Category Archives: Mark Haddon

I Have My Own Life and I Am Stronger Than You Know*

Unique VoicesMost authors tap their own life experiences and world views when they write. And that makes sense; tapping one’s own experiences has a way of adding authenticity to a story and it allows the author to write in a more natural way. But some authors have taken interesting risks by creating protagonists who don’t have much in common with the author at all. Giving an authentic voice to that kind of character can be a real challenge. Essentially, the author has to re-think her or his assumptions about everything when writing the character. It’s not easy to do, but there are some examples of authors who’ve done it very well.

Agatha Christie created several protagonists who had different voices to her own. One of them is Captain Arthur Hastings (and I’ll bet you thought I was going to mention Hercule Poirot!). Hastings has in common with Christie an English background and wartime experience. But they are quite different, not least in terms of their genders. And it’s interesting to see how Christie goes about giving Hastings his unique voice. We see it for instance in The Murder on the Links. Hastings is returning by train to London after a business trip when he meets a mysterious young woman who is a fellow passenger. The woman, who refers to herself only as ‘Cinderella,’ turns out to play an unexpected role in the case that soon preoccupies Hastings and Poirot. Paul Renauld writes to Poirot to ask his help, and Poirot and Hastings travel to Renauld’s home in France in response. When they get there they find that Renauld has been stabbed. Poirot investigates and discovers that this stabbing is related to Renauld’s hidden past. Throughout the novel, we see Hastings’ interactions with ‘Cinderella’ as well as with other characters. His voice strikes the reader as authentic and his reactions are believable, despite the fact that he has little in common really with his creator.

The same is true of Christopher Boone, whom we meet in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. When he discovers that a neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and find out who is responsible. In the process of investigating, he finds out not just the truth about the dog, but also some truths about his own life. Haddon has had experience working with people with disabilities and Christopher’s character shows that knowledge. But Christopher’s voice is quite different to Haddon’s. This story is told from Christopher’s point of view, so we get an authentic look at the way a person with autism might see the world and might process a series of events. Haddon took a risk in writing Christopher’s voice and it paid off (at least in my opinion, so do feel free to differ with me if you don’t agree). The voice is very believable and that’s part of what makes this novel work.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce has a voice that’s very different to her creator’s voice. While Bradley has said that he has some things in common with his protagonist, the two really are different. Besides the obvious gender difference, Flavia is English and Bradley is Canadian. Flavia is interested in chemistry and Bradley’s professional background was in electrical engineering and technology. And of course, Flavia is a child while Bradley isn’t. And yet, Bradley has created an authentic voice for Flavia. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, she attends a church fête where there are several attractions, including fortune-telling. Flavia has her fortune told, but the experience ends in disaster. Afterwards, she feels a sense of obligation to the Gypsy who told her fortune. When the Gypsy tells her that she and her husband were once forced off the property of Flavia’s own home Buckshaw, here is Flavia’s reaction:

 

‘And that was when it came to me. Before I could change my mind I had blurted out the words.
‘You can come back to Buckshaw. Stay as long as you like. It will be all right…I promise.’
Even as I said it I knew there would be a great flaming row with Father, but somehow that didn’t matter.’

 

In this we see a very eleven-year-old response. Flavia is bright and observant, but like any eleven-year-old, she hasn’t thought out the consequences of what she’s offering. And when the Gypsy is later found murdered, she uses that same enthusiasm to find out who the killer is.

Karin Fossum and her sleuth, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer, both live and work in Norway. But beyond that, they are quite different. Fossum is a poet as well as a novelist, but she has had other work experience too, including hospital work and working as a home aid caregiver. Her creation though is a cop. That’s been his life’s work. In other ways too, they are different. They have different perceptions of life just by dint of their being different sexes. And yet Sejer has a distinctive voice that doesn’t seem forced at all. He is a widower whose process of grieving his wife Elise seems natural, as does his relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel, which begins in He Who Fears the Wolf and evolves as a story arc. He is believable as a middle-aged male cop and doesn’t strike the reader (well, at least this reader) as a female civilian’s perception of what a male cop would be like.

