Category Archives: Gail Bowen

She’s Dead Serious About Her Family History*

Family SagasAn interesting book review at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about family sagas. Now, before I go any further, you’ll want to pay a visit to that fine blog. You’ll find all sorts of excellent, thoughtful reviews of crime fiction as well as some books from other genres too. It’s well worth a place on a bibliophile’s blog roll.

Right. Family sagas. Just about all families have their share of stories and ‘skeletons in the closet,’ and some of those stories have an effect for a very long time. Family sagas can be very effective contexts for crime fiction too, since some of those stories and ‘skeletons’ involve crime. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles concerns the ‘blueblood’ Baskerville family, which has had a home on Dartmoor for many generations. It’s said that the Baskerville family has been cursed since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. According to this tale, the family is haunted by a demon in the shape of a hound. In fact recently, the current head of the family, Sir Charles Baskerville, was found dead on the grounds of the Manor of Baskerville. Many people say the family curse was responsible, and now family friend Dr. James Mortimer is afraid for the new heir Sir Henry Baskerville. Sir Henry is due to come in from Canada soon, and Dr. Mortimer wants the matter settled before his arrival. Holmes is unable to leave London at the moment so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. Between them they find that a curse had nothing to do with Sir Charles’ death…

Agatha Christie weaves in elements of the family saga in several of her novels. In Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous note warning her that she could lose the inheritance she expects from her wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. Apparently someone’s been playing up to the elderly lady and the note hints that there’s an ulterior motive behind it all. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy Welman travel to the family home at Hunterbury. There they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, daughter of Hunterbury’s lodgekeeper. They soon find out that Aunt Laura has become very much attached to Mary, and insists on altering her will to make a good provision for her; however, Aunt Laura dies before the will can be changed. Much to Elinor’s shock and dismay, Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary. In fact, Elinor breaks off her engagement with him. Then, not long afterwards, Mary dies of what turns out to be poison. Elinor is the most obvious suspect, and not just because of Roddy. There’s a fortune at stake as well. Hercule Poirot investigates and finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with a family saga. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow, Five Little Pigs and Crooked House

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first novel as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shares the story of the Longley family. The Longleys have always been a very respectable family – not a hint of grist for the ‘gossip mill.’ But in this case, appearances are, as the saying goes, deceiving. Many years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was hanged for murder. No-one discusses the matter, but it’s haunted the family ever since. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the story and decides to write a book about the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith Longley Severn to help him with the work, since she’s a family member. She agrees and together they look into what really was behind the murder for which Vera Hilliard was executed. This novel is about the crime, but it’s also about the family, its history and its relationships.

One of the more famous family sagas is the story of the Vanger family, whom we meet in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just lost an expensive libel lawsuit against well-insulated and powerful Swedish industrial magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in danger of folding, he’s open to an offer from Henrik Vanger. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. Everyone thought she drowned, but Vanger has a good reason not to think so. He’s been receiving anonymous birthday gifts of dried flowers, just as Harriet gave him all those years earlier. Vanger offers to support Millennium financially, and give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström if Blomkvist will find out what really happened to Harriet. Blomkvist agrees and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander start exploring the Vanger family’s history and finances. And it turns out that this is quite a family saga…

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn has been working to support the political life of her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s got a very bright future in the party, and everyone’s looking forward to an important speech he’s scheduled to make. To everyone’s shock, he collapses during the speech and dies of what turns out to be poison. Kilbourn is grief-stricken at the loss of her friend, and decides to deal with that grief by writing a biography of Boychuk. As she does so, she begins to get closer and closer to the truth about why and by whom he was killed. She also learns quite a lot about the Boychuk family’s history and how it affected him.

Martin Edwards deals with family sagas and stories in several of his Lake District mysteries. For example, in The Hanging Wood, DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants to find out what happened to her brother. Twenty years earlier, Callum Payne went missing and no-one has ever found a trace of him – not even a body. Orla wants Scarlett and her team to look into the case, but unfortunately, she’s mentally fragile and is drunk when she calls, so Scarlett doesn’t make much of the matter. Then, Orla dies of what looks like suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not taking that call more seriously, and begins to look into both Orla’s death and the the disappearance of her brother. That investigation turns up quite a lot of family history and a family saga that’s been going on for several generations.

