Category Archives: Johan Theorin

From the Beginning*

Book BeginningsIt can be very tricky to write the beginning lines of a book. Many readers decide within the first paragraph whether they’re interested in reading the story or not. And even for readers who wait a bit longer to decide how they feel about a story, the first few words are important ‘hooks.’ So most authors put a lot of thought into how they’ll start a story. Perhaps that’s even a bit of the reason that some writers find it challenging to begin the actual writing of a novel.

Crime novels start in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes, the first sentence tells the reader right away that things are not going to go well. One of the best examples of that (at least in my opinion) is the famous first sentence of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone:
 

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’
 

Of course Rendell goes on to explain how it all started, who the Coverdales are, who Eunice Parchman is and so on. But right from the very start we know that something terrible is going to happen.

That’s also true in Liza Marklund’s The Bomber, which begins this way:
 

‘The woman who was soon to die stepped cautiously out of the door and glanced around.’
 

Later that night, she is indeed killed, and her body discovered in the wreckage of a bomb blast. When Kvällspressen crime editor Annika Bengtzon is told about the blast, she rushes as quickly as she can to Victoria Stadium, in the Olympic Village that’s been recently constructed for the upcoming Games. The dead woman is later identified as Stockholm business/civic leader Christine Furhage, and immediately the suspicion is raised that the bombing is the work of terrorists. There are other possibilities though, and Bengtzon and her teammates work to find out who really killed the victim and why. The tension continues throughout the story, but we know from the first sentence that something is going to go very, very wrong.

Of course, not all stories start that way. Some authors choose to build suspense by contrasting what happens later in a novel with a more optimistic beginning. Here, for example, is the first bit of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile:
 

Linnet Ridgeway!’
‘That’s her!’ said Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the three Crowns.’
 

Burnaby and his friend are referring to the wealthy and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway, who’s just purchased Wode Hall. In the first few pages of the story, we learn that she seems to have it all: looks, money, brains. She’s the kind of young woman many other people envy. Christie chooses to slowly build the suspense by contrasting that bright beginning with what happens later in the novel, as Linnet marries Simon Doyle, former fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort. They take a honeymoon cruise of the Nile, and on the second night of that trip, Linnet is shot. Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are aboard the same ship and they work to find out who the killer is.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives also begins on a bright, optimistic sort of note:
 

‘The Welcome Wagon lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity…twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, ‘You’re really going to like it here! It’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a better choice!”
 

And at first, the small, pretty town of Stepford, Connecticut does seem like an idyllic place for Joanna Eberhart, her husband Walter and their two children Pete and Kim. They settle in and before long they’ve made friends and begun to become a part of community life. Slowly, though, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something is very, very wrong in Stepford and it turns out that they’re all too right…

There are also authors who choose to use the beginnings of their stories to set the scene and give the reader a sense of time and place. That can be effective too, as a sense of atmosphere and setting can add much to a novel. Here, for instance, is the beginning of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency:
 

‘Mma. Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter.’
 

McCall Smith goes on to describe the part of Botswana where Mma. Ramotswe’s agency is located. In this first novel in the series, he also introduces Mma. Ramotswe’s first cases, and gives background on her and her family. This approach gives the reader a strong sense of place and culture, and invites the reader to be drawn into the stories once the scene is set.
 

That’s also the case in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead, which begins this way:
 

‘The wall was made of big, rounded stones covered in grayish white lichen, and it was the same height as the boy…Everything was gray and misty on the other side.’
 

Theorin goes on to explain that this is a garden wall, and describes the boy’s first journey to the other side of that wall. Soon afterwards the boy, whose name is Jens, disappears. His family is of course devastated. In fact, his mother Julia is so distraught that she leaves Öland, where the story takes place, intending not to return. Twenty-five years later, Jens’ grandfather Gerlof Davidsson receives a strange package that contains one of the sandals Jens was wearing on the day he disappeared. Hoping he’ll at last get answers, Davidsson contacts Julia, who reluctantly returns to Öland. The two then work to find out what happened to Jens on that terrible day.