Shona MacLean (who now writes her series as S.G. MacLean) has created a sleuth who’s quite different to her in her Alexander Seaton series. Like MacLean, Seaton is Scottish, but there the resemblance ends. MacLean studied history; Seaton studied religion. MacLean lives in 21st Century Scotland, but Seaton lives in the Scotland of the 17th Century. And of course, there’s the gender difference. To MacLean’s credit though, Seaton’s voice is quite authentic. He inhabits his world just as naturally as we inhabit ours, and he sees the world in a believable way. His voice is very real too as he meets, gets to know, woos and marries Sarah Forbes.

And then there’s Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. She is very different to her creator, being not just female but half-Aborigine. What’s more, her home is Australia’s Northern Territories, a very different environment to Hyland’s own Melbourne. He began by writing,

 

‘…a young whitefella who, whatever I did to him, always seemed to be too much like me’

 

Feedback from a manuscript assessment place caused him to re-think his story:

 

‘So I pulled the whitefella out altogether and Emily stepped forward. That forced me into a plot and some structure.’

 

Hyland took a risk in creating Emily, but fans of this series (of whom I am one) can tell you that Emily’s character is rich, authentic and certainly has a distinctive voice.

And that’s the thing about talented authors. They can create characters who have completely different voices and make those characters just as real as they themselves are. What are your thoughts on this? If you’re writer, have you written characters who have completely different voices to your own?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Leather and Lace.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Karin Fossum, Mark Haddon, Shona MacLean

I’d Rather be Anything but Ordinary Please*

Outside the BoxOne of the things that can make a fictional sleuth or protagonist interesting and memorable is an unusual way of thinking. I’m not talking here about simple creativity of thinking although of course that can be an appealing trait. I’m really talking about a mindset that sees the world in a different way. Like anything else in a crime fiction novel, an unusual way of thinking can be overdone and so pull the reader out of the story. When that happens the sleuth is less believable. But when it’s done well, having a sleuth or other protagonist who looks at the world in a very unusual way can add richness to a story and can make for a very memorable character.

For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Queensland police inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is half Aborigine/half White. His way of looking at the world and his cases is unusual in part because of his cultural background. On the one hand, Bony is well aware of the European way of looking at life. He is a police detective, so he knows police procedure and he understands that way of thinking. At the same time, he is well versed in ‘the book of the bush.’ He thinks in terms of what the signs of the bush and nature tell him, and often gets very useful information from what he sees in nature when he investigates.  For instance, in The Bone is Pointed, Bony investigates the five-month old disappearance of Jeff Anderson, who was working Karwir Station, a ranch near Green Swamp Well, when he disappeared. One morning, Anderson went out to ride the fences on the ranch; only his horse returned. At first, everyone thought the horse (who was known for being difficult) threw him, but there is no sign of his body. No-one misses Anderson very much as he’s both sadistic and mean-tempered. But Sergeant Blake, who investigated the disappearance, now believes that Anderson either was murdered or deliberately went into hiding. Bony is assigned to investigate the man’s disappearance and begins to look into the case. He uses a very unusual but effective combination of his knowledge of the bush and the people who live there and his knowledge of police procedure and working with European-Australians to find out what really happened to Jeff Anderson.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla Jaspersen also has a very unusual way of thinking about the world. She is half-Inuit/half-White and was brought up on Greenland. So by the standards of most people in Copenhagen where she now lives, she doesn’t look at the world in the usual way. She is also a scientist who has learned to think about the world like a scientist does. And in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), she uses her unusual way of thinking to solve the mystery of the death of Isaiah Christiansen. Isaiah is a young boy, also a Greenlander by birth, who lives in the same building where Jaspersen does. When he dies after a fall from the snow-covered roof of the building, everyone puts it down to a tragic accident. But Jaspersen thinks otherwise. First, Isaiah was extremely at home in the snow and wouldn’t have made the kinds of mistakes that can end up in a tragic fall. What’s more, certain aspects of the snow and the marks in it suggest to Jespersen that the boy’s death was more than just a fall. So she begins to investigate. The answers lead Jaspersen back to Greenland and an excavation there where Isaiah’s father died. Throughout this novel, we see Jaspersen’s unusual way of thinking, at the same time both scientific and informed by her cultural background. She understands snow, ice and glaciers in a very traditional, culturally-contextual and deep way; she has a real feeling for them. At the same time she understands them from a scientific point of view and those two ways of thinking give her a very unusual perspective. They also point her in the right direction in solving this mystery.

