Category Archives: Michael Stanley

Mommy’s All Right, Daddy’s All Right, They Just Seem a Little Weird*

Dysfunctional Wealthy FamiliesLet’s face it; dysfunction and worse can happen in any family, no matter what the family’s socioeconomic level is, or where the family lives. But as any crime fiction fan can tell you, it seems that the richer and more powerful a family is, the more likely it is to be plagued by real dysfunction. Not being a family therapist or psychologist, I can’t say exactly why that is. It may be the pressure of being at the top of the proverbial social tree. It may be that being able to have anything one wants removes social restraints. Or it may be something else. But whatever the reason, there seems to be an awful lot of emptiness, unhappiness and worse among wealthy and influential families. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean (but you probably know it already).

Agatha Christie addresses this issue in several of her novels. For example, there’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGilliguddy Saw!). When Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a woman being strangled on a train, no-one wants to believe it really happened. There is no body, and no-one’s reported anyone missing who fits the description of the victim. But Mrs. McGillicuddy’s friend Miss Marple believes her. Miss Marple establishes that if there was a body, it probably ended up on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, the property of the Crackenthorpe family. With help from her friend professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple discovers the connection between the dead woman and the Crackenthorpes. In the process, we get to know the various members of this wealthy family, and there’s plenty of dysfunction, spite and worse to go round. And that’s just one instance of Christie’s treatment of the topic (I know, I know, Christie fans. There’s the Leonides family, the Lee family, the Abernethie family…)

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe gets involved with a very wealthy, powerful and dysfunctional family in The Big Sleep. It all starts when General Guy Sternwood hires Marlowe to stop book dealer Arthur Geiger from blackmailing the family. Marlowe goes to visit Geiger only to find out that he’s too late: Geiger’s just been murdered. In the same room is Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Is she a murderer or a victim? She’s in such a dazed (or drugged) state that she can’t be much help, but Marlowe doesn’t think she’s a killer. So he gets her away from the scene as quickly as possible. He thinks his involvement with the family ends there, but really, it’s only beginning. One of the threads that run through this novel is the decadence and dysfunction in the family. Here for instance is what Sternwood says about his own daughters:

 

‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’

 

Not exactly a healthy family…

Neither is the Wynant family, whom we meet in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. Nick and Nora Charles have come from their home in San Francisco to visit New York. Dorothy Wynant happens to spot Nick and immediately asks for his help. She hasn’t seen her father Claude since his not-exactly-amicable breakup with her mother Mimi, and she’d like to track him down. Nick is at first reluctant to take on the case. Then, Claude Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is murdered and before he knows it, Nick’s drawn into the case. He’s also drawn into the Wynant family circle and it’s not exactly a happy one. For one thing, Mimi Wynant cannot seem to tell the truth about anything. And there’s all sorts of dislike and spite in the family too. That dysfunction makes for an interesting thread of tension in the novel.

Michael Dibdin’s Ratking introduces us to the Miletti family. This is an extremely powerful family that basically runs things in and around Perugia. Then, family patriarch Ruggiero Miletti is abducted. With a family that powerful, the police naturally get involved right away, even though the family is wary of ‘interference.’ Finally, the Perugia Questura requests assistance and Aurelio Zen is seconded from Rome to take over the investigation. As he gets to know the members of the family, we learn just how much dysfunction there is in the group. Each member has a personal agenda, and the layers of hatred, greed and malice run very deep. Not at all the kind of family with whom one wants to spend holidays…

That’s also true of the Hofmeyr family, whom we meet in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. This very powerful family has the controlling interest in the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), which is considered extremely important to the country’s economy. When the body of an unknown man is discovered near rural Dale’s Camp, Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu launches an investigation to find out who the man was and how exactly he died. It’s not very long before Bengu finds a connection between the dead man and BCMC, so he begins to suspect that someone at the company may have had something to do with the death. This brings him into direct conflict with the wealthy and powerful Hofmeyrs, to say nothing of the Botswana authorities who have a vested interest in the company’s success. As Bengu and his team get to the truth, we get to know the Hofmeyr family, and there is plenty of dysfunction in it. What makes this case even more interesting is that the family tries hard to maintain an image of unity.

