Category Archives: Mike Befeler

Here in Status Symbol Land*

Status SymbolsEvery culture and even social group has different values. So the things that confer high status on someone vary a great deal. But just about every culture does have some way of conferring higher status on some people than on others. And those status symbols sometimes take on extreme importance. Status symbols are woven throughout culture in real life, so it makes sense that they are also woven throughout crime fiction. Let me just give you a few examples of what I mean.

In some cultures, ‘blue blood’ confers high status on people, even more than money does. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels touch on this sort of status symbol. In Death on the Nile for instance, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are aboard the Karnak on a cruise of the Nile. One night, fellow passenger Linnet Doyle is shot and Poirot and Race begin to investigate. The most likely suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Linnet married. But Jackie couldn’t possibly have committed the murder, so Poirot and Race have to look among the other passengers. One of those passengers is Marie Van Schuyler, a ‘blue blood’ American who takes ‘birth status’ very seriously. In fact, she barely speaks to anyone on board the cruise because most don’t have a ‘good enough’ background. When Poirot asks her if she knew Linnet Doyle or anyone in her family, here is Miss Van Schuyler’s response:

 

‘My dear mother would never have dreamed of calling upon any of the Hartz family [Linnet’s mother’s family] who, outside their wealth, were nobodies.’

 

Poirot himself is just a bit of a snob, but even he sees what a status symbol ‘blue blood’ is to Miss Van Schuyler, and in a sub-plot of the novel, he has an interesting way of making use of that.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, status doesn’t come from a particular surname or birth circumstance. It comes from cattle. If you think about it, that makes sense too, as someone who can afford a lot of good cattle is likely to have more means than someone who can’t. And it’s not just amount of cattle either. Even more status is accorded someone whose cattle is healthy, strong and of high quality, as that implies that a person is wise enough to choose cattle well. Such a person is Obed Ramotswe. He isn’t extremely wealthy, but he is very skilled at choosing good cattle, and he’s amassed a herd that gives him high status. When he passes away, he leaves the cattle to his daughter Precious, who understands how important good cattle are. She uses the proceeds from the sale of the cattle to open her own detective agency, and fans of this series know that she credits her father with making her agency possible. There are a few other plots too in this series in which we see how much of a status symbol cattle is in this culture.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series takes place in Delhi, where an important status symbol is to have a driver. Even if one is perfectly capable of driving oneself, it’s still important to have a driver. And in Delhi traffic conditions it makes a lot of sense to have a driver who is very familiar with the area. Puri isn’t a particularly wealthy man. And he doesn’t have a high-status job such as a diplomat or a famous surgeon might. But he has a driver whom he calls Handbrake. Handbrake knows the roads in and around Delhi intimately and is often able to get Puri where he wants to go much faster than Puri could on his own.

Teresa Solana pokes some fun at Barcelona status symbols in A Not So Perfect Crime. In that novel, powerful politician Lluís Font hires brothers Josep ‘Borja’ and Eduard Martínez to find out if his wife Lídia is having an affair. The brothers take the case and follow her for a week, but see no evidence at all of infidelity. Then one evening Lídia is poisoned. Her husband is, of course, the most likely suspect, and he’s arrested. But he claims to be innocent, and asks the Martínez brothers to continue to work for him and find out who really killed Lídia. Neither brother has any experience on murder cases, but there’s a lot of potential here in terms of money and future clients, so they continue to investigate. At one point early in the novel, we get a clear and witty look at status symbols in the circles in which the Fonts move:

 

‘..when lunching with a lady friend, women from a certain social class first go shopping in order to appear in the restaurant laden with bags and, so much the better if they’re the exclusive designer variety. It’s a matter of quality rather than quantity. This way I’ve learned that a single Loewe or Vuitton bag beats any number from Bulevard Rosa or the Corte Inglés, that Armani and Chanel level peg, and that Zara is a no-no. That is Borja’s Bags’ Law. And it’s not the only unwritten code that reigns in particular zones of Barcelona’s upper reaches.’

 

In this case, it’s the name on a shopping bag that confers status.