We see a very unusual way of thinking in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. He’s high-enough functioning to communicate and to do quite a lot for himself. But he doesn’t think like ‘the rest of us’ do. When he discovers that his neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and find out who was responsible. The novel is written from Christopher’s point of view and that gives us a glimpse into how a person with his form and level of autism might see the world. It’s an interesting perspective and although Christopher is not skilled socially, we see that he is highly accurate at remembering details. His unique skills are part of what leads him to the answers he’s looking for – and to a truth about himself that he never knew.

There’s also the unique perspective of Dr. Jennifer White, whom we meet in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. White is a skilled Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in hand reconstruction. She has also been diagnosed with dementia. As the novel begins, White is still able to function fairly well although she has had to retire from active work. Her daughter Fiona and son Mark have arranged for her to have a live-in caregiver Magdalena. One night, White’s neighbour Amanda O’Toole is murdered and Detective Luton is assigned to the case. Forensic tests show that O’Toole was mutilated in a way that points to a murderer with highly developed medical skill, so Luton begins to wonder whether White might be guilty. But the evidence isn’t completely convincing, so Luton isn’t sure White is the murderer. White’s advancing dementia means she has progressively fewer lucid times and even if she did think the way ‘the rest of us do,’ Luton knows she wouldn’t be likely to admit to the murder if she is guilty. So Luton has to use all of her abilities to get to the truth about Amanda O’Toole’s murder. It turns out that the O’Toole and White families have a long history together and that this murder has everything to do with their pasts. Since this novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, we get to see the case unfold through the eyes of someone who thinks in a very unusual way.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost introduces us to ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who has a unique way of looking at the world. As the novel begins, Kate dreams of being a detective, and has already started her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. Her partner is Mickey the Monkey, a stuffed monkey who travels everywhere in Kate’s backpack. Kate’s favourite occupation is looking for suspicious characters and activity and there are few better places to do that than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center. Kate doesn’t have a lot of friends, and she doesn’t think the way other people do, but that doesn’t bother her. She’s perfectly content to live the way she’s living. But her grandmother Ivy, who is her caregiver, thinks Kate would be better served by going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate is finally persuaded to go when her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer agrees to go with her to the school. The two board the bus together but Kate never returns. No trace of her is found, and everyone blames Palmer for her disappearance. In fact, his life is made so difficult that he leaves town. Twenty years later his sister Lisa is the assistant manager at Your Music, a store in Green Oaks. Her job is to put it mildly uninspiring and she’s in a dead-end relationship. But life changes for her when she meets Kurt, a security guard at the mall. Kurt’s been seeing strange things on his security cameras: a vision of a young girl with backpack that has a monkey sticking out of it. Lisa is reminded of Kate, whom she met a few times, and each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt explore the past as we learn what really happened to Kate. Throughout this novel we see that Kate thinks in a way that’s unlike just about anyone else. That aspect of her personality makes her perhaps the most alive person in the novel, even twenty years after she’s disappeared.

