Category Archives: Karin Fossum

I Know It’s Building Up Inside of Me*

trysmsallpressuresHave you ever said (or at least thought), ‘If you do/say that one more time, I’m going to kill you!’? In actuality of course, we’d never follow through on those threats. But it goes to show how little things can add up to real stress. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of murders, both fictional and real, aren’t the ‘big, splashy’ murders you may read about on the news or in thrillers. They’re committed because of small things that build and build.

It can be challenging to sustain the suspense in a story like that. But those stories often do reflect the way real people sometimes react to life’s pressures. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, the Abernethie family gathers when patriarch Richard Abernethie dies. When the family returns to the house after the funeral, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone hushes her up and even Cora asks the family not to pay any attention to what she says. But privately, the other family members begin to wonder whether she might have been right. When she herself is killed the next day, they’re even more sure of it. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees and travels to the family home at Enderby Hall to look into the matter. As he gets to know everyone involved, he finds that this case isn’t about huge amounts of power or millions of pounds. It’s a ‘quieter’ sort of murder that’s all about, among other things, pressure building up.

So is Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croyden is a meticulous and quite straitlaced banker who prides himself on always carrying the family name with pride. He has a very quiet life that includes his work and his hobby of working ciphers. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea, and everything changes. At first, she seems quiet, ‘ladylike’ and a solid match for him. But he soon finds that she is livelier and more vivacious than he thought, and he’s not particularly pleased about that. What’s more, she’s started rearranging the furniture in his home, adding brighter colours and a different look. That in itself makes him uncomfortable, as do some of her other habits (she even shops without a list!). Then one day, Althea pushes too far. She destroys some of the ciphers her husband was working. So Horace takes his own approach to dealing with his domestic problem…

In Glenn Canary’s short story Because of Everything, a man named Ernie finds himself in trouble when he discovers that two men are looking for him. He’s well aware of what that means, so he decides to see if he can stay with his wife Cherry for a few days. He left her a year ago, so he’s not sure of the reception he’ll get, but he can’t think of anything else to do. Besides, they are still married, and he knows that Cherry loved him. She’s not exactly thrilled to see him, but when he tells her why he needs to stay with her, she lets him. As the story goes on, we learn about the little things that built up between the couple; Ernie was not exactly a steadily-working, faithful husband. And in the end, we see how those things figure in to what happens in the story.

There’s also Martin Edwards’ short story 24 Hours From Tulsa. In that short story, a sales and marketing director called Lomas finds his ordered world falling to pieces. For one thing, people’s buying habits have changed with the advent of online shopping, and Lomas can’t seem to adapt his sales strategy to respond to that change. For another, he’s finding that his business is relying more and more on modern technology that he dislikes and mistrusts. He’s expected to be comfortable with mobile ‘phones, computers and so on, but he isn’t. Even the road system has changed beyond his recognition. And then there’s the matter of his children, who no longer seem to live in the same world he occupies. Little by little, all of these things and others build up. In the end, the stress they all create drives Lomas to take a very drastic step.

Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back finds Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigating the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much of a motive for murder. Annie was well-liked, popular in her village and reasonably successful at school. She had a boyfirend, too, and they seemed happy together. It doesn’t take long though for Sejer and Skarre to discover that this wasn’t a random killing by a deranged stranger. Someone Annie knew is responsible for her death, and little by little, the detectives uncover the stresses, strains and series of events that led to it. It turns out that small, daily stresses and the way they build up have a lot to do with what happens in the novel.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson take their nine-week-old son Noah from Scotland to Melbourne. When they arrive, they begin the long drive from the airport to their final destination in Victoria. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The couple alert the police and immediately the Australian media makes much of the case. There are pleas for the baby’s safe return, many volunteer search parties and national and international fundraising efforts. As time goes on though, some questions begin to come up about Noah’s disappearance. Could one of his parents have been responsible? If so, which one and why? Soon enough, the couple have as many detractors as they once had supporters, and there’s soon a full-scale investigation. As the story goes on, we see how little pressures, stresses and strains have led to what happens in the novel.

