Category Archives: John Alexander Graham

The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

1960sTo say that the 1960s was a decade of major change is an understatement. It was a time of so many social, political, economic and other changes that some people have called those years ‘revolutionary.’ And perhaps they have a point.

Crime fiction, like other genres, tells the story of those changes and we see them reflected in many different novels, both from and about the era. Space is only going to allow for a few examples, but I’m sure you already understand what I mean.

One of the major changes that took place during the 1960s was the role of students, especially university students. Certainly students had spoken out on campuses before, but in many countries, this decade saw the rise of student protests that really resounded in ways they hadn’t before. In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler, for instance, Hewes College Classics Professor Arnold Weschler is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s not himself particulalry political, but his brother David is. One day, Weschler is called to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrn, who wants to discuss the recent activities of a radical student group that’s come to campus. Dohrn believes that David Weschler is one of the leaders of the group. He wants Arnold to contact his brother and stop the group from causing any more trouble. The Weschler brothers have been estranged for a long time, but Arnold knows that his job may depend on his response. So he reluctantly agrees. That’s how he gets drawn into the group and gets to know the members. He even develops some sympathy for some of their views. That is, until there’s a kidnapping and then a bombing that kills Dohrn. Now Weschler has to find the killer and clear his brother’s name before he’s arrested.

During the 1960s, there was also a deep and serious questioning of ‘Establishment’ politics and economics. Many people, even those who didn’t identify themselves as Communists per se questioned the socioeconomic status quo. And there were plenty who did identify themselves as Marxists. Perhaps the best look at the leftist point of view and goals of that era can be seen in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series featuring Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team. This is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with it if you do. But for me, this series encapsulates a lot of what this set of politics embraced. Each of the ten novels in this series is about a self-contained murder mystery. But throughout the series, there’s a great deal of social critique too. There are critiques of police power, social class divisions, ‘Establishment’ corruption and other important issues with Swedish society.

Another major change in society was a change in the roles of women. Bit by bit, women had been seeking full citizenship for a long time, and had made solid strides (e.g. suffrage, working outside the home and so on). But in the US at least, women were still regarded as best-suited for ‘home and hearth.’ During the 1960s this began to be questioned more and more. And it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to work outside the home at financial parity with men (although that was certainly an issue). I’m also talking here of what you might call women’s sexual liberation. There was still very much a double standard when it came to what was expected of ‘ladies’ and what was expected of men. And women began to insist on being as much in charge of their own destinies as men were. You see that in the non-crime-fiction work of writers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But you also see it in crime fiction. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for instance, we meet noted fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a well-off and successful single woman who has no desire to get married and ‘settle down.’ She puts it this way:
 

‘In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.’
 

Certainly she doesn’t identify herself by her ability to cook, clean, sew or look after children. She’s independent both economically and sexually. One night, she’s murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and his son Ellery of course takes part in the investigation. In the end, they find that the victim’s modern way of thinking about herself and the role love should play in her life had a part in her murder.

One of the other major changes of the 1960s was the move of drug use from certain bohemian, artistic and musical circles to the mainstream. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that drugs have been associated with crime fiction for a very long time. But during these years, ‘average’ everyday people had easier access to them and their use spread. There’s a mention of that in Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (published in 1966), in which Norma Restarick and Hercule Poirot don’t exactly get off on the proverbial right footing. She wants to hire him until she actually meets him and concludes that he’s too old to help her. For his part, Poirot isn’t at all impressed with Norma’s appearance or manner. When she disappears, though, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out what happened to her. The trail leads to fraud and murder and real danger for Mrs. Oliver. Drugs have their role to play in this novel, and it’s interesting to note that their use has gone beyond just the ‘artsy’ set by this time.

