Category Archives: Isaac Asimov

I’m Old-Fashioned*

Old FashionedIn many ways it’s good – very good – to live in modern times. There’s better technology, better medical care and lots of other societal improvements. And while there is still bigotry and that may always be, there are fewer ‘-isms’ that limit people now than there were. But some of those things we may think of as ‘old-fashioned’ can actually be pleasant. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction to show you some things that may be old-fashioned but that perhaps people actually miss…

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Hastings is on his way back to London by train. Sitting in the same coach is a young woman who is in many ways very modern in her outlook. They strike up a conversation, and she pokes a little fun at him for his old-fashioned ways. But on a more serious note, she says,

 

‘You’ve been dug out of the backwoods, you have. Not that I mind that. We could do with a few more of your sort.

 

Hastings and the young woman, who calls herself ‘Cinderella,’ part company and at first it looks as though they won’t meet again. But when Hastings and Hercule Poirot travel to France to investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, Hastings and Cinderella have what you might call a reunion. Although she is a modern young woman, she appreciates Hastings’ somewhat traditional outlook on life.

Isaac Asimov is perhaps best known as an author of science fiction, but he also wrote detective stories, including a trilogy featuring New York City police officer Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. In The Caves of Steel, Baley and his new partner R. Daneel Olivaw are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton. This isn’t going to be an easy case though. For one thing, life is difficult in the futuristic New York that Asimov depicts. Earth has become overcrowded and most humans have little better than a subsistence lifestyle. For another, there is an ongoing feud, which sometimes flares, between Earthmen (descendants of those who never left the planet) and Spacers (descendants of those who have explored outside the planet). Baley is an Earthman and the victim was a Spacer. What’s worse, R. Daneel Olivaw is a positronic robot. If there’s anything that Earthman dislike more than Spacers, it’s robots. That’s because they are perceived as a threat to humans. Despite these challenges though, Baley and Olivaw work together to solve the murder. In one plot thread in this story, there is a real mistrust among humans of old-fashioned, traditional things such as spectacles (instead of contact lenses). In fact, the interest in such things is known as Medievalism and is regarded as holding people back. And yet, there is a secret group of people who think fondly of what even Baley admits were simpler times. The question of preserving these things forms an interesting layer in the story.

In some ways, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is old-fashioned. There are several examples of this in the series featuring him; we see one in The Daughters of Cain. In that novel, Morse and Sergeant Lewis are on the trail of the person who killed a former don Felix McClure. At first it seems that the murderer was McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. But when he disappears and is later found dead, things aren’t quite that simple. In the course of the investigation, Morse meets Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who may be connected with the case. The two develop an interest in each other despite the fact that she’s a suspect in a murder investigation. Smith is a very modern young woman. She wears nose rings, uses language that Morse would prefer a woman not use and so on. But at one point, he gets the chance to see her dressed more traditionally and without her nose rings and he admits he likes her better that way. For her part, Smith is attracted to Morse’s view of the world, even though she doesn’t really envision herself settling down, marrying and so on in the traditional way. Even Morse’s insistence on standard English doesn’t bother her…

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is in part the story of what happens to a traditional English town when a new mall comes in. The story begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective, and she’s sure that there’s lots of crime to investigate at the mall, so she spends a lot of time there. One day she goes missing and despite a thorough search, is never found. Her friend Adrian Palmer is blamed for her disappearance, although he claims innocence. He’s treated so badly though that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is working at a dead-end job at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard who’s employed there. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and each in a different way, look back into the past to find out what really happened to Kate. One of the themes in this novel is what happened to traditional English ‘High Street’ shopping with the coming of the mall culture. And the mall that replaces those shops turns out to be somewhat ‘plastic’ as opposed to the more genuine shops. As we learn in the novel, the mall culture hasn’t really made life in the area better.

In one of Anthony Bidulka’s series, we get to know Russell Quant, a Saskatoon PI. One of Quant’s haunts is Colourful Mary’s, a local restaurant that serves ‘down home’ cooking. In fact, Quant describes it this way:

 

‘Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’

 

It’s not a formal restaurant, but it serves traditional, old-fashioned (i.e. not pre-packaged) food. Little wonder it’s so popular with customers.

Most people don’t think of millinery shops as exactly modern and up-to-date. But there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a hat custom-designed for you. And that’s exactly the business that D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington has been in for years. He’s very skilled at knowing exactly what kind of hat would best suit each client, and delights in making them. In Hats Off to Murder, One For the Rook, and soon Model For Murder, Heatherington puts those old-fashioned skills to use to when murder strikes first his shop and then his allotment. In some ways Heatherington is old-fashioned, but that’s precisely what makes his character appealing.