The prison culture is unique and has different ways of conferring status on people. There is of course, the custom of tattoos that indicate why the person is in prison, which gang the prisoner belongs to and so on. Those tattoos are important status symbols. So is the prisoner’s reputation. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, for instance, Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth when brothel owner Ruby Devine is shot. The investigation hasn’t gotten very far, in part because Ruby wasn’t an ‘important person’ and in part because it’s possible that her killer was a corrupt cop, a member of the so-called ‘purple circle.’ If so, the members of that ‘purple circle’ will do everything they can to prevent the truth about her death from coming out. Swann persists though, and learns that Ray Hergenhan, who’s in prison for armed robbery, may be the murderer, possibly paid by the cops. During one of their conversations, Hergenhan admits that he’s never denied killing Ruby because being considered guilty of murder is a prison status symbol. But he also says that he really isn’t guilty. It’s an interesting example of what ‘counts’ as a status symbol in a given culture.

And then there are retirement communities such as those we encounter in Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are and Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes Are Murder. The two books are quite different, but each one takes place at least in part in retirement homes. In those social groups, an important status symbol is number of visits, especially from one’s children and grandchildren.

Culture has a lot to do with what becomes a status symbol, but just about every culture has them. Little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Catherine O'Flynn, David Whish-Wilson, Mike Befeler, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana

Old Man, Look at My Life*

Elder Care HomesSince the beginning of the 20th Century, nursing homes and care homes for the elderly have been a part of the social and cultural landscape in a lot of places. They are by no means a universal phenomenon of course; in a lot of cultures, families see it as their responsibility to care for the elderly personally. In fact, that cultural difference is the stuff of a post in and of itself. But there are many cultures in which elder care homes have become a part of life. The people who are in such homes have a lot of wisdom and history to offer, and sometimes, they have their own secrets too. What’s more, they have the time and perspective to notice things. So it’s not surprising that we see such homes in crime fiction. 

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, for instance, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee is on the trail of the person who killed Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who had recently moved to the Reservation. At the same time,  Chee’s been looking for sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s gone missing from the school she attends. Chee comes to believe that the two cases are related when it turns out that Sosi is distant kin to Gorman. The search for answers leads Chee to Los Angeles, and to one of the last places Gorman was seen before he left for the Reservation. Nearby is an elder care home, and Chee notices that several of the residents spend time outdoors and might have seen something useful. It turns out that he’s right, and he gets a valuable clue from what he’s told. This story also presents an interesting perspective as Chee reflects on the difference between the way the elderly are cared for in the dominant-culture community, and the way they are cared for in his own Navajo community.

The decision to move, or to move a loved one, into an elder care home is not an easy one. And once the decision has been put into motion, so to speak, that doesn’t mean everything runs smoothly. We see that, for instance, in Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are. TV presenter Frank Allcroft has hit a sort of plateau in his life. He’s happily married and has a close relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s facing some challenges, one of which is the sudden death of his mentor and predecessor Phil Smedway. Smedway was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was jogging. But a visit to the site where the tragedy occurred suggests to Allcroft that maybe this wasn’t an accident. The road is straight and clear, with plenty of room for even a sleepy or drunk driver to swerve to avoid Smedway. And the weather was clear at the time of the incident, so visibility wouldn’t have been a problem. At the same time as Allcroft starts asking questions about what happened to Smedway, he’s dealing with a complicated relationship with his mother. She is unhappy adjusting to life in the elder care home where she lives, and Allcroft, of course, feels a sense of guilt that she is there at all. Although this plot thread doesn’t involve a crime, it does give the reader a look at how difficult it is to decide that a care home is necessary, and to choose which home is the right one. It also gives the reader a sense of the way families deal with the issues that come up after a loved one has moved to an elder care home.

We see those issues too, by the way, in Elizabeth George’s novels featuring Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers. In a story arc in these novels, Havers comes to the realisation that she can no longer care for her mother, and she doesn’t have the funds to arrange for her to be in the kind of top-of-the-line home that would give Havers peace of mind. It’s not an easy situation, and George doesn’t make light of it.

James W. Fuerst’s Huge introduces us to twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. He has his issues and problems, but what he wants more than anything is to be a detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who stole the sign from the property of the elder care home where she lives. One of the steps Huge takes is to talk to some of the home’s residents and employees. He doesn’t get a vast number of clues from his interviews, but readers get to see a bit of life in an elder care home of the time (the novel is set in the 1980s). And although there are challenges and issues, it’s not portrayed as an unpleasant place.