There are of course other ways to begin a novel. There isn’t a set ‘rule’ for how to start. The key is that whatever the author chooses needs to get the reader wanting to find out more. What’s your view on this? Do you prefer novels that start by letting you know something terrible is going to happen? Do you like optimistic beginnings that soon change to something quite different? What about beginnings that set the scene? Perhaps you have another preference? If you’re a writer, how do you prefer to get readers ‘hooked?’
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Greg Lake.

30 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Johan Theorin, Liza Marklund, Ruth Rendell

But Don’t You Step on My Blue Suede Shoes*

ShoesNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books wrote a very interesting piece for the Guardian book blog about shoes in literature. Footwear really does say a lot about us, which is why it plays such a prominent role in crime fiction. Before I go any further about that, let me invite you to check out Clothes in Books – a treasure trove of insights about shoes, clothes, culture and what it all says about us in fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes always learns quite a lot from what people wear, and that includes their shoes. In A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Holmes and Watson haven’t seen much of each other lately, but here is what Holmes says:

 

‘How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?’ 

 

The answer to that question is shoes. Holmes can tell by slit marks on the inside of Watson’s left shoe that mud was scraped from it by someone very careless. Simplicity itself, as Holmes says. Granted, the focus of this particular mystery isn’t Watson’s shoes, but it’s an interesting example of the way Holmes uses evidence that he finds in footwear.

So does Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Although he generally isn’t one to look for things like cigarette ash and footprints, he does use physical clues at times. Just as one example, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Poirot is leaving the office of his dentist Henry Morley when he sees a woman getting out of a taxi. She’s wearing a pair of shoes with buckles on them and accidentally tears off one of the buckles. In a rather funny scene, Poirot returns the buckle to her and she goes into the office while he goes on his own way. Poirot learns later that Morley has been shot and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. And part of that process is interviewing all of the people who visited the dentist on the fatal day. One of those people is Miss Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, the owner of the shoe with the torn-off buckle. Not long after that interview, there’s another death. And then Miss Sainsbury Seale disappears. It’s clear now that there’s more going on here than the murder of one dentist. In the end, Poirot and Japp find out the truth, and one important clue comes from that torn-off shoe buckle.

Christie fans will know that Poirot himself would never consider worn-down or broken shoes. He much prefers his polished, pointed-toe, patent leather shoes. He even wears them at times when something more comfortable would be much more appropriate. But as he puts it, he likes to be soigné.

Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman sees Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte traveling to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall. Bony is working on that case when there’s another death. Itinerant worker John Way seems to have committed suicide in the same isolated hut where Kendall’s body was found. This is a complex and carefully-planned series of events, but Bony finds out who’s behind them and what the motive is. And one of the things that help him get to the truth is a particular kind of footwear.

Shoes also figure in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath. LAPD Detective Peter Decker is investigating a series of rapes committed by a man dubbed the Foothill Rapist. So far he and his partner Marge Dunn haven’t had a lot of luck. Then comes the news that there’s been a rape at a secluded yeshiva – an Orthodox Jewish community and place of learning. At first Decker and Dunn think that this rape has also been committed by the Foothill Rapist. But there are some differences between this incident and the others. One of them is shoes. The other victims were all wearing high-heeled shoes, but this victim was wearing sandals. It’s not conclusive evidence that this is a different culprit, but it does make Decker wonder. Then, there’s a brutal murder at the same yeshiva. Now it’s clear that something is going on there that’s likely quite separate from the Foothill Rapist cases. Decker works with Dunn and with Rina Lazarus, who lives at the yeshiva, to find out what’s behind the events there.

Footwear plays a very important role in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead. Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson has lived on the island of Øland all of his life, and knows most of its residents and a lot of its secrets. One day, he gets a shocking package – a sandal belonging to his grandson Jens. Jens was wearing those sandals when he disappeared twenty years earlier, and no trace of him has ever been found. His mother Julia was so distraught at his disappearance that she left the island, planning never to return. When she finds out about the sandal, she reluctantly returns to Øland to help find out the truth about Jens. As Julia and her father face the past, we learn how the island’s history and secrets people have been keeping still have an effect.

