socioeconomic groups. She has a strong personality, but she’s not self-important about what she does. Lotty Herschel does what needs to be done, as she sees it.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in 1979 Argentina, at a time when the government was controlled by a military junta. Anyone suspected of disagreeing with the government is liable to ‘disappear,’ and very little attention is paid to these abuses of power. Against this backdrop, Buenos Aires police officer Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano gets a new case. He’s called out one morning to a riverbank where there are reports of two bodies left there overnight. The bodies bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lescano is well aware of the consequences if he questions those murders. But to his surprise there is also a third body. This one doesn’t have the same hallmarks and it’s soon clear that someone is using ‘disappearances’ to cover up a murder. The victim is successful pawnbroker and moneylender Elías Biterman and Lescano begins to investigate to find out who the killer is. There is a great deal of pressure on Lescano to ‘rubber stamp’ the case and leave it alone, but he’s unwilling to do that. In the end, he does find out the truth. And there are people who risk terrible consequences to do the right thing and help him. One is forensic expert Dr. Fuseli. He provides Lescano very helpful and important information about the murder at great risk to himself.

And then there’s Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Emma la Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out what happened to her brother Jacobus. Then a member of the South African Army’s Nature and Environmental Conservation Unit, he disappeared twenty years earlier after a skirmish with poachers at Kruger National Park. Everyone thought he was killed in that incident, but Emma has good reason to believe he may still be alive. If that’s true, she wants to know where he’s been and what he’s been doing. Lemmer takes the job and goes with Emma to the Lowveld, where they start asking questions. Those questions stir up matters that some very nasty and powerful people would rather not discuss, so both Lemmer and Emma find themselves in terrible danger. In the end though, Lemmer discovers what really happened to Jacobus le Roux. One of the people who figures in that true story is Vincent ‘Pego’ Mashego, who worked with Jacobus and who knows what happened when he disappeared. It turns out that Pego took incredible risks to do the right thing, and has demonstrated quite a lot of courage.

In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, we meet Jason Barnes, a teenager who happens to be riding a bus when he observes a terrible incident of bullying. Three other teenagers have boarded the same bus and are harassing fellow passenger Luke Murray. Despite the danger to him, Jason intervenes and the bullying stops for the moment. Then Luke gets off the bus and so do his harassers. So does Jason. The bullying starts again and Jason steps in once more to stop it. This starts the fight anew and it lasts all the way to Jason’s yard, where Luke is gravely wounded and Jason fatally stabbed. One of the questions his parents have to wrestle with is why he stepped in instead of protecting his own life. At the same time, they respect the fact that he did the right thing in a situation where others didn’t.

People who take truly grave risks to do good remind the rest of us of what is possible. When those characters are written as human beings, they can add much to a story. I’ve only had space here to mention a few; I’m sure you can think of lots more. Which do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Henry Dixon Loes’ This Little Light of Mine.

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Filed under Cath Staincliffe, Deon Meyer, Ernesto Mallo, Harper Lee, Kerry Greenwood, Sara Paretsky

We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?

 

ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

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Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan

I Touch No One and No One Touches Me*

Emotional DetachmentIn Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into several odd thefts and murders that occur at a student hostel. As a part of that investigation, they get to know the residents and find out about their backgrounds. One of those residents is Elizabeth Johnston, a brilliant, highly driven law student who is interested, so it seems, only in her work. At one point, Poirot and Sharpe are discussing the likelihood of each resident being the killer. Here’s what Poirot says about Elizabeth Johnson:

 

‘The West Indian girl Elizabeth Johnston has probably the best brains of anyone in the Hostel. She has subordinated her emotional life to her brain – that is dangerous.’

 

It certainly can be dangerous, but there are people who are more or less completely emotionally detached. It’s difficult to write about them because very often, emotionally detached characters feel ‘flat.’ On the one hand, it’s healthy not to get too emotionally caught up in life. But on the other, emotions are a part of the human experience, so we’re accustomed to characters who have them and are sometimes driven by them. And in real life, many people are like that. So it takes skill to make an emotionally detached character interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention. There are some of them out there, though.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes finds the problems he investigates much more interesting as a rule than the people with whom he interacts. As he looks at evidence, makes deductions and so on, he often remains emotionally detached. And yet, he isn’t as completely detached as perhaps he might like to be. For instance, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Holmes gets a new client Violet Hunter. She’s been offered a position as governess to Jeprho Rucastle’s six-year-old son. Rucastle offers her a generous salary, but the position comes with some odd requests that unsettle her a little. They make Holmes uneasy too, and in fact he counsels her not to take the position. At first, she listens to him and declined the offer. Then, Rucastle increases the salary he proposes to pay. This time Violet can’t refuse and she takes the job. Holmes tells her that if ever she should need him, to contact him. This she does when some frightening things begin to happen, and Holmes and Watson rush to the Rucastle home as soon as they can, hoping to prevent disaster for Violet. On the one hand, Holmes is detached in terms of deducing what’s going on at the house and why Violet Hunter is in danger. On the other, it’s clear that he feels for her and wants her to stay safe – not a real case of complete lack of emotion. That said though, Holmes is often detached.

So is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. He can be personable when he wants to be and he has a circle of friends and acquaintances. He even marries as the series of novels featuring him moves along. But he is emotionally detached from most of his fellow humans. He’s responsible for a great deal of crime, including murder. Yet, although he doesn’t delight in killing, he doesn’t have qualms about the crimes he commits unless you count his not wanting to be caught. It’s an interesting case of a character who may be intellectually really interesting, but certainly doesn’t have the full range of human emotions.

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, we are introduced to Martin Lemmer, a bodyguard who is employed by a personal protection company called Body Armour. Emma le Roux hires the company when she decides to make a dangerous trip and Lemmer is assigned to protect her. Emma is searching for her brother Jacobus who everyone thought died in a skirmish with poachers years earlier. But she has reason to believe he may still be alive and she wants to find out. She and Lemmer travel from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out the truth, and in the course of their trip, run up against some very dangerous people who won’t hesitate at all to kill. Especially at the beginning of the novel, Lemmer is emotionally quite detached from his clients. In fact he makes a point of that. He is also emotionally detached from the work he has to do. He’s not at all what you’d call trigger-happy, but his job is to protect his client.

There’s a really interesting case of emotional detachment in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a teenager with autism. He’s reasonably high-functioning, so he can interact with others, learn academics and so on. But his autism prevents him from really making social and emotional connections with the people in his life. When a neighbour’s dog is killed, Christopher decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes and find out who is responsible. As he sets about it, we see how detached he is from the way others feel and react. We also see how that detachment is helpful (in the sense that he is not hampered by social niceties), but at the same time impedes him. In a way, the reader can tell a lot more than Christopher can, at least at first, just by paying attention to the emotional/social site of people.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy shares the lives of Glasgow’s criminal world, including the lives of the professional hit-men who are a part of it. In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Sudden Arrival of Violence, we see how emotionally detached people can be from others. Several of the characters in these novels like their work and take professional pride in what they do. But they are detached from others. And in a way, the more detached they are, the better they do their work.

Emotions can of course be destructive, and it’s healthy to know how to let go of them and ‘step back.’ But what about complete emotional detachment? What do you think about emotionally detached characters? Do you find they take away from a story? Do they seem too ‘flat’ to you? Or do you find them interesting? If you’re a writer, have you created detached characters? How do you do that, considering most of us are emotionally connected with the world?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Deon Meyer, Malcolm Mackay, Mark Haddon, Patricia Highsmith