In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, we meet the members of the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth and her brother Jason take a skiing holiday with four friends in Trafalgar, British Columbia. Tragedy strikes when the SUV the group has rented goes off an icy road into the Upper Kootenay River. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and Sergeant John Winters investigate what first seems like a tragic accident. In one sense it is; Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth is proved to have died as a result of the plunge into the river. Then it turns out that his passenger and friend Ewan Williams had already been dead for several hours when the accident occurred. Now there’s a possible murder case and Smith and Winters look more deeply into it. That’s when they get to know the members of the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Drs. Jack and Patricia Wyatt-Yarmouth are wealthy and influential, and Jack uses that fact in every way possible. But as we learn, that money hasn’t resulted in any real happiness in the family.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant meets a rich but very dysfunctional family in Tapas on the Ramblas. Charity Wiser is not just a wealthy heiress, but a successful business executive, and her family has quite a lot of power and influence. She claims someone in her family is trying to kill her, and hires Quant to find out who it is. She invites Quant along on a family getaway cruise with the idea that he’ll get to know the various members of the family and figure out who the would-be murderer is. During the cruise there are two attempted murders. Then ‘would be’ turns real when there is a killing. As Quant gets to the truth about the events on the cruise, he also learns more about the Wiser family, and a lot of it isn’t very happy. He has to negotiate a proverbial minefield of jealousy, spite, repressed anger and more as he works to solve the case.

And then there’s the powerful Atwal family, the focus of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. One awful night, thirteen members of the family are poisoned and several stabbed. The house is burned too, presumably to hide the evidence of murder. Only one member seems to have survived: fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. She’s the most likely suspect, but she hasn’t said anything since the tragedy. Besides, there are also clues that she may have been a victim who just happened to survive the attack. Social worker Simran Singh is asked to travel from her home in Delhi to the Punjab town where the Atwals lived to try to get Durga to talk about what happened. As Simran slowly unpeels the layers of the incident, she learns more and more about the Atwals. Superficially wealthy, successful and powerful, they were also a desperately unhappy and dysfunctional family. That dysfunction plays a major role in Durga’s view of life and in a lot of what happens in the novel.

There are of course lots of other examples in crime fiction (and other fiction too) of that correlation between wealth/power and real dysfunction. Maybe it’s not so bad to be a ‘regular’ family…

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cheap Trick’s Surrender.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Kishwar Desai, Michael Dibdin, Michael Stanley, Raymond Chandler, Vicki Delany

Now Give Me Money (That’s What I Want)*

FundingThe one thing that many projects (new business ventures, new research studies, non-profit groups, etc.) have in common is that they need to be funded. Getting funding for a project is a tricky business. The project itself has to be appealing. And then too, people who provide finding want to be reasonably sure of their investment. So if they’re funding businesses, they want a reasonable chance that the business will be a success. If they’re helping to underwrite a charity, then that charity has to genuinely serve its intended cause, and so on. Because so much is at stake, funding can cause a lot of tension. Little wonder it’s woven into crime fiction as it is. It’s a definite motive for murder.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AkA Funerals Are Fatal), wealthy family patriarch and business magnate Richard Abernethie suddenly dies. His family gathers for the funeral and the reading of the will. That’s when Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up, and even Cora encourages them not to pay attention to her. But the next day she herself is murdered. Now everyone is sure that she was right, and was silenced before she could tell what she knew. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate and Poirot agrees. Between them, the two men interview the various members of the family and find no shortage of motives. For instance, Abernethie’s niece Susan Banks wants to open her own cosmetics business and beauty salon. For that, she needs a financial backer and her share of Abernethie’s estate fits the bill nicely. Susan’s cousin Rosamund Shane and her husband want to take up an option in a play and perhaps even back their own production. Again, that project needs underwriting. There are other ‘underwriting’ motives too, and it’s interesting how it’s that aspect of finance rather than pure greed that drives several of the characters in the novel.

Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier also includes an important financial-backing theme. Trafalgar, British Columbia Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith’ discovers the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley one night. She’s assigned to work with Sergeant John Winters on the case, and the two begin looking into motives. One that comes up early in the investigation is that Montgomery and his business partner Frank Clemmins are involved in plans for the Grizzly Resort in the area. It’s to be an upmarket spa and holiday destination that will hopefully bring tourist money to the area. But the funding could be difficult. For one thing, not everyone supports the resort; there are plenty of people who believe it’ll ruin the environment. For another, there’s an ugly civic battle going on between those who want to build a Peace Garden in Trafalgar in memory of those who opposed the Vietnam War, and those who do not want the garden. That could mean tourists won’t come, and the unsettled atmosphere is not exactly conducive to investment. For these reasons, Clemmins didn’t want the development company to be too heavily financially involved in the resort. While the main theme of this novel isn’t garnering the financial backing for the Grizzly Resort, it’s an interesting and taut sub-plot.

Funding is also a theme in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. The body of an unknown man is found in a remote Botswana preserve. David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Assistant Superintendent of the Botswana CID is called in to investigate. The first step is to try to identify the man, but that proves quite difficult, as hyenas haven’t left much for the forensics team. As a part of the investigation, Kubu and his team try to trace the owner of the vehicle that brought the body to the place where it was found. That vehicle could very well be one belonging to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC). As the team begins to explore that connection, there’s another death. This one too has a connection to the mine. And there’s a disappearance. Now Kubu is convinced that something’s going on at the mine and he digs more deeply into its activities. It turns out that the mine is poised for some major changes that, if they go right, could mean a lot of money. And financial backing and motives play a big role in that. So, needless to say, CEO Cecil Hofmeyr wants as little bad publicity as possible. And he and his company have a close relationship with some highly-placed Botswana politicians, who see the company as extremely important to Botswana’s economic future. It’s an interesting look at the way funding can depend on a company’s reputation.

We also see the politics of funding in Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her team look into two related deaths. One is the apparent suicide of Orla Payne. The other is the twenty-year-old disappearance of her brother Callum. One night, ACC Lauren Self insists that Scarlett attend a ‘command performance’ Awards Dinner. Scarlett’s not interested in attending. For one thing, she’s no fan of Lauren Self or of ‘glory-grabbing.’ For another, she would rather be out there solving cases than going to a lot of glittering events. But this one’s important. Several local business and civic leaders will be there and their funding is an important source of support for the constabulary. Scarlett may not like such events but she’s pragmatic enough to know that they matter, so she goes. While she’s there, she can’t help but see how good Self is at ‘mixing and mingling’ with everyone in order to talk up the department and hopefully get more funding. It’s a good thing Scarlett goes to the event too, as it helps her in her case.

And then there’s the New Life Children’s Centre, which we learn about in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Located in Pattaya, Thailand, It’s a child care facility and home for abandoned children who are awaiting adoption.  For Frank Harding, who co-ordinates the foreign adoptions, it’s also a place he can use for the purpose of converting as many people as possible to Christianity. The facility is supported by the Thai government and some wealthy donors. So it’s in everyone’s interest that the agency have a good reputation. That’s one reason why a lot of people get jittery when Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney begins to ask questions. She’s been hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. Maryanne Delbeck was an Australian volunteer at New Life when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) off the roof of the building where she was living. It’s possible that her death might have been connected with the work she was doing, so Keeney goes undercover as a volunteer to find out more about the facility. She finds that there’s a lot more going on at New Life than most people know. If Maryanne knew about it too, that could be a powerful motive for murder, as a child care facility with a bad reputation will not get funding, even if it isn’t forcibly closed by law. On a side note, there’s also an interesting discussion here of government funding of volunteer groups.