Questions of relations between the races had been simmering for a long time. But matters came to a head during the 1960s. We see this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Admittedly it’s about an earlier time, but it raises issues that became a major point of conflict during the ’60s. In that novel, Tom Robinson is accused of (and quickly arrested for) the rape of Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, but because he’s Black and Mayella Ewell is White, he’s assumed to be guilty. Prominent local attorney Atticus Finch takes this case and goes to what you could argue are heroic lengths to prove that his client is not a rapist. Although we could hardly say that race is no longer an issue, there were some major strides forward taken during these years. In fact, Walter Mosley discusses this in Little Green, which takes place in 1967. PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a Black man named Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts there. He discovers that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about the group, so he contacts her. At one point, they meet in a local restaurant, where something happens that certainly makes Rawlins think:
 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’
 

Admittedly this story takes place in Los Angeles. In a smaller town things might have been different. But the move forward in race relations was an important part of the 1960s.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues (which takes place in 1967) also discusses many of the changes that took place during the 1960s. I’m just diving into that one, to be honest, so I’m not yet thoroughly enough versed to discuss it on this blog. But I can say this. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has to deal with the drug culture, the hippie movement, and other major social changes as he searches for what could be a serial killer.

There were of course many other dramatic changes in the 1960s – changes in technology, music, popular culture, cinematography and lots more. A decade that started out as looking very much like the 1950s ended up as something completely different. The times they definitely were ‘a-changin’. Which novels evoke this time for you?

ps. Just look at the two ‘photos of the Beatles and you’ll see the changes that took place during the 1960s. From ‘mop-tops’ in suits to hippies….
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Harper Lee, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Walter Mosley

I Think You Were Lost in the ’70’s*

As anyone who lived through them could tell you, the 1970’s were a time of real social, political and geopolitical change. And because good crime fiction reflects society, we see those changes reflected in the crime fiction of the era. There won’t be space in this one post for me to discuss all of those changes; I’ll just mention a few of them and you’ll see, I hope, what I mean.

Let’s start, though, with some major changes that were going on in crime fiction itself. You may disagree with me on this, but I see the 1970’s as a bridge between the end of the Golden Age/traditional kind of detective fiction and more modern crime fiction. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and some other Golden-Age authors were still writing as the 1970’s began, and we see their influence. At the same time, though, other authors were taking that tradition and innovating with it.

For instance, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began writing their series featuring Stockholm detective Martin Beck in the mid-1960’s and carried it through into the mid-1970’s. In that series, we see elements of traditional crime novels. But we also see innovations such as exploration of psychology and social critique. We could say a similar thing about Ruth Rendell’s series featuring Inspector Reg Wexford. That series began in the 1960’s and has continued since then. As the series moved into the 1970’s, we see the traditions of the Golden-Age detective story, but made more modern and addressing more complex themes. I would argue (but feel free to differ with me if you don’t see it this way) that these two series reflect a growing interest in 1970’s crime fiction in the development of deeper and more complex characters.

We also see that development in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, which also began (with Last Bus to Woodstock) in the 1970’s. That series has some elements that you could argue come from Golden Age traditions (e.g. the brilliant detective, the cast of suspects and so on). But at the same time there’s exploration of psychology, there’s the development of the flawed and complex sleuth, and other elements that one could argue are more typical of modern crime fiction.

The world outside was changing too and crime fiction of the day reflects that. One major change was the development of what I’ll call the youth culture. Many people think of ‘hippies’ as a ’60’s phenomenon,’ and certainly there was plenty of youth activism then. But student demonstrations and student political activism was vey much a part of, especially, the early 1970’s. We see that for instance in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, in which Superintendent Andy Dalziel and (then) Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate a murder on the campus of Holm Coultram College. There’s a strong student movement also in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler. In that novel, a Classics professor is asked to investigate his brother’s connection to a radical student movement on the campus of quiet Hewes College. There are lots of other examples too of crime fiction that involves student activism and the ‘youth culture.’

Another major change of the 1970’s was the beginning of the move in international politics from the Cold War to what we think of as modern-day terrorism. Oh, the Cold War was still going on, and I’m sure you could list lots more Cold War-themed novels of the day than I could. And terrorism did not begin in the 1970’s. But especially after the tragic attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics, terrorism began to be a reality more than it ever had. We see that reflected, for instance in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists. In that novel, Martin Beck and his team are assigned to protect a U.S. senator who’s visiting Stockholm because he is at risk from terrorists. In the meantime, they’re also investigating the murder of pornographic film-maker Walter Petrus (Valter Pettersson) and the case of Rebecka Lind, who’s on trial for a bank robbery she says she didn’t commit. It’s an interesting look at, among other things, the rise of the threat of terrorism and its effects on policing.

