Category Archives: Megan Abbott

I Got the Feeling That Something Ain’t Right*

Growing SuspicionsHave you ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window? Even if you haven’t, you probably know the premise: L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies is laid up with a broken leg; to pass the time, he begins to observe what’s going on in the other apartments that face the same courtyard his does. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that one of those other people, a man named Lars Thorvald, may be a murderer. Part of the tension in the film comes from the the fact that we don’t see the suspected murder, and there’s no real evidence that anyone’s been killed. And yet, Jeff is convinced that something is very wrong. Everything Thorvald does has a logical explanation; yet it also has a possibly sinister one as well. And of course, the more convinced Jeff is that Thorvald is a murderer, the more possible danger there is for him and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont.

It’s arguably a bit harder to depict that kind of growing suspicion with words, but it can make for a suspenseful plot point in a crime novel. Is someone a character observes a criminal or not? We see that in all sorts of crime fiction; space only permits me a tiny sampling.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Marie Morisot, who goes by the name of Madame Giselle, is poisoned while en route from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Chief Inspector Japp concentrates his attention there. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find the killer. One evening, two of the other passengers, Jane Grey and Norman Gale, are having dinner and discussing the case. They notice detective novelist Mr. Clancy eating at the same restaurant and decide to sleuth him. As they do, they come to believe that he’s acting most suspiciously:
 

‘His direction, too, was erratic. Once, he actually took so many right-angle turns that he traversed the same streets twice over.
Jane felt her spirits rise.
‘You see?’ she said excitedly. ‘He’s afraid of being followed. He’s trying to put us off the scent.”
 

Mr. Clancy does other things too that make the two suspect him.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their move to the quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the move seems like an excellent decision. The town is lovely, they’ve been welcomed, and their children Pete and Kim have settled into school and begun to make friends. Then Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something dangerous is going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna thinks Bobbie is overreacting. But then other things happen that convince Joanna that Stepford is not the idyllic place it seems to be. Everything she observes seems to have a very plausible explanation; in fact, she herself wonders whether she may be crazy. But she learns that what she’s noticed also has a very sinister explanation as well.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King learns that her brother Bill has met and fallen in love with Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora wants to be happy for her brother since they’ve always been close. But she’s not at all impressed with Alice. On the surface, Alice seems terrific; she’s beautiful, pleasant and quite devoted to Bill. But Lora has her doubts. Still, she puts the best face on it when Bill and Alice get married. Then, little things begin to surface that make Lora doubt Alice even more. Everything she learns has a plausible explanation, and Alice provides them. But Lora’s suspicions continue to grow. Then there’s a murder, and Alice may be mixed up in it. Lora is afraid for her brother, so she decides to find out whether that’s true. The more she learns about Alice’s world, the more repelled Lora is by it; at the same time though, she is drawn to it. And that sense that something is probably – but not definitely – very wrong adds a layer of tension to the story.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces us to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. The ‘bread and butter’ for his private investigations company is ‘vetting’ potential brides and bridegrooms. Before final wedding arrangements are made between families, one or the other often hires an agency such as Puri’s to make sure that the prospective new family member is respectable and meets the family’s standards. One such case is that of Brigadier General Kapoor, who hires Puri to look into the background of Mahinder Gupta, who is slated to marry Kapoor’s granddaughter Tisca. On the surface, there seems no problem with Gupta, and there’s no one thing in particular that upsets Kapoor. But he has the feeling that something isn’t right about the bridegroom-to-be, and he’s become worried. As Puri and his team investigate, they find out something that Kapoor didn’t know.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. She’s planned and had built a ‘dream house’ in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But poor financial decisions have meant that she has to change her plans drastically. Instead of the perfect home, she’s had to settle for the smaller house next door – ‘the hovel,’ as she refers to it. To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have purchsed the home that Thea still sees as her own. She dislikes them both intensely, and even more so when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them. Still, Thea develops a kind of friendship with Kim. So when she slowly begins to be convinced that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate environment for the girl, Thea gets concerned. She soon learns that the police aren’t going to do anything about it because they don’t have actual evidence that there’s any problem. Everything Thea witnesses has a plausible explanation. But she is certain that Kim is at risk. So she makes her own plans to deal with the situation.