When it comes to crime fiction, family sagas have to be handled deftly. Otherwise, the history of the family can take away from the story of the crime(s) that’s supposed to be at the heart of the novel. But when they’re well-written, family sagas can add a lot to a crime novel. And they can provide all sorts of useful and realistic motivations for murder. I’ve only mentioned some examples here. Your turn.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lucksmiths’ English Murder Mystery. OK, this is really a fun song if you’re a crime fiction fan. :-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson

Of Course Mama’ll Help to Build the Wall*

Helicopter ParentsMost parents have hopes and dreams for their children. If you’re a parent, then you know the feeling of wanting your children to have everything life has to offer. It’s a fairly natural desire if you think about it. What’s more, for many parents, their children are a reflection on them. If one’s child has a problem, does something wrong, etc., it says something about the parents. Whether that’s true or not, there are a lot of parents who see it that way.

If you put those two feelings together, it’s easy to see why there are parents who protect their children too much from the consequences of their actions. In the world of (at least US) education, these are called ‘helicopter parents’ – parents who swoop in to rescue their children even when it’s not appropriate to do so. They’re certainly out there in real life, and although their desire to protect their children is perfectly natural, that sort of rescuing can have very negative consequences. It happens in the real world, and it happens in crime fiction too. Here are a few examples; I know you can think of many, many more.

In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen to Dinner), we meet American actress Jane Wilkinson. She’s currently married to George Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware, but she wants to get rid of him. Her reason is quite simple: she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton and wants to marry him. So she asks Hercule Poirot to intervene on her behalf and ask that Lord Edgware withdraw his objection to a divorce. Surprisingly, Edgware agrees and Jane is now free to marry the Duke. Shortly after that, Edgware is murdered one night, and the police are convinced that Jane is responsible. The only problem is that she has an alibi vouched for by a dozen other people. She tells the police that she was at a dinner in another part of London at the time of the murder. So Chief Inspector Japp and Poirot have to look elsewhere for the killer. At one point, Poirot gets a surprising visit from the Dowager Duchess of Merton, the Duke’s mother. She dislikes Jane Wilkinson intensely and feels that she’s a bad influence on Merton. So she wants Poirot to stop the wedding that will likely take place now that Edgware is dead. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Poirot doesn’t agree to interfere. And it’s an interesting example of a ‘helicopter parent…’

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker is concerned for the safety of his family. He’s not pleased with the kinds of people his two children Angie and Paul may be associating with, and he wants to protect them. So he moves his family to a new home in a suburban housing development called Valley Forest Estates. One day, Walker goes to the main sales office to complain about the workmanship in his house and ask for repairs. While he’s there he witnesses an argument between a sales executive and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker discovers Spender’s body near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker and his family are drawn into a far more dangerous situation than any they faced in the city. In this case, his attempt to rescue his children backfires badly.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit tells the story of Gates and Mason Hunt. They grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father, but they’ve somehow managed to survive. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s had and is now preparing to be an attorney. Gates, though, has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from the young men’s mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Later that night, on the way back from a ‘night on the town,’ the Hunt brothers have another encounter with Thompson and the argument starts anew. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother hide the evidence and life goes on for the two brothers. Throughout these years, Sadie Grace does her best to ‘rescue’ Gates. She gives him money and in other ways tries to protect him from the consequences of what he does. But then, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a stiff jail sentence and begs his brother, who’s now a commonwealth prosecutor, to get him out of jail. At first Sadie Grace supports Gates and asks Mason to help him. But this time, Mason refuses. Then Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When it becomes clear that he intends to do just that, Sadie Grace stops rescuing him. This time, she renounces him. And now, Mason has to do everything he can to clear his name.

In one story arc early in Gail Bowen’s series, her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, has to accept the fact that her daughter Mieka isn’t going to finish at university. Mieka has dropped out to begin her own catering business. On the one hand, Kilbourn loves her daughter and wants to see her succeed. On the other, she’s well aware that the business world is not always kind to small start-up businesses, and Mieka won’t have a university degree to help her. So Kilbourn has a strong desire to rescue her daughter from what she sees as a bad situation. Mieka of course doesn’t see it that way, and she and her mother have some difficult conversations about what she’s doing. As a result of an uneasy truce, Mieka goes ahead with her business, and it turns out to be much more successful than her mother thought it would be.

Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer has to deal with ‘helicopter parents’ in more than one of his investigations. In Black Seconds for instance, he faces a terrible case. Nine-year-old Ida Joner decides to ride her bicycle to a local kiosk to buy some candy. When she doesn’t return, her mother Helga becomes anxious and starts the frightening process of trying to find out where her daughter is. Her search turns out to be fruitless and she becomes more and more panicked as the hours go by. Eventually Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called in and begin a professional search. As we learn what really happened to Ida, we see the role that wanting to rescue one’s child plays in the events. I can’t say much more without spoiling the story; suffice it to say that Sejer has to get past that reality to find the truth.

There’s another example of ‘helicopter parenting’ in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a visit one day from successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. He’s been accused of the rape and murder of a family servant Mary Murmu. Mary went missing a few months ago, and it’s assumed that she’s dead. Kasliwal claims that he isn’t responsible for her disappearance, and that the police are simply trying to make an example of him to show that they’re not beholden to wealth and power. He wants Puri to find out what happened to Mary and clear his name. Puri doesn’t make the mistake of assuming his new client is telling the truth, but he takes the case. When he discovers the truth about Mary’s disappearance, we learn the role that that urge to rescue has played in the case. We see it in two other cases Puri handles in this novel as well. Those cases are requests for background checks on potential spouses – the sort of case that’s the ‘bread and butter’ of Puri’s agecy. In both of those situations, anxious parents want to rescue their children from the marriage partners they’ve chosen.

And then there’s C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Travel development specialist Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the devoted adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. One day their world is turned upside down when they discover that the baby’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. As you can imagine, the McGuanes refuse point-blank. Then Garrett’s father, powerful judge John Moreland comes to his son’s rescue, if you want to call it that. He and Garrett pay a visit to the McGuanes. During that conversation, he makes it clear that if the McGuanes relinquish their rights, he’ll see that they have both financial and legal support for another adoption – a quick and easy one. He makes it just as clear that if they don’t agree, there will be serious consequences. When they call his bluff, Moreland issues a court order giving them twenty-one days in which to surrender Angelina to the court. Both McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to fight this order. And ‘whatever it takes’ turns out to be much more than either imagined. This story shows a chilling side of being a ‘helicopter parent.’

It’s perfectly natural to want to rescue one’s child and keep him or her safe from trouble. But sometimes, facing the consequences of their actions isn’t a bad lesson for young people to learn…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Mother.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Linwood Barclay, Martin Clark, Tarquin Hall

If Not For You*

Strong Secondary CharactersMany crime novels feature one or perhaps two main protagonists. The stories focus on those people, and in high quality novels, they’re well developed and interesting. But sometimes, one of the secondary characters is at least as interesting – maybe even more so. Sometimes it’s because that character has an air of mystery about her or him. Sometimes it’s because of that character’s strong or unusual kind of personality. Sometimes it’s for other reasons. Either way, those secondary characters may not have leading roles, but they still stand out in the memory. Here are just a few examples; I’m quite certain you can think of more than I could anyway.

One such character, Mr. Robinson, appears in several Christie stories, including Cat Among the Pigeons (in which Hercule Poirot ‘stars’), Postern of Fate (A Tommy and Tuppence Beresford Novel) and Passenger to Frankfurt (a standalone). We never learn a great deal about Mr. Robinson, and that adds to the mystery of his character. We do know that he’s financier who counts among his friends people in high and sensitive government positions. He also does business with all sorts of international clients as well. We know nearly nothing about his background, nor do we know exactly where he lives. He’s quite honest about his interest in the adventures he’s involved in: money. But at the same time, he’s not a cruelly greedy person. Here is how he describes himself and his fellow financiers in Cat Among the Pigeons,
 

‘It is a very old trade… And a lucrative one…We work in with one another and remember this: we keep faith. Our profits are large, but we are honest.’
 

Mr. Robinson might or might not be a good choice for a ‘lead’ character, but he adds an interesting layer to Christie’s work as a secondary one.