The politics of the 1970’s (I’m thinking in particular about the Watergate scandal that brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration) changed the way many people viewed political leadership. There’ve been political thrillers around for quite a while of course, but consipiracy thrillers (such as those of Robert Ludlum) were made even more popular by real-life events such as Watergate.

The 1970’s was also a time of a great deal of social upheaval too. As women began to insist on being treated as equals (the movement was called Women’s Lib(eration) in the U.S.) there was a real re-thinking of the roles men and women should play. Basically, the rules had changed and a lot of people were no longer sure exactly what they were any more. We see that reflected in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, there’s Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who is old-fashioned in some ways. As the 1970’s goes along, he has to increasingly interact with women who simply don’t see the world, or male/female relationships, the way he does. And then there’s the beginnings of the truly independent female crime fiction protagonist. Of course there’ve been female protagonists for quite a long time in the genre. But protagonists such as Marcia Muller’s PI sleuth Sharon McCone were a newer development. McCone does have relationships, but she doesn’t depend on a man to ‘do the rough stuff.’ Nor does she try to ‘act like a man.’ By the end of the decade, women were beginning to take on the world, if I can put it that way, on their own terms, and we start to see that in crime fiction.

I could mention a lot of the other major changes the 1970’s brought (e.g. the rewriting of the ‘rules’ for race relations, the beginning of the gay rights movement, and so on). And the crime fiction of the era reflects what an unsettled time it was. But what’s your view? What 1970’s phenomena do you see reflected in that decade’s crime fiction? C’mon, comb those sideburns or that ‘Farrah Flip,’ dig out that forest-green suit or peasant blouse and let me know what you think.

ps. You will notice that this post contains no mention of disco or disco fashion, other than this sentence. There is a reason for that.
 
 
 

*Note: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s All You Want to Do is Dance.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Marcia Muller, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill, Robert Ludlum, Ruth Rendell

Soldiers Are Cutting Us Down*

If you’ve ever been involved in a protest against something, then you know that they are sometimes very intense and emotional experiences. Protests have led to important positive changes in society. They’ve also led to looting and killing. Some protests have ended tragically when they were brutally suppressed, too. There is often strong emotion and passion on both sides of a protest, so it’s not surprising that protests turn up in a lot of crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s novels don’t in general focus on organised protests and the passion that can engender them. But there is a hint of the issue in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). In that novel we meet successful and powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He gets drawn into a murder investigation when his dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery. Since Blunt is a powerful man with enemies, it’s thought that he was the intended victim. In fact, one of the suspects in Morley’s murder is Howard Raikes, an activist in a group that’s dedicated to overthrowing the current banking and government systems. Things look even worse for Raikes a little later in the novel when a friend of his, another activist, shoots at Blunt. But Poirot begins to believe that Morley’s death may not have been part of an attack on Blunt, so he looks more closely in the matter. In the end, Poirot finds out who shot Morley and how it is related to two other deaths that occur in the novel.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahllöö’s The Laughing Policeman starts with a violent anti-Vietnam protest at the American Embassy in Stockholm. There’s been a campaign of letters, anti-war demonstrations and more, so Martin Beck and his team have been kept busy trying to protect the embassy and its staff. Things get even worse when the protests begin to turn ugly. The police do their best to keep the demonstrators back, while the demonstrators are just as determined to have their way. It’s just when the police are proverbially stretched to the thinnest that there’s a tragedy on a Stockholm bus. Officers Kant and Kristiansson find out that a gunman has shot eight people on the bus, including Åke Stenström, a police officer. Beck and his team begin to investigate and soon discover that the gunman “hid” Åke Stenström’s death among those of the other passengers. Later they learn that the police officer’s death is related to a “cold case” he was investigating, the murder of Teresa Camarão, a “well born” Portuguese woman who’d become a prostitute. The protest here isn’t the main plot of the story, but it adds a strong layer of tension and a solid sense of atmosphere to the novel.