And that’s the thing about those ‘domestic’ murders (and I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them). They don’t usually result from a a major ‘splashy’ event. Rather, it’s the buildup of pressure, stresses and one thing after another that can lead to a tragic end. It’s not easy to pull off this kind of story, as it can be challenging to keep the suspense building credibly. But these murders really do happen, so it makes sense that we see them in crime fiction too. I’ve given a few examples; your turn.
 
 
 

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

16 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Glenn Canary, Helen Fitzgerald, Karin Fossum, Martin Edwards, Talmage Powell

Move Along, Move Along, Just to Make it Through*

StayingStrongIn Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife Gerda were visiting Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell at their country home at the time he was killed, and among other possibilities, Poirot and Inspector Grange consider all of the people in that house party. One of them is Christow’s mistress Hentrietta Savernake, who’s a well-known sculptor. It’s not spoiling the story, I think, to say that she loved Christow, probably more than she wanted. So his death has devastated her. That’s not to mention the difficulty of being involved in a police investigation. Yet, here is what Poirot says to her:

 

‘But you are one of those who can live with a sword in their hearts – who can go on and smile –’

 

He’s right. Henrietta isn’t by any means perfect. But she is a strong character who goes on and survives despite the things that happen to her.

That sort of character can be very refreshing, especially considering the number of ‘demon-haunted’ fictional sleuths who find it very hard to go on with life. It’s a tricky balance to create such a character too. On the one hand, it wouldn’t be realistic if characters had no ill effects from things they’d been through in life. When we go through tragedy, it affects us deeply. On the other hand, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of creating a character who drowns sorrows in drink, or who can’t possibly have functional relationships. For a lot of readers, that sort of character has become so commonplace as to be almost a trope now, and that can be off-putting. But there are crime-fictional characters who strike that balance. Here are just a few.

Tony Hillerman’s ‘Legendary Lieutenant’ Joe Leaphorn has had his share of sadness and tragedy. As a young person, he was put under enormous pressure, as were many members of his generation, to give up his Navajo ways and adopt Western clothes, beliefs, lifestyle and so on. Even now, Leaphorn sometimes feels quite separated from his cultural identity, although he is accepted as ‘one of us’ by his people. He married a more traditional Navajo woman Emma, who turned out to be the love of his life. When Emma dies in the course of the series, Leaphorn is devastated. He’s lost a part of himself. And yet, he doesn’t drown himself in drink or behave self-destructively. He picks up his pieces, as the saying goes, and moves on with his life. In fact, as time goes on, he meets another woman Professor Louisa Bourbonette, who studies anthropology and gets involved in few of his cases. The two develop a relationship that works for both of them. It’s not the marriage he had with Emma; it couldn’t be. But it shows his ability to make a life after tragedy.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve shows a similar kind of strength. In the first of this series Deadly Appearances, we learn that she was widowed when her husband Ian was murdered one night when he stopped to help a stranded couple. She’s had to raise their three children by herself and of course, cope with her own grief. In the course of the series, other things happen in her life too, and some of them are frightening and very, very sad. But she doesn’t succumb to those things. Even at her worst moments, she moves along as best she can with her life. In fact, she has other relationships and even marries again. In Joanne’s character, Bowen balances acknowledging the very real loss and grief that happens when you lose a loved one with strength of human spirit.