More recently, Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker introduces us to Patrick Fort, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Fort’s father was struck by a car and killed when Fort was young and it’s partly for that reason that Fort is fascinated by what makes people die. He enrols at university in Cardiff to study anatomy mostly because of his fascination with the causes of death. Part of this novel is told from Fort’s perspective as he and his peers study a cadaver. Patrick notices some things about the cadaver that don’t tally with the official reports and that makes him curious about this death. Bit by bit we learn through Patrick’s very unusual way of looking at the world what happened to the dead man. Another thread of this story which is later tied in with Patrick’s experience is told from the perspective of Sam Galen, who’s in a coma in a neurological unit but hasn’t lost his ability to think. As he slowly re-unites with the world, we learn what happened to him and what life is like in that unit.  We get another perspective on the same unit from Tracy Evans, who is a nurse there. I confess I haven’t yet read this novel, but it was such a good example of a protagonist (in this case Patrick Fort) with a unique way of looking at the world that I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

Sarah Ward at Crimepieces has done a terrific review of Rubbernecker. Her review is what got me thinking about protagonists who don’t think like ‘the rest of the world’ so thanks, Sarah, for the inspiration. Folks, Sarah’s excellent blog is well worth a spot on your blog roll if you’re not already following it.

Characters with unique ways of thinking have to be drawn deftly or the story risks contrivance and melodrama, to say nothing of the risks to believability. But when such a character is done well, having an unusual way of looking at the world can add depth to a novel and set it apart from others.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s Anything but Ordinary.

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Filed under Alice LaPlante, Arthur Upfield, Belinda Bauer, Catherine O'Flynn, Mark Haddon, Peter Høeg

This Night We Are Together*

Authors understand as few other people can what other authors go through and what it’s like to be an author. That’s true in just about any genre and it’s certrainly true in crime fiction. So it’s a special compliment when one author pays tribute to another in a novel or series. And it happens more frequently than you might think. I’ll just give a few examples; I’m sure you can think of others.

Many people know that Agatha Christie mentions Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in several of her works. Christie fans will also know that she and P.G. Wodehouse admired each other’s work quite a lot. In fact Christie’s Hallowe’en Party is dedicated to Wodehouse. Murder in Mesopotamia is told from the point of view of Amy Leatheran, a nurse who’s been hired by noted archaeologist Eric Leidner. Leidner’s wife Louise has been having fears and anxieties – she even believes that someone is trying to kill her – and Leidner wants Leatheran to help allay his wife’s concerns. The couple is sharing an expedition house near a dig in Iraq so when Leatheran arrives, she meets the rest of the members of the expedition staff. The first staff member she meets is Bill Coleman; here’s how she describes him:
 

“He had a round pink face and really, in all my life, I have never seen anyone who seemed so exactly like a young man out of one of Mr. P.G. Wodehouse’s books.”
 

When Leatheran’s patient is murdered just as she had feared, Coleman becomes one of the suspects. Hercule Poirot is travelling in the area and he agrees to take some time off and find out who killed Louise Leidner and why.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the story of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who is particularly fascinated with Arthur Conant Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. He imagines himself as a detective like Sherlock Holmes and he gets the chance when a neighbour’s dog is killed. Boone finds the dog and decides to find out who’s responsible. He’s even more determined when he becomes a suspect. Throughout this novel Boone and Haddon make reference to the Conan Doyle novel; even the title is a tribute.

In James W. Fuerst’s Huge we meet twelve-year-old Eugene “Huge ” Smalls. Huge has trouble getting on in school and socially even though he’s brilliant. But that’s not really important to Huge; at least that’s what he tells himself. His grandmother introduced him to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and those two fictional detectives are Huge’s heroes. He wants to do just what they do and he gets his opportunity when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the retirement home where she lives. Bit by bit Huge finds out the truth about the sign and a lot of truths about himself. As he does so he refers several times to Chandler and Hammett. It’s an interesting way to pay tribute to those groundbreaking authors.

Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn is a former Florida judge whom we first meet in The Prairie Grass Murders. In that novel, Thorn’s brother Willie Grisseljon is paying a visit to his and Thorn’s home town in Illinois when he discovers the body of an unknown man. At first Grisseljon is suspected of being the murderer and in fact, he’s locked up for vagrancy. Thorn travels to Illinois to get her brother released and ends up getting involved in the investigation of the dead man’s murder. It turns out that this murder is related to greed, land-grabbing and corruption. Thorn is a reader and there are several references to some talented crime fiction authors in this novel and in the next Sylvia Thorn/Willie Grisseljon novel The Desert Hedge Murders. Here’s one example from The Prairie Grass Murders:
 

“A little relaxation was in order. One glass of Reisling, a slice of cheddar cheese, one chocolate truffle, a new China Bayles [the creation of Susan Wittig Albert] mystery, and a long soak in a tub full of lavendar-scented bubbles. Heavenly.”
 

Stoltey also makes reference by the way to Sue Grafton.

One of the more innovative ways in which one crime fiction author pays tribute to another is in Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts. In that novel Saskatoon private investigator Russell Quant takes a trip to Hawai’i to spend some time with his long-distance partner Alex Canyon. He gets involved in a murder and a sort of treasure-map mystery when a stranger who turns out to be an archivist slips a cryptic set of clues into Quant’s luggage. When the man is later murdered, the cop who investigates the murder is Kimo Kanapa’aka, the creation of fellow crime fiction author Neil Plakcy. Michael Connelly and Robert Crais have also had their sleuths “visit” each other’s series and it’s a creative way to pay tribute to each other.

Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar includes an interesting discussion of other crime fiction. Australian private investigator Jayne Keeney lives and works in Bangkok but she frequently visits her good friend Canadian ex-pat Didier de Montpasse, who lives in Chiang Mai. The two of them share a love of books but they have different tastes. Didier prefers classics and cosies while Jayne prefers more modern, darker novels. They discuss several well-known authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, and Sara Paretsky and each tries to “convert” the other. It makes for a lively debate. Then Didier’s partner Nou is brutally murdered, and shortly afterwards, Didier himself is shot in what the police say was an attempt to escape them. The police report holds that Didier murdered Nou and resisted arrest when the police tried to question him. But Jayne is quickly convinced that Didier would not have killed Nou and that both men were deliberately murdered. She decides to try to find out the truth behind the murders and discovers that Didier had uncovered some very ugly truths about Chiang Mai that some powerful people do not want made public. Interestingly enough, one of the important clues in this case is a clue that Didier himself leaves for Jayne: it’s a cryptic clue that refers to a Sherlock Holmes story.

It’s a gesture of respect when authors pay tribute to each other and it’s a nod to the crime fiction fan too. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. Which have you read and enjoyed?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s This Night. Why did I choose this song? Because in it Mr. Joel pays tribute to Beethoven by integrating the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata into the chorus.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, James W. Fuerst, Mark Haddon, Michael Connelly, Neil Plakcy, P.G. Wodehouse, Patricia Stoltey, Raymond Chandler, Robert Crais, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Susan Wittig Albert

So Drive, Go Ahead Drive*

One of the main characteristics of crime fiction is that, well, there’s a crime. Very often there is more than one crime and in a lot of crime fiction, that crime is murder. Sometimes, though, in some mystery novels, the crime and its investigation almost seem to take a “back seat” to another feature of the novel, such as its setting or the characters involved. That doesn’t mean that the crime is ignored, but other facets of the novel capture our attention more.

Agatha Christie’snovels are for the most part driven by the crime(s) and the investigation. And yet, there are some in which the mystery is less important (although of course, it’s very much there). For instance, in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda are invited for a week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also in that house party will be several other members of the Angkatell family. As the novel begins, we see the preparations for this weekend and several conversations that give us backstory about the family and its relationships. The Christows and the other guests arrive at the Angkatell house and settle in, and we see their interactions. On the Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited for lunch. When he arrives, he’s much annoyed to find that the Angkatells seem to have provided an “amusement” for him: there’s a body lying by the pool and what looks to be the murderer standing over it. All too soon, though, Poirot realises that this is real; John Christow has been shot. Inspector Grange is called in and Poirot assists in the investigation. Of course witnesses are interviewed, clues are found, and in the end, the murderer is revealed. But in this novel, the story is as much about the Angkatell family and their relationships as it is about anything else.

