Category Archives: Karin Alvtegen

This is a Dangerous Liaison*

Dangerous LiaisonsIf you read enough crime fiction, you get to the point where you can almost give advice to the characters. Just as an example, there are plenty of novels where there’s a ‘boy meets girl’ situation that you absolutely know is not going to go well. If it’s handled deftly, that kind of scene or plot thread can add real tension and suspense to a novel. If it’s done poorly it gets predictable and therefore, just pulls the reader out of the story. Let me offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires private investigator Philip Marlowe to help him solve a delicate family problem. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s job will be to make Geiger leave the Sternwood family alone. By the time he gets to Geiger’s place of business though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. What’s worse, it seems that Carmen Sternwood was a witness. Marlowe does his best to protect Carmen and thinks his business with the Sternwood family is done. But it’s really only beginning, as soon enough the Sternwood chauffer is killed. Then there’s another blackmail threat. It turns out that this is a very complicated case, but Marlowe manages to find out the truth. At one point in the novel, Carmen Sternwood tries to seduce Marlowe. It’s definitely one of those, ‘There is no way this can go well’ moments and it’s interesting to see how Marlowe handles it.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg has recently discovered that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated of course, and even more so when she finds out who the other woman is.  One evening, she goes out with no particular purpose in mind. She ends up at a pub where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own personal tragedy. The two strike up a conversation and by the time they leave the pub together, the reader has learned enough about both to know that this is not going to work out well. And it doesn’t. Instead, the situation spirals more and more out of control and ends tragically for more than one person.

Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met. She and her colleagues are on the trail of a killer that the press has nicknamed the Burning Man because he tries to destroy his victims by fire. At one point, they think they have their man, but while that suspect is in custody there’s another death. This time, PR professional Rebecca Haworth is the victim. At first it looks as though the Burning Man has struck again. But there are enough inconsistencies that this could also be a ‘copycat’ murder. For various reasons Kerrigan is asked to focus her attention on the Haworth case instead of the larger Burning Man investigation. She’s not thrilled about it, but she knows the consequences of not ‘playing by the rules.’ So she begins to dig into Haworth’s past. It turns out that there’s more than one possible suspect. Soon it’s clear that this is a separate investigation. Kerrigan and her team do get to the truth about both Rebecca Haworth’s murder and about the Burning Man murders. And without spoiling the novel, I can say that dangerous liaisons play a role. There are several moments in the novel where the reader is tempted to shout out a warning. There are enough plot twists though that it isn’t predictable.

In Out of the Silence, Wendy James offers a fictionalised account of a real-life case. In 1900, Maggie Heffernan was convicted in Melbourne of killing her infant son. James uses the novel to tell Maggie’s story, which begins in rural Victoria. There, Maggie meets Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney visiting relatives. The two soon begin a romantic relationship. At first, all seems fine. Then, Maggie begins to hope for a marriage proposal. The two do become secretly engaged, but Jack tells her that they’ll have to keep things private until he can earn enough to provide for a family. Instead of being alerted by this, Maggie agrees. Then Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant and writes to Jack. There is no answer, even after several letters. In the meantime, Maggie’s about to give birth and she knows that her own family won’t have her back. So she goes to Melbourne where she finds work in a Guest House. Baby Jacky duly arrives and for a short time, Maggie and her son stay in a home for unwed mothers. Then she learns that Jack may be in Melbourne and decides to go in search of him, sure that he’ll be overjoyed to have a family. Instead, Jack rejects her harshly, saying that she’s crazy. Devastated and desperate, Maggie takes the baby to six different lodging homes and is turned away from each one. That’s when the tragedy occurs. Savvy readers see it coming, but at the same time, the story is deftly told, so it keeps the reader’s interest.

And then there’s Jane Risdon’s short story The Honey Trap. In that story, a British agent spends the evening with a beautiful woman. You know immediately that something bad is going to happen. Such evenings have a nasty habit of going very, very wrong. I don’t want to spoil the story, so check it out to see how this one works out.

In Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, Stewart Macintosh is out one night at a Glasgow club called Heavenly. There he meets a beautiful woman Zara Cope. She seems attracted to him and the two become quite friendly. By the time this happens, the reader has learned that Zara is the girlfriend of drug dealer Lewis Winter, who’s been targeted for murder. As it happens, he’s at the club too, but he’s quite drunk, and Macintosh is besotted. He’s so besotted in fact that he agrees to help Zara get Winter back to the house and into bed, the idea being that he and Zara will then have the rest of the night together. You know this isn’t going to end well and it doesn’t. Two professional hit men burst in and Macintosh finds himself caught up in a web of murder, conspiracy and drug ‘patch wars.’

