Category Archives: Martha Grimes

You’ve Got a Friend in Me*

BuddiesOne of the more popular kinds of films is the ‘buddy film.’ In that sort of film there are two protagonists, and the film explores their friendship while at the same time featuring a separate plot. Some ‘buddy films’ are cop films (e.g. Walter Hill’s 48 Hours). Others are ‘road films’ (e.g. Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise). There are other variants on the theme too of course. Over the years it’s been a successful premise for a film, and we see it a lot in crime fiction too.

You’ll notice in this post that I won’t be talking about series such as Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe series, where the two protagonists are superior/subordinate. I’m also not going to focus on novels where there’s a possible or budding romance between the two protagonists. To me, that’s a different dynamic. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some ‘buddy’ crime fiction.

One of the earlier examples of this sort of dynamic is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Hercule Flambeau. When they first meet in The Blue Cross, Flambeau is a master jewel thief. In that story, Father Brown is en route to a large gathering of priests. He’s carrying with him a large silver cross set with sapphires, a most attractive prize for a thief like Flambeau. Father Brown finds an interesting way to deal with Flambeau and as the stories go on, we see how the two men form a friendship. They respect each other and later, they solve cases together. It’s an interesting dynamic, and readers can see how that dynamic evolves as the stories go on.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp on several cases. As we learn in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, they’ve known each other for some time, too – since before Poirot left his native Belgium for England. Poirot is certainly not modest when it comes to his own abilities, but he respects Japp. And he knows Japp has access to resources and information that he, Poirot, doesn’t have. So he doesn’t really treat Japp as a sidekick. For his part, Japp pokes fun at Poirot’s ‘tortuous mind,’ and he isn’t blind to Poirot’s faults. But he respects Poirot’s brilliance as a detective. The two do develop a friendship over the course of the novels, and they depend on each other’s expertise.

Another interesting ‘buddy series’ is Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delalware/Milo Sturgis novels. Delaware is a forensic psychologist with a former career as a psychotherapist. Sturgis is a cop with the LAPD. Beginning with When the Bough Breaks, the two work together on cases where Delaware’s expertise is needed. In that novel, psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez are found murdered. The key to the murder may lie with seven-year-old Melody Quinn, who was a witness. So Sturgis asks Delaware to work with Melody to help her remember as much as she can. The murders turn out to be related to some of the characters’ past histories, and to some things going on at an orphanage. Over the course of the novels, Delaware and Sturgis maintain their friendship although it is tested at times. They rely on one another and they trust each other.

There’s also Craig Johnson’ Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear. Fans of this series will know that Longmire is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Henry Standing Bear is a member of the Cheyenne Nation, and also the owner of The Red Pony, a local bar/restaurant.  The two men have been friends for a long time – since both served in Viet Nam. There are times when they don’t agree, and sometimes they annoy each other. But underneath, they trust each other, quite literally, with their lives. They get in more than one extremely dangerous situation together, and as the series goes on, we also see how they depend on one another.

We see an interesting case of the ‘buddy’ theme in Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team are investigating the bizarre multiple murders of Jacob Schyttelius and his parents. At first, it looks as though the murders might be the work of a Satanist group. But that theory is soon disproved. Another very real possibility is that the murders were committed by someone with an animus against the whole family. If that’s true, then Jacob’s sister Rebecka may be in danger. So Huss travels to London, where Rebecka Schyttelius works with a computer development company. While there, Huss works with Met police inspector Glen Thompson. Thompson has local connections, local authority, and access to information that Huss needs. For her part, Huss has particulars of the case at hand. So the two complement each other as they combine forces. It turns out that that co-operation is important, since the key to this case is in the Schyttelius family’s past as well as Rebecka’s life in London. In the course of the novel, Huss and Thompson do develop a friendship, and we can see how they learn to work together.

There’s also an interesting case of a ‘buddy’ crime novel in Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go. Janusz Kiszka is an unofficial ‘fixer’ in London’s Polish community. So when Father Piotr Pietruzki hears of some disturbing news, Kiszka is the man he trusts. It seems that a young woman named Weronika, who hasn’t been in London very long, has recently disappeared. So Kiszka agrees to ask some questions and see what he can learn. Weronika was last seen with a boyfriend Pawel Adamski, so Kiszka and his friend Oskar begin to trace the couple. In the meantime, DC Natalie Kershaw and DS Alvin ‘Streaky’ Bacon are investigating two murders that turn out to be related to Weronika’s disappearance. In the course of the investigation, Kershaw meets Kiszka, first considering him a suspect, and then as a sort of ally, as she investigates. And that relationship is in itself interesting. So is the ‘buddy’ relationship between Kiszka and his friend Oskar. The two have known each other for some time. They’re drinking and card-playing buddies, and in the course of this novel, they also work together on Weronika’s disappearance.