Everything may appear perfectly innocent on the surface, but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes little suspicions can grow, whether or not they’re well-founded. That possibility can make for a solid layer of suspense in stories (and in films!). Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan

They Show You Photographs of How Your Life Should Be*

IllusionsWe all know of course that life isn’t perfect. But the illusion that it could be is very appealing. That illusion of a perfect setting/life/society/etc. can be very powerful. It’s what sells all sorts of products from ‘the perfect getaway holiday’ to ‘the perfect hairstyle’ to just about anything else. Just look at the ‘photo, for instance. It’s a picture of the famous Las Vegas Strip, where nearly everything is a carefully-crafted illusion of perfection. That ideal of perfection is also arguably part of what drives people to keep up appearances (e.g. ‘Yes, I have the perfect family.’)

But as I say, life doesn’t work that way. Before you know it, that perfect pair of shoes gets a scratch in it, or new people move onto the perfect street and start throwing loud parties and leaving trash everywhere. Those reminders that nothing’s perfect can be hard to take, because the illusion that it could be is so easy to accept. And that can add quite a lot of tension and suspense to a crime novel. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples than I could. Here are a few to get started…

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. She’s beautiful, wealthy and intelligent. And she’s accustomed to getting what she wants. She’s not deliberately spiteful or destructive, but she is used to arranging her life in exactly the way she decides. As the novel begins, for instance, she’s working on creating the perfect home at Wode Hall, which she’s recently purchased and is having renovated. She’s even trying to tear down a group of local cottages and relocate the people who live in them so that she can have the perfect view. When she meets Simon Doyle, who is engaged to marry her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, she finds herself attracted to him and before long, he too is part of the perfect world she’s trying to create. She and Simon marry and take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon trip. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet finds out tragically that the world won’t always work her way when she’s shot. The most likely suspect is Jackie, who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she could not possibly be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to search elsewhere for the killer. Interestingly, Poirot tries to warn Linnet that the world cannot be ‘made to order,’ but Linnet doesn’t listen…

The search for the perfect place to live motivates Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their children to move to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. The move seems successful and the family slowly settles in. At first, Stepford seems like an idyllic place to live: good schools, low taxes, friendly people and so on. But Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something dangerous may be going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t agree, and having just moved there, she’s not overly eager to sell their new house and move again. But after a time, she starts to believe that Bobbie may be right. The closer she gets to the truth, the more she sees that there is no such thing as the perfect place to live. Even beautiful small towns can have their dark secrets.

Glenn Hadlock thinks he’s found the perfect job in Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary. He answers an employment advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position and finds that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and in need of a chauffeur/escort for his wife Eileen. The pay and benefits are excellent, and Hadlock accepts right away when the job is offered to him. At first it seems like an ideal situation for him. Scofield is not exactly a pleasant person, but he is fair and generous, and Hadlock gets a nice place to live, a good wardrobe and plenty of spending money. He also gets to spend time with Eileen Scofield, and that becomes a serious problem when he finds himself attracted to her. Scofield has told Hadlock that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. As Hadlock finds that employment condition harder and hard to accept, he also finds that his perfect job arrangement…isn’t.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She works hard to create the illusion that she’s the perfect girlfriend, and then the perfect wife, to police officer Bill King. And she succeeds too, at least at first. She’s beautiful, smart, witty, and friendly. Her parties are perfectly arranged, the food is always beautifully presented and delicious, and she and Bill are the most popular hosts among their group of friends. But Bill’s sister Lora gradually begins to suspect that Alice is not the person she seems to be. First it’s a matter of little inconsistencies in what Alice says about herself. Then Lora begins to wonder just what kind of secrets Alice has. The more she learns about Alice’s life, the more she is at the same time repelled by and drawn to it. And she’s a little worried for Bill, to whom she’s always felt close. To her, Bill is too eager to believe that Alice is the perfect wife that he thinks she is. Then there’s a tragic murder, and Lora thinks Alice may be involved in it. If so, this could be dangerous for Bill. So Lora has to decide how she’ll go about finding out the truth and what she’ll do when she does find out.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband Henrik and their son Axel. Eva has worked very hard to create the perfect home, complete with white picket fence, and the perfect family life. She’s arranged everything as best she can to make everything idyllic. But of course, life isn’t that way. One day Eva finds out that Henrik has been unfaithful. She knew he’d been unhappy for a while (ironically, a lot of that had to do with her own attempts to make everything perfect). But this discovery devastates her. One night she goes out to a pub, where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own troubles. That meeting soon leads to both of their lives spinning out of control. And (again ironically), the more they try to make things perfect, the less perfect things get.