Funding, grants, ‘seed money,’ it’s all important for business plans, charitable agencies and facilities and universities, among other places. So it’s no surprise that it’s a source of real tension and conflict. Just perfect for a crime novel…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford’s Money (That’s What I Want).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Martin Edwards, Michael Stanley, Vicki Delany

In The Spotlight: Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Today we have a two-for-one special on here at Confessions of Mystery Novelist... Writing team Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip write their David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series as Michael Stanley and through it, give readers an authentic look at life in modern-day Botswana. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight on the first in their Kubu series, A Carrion Death.

The story begins at rural Dale’s Camp, when assistant camp manager and ranger Andries Botha escorts Professor of Ecology Bengani Sibisi on a short research trip. To their shock, the men discover the remains of an unknown man. Hyenas have gotten there first, so there’s not much left by which they can really identify the man. Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to take the details of the discovery and launch an investigation. At first it doesn’t seem like much of an investigation is needed, short of identifying the man. The most likely explanation is that the man wandered off too far and was attacked by animals. But soon enough, forensics evidence suggests that the man’s death might have been murder.

That evidence shows that the man was brought to the remote area where he was found by a vehicle that may have belonged to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC). If that’s true, then someone associated with the company may be connected with the victim’s death. Kubu already knows about BCMC, since he knows Angus Hofmeyr, who will gain control of the company on his thirtieth birthday.

The company is considered very important to Botswana’s development, and the directors have friends in the highest places. So Kubu and his boss Jacob Mabaku know that it will be very risky to insinuate anything negative about BCMC or its employees. Nonetheless, all of the trails in this case continue to lead back to this firm. For instance, there’s the murder of a man who was a business associate of current Chair of the Board Cecil Hofmeyr. And there’s another death, also with possible company connections.

As Kubu and his team untangle this case, they uncover several company secrets. They also learn that the murders can all be traced to one source. In the end, the murders have their roots in past history, psychology and the wish for power.

In some important ways, this is a police procedural. So readers follow along as Kubu and his team members gather and make sense of the evidence, interview people, and work with colleagues in South Africa and Angola to find out the truth. That aspect – the international cooperation – adds an interesting dimension to the police work involved in solving certain crimes.

This is a distinctly Botswana story, and it’s not necessarily the gentle Botswana that fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series know. The country is difficult and dangerous, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. And in some cases, it’s a violent place. And yet, it’s got a great deal of unique natural beauty. Here’s what Kubu’s thoughts are:

 

‘When he got to the CID headquarters, he discovered that the baboons had come down from Kgale Hill and were clambering all over the buildings. They were climbing on the wall around the complex, rummaging in the gardens, and even balancing on the edges of the metal barrels holding water at the neighboring building site. Kubu liked the baboons. They cheered him up. Where else, he thought with satisfaction, would you find the CID headquarters of a respected police force used as a Sunday playground for baboons?’

 

Throughout the novel, we get a strong sense of the culture of Botswana too. There’s even an interesting plot thread that involves the balance between modern science and learning and traditional witch doctor lore and ancient beliefs. There’s also an interesting look at the Botswana mining industry as well as a peek at the international diamond business.

This is the start of a series, and Sears and Trollip lay the groundwork with a cast of characters who fit the context. There’s CID Director Mabaku, who has to balance catching criminals with the political realities of dealing with highly-placed people. He’s irascible at times, and not shy about dressing down his subordinates. But as Kubu reflects, he does the right thing. He’s not at all a stereotypical ‘horrible boss,’ or sycophantic politics-player. There’s also Joy, Kubu’s beloved wife. In some ways she’s a traditional Botswana wife. But she is distinctly her own person, and it’s quite clear that her husband respects her and tries to listen to what she says. There are other characters too who add layers of interest to the story.