Neither is the retirement home in Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes are Murder. In that novel, the first of his ‘geezer lit.’ novels, Paul Jacobson has retired to an elder care community in Hawai’I after the death of his beloved wife. He makes a group of friends who turn out to be very helpful when Jacobson is accused of murder. One day, he finds the body of fellow resident Marshall Tiegan stuffed into a trash chute. Jacobson is a likely suspect, since there was no love lost between him and the victim. What’s more, Jacobson has serious short-term memory loss. He can’t remember at any given time what happened the day before, or even a short time before. One of his friends encourages him to keep a journal in which he writes down everything he does, so that he can look back at it as a reminder. That journal helps both to clear Jacobson’s name and to lead to Tiegan’s killer. In this novel, we see the daily ‘ins and outs’ of life in a modern elder care environment. We also see how the residents can form interesting friendships with each other, and a sense of community.

In Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team investigate the grisly discovery of a left food clad in a training shoe. Then another, similar, discovery is made. And another. There’s no easy way to identify the feet, so the team starts by looking for anyone who’s disappeared from the area. Interestingly, of the group of people who have gone missing in the last year, four of them are from the same elder care home. Then there’s another disappearance, also related to the home. The home itself is well-run and managed, and there’s no evidence of abuse or neglect. In fact, it seems a good place. Wisting soon learns that there’s another bond among the residents who’ve gone missing. They’d known each other for sixty years, and had a connection that started during World War II. So these deaths could be related to past incidents. As Wisting and the team sort the case out, we get a bit of a look at the way elder care facilities are run, and about the long-term bonds that can form among the people who live in them. 

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series features Ash House, a retirement/elder care home run by Ethan Ash who later shares the responsibilities with Jared Lowe. Quant’s first encounter with Ash House is in Sundowner Ubuntu, when Clara Ridge hires him to find her son Matthew, whom she hasn’t seen for twenty years. It turns out that Matthew is a former lover of Ethan Ash’s so in the course of that investigation, Quant gets to know Ash and his daughter and he and Ash begin a relationship. Saying more about that will spoil an important story arc in this series. But Ash House plays a role in a few of Quant’s investigations. And it’s depicted as a warm, home-like sort of place – a place for the ‘swinging senior’ set, as Quant puts it.

Elder care facilities are an increasingly common part of a lot of cultures as the population ages. They offer a lot of benefits to families as well as many challenges, and as I say, they aren’t by any means embraced universally. But they are interwoven into our society, and so it makes sense that they are interwoven into crime fiction too. Which depictions have stayed in your memory?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Old Man. 

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, James W. Fuerst, Jørn Lier Horst, Mike Befeler, Tony Hillerman

Now Everything is Oh, so Cozy*

CosiesMystery novelist and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Knot What it Seams   was released in February. That’s the second in her series featuring retired art gallery professional Beatrice Coleman. And Rubbed Out, the fourth in Craig’s Memphis Barbecue series (which she writes as Riley Adams) is due to be released in less than a month. I’m very happy for her success, as I think she’s very talented. It’s also got me thinking about the appeal of cosy mysteries. They’ve been a part of the crime fiction scene for a long time, and they are consistently popular with a lot of readers. Of course, everyone likes one or another kind of novel for different reasons. But here are a few of my ideas as to why cosies are as popular as they are.

Many of them feature amateur sleuths and readers who like to identify with the protagonist find amateur sleuths especially appealing. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a normal, if I can put it that way, person. She’s not a cop and frankly, she’s not even eager to investigate mysteries. She’s a baker and that’s her real professional passion. She’s also not fashion-magazine beautiful. She’s one of ‘the rest of us,’ and that makes her accessible. Of course, the series features interesting characters and solid plots too, as well as a really effective Melbourne setting. But all that aside, Chapman is a ‘regular’ person. Now, not everyone might call this a cosy series because it does get a little edgy at times, but it ‘counts’ for me. Your mileage as the saying goes may vary.

Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson is also an amateur – a ‘regular’ person. When we first meet Jacobson in Retirement Homes are Murder, he’s moved to a retirement home after the death of his wife Rhonda. One day he finds the body of fellow resident Marshall Tiegan stuffed into a trash chute. When the police are alerted Detective Saito takes the case and begins to investigate. Jacobson is immediately suspected for a few reasons. First, Marshall Tiegan did not exactly top most people’s popularity lists and Jacobson had good cause to dislike him. What’s more, Jacobson has severe short-term memory loss. He can’t recall on any given day what happened the day before. So he can’t explain how he came to find the body or what happened just before the murder, and he can’t provide an alibi. Jacobson knows he’s not a killer though, so he decides to investigate the murder himself in order to clear his name.