Agatha Christie uses that plot point in a few of her stories too, but since specific examples would give away too much, I’ll refrain from mentioning them. Sometimes, you just know that nothing good is going to come from a ‘boy meets girl’ situation, but when it’s done well, the suspense and interest help carry it off. Which examples have you thought worked really well?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jason Mraz’ The Remedy (I Won’t Worry).

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Filed under Jane Casey, Jane Risdon, Karin Alvtegen, Malcolm Mackay, Raymond Chandler, Wendy James

And it Seems That I’ve Arrived at a Battleground Just by Chance*

Unrelated MurdersSome crime fiction authors are quite skilled at tying together seemingly disparate cases. In those novels, the plot threads may seem separate at first, but they have a common origin (e.g. the same person committed two apparently distinct murders; or murder A was committed because the victim knew about Murder B). There are some cases though, where the sleuth is pursuing one case and runs into another, unrelated case on the way. It’s not easy to pull that kind of story off credibly. After all, the ‘long arm of coincidence’ can take away from a novel. And it’s important in a story like this to follow more than one plot thread effectively. But when it’s done well, it can be realistic. After all, the rest of life doesn’t stop when real-life cases are being investigated. Other things happen at the same time. Let me just share a few examples of stories like this to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, special agent Colin Lamb is in the town of Crowdean following up on the investigation into an alleged spy ring. His search leads him to a quiet neighbourhood called Wilbraham Crescent. He’s walking along the street there when a young woman Sheila Webb rushes out of one of the houses screaming that there’s a dead man inside. Lamb helps Webb settle herself and goes into the house to see for himself what’s there. When he discovers that she was right about there being a body in the house, he calls the police and the investigation into the man’s death begins. The case has enough strangeness about it that Lamb thinks it will interest his father’s friend Hercule Poirot, so he tells Poirot about it. Poirot is indeed interested and with his help, Lamb and Inspector Richard Hardcastle find out who the dead man was and who killed him. That murder doesn’t have anything to do really with the spy ring case (which, by the way, Lamb also solves). It’s really proximity as you might say that brings the two cases together.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Terra Cotta Dog, Inspector Salvo Montalbano gets an unusual request. Small-time crime boss Gegè Gullotta, who also happens to be a friend of Montalbano’s, has a message for him. Powerful crime leader Gaetano ‘Tano the Greek’ Bennici wants a meeting, and he wanted Gullotta to arrange it. Things get even more unusual when Montalbano meets with Bennici. It turns out that Bennici wants to be arrested. He has reasons of his own and Montalbano decides to oblige. Information that Bennici gives him leads Montalbano to an illegal cache of arms that’s hidden in a cave. And that’s when Montalbano stumbles onto a fifty-year-old mystery. The remains of two young lovers are in a separate part of the cave, together with a life-sized terra-cotta dog seemingly watching over them. Montalbano can’t resist the urge to find out who the two people were and why and by whom they were murdered.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we are introduced to Eva Wirenström-Berg. She and her husband Henrik have what Eva thinks is a stable marriage, and they’re the loving parents of six-year-old Axel. Then, Eva finds out to her shock that Henrik has been unfaithful. Not only is this is of course a devastating personal betrayal, but it also shatters Eva’s dream of the perfect suburban family life. When she finds out who Henrik’s lover is, she decides to take a form of revenge against them both. At the same time, we follow the story of Jonas Hansson, who has his own sorrow to bear. He’s the product of a very unhappy childhood, but he found real solace in his fiancée Anna. Then one night she nearly drowned in a fall from a local pier. Since then she’s been in a coma and Jonas has faithfully visited her every day to take care of her. One night he and Eva happen to meet in a pub. That’s when things begin to spiral out of control for both of them, and the choices they both make have tragic consequences. Eva may not be an ‘official’ sleuth, but this is a fascinating example of a person who’s working on one set of problems and comes upon an entirely different set…

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning is the story of journalist Jack Parlabane. He was in Los Angeles pursuing leads on a major case of greed and corruption at high levels when some very nasty people made it unwise for him to stay. So Parlabane has returned to his home in Edinburgh where he’s hoping he’ll be able to carry on his investigation from a distance. One morning he wakes up with a terrible hangover. He soon hears a loud commotion in the building where he lives so he stumbles out of his flat to see what’s going on. That’s when it occurs to him that he’s locked himself out. He does remember that he left his window open though, so he’s hoping that if the people in the downstairs flat will let him, he can crawl through there up to his open window. When he gets to the downstairs flat though, he finds a brutally murdered man. It turns out that Parlabane has come upon a very ugly crime scene that will have implications in high places. Not wanting to call attention to himself, he tries to get through the flat quietly and sneak out the window, but DC Jenny Dalziel gets there before he can escape. At first she makes the obvious inference, but when Parlabane convinces her that he isn’t the murderer, they find they can be of help to each other. As it turns out, Parlabane was working on one case of greed and corruption and accidentally stumbled on another, major story.