There are of course lots of other solid ‘buddy’ series and novels (I know, I know, fans of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury/Melrose Plant novels). Which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Randy Newman

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Craig Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, Helene Tursten, Jonathan Kellerman, Martha Grimes

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted*

VacationThe problem with being a talented crime-fictional sleuth is that it’s very hard sometimes to ‘get away from it all.’ Even if you want to take a break and escape for a holiday, you don’t always manage it. Of course, there are some sleuths who are so addicted to their work that they don’t ever really want to take a break. But there are also plenty of sleuths who do plan holidays – well, at least they try. But they’ve become so indispensable that they never really do manage to get away for long. 

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday cruise of the Nile. At first he hopes to have a nice, relaxing break, but then there’s a murder. Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who’s on the same cruise with her new husband Simon, is shot on the second night. Poirot works with Colonel Race, who’s also aboard, to find out who the killer is, and the ship’s staff is only too happy to have them take charge of the investigation. The most obvious suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But although Jackie is on the cruise, her time is accounted for by reliable witnesses, so she can’t have committed the crime. Poirot and Race will have to look elsewhere for the criminal and they’re just beginning to do that when there’s another murder. Now instead of a holiday, Poirot faces a complex multiple murder. Interestingly, although Poirot does enjoy several holidays in the series that features him, he never really seems to mind interrupting them to solve crimes…

That’s not quite as true for DCI Richard Jury in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace. In that novel, Jury is packing his things in preparation for a getaway weekend in Northamptonshire when he gets a call from his boss Superintendent Racer. Racer’s just gotten word that a human finger has been discovered at Littlebourne. When Jury protests that he’s not on call, Racer says that there is no other option since the two other DCIs on the rota are ill. So, very unwillingly, Jury changes his plans. He goes to Littlebourne where he finds that the finger belonged to Cora Binns, a secretary who worked for a temporary services agency and who’d gone to Littlebourne for an interview. She never made it, so now Jury works with Melrose Plant to find out who killed the victim and why. They find that her death is connected to a robbery and another death in the past, and to a vicious attack on another of Littleourne’s residents.

Ellery Queen also doesn’t always want to be disturbed, as we learn in The Origin of Evil. He’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills so he can have some peace and quiet to write. But then, nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill pays him a visit. Her father Leander has recently died of a heart attack, but she is convinced his heart attack was deliberately brought on by a killer. In the weeks before his death, Hill received several macabre ‘gifts’ from an unknown person – gifts that made him increasingly upset. At first, Queen refuses to have anything to do with the gifts or with Laurel. He wants to have some time to write. But then, he finds out that Hill’s business partner Roger Priam has also been receiving cryptic warning ‘gifts.’ Laurel’s refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer finally convinces Queen to look into the mystery and before he knows it, he’s deeply involved. It turns out that Hill’s death and later, an attack on Priam’s life, has everything to do with the two men’s past.

DCI Alan Banks is away on holiday in Peter Robinson’s All the Colours of Darkness when a case of murder cuts his trip short. The body of Mark Hardcastle, a set and costume designer for the Eastvale Amateur Dramatic Society, has been found hanged in a local woods. It looks at first as though he’s committed suicide but then, Hardcastle’s partner Laurence Silbert is found murdered. DI Annie Cabot has begun the investigation but she knows that

 

‘…something big like this, you let the boss know immediately, or things have a nasty habit of coming back at you.’

 

Superintendent Catherine Gervaise takes the decision to call Banks back from his holiday and he and Cabot find out that there was much more going on in Silbert’s life than anyone knew. Far from being the murder/suicide that it seems on the surface, this case involves intrigue and espionage. And that’s not the only time either that Banks is called back from a holiday.

In Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief, Commissario Guido Brunetti is eager to escape the heat of August in Venice. He and his family are planning a trip to the mountains and everyone’s excited. While they’re on the train though, Brunetti gets a call from his colleague Glaudia Griffoni. It seems that Araldo Fontana, a clerk at the local courthouse – the Tribunale di Venezia – has been bludgeoned in the courtyard of the apartment building where he lives. On the surface of it, the killing looks like a mugging gone horribly wrong. But Fontana had been working for a certain Judge Coltellini, who may have been taking bribes from wealthy defendants in exchange for delaying their trials interminably. If Fontana knew about that, he might have been killed for that knowledge. And there’s the fact that he has some personal secrets too. Since this case is looking to be a lot more complicated than it first seems, Brunetti gets off the train, switches to a train back to Venice, and gets to work on the Fontana case. Perhaps this goes to show the down side of having a mobile ‘phone…

And then there’s Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. In that novel, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Inspector Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is taking some time off to recover from the events detailed in Dead Set. He’s even toying with the idea of not coming back, but finishing his Ph.D. instead. But his AFP colleagues have a different idea. Former Gough Whitlam government official Alec Dennet and his editor Lorraine Starck are found murdered at a writer’s retreat where they were working on Dennet’s memoirs. There are all kinds of possibilities for suspects too, since Dennet might have been planning to reveal quite a bit about some highly-placed individuals. This looks to be a very high-profile case and Chen’s colleagues want him on it. He reluctantly agrees and slowly finds himself drawn into what really happened to Dennet and Starck.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether a sleuth is officially ‘on leave’ or ‘on holiday.’ Sleuths who are good at their jobs will invariably be called back ‘on duty’ whether they want to or not. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. Which gaps have I left?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Go-Go’s Vacation.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Kel Robertson, Martha Grimes, Peter Robinson

When We’re Together, My Co-Star and Me*

Two ProtagonistsA lot of crime novels feature one sleuth. Of course, if that one sleuth is at all believable, she or he gets information and sometimes help from other people, but really, there’s one main protagonist. Some authors though have chosen to develop two protagonists. I’m not talking here of pairings such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Rather, I’m talking of dual protagonists whose stories develop almost independently even though the characters are working on the same case or set of cases. It’s not easy to create that kind of partnership without confusing the reader or belabouring the story. But when it’s done well, a plot or series that involves two protagonists with separate but related stories can add a layer of depth and interest and can make for some interesting story arcs too.

Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series is like that. There are several instances in the series where the two pursue different lines of investigation. In Recalled to Life for instance, Cissy Kohler has recently been released from prison after serving time for involvement in the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrop. At the time of her arrest, Ralph Mickledore was also arrested, tried and imprisoned for the murder. Now there are suggestions that Cissy Kohler was innocent and that Dalziel’s old mentor Wally Tallentire, who pursued the case, knew about it and hid that knowledge. Deputy Chief Constable Geoff Hiller is leading an investigation into those allegations, much to Dalziel’s anger. Dalziel doesn’t believe that Tallentire did anything wrong and he resents the questions about his mentor’s character. So he takes another look at the case, mostly to prove that his mentor was ‘clean.’ His new investigation takes him to the US to follow up with an important witness. Meanwhile, Pascoe stays behind and serves as a liaison between Hiller’s team and the CID. In that way, the two sleuths work more or less on the same case, but they do so separately, and we get their two different perspectives.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series also features two separate protagonists. One is DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. The other is Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Although their two stories are related to the same cases, they often investigate different angles of the case in different ways. For instance, in The Serpent Pool, Scarlett and her team are re-investigating the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. They find that it’s connected to two more recent murders, so Scarlett’s angle on this case is the police business of finding out who the murderer is and how the three murders are connected. Meanwhile Kind is doing research into the life and work of Thomas De Quincy. He’s interested in De Quincey and has been invited to give a presentation at a festival to be held in honour of De Quincey. Although Kind doesn’t investigate the murders, not even unofficially, his research proves to be crucial to solving the case.

Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden and Father John O’Malley are also dual protagonists in the same series. They both work on the Arapaho people’s Wind River Reservation; Holden is a lawyer and a member of the Arapaho Nation. O’Malley is a Jesuit priest attached to the local St. Francis Mission. They know each other of course, and develop a deep friendship, but they don’t really work cases together in the way that, say, cop partners do. In The Eagle Catcher for instance, Arapaho tribal chair Harvey Castle is murdered at a powwow. His nephew Anthony is arrested for the crime, and with good reason. But O’Malley doesn’t think that he’s guilty. His angle on this case is to look into the history of the Arapaho people – a history that he knew Castle was compiling and that could provide a key to the murder. For Holden’s part, she agrees to defend Anthony Castle and starts putting together his case. She and O’Malley share information, but they have different perspectives and the story is told from their two different perspectives.