The same could be said of Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer. An Oslo police inspector, he lost his beloved wife Elise to cancer after twenty years of marriage, and he continues to feel her loss deeply. He misses her all the time. And yet, Fossum doesn’t fall into the trap of making Sejer a pitiable wreck who drinks too much, can’t interact, and …well, you get the idea. Sejer builds his life again the best that he can. He has a strong relationship with his daughter Ingrid and dotes on his grandson Matteus. He develops a relationship too with psychiatrist Sara Struel. The two are not obsessed with each other, but each fills an important place in the other’s life.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She made a disastrous choice of marriage partner in musician Note Mokoti, who turned out to be abusive. She also had to face admitting as much to her father Obed Ramotswe, who’d always suspected as much, when she moved back in with him. What’s more, she lost her only child. That’s enough grief to set anyone back for a long time, perhaps permanently. And Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t deny that she has had her share of suffering in life. And yet, she gets on with the business of living, even after the death of her beloved father. She starts her own detective agency, she remains a part of the community’s social life, and she even marries again. Her second husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni proves to be a much better choice of partner, and Mma. Ramotswe learns to find contentment in her life. She also finds that she’s quite good at the detection business.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is also made of sturdy stuff. A WWII veteran, he’s seen his share of death and inhumanity in the war and at times it haunts him. He’s had a difficult time settling back into peacetime Australia, too. He’s had other sadness in his life as well, and we could understand it if he gave up completely. But as we see in The Diggers Rest Hotel, Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues, he doesn’t crumple up. He makes a real life for himself, complete with a wife Rebecca whom he loves, and two children whom he also loves deeply. Life has its bad moments for Charlie Berlin, but he gets back to the business of living. At the same time, he doesn’t deny some of the awfulness of what he’s seen and had to do.

That’s a difficult balance to achieve, but when it works, the result can be a really memorable and even admirable character. I’ve only touched on a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the All-American Rejects’ Move Along.

22 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Karin Fossum, Tony Hillerman

If You Only Knew*

OmnicientReaderSome crime writers build suspense in their novels by making the reader privy to information that the sleuth doesn’t yet have. The reader knows something’s going to happen, or knows a certain fact, but the sleuth hasn’t worked it out yet. On the one hand, that approach can add tension and invite the reader to find out how the sleuth will handle whatever it is she or he doesn’t yet know. It can also make for interesting perspectives on other characters. On the other hand, if it’s not done effectively, that strategy can make the sleuth seem incompetent, especially if it’s information you’d expect the sleuth ought to have or try to get. That said though, it’s used in a number of crime novels. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to look into the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was murdered by her lodger James Bentley. There’s evidence against Bentley, and in fact he was convicted of the crime and is soon to be executed. But even though Spence himself collected the evidence, he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley isn’t guilty. Poirot agrees to investigate and travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder takes place. He soon discovers that Mrs. McGinty had found out something about one of the villagers that it wasn’t safe for her to know. There are several suspects too; Broadhinny is full of ‘very nice people,’ but they all have their secrets. Then, there’s another murder. Now Poirot has to find out how the two deaths are connected, if they are. At one point, there’s a conversation between Edna Sweetiman and her mother, who runs the local post office. It turns out that Edna saw something on the night of the second murder. Poirot isn’t privy to that piece of information, but it’s a very interesting clue.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. One day, he meets up with his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. His mother Runi is concerned, and goes to the police. At first, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t too worried. There are many legitimate reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother. But when time passes and he still doesn’t return, Sejer begins to share Runi Winther’s fears. He starts to ask questions and interview people, beginning with Zipp. By this time in the novel, readers know much more about what happened to Andreas than Sejer does. Fossum uses that fact to build tension as Sejer tries to find out everything Zipp knows. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But there is a lot that he knows, and that adds a thread of suspense to the interviews between Sejer and Zipp. Sejer of course is convinced that Zipp knows more than he is telling, and he’s determined to get the truth. For his part, Zipp has his reasons for not sharing everything that he knows.

T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach in Defending Elton. The body of an enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. In a very short time it’s established that she was stabbed to death and her body thrown over the cliff. Soon enough, the police have a suspect: Elton Spears. Spears is a mentally troubled young man who’s had brushes with the law before. He’s not particularly likeable and there’s evidence against him. But his solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. This isn’t a traditional ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. Rather, the reader knows who the killer is early in the novel. The suspense in this novel comes from the question of whether the murderer will get away with the crime. In a way too the suspense comes from the question of motive. It’s not clear at first why the victim was killed; that’s revealed as the story evolves.