Qiu Xiaolong addresses the issue of the ‘perfect society’ in Enigma of China. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police is assigned to investigate what seems to be a straightforward case of suicide. Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, had come under investigation for corruption. It’s widely believed he killed himself rather than go through the humiliation that a full investigation plus trial and imprisonment would bring. But Chen isn’t completely sure this was a suicide and in any case, his job as a detective is to investigate fully. So he and his assistant Detective Yu look more deeply into the case. It turns out that the original allegations of corruption came from an Internet ‘grass roots’ group that posted some of the evidence. The Chinese government doesn’t want such groups to post, as that would put the lie to the illusion of a harmonious society that the government wants to create. At the same time, the government used that very group’s evidence against Zhou. It’s a very delicate situation, and in the novel there are several interesting discussions of the way the Internet is now used both for dissent and for factual information, since the official government outlets support only the appearance of societal stability and harmony.

People do want to believe illusions at times, because they can be so appealing. But sometimes, the cost of creating and maintaining an illusion can be awfully high. Maybe it’s just better to acknowledge that life’s not perfect…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Colby

Ah, But I Was So Much Older Then, I’m Younger Than That Now*

OlderPerspectivesHave you ever noticed how your perspective on things changes as you get older? For instance, if you visit a home that you lived in as a child, you may see that it’s a lot smaller than you remember. You remember that house with a child’s perspective, but now you see it with a different set of eyes. That different way of looking at things is arguably part of the reason for which our memories can be so unreliable.

We see that plot point quite a lot in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Not only is it realistic, but also, it allows the author to add to the suspense of a story. And in the case of ‘whodunit’ crime novels, it allows for all sorts of ‘red herrings’ and proverbial wrong turns. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of many others.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve a sixteen-year-old case. Her father, famous artist Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, charged and convicted, and with good reason. For one thing, there was physical evidence against her. For another, she had a motive, as her husband was having an affair with the subject of his painting Elsa Greer. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he interviews all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also asks for Carla’s own memories. In two cases, Carla’s and that of her Aunt Angela Warren, the memories of that time are those of children. Carla was five, and Angela Warren was fifteen when Crale was murdered. And it’s interesting to see how their perceptions of things have changed. There are two incidents in particular that didn’t make sense to a younger mind, but now make a lot of sense. The difference in perspective isn’t the solution to the mystery, but it explains several things and adds an interesting layer to the story (I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder).

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988, at a lakeside school picnic at Wanaka. The members of the Anderson family, including fourteen-year-old Stephanie, her younger brothers Jonny and Liam, and her four-year-old sister Gemma, are there with many other local people. During the picnic, Gemma disappears. The police are called in and there’s a thorough search. But no trace of Gemma turns up – not even a body. The family tries to move on as best they can, and seventeen years go by. Now Stephanie is a fledgling psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. One day she hears a haunting story from a patient Elisabeth Clark. Years earlier, her sister Gracie was abducted, and no trace of her was found. This story is so much like Stephanie’s own that, as the saying goes, it won’t leave her alone. Against her better professional judgement, she decides to find out who was responsible for causing so much devastation to these two families. She takes a leave of absence from her work and begins to search for the truth. The trail leads her back to Wanaka and in the end, she does find out who abducted both girls. Throughout the novel we see the way Stephanie viewed everything as a fourteen-year-old versus the way she looks at life now.

In Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, we meet Caspar Leinen, a young attorney who is just beginning his career. One day his name comes up on the legal aid rota and he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Fabrizio Collini, an Italian immigrant to Germany, has been arrested for murder. It seems that he went to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, headed for the suite occupied by Jean-Baptiste Meyer, and shot the man. Collini says that he committed the crime and doesn’t want a lawyer. But German law requires that he be represented. So Leinen prepares to handle the case as best he can. Collini doesn’t do much to defend himself, which means that Leinen will have to take on a lot of the work. He digs into the backgrounds of both men and finds some surprising truths. He also finds a little-known point of German law on which the whole case will ride. In the course of the novel, we also get to know Leinen’s own history, and that plays a role in the story’s events too. It’s interesting to see how his perspective as a boy and teenager changes as he reflects on the same events with adult eyes.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer also deals with the different perspectives that we acquire as adults. Catherine Monsigny is a beginning attorney who gets her chance at a major case when she is asked to defend Myriam Villetreix against a murder charge. She has been accused of poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston, but claims to be innocent. And as Monsigny looks into the case, she sees that there are other possibilities. In the meantime, she comes up against a tragedy from her own past. When she was three years old, she was a witness to the murder of her mother Violet. Her memories are understandably very sketchy, but some things have stayed with her. As it happens, the Villetreix murder happened not very far from the scene of the long-ago murder, and the location haunts Monsigny. In the course of the novel she learns who killed her mother and why. As she does so, we see that her adult perspective, and some discoveries she makes, helps her to see certain events and people in a very different light.

There’s also Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything. In that novel, thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood and her friend Evie Verver are inseparable. Then one terrible day, Evie doesn’t come home from school. The later it gets, the more worried Evie’s family becomes, and they ask Lizzie to tell them anything she may know that could help. But Lizzie can’t be of much assistance, not to the family and not to the police when they talk to her later. She wants to know what happened to Evie, though, and in her own way, begins to search for the truth. She finds that many of her memories don’t reflect what really happened. And since it’s the adult Lizzie who narrates the story, we also see how her perspective on everything has changed since she was thirteen.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. That story really begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found strangled. This tragedy devastates her parents, the aunt and uncle with whom she was staying when it happened, and her cousins Mick and Jane. At first the police thought that someone in the family might be responsible. But then not many months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, was also found strangled. Everyone began to believe that these deaths were the work of a serial killer dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The cases were never solved, and years went by. Now, more than thirty years later, journalist Erin Fury is doing a documentary on the effect of tragedies like this on the families involved. She interviews both Jane and Mick, along with Jane’s husband Rob, who also knew Angela. As the novel goes on, we see how these characters viewed Angela and the circumstances surrounding her death. We also see how different some of their youthful perspectives are to what really happened and to the adult perspectives they now develop on everything.

And that’s the thing about looking back. On the one hand, there are some very clear memories we have that are actually quite accurate. On the other hand, when we look back, we often do so with our childhood perspective. It’s not until we really think about things with adult maturity that we really understand them. I’ve only brought up a few examples here. Which books with this plot point have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ferdinand von Schirach, Megan Abbott, Paddy Richardson, Sylvie Granotier, Wendy James

Keep Your Friends Real Close and Keep Your Enemies Closer*

Friends Close and Enemies CloserThere’s an old saying, ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ The idea is that the more you know about the people you don’t like or trust, the safer you are. There are a lot of examples of this kind of tense relationship in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Along with the fact that they’re a natural ‘fit’ for a crime novel, those tense relationships can add a solid level of suspense to a story. So not only can they add to a plot, but they can also add interest. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. I know you’ll be able to provide lots more than I could anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police to solve an unsettling case. A group of murders is committed, apparently all by the same person. Prior to each murder, Poirot receives a cryptic warning note; near each body is an ABC railway guide. It looks like the work of what we now call a serial killer, but Poirot isn’t exactly sure of that. And it turns out that he’s quite right. This is not the work of a crazed lunatic who kills for some twisted psychological reason. The murderer has a much different sort of plan and motive. The killer wants to know what leads Poirot and the police are following, and is well aware that they won’t exactly print such things in public notices. So the culprit chooses a very interesting approach to ‘keeping enemies close,’ as it were. Not that that stops Poirot from finding out who’s responsible…

