Category Archives: Gail Bowen

I Couldn’t Sleep at All Last Night*

Sleep DeprivationIt’s been well supported by research that we need a certain amount of sleep every night. Each of us is a little different with respect to exactly how much sleep we need, but sleep is essential for all of us. The effects of sleep deprivation can be extremely serious, especially if it goes on for any period of time. You know what it’s like – how you feel the next day – if you go even one night without sleeping well. Consequences from distractibility to fatal crashes can result from not sleeping enough.

And yet, if you look at some crime fiction, you notice something: sometimes the protagonists get very little sleep. Of course, a plot that had too much information on how many hours the detective slept would be, well, sleep-inducing. But it’s unrealistic (at least it is for me) to expect that a sleuth could be at her or his best without enough sleep. And readers are not likely to get and stay engaged in a story if the characters aren’t believable.

There are ways to be realistic about how much sleep people need in a crime novel without going on too much about it. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot certainly stays up late now and again. For instance in the short story The Incredible Theft, he’s wakened very late (or very early, depending on your view) to help recover some important and very secret plans for a new air bomber. But in general, he goes to bed at what most people would call a normal hour, and he doesn’t generally see clients before ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. Getting enough restful sleep matters enough to him that in the stories where he doesn’t, Christie makes it clear that it bothers him (e.g. Murder on the Orient Express and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead). Poirot certainly has his share of eccentricities, but needing enough sleep isn’t one of them.

We could say much the same thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Like Poirot, Wolfe absolutely has his quirks. Fans will know about his unwillingness to leave his home, his rigid schedule for seeing clients (or not being disturbed) and so on. And yet, he has what doctors would probably call a very healthy attitude towards sleep. He doesn’t want to be disturbed at night, and he doesn’t see clients in the morning until he’s had enough rest. And then there are of course his famous yellow silk pyjamas… In the novels and stories where his sleep’s interrupted, Wolfe gets even crankier than usual, and that’s a very realistic reaction. Not having enough sleep really does affect one’s disposition. And yet, Stout doesn’t go on and on about Wolfe’s sleeping habits. They’re woven into the stories as a part of his personality.

That’s also true of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman stories. Chapman is a Melbourne baker whose weekday begins early. Very early. In order to get her bread ready to open the story on time, she gets up at four o’clock, and she’s not happy about it:

 

‘Four am contains, in my experience, many things. Darkness, cold, solitude, gloom, despair, madness.’ 

 

Because she gets up that early, Chapman also tends to go to bed earlier than she would if she woke later. Except on some weekends, she doesn’t tend to stay up until the ‘wee hours.’ Greenwood doesn’t belabour the point, but Chapman has a sensible attitude towards her sleeping schedule. She’s by no means lazy, but she wakes up early, so she doesn’t stay up excessively late. And those occasional naps are most welcome.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve places a very high priority on her family life. Besides being a political scientist and academic, she’s the mother of three grown children and a daughter Taylor who’s now a teenager. She’s got plenty to keep her life full, and that doesn’t include the times when she investigates a murder or other mystery. And yet, she has what doctors would probably agree is a healthy attitude towards getting enough rest. Sometimes she stays up late or gets up early, but in general, she understands how important it is to sleep enough. And while Bowen doesn’t go on and on about it, we see that balance evident throughout the novels.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges also has what most of us would call a sensible attitude towards getting enough sleep. Certainly he works hard on his cases, and sometimes they do come back to haunt him, if I can put it that way. He has his own sadness and ‘baggage’ too, as we all do. But Bruno doesn’t generally stay awake all night trying to follow up leads. He doesn’t as a rule spend nights at the police station either. In part that’s because he knows that that’s not going to be a productive way to spend his time. But it’s also because he has what a lot of people would say is a healthy attitude towards the work/life balance. Enough sleep is essential to doing one’s work well and having any kind of a positive life.

And then there’s Frankie Y. Bailey’s Detective Hannah McCabe. When we meet her in The Red Queen Dies, she and her police partner Mike Baxter investigate the murder of Broadway superstar Vivian Jessup. This murder turns out to be connected with two other murders, and the case is complex and difficult. Leads don’t always pan out and sometimes the case demands extra hours and so on. But McCabe makes time as a rule to get her sleep. She doesn’t generally go to sleep at three o’clock only to get up again two hours later.