Chief Inspector William Wisting of the Stavern, Norway police has to deal with a grisly collection of shoes in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs. The main action in that novel begins with a left foot clad in a training shoe washes up on the beach. Soon after that, another left foot, also wearing a shoe, is discovered. And then another. The media and the public come up with all sorts of theories, including the possibility that some kind of twisted serial killer is at work. Wisting and his team know that the more quickly they figure out who the feet belonged to, the more likely it is that they’ll solve this case. So they go back through the records of missing persons. They discover that list of people missing could very well be related to the case of the shoes and feet that have been discovered. Bit by bit, the team ties the two major threads of the case together.

Shoes are very important to Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In fact, in a few of the novels, they even speak to her. And in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she learns the importance of buying shoes that are not just attractive, but comfortable too. One day she and her boss, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, are out together when she sees a beautiful pair of blue shoes with red linings. They’re elegant, but not particularly practical, and Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t think they’ll be comfortable. But she knows that Mma. Makutsi loves shoes. So she doesn’t say too much when the purchase is made. But when Mma. Makutsi wears them to work the next day, it’s obvious that she’s uncomfortable:

 

‘…there were some pairs of shoes that would never be broken in. Shoes that were too small were usually too small for a reason: they were intended for people with small feet.’

 

Mma. Makutsi runs into more shoe trouble in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, when she wears a pair of dressy shoes to a job placement agency. She and Mma. Ramotswe have had a serious difference and she’s looking around for a new position. On her way back from what turns out to be a difficult time at the agency, Mma. Makutsi breaks the heel of her shoe. It’s not a good day for her.

Fans of Anne Zouroudi’s enigmatic sleuth Hermes Diaktoros will know that he always wears white sneakers which he takes great pains to keep pristine. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh has the same footwear preference.  And that’s the thing about shoes. We all have our own preferences and unique way of walking in our shoes. In that way, they are arguably nearly as individual as people are. Little wonder they matter so much in crime fiction.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. Listen to his version and Elvis Presley’s version and decide which one you like better.

23 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anne Zouroudi, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Faye Kellerman, Jørn Lier Horst, Johan Theorin

Some Said it’s Nothing But a Story*

FolktalesJust about every culture has its share of folk tales. Sometimes they’re stories that explain how certain things came to be, and sometimes they’re scarier than that. And it’s interesting how very deeply those tales get embedded into our thinking. Even people who say they’re not superstitious pass the stories along and maybe, somewhere deep in their subconscious minds, the stories have a certain kind of life. So it makes perfect sense that we’d see those old folk tales in crime fiction too. Sometimes they can be very useful ‘covers’ to hide crimes, but even when they’re not used that way, folk tales can add interest and a sense of cultural authenticity to a story.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles includes a fascinating folk tale concerning the Baskerville family. The story is that generations ago, Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was besotted. Since then the family has been cursed by a demon in the shape of a hound. That folk tale about the phantom hound has been handed down in the area of the Manor of Baskerville in Dartmoor. Sherlock Holmes learns this folk tale when the most recent Baskerville, Sir Charles, is found dead one day in the manor’s park. His death is explained by the folk tale of the curse and now, family friend Dr. James Mortimer wants Holmes to investigate because the next heir, Sir Henry, is coming from Canada and Dr. Mortimer fears for his safety. This folk tale may have been the easy explanation for what has happened to the Baskervilles, but Holmes is quite sure that something else is going on, and so it proves to be…

Another Dartmoor folk tale, this one about pixies, finds its way into Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Hercule Poirot decides to spend a holiday at the Jolly Roger on Leathercome Bay on the Devon coast. One day, fellow guest Arlena Marshall is found strangled on Pixy’s Cove not far from the hotel. Since Poirot was possibly the last person to see the victim alive, he works with the police to find out who killed her. At one point, Hercule Poirot and two other hotel guests are having a drink together and Poirot asks:

 

‘‘But I still do not understand. What is this pixy?’
Patrick Redfern said
‘Oh, that’s typically Devonshire. There’s a pixy’s cave at Sheepsor on the Moor. You’re supposed to leave a pin, you know, as a present for the pixy. A pixy is a kind of moor spirit.’’