Several of the novels in Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace series also take the approach of giving the reader more information than the sleuth has. For instance, in Dead Simple, Grace and his team launch a major search when Michael Harrison disappears just days before his wedding to Ashley Harper. All the police know at first is that Harrison had gone out with some friends for a ‘stag night.’ Later that evening, their borrowed SUV was hit by another car, killing nearly everyone on board. Only one man survived that crash, but he is in a coma and dies without regaining consciousness. Harrison’s best friend and best-man-to-be Mark Warren was out of town on business and wasn’t with the group, so he doesn’t add much to Grace’s store of knowledge. Neither does Ashley, who says that she didn’t know what sort of prank the groom’s friends were planning. The reader is privy from the first few pages to what happened to Harrison. As the novel goes on, the reader also learns several things about some of the characters that Grace doesn’t know, at least at first. So part of the suspense in the novel lies in whether and how quickly Grace and his team can get that information.

In James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, John Carlyle of Charing Cross Station, and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene when Henry Mills discovers the murdered body of his wife Agatha. There are no signs of home invasion, and nothing is missing. So the police make the logical deduction that Mills is responsible. His account of the killing is that his wife had enemies who were out to get her, but that’s a very thin alibi and he’s soon arrested and imprisoned. However, it’s not long before Carlyle finds a piece of evidence that adds considerable weight to Henry Mills’ story. So he and his team begin to look into the victim’s background to see who might have wanted to kill her. In the meantime, the reader has already learned, in a general sense, the answer to that question. We are given important background information that Carlyle doesn’t yet have. So part of the suspense in this novel is the ‘cat and mouse’ game between Carlyle and the person involved in the murder.

Gene Kerrigan uses a similar approach to building suspense in The Rage. Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate when banker Emmet Sweetman is murdered in the hallway of his own home. Little by little they learn that Sweetman had been involved in some dubious ‘business transactions’ during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. When the ‘boom years’ ended, Sweetman was in debt to some very nasty people who wanted their money back. In the meantime, we follow the story of Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. He meets up again with his brother Noel and his girlfriend Michelle Flood, along with some other trusted friends. Together they plan a major heist: the armed robbery of a cash transfer vehicle. Their target is Protectica, a security company that moves cash among banks and businesses in the area. Tidey doesn’t know about these plans, and he doesn’t know at first that the group do in fact steal the money. But then everything falls apart for the thieves, and Vincent Naylor decides to take his own kind of revenge. Tidey doesn’t know that either at first, and Kerrigan builds tension as the reader learns about the robbery and its aftermath from the thieves’ point of view and, later, from Tidey’s.

Sleuths can’t know everything, so it’s logical that there would be some things they wouldn’t be privy to, at least at first. And it can work very effectively to have the reader know more than the sleuth, at least at first. That way the reader gets a broad perspective on a given story. At the same time, this approach needs to be handled carefully so that the detective isn’t made out to be too incompetent for credibility. What are your thoughts on this strategy? Do you enjoy novels where you know more than the sleuth does, at least at first?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Arlo Guthrie’s Someday.

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Gene Kerrigan, James Craig, Karin Fossum, Peter James, T.J. Cooke

Of Course Mama’ll Help to Build the Wall*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 Comments

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

Baby, We Were Born to Run*

RisktakingIt’s common among young people (and sometimes, not-so-young people) to believe in the ‘it can’t happen to me’ myth. That myth of indestructibility is arguably part of the reason for which many young people take the kinds of risks that they probably wouldn’t take if they were older. You see this myth playing out in a lot of crime fiction, and it can be both compelling and poignant. After all, young people are not indestructible. I’m only going to be mentioning a few examples here, but I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie includes several characters in her stories who seem to believe in their own indestructibility. I’ll just mention one. In And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), we meet Anthony Marston, a young man who’s received an invitation to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. He accepts the invitation and travels to the island, where he finds that a group of other people have received and accepted invitations. After dinner on that first night, each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. In Marston’s case, he’s accused of having killed two small children in a reckless driving incident. Later that evening, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Then there’s another. Now it’s clear that someone lured these people to the island and seems bent on killing them one by one. The survivors will have to find out who that person is if they hope to stay alive. More than once in this novel, Marston’s youth, apparent strength and seeming invincibility are mentioned, and that gives his death all the more impact. I know, I know fans of The Man in the Brown Suit’s Anne Bedingfield…