And then there’s Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel. In that novel, Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is sent to Wodonga to help the local police catch a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a series of robberies. The robberies have turned violent with the most recent incident at a local railway station; in that case, the paymaster was injured. So there’s a lot of pressure now to solve these robberies before anyone else gets hurt or worse. While he’s in Wodonga working on the motorcycle gang case, Berlin gets drawn into another. The body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first, it seems that the motorcycle gang must be responsible for her death. But when Berlin finds out that’s not the case, he has to start all over to find out who would have wanted to kill Jenny and why. In this instance, one case happens to put Berlin at the right place at the right time to work on another.

And that’s the way it happens sometimes. Unrelated cases like that are not easy to write. But when they’re done well we can get a realistic picture of how life sometimes puts detectives working on one case right in the path of another.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marshall Crenshaw’s Lesson Number One.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Christopher Brookmyre, Geoffrey McGeachin, Karin Alvtegen

I Promise I’ll Believe*

BeliefsOne of the many things that crime writers do (besides, of course, telling good stories) is explore human nature and human psychology. One of the many really interesting phenomena of psychology is that sometimes, people want to believe something so badly that they find it well-nigh impossible to let go of that belief. That desperate need to believe is part of why charlatans and quacks are sometimes so successful. Of course that’s certainly not the only instance where we see how far people will go when they need to believe something. Just a few examples from crime fiction should show you what I mean. 

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt for an upcoming fête that will be held on the grounds of Nasse House. Mrs. Oliver may be scatty about some things, but as Hercule Poirot puts it, she is also,

 

‘a very shrewd judge of character.’

 

So when she begins to suspect that something sinister may be going on at Nasse House, Poirot pays attention. When Mrs. Oliver asks him to come and investigate for himself, he agrees. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the Victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed.  Poirot works with Inspector Bland and his team to find out who committed the murder and why. As he learns, there is one person who knows quite a lot about what happened, but that person wants desperately to believe in the culprit, and can’t admit what really happened. Even in the end, that person would rather blame someone else.

In one of the plot threads of Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello is facing a family problem. His aunt Zia Anita has been behaving oddly lately. For one thing, she’s taken what Vianello thinks is an unhealthy interest in astrology. What’s more, she’s been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to Stefano Gorini, a self-styled doctor with a dubious background. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so it’s not a question of theft. Still, Vianello is concerned. So he asks his boss Commissario Guido Brunetti to help him look into the matter. Brunetti agrees and he starts to do a little investigation. It turns out that Gorini has been in trouble with the law before for practising medicine without a license. Now he’s set himself up again and people are coming to him for cures that he can’t deliver. As Brunetti looks deeper into the matter, he finds that there are people who so need to believe in Gorini that they will not accept his being a charlatan. In one case, that desperate need to believe has a tragic result. 

There’s a different sort of need to believe in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have a fifteen-year marriage and a six-year-old son Axel. On the surface of it, everything is fine in their lives, but that’s mostly because Eva has a desperate need to believe in the ‘white picket fence’ kind of life. It’s what she has always wanted and she badly needs to believe that’s what she has. Then she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. His betrayal of her is devastating for Eva, and her reaction to it sets in motion a terrible chain of events. As the novel unfolds, we see that their marriage wasn’t the happy bond that Eva needed to believe that it was. In several places in the story, the reader can’t help but think, ‘If you’d only looked at things honestly, this all could have been avoided.’ It’s a fascinating look at the need to believe things. 