The ‘good old days’ certainly had many serious problems. I doubt most of us would want to go back. But if you’ve stayed at an old-fashioned hotel with old-fashioned customer service, you know how pleasant it can be. If you’ve been to a restaurant or shop with old-fashioned service, you know how pleasant that can be too. And old-fashioned courtesy on anyone’s part is a refreshing thing. Perhaps not all modern changes have been for the better…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Isaac Asimov

Exercise Your Freedom*

Stretch YourselfHave you ever ‘stretched yourself’ to read something that you don’t usually read? Even something that you thought you might not like? Sometimes ‘stretching’ like that can end up being disappointing if the book you choose to read isn’t well-written. I know that’s happened to me. But it’s surprising how often opening one’s mind a little and trying something new can be a really valuable experience. And one of the things about crime fiction is that it often addresses important issues that need to be addressed. ‘Stretching’ can encourage readers to think about things they hadn’t thought about before, in new ways. And for me anyway, that’s as good a reason as any for taking a chance on a book. Granted, there are some books we choose not to read, and that’s fine too. A reader has the right not to read something. Every once in a while, though, it’s helpful to dip a metaphorical toe in some new water. Let me just give a few examples of what I mean.

Readers who aren’t science fiction fans might be very reluctant to try Isaac Asimav’s Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley novels. After all, they do take place in a futuristic world, they involve positronic robots, and there’s a lot of gadgetry and science discussed in them. And yet, these are very much crime fiction novels. The series (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn) features New York detective Lije Baley, whose police partner is R. Daneel Olivaw, a positronic robot. In The Caves of Steel, they investigate the murder of a famous scientist. It’s actually an interesting ‘impossible-but-not-impossible’ sort of mystery. In The Naked Sun, they investigate the murder of Rikaine Delmarre, who operated the planetary birthing center of Solaria. As much as a discussion of what the future might hold (which it is), this novel is also a whodunit. So is The Robots of Dawn, in which Baley and Olivaw work to find out who destroyed the mind of Jander Panell, one of Olivaw’s colleagues. Rejecting these novels out of hand because they are science fiction might mean readers would miss out on a solid set of crime stories.

Ernesto Mallo’s  Needle in a Haystack is the story of Buenos Aires cop Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. The story takes place in 1979, a very dangerous time to live and work in Argentina. The military junta is in power and determined to stay there, and anyone suspected of not going along enthusiastically is in mortal danger. Against that backdrop, Lescano investigates the murder of Elías Biterman, a successful pawn shop owner. The authorities want very much for this to be put down as an Army hit, in which case no more will be said about it. But Lescano is sure that’s not true, and continues investigating. This novel is written in a very literary style, with innovative use of dialogue, tense and so on. In some places it’s almost poetic. Readers who usually wouldn’t be interested in a novel like that might put this one aside at first. But the story paints a compelling portrait of 1979 Buenos Aires and introduces us to (in my opinion anyway) a likeable protagonist. The novel also raises important and thought-provoking questions about class, government, repression and anti-Semitism among other things.

Sometimes trying something one hasn’t tried before lets one think about things in a new way. For instance, in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is visiting her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse when his partner Nou is murdered. Then Didi himself is killed in what the police call an unfortunate incident of resisting arrest. They claim Didi was guilty of Nou’s murder and got violent when the police came to question him. But Keeney doesn’t believe any of that. Mostly in order to clear her friend’s name, she investigates the murders. She finds a connection between those killings and the Thai human trafficking and sex trades. This novel presents a complex and thought-provoking portrait of that trade, and doesn’t offer any easy answers. And that’s realistic because there aren’t any. It encourages the reader to really think through assumptions about how that trade starts, who keeps it going and what might be needed to stop it.

There’s also Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, in which Tasmania police sergeant John White is stabbed one morning as he and probationer Lucy Howard are investigating a break-in. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. As the crime and its aftermath are depicted from different points of view, we get a very complex and provocative picture of life as a cop. How should juveniles be treated? What if they’re repeat offenders? How far should the police go in solving a crime? What about government policies? What if they don’t work, practically speaking? There are a lot of other issues discussed in this novel too.