And then there’s the character of Kubu himself. His nickname means ‘hippopotamus’ in Setswana, and the name suits him. He’s large (and he does enjoy his food and wine). He’s a bit slow-moving (‘though not lazy). And he seems lumbering on the surface. But anyone who knows about hippos knows that they are not to be underestimated and that’s true of Kubu. He is observant and he’s been taught to really see things and let them speak to him, if I may put it that way. In fact he’s very respectful of traditional ways of knowing and seeing, and in some cases observant of traditional Botswana customs. He’s tenacious, too, and not afraid to take risks. It’s not hard to be on his side as he goes up against some very vicious and dangerous people.

And there is vicious violence in this novel. There are some extremely nasty characters in the story and they do not hesitate to kill. Readers who prefer quieter novels where there is perhaps only one, ‘offstage’ murder will want to know that there are several deaths in this novel. And they’re not all ‘offstage.’ That said though, the violence is not depicted in a lot of detail, and the authors are not gratuitous (at least not in my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do).

The mystery itself is held together logically and has a credible explanation. That said though, there are several threads to it, so readers will want to pay close attention. There is also a cast of characters, so readers will be glad to know that there’s a helpful character ‘cheat sheet’ at the front of the novel.

A Carrion Death is a unique kind of police procedural set in a distinctive and compelling setting. It features an appealing protagonist and a fascinating look at Botswana. But what’s your view? Have you read A Carrion Death? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 11 November/Tuesday 12 November – Once Upon a Lie – Jill Paterson

Monday 18 November/Tuesday 19 November – Line of Sight – David Whish-Wilson

Monday 25 November/Tuesday 26 November – The Chalk Circle Man – Fred Vargas

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Filed under A Carrion Death, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip

It’s Witchcraft*

It’s often the case that we fear things that we don’t understand. That’s how myths and scary stories are handed down over time. And one of the most persistent set of stories is the set of stories about witchcraft and sorcery. Those stories come up in many different cultures and are told in different ways and that’s what’s interesting; it’s such a pervasive set of beliefs. The stories that are told at this time of year about wicked women who fly around on broomsticks and cast evil spells are just one kind of example. There are lots of others and as influential as they’ve been in history, it makes sense that they’d show up a lot in different kinds of crime fiction too. And no, I’m not going to mention crime fiction where there are paranormal explanations for things. Really my focus is crime fiction where belief in witchcraft and sorcery plays a role in the story.

For instance, many of Tony Hillerman’s novels feature Navajo beliefs and traditions. And one of those traditions is a belief in skinwalkers, or witches. These are people who practice what the Navajo people call the Witchery Way. They can assume the shape of animals and use their abilities to wreak havoc. Although not all Navajos believe in skinwalkers, it’s a well-known set of stories. We see how influential this belief is in Skinwalkers. In that novel Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee, each in a different way, investigate a series of deaths that seem to be connected to the Bad Water Clinic, run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse. As they piece together the clues, we find that although the deaths have a very prosaic cause, the belief that witchcraft is at work plays an important role in the novel. We also see in this series a real contrast between those beliefs and the Navajo tradition of healing. For instance, in the early Hillerman novels, Chee is studying to be a yata’ali, or Navajo healer. That spiritual tradition of the healing arts is not at all the same as witchcraft but it’s often been mistaken for it. That misunderstanding has led to quite a lot of damage.

There’s a lot of mention of traditional belief in what you might call witchcraft in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels. Most of those novels take place in rural Louisiana where several different cultural beliefs have come together. One of them is juju, adapted from West African tradition. In the Burke novels juju is depicted as similar to, but not identical to, voodoo, and those who have skill at this kind of witchcraft are believed to have powerful abilities. For instance, in A Morning for Flamingos, Robicheaux is, among other things, trying to find out the truth behind the murder of Hipolyte Broussard. Tee Beau Latiolais has been convicted of the murder, but he claims that he isn’t guilty. Robicheaux promises that he’ll find out what really happened and begins to investigate. The trail leads to Gros Mama Goula, who runs a local brothel and who is said to be a juju woman. All sorts of stories have been passed around about her power, and although Robicheaux isn’t superstitious he knows that she has local clout.  When Robicheaux questions her, she startles him with what seem to be some eerie insights into what’s going on his mind. No, it’s not ‘mind-reading’ and no, witchcraft doesn’t solve this mystery. In fact, the scenes with Gros Mama Goula don’t take up a lot of space in this story. But her influence and the influence of traditional beliefs is obvious in this novel.