It can be challenging for an author to create an interesting story that moves at a solid pace without losing sight of the things that make characters human. And one of those things is getting enough rest and the very real effects when we don’t. Do you notice this kind of thing when you read? If you’re a writer, do your characters get enough sleep? I’m serious. If not, how do you show the effects? Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long day. Time I turned in…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ritche Adams and Malou Rene’s Tossin’ and Turnin’.

44 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Frankie Y. Bailey, Gail Bowen, Kerry Greenwood, Martin Walker, Rex Stout

Please Tell Me When I Can Have My Privacy*

Lack of PrivacyI’d guess we all like to have at least some degree of privacy. There are just certain things that most people would agree are nobody else’s business (‘though I’ll note that what counts as ‘nobody’s business’ varies by culture). But murder changes all conceptions of privacy. Murder victims arguably have no privacy at all. The police go through their most personal papers, emails, ‘photos and other possessions. And often, people involved with the victim lose their privacy too as the police uncover leads. It’s part of what can make investigations really challenging. People may not tell all that they know simply to protect their own or the victim’s privacy. There are examples of this invasion of privacy (or is it, really?) all through crime fiction. I’ll just mention a few to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot gets a cryptic warning note that there will be a crime in Andover. Sure enough, Alice Ascher, who keeps a small tobacconist’s shop, is found dead one evening in her shop. Next to her body is an ABC railway guide. Her estranged husband is an obvious suspect, but it’s soon clear that someone else probably committed the murder. Then Poirot gets another warning note about a murder to take place in Bexhill. When twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard is killed there, and an ABC railway guide found near her body, it’s clear that this is more than one isolated incident. And so it proves to be. It turns out that there are two more deaths before Poirot catches the culprit. At one point, he and Hastings are going through Alice Ascher’s possessions to see if there’s any clue there as to her killer. As they go through her clothes, her underthings, and so on, it’s easy to imagine how mortified she’d probably have been if she were still alive.

In Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the two-year-old murder of a nurse Yvonne Harrison. When she was first murdered, the police couldn’t get a clear lead on any one suspect, so the case wasn’t solved. But an anonymous tip suggests that the killer was Harry Repp, who’s recently been released from prison where he served time for burglary. Morse seems uncharacteristically apathetic about the case, so Lewis does a lot of the ‘spadework.’ It’s uncomfortable for everyone, because the victim had a very complicate private life that her family isn’t exactly eager to make public. And neither is anyone else with whom the victim was involved. And as the network of relationships among the family members is explored, we see how dysfunctional this family is. And that too is a difficult violation of privacy for everyone.

In Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his lover and former partner Sergeant Gemma James investigate when the body of an unknown woman is found in the ruins of a warehouse fire. One of their first steps is to see if the woman matches the description of anyone who has disappeared. They narrow that list down to four possibilities, one of whom is Elaine Holland, whose roommate has reported her missing. At one point, James visits the home that Holland shared with her roommate and asks to look through her things. After she gets permission, James begins her search. As she looks through the missing woman’s most personal things, including her underthings, she learns some surprising things. Although the search doesn’t solve the mystery of who the woman in the warehouse was, it does give James an interesting lead. But that doesn’t exactly make it comfortable.

It’s even harder for Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin’s been seconded to Wodonga to help the local police catch a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a series of robberies. While Berlin is in Wodonga, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is discovered in an alley. At first, it seems that the motorcycle gang must be responsible for this murder. But Berlin establishes that that’s not the case, so he has to look elsewhere for the killer. Now he has to look into the victim’s private life to find out who would have wanted to murder her. And that’s extremely difficult, especially for her parents, who are Chinese immigrants to Australia. They’re a traditional couple who don’t want to believe their daughter was anything but a well-behaved, hard-working ‘good girl.’ What’s more, they’re a private family and don’t want to say much to outsiders. But Berlin eventually finds out what he needs to know about the victim, and in the end, discovers how she died and why.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances begins with the sudden death of up-and-coming Sasksatchewan politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s poisoned one afternoon during a speech at a community picnic. The police investigate officially, but Boychuk’s friend, political ally and occasional speechwriter Joanne Kilbourn takes an interest too. Grief-stricken over Boychuk’s death, she decides to write a biography of him, hoping that the task will help her deal with the loss. In the process, she learns a great deal about Boychuk’s personal life, including some things from his childhood. Some of what she learns is extremely private – certainly not the sort of things you’d necessarily want to share even with close friends. In the end, Kilbourn finds the truth about the murder, and it’s interesting to see how the various people she talks to react when she asks for personal information about them and about Boychuk.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China is the story of the death of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. When he is found hanged in his hotel room, the official explanation is that he committed suicide because of an investigation into his illegal and unethical activities. Chief Inspector Chen Cao is assigned to the case, and the understanding is that he’ll ‘rubber stamp’ that explanation. But Chen isn’t entirely satisfied with it. As he begins to ask questions, he learns that Zhou had a private life that may have a bearing on the case. His relationship with his secretary Fang Fang may have been more than professional, so Chen wants to talk to her. But Fang has gone into hiding. It’s just as well, too, since she may be in danger too. Chen tracks her down and as he interviews her, we see that it’s quite difficult for her to discuss that very private matter. Even her parents don’t really know the truth. And Chen isn’t exactly happy to probe into her intimate life. But if he’s going to find out the truth, and keep Fang safe, that’s what he has to do.