The same thing is true of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jurly/Melrose Plant series. They compare notes and are friends, but they often work separately. For instance, in The Anodyne Necklace, Inspector Jury is called to the village of Littlebourne when a human finger and later a body are discovered. Both turn out to belong to Cora Binns, a temporary secretary who’d come to Littlebourne for an interview. Jury puts the machinery of the law into motion and begins to interview the villagers as well as Cora’s family and neighbours. At the same time Melrose Plant goes to Littlebourne in the guise of wanting to buy some property there. He talks to several of the locals and learns that there was a robbery in the village about a year before Cora was killed. He and Jury also learn that another resident Katie O’Brien was attacked in a London underground station and is now in a coma. Although each man works on his own angle, Jury and Plant share what they learn and little by little, they find out that the murder of Cora Binns is related to the robbery and to the attack on Katie O’Brien.

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ series featuring North Norfolk University archaeologist Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. On the one hand, they share information; they’ve even had a romantic relationship. But they often go their separate ways when they’re investigating. For example, in The Janus Stone, Galloway is called in when a headless child’s skeleton is discovered beneath the ruins of the Sacred Heart Children’s Home when a new posh apartment building is put up on the same site. Galloway’s expertise is needed to determine how old the bones are. When it turns out that they are not ancient, the police begin to investigate. Nelson discovers that two children disappeared from the children’s home at about the time that the bones would have been buried. To find out the truth about the missing children and whether that case is related to the remains that have been found, Nelson interviews retired priest Father Hennessey, who was in charge of the children’s home at the time of the disappearances. Meanwhile Galloway is on a team that’s excavating Roman ruins in the area. Her team’s finds turn out to have an important connection to the case that Nelson’s investigating. They work together in that sense, but each of them pursues leads separately and the story is told from both of their perspectives.

Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs also includes two protagonists who work separately even though they co-operate and share information. In that novel, Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team investigate the bizarre appearance of a group of feet that wash up near the Norwegian town of Stavern.  The rest of the bodies can’t be found though, so there’s a lot of speculation about what has happened. There’s even talk that a particularly crazed serial killer may be responsible. Wisting and his team begin their search for answers with a look at missing person cases. They find that several of the people reported missing have either lived in or worked at the same old-age care home. That home and the long-time association among some of the residents prove to be important clues. In the meantime, Wisting’s daughter Line is also in Stavern. She’s a journalist working on a story about former prison inmates who’ve now been released. The point she wants to make is that prison does more harm than good. As she meets with her interviewees, she too finds out important information that turns out to be related to the case her father is working. The two stories are told separately and from both perspectives. And yet, they relate to the same case.

Other authors such as Deborah Crombie have done a similar thing. Katherine Howell’s got a particularly interesting approach to the dual-protagonist motif. Her series features Detective Ella Marconi of the New South Wales police. But her novels also feature other protagonists, usually paramedics and each novel focuses on a different one. It’s an innovative way to integrate other protagonists into a series.

What do you think? Do you find that having two separate protagonists with two different points of view confusing? Does it add to your enjoyment of a novel?  If you’re a writer, have you experimented with two protagonists?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Tears’ Co-Star.

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Filed under Deborah Crombie, Elly Griffiths, Jørn Lier Horst, Katherine Howell, Margaret Coel, Martha Grimes, Reginald Hill

The Name Game*

TitlesAuthors, editors and publishers spend quite a bit of time choosing the right titles for books. And that makes sense. A good title can attract a reader’s interest and help make (and keep) a series distinctive. A ‘clunky’ title or a title that has little to do with the story can put readers off or make readers feel cheated.

So what does make for a good title? Everyone has different views about this, and the same sort of title that attracts some readers puts others off. I’m hardly an expert on title choice, but here are a few of my ideas about crime fiction titles and types of titles that work.

Traditional wisdom is that titles should be relatively short, and I can see why. Titles that are too long are cumbersome and annoying, and it’s much harder for people to remember them. There are even some very effective titles of only one word. For example, Deon Meyer’s Trackers is a highly effective title. The novel tells three stories, really. One is the story of professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer, who’s persuaded to help smuggle some rare rhinos across the border from Zimbabwe to South Africa. Another is the story of Millla Strachan, who fled an abusive husband and untenable home life and takes a new job as a journalist. The third is the story of Mat Joubert, recently retired from the police service, who’s now doing private investigation. He takes the case of Tanya Flint, whose husband Danie has disappeared. The three stories are tied together (no spoilers!), and all of them involve leaving traces, tracking those traces, and the ‘footprints’ we leave behind. The novel treats this theme on several levels and the title shows that in only one word.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage tells the story of Dublin DS Bob Tidey’s investigation into the murder of Emmet Sweetman. Sweetman was a successful but shady banker who’s shot in his home by two thugs. It’s also the story of Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. Naylor, his brother Noel, and some of their friends plan a major heist – the robbery of a security company that transports money among banks and businesses. Figuring in both cases is Maura Cody, a former nun who is trying to live with her own past. As we learn what’s behind Sweetman’s murder, how the planned armed robbery plays out, and what Maura Cody is trying to live with, we see the common theme of rage. There’s rage against those who profited illegally from the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years in Ireland. There’s rage against certain events that happen in the story. And there’s the rage that has come from the revelations about certain priests and nuns in the Catholic Church. The novel’s plot threads are tied together in a few ways, that theme being one of them, and it’s neatly captured in the title.