So is Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. In that novel, Delhi private detective Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri learns on news broadcasts that a former client Dr. Suresh Jha has been murdered. Since Jha was a client, Puri has more than a passing interest in the case and begins to ask questions about it. The circumstances of the death are to say the least unusual. Jha had joined other members of the Rajpath Laughing Club one morning for their laughing exercises. All of a sudden, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appeared and stabbed Jha. The event makes for sensational headlines, and many people really believe that Kali appeared. They desperately feel the need to believe in that spiritual connection. What’s interesting is that Jha was the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission was to debunk the myths that allow charlatans to take advantage of people’s need to believe. He called those people ‘the godmen,’ and did everything he could to expose them. So it’s very possible that one of Delhi’s spiritual leaders had something to do with Jha’s death. Puri and his team investigate a few of them as well as several other suspects. As they get to the truth about what happened to Jha, we see how powerful a force people’s need to believe really is. 

We see that in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red too. Rebecca Thorne is a Wellington television journalist who’s looking for the story that will make her career. She thinks she may have found that story in the case of Connor Bligh. Bligh’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home when the murders were committed. Now there are little hints that Bligh may be innocent. And of course, he’s always maintained he wasn’t guilty. If he’s right, then this could be a career-making story and Thorne pursues it. As she does, she gets closer to the story than is really wise. And the questions come up: is Bligh innocent, or is that just something some people really need to believe?  Is he guilty, or do certain people truly feel the need to believe he’s guilty, so they won’t have to look elsewhere? 

There are a lot of other novels of course that explore how desperately people need to believe things. For instance, I haven’t even touched on the novels where a character (sometimes the sleuth) believes so strongly in a suspect’s innocence that s/he investigates the case just for that reason. It’s another example of how our need to believe moves us.

ps. A special thanks to FictionFan, whose terrific review of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies inspired this post. If you haven’t sampled FictionFan’s excellent review blog, you’re in for a treat!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheryl Crow’s Strong Enough

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Karin Alvtegen, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall

Honesty is Hardly Ever Heard*

PinocchioMost of us keep certain things to ourselves. Lots of times it’s because they’re private, and sometimes we keep things to ourselves because they are embarrassing or could cause hurt and a rift in a relationship. So it may not always be such a bad thing to keep certain things quiet. But there also comes a time when not being forthright does a lot more harm than good. We definitely see plenty of that in crime fiction. If you’ve ever had the urge to shake a character and say, ‘Well if you’d only told ___ about everything, none of this would have happened!’ you know what I mean. It’s not easy to add that plot point to a novel without making a character either not credible (i.e. Really? You’re hiding that?) or not likeable. But when it’s done well, those points where characters aren’t honest when they should be can add tension to a crime novel. And in some cases, there really wouldn’t be a solid plot without those moments.

For instance, in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire a new housekeeper Eunice Parchman. Jacqueline doesn’t bother to check her new employee’s references particularly well but at first, it doesn’t seem to matter. Parchman does her job well enough and the busy Coverdales don’t really notice a problem. But Eunice Parchman has not been honest with the Coverdales. She is keeping a secret that she’s desperate for them not to discover, and goes to great lengths to avoid telling them. When her secret is accidentally found out, this seals the Coverdales’ fates although they don’t know it at the time. And what’s tragic about it all is that if she had simply told the Coverdales the truth from the outset, a lot of tragedy could have been avoided.

In Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Kindle County’s chief deputy prosecutor Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is assigned to investigate the murder of a colleague Carolyn Polhemus. There is a lot of pressure to solve this case quickly and Sabich gets to work right away. What he doesn’t tell his boss is that he had a relationship with Polhemus that ended just a few months before she was murdered. On the one hand, one can understand why Sabich might not exactly trumpet the news of his affair. On the other, it’s not surprising that the news of it comes out anyway, and when it does, Sabich is in far more trouble than he might have been had he simply been honest at the beginning. Soon, pieces of evidence begin to turn up that implicate Sabich in the murder and before long he finds himself arrested for the crime. Now he’s on the ‘other side,’ so to speak, and hires attorney Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him. Together they work with Sabich’s friend detective Dan Lipranzer to find out the truth about Carolyn Polhemus’ death and clear Sabich of the charges against him. In this novel, the fact that Sabich isn’t honest with his boss at first doesn’t change the fact of who killed the victim. But it does add a really interesting and believable layer of tension to the story.