In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler, Hewes College President Winthrop Dohrn invites Classics Professor Arnold Wechsler to his office for a private visit. Wechsler doesn’t want to go; he prefers to keep his head low, as the saying goes, and do his job. But such an invitation is really a “command performance,” so he accepts it. It turns out that Dohrn has an unusual request; he’s gotten word that Wechsler’s brother David, who was a student at Hewes until he dropped out, has returned to the area. David Wechsler may be involved in subversive activities and Dohrn wants to keep the peace on his campus. So he asks Wechsler to contact his brother and find out the truth about David’s activities. Wechsler is estranged from his brother so he has no interest in getting involved, but he wants to keep his job so he reluctantly agrees. It’s not long before Wechsler himself begins to wonder whether Dohrn might be right. David is a co-leader of The Student Liberation Committee (SLA), a radical student protest group that’s made appearances on campus. Then, some drugs are stolen from a local hospital. That’s followed by a kidnapping and later by the bombing of the Dohrn home and the resultant death of Dohrn himself. If David is to be cleared of suspicion of these events, he and his brother will have to work together to find out who has manipulated the protest group to achieve a fatal set of goals.

We also see the manipulation of a protest group in Peter Robinson’s A Necessary End. DCI Alan Banks is none too happy when an anti-nuclear group plans a protest in Eastvale. Even the most peaceful protest causes a lot of extra work and stress and this one doesn’t seem as though it’s going to be peaceful. Sure enough, the protest goes off as planned and it does indeed turn very ugly. Locals, demonstrators and the police all get involved in the mêlée, and when the proverbial dust clears, Banks learns that PC Edwin Gill has been stabbed during the arrests of some of the demonstrators. The first suspects are members of the protest group, and that’s the angle that Banks’ boss Richard “Dirty Dick” Burgess wants Banks to take. But Banks isn’t sure it’s that simple. It soon comes out that Gill was a thug who abused his authority more than once. So there are several locals who could have had a good motive to kill him. And Burgess seems to have an obsession with “getting” the protest group that Banks can’t understand. So he works his own way and in end, finds out who killed Gill and why.

And then there’s Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage. That’s the story of a protest against the construction of a new roadway around Kingsmarkham. The plan is that part of the road will pass through Framhurst Great Wood near the town, and that’s part of what’s got people upset about it. Even Inspector Reg Wexford is unhappy at the destruction of the forest, and his wife Dora is part of a group of locals that have protested to the local authorities against the planned construction. Several protest groups come into town to try to stop the construction, and soon, things turn from bad to worse. One of the groups takes a group of hostages, among them Dora Wexford. Then there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to try to free the hostages, solve the murder and do their best to prevent any more deaths. In the end, we see how this situation – a protest against road construction – is manipulated to someone’s advantage.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass Darkly begins with a protest against Venice-area glass-blowing factories. One of the leading demonstrators is Marco Ribetti, an environmental activist and a friend of Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello. Ribetti is arrested and asks Vianello for help, and Vianello agrees. He and Commissario Guido Brunetti get Ribetti freed but soon find themselves investigating a murder in the same area. Ribetti’s father-in-law Giovanni de Cal owns one of the glass-blowing factories, many of which have been suspected of illegally disposing of toxic waste. When de Cal’s night watchman Giorgio Tassini is killed after his own protests against the dumping, de Cal becomes a suspect.

Protests and demonstrations have been used for a long time to express public opinion and to try to make change. Lots of times they are peaceful, but sometimes they erupt into violence and worse. There is a delicate balance between the right to express one’s views and petition for change, and the interest in keeping order and preventing looting. Both sides in these events need to stay focused and avoid letting tempers rule. But that doesn’t always happen…

 

 

In Memoriam…

 

This post is dedicated to the memories of Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, who were shot on 4 May 1970 during a protest against the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter Robinson, Ruth Rendell

Oh and There We Were All in One Place, A Generation Lost in Space*

Part of crime fiction’s appeal is that it shows us who we are as a people (and who we have been and might yet be). Crime fiction holds up a mirror that can be both interesting and sometimes instructive. We see that quite a bit when crime fiction explores major social issues and events. And one of the great social upheavals in recent history was the set of social and political changes that took place during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. From dress to views of social roles to speech and a lot more, societies all over the world were profoundly affected when the “Baby Boomers” reached the teen and young adult years. So I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look at what crime fiction has had to say about those years. Mind, this is by no means an exhaustive look; there’s simply no room in one blog post to do that. But here are just a few examples of crime fiction that take a look at that era.