One of the most appealing things about cosies for a lot of readers is that they tend to be low on violence and even lower on gore. Of course, murder is a violent, horrible thing and a well-written cosy acknowledges that. But the violence is generally kept ‘off stage.’ That’s what we see for instance in Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. Bayles is a former attorney who now owns an herb and tea shop called Thyme and Seasons in Pecan Springs, Texas. In Chile Death, Bayles’ policeman partner Mike McQuaid is recovering from a serious line-of-fire injury that has left him in a wheelchair, probably permanently. When he’s invited to serve as one of the judges for the upcoming Cedar Choppers Chili Cook-Off, Bayles thinks this is the perfect way to help McQuaid take his mind off his troubles. He’s unwilling at first, but finally agrees. On the day of the cook-off, one of the other judges Jerry Jeff Cody suddenly dies. It turns out that he was severely allergic to peanuts, and someone put peanuts in the chili he was asked to sample. Since she and McQuaid were both on the scene, Bayles gets involved in the investigation. There are several suspects too since Cody was not only an unfaithful husband but also a shady businessperson. In the meantime, Bayles and McQuaid also look into some disturbing allegations of some things happening at the nursing home where McQuaid is recuperating. There are stories that the director may be skimming money from the patients and has been abusive with at least one resident. These stories tie in with the murder and bit by bit, Bayles discovers the connections. There is violence in the story in the sense that someone is killed. But there is no gore and the violence that there is, is ‘off-stage.’

That’s also the case with Alan Bradley’s historical (1950s) Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is a preteen chemistry whiz who lives in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie we learn that she and her two sisters are being raised by their father Colonel de Luce in the family home Buckshaw. One morning, Flavia finds a dead body in the family’s cucumber patch. It turns out that this man is the same man she saw having an argument with her father the night before and sure enough, Colonel de Luce is soon arrested for the crime. Flavia knows that her father isn’t a murderer so she decides to find out who the dead man was and who really killed him. Flavia discovers that although the dead man and her father did have a tragic past connection, there are several other people who were just as eager to see the victim killed. In this novel, we don’t see the murder as it actually occurs, and the description of the body is kept brief. And yet, there is no doubt of what happened and Bradley gives a very authentic picture of how frightening it must be to have a family member accused of murder.

Many cosy series also feature a cast of ‘regulars,’ some of whom may be eccentric, but they’re all appealing. For lots of fans of cosies, that’s a big part of their appeal. Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma. Precious Ramotswe is like that. Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s only lady detective, is the main protagonist. But there are several other characters too, to whom fans of the series have become deeply attached. For instance, Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. He doesn’t really solve cases with his wife, although she does sometimes seek his input. But his character is much-loved, and even his not-exactly-hard-working apprentices are popular ‘regulars.’ So of course is Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective with quite a lot of skill in her own right. Fans have followed the development of her character as she has evolved through the series. Also popular is Mma. Sylvia Potokwane who runs the local orphanage. There are other ‘regular’ characters too, and those who love this series are as attached to them as to anything else.

We also see that with Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series. The main protagonist is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, who lives in the small town of Pickax, in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ But there are several other ‘regulars’ who have become popular with fans. There’s Polly Duncan, head librarian and later bookshop owner, who is also the main woman in Qwill’s life. Then there’s Arch Riker, Qwill’s close friend and editor, and Arch’s wife Mildred. There’s also local police chief Andrew Brodie and luncheonette owner Lois Inchpot. As the series progresses, we see how the various ‘regulars’ interact with each other and with Quill, and fans have enjoyed the story arcs that feature them.

Well-written cosies of course also have believable mysteries and a solid setting too, just as any good crime fiction novel does. But for many people, the accessible protagonist, the low level of violence and brutality and the ‘regular’ characters of most cosies makes them especially appealing.

What about you? If you’re a fan of cosies, what is about them that appeals to you? If you write cosies, why did you choose that sub-genre?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Clarence Paul, Barney Ales, Dave Hamilton and Mickey Stevenson’s Once Upon a Time, made famous by Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells.