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move is the story of science fiction writer Zach Walker and his family. Walker believes that his family isn’t safe in the city so he moves everyone to a new home in a suburb called Valley Forest Estates. They’re not there long when they learn that their house has all sorts of problems with it, so Walker goes to the housing development’s sales office to get someone to make repairs. While he’s there, he witnesses a loud argument between a Valley Forest sales executive and environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a local creek and gets drawn into finding out who killed him. And that’s where Walker begins to cover up too much, especially from his wife Sarah. For instance, at one point he and Sarah are shopping when he notices a handbag left in a shopping cart. Thinking it’s his wife’s he grabs it and puts it in the car. When he sees that it’s not hers, instead of telling her he took the wrong handbag, Walker says nothing and tries to secretly return the handbag (in which, by the way, he finds quite a lot of money) to its owner. Without telling his wife what he’s doing, he goes to the owner’s home where he finds another body. The more Walker tries to stay out of trouble, the more his dissembling and hiding things gets him into trouble. Still, he finds out who committed both murders and he finds out some other interesting secrets about the housing development. On the one hand, simply telling everything right from the start would have saved Walker an awful lot of trouble. On the other, his less-than-honest choices make for some funny moments in the books and Barclay handles them well (at least in my opinion).

There’s a much less humorous look at lack of honesty in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have hit an unhappy point in their marriage. Eva thinks it’s temporary until she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. Instead of openly and honestly discussing what’s happened, both Eva and Henrik hide things. Henrik won’t be honest with his wife about his new lover and Eva isn’t honest about the course of action she takes after she finds out about her husband’s infidelity. Their choices, and most importantly their decision not to be honest with themselves and with each other, lead to real tragedy. First, Eva’s course of action leads her in a direction she never could have anticipated. Then, Henrik too makes a choice that has an unhappy and unintended consequence. The result is devastation that could have been prevented if this couple had only been honest in the first place.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri learns from news broadcasts and newspapers that a former client Dr. Suresh Jha has died in a bizarre incident. According to witnesses, the goddess Kali appeared and killed Jha in revenge for his ongoing efforts to debunk spiritualism. Jha was the founder of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), a group committed to unmasking scams committed in the name of spiritualism, and he had dedicated his life to convincing people not to believe ‘the Godmen.’ The doctor’s report, witness statements and other pieces of evidence seem to suggest that Jha’s death has a supernatural cause and a lot of people believe that. Puri, though, is not convinced. It’s not that he’s not spiritual, but he is quite certain that Jha died at very human hands. So he begins to investigate. The trail leads to a famous magician, a cult leader and other members of Jha’s organisation. Then, two more murders happen. Little by little, Puri finds out what really happened to Dr. Jha. And when he does, we learn of a few people who could have prevented the murders if they had just been honest from the start, when Puri began his investigation. Their reasons for not doing so are believable, but one still wants to ask them why on earth they didn’t simply tell Puri the truth in the first place.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, in which Sydney police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the shooting death of Paul Fowler. One of the first paramedics on the scene is Holly Garland, who sees to her dismay that her brother Seth is among the people who were with Fowler at the time of his death. Holly has several reasons to keep as far away from Seth as she can but when Marconi interviews her, Holly isn’t completely forthcoming about why. Holly has a past that she doesn’t want to share with anyone, least of all the people with whom she works. So she’s taken to saying nothing. The problem is that her silence begins to cause her serious trouble when one of her colleagues remembers her from another time. At first Holly dissembles, hides things and does everything she can not to tell the truth to anyone. At the end though, she finds that if she had simply told the truth, she’d have saved herself a lot of stress and trouble. Holly’s secret isn’t the reason for Paul Fowler’s murder, but it makes for an interesting and tense sub-plot.

All of us keep things to ourselves; it’s a fairly natural impulse. But there comes a time when not being honest has much more serious consequences than simply telling the truth in the first place. In real life that can cause heartache and worse. In crime fiction it can spin things deliciously out of control and cause fascinating tension.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Honesty.

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Filed under Karin Alvtegen, Katherine Howell, Linwood Barclay, Ruth Rendell, Scott Turow, Tarquin Hall

‘Cause Nothing’s Going Right and Everything’s a Mess*

NoirFor the past seventy years or so, noir has been an important part of the world of crime fiction. Today it’s considered a significant sub-genre; a quick glance at blogs, online and traditional literary magazines and of course, new crime fiction titles is all it takes to see that noir is a force to be reckoned with in the genre.  Noir fiction is by its nature bleak and sometimes very depressing. And noir deals with the ugly, the dirty and the unpleasant. So why do we read it? What is it about noir that appeals to readers? Of course, we choose what to read for a whole constellation of reasons. But here’s my thinking about what makes noir a part of so many people’s reading diets.