Agatha Christie’s novels span the years from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, and some of them explore this era of change. For instance, in Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Norma Restarick, a young woman who thinks she “may have” committed a murder. When he gently presses her for more information the young woman leaves without giving her name, saying that he’s “too old.” Needless to say, Poirot is put out by this and has a conversation with his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver about it. As it happens, Oliver has met Norma Restarick and she and Poirot work together to find out whether the young woman could have committed a murder. Then, Norma Restarick disappears. Now the two sleuths have the added task of finding her before harm comes to her, which seems more and more likely as the novel goes on. In the end, they discover what the truth is behind Norma Restarick’s claims and her disappearance. Throughout this novel, Christie explores the “mod” culture including its fashions, its fascination with drugs and the art that was created at the time. Through the eyes of Poirot and Oliver, who are from a different era, we see how the young people, the new views and so on are perceived by others and it’s a very interesting portrait of a society that has changed dramatically.

Student unrest and radicalism was a major part of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and several stories explore that theme, too. For instance, in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler, we meet Classics Professor Arnold Wechsler, who teaches at Hewes College, a small New England school. As with many schools at that time, students have been agitating for change, and the atmosphere has gotten tense. Wechsler has been avoiding the issues of student demands and politics. Instead, he’s trying to negotiate the perilous politics of getting tenure when his life is complicated by a summons to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrm. Dohrm has discovered that Wechsler’s brother David has come to Hewes College, supposedly to connect with a radical student group on campus. Dohrm wants Wechsler to contact his brother and find out if David is involved in any subversive activities or has plans to do so. That’s the last thing Wechsler wants, as he and his brother are estranged. But he also wants tenure. So he agrees to Dohrm’s request. Then, a series of frightening events occurs. A supply of drugs is stolen from a local hospital. Then, Dohrm’s grand-daughter Nancy is abducted and a ransom note is sent with David Wechsler’s initials. Then, Dohrm himself is killed when a bomb destroys the family home. As Wechsler tries to find out what’s behind all of these events and how involved David is, we get a close look at student radicalism of the era. We also get a look at the social divide between those young people and what they called “The Establishment.”

There’s a similar theme in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, which was written at about the same time. In that novel, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to Holm Coultram College to investigate the five-year-old death of former president Alison Girling. She was believed to have died in a freak avalanche during a holiday, but when her body is found on the school grounds, it’s clear that she was murdered. To complicate matters, there’s a radical student group on campus led in part by Franny Roote. The group has made several demands and does its best to interfere with the normal teaching and learning routine of campus. Dalziel, of course, has no patience with the group, which makes the members all the angrier, but they do respect his “presence,” and it’s interesting to see how they interact with Dalziel as the novel moves along. In the end, Dalziel and Pascoe find out who killed Alison Girling and why, and as they do, we get a very interesting look at a radicalised campus.

We also see some exploration of this era in Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name of Jeffery Hudson. Dr. Albert Lee, a well-known obstetrician at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, has his world shattered when he is accused of murder. According to the accusation, he performed an illegal abortion (the book was written in 1968) on Karen Randall, who later died of complications from the surgery. Lee claims that he did not perform the abortion. Yet, he’s arrested and charged. He asks his friend pathologist Dr. John Berry to look into the matter and help clear his name. Berry agrees, but his investigation is soon complicated in several ways. First, he’s not entirely sure that Lee did not perform the abortion. Second, Karen Randall was the daughter of J.D. Randall, one of the most powerful surgeons at the hospital, and Randall has absolutely no desire for any scandal on his family. Third, as Berry begins to dig a little deeper, he finds that Karen Randall had a very different private life from her public persona. This was the era of sexual exploration and drug use, and Karen was involved in both of those. She’s made some friends and acquaintances who are not interested in the truth about their world coming out. Nonetheless, Berry persists and in the end, finds out what really happened to Karen Randall. One of the themes in this novel is the “generation gap” of the times, and the difficulty that Karen’s “blueblood” family has accepting the new order of things. The novel also explores other controversial questions of the day, such as drug use and whether abortion should be legal. It’s an interesting look at that era.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahllöö’s The Laughing Policeman includes a look at one of the most controversial issues of this era; the Vietnam War. The war ignited a firestorm of controversy all over the world, and a protest against the war provides the backdrop to this novel. The American Embassy in Stockholm has been the target of anti-war demonstrations, a letter campaign and more, so many of the police are diverted from their usual duties to help protect the embassy. Then, the demonstration begins to get ugly, and even more police are needed. On the same night as the police are busy trying to keep back the demonstrators, Officers Kant and Kristiansson get word of a tragedy on a Stockholm bus. They learn that a gunman has murdered eight people, including Åke Stenström, one of their own. The gunman has picked the perfect time to commit murder, a time when the police are busy battling demonstrators. Martin Beck and his team begin to investigate and soon find deduce that the gunman has “hidden” Stenström’s murder amongst the other deaths to call attention away from it. As they slowly piece together Stenström’s last days, the team learns that he was investigating a “cold case” – the murder of Teresa Camarão, a “well born” Portuguese woman who’d become a prostitute. When the police put that piece together with the fact that not all of the victims of the bus shooting have been identified, they are able to find the key to the mystery. The mystery really isn’t about the Vietnam War, but the protests against it and the “feel” of 1960’s Stockholm provide a vivid background to the story.