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer is hired by Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida School, to track down a student who’s apparently run away. Seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman has left the school, and Sponti wants him found before his wealthy parents find out he’s missing. He and Archer are discussing the case when the boy’s father Ralph Hillman bursts into the office with some frightening news. Apparently Tom’s been abducted and his kidnappers have contacted the family. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Ralph and his wife Elaine to find out who has taken Tom. It’s not long before Archer sees that all is not as it seems in this case. For one thing, the Hillmans are strangely uncooperative for parents who are distraught about losing their son. For another, there are signs that Tom may have gone willingly with his captors. Archer doesn’t care at all for Ralph and Elaine Hillman, and the feeling is mutual. But he knows that they know Tom possibly better than anyone else, and are in a good position to provide valuable information. So although he neither likes nor trusts them, he has to work with them.

Megan Abbott’s Die A Little, which takes place in 1950’s California, features Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She and her brother Bill have always been close, so when he first says that he’s found the right woman to marry, she’s pleased for him. His fiancée Alice Steele is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant who’s both beautiful and smart, and it’s easy to see why Bill is in love with her. The wedding duly takes place and Lora tries to be happy for her brother. But it’s not long before she starts to dislike and distrust Alice. For one thing, she discovers that Alice hasn’t been exactly honest about her background. For another, Alice has a rather dubious past and some even more dubious friends and connections. Now Lora begins to be afraid (or so she at least tells herself) that Alice might be dangerous for Bill. But Bill wants his wife and his sister to get along; it’s too stressful for him if they’re enemies. What’s more, he really does love Alice, and Lora knows he won’t listen to just her suspicions. So she has to get along with Alice as best she can. Besides, as much as she is repelled by Alice’s life, Lora also finds herself drawn to it. Then there’s a death. And Alice might be mixed up in it…

In Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom, British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann gets a new assignment. He’s told to travel to Thailand and retrieve a black, lead-covered box from the Andaman sea, where it ended up when the ship it was on sank. Swann knows that this operation will require a lot of armed help and cooperation from people in Thailand. And for that, he’ll need the support of one of Thailand’s top crime bosses ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. Getting that support is going to be extremely dangerous for Swann. For one thing, Song is ruthless. For another, Swann has been entangled with Song before. In an earlier confrontation with dangerous underworld types, Swann ended up having to kill Song’s son. He saved Song’s life, and for that, the man owes him. But Swann is pretty certain that Song will not forgive the murder of his son. Still, Song is the only real choice for making sure that people will cooperate with Swann, that the police will stay out of his way, and that there will be plenty of armed assistance should Swann need it. So he has to work with a man he can’t really trust. As it turns out, ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song is going to be the least of Swann’s worries…

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls is the story of two deaths that took place in the Sydney area in 1978. First, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan was found strangled with a silk scarf. At first, the police looked for the killer among Angela’s friends and family members. In fact her cousin Michael ‘Mick’ Griffin was under suspicion for a time. Then, a few months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor was found dead, also strangled with a scarf. This death raised the very real possibility that there might be a serial killer at work; the press dubbed the murderer ‘the Sydney Strangler.’ Young girls were told to be careful, parents to supervise their children more closely, and so on. The strangler was never caught, and the cases have more or less died out of regular conversation. But the families involved have not ‘gotten over it.’ Over thirty years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on the lasting effects of murders on the victims’ families. Angela was an only child, and her parents have died. So Fury visits Angela’s cousin Jane Tait and asks her for an interview. She also wants to interview Jane’s husband Rob, her brother Mick and her mother Barbara. At first, the family doesn’t really want to rake things up again. They’ve all suffered more than enough. And at first they don’t trust Fury; after all, why should they? And she has her own reasons for wanting to dislike them. But very slowly they start to tell their stories. And what comes out of the interviews is that things were not at all the way they seemed on the surface. Bit by bit we learn what really happened to Angela and to Kelly, and how their deaths and the secrets about them have affected everyone.