Titles can also be used effectively to tie a series together. For example, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels all include a colour in the title. There’s The Deep Blue Goodbye, The Lonely Silver Rain and those are just the first and last in the series. And Sue Grafton’s series featuring PI Kinsey Millhone are famously titled by letters of the alphabet. What’s more, each title also includes a crime-related word. I’m not sure what the title of W is For… will be, but according to her Facebook page, Grafton said (as of 22 February) that

 

‘W is for Whew!’

 

and that she has completed the ‘W’ novel. No word on publication date or actual title yet.

Many cosy series titles are linked too, so as to tie the novels together. For instance, Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) is the author of the Memphis Barbecue series, each novel of which has something related to barbecue in the title. There’s Delicious and Suspicious, Finger Lickin’ Dead, Hickory Smoked Homicide, and (coming soon), Rubbed Out. Not only do those titles link the novels, but they also are short, clever and easy to remember too.

One of the more inventive ways to title novels in a series has come from Martha Grimes, whose Richard Jury/Melrose Plant novels are each titled with the name of a pub. What’s even more effective is that the titles also have something to do with the story itself. For instance, The Anodyne Necklace concerns the murder of temporary secretary Cora Binns, the theft of several valuables, including a particular emerald necklace, and a vicious attack on sixteen-year-old Katie O’Brien. All of these incidents take place or are related to the same village, so it’s a little much for Jury and Plant to think they are unrelated. And they do turn out to be interwoven events. The title in this case gives readers an important clue to the plot and is consistent with Grimes’ other titles.

Titles can also be very effective if there’s something unusual about them – something that makes the reader curious. For example, Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing has a title that makes the reader wonder. And it’s got everything to do with the plot too. This novel concerns the case of Dr. Suresh Jha. One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club, instructed by Professor Pandey. The principle behind the club is that laughing therapy provides exercise, healthy breathing and an opportunity to heal both body and soul. The members are involved in their regular laughing exercises when it seems that the goddess Kali appears and murders Jha. The event becomes a media circus and a rallying cry for those who believe that the gods and goddesses have been neglected. It comes out that Jha was the leader of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), which is dedicated to the unmasking of fake gurus and spiritualists – ‘the godmen’ as Jha called them. Many people believe that Kali has attacked Jha in revenge for his diatribe against her worship. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets interested in this case since Jha was a client at one point. He starts to ask questions and follow up leads on what really happened. And as it turns out, this case is, in many ways, not what it seems. But as you can see, the title is not just an attention-getting title. It’s also a solid reflection of what happens in the story.

So, what got me thinking about titles? Another really fascinating title: Nigerians in Space, written by Deji Olukotun. It’s certainly an unusual title and reflects the theme of the novel. This one’s about a Nigerian government official named Bello, who contacts Nigerian scientists around the world. His proposal is that they return to Nigeria and pursue their science in their own country, so as to make Nigeria a technology/science powerhouse. He seems to be bona fide, and a few of his contacts take him up on his offer. But of course, this is a crime thriller, so things don’t go as planned…The plot lines in the novel follow the stories of three people who are affected by Bello’s offer and all are related both to that offer and in a larger way, to the concept of the moon. And no, it’s not science fiction. I’ll confess I’ve not (yet) read this novel. But the title did inspire me to think about this whole question of how we choose titles and what they mean.

What about you? Do you choose a book based on its title? Do you pay close attention to titles? Which titles have you thought were the best/cleverest? If you’re a writer, I’d be really interested in how you choose your titles.

 

ps. Many thanks to Mack at AfricaScreams for the review that led to the inspiration for this post. Folks, do check out this excellent blog. It’s a rich resource for crime fiction from Africa.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Shirley Ellis and Lincoln Chase.

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Filed under Deji Olukotun, Deon Meyer, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gene Kerrigan, John D. MacDonald, Martha Grimes, Riley Adams, Sue Grafton, Tarquin Hall

Where do the Children Go?*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Memoriam

 

SandyHook

 

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

 

 

 

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

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