Belief in witchcraft – or at least uneasiness about it – shows up in M.C. Beaton’s Death of an Outsider too. In that novel, Constable Hamish Macbeth takes a temporary leave from his usual post at Lochdubh to fill in for a colleague in the village of Cnothan. He’s not exactly warmly welcomed and the feeling is mutual. But Macbeth takes up his temporary duties nonetheless and it’s not long before he finds that there are others even more disliked than he is. William Mainwaring and his wife Agatha are English ‘incomers’ who supposedly have taken up crofting. Everyone suspects that Mainwaring is involved in something much shadier, though. As if that’s not bad enough, he’s contemptuous of the locals, overbearing and has made more than his share of enemies. Agatha hasn’t been much easier to like and matters come to a head when she complains that she’s being pursued by a group of witches. She may not be particularly old-fashioned or overly superstitious but she’s uneasy enough about the possibility of witchcraft that she’s quite anxious and upset. Macbeth finds out that there’s a down-to-earth explanation for the incidents that have frightened Agatha Mainwaring but the situation turns tragic when Mainwaring is murdered. Now, Macbeth has to enlist the aid of wary and unhelpful locals to find out the truth behind the victim’s death.

Today there’s a lot more understanding of traditional healing and different kinds of spirituality than there was in earlier times. And we see that stark contrast in historical crime fiction and in crime fiction that includes connections with the past. There are a lot of examples of this; I’ll just refer to one. Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton takes place in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. Apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is poisoned, and everyone believes that local music master Charles Thom is responsible. He’s duly arrested and imprisoned, but he claims that he’s innocent. He begs his friend, schoolteacher Alexander Seaton, to find out the truth behind the murder and Seaton agrees. He begins to ask questions and in the course of his investigations, he finds that both Davidson and Davidson’s beloved Marion Arbuthnott may have been paying visits to a mysterious old woman who’s got the reputation of being a witch with the ability to cast spells, heal, curse and so on. If that’s true, then there are several local people who might have wanted Davidson dead, as feeling against witches is at the boiling point. Then, Marion Arbuthnott dies, too, apparently a successful suicide. When the locals find out that she might have been involved in witchcraft, that story has terrible consequences. In the end, though, it turns out that neither death has anything to do with casting spells. It also turns out that there’s more to the mysterious old woman than meets the eye.

In A Carrion Death by the writing duo known as Michael Stanley, we are introduced to Botswana police inspector David ‘Kubu” Bengu. In this novel, a body is discovered in the Botswana desert. It’s mostly been consumed by hyenas, so there isn’t much evidence as to what happened. The death is initially put down to accident but Kubu isn’t convinced. He begins to ask questions and investigate further. Then there’s another death. As he’s trying to make sense of what’s happened, he runs into traditional beliefs about witch doctors, who are said to have great power and of whom many of the locals are fearfully respectful. Kubu’s been university-educated and doesn’t believe in traditional spirituality. But he does understand that others do, and is reminded of that one Sunday when he tells his father of an encounter between one of his associates and an old man who’s said to be a witch doctor. Kubu’s father reminds him that for many in Botswana, traditional views of spirituality and of witch doctors hold sway and must be respected. No, the two victims were not killed by witch doctors. Their deaths are related to greed, corruption and land-grabbing. But it’s interesting to see the power that the traditional belief system has.