 

 

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Alexander McCall Smith, Kerry Greenwood, Lilian Jackson Braun, Mike Befeler, Susan Wittig Albert

I Found Her Diary Underneath a Tree*

Do you keep a journal or diary? A lot of people do. Journaling is one way in which people can come to terms with things that happen to them and it can be a really effective way to make sense of one’s life. Diaries are sometimes the most intimate look we get into a person’s life so they can tell an awful lot about what someone is like. And in crime fiction, diaries ‘flesh out’ characters and can add a great deal to a story. They can be useful clues too.

Diaries show up in more than one of Agatha Christie’s stories. For instance, both The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder in Mesopotamia are told from the first-person perspective of journal-keepers. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires to the village of Kings Abbott to garden. His plans change abruptly when wealthy manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. Ackroyd’s niece Flora asks Poirot to find the killer, as she wants her fiancé cleared of suspicion. That story is told from the point of view of local doctor James Sheppard, who lives next door to Poirot. In Murder in Mesopotamia, Poirot is on his way back to London from Syria when he is asked to interrupt his journey and investigate the murder of Louise Leidner, wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner. Although she was in good physical health, she’d had various fears and said that she saw hands tapping at windows and faces looking in, among other things. So her husband hired a nurse Amy Leatheran to look after her. The story of Louise Leidner’s murder and the investigation is told from Amy Leatheran’s point of view. In these novels the narratives don’t look like a set of diary entries but they do serve to show some the character of the writers. And of course, crime fiction fans will know that some of Poirot’s adventures and all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are told in more or less journal form by respectively Captain Hastings and Dr. Watson.

In Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur, we meet Kerstin Kvist, a young Swedish nurse who takes a job in England to be closer to her lover Mark Douglas. Her position is with the Cosway family who live in a Victorian home called Lydstep Old Hall. Kvist’s patient is thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. From the time Kvist meets the family, she dislikes almost all of them, especially John’s mother Mrs. Cosway, the family matriarch. The main events of the story take place in the 1960’s but the Cosway family lives very much an anachronistic Victorian lifestyle. It’s a dysfunctional family as only Ruth Rendell can portray, especially in her Barbara Vine persona, and Kvist isn’t comfortable there but she takes up her duties. Soon she begins to notice that John Cosway has been heavily drugged and is kept under sedation constantly. His mother is responsible for this regimen and as a nurse Kvist doesn’t think it’s either necessary or well-advised. So without letting Mrs. Cosway know, she begins to withhold the drugs John is used to getting. Her personal involvement in the family has tragic results. One of the key features of this novel is a leather-bound diary that Kvist begins to keep. Before her time with the Cosways, she never kept a journal and in fact wouldn’t have considered it. But the journal was a gift and as time goes by, Kvist becomes more and more attached to her diary. In the end it becomes an important piece of evidence as the events of the story unfold.

In The Hidden Child Camilla Läckberg’s Erica Falck finds her mother’s old diaries in the attic of her parents’ home. She wants to know her mother better through those diaries but mostly, she wants to know why her mother neglected her and her sister Anna. In the course of looking through her mother’s things Falck finds a Nazi medal. She’s taken aback by her family’s possible connection to the Nazi regime, so she visits retired historian Erik Frankel to try to get some answers. When he is killed two days later, it’s clear that someone in Fjällbacka wants certain secrets to be kept hidden. Although he’s supposed to be on paternity leave, Falck’s husband police officer Patrik Hedström gets involved in the investigation.  As the novel moves on Falck and Hedström look into what the connection is between the town’s World War II past and the present day investigation. Throughout the novel, the diaries Falck finds give us a way of knowing her mother and understanding more about Falck too.

Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson also makes of journaling. He’s a retiree who has to deal with short-term memory loss. In fact, that memory loss gets him into a very difficult situation at the beginning of Living With Your Kids is Murder. In that novel Jacobson moves from his home in Hawai’i to live in Colorado with his son Danny, his daughter-in-law Allison and their daughter Jennifer. When the plane lands he finds himself at the heart of a murder investigation. His seat-mate Daniel Reynolds has been killed and Jacobson is a suspect since he had an argument with Reynolds. The only problem is he doesn’t remember the argument or anything much about Reynolds. With help from Jennifer, Jacobson starts to keep a journal of what happens when he moves to Colorado and slowly tracks down leads to Reynolds’ real killer.In Jacobson’s case, that daily journal helps him compensate for his memory loss. Each day he writes down everything that happens and then re-reads his journal the next morning so he can remember what happened the day before.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his team investigate the mysterious death of Dr. Suresh Jha. Jha has made a career out of investigating superstition and myth and debunking fraudulent practitioners. One day he’s attending a meeting of the Laughter Club, which uses laughter as therapy. During the meeting, what seems to be an incarnation of the Goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Many people believe that Kali has taken revenge on Jha for his unbelief, but Puri doesn’t. So he and his team look more closely at the Laughter Club and at other enemies Jha might have made. One of them is a spiritual leader who started life as a magician named Aman but who now calls himself Maharaj Swami. Jha had worked very hard to expose Aman as a fraud and the two had a very public feud. So Puri and his team look closely into Aman’s background. And for that they get unexpected help. It turns out that Aman keeps a diary in which he’s detailed all of his experiences since leaving home. While the diary itself doesn’t detail the truth about what happened to Jha, it does give an important perspective on Aman and his past.

And then there’s Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, which is told more or less in journal form. Retired school principal Thea Farmer is taking a writing class and as a part of that experience she’s been instructed to keep a diary. Her entries detail her pride in the home she’d had built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains and her chagrin and hurt when she loses her money in a bad business decision and has to settle for a small home she calls ‘the hovel’ that’s located next door to her dream house. When Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, whom Farmer calls ‘the invaders,’ purchase that home, Farmer writes of her deep resentment of both of them. Things get even worse when Frank’s niece Kim comes to live there. Bit by bit though, Farmer and Kim develop a sort of friendship and begin to get along. That’s when Farmer starts to suspect that something terrible may be going on next door. The journal she keeps recounts her suspicions and tells of the decision she takes because of them. One thing that’s interesting about Farmer’s journal is that many of the entries are written in response to writing prompts given to her and her classmates. It’s an innovative concept for telling a story.

Diaries and journals can reveal a lot about the writer. So it’s little wonder that they’re often one of the things detectives look for when they’re investigating. When they’re effectively woven into a novel they can add a solid layer of character development.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bread’s Diary.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Camilla Läckberg, Mike Befeler, Ruth Rendell, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan

Can You Imagine Us Years From Today*

As any crime fiction fan can tell you, one of the genre’s appeals is the way in which it reflects society. Whether they do so deliberately or not, crime writers hold up a mirror to society, so we can see our values and assumptions reflected in their work. Just as one example, crime fiction shows us social attitudes towards those who are elderly. And no, this post isn’t going to be only about elderly sleuths such as Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson (although I’m going to mention them). Rather, it’s going to be about how age affects the way people see others.

For instance, consider Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. She’s getting on in years when we first meet her in The Murder at the Vicarage, and throughout the twelve novels in which she appears one of the patterns we see is that people sometimes dismiss her because of that. In 4:50 From Paddington for instance, Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a murder while she’s on a train. She tries to alert the conductor but there is no dead body, nor has anyone reported a missing person. Because of that, but mostly because of Mrs. McGillicuddy’s age, the whole thing is dismissed as a bad dream she had. Miss Marple believes her friend though and goes with her to the police station. That doesn’t get them very good results either. Again the two are dismissed mostly because they are ‘of a certain age.’ It’s not until Miss Marple demonstrates with the help of her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow that there really is a body that anyone pays close attention. And then there’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), in which Miss Marple is recovering from a bout of illness. She’s got a live-in nurse who treats her with the indulgent condescension that must be extremely frustrating for the elderly. But Miss Marple finds a way to outwit Miss Knight and gets the chance to take a walk on her own. That’s how she gets drawn in to the case of the killing of new resident Heather Badcock…

It is a deeply-entrenched part of the U.S. Southern culture to treat one’s elders with respect. ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Sir’ become automatic responses when children speak to adults, and even adult children know better than to be rude to their parents and other elders. And yet we can still see that underlying assumption that ‘older’ means ‘feeble and unable to think clearly.’ That’s certainly frustrating to Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover, whom Craig introduced in the first edition of A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box.  Myrtle Clover is an octogenarian former teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. She may be elderly, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be put out to pasture so to speak, and little frustrates her more than to be treated with condescension. For instance, in Pretty is as Pretty  Dies, Myrtle’s son Red, the local police chief, tries to manage his mother’s life and ‘volunteers’ her to join a local woman’s church group. Myrtle gets very angry at this condescension but she goes off to the church to meet with the other members of the women’s group. When she gets there she finds the body of recently-arrived real-estate developer Parke Stockard. Red does everything he can to keep his mother out of the murder investigation and is dismissive about her input. That doesn’t stop Myrtle though. Craig has a light touch, so we can smile at the way the locals so easily dismiss what Myrtle Clover has to say. But at the same time it highlights what must be a deep source of resentment for those who may be physically elderly but have an awful lot worth sharing and heeding.

We see this same kind of issue in Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is a very dutiful son in many ways and always treats his mother Mummy-ji with courtesy. He has a genuine affection for her too. But even that is somewhat indulgent and condescending. For instance, in The Case of the Missing Servant, Puri and his team investigate several cases. At the same time, Puri seems to have made an enemy who takes a pot shot at him. When Mummy-ji hears of this, she wants to find out who is responsible. Puri of course makes it clear that she can’t do that and definitively (although politely) dismisses her input. And yet, it’s Mummy-ji who finds out who is responsible. It’s not just Puri who treats her with that kind of polite condescension. In The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Mummy-ji and her daughter-in-law, Puri’s wife Rumpi, attend a kitty party, where a group of women get together for food, drink, and conversation. A big part of the kitty party is a prize draw. Each woman puts a little money into a kitty. Later one woman’s name is drawn and she wins the kitty. At this party though there’s a robbery and the money is stolen. Mummy-ji thinks quickly and manages to scratch the robber. Later, she and Rumpi go to the local forensics laboratory to try to find out who stole the money. Here’s a bit of what happens there:

 

‘They had spent the last couple of hours inside the…building, where the son of one of Mummy’s oldest friends worked as a laboratory technician…
When Mummy-ji had asked him to run a DNA test on her fingernail cutting he’d responded: “Auntie-ji, I think you’ve been watching too much of CSI on Star TV, isn’t it?”’

 

We see in this reaction both the courtesy that young people are taught to use towards the elderly, and the underlying assumption that Mummy-ji hasn’t much of use to add to the investigation. Of course, people who feel that way about Mummy-ji do so at their own peril…

Chris Well’s retired bus driver Earl Walker is treated dismissively too. When we first meet Walker in Nursing a Grudge, he is a resident of the Candelwick Retirement Community. Grieving the loss of his wife Barbara and bitter about the shooting that left him disabled, he’s content to keep to himself. Then one day another resident George Kent suddenly dies. At first Kent’s death is put down to natural causes. But Walker begins to suspect that Kent was murdered, and with good reason too. Still, nobody believes Walker at first. He’s not taken seriously and neither are any of the other residents. They’re elderly and some are in poor health so the authorities aren’t inclined to pay serious attention to what they have to say. Walker knows that the other residents have important information and he uses it to piece together what really happened to George Kent. But it’s clear that although the staff and authorities are courteous enough to the residents, they dismiss them at least at first.

Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson is not only elderly but he also deals with short-term memory loss. So even though he hasn’t lost any of his intelligence, shrewdness or ability to think, he has to compensate for that memory loss and he does so by writing down everything that happens every day. That way he can remember what happened when he reads his journal the next day. And that’s in part how he and some friends solve the mystery of the death of Marshall Tiegan in Retirement Homes Are Murder. What’s interesting is that although Jacobson and his friends are thoroughly familiar with what goes on at the retirement home where they live in this novel, they’re not taken seriously at first. In fact, Jacobson is even suspected of the murder. It’s a very interesting look at how society sees those who live in retirement homes.

Of course not all fictional elderly folks are treated this way. In Johan Theorin’s Öland Quartet for instance we meet Gerlof Davidsson. He’s an elderly former fisherman who’s lived on Öland all his life. Davidsson knows everyone and he knows the island’s history very well. So he is a rich resource for modern-day mysteries connected with the past. And he is respected as such by the younger members of his family. We see that same kind of respect in Tony Hillerman’s novels. His Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn have been raised to regard the elderly as having a lot of wisdom and much to offer and that’s how they treat the elderly characters in this series.

And that’s one thing I really like about crime fiction. It lets us see who we are and what our societies are like. And that includes the assumptions we make about the elderly and how that affects the way we treat them.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Old Friends/Bookends.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Well, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Johan Theorin, Mike Befeler, Tarquin Hall, Tony Hillerman