We could say the same thing of Eleanor Wish, who appears in several of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. When we meet her in The Black Echo, she’s an FBI agent works with Bosch on a complicated case involving a major carefully-planned bank robbery, the murder of Vietnam veteran, and a group of Vietnamese families who live in Orange County (south of Los Angeles). Wish leaves the FBI and takes up a new career as a professional poker player. She’s still helpful to Bosch in some of his cases (see Trunk Music), and the two develop a relationship. Eventually they marry. The marriage doesn’t last, but they have a daughter Madeleine ‘Maddie’ together. And there are suggestions that Bosch never really stops loving Wish. She is an interesting person with a bit of a mysterious background. She’s also very much her own person with her own way of thinking. Like Mr. Robinson, Eleanor Wish might or might not have been successful as the ‘lead’ character in a novel or series, but as a secondary character, she adds much to the Bosch novels.

Elly Griffiths’ series features Ruth Galloway, Head of Forensic Archaeology at North Norfolk University. It also features DCI Harry Nelson, who benefits greatly from Galloway’s help on his cases. They are the two protagonists, and both are very interesting characters. But one of the most interesting characters in this series doesn’t really get ‘top billing.’ He is Michael Malone, who goes by his Druid name of Cathbad. He and Galloway met years ago on a dig, and have now become friends. We don’t know an awful lot about Cathbad’s past, and that adds a bit of mystery to his character. But he’s interesting for more reasons than that. Cathbad is an unconventional person, even eccentric. But he is extremely knowledgeable about ancient customs in Romano-Britain, and he’s well versed in even older lore. He has a different way of looking at life to the way a lot of other people do, but that doesn’t really bother him. He is loyal to his friends (including Galloway), and he’s quite good with her young daughter Kate. He adds a layer of interest to this series.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a Saskatoon former cop-turned-PI who encounters all sorts of interesting people in his cases. He’s the protagonist of the series, and is a well-developed character in his own right. But some of the secondary characters who figure in the series are at least as engaging. For example, as the series begins, Quant’s neighbour is Sereena Orion Smith. She’s had all sorts of experiences, including plenty with drugs, alcohol and more than one wild party. Now she’s settled into a quieter life, and seems to be content with that. She’s got plenty of money, and as the series evolves we get to learn just a few things about her. But she is still somewhat of a mystery. She pops up in unexpected places and seems to know the most unexpected people. And although he’s curious at times, Quant never really does find out a great deal about her. What he does know though is that she’s a plain-spoken, loyal and supportive friend. She’s the kind of friend who likes Quant enough to tell him the truth, whether or not he wants to hear it. And she proves to be helpful to him in more than one of his cases.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series takes place mostly in Bangkok and features Rafferty, who is an ex-pat American and a travel writer by trade. But he has also proven himself rather good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s also well-enough versed in Bangkok life that he can be very helpful to English-speaking foreigners who visit. He is the protagonist of the series, but he’s by no means the only strong and interesting character in it. His wife Rose is also compelling. Rose is a former bar girl who originally came from one of Thailand’s more remote villages. She has since left the bar life and now owns her own apartment cleaning company staffed by other former bar girls and prostitutes who want to leave that life. Rose is a deeper character than it may sometimes seem on the surface. She is Thai, so she sees life from that cultural point of view. In her way, she is also spiritual, and that adds to the richness of her character. Rose may not be the central character of this series, but she contributes a great deal to it.

That’s also true of attorney Zack Shreve, whom we meet in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn (later Shreve). Joanne is the main character in this series; she’s a political scientist and academic who’s also the proud mother of three grown children and one teenager. Joanne first meets Zack in The Last Good Day, when one of his firm’s law partners dies in what looks like a suicide. The two begin a relationship and as the series progresses, they fall in love and marry. Zack proves to be a very strong character although he’s not really the main protagonist. He’s got a distinctive personality and brings his own background and viewpoint to the series. What’s more, since he’s an attorney, he also brings professional expertise (and several plot points!) to the novels.

Strong secondary characters like these can be a bit tricky to write. After all, they’re not protagonists, and perhaps they wouldn’t do well in series of their own (‘though some might). But they do add much to a series, and many readers follow them almost as avidly as they do the protagonists. Which strong secondary characters do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Michael Connelly, Timothy Hallinan

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’.

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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.

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