 

The discussion moves on to some of the places in Devonshire that are supposed to be pixy-ridden. I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that Arlena Marshall wasn’t killed by pixies. But it is interesting how that folk tale has been woven into the story.

Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger includes a very interesting Ute folk tale. The tale is that a Ute named Ironhand was able to slip in and out of canyons almost magically. This gave him the ability to steal sheep and cattle belonging to the Navajos, who are the Utes’ enemies. The Navajos were never able to figure out how Ironhand was able to seemingly appear and disappear and the Ute folk tale is that he was always able to outwit the Navajo. That tale becomes important when it is tied into the modern-day robbery of a Ute casino. The bandits who get away with a huge haul are said to be right-wing militiamen, and a federal hunt for them is soon underway. Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai is soon suspected of being an ‘inside operator’ on this case since he worked part-time as casino security. But Officer Bernadette Manuelito doesn’t think Bai had anything to do with the robbery. When she tells Sergeant Jim Chee about her concerns, he starts asking some questions. Retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn approaches the case from a different angle when he hears the Ute folk tale. It’s a fascinating way to tie in a folk tale with modern-day robbery and murder.

Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money features a folk tale about spirits who haunt a particular part of northern Cambodia and kidnap humans. That tale plays a role in the story when Madeleine Avery hires Australian former cop Max Quinlan to find her missing brother Charles. Avery’s last known place of residence was Bangkok, so Quinlan starts there. When he gets to Avery’s apartment, though, he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also discovers evidence that Avery himself has gone to Cambodia. So he follows the trail to Phnom Penh, where he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin. Little by little, the two piece together Avery’s life. They discover that he was involved in some shady deals and had gotten the wrong people very upset with him. This leads to real danger for both Quinlan and Sarin, but they continue to follow the trail, which takes them to northern Cambodia and leads them right to that old folk tale.

Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead introduces us to retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson. Twenty years earlier, a tragedy befell his family when his grandson Jens disappeared. No trace of the boy was ever found, and his mother Julia was so distraught that she left the island of Øland, hoping to make a new start elsewhere. Then, unexpectedly, Davidsson receives a strange package containing one of Jens’ sandals. He tells Julia about the sandal and she reluctantly returns to Øland to get some answers. The island is home to old fishing communities and there are several folk tales that go around. Julia’s own grandmother, for instance, believed she saw a goblin. And several stories have gone round about a drowned seaman who still wanders. Those two folk tales are not the reason Jens disappeared, but they add a fascinating layer to this story.

And then there’s Dan Smith’s Red Winter. That’s the story of Nikolai ‘Kolya’ Levitsky, who deserts his Red Army unit to return to his village. When he gets there, though, it’s empty. The men have all been killed, and their families have disappeared. The folk tale of Koschei the Deathless, who has sealed his soul away to be immortal, has gone around for years, and the devastation that Levitsky finds looks like the work of a demon-like character just like Koschei. But there are other, equally evil, possibilities to explain what happened to this village and its people. I confess I haven’t read this one (yet), but the interweaving of this old folk tale into a crime novel was too irresistible not to mention. Want to know more about it? ‘Course you do! Check out this excellent review at Raven Crime Reads. And while you’re there, do check out the blog and consider following it. It’s a terrific resource for excellent crime fiction reviews.

Old folk tales are fascinating insights into a culture’s character. So it can really add to a crime novel when we get a peek at some of the tales that are told among the people the crime affects. Which old folk tales do you like to tell?

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leverage’s Stormchild.