There are a lot of other examples of the way that murder victims lose their privacy. That may help find their killers, but it can be hard on their friends and loved ones, and hard on the detective too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Party Line.

29 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Deborah Crombie, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Qiu Xiaolong

Come See About Me*

Character DetailsI’m very honoured and excited that Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…  has been awarded the Very Inspiring Blog Award by Moira at Clothes in Books and by Rebecca Bradley. This means a lot to me, especially since those two blogs are a rich source of inspiration for me. Do please visit them and have a look round. They are both worthy of prominent places on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

7-things

One of the things that come with this award is the request to share seven things about yourself. I’m not going to do that, as I’ve already overloaded this blog with things about me. And besides, this is a blog about crime fiction, not about me. But these generous awards have got me thinking about fictional characters, and how much we learn about them.

It’s a delicate balance for an author, deciding how much to share about the characters in a novel. On the one hand, characters who are too ‘flat’ simply aren’t interesting. They don’t ‘feel’ like real people and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, is it really important that a given character once slipped and fell in mud during a rainstorm? Depending on the story, probably not.

And that’s what’s arguably the most important factor in sharing information about characters: relevance to the story. Character information that matters to the story is important. So is information that makes a character distinctive and human. If it’s not as relevant, perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. Let me if I may give you a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie is not generally as well known for depth of character as she is for other aspects of writing. But in some of her novels, she does provide some rounded, ‘fleshed-out’ characters. Five Little Pigs is one of them. In that novel, famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned one afternoon. The most likely suspect, and for very good reason, is his wife Caroline. She is duly arrested, tried and convicted, and dies a year later in prison. Sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter Carla asks Poirot to re-investigate the case. Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. Poirot takes up the challenge and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of them. From that information he figures out who really killed Crale and why. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who was governess to Caroline Crale’s half-sister Angela Warren at the time of the murder. One fact about Miss Williams is that she is an ardent feminist. Her feminism and resentment of most men comes through in quite a lot of what she says and the way she behaves. It’s important to the story, too, as it gives her a possible motive for murder. Crale was having an affair when he was murdered, and didn’t do much to hide the fact, and Miss Williams thought that her employer was deeply wronged. Christie doesn’t tell us everything about Miss Williams. We don’t know for instance whether she has a good head for heights; it doesn’t matter to the story. But her feminism is important, so we learn about it.

We don’t know every detail about the childhood of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. We don’t know for instance which teachers he liked best and which ones he really disliked. That isn’t really important to understanding his character and motivations. But we do know that one of his school friends was Gegè Gullatto. This is important because it explains the relationship the two men have now. Gullatto is a local crime boss and drug dealer who has several ‘business operations.’ Since they’re on opposite sides of the law, you’d think that he and Montalbano would regularly come into conflict. But that’s not what happens. They have a long history, and each respects the other. Besides, co-operating from time to time is helpful to both. For Gullatto’s part, he knows that as long as he keeps his ‘enterprises’ more or less under control, the police won’t give him a hard time. And Montalbano knows that he can depend on Gullatto to make sure that his employees don’t cause real trouble, and Gullatto is often a source of helpful information about what’s happening in the underworld.