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. In that novel, we first meet Peter Jamieson and John Young. Jamieson is very much a ‘rising star’ in Glasgow’s underworld, and Young is his right-hand man. Together, they notice something they don’t like. Small-time dealer and criminal Lewis Winter seems to be trying to make a name for himself. If he succeeds, he could be a real problem for Jamieson and Young, especially if he allies himself with one of their rivals. So they want Winter out of the way. To do that, they hire Callum MacLean. He’s a professional who’s done jobs like this before, so they’re sure the job will be done properly. For MacLean’s part, it’s a paid job – a way to make a living. He wants to do it well, get paid as promised, and stay off the police radar, both literally and figuratively. Neither entirely trusts the other. Neither says more than is necessary to seal the deal. Yet they have to work together if they’re going to solve the Winter problem. It’s interesting to see how the relationships among underworld figures work in this novel. They know a lot about each other; they sometimes have drinks and make deals. But they never completely trust each other.

And that’s the way it is in some relationships. There are times when the best way to ensure your own safety is to know exactly what ‘the other side’ is thinking and doing. It’s true in real life and we certainly see it in crime fiction. Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stuart ‘Adam Ant’ Goddard and Marco Pirroni’s Young, Dumb and Full of It.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Megan Abbott, Ross Macdonald, Wendy James

How Could You Tell Me That I Was Wrong*

Blaming the VictimSocietal attitudes play a major role in the way we perceive people who are involved in crime. In some cases, people are even held responsible for crimes when really they’re the victims if you think about it. ‘Blaming the victim’ has a long history in society, and of course we see plenty of it in crime fiction too. When that plot point is done well, it can really hold a mirror up to a way of thinking.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, for example, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murder of Enoch Drebber, an American visitor to London. One possibility is that his secretary and travel companion Joseph Stangerson is the killer. But when Stangerson himself is murdered, it’s clear that something else is behind these murders. Holmes traces the murders back to past events and a history that Drebber and Stangerson shared. One key point in this plot is that the murderer could very well be described as a victim who’d been blamed for what was really more of a societal wrong.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers is the story of the life and death of twenty-four-year-old Wendy Hanniford. Her father Cale Hanniford finds out that she’s been stabbed and approaches ex-NYPD cop Matthew Scudder to help him find out why. Hanniford knows that Wendy’s room-mate Richard Vanderpoel has been arrested for the crime, and for good reason. He was found with the victim’s blood on him, and he can’t give a satisfactory alibi for the time of the crime. What Hanniford really wants to know is what led to the crime – what Wendy was like as an adult and how she ended up dead. Scudder agrees to ask some questions and begins looking into Wendy’s past. The closer he gets to the kind of person Wendy was, the more it seems that the story of her murder is not as simple as it seems. In the end, we find that Wendy’s death is a solid case of ‘blaming the victim.’