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dan Smith, Johan Theorin, Tony Hillerman

I See the Place Lives*

Old MainAny crime fiction fan can tell you that a good, atmospheric setting can add a lot to a novel. And a well-written post from Annette Thomson has got me thinking of the way that old buildings can be rich with history and character. Annette’s blog, by the way, is an excellent writing blog and Annette is a talented poet and writer. Check it out. Old buildings like the one Annette describes have their own stories to tell, and when they’re woven into a crime novel, this can add layers of atmosphere to a story.

There’s a building like that in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral. When wealthy family patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family gathers for his funeral and the reading of the will. At this gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone is quick to discount what she says and Cora herself asks everyone to forget she’s said anything. But privately, everyone wonders whether she might have been right. After all, Richard Abernethie had a fortune to leave and a family full of relations who are eager for their shares of it. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day it seems more and more likely that she was right. Family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. As part of his search for answers, Poirot visits Enderby Hall in the guise of a representative of a foundation that wants to buy the old house. During his visit, he hears some important conversations and remarks, and gets some vital clues as to what really happened to both Richard Abernethie and Cora Lansquenet. The house itself has a rich history and we see that mostly through the eyes of the family butler Lanscombe, who’s been there for decades. As he goes about his duties we get a sense of the way an old building like this one can have memories.

There’s a very atmospheric, history-laden building featured in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first in his Gideon Fell series. Tad Rampole has just completed his university studies and has decided to travel a bit. On the advice of his mentor, he seeks out Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives in Chatterham. On his way to visit Fell, Rampole meets and becomes smitten with Dorothy Starberth. When he meets Fell, Rampole hears the story of the Starberth family. Beginning with Anthony Starberth, two generations of Starberths were governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. The prison then fell into disuse and hasn’t housed any convicts for a hundred years. And yet the Starberth family still maintains a prison-related tradition. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday each Starberth heir spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions in a note left in the safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin to follow the ritual and he duly prepares for his stay. Sometime during the night Martin Starberth dies from what looks like a fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. But it’s soon clear that he was murdered. As Fell, Rampole and Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold investigate, we get a real sense of the rich and eerie history of the prison building. The old building adds much to the story in terms of atmosphere.

So does the Palace Theatre in Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House.  When Arthur Bryant of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) decides to write his memoirs, he makes a shocking discovery about the first case the unit solved. He’s following up on this finding when a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices and takes Bryant with it. Bryant’s police partner John May decides to find out who set the bomb. To do that, he’ll have to revisit the 1940 case that Bryant was reviewing. Through flashbacks we learn that in that case, the PCU investigates the murder of dancer Tanya Capistrania, who was part of the cast of Orpheus, which is scheduled to open at the Palace Theatre. As the team looks into what happened to the victim, preparations continue for the production, but they are marred by another murder, followed by a disappearance. It turns out that there was one question about that case that was not resolved. Bryant found out the answer to that question and when May does too, we find out how that 1940 case is connected to the modern-day blast. Throughout this novel, the Palace Theatre provides a rich, atmospheric and history-laden setting for much of what happens. Just the building itself adds much to the story.

We also see that sense of atmosphere in Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders. Retired Florida circuit court judge Sylvia Thorn reluctantly agrees to accompany her mother Kristina Grisseljon’s travel club the Florida Flippers on a sightseeing and gambling tour of Laughlin, Nevada. Everyone settles in and all begins well enough. But shortly afterwards the body of a man no-one seems to know is found in the bathtub of the hotel room that two of the club members are sharing. Then one of the tour group members disappears. She is later found dead in the abandoned Lone Cactus gold mine. With help from her brother Willie and from the other members of the Florida Flippers, Sylvia finds out what the connection between the deaths is, and how they relate to some nasty secrets that someone has been hiding. One part of the story takes place in Oatman, Nevada, a ghost town near the mine. There are a few very effective scenes there, especially in the Oatman Hotel, which is full of history and character. As a matter of fact, there’s talk that a ghost haunts the hotel. The ghost town setting and the old mine really add atmosphere to this novel. Oh, and so do the burros.