You could say a similar sort of thing about Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. We don’t know all of the details of his childhood. We don’t know which toys he liked best or who his very first girlfriend was. But we do know that his father was in the glass-blowing industry. That information helps us understand the way Brunetti goes about investigating the death of a glass-blowing factory night watchman in Through a Glass, Darkly. Giorgio Tassini dies one night while he’s on duty at the factory that employs him. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but there’s soon reason to believe that he was murdered. And that’s not far-fetched, since he’d been very vocal about toxic waste dumping on the part of the glass blowing industry. As Brunetti and his team investigate, we see how he uses what he knows about the industry, and how his memories of his father’s work play a role in his thinking.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s engagement party. The party will be a weekend-long affair, hosted by Lorraine Harris, the mother of Mieka’s fiancé Greg. Matters get complicated when Christy Sinclair, the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter, comes back in the family’s life and travels to the Harris home with the family. Christy has several issues to deal with, and Kilbourn had thought that Peter was well rid of her. But that doesn’t seem to be the case; in fact, she even says that she and Peter will be getting back together. Then one night during the party, Christy dies in a boating incident. At first the death looks like suicide. But it turns out that this was a case of murder, and that it’s connected with other recent deaths. We don’t learn every detail about Christy Sinclair. We don’t know which bands she likes best or what size shoe she wears. Those details aren’t really key to this mystery. But we do know that her home town is Blue Heron Point, and that matters a great deal. Bowen tells us the things we need to know about this character without ‘overload.’

Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas begins when wealthy heiress and business executive Charity Wiser hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who is trying to kill her. She suspects that it’s one of her family members, but she doesn’t know which one. Quant agrees to take the case and joins the family for a cruise. The idea is that he’ll ‘vet’ the various members of the family and then tell his client who’s guilty. The cruise turns out to be disastrous, with more than one death. In the end though, Quant finds out the truth about what’s been going on. As the novel goes on, we get to know several of the members of the Wiser family. We don’t know every detail about each one; that would be ‘information overload.’ But what does matter is that as Charity’s grand-daughter Flora puts it, the family is not, ‘physically adventurous.’ That’s important because it plays a role in the resentment the family feels towards Charity, who’s spent years putting together family holidays designed not to appeal to them (e.g. white-water rafting, cattle-herding at a dude ranch, and Formula One driving). The members of the family have only gone along with these plans because they’re all desperate for their share of the Wiser fortune. That piece of information about the family, and the fact that Charity takes advantage of it, matter to this plot.

And in the end, that’s arguably the key to what the author decides to share with readers. Some details about characters matter if they’re important to the plot – if they move it along or add to it. Others help make a character distinctive, and that adds to a story too. Sometimes it’s hard to choose which details serve those purposes and which don’t, but when an author gets it right, it makes for memorable characters.

 

Thanks, Moira and Rebecca.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland, made popular by the Supremes.

30 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen

Just One Look, That’s All it Took*

Rose1Not long ago, I read an interesting post from D.S. Nelson about things that it’s best not to say to pregnant women. The post is both witty and spot-on – well-written and well worth a read. And it inspired me to think about the issue from a different perspective: the adoptive family. Adoptive mothers don’t get the pointed remarks about cravings and the well-meant advice about childbirth that pregnant mothers do. But people still have points of view about it. Trust me. And I’ll get to some of the things it’s best not to say to an adoptive parent later in this post.

Adoption hasn’t always been regarded as positively as it is now. In Agatha Christie’s short story Dead Man’s Mirror for instance, we are introduced to the Chevenix-Gore family. It’s an old, proud and distinguished family, and no-one is more conscious of that than the present patriarch Gervase Ghevenix-Gore. He is obsessed with family name and reputation, so when he suspects that someone is cheating him, perhaps someone in his family, the last thing he wants is to make it a public matter. So he summons Hercule Poirot (who is not to keen on being ‘summoned!’) to the family home to investigate. On the night of Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is shot in what looks at first like a suicide. No-one really believes that, but there doesn’t seem a way that anyone else could have shot him. Poirot investigates and discovers that this crime isn’t as ‘impossible’ as it seems. One of the suspects in the case is the victim’s adopted daughter Ruth. She’s been told very little about the adoption, and in fact refers to herself as ‘only adopted.’ While the fact that Ruth is adopted isn’t exactly what you’d call scandalous, it’s certainly not discussed frankly as adoption is now.