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman. His parents Ralph and Elaine have placed him at the Laguna Perdida School, a boarding school for ‘troubled students.’ One day Tom disappears from the school. Dr. Sponti, who is head of Laguna Perdida, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy before his parents discover that he’s missing. But it’s already too late. During their meeting, Ralph Hillman bursts into the office saying that Tom has been kidnapped. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Tom’s parents to try to get him back. Almost immediately something seems ‘off.’ For one thing, the Hilmmans aren’t nearly as forthcoming about Tom as you’d expect from parents who were distraught about a missing child. For another, there’s some evidence that Tom may have joined the kidnappers willingly. If so, he may be part of a plot to extort money from them. Archer’s trying to track down leads when one of the people Tom’s with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. Now it’s clearer than ever that this is not an ‘textbook’ kind of kidnapping. Throughout this novel, we see ways in which Tom (and some of the other young people at the school) have behaved in that ‘indestructible’ way. Many of them take risks that they probably wouldn’t if they really contemplated the danger involved.

We see a bit of that perception of invulnerability in Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food too. Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman is concerned when two of her employees Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge begin behaving very oddly. In fact, they behave so strangely that Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen think they may be on a new kind of drug. It turns out that the girls bought weight loss tea at a club one night and were poisoned by it. Now Chapman wants to find out who poisoned the tea and why. At one point, she also makes another discovery. Kylie and Goss are always worried about gaining any weight at all, so instead of reading the instructions and taking the tea as directed, they took a much larger and stronger does than was recommended, so they’d lose weight faster. Their choice to buy this tea from someone they barely knew, and to take it in the way they did, is a reflection of how young people often don’t think through the consequences of what could happen to them. After all, ‘it won’t happen to me.’

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer investigates the disappearance of Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and likes nothing better than a little adventuring. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, who goes along with Andreas’ plans more out of a desire for the friendship than any enjoyment he gets out of their adventures. One day the two meet as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. When his mother Runi first goes to the police about it, Sejer isn’t too worried. Lots of young men take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. But as more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre look into the matter. To do this, they trace Andreas’ movements on the day he disappeared. Although Zipp isn’t at all forthcoming, especially at first, he eventually tells Sejer what happened that day. But even he doesn’t know what happened to Andreas. As it turns out, Andreas was convinced that everything would be all right – nothing bad would happen to him. But the truth turns out to be quite different…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, there’s an interesting sub-plot about an upcoming event. Mma. Sylvia Potokwane plans a benefit in aid of the orphanage she directs. One of the attractions is to be a parachute jump, and she wants Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs a local garage, to do the jump. Secretly he’s afraid to jump, especially from such heights, but of course he won’t admit that to Mma. Potokwane. Besides, she is strong-willed and persuasive. So he reluctantly agrees. As the day draws closer he gets more and more nervous about it. But his wife Mma. Precious Ramotswe has an idea that works out well for everyone involved. She suggests that Charlie, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistants, might be glad for the chance to do the jump. That way he can do some good and impress the local girls. And that’s exactly what happens. Charlie is a little nervous, but he feels indestructible enough (and is interested in enough in being admired by the young ladies) that he’s eager to do it. It’s an interesting look at the way young people as opposed to more mature adults view risk-taking.

Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who’s growing up in a small Welsh town during the 1950s. Gwenni’s a bit of a dreamer, and doesn’t always fit in. But life goes on for her, her sister and her parents until the day that a one of the locals Ifan Evans disappears. Later, he’s found murdered. Gwenni wants to find out why he was killed and by whom, so she starts her own kind of investigation. She’s not completely heedless as she goes about it, but she doesn’t really appreciate the risks she’s taking nor the danger she could bring on herself.

And that’s the thing about a lot of young people. They have that sort of myth of indestructibility that sometimes leads them to take all sorts of risks. In that sense, they’re both brave and extremely vulnerable. Which characters like that have stood out for you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

19 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Mari Strachan, Ross Macdonald