And then there’s the Löwander Hospital, which features strongly in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds. This private hospital has been in the Löwander family for a few generations and is now directed by Sverker Löwander. One night there’s a blackout at the hospital during which a nurse Marianne Svärd is killed. Another nurse Linda Svensson disappears and is later found dead. Eerily enough, her body is discovered in the same place where fifty years earlier, another nurse Thekla Olsson hung herself. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team are called in to investigate the nurses’ murders and another death that occurs. Since the three deaths all seem to be connected to the hospital in some way, the team spends its share of time there. The place is full of history and stories and that atmosphere adds to the novel.

There’s only room in this one post for a few examples of the kind of rich atmosphere and history that old buildings can add to a story (I know, I know, fans of Johan Theorin’s Öland novels). They can either provide an interesting contrast to a light story, or add a real layer of eeriness and mystery to a darker one. Which old buildings do you wish could tell you their stories? If you’re a writer, do you use old places as an inspiration?

Thanks, Annette, for the post that inspired me. And thanks, Elizabeth Spann Craig, for another post with a ‘photo of a great atmospheric Southern Gothic building. That inspired me too.

ps. The ‘photo is of Old Main, the heart of the campus of Knox College, Galesburg IL.  It is a building full of history and all sorts of stories. Among other things, the building is the site of one of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858. Oh, and the winsome model on the steps is my daughter when she was a few months shy of her seventh birthday.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mount Eerie’s The Place Lives.

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Helene Tursten, Johan Theorin, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Stoltey

Where do the Children Go?*

ChildrenOf all of the topics that crime fiction treats, one of the most difficult is when harm comes to children. For most of us, there is an instinct that children must be protected and that makes sense. For one thing, that’s how our species keeps going. For another, children are among the most vulnerable among us and they can’t protect themselves the way adults can. That’s part of the reason I think for which many crime fiction fans don’t want to read novels in which children are the victims. I don’t blame them. We can keep a certain amount of emotional distance from a mystery novel in which the victim is an adult, especially if the violence described isn’t gratuitous or brutal. But it’s a different matter altogether when it’s a child. Because of that I think it takes a special skill for a crime writer to create a story that features the loss of a child.

Agatha Christie explores just that point in Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and is persuaded to investigate the murder. He soon discovers that this death is linked to the kidnapping/murder of three-year-old Daisy Armstrong a few years earlier. In this novel, Christie doesn’t go into lurid detail about the kidnapping and murder and the story is more effective for that. She shows very, very clearly though just how devastating the loss of a child can be.

We also see how devastating that kind of loss is in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead. Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson suffered a terrible tragedy twenty years ago when his grandson Jens disappeared. No trace of the boy was ever found – not even a body. Davidsson’s daughter Julia was so torn apart by her son’s disappearance that she left Øland hoping to pick up her life again. She hasn’t been successful but life has gone on for her and for her father. Then one day Davidsson receives an unusual package – a sandal belonging to Jens. This brings back the tragedy for both Davidsson and his daughter, but it also raises questions that need to be answered. So Julia reluctantly returns to Øland to help her father try to find out what really happened to Jens. Theorin doesn’t dwell in this novel on exactly what happened to the boy but the havoc his loss wrought on the family is woven through the novel.

Even fans of Martha Grimes’ Inspector Jury series find it difficult to read The Winds of Change. Not because it’s not well-written – it is. But this novel deals with the murder of an unknown five-year-old girl who’s found shot in the back. Jury and his friend Melrose Plant look into the case, each in his own way. They find that this murder may be connected to the discovery of the body of a dead woman on the property of wealthy Declan Hughes. It turns out that Hughes’ daughter Flora disappeared three years ago, leaving no trace. As Jury and Plant work to connect these tragedies, we see the effect of the loss of these children. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me if you do) that fact makes this book especially sad to read.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, Saskatchewan political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn gets drawn into a case of multiple murders when her daughter Mieka discovers the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a garbage can. Bernice’s death is possibly related to a series of other murders and Kilbourn investigates them when her son Pete’s former girlfriend Christy Sinclair becomes a victim. Little by little, Kilbourn finds out the truth about the murders and how they are connected to Christy’s upbringing at remote Blue Heron Point. One element that adds a level of suspense and real sadness to this novel is that what’s happening near Blue Heron Point has to do with harm to children. Bowen doesn’t describe what happens in gratuitous detail. Instead, she shows just how awful harm to children really is through Kilbourn’s reactions. And this subtlety makes the novel that much more gripping and sad.