The same is true of Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest. That’s the story of a large Irish Catholic family and what happens to the family when one of its members returns after a long absence. This family, led by a matriarch known only as Mam, gathers when eldest daughter Bridget “Bridie” returns to the family after ten years of living in a convent. Another sister DeeDee has also returned. She left the family after her divorce from Terence, and is now bringing her new fiancé James to meet everyone. Needless to say, there’s a lot of tension when everyone gets together. One of the big reasons for it is that Mam has never accepted DeeDee’s divorce, and still sees Terence as DeeDee’s husband. Terence sees it that way, too. Mam has also not accepted the fact that Bridie is no longer in the convent; she believes that her daughter will go back to her religious life. The tension and underlying resentments in the family surface one night when everyone has gathered at Mam’s house. At one point, James and Terence are having a loud argument and everyone rushes up the stairs. So everyone’s “on the scene” when DeeDee takes a fatal fall down the stairs. At first, James is the only one who believes that DeeDee didn’t die by accident. And in the end, with help from DeeDee’s brother Kevin and Kevin’s wife Eleanor, he is proven right. What’s interesting about this novel is that although there is a murder, and we do find out what happened, the main focus of the story is on the family itself, its dysfunction and the effect of denial on everyone.

Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is also an interesting case of a murder mystery where the crime and its investigation are arguably not as central as other aspects of the story. In that novel, New York City detective Elijah “Lije” Baley is assigned to investigate a particularly delicate case. Noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton has just been murdered and Police Commissioner Julius Enderby wants Baley to take the case. This case has serious political implications because in the futuristic New York where the novel is set, humans are divided into two adversarial groups. One group, the Earthmen, are descended from humans who never left the planet. The other, the Spacers (of whom Sarton was one), are descended from people who did leave the planet. The two groups have completely different outlooks on life, including the use of robots. Spacers rely on them as partners; Earthmen fear them. In order to keep this investigation from unleashing violence between Earthmen and Spacers, Baley is assigned a partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. He’s not happy about it, but his dislike turns to dismay when he learns that Olivaw is a robot. Despite the delicate nature of the case and Baley’s dislike of Olivaw, the two begin to work together to solve it. They do, in fact, find out who killed Sarton and why, and the novel shows that process. But perhaps more important is the look that the novel gives at what life on Earth might be like in the distant future. Much attention is devoted to living arrangements, food, work life and so on. There’s also a detailed look at prejudice. Those elements of the novel are so important that you might say the mystery takes a “back seat” to them, although it’s certainly there.

That also happens in several of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. Dalhousie is a philosopher and edits the Journal of Applied Ethics, so several of the novels focus on larger philosophical and ethical issues. There are certainly mysteries, but they are not always the main focus of the novels. For instance, in The Right Attitude to Rain, Dalhousie gets a visit from her American cousin Mimi McKnight and Mimi’s husband. During the course of that visit, Dalhousie gets a chance to meet the McKnights’ friends Tom Bruce, also an American, and his new fiancée Angie. Both Dalhousie and Mimi McKnight have the strong feeling that there’s tension between the couple; at one point, Tom even tells Dalhousie about a troubling incident in which he nearly fell from a cliff, and Angie did nothing to help him. The McKnights’ visit ends and they return to the U.S. Shortly afterwards, Dalhousie gets a letter from her cousin that includes the awful news that Tom Bruce’s home burned down, and Bruce himself barely escaped alive. It’s possible that Angie started the fire. It’s possible that Tom Bruce himself did. In the end, although Dalhousie has a theory of what happened, and does take some action, we don’t know exactly what happened. In that sense, this story is much more about the characters and their interactions than it is about the mystery surrounding Tom and Angie.