That’s also the case in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. That’s the story of the murder of thirteen members of the Atwal family in Jullundur, Punjab. The most likely suspect is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, who was there on the night of the murders. She hasn’t said anything about that night since she was arrested, so no-one knows for sure what happened. There’s enough confusion about the evidence that social worker Simran Singh is asked to return from her home in Delhi to Jullundar, where she grew up. It’s hoped that if she gets Durga to talk about that night, the police will get the answers they need. This novel isn’t a comfortable, easy read. It discusses issues such as class, sex roles, and corruption among other things. In fact, it may make readers uncomfortable. But those issues are important, and the novel addresses them clearly while still placing the main emphasis on what happened in the Atwal family.

It’s helpful for readers and (I think anyway) helpful for society when we try different kinds of books and topics. When we ‘stretch,’ we think about things in a new way, we grow, and sometimes, important things get discussed and addressed.

The only way we can continue to do this is to keep having access to a lot of books.  Even books we don’t like. Even books we would never read. When certain books are impossible to get, that weakens all of us. During this Banned Books Week, let me invite you to try a book you might not otherwise try. Let me also invite you to support access to books you never intend to read. Let’s keep the diversity in reading alive and support everyone’s right to read (or not read) any book.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Divine Comedy’s Love What You Do.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Ernesto Mallo, Isaac Asimov, Kishwar Desai, Y.A. Erskine

Break on Through to the Other Side*

Crossing GenresSome authors focus on crime fiction right from the beginning and stay within that genre. Others though, write in other genres first (or also), and ‘cross over’ into crime fiction. Writing in more than one genre can add to a writer’s style, lending it a sort of distinctiveness. And it’s sometimes nice to remember that the lines between genres are often blurred, and the distinctions made between them are sometimes a little arbitrary. 

For instance, Isaac Asimov was perhaps best known as a writer of science fiction and non-fiction. He also wrote several textbooks on various topics in science. But he also ‘crossed over’ into crime fiction. His Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley series features New York homicide detective Lije Baley, who lives and works in a futuristic megacity, of which New York City is the hub. In The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn, he works with R. Daneel Olivaw, a positronic robot. The two become friends as well as investigation partners. In this series, we see clearly the influence of Asimov’s background as a scientist. We also see of course the elements of crime stories too (i.e. a murder or murders and the investigation).

Elmore Leonard became best-known for his crime novels (e.g. Get Shorty, Cuba Libre and many others). But he actually started by writing Westerns. Fans will know for instance that the 1957 film Hombre is based on his 1951 novel by the same name. Although many of Leonard’s crime novels take place in cities (rather than ‘out West’) one can see the influence of his Western beginnings. There’s the complicated ‘good guy/bad guy’ theme, the ‘showdown’ and other kinds of plot threads that are similar (or perhaps that’s just my interpretation) to what we see in Westerns.

Sophie Hannah has become well-known as an author of crime fiction, starting with 2007’s Little Face. That novel introduces DS Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse, and the series featuring them continues through the just-released Kind of Cruel. But Hannah wasn’t always a crime writer. She began her writing career as a poet, with 1993’s Early Bird Blues. Hannah’s crime novels focus on crimes and their investigation, but it’s also easy to see the influence of her experience writing poetry. The novels include the kind of imagery that makes the reader think of poetry. Here for instance is a snippet from Little Face:

 

‘I walk across the cobbled yard and down the mud and gravel path, carrying only my handbag. I feel light and strange. The trees look as if they are knitted from bright wools: reds and browns and the occasional green.  The sky is the colour of wet slate. This is not the same ordinary world that I used to walk around in. Everything is more vivid, as if the physical backdrop I once took for granted is clamouring for my attention.’

 

It’s not hard to see the influence of poetry in Hannah’s crime writing.

We also see the voice of the poet in Qiu Xiaolong’s crime novels. Qiu has become well-known as the author of the Detective Chen series (i.e. Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer), but he is also a poet (e.g. Lines Around China) and translator of poetry (e.g. Evoking Tang). And it’s easy to see the influence of poetry in the Chen series. The novels include quotes from poems, and Chen himself loves poetry. Here’s just a tiny bit from A Loyal Character Dancer:

 

‘He [Chen] took a collection of ci out of his briefcase and opened to a poem by Niu Xiji. The mist disappearing / against the spring mountains, / the stars few, small / in the pale skies, / the sinking moon illuminates her face, / the dawn in her glistening tears / at parting… It was too sentimental for the morning. 

 

Poetry is woven throughout these novels.