There’s a very interesting and sometimes intimate portrait of an adoptive family in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Mma. Precious Ramotswe owns Botswana’s only female-owned-and-run private investigation business, and the series of course features the various cases that she and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi take. The series also shares Mma. Ramotswe’s home life with her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Early in the series, after the couple’s engagement but before their marriage, he takes on the responsibility for two orphaned children Motholeli and her brother Puso. Mma. Ramotswe is very surprised at first, since he didn’t discuss the matter with her first. But she knows that he can give the children a good home. The four of them become a solid family as the series goes on, and Mma. Ramotswe and her husband gain at least as much from the family bonds as do their children. And that’s the way it works in most adoptive situations. Trust me.

There’s also an interesting look at an adoptive family in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series. Rafferty is a Bangkok-based ex-pat American travel writer. He’s got a knack for solving problems and finding people who don’t want to be found, so he’s a good choice if you’re looking for a PI. Rafferty has a personal life too. He is married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own apartment cleaning business. And he and Rose have an adopted daughter Miaow, a former street child. This series actually shows a few things about adoption. One is that in many cases (certainly not all!) the people who work for adoption agencies do want children to find healthy and loving homes with parents who will care for them and love them. Another is that because of that, the adoption process can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. There are background checks, home visits, financial solvency checks and more. Trust me. There is no such thing as privacy if you’re a prospective adoptive parent. Still, the ‘vetting’ process makes sense if the goal is ensure the safety and well-being of each child.

Everyone has to make a lot of adjustments when there’s an adoption. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack. They are the adoptive parents of Taylor, a gifted artist whose mother was murdered when she was very young. Taylor is bright and loving, and she has developed strong bonds with her adoptive family. But she has her own issues to deal with, and it’s not always easy to be around her. Her parents too have their share of ‘baggage,’ as we all do. They have a good marriage and they love each other, but things don’t always go smoothly. And Joanne has three adult children from her first marriage; that presents another level of complexity. But through it all, the commitment that the Shreves have made to Taylor and vice versa is obvious. The ‘family’ story arcs in this series really show, among other things, what adoption means on an everyday basis.

Adoption can be a complex process, especially if it’s handled legally and ethically, even when the biological parents have died. It’s even more so when one or both is alive. Add in the fact of international adoption and you have a very complicated situation. We get a look at that in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne died in Pattaya after a fall (or jump, or push) from the roof of the building where she was living. The official police report says that the death was a suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe that. Keeney travels to Pattaya and begins to look into the victim’s life there. She discovers that Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre, an agency that prepares adoptable Thai babies for life with international adoptive parents. There’s more going on at New Life than it seems on the surface, and Keeney finds that out too. She also learns what, exactly, happened to Maryanne and why. In the course of the novel, we follow the story of one baby named Kob. When he is made available for adoption, he’s matched with an American couple who are absolutely joyful about the news. Honestly, there’s nothing like that ‘phone call. It’s…indescribable. One of the plot threads concerns their trip to Thailand to get their new son, and Keeney’s involvement in that process.

Adoption is a unique way of building a family. It brings with it all the joys of any other kind of parenthood, and some of its own. It brings with it different kinds of complexities and different kinds of issues. Just ask any adoptive parent…

And now, here are

 

Five Things Not To Say To An Adoptive Mother

 

  • How much did it cost? Really? You’d ask something that personal? You don’t even know me!! The only people I don’t mind asking that question are prospective adoptive couples whom I know and who are trying to plan their future. Anyone else, please kindly mind your own business.

  • Are you going to tell him/her? (AKA Does s/he know?) Of course we told our daughter she’s adopted! It’s as much a part of her identity as her physical appearance is. I especially mind this question if it’s asked in a hushed, anxious voice, as though discussing some sort of illness. Adoption is not an illness.

  • Why did you have to adopt? Is there something wrong with adoption? This question always implies (to me anyway) that adoption is some sort of ‘second-class’ parenthood – a fallback position. Our daughter is not second-class. And neither are we.

  • Oh, well, at least you didn’t have to deal with labour pains and delivery. You had it easy. Easy? EASY? OK, all respect (and I’m being quite serious) to those who give birth. It’s painful, sometimes lengthy, and sometimes risky. And pregnancy has its own challenges. But adoption is not easy. Not if you do it ethically. It’s nerve-wracking, it’s complicated, it’s time-consuming, it’s sometimes heartbreaking and you get no privacy. It can be very expensive, too, and all kinds of people who don’t really know you (some who’ve never even met you) get to judge you. The adoption process and the birth process are different. Neither is easy. But both end in the joy of having children. Please, let’s leave it at that.