There’s another example of ‘blaming the victim’ in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep. When Dr. Everett Seeley is forced to give up medicine because of his cocaine habit, he decides to go to Mexico for the time being. He sets up his wife Marion in a Phoenix apartment and arranges for her to have a ‘safe’ job as a filing clerk/typist at the exclusive Werden Clinic. He’s hoping that she’ll be all right until his return, and at first, all goes well. Then, Marion strikes up a friendship with Louise Mercer, a nurse at the clinic, and her room-mate Ginny Hoyt. As Marion gets drawn more and more into their dangerous lives and lifestyles, she finds herself getting closer and closer to the proverbial edge. To make matters worse, she meets businessman Joe Lanigan, a ‘friend’ of Mercer’s and Hoyt’s. The relationship they strike up leads to tragedy for everyone and raises the question of who the victim really is. This novel is based on a real-life case, and in both instances we can ask the question of whether the victim is being blamed.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly begins with the arrest of Marco Ribetti, an activist who ‘s been protesting against several of the glass-blowing factories in the Venice area. He believes they’re illegally dumping toxic waste and are polluting the environment. When he and his group protest against a factory owned by powerful Giovanni de Cal, he’s arrested. De Cal makes quite a scene, blaming Ribetti for causing trouble. Ribetti asks his friend Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello for help in his case and Vianello agrees to see what he can do. He and his boss Commissario Guido Brunetti look into the question of how the glass-blowing factories get rid of toxic waste; that search leads them to Giorgio Tassini, a night-watchman for de Cal’s factory. Tassini has always believed the factories were illegally dumping toxic waste and is only too happy to share his theory with the police. Then one night he’s killed in what seems on the surface to be a tragic accident that occurred because he was working on his own glass project when he should have been attending to his duties. But Brunetti isn’t so sure that’s what happened, and he begins to investigate further. In the end, he finds out the truth about Tassini’s death and we see that the strategy of ‘blaming the victim’ has been used to cover up murder.

In John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, ten-year-old Tonya Hailey, who is Black, is brutally raped by two White men Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. The small Mississippi town in which she lives is shocked at the incident and there’s a lot of sympathy for her family. Her father Carl Lee Hailey is determined that Cobb and Willard won’t get away with what they did. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courthouse. As attorney Jake Brigance prepares to defend Hailey, he’s up against considerable odds. For one thing, there’s little doubt that Hailey shot Cobb and Willard. For another, there are some powerful local people who want to ensure that Hailey is convicted or worse. On the one hand, you can argue that Hailey is a murderer. On the other hand, one can certainly ask the question of who the victim really is.

There’s a clear case of ‘blaming the victim’ in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This is a fictional retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan, who was imprisoned in Melbourne in 1900 for the drowning murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie first meets Jack Hardy while she’s still living at home with her parents in rural Victoria. She falls in love with Hardy and he seems to reciprocate. In fact, they become engaged, although he asks her to keep it secret until he can make a life for them. Shortly thereafter, Hardy leaves for New South Wales to find work. Then, Maggie finds out that she’s pregnant and writes to Hardy with the news. He doesn’t respond, but she continues to try to reach him. Knowing that her parents won’t accept her given that she’s unwed and pregnant, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she finds work in a Guest House. Baby Jacky is duly born and mother and son are both healthy. At first, they go to a home for unwed mothers. But then, Maggie learns that Hardy has moved to the Melbourne area. She finally tracks him down, only to have him outright reject her and the baby, even saying that she’s crazy. With very little money, Maggie goes from one lodging place to another that night and is turned away from six of them. That’s when the tragedy with the baby occurs. She’s arrested and tried for murder, and then imprisoned. Throughout the novel, the question of who is really to blame forms an important theme.

It does in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too.  Ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty has made a life for himself in Bangkok with his wife Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own cleaning company. Also sharing Rafferty’s life is Miaow, a former street child he’s hoping to adopt. One day he gets word that Australian tourist Clarissa Ulrich is looking for him. She’s heard he has the reputation of being able to find people who don’t want to be found, and she wants to find out what happened to her Uncle Claus, who seems to have disappeared. Rafferty agrees to ask a few questions and finds some leads to follow. The trail leads him to an enigmatic and intimidating elderly woman Madame Wing who, it turns out, has another case for him. She agrees to give Rafferty the information he wants if he’ll help her. He takes on that case and ends up getting drawn into a tangled web of murder and revenge for the past. In this novel, it’s clear how people can be blamed for things when actually, they are victims.

Using the plot point of ‘blaming the victim’ allows an author to explore societal issues in the context of telling a story. It also allows for character depth. These are just a few examples; which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Cell Block Tango. 

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Lawrence Block, Megan Abbott, Timothy Hallinan, Wendy James