Paddy Richardson’s crime novels (Hunting Blind, Traces of Red and Cross Fingers) have gotten her very well-deserved attention. In fact Hunting Blind was a 2011 finalist for New Zealand’s prestigious Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. And speaking personally, I recommend Richardson’s crime novels enthusiastically. But Richardson’s writing career didn’t start with crime writing. Her 2000 novel The Company of A Daughter is a literary/historical novel that follows five generations of women in the same family. She’s also written A Year to Know a Woman as well as two collections of short stories (Choices and If We Were Lebanese). It’s not hard to see that literary influence, if I can put it that way, on Richardson’s crime novels. They are of course stories that feature crimes and their investigations. But they also explore relationships, family histories and personal journeys. For example, in both Traces of Red and Cross Fingers, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne takes an interest in cases of murder and uses her journalistic skills, contacts and experience to find the answers. So they are very much crime novels. At the same time, we see the evolution of Thorne’s view of herself, her relationships with family and friends and her exploration of New Zealand life. So in that sense, the novels have the hallmarks of literary novels as well as crime novels.

Wendy James is an accomplished crime novelist; her Out of the Silence won Australia’s 2006 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. And The Mistake is also (in my opinion) a well-written novel that features a crime (or is it?). In both novels we see the elements of talented crime writing. But at the same time, James is a skilled literary novelist. The Steele Diaries isn’t really a crime novel. Instead, it focuses on families, the choices people make, and what happens when those choices are very different to what others expect. It’s easy to see the influence of that literary background on James’ crime novels too. The Mistake, for instance, is as much about family dynamics and the implosion of a family as it is about a crime. It’s about enduring relationships and those that don’t endure, and why that happens. It’s also about class distinctions.

And that’s the thing about authors who work in other genres but who also write crime novels. Their special experience in other genres adds to their crime novels and makes them distinctive. As ever, there’s only so much room in one post for mentioning examples of this kind of ‘crossover’ writing. Your turn.

 

ps  Thanks to Moira at Clothes in Books for the inspiration for this post!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Break on Through (to the Other Side).

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Filed under Elmore Leonard, Isaac Asimov, Paddy Richardson, Qiu Xiaolong, Sophie Hannah, Wendy James

Feudin’ and Fightin’*

FeudsDisagreements between people happen all the time and many times people try to bury the proverbial hatchet. But every so often an argument escalates until it becomes a feud. Feuds between families or business rivals/adversaries can last for generations, long after the original argument is over. It’s interesting to see how the tension that feuds cause can play out in a crime fiction novel, even if the feud itself isn’t the reason for the murder.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye, we meet wealthy and successful Rex Fortescue, who owns Consolidated Investments. One morning he is suddenly sickened and later dies of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Neele is called in and begins the investigation at Yewtree Lodge, Fortescue’s home. It doesn’t take long before he uncovers more than one motive among the Fortescue family members. Then Gladys Martin, one of the family servants, is found murdered. Then there’s another death. Miss Marple reads about the deaths in the paper and since she herself prepared Gladys for service, she takes a personal interest in the case and travels to Yewtree Lodge where she and Inspector Neele, each in a different way, get to the truth of the matter. One of the important plot threads in this novel is a longstanding feud between Rex Fortescue and the family of his former business partner MacKenzie. The MacKenzie family claims that Fortescue killed MacKenzie and cheated them out of their share of the mine they co-owned. Fortescue of course denied it. That feud adds a solid layer of interest, as well as a sub-plot, to the story.

In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, Queen is drawn into the creation of a new Hollywood biopic featuring John Royle and Blythe Stuart. The two had a passionate romance, but an equally passionate breakup and spent the next years openly feuding. Each married someone else and now has a child, and those children, Ty Royle and Bonnie Stuart, have carried on the feud. To everyone’s shock, John Royle and Blythe Stuart agree to do the film. What’s more, they re-kindle their romance, even planning to marry. Quickly, the film executives arrange for an all-out Hollywood-style wedding at the airstrip where the two plan to board their flight for their honeymoon. The wedding goes off as planned, and the newlyweds and their children leave for the trip. By the time the flight lands though, the couple is dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other and the feud again rears its ugly head. But it’s not as simple as that, as Queen learns when he begins to investigate…

Sometimes feuds happen within a family as we learn in Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood. DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a disjointed call from Orla Payne, who wants the twenty-year old disappearance of her brother Callum to be investigated. Scarlett doesn’t do much about it at first, in part because Orla is mentally unbalanced and was very drunk when she called. That decision comes back to haunt Scarlett when Orla apparently commits suicide. Now Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team begin to look into Callum Payne’s disappearance. In doing so, they uncover some long-simmering family disputes and a network of complicated relationships among the families living in the Keswick area of the Lakes District. With help and perspective from Oxford Historian Daniel Kind, who’s working at nearby St. Herbert’s Residential Library, Scarlett finds out the truth about those tangled relationships, and finds out what really happened to the Payne siblings.