In Mark Haddon’sThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we meet fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, so he doesn’t see the world in the way that most of us do. When he discovers the body of a neighbour’s dog one day, he decides to find out who killed the animal and why. He wants to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes. Although he’s limited by his difficulty with social interactions, Christopher Boone is a smart boy, and eventually, he does find out the truth about the dog. He also finds out an important truth about his family that changes everything for him. And it’s really that story – of Christopher and his family – that’s more important than anything. The interactions that Christopher has with his family members, neighbours, and other people are as much the focus of this story as anything else is. So is Christopher’s own growth.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. When she’s found dead, Detective Luton is assigned to find out the truth about her murder. The most likely suspect is O’Toole’s neighbour, sixty-five-year-old Jennifer White. But Luton’s investigation of White is hampered by the fact that White has dementia and is slowly losing her grip on what most of us think of as reality. Still, Luton is convinced that White knows all about the crime and may in fact have committed it. This novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, and we see the events through her increasingly hazy and detached eyes. And that is the central focus of the story really. We learn about her life and personal history, the way she sees things, what her relationship with O’Toole was and the history between the two families. We also see a stark portrait of someone who is slipping gradually away. Yes, we find out who killed O’Toole and why, but in the end, that’s not as important in a way as the story of Jennifer White’s experience with dementia is.

And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which tells the story of Larry Ott and Silas Jones. Ott’s the town loner of Chabot, Mississippi, who’s always been considered a little strange, especially since the night 25 years earlier when he took Cindy Walker out on a date, and she never came back. Everyone’s always thought him guilty of murder although he was never arrested or tried. Now, another girl, Tina Rutherford, has gone missing and all eyes, so to speak, are on Larry Ott. In fact, it’s so much assumed that he’s guilty that he’s attacked and shot. Jones is the town constable. He lived in Chabot as a child and at the time, became close friends with Ott. But the two had a rupture in their friendship. Jones moved north and went to university. Now he’s back and he has a disappearance and a severe wounding to solve. He also has to face his own past and the past he shared with Ott. This novel is about the disappearances of Cindy Walker and Tina Rutherford. But really, it’s about Ott and Jones; it’s about racism and small-town politics. It’s bout dealing with one’s personal past, too. The crimes are there and it’s not that they don’t matter. But those other elements figure in very strongly.

There are other crime fiction novels like that, too, where the crime itself is there, but really, our attention’s on something else. Do you enjoy novels with that approach, or do you prefer crime fiction where the crime “does the driving?”

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Drew Davis’ Drive.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Alice LaPlante, Isaac Asimov, Marian Babson, Mark Haddon, Tom Franklin

Like the Circles That You Find in the Windmills of Your Mind*

One of the most interesting things about crime fiction is the way it reflects our developing understanding and the way we think. You can even use crime fiction as a way to look at some of the new developments in our knowledge over time. That’s certainly true of our understanding of the human mind. Many people find the human mind and human psychology fascinating. And as we learn more about the way people think, what motivates them and how psychology works, we see that come through in crime fiction. That’s one reason that well-written psychological novels can be so compelling.

There are certainly what you could call psychological motives in early and early-classic crime fiction. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes investigates the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson. Both men are Americans, staying at a rooming house during a trip to London. Drebber dies first and it’s assumed that Arthur Charpentier, whose mother owns the rooming house, is guilty. That’s because Drebber made unwelcome advances to Charpentier’s sister Alice. But then Stangerson is murdered, and it becomes clear that the two deaths are linked. Holmes and Watson investigate and discover that these murders have their roots in the men’s pasts. The motive here is revenge, which you could call a psychological motive. But it’s not a very deep exploration of the human mind.