Of course there are a lot of other crime novels that take place during this era and highlight the attitudes, upheavals, clothes, drugs and culture of the times. Want to dig out your bell-bottoms, light up your lava lamps, get out those love beads and think of some other examples??? ;-).

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don McLean’s American Pie. Thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading (a superb blog you should follow – really!) for the post title that inspired this

Oh, and for you young readers, that large thing in the middle of the ‘photo is called an album. We listened to those before there were cassettes, CD’s and MP3’s… ;-).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jeffery Hudson, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Michael Crichton, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill

I’m Forever Yours Faithfully*

A tragedy like murder can shatter a person or a family. It can also have a way of bringing people together who’ve been apart, physically or metaphorically, for a long time. In fact, that’s one positive thing that can come out of a violent death, if you can say anything positive can result from a murder. There are all sorts of cases of that kind of thing happening in real life, and it happens in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), we meet the Lee family. Brothers Albert, George, David and Harry haven’t been much in contact in the last years. Harry and Albert especially have fallen out; in fact, Harry hasn’t been in England for a long time. One of the main reasons for the dysfunction in this family is its patriarch, wealthy and unpleasant Simeon Lee. One Christmas, Simeon Lee invites all of the members of his family to spend Christmas at Gorston Hall, the family home. All of the brothers and their wives gather for the holiday and despite their awkwardness, they try to make a go of the visit. On Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby for the holiday and is persuaded to work with Superintendent Sugden and investigate the killing. All of the members of the family are suspects, since each of them had either a financial or personal motive (or both) for the murder. As the different members of the family come under direct suspicion, there is a sense of distrust in the family. There is also, though, a sense that everyone’s in the situation together. In the end, when Poirot has discovered who the killer is and how the murder happened, there is also a sense of healing. Now that Simeon Lee is gone, the other members of the family can repair their relationships. Even Albert and Harry Lee, who were the most at odds, make efforts to reach out to each other and that adds a touch of hope to this novel.

We also see a kind of healing of relationships in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler. Weschler is a Professor of Classics at Hewes College. Ordinarily a peaceful place, the college is rocked by student unrest and by a set of thefts. College President Winthrop Dohrn believes that Weschler’s brother David, who’s been involved with a student radical group, may have knowledge of subversive activities. Understandably, Dohrn wants the student unrest on campus to stop, and certainly doesn’t want it carried any further. So he asks Weschler to contact his brother and ask him to influence the group to stop. Weschler is at first very reluctant. Not only does he not want to get involved in anything as divisive as a radical student movement, but also, he’s been estranged from his brother for quite some time. Dohrn makes it clear, though, that it’s in Weschler’s professional interest to do as he’s asked. So the Weschler brothers make contact. Then, there’s a kidnapping. Not long afterwards, there’s a bombing that results in a death. Now it looks as though David Weschler is implicated in those crimes, and the brothers will have to work together to find out what’s behind these disturbing crimes and clear David’s name. In the process of this investigation, the two brothers make their peace. That aspect of the novel is handled realistically, too. They don’t become “best friends;” they’re far too different for that. But they do realise they have a bond, and they bridge the gap that has divided them.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Mallory Lawson and his wife Kate have just inherited a great deal of money from Mallory’s deceased aunt. Her will stipulates that the Lawsons must move into her home in the village of Forbes Abbott. They must also hire her companion Benny Frayle. The Lawsons agree to these conditions and settle in. One thing they’re hoping is that the move will be good for their family life. Their daughter Polly has been mixed up with a number of dubious people and has been making some unwise decisions, and both Mallory and Kate are worried about her. They have different views of how to help her, and this makes for some friction between them. And then there are their relationships with Polly, which are not exactly smooth. Not long after the move to Forbes Abbott, the body of local financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is found underneath one of the mediaeval torture machines he collected. At first, it looks like a terrible accident. But Benny Frayle, who was a friend of Brinkley’s, doesn’t believe that. So she goes to the police with her concerns. At first, no-one believes her. But finally, Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate the death. Then there’s another death. The Lawsons get involved in the case because Dennis Brinkely managed their inheritance. So Barnaby and Troy have to consider all of them suspects. And at one point, Polly Lawson gets herself into very serious trouble and then disappears. Mallory Lawson’s desperate search for his daughter, and the family’s reunion when she is found, make for a real layer of tension and an interesting sub-plot. And once Barnaby and Troy have discovered who killed Brinkley, we can see that the experiences the Lawson family goes through have the effect of drawing them together. Again, there’s nothing “fairy tale” here; the Lawsons have a lot of work to do and they aren’t magically a happy family. But we can see that they are in the process of healing.