Kerry Greenwood’s Heavenly Pleasures begins when Juliette and Vivienne Lefebvre’s Melbourne chocolate shop Heavenly Pleasures is sabotaged by someone who’s injected chili into some of their confections. When local bakery owner Corinna Chapman finds out the hard way about the sabotaged chocolates, she and her lover Daniel Cohen agree to help the Lefebvre sisters find out who has been trying to put them out of business. It’s more than just tainted chocolates too. Before long it’s clear that someone is trying to drive Heavenly Pleasures out of business. There are a few possible suspects too, and the more closely Chapman and Cohen look into the case, the more they uncover some of the intricate family dynamics going on in the Levebre family and between them and their employees. And I don’t think it spoils the story to say that feuding plays a role in the events in the novel.

In Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective we are introduced to Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, an Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate. McGill has very strong feelings (and the research to support them) on climate change and he’s been making a nuisance of himself to local authorities as he tries to bring attention to the problem. So he’s already come to the notice of local authorities. That makes it harder for him to follow up on an even more important and more personal quest. In one plot thread of this novel, McGill wants to find out what happened to his grandfather Uilliem, who disappeared during a sea voyage years earlier. In order to trace what happened to his grandfather, McGill makes a trip to Eilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, where his grandmother Ishbel grew up and where his grandfather moved after they met. As he slowly uncovers the truth about his grandparents’ meeting and marriage, he learns about a long-simmering feud on the island, and he learns the role that it played in his grandfather’s disappearance as well as in some modern-day relationships and events.

Of course, not all feuds are within and between families. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s  The Caves of Steel features a feud between two groups of humans. Spacers are the descendents of humans who traveled into space and returned. Earthmen are the descendents of humans who remained on the planet. In this story, set in New York of the future, the two groups have developed a long-standing hatred of each other. They live in separate places and they have only absolutely necessary contact with each other. Everything changes when famous Spacer scientist Dr Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered. The Spacerrs suspect an Earthman, and Police Commissioner Julius Enderby wants the investigation to be as transparent as possible. So he taps Earthman homicide cop Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley to investigate. As an added measure of transparency, he assigns Baley to work with a Spacer R. Daneel Olivaw on the case. Baley doesn’t trust Olivaw at first, and even less so when he discovers that Olivaw is a positronic robot. But he does have a strong pull to solve the case, so he and Olivaw join forces and they discover who killed Sarton. In this case, the feud isn’t, strictly speaking, the reason for the murder. But it plays an important role in building suspense.

And that’s what fictional feuds do. They build tension and suspense and in murder mysteries, they add suspects too…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Burton Lane and Al Dubin.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Isaac Asimov, Kerry Greenwood, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Edwards

And I’m Tangled Up in You*

ComplicatedRelationshipsWhen we think of fictional sleuths and criminals, it’s easy to think in terms of an adversarial relationship. The criminal kills and the sleuth’s job is to catch that criminal and see that the killer is brought to justice. But very often even in real life, the sleuth/criminal relationship isn’t that simple. Sometimes the sleuth has a good reason to be sympathetic towards the criminal. Sometimes the sleuth even has a personal relationship with the criminal. When that sort of thing happens it can lead to real complications in the traditional catch/arrest/try/convict procedure. In stories that sort of complication can add to the tension and suspense. Certainly it can make for an absorbing plot thread.

We see that for instance in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Beautiful, wealthy and successful Linnet Doyle and her husband Simon are on a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. When Linnet is shot on the second night of the cruise, suspicion falls immediately on her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, who’d been engaged to Simon before he met Linnet. But Jackie can be proven not to be the murderer, so Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, has to look elsewhere for the killer. He finds out who the murderer is and that causes him difficulty because as he puts it, he has much sympathy for that person. Here is a bit of the conversation he and the killer have:

 

‘‘Don’t mind so much, Monsieur Poirot. About me, I mean. You do mind, don’t you?’
‘Yes…’’

 

And this comes from a detective who says more than once that he does not approve of murder. Thanks Moira for this inspiration. Your comment put me in mind of this topic.