We also see those beliefs depicted in Adrian Hyland’s Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs). Lincoln Flinders is the leader of an Aborigine encampment at Moonlight Downs. When he is brutally murdered, it’s thought at first that his death is the work of Blakie Japanangka, who is a local sorcerer. The two had a heated quarrel, and just after the murder, Blakie disappeared. So everyone makes the obvious connection. But Emily Tempest, who grew up in that encampment and has recently returned, is not so sure. She starts to investigate and in the end, she finds that Flinders’ murder isn’t related to sorcery at all. She also finds out some surprising truths about Blakie Japanangka. In this novel Hyland shares traditional beliefs about sorcerers and the difference between them and those who practice traditional healing. There’s also a thread of that in Gunshot Road, the next novel in this series. It’s easy to develop misunderstandings about traditional healing and what people think of as sorcery and witchcraft and Hyland makes the distinction clear, at least in my opinion.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman and nearly always involves the other residents of Insula, the building in which Chapman lives and has her bakery. One of those residents is Miriam Kaplan, usually known as Meroe, who practices Wicca and owns The Sibyl’s Cave, which sells everything needed for practicing traditional Wicca. She has a very deep knowledge of traditional forms of healing and if you want to, you can call her a witch. But she’s a long way from the stereotyped evil witch with an ugly face and a broomstick. She is in fact a really interesting character through whom Greenwood shares Wicca beliefs and customs. In Trick or Treat in particular we learn about the origins of Samhain, the end-of-harvest festival with which witches are most traditionally associated. You could say that she practices witchcraft as it was originally intended – as it was known before all of the stereotypes and awful legends came up. And her skill with traditional healing, herbs and so on proves useful in more than one case of poisoning that comes up in this series.

Whether or not you are spiritual, it’s hard to deny the power that beliefs about witchcraft and sorcery have had over the years. I’ve only mentioned a few examples of crime fiction where misunderstanding about spirituality and beliefs about witchcraft play an important role. But those beliefs show up in many different cultures too, and that’s what I find particularly interesting.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Sinatra’s Witchcraft.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Michael Stanley, Shona MacLean, Tony Hillerman

Where We Have Lived Since the World Began*

One of the really interesting developments we’ve seen in crime fiction in recent decades is the look the genre has given us at indigenous characters and communities. That’s not easy to do, either. It’s a challenge to create an indigenous character or explore an indigenous community honestly – without either glorifying its members and culture or condescending to them. When it works well, though, we get a fascinating perspective on unique world views and ways of life. We also get some very interesting and innovative characters.

As early as the 1930’s, Arthur Upfield showed readers the lives of some of the Aboriginal communities of Australia. His creation, Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is a member of the Queensland Police Force, so his cases frequently take him into Australia’s Outback and quite often involve the indigenous people who live there. Bony himself is half-Aborgine and thoroughly familiar with many of the indigenous cultures of the area. That knowledge and Bony’s own background are helpful to him as he investigates cases. In The Bushman Who Came Back for instance, Bony solves the shooting murder of Mrs. Bell, housekeeper at the homestead owned by Mr. Wootton. As if Mrs. Bell’s death isn’t enough to upset Wootton, his ranch hands and his staff, Mrs. Bell’s seven-year-old daughter Linda has been abducted. All evidence is that a local bushman nicknamed Yorky is the murderer and has taken Linda because she was a witness. Bony is called in to find Yorky and Linda before anything happens to the girl. In the process of tracking them and of finding out what happened on the morning of the murder, Bony discovers that Yorky is not the only suspect. He knows though that to get the answers he needs, he will need to find the bushman. So he relies not just on what Wootton and the ranch hands tell him but also on what the local Aborginal groups can tell him. In the end, it’s that knowledge as well as the knowledge he has of the land and its rhythms that lead Bony to the truth about Mrs. Bell’s murder and about what happened to Yorky and Linda.

More recently, Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels depict the lives of the Aboriginal communities of Australia’s Northern Territory. Tempest is a half-Aborigine/half-White member of the Aboriginal Community Police. In Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) she returns to her home at the Moonlight Downs encampment after several years away. She’s no sooner home than she gets embroiled in a murder investigation. The leader of the Moonlight Downs encampment Lincoln Flinders is killed and his alleged murderer Blakie Japananga disappears. It all seems clear-cut at first, but Tempest isn’t sure that the obvious solution is also the correct one. So she looks into the case more deeply and finds that there was a lot more to Flinders’ death than it seemed. The same is true in Gunshot Road, in which Tempest solves the murder of prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins, who was supposedly murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel. In both of these novels, we see the way members of the Aboriginal communities in the area live. Hyland presents them – and Tempest – honestly and respectfully. I sincerely hope there’ll be a new Emily Tempest mystery soon.