We also see that kind of healing in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. In that novel, the Taylor family has owned and operated Aunt Pat’s Barbecue for several generations. The restaurant is one of the more popular Memphis barbecue eateries and has a devoted clientele. The family has always been fairly close, so when Sebastian “Seb” Taylor, who’s been living in New York, runs into trouble there and gets in above his head, he decides to come home. The decision isn’t as easy as he thought it would be, though, and there’s plenty of friction in the family. But when the Cooking Channel’s food scout Rebecca Adrian announces a visit to Aunt Pat’s, everyone’s excited about it. Only hours after Adrian’s visit to the restaurant, she dies of what turns out to be poison and it’s not long before rumours begin to spread about the Taylor family and about the quality of the restaurant. So Lulu Taylor, the family matriarch and current owner of the restaurant, decides to find out what really happened to the victim. There are several suspects, since Rebecca Adrian was vindictive and malicious, and not above making all sorts of false promises when it was expedient. In the end, Lulu Taylor, with the help of some friends, finds out who the murderer is. We also see how this tragedy draws the family closer and even plays a role in bridging the gulf between Seb Taylor and the rest of the family.

And then there’s Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, the first of his novels featuring Inspector Erlendur. Erlendur hasn’t exactly had a happy family life. He and his ex-wife divorced many years ago, and he hasn’t been close to his son Sindri Snaer or his daughter Eva Lind for a long time. Sindri Snaer has had a lot of trouble with addiction, although he’s just completed a course of rehabilitation, and Eva Lind has been in even worse trouble. Then, Erlendur and his team are assigned to investigate the murder of Holberg, a seemingly inoffensive elderly man. At first the killing looks like a burglary gone very wrong. But it’s not long before it’s clear that there’s more to this than meets the eye. As Erlendur and the team investigate, they find that Holberg has a very unpleasant and twisted past, and that his death may be related to long-ago crimes, and to the forty-year-old death of a young girl (no, Holberg didn’t murder the girl). That death affects Erlendur deeply. It also affects the way he reacts when Eva Lind suddenly appears with a request from her mother. Erlendur’s ex-wife wants him to look into the disappearance of a young woman on her wedding day. Erlendur begins to ask some questions and with help from Eva Lind, he finds out what happened to the bride. The relationship between Erlendur and his daughter adds a powerful element to this story. Eva Lind is, in many ways, lost. She’s been using drugs, she’s in trouble with some local toughs, and she has no clear direction. And Erlendur isn’t very skilled, at least at first, at communicating with her, so the two have some very bad moments. And yet, underneath it all, one can see that they care about each other. As the novel goes on, they reach a real understanding. You can’t say they become good friends, but we can see how they reach out to each other as a result of these two cases. There is definitely hope for them in this story.

And that’s one of the things about characters who reach out to each other, even across very tall barriers. That act of starting to heal can add a layer of interest and certainly a layer of hope to a novel. But what do you think? Do you think that kind of reaching out is too unrealistic? Or do you think it benefits a novel?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Faithfully.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Alexander Graham, Riley Adams