By the time that Agatha Christie began writing in the early 1920’s, Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking work in psychology had made human motivation and human thinking a worldwide topic of interest. You can see that interest in psychology coming through in several of Christie’s novels, too. For instance, in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Hercule Poirot is invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Poirot is therefore present when one of the other guests, beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington, is poisoned. There seems no motive for the murder, and little progress is made on the case. Then, noted doctor Sir Bartholomew Strange is poisoned in the same way when he has a gathering at his Yorkshire home. It’s soon clear that the two deaths are linked, and Poirot begins to see how the murders might have been accomplished. Then there’s a third death. In the end, Poirot discovers how the deaths are linked, and although you could say that the primary motive is basic fear, this novel is also an interesting exploration of the psychology of the murderer. Once we understand how that murderer thinks, the murders fall into place, you might say. Several of Christie’s later novels also explore how human psychology motivates what we do.

We see a real movement towards the psychological crime novel in the mid-to-late 1950’s with the work of authors such as Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson. In Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, for instance, Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno are fellow passengers on a cross-country train journey. They meet by chance and begin talking. Before long, the two confide in each other as fellow passengers sometimes do. Bruno, for instance, has an unpleasant, insufferable father. Haines is unhappily married. The conversation takes a sinister turn when Bruno suggests that the two men make a compact to commit murder for each other. Bruno offers to kill Haines’ wife if Haines kills Bruno’s father. Haines brushes Bruno off, convinced that Bruno wasn’t being serious. To his dismay, he soon discovers that Bruno was all too serious when Bruno kills his wife and demands that Haines “repay the favour.” In this novel, Highsmith explores Bruno’s unehealthy psychology as well as the more stable mind of Haines, who’s suddenly thrust into a situation he couldn’t have imagined earlier.

Jim Thompson explores the unstable human psyche in The Killer Inside Me. That’s the story of Central City, Texas’ deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Everyone sees Ford as a “good guy,” if a bit dull and plodding. Ford himself knows better. When local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is severely beaten, and that incident is followed by a murder, it becomes clear that Ford may not be the person everyone thought him to be. In fact, Ford himself refers to this as “the sickness.” That slowly-developing awareness of what’s really happening adds a layer of suspense to this novel and it shows very clearly the way our increasing understanding of human psychology found its way into crime fiction.

Psychological thrillers such as those by Margaret Millar, Margaret Yorke and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell have delved even more deeply and with more understanding into human thinking and human psychology. Of course, these are very talented authors. But we can also see how our continually increasing knowledge of psychology has found its way into their novels. For example, Margaret Millar’s Mermaid takes a look at the psychology of guilt, exceptionality, fear and attachment, among other things. Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead explores the psychology of deception as a part of the story. And Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine has explored many, many aspects of human thinking, human psychology and human motivation. Although her Reg Wexford series certainly touches on these topics, it’s really her standalones that delve into these topics. There are also other fine authors, such as Val McDermid and Håkan Nesser, who explore psychological themes in their novels. In fact, in today’s crime fiction world, even authors in other sub-genres (e.g. police procedurals, cosies, etc.) explore psychology at least a bit in their novels. And as we get to understand psychology better, we see more accurate and sometimes very interesting depictions of human thinking.

As time goes by, we’re also understanding psychological and mental disorders better, too, and it’s interesting to see that reflected in crime fiction. There are several novels in which either the sleuth or one of the main characters has a mental disorder; I’ll just mention two recent ones. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the story of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has autism. When Boone finds the body of his neighbour’s dog, he decides to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and find out who the culprit is. In this novel, we see a careful and thoughtful portrait of what autism is like; in fact, that’s one of the “pluses” of this story.

In Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, we meet retired orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. White’s been diagnosed with dementia; as this novel is written from her point of view, we follow along in a harrowing way as her disorder progresses. When White’s neighbour is murdered, she becomes the prime suspect, and it’s fascinating if very disturbing to see how the crime and the other events in White’s life are seen through her eyes.

Novels like these show what we’ve learned about psychology through the last hundred years, and how interesting psychology and human motivation remain. They really seem to hold a fascination for us. But what’s your view? Do you like crime fiction that focuses on psychology, or do you prefer more traditional whodunits?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s Windmills of Your Mind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Håkan Nesser, Jim Thompson, Margaret Millar, Margaret Yorke, Mark Haddon, Patricia Highsmith, Val McDermid