There’s another kind of complex relationship between sleuth and killer in Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. The people of the futuristic Earth depicted in this novel are more or less divided between two groups. One group, the Spacers, is descended from humans who explored space and then returned. The other group, the Earthmen, is descended from humans who did not explore space – who remained on Earth. The two groups have different cultures and values and they dislike and distrust each other for a variety of reasons. When noted Spacer Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered, Spacers begin to suspect that an Earthman is responsible. New York police commissioner Julius Enderby assigns Earthman Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley to the case. Not only does Enderby think Baley is a skilled sleuth, but he also wants to choose an Earthman as proof that this investigation will be transparent. As a further gesture, Enderby assigns Baley a Spacer partner R. Daneel Olivaw. And this in itself poses complications. Olivaw is a positronic robot and if there’s anything Earthmen dislike and distrust more than Spacers it’s robots. Still, Baley and Olivaw begin to work together on the case. They discover who killed Sarton and when they do, Baley has to deal with the fact that he already has a relationship with that person. So in that sense he feels quite conflicted about pursuing what most people think of as justice.

Craig Johnson’s Absaroka County, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire faces a conflict about a murderer too in The Cold Dish. Two years before this novel begins, three local boys were convicted of gang-raping sixteen-year-old Melissa Little Bird. They’ve just recently been released from prison when one of them, Cody Pritchard, is found murdered. Then there’s another death. It seems logical that someone in Melissa’s family is taking revenge for what happened to her so Longmire and his team look into the backgrounds and alibis of Melissa’s friends and relations. They don’t make a lot of progress at first but slowly, Longmire puts the pieces of the puzzle together. When he discovers who the killer is he finds it extremely difficult because he already knows that person (after all, the town Longmire lives is one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone). At the end of the novel especially we see how difficult it is for Longmire to deal with the identity of the killer.

In Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the murder of Halldis Horn. She lived alone in a somewhat remote area, so when her body is discovered, there aren’t many witnesses who can give a lot of information. But the information the investigation team does get suggests that a young mentally ill man named Errki Johrma is probably responsible. The only problem is that he seems to have disappeared so Sejer can’t interview him. At the same time, Sejer and Skarre are also investigating a bank robbery and hostage-taking situation. These two events are related, and as Sejer and Skarre unravel what really happened, Sejer develops a kind of relationship with the person who turns out to be the killer. He learns about that person and what he learns makes him quite conflicted about what to do in terms of pursuing this case.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is also conflicted when she discovers the truth about a series of killings in A Colder Kind of Death. Kilbourn is in the process of healing after the murder of her husband Ian. But all of the progress she’s made is threatened when the man convicted of the crime Kevin Tarpley is shot in the yard of the prison where he’s serving his sentence. Then Tarpley’s wife Maureen, who was present on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is also killed. Joanne falls under a certain amount of suspicion since she had every motive for murder. So partly in order to clear her name, she looks into both killings. What she discovers – and part of what makes this case very difficult – is that she knows the killer and has a history with that person. That complexity doesn’t stop her from acknowledging what happened but when that person confesses we can see that this is not a simple case of finding out who committed a crime and getting that person convicted of it.

And then there’s Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer. In that novel, newly-minted attorney Catherine Monsigny gets what she hopes will be her chance at a major case. Myriam Villetreix has been arrested for and charged with the murder of her wealthy husband Gaston. She claims innocence but there is evidence against her. She wants Monsigny to defend her and when Monsigny’s boss gives approval, the process begins. The murder of Gaston Villetreix took place not far from where a tragedy in Monsigny’s own life occurred. When she was a toddler, Monsigny’s mother Violet was murdered. Monsigny was present but was too young to remember very much at all. She wants to lay those ghosts to rest so to speak, but she doesn’t have a lot of reliable information about her mother’s murder. So while she’s in that area preparing for the trial of Myriam Villetreix, she also looks more deeply into the truth about her mother’s death. When she discovers that truth, we see how complicated the relationship between Monsigny and her mother’s killer is. That fact adds an interesting twist to this story.

Sometimes it’s cathartic to think of sleuths as the ‘good guys’ who catch ‘the bad guys,’ put them in jail and restore order. But in both real life and crime fiction, the relationship between sleuths and killers isn’t that clear-cut. And sometimes it can get downright complicated…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Howie Day’s Collide.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Craig Johnson, Gail Bowen, Isaac Asimov, Karin Fossum, Sylvie Granotier