That theme of the dreadful effects of the loss of a child is handled very effectively in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. One afternoon, Minna and David Anderson and their four children attend a school picnic at Lake Wanaka. During the picnic four-year-old Gemma Anderson disappears. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of her is found – not even a body. The family is shattered by what’s happened, and Gemma’s loss has several profound effects. But everyone keeps living as best as possible. Then, seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie makes the choice to find out what really happened to her sister. Stephanie is just beginning her career as a psychiatrist when she starts to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark, who tells her a story that’s eerily similar to Stephanie’s own family story. Years ago Clark’s younger sister Gracie was abducted and, like Gemma Anderson, was never found. Stephanie decides to face her own ghosts and find out the truth about both girls’ disappearances. Throughout this novel, we see just how terrible it is to lose a child and Richardson shows us this in an umber of ways, none of which is gratuitous.

That’s also true in Wendy James’ The Mistake in which Jodie Evans Garrow has to face a haunting part of her past that she’s never told anyone, not even her family members. When she was nineteen, Jodie gave birth to a baby girl Elsa Mary. When circumstances bring her to the same hospital years later, a nurse remembers her and asks about the baby. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption but there are no adoption records to support that. On the other hand, no child’s body was found and there’s nothing to indicate that the baby was killed. So what happened to the baby? Is Jodie somehow responsible for the child’s disappearance? These questions begin to haunt Jodie as everyone begins to turn against her. People are so horrified at the thought that she might have killed her child that she becomes a pariah. Her family is torn apart and we can see as the novel moves on just how much of an impact Elsa Mary’s loss has had on Jodie although she never spoke of what really happened to anyone. The impact of this novel is all that much stronger because Elsa Mary was a child.

Arguably one of the most powerful depictions of the loss of a child (well, in my opinion anyway) is Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney wants to be a detective. In fact, she’s already started her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. She spends quite a lot of time at the recently-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center looking for potential crime. But her grandmother Ivy believes she’d be better off going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon school. Kate doesn’t want to go but her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer persuades her to at least do the exams. In fact, he even goes with her on the bus to the school. Tragically, Kate never returns from Redspoon. A thorough search for her turns up nothing, but everyone thinks Palmer is responsible. His life is made so awful that he leaves town, planning never to return. Twenty years later his younger sister Lisa is an assistant manager at Your Music in Green Oaks. One night, she makes an unlikely friend Kurt, who’s a security guard at the mall. Kurt tells Lisa that lately he’s been seeing something odd on the security cameras: a young girl carrying a backpack. The girl looks a lot like Kate Meaney and that brings up very painful memories. But each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt work to find out the truth about the security cameras and the truth about what happened to Kate.  In this novel O’Flynn explores, among other things, the deep scars that are left when a child disappears, and how that loss affects even the most unlikely people.

It’s hard to write about the loss of a child. It was even hard to write this post because of that. So I can see why people don’t want to read about that topic. I give a lot of credit to authors who can handle it well.

 

In Memoriam

 

SandyHook

 

This post is dedicated to the memories of those who were lost in the 14 December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Many of those killed were children. There aren’t any words to describe the sadness and grief that their loss has left behind, so I won’t try. I truly wish their families the strength, peace and hope that they need to rebuild. I also wish for them the privacy they deserve at this time.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Hooters.

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Johan Theorin, Martha Grimes, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James