Tony Hillerman depicted the lives of Native Americans – especially the Navajo Nation – in interesting, respectful and truthful detail. His Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are both members of the Navajo Tribal Police, and the murders they investigate often require knowledge of the Navajo Way in order to solve them. For example, in Skinwalkers, a series of three murders seems to be connected to the Bad Water Clinic run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse. That clinic combines Western medicine with Navajo healing traditions and although it’s done some good, there are people who are suspicious of what happens there. When Chee himself becomes the target of a would-be killer, Leaphorn knows he’ll have to rely on Chee’s knowledge of the Navajo Way as Chee is more traditional than Leaphorn is. Together the two discover what’s behind the murders and in the process we see the lives of those who live in the Navajo Nation. In fact, Hillerman received the distinction of being named a Special Friend of the Navajo Nation in 1987 for his treatment of that community in his work.

Margaret Coel presents the lives of members of the Arapaho Nation in her series featuring attorney Vicky Holden, who is Arapaho, and Father John O’Malley. The focus in that series is the Arapaho community of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Neither Holden nor O’Malley is blind to the challenges faced by the indigenous people of that area. Coel is frank about issues such as alcoholism and domestic abuse on the Reservation as well as about relations between members of the Arapaho Nation and Whites. That said though, Coel treats the Arapaho people with respect and presents their lifestyles both honestly and in fascinating detail.

Peter Høeg introduced readers to half-Inuit Smilla Jasperson in Miss Smilla’s  Feeling For Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow). In that novel, Jasperson meets a young boy named Isaiah Christensen – a fellow transplanted Greenlander. When the boy dies, allegedly after a fall from the roof of the building where both live, Jasperson comes to believe that he did not die accidentally. So she investigates the death despite all sorts of pressure to leave it alone. In the end, Isaiah Christensen’s death turns out to be related to two Danish expeditions to Greenland. Jasperson’s Inuit identity and her familiarity with her people’s culture prove to be very helpful as she looks into the case, and Høeg treats the Inuit people both respectfully and candidly.

Stan Jones does the same thing in his series featuring Nathan Active. Active is an Alaska State Trooper. He is also an Inupiat Eskimo, although he was given up for adoption as a baby and raised as White in Anchorage. Now he’s returned by assignment to the isolated area around Chukchi, north of the Arctic Circle. What’s interesting about this series is that Active arguably has to discover his Inupiat identity since he wasn’t raised among those people. So in a sense we see that community, at least at the start, “from the outside.”  It’s an interesting process of discovery for Active and for the reader. And Jones treats the indigenous community to which Active belongs with dignity and respect, while still being candid about the people who live in it.

And then there’s Michael Sears’ and Stanley Trollip’s (writing as Michael Stanley) Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, a member of Botswana’s CID, whom we first meet in A Carrion Death. In this novel, a body is discovered in the Botswana desert. At first it seems that the victim died by accident; it’s been almost completely eaten by hyenas and there seems no reason to believe the death is from foul play. But Kubu isn’t convinced, and begins to investigate not just the identity of the victim but also how the victim actually died. Kubu finds that this death is related to family politics as well as the politics and financial dealings of the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company. In this series, Sears and Trollip treat Kubu and the local culture candidly, but at the same time, they are depicted respectfully.

When authors present indigenous characters (of whom I’ve only had space to mention a few) with that balance of respect and candor, the result adds much to crime fiction. Which are your favourite indigenous sleuths?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nightwish’s Creek Mary’s Blood.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, Margaret Coel, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Peter Høeg, Stan Jones, Stanley Trollip, Tony Hillerman