As I mentioned, noir is dirty and gritty and sometimes unpleasant. It turns over rocks and takes a look at what’s under them. And that’s just what some people like about it. Because it’s unflinching, noir addresses issues that aren’t as easy to address in other sub-genres. For example, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is the story of Central City, Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Ford is well-enough liked, although no-one would exactly call him scintillating. But Ford is carrying a dark secret which comes out slowly as the novel moves on. First, local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. Then there’s a murder. As we follow along in this investigation, we find out that Ford is not the nice, if a bit dull, guy that everyone thought he was. In fact, he himself refers to this as ‘the sickness.’ So on that level Thompson takes an unflinching look at mental illness. This novel also explores prostitution and domestic violence as well as the ugly reality of the effect of violence and murder on a small town. The story takes up difficult and challenging issues.

So does Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. Former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon when their car is ambushed not far from Cape Town and sent over an embankment. Dell survives but the other members of his family are killed. Soon he’s accused of the murder and imprisoned. He’s been framed, but at first he doesn’t know why or by whom. His father Bobby Goodbread engineers his escape and together the two go in search of the person who killed Dell’s wife and children and framed him. This novel addresses several difficult but very real issues that would be hard to treat honestly in another kind of novel. For instance, one of the themes in the story is the reality of race relations in modern South Africa. That’s a complex and sometimes unpleasant topic. So are corruption and nepotism, which are also treated in this novel.

In Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, Dublin police detective Bob Tidey is part of the team that’s investigating the murder of Emmet Sweetman, a crooked banker who made a fortune during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. At the same time, Vincent Naylor, a young thug who’s recently gotten out of prison, is planning his own master stroke – an armoured car robbery. Drawn into both of these cases is Maura Cody, a former nun who has her own history. As Kerrigan tells the story of these three people, he also explores some unpleasant issues that it would be hard to do justice to without some grit. In the story behind Emmet Sweetman’s murder we see how greed and poor planning played roles in the Irish financial collapse of 2008 and how that collapse started a chain reaction of real misery. In the story of Maura Cody we learn of the wrenching horror of some of the abuses some Irish priests and nuns committed. This too is an ugly issue that would be hard to address in a different kind of novel.

But it’s not just the fact that noir explores difficult issues that makes it appealing. It does so in an honest way – no sugarcoating or glossing over the truth. And that realism resonates with a lot of readers. For example, Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She is devoted to her brother Bill, so she is quite concerned when he marries Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. For Bill’s sake Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law but bit by bit she discovers some unsettling things about Alice. The more she learns, the more Lora has to face the fact that at the same time as she’s repulsed by Alice’s seamy world, she’s also drawn to it. Then there’s a murder. Lora wants to find out just how involved Alice may have been in this killing so, telling herself she’s doing so to protect her brother, she begins to ask questions. As she slowly finds out the truth, readers get a very realistic picture of 1950’s Hollywood. Underneath the glitter there really was a lot of abuse, corruption and other ugliness and Abbott doesn’t gloss over that. Nor does she make light of what can happen when one person becomes obsessed with another person.

The tragedy of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia cannot be overstated. Andrew Nette takes a very realistic look at the devastation left behind in Ghost Money. Madeline Avery hires Australian former cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles. His last known address is in Bangkok so Quinlan starts there. When he arrives he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds evidence that Lee has fled to Cambodia. So Quinlan’s next stop is Phnom Penh. There, he learns that Avery may have been involved in some shady business deals and could have made some very nasty people angry. As Quinlan traces Avery to northern Cambodia, he discovers the brutal reality of life in Cambodia. War, mistrust, greed, corruption and prejudice have all taken heavy tolls and Nette doesn’t sugarcoat any of it. But (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do), not to be realistic about these issues would mean not doing them justice.

That sense of authenticity adds a layer of suspense to Karin Alvtegen’s work as well. In Betrayal, she looks at the ugly reality of lies. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have been happy enough until Eva discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. Blaming him entirely for their marital problems, she makes a fateful choice that doesn’t seem like a problem at first. Then she finds out who Henrik’s lover is. That prompts Eva to a course of action that also has a tragic consequence. As things begin to spin out of control, Alvtegen shows us honestly what happens to a marriage when the people in it lie to each other and to themselves.

Noir is unvarnished, gritty and sometimes really ugly. But it looks at important issues that are hard to address in any other way. And it does so in an honest way. I know I haven’t mentioned all of the noir greats, but they’ve added to the genre. What do you think? Do you read noir? Why? What’s its appeal for you? If you write noir, what draws you to it?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You.

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Filed under Andrew Nette, Gene Kerrigan, Jim Thompson, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Roger Smith