 

And finally… my least favourite question:

  • What do you know about his/her real mother? Excuse me? I know her very well, thank you. I see her in the glass every time I look into it. Who do you think sits up with my child at night? Takes my child to the doctor? Insists that schoolwork be done and friends be appropriate? Listens to my child’s dreams and fears? Knows my child’s favourite films and books? I won’t go on. You get the idea. I really dislike this question. I really do.

 

So please, next time you talk to an adoptive parent, think about what you’re saying. Especially if that parent is a crime writer ;-) –  Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration.

 

 
 

ps. The ‘photo is the first look we ever got at our daughter, when we were matched with her. She was three months old when that was taken. One look was all it took…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Doris Troy and Gregory Carroll’s Just One Look.

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, Timothy Hallinan

Millions of Hearts Were Lifted, Proud of the Human Race*

Moon LandingWhen you read a lot of crime fiction, it’s easy to get caught up in how awful human beings can be to each other. After all, crime fiction is about, well, crime – mostly murder. Some fictional characters are horrible people.  And yet, human beings are also capable of truly remarkable achievement. That may sound odd, coming from someone who writes crime stories. Don’t believe me? A quick look at crime fiction shows us it’s true.

There are some gifted musical artists in crime fiction – the kind that can lift one up to great heights. For instance, Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory introduces us to Gideon Davies, a world-class violinist whose work is transcendent. He’s passionate about his music, which is why he’s so devastated when one night, he finds that he can’t play. His search for answers leads him back to his family’s past, the dynamics among its members, and the awful effect of the death of his younger sister many years earlier.

Some people achieve greatness in their acting. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. Seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny’ Boynton has real potential as an actress, but no-one really knows it at first. Her mother is a tyrant – a ‘mental sadist,’ as Hercule Poirot puts it – who has the entire family completely cowed. When she is murdered during a sightseeing trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Once he discovers who killed Mrs. Boynton and why, Ginny is finally free to pursue her acting career, and her ability is transcendent.

And then there are other characters who transcend human limits through their art. In Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series for instance, we meet Joanne’s daughter Taylor. She is a gifted artist who, even at the young age of fourteen, is already poised for real greatness in her career. Her passion for what she does is evident in the books that feature her, and her parents have to balance their desire to nurture that potential with their equally strong desire to give Taylor a ‘normal’ childhood.

Some people find great achievement in medicine and science. In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), for instance, we are introduced to Dr. John Christow. He’s a Harley Street specialist who is passionate about medical science. His goal is to find a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease, and he’s made some real inroads into the process. Tragically, he is shot one weekend while he’s staying at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage in the area, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why.

I’m sure that you could list many more books in which we see how much greatness people can achieve. In just about every endeavor, we see examples of people who prove that we can go far above and beyond the kind of human frailty that’s so often the focus of crime novels.

And it’s not just in crime novels that we see that kind of achievement. As I post this, it’s the 45th anniversary of 1969_moon_landingone of humankind’s greatest achievements, the first landing on the Moon.

Do you remember that incredible moment? If you do, then you know what excitement there was all over the world. Those famous lines ‘Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,’ and ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’ still resonate after more than four decades. They are a reminder that when we put our energy and minds to a task, we are capable of just about anything.

That Moon landing took years of hard work, dedication, failure and recouping lost ground on the part of a lot of people. And that’s another thing that made this achievement so spectacular. Thousands of people worked together to make it possible. And it depended on the previous work of many others. Before then, and since then, people gave their lives in the pursuit of human greatness. There were long lists of mistakes, some of them tragic. We still have a long way to go. But at that moment, when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon and those astronauts walked on it, we were reminded of what people can achieve.

Whether it’s in the fields of science, politics, law, social justice, education, the arts or something else, it’s a good thing to look to the Moon and stars sometimes, and imagine what is possible. Humans are capable of unimaginable ferocity, even evil. But we are also capable of equally unimaginable greatness. I know. I’ve seen it. It may be naïve of me, but I still believe in it.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Byrds’ Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

22 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen