Category Archives: Nelson Brunanski

And I’ll Take Her On All the Rides*

Festivals and FairsFood, games, rides, competitions…yes, festivals and fêtes offer fun for the whole family, don’t they? Sometimes they’re charity events, and sometimes they’re held at holiday spots in order to drive tourism. Either way, those events bring together a lot of disparate people and there’s often a lot going on in the background, so to speak. What’s more, it’s easy to ‘hide’ in the anonymity of the big crowds of people that often attend fairs and festivals. So it’s no wonder they’re such an interesting context for mystery novels. Even when they’re not the main plot point, fairs, festivals and fêtes can add to mystery plots.

Agatha Christie writes about such events in a few of her stories. For example in Dead Man’s Folly, preparations are underway for a charity fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. This year, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the events. She begins to suspect that something more is going on than just a fête, and persuades Hercule Poirot to investigate. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who killed the girl, and their task is made more complicated by the fact that hundreds of people have come to the fête, and few people can be really sure of where they were at particular times. Then it becomes clear that Lady Hattie has disappeared. In this novel, Christie gives readers a close look at this style of fête, from first preparations to the actual event. And Poirot wins a large doll at a ‘guess-the-weight-of-a-pig’ stall.

In Earlene Fowler’s State Fair, folk art museum curator Benni Harper Ortiz is gearing up for the annual Mid-State Fair in San Celina, California. There are plans to exhibit a very special quilt along with other art from the museum. All goes well enough at first, but there are ‘behind the scenes’ problems. For one thing, this year the fair has its first non-White director, and there is resentment about that. For another, this is a small community in that everyone knows everyone and a lot of the people have a history together. So there are several simmering conflicts. Then, the focal point of the exhibit, a special quilt that’s a replica of a very famous one, is stolen. Then there’s a murder. The people involved in the case are friends and acquaintances that Benni’s known for some time, so she is determined to find out what really happened.

In Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street, we are introduced to Maggie Wakeling, press aide and assistant to Angus Ackerman, who is mayor of the small town of Calendar. The town is preparing for its annual Founder’s Day festival, which is important for bringing in tourism and convincing businesses to set up shop there. As the preparations are getting underway, there’s a fire on one of the local streets. Two local boys Jubilant ‘JuJu’ McBean and Deacon Spry manage to rescue some of the occupants of the building and it’s decided to give them a special award on Founder’s Day. Then there’s another fire. And another. Now it looks as though there’s an arsonist at work. This threatens not only the Founder’s Day celebrations, but also Mayor Ackerman’s plan to turn a disused theatre into a museum of magic. What’s more, there’s now a real sense of fear and suspicion in the town. Maggie works with Fire Marshal George Copeland to find and stop the arsonist before anyone else’s life is put at risk.

In Nelson Brunanski’s Burnt Out, fishing lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie face a terrible crisis when their business Stuart Lake Lodge is destroyed by fire. The Bartowskis face the awful prospect of having to start all over again, and they’re not in their twenties any more.  What’s worse, the fire is a definite case of arson, and Bart is of course a person of interest. It doesn’t help his case that he was at the lodge at the time of the fire. When a body is discovered in the ruins of the fire, it looks even worse for the Bartowskis. Gossip and accusations start spreading in their small town of Crooked Lake, and Bart knows that he’ll have to find a way to get to the truth about this case if he and his family are to clear their names. All of this takes place against a backdrop of preparations for Crooked Lake’s centenary celebration, complete with floats, baking, and all of the rest of the ‘trimmings’ you’d expect. In this novel, the murder doesn’t occur at the festival, but it’s an important part of town life.

And then there’s Alan Bradley’s A Red Herring Without Mustard. In that novel, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is attending a church fête. She decides to visit a Gypsy fortune-teller’s tent but to say the least, the experience goes badly. Flavia feels a sense of responsibility for what happened and wants to do something to help the Gypsy. Then she learns that the Gypsy and her husband were once forced off the property of Buckshaw, where the de Luce family lives. Against her better judgement Flavia invites the Gypsy to return to Buckshaw and stay as long as she likes. She knows she’ll be in big trouble with her father and older sisters for such a rash invitation, but she extends it anyway. As if that decision doesn’t have enough consequences, the Gypsy is later found murdered. Now Flavia decides to find out who the killer is, and it turns out that there are several suspects since the victim may have been responsible for a past abduction.

Chris Grabenstein’s Ceepak and Boyle mysteries take place in the holiday town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. Sea Haven has an amusement park complete with rides, games and unhealthy food. It also has a boardwalk with arcades, souvenir shops, food booths and other ‘tourist traps.’ Although Sea Haven is of course busiest during the North American summer, it’s the kind of place where there are rides and amusements most of the year. People are always coming and going, and events are always being planned, so it’s quite an effective context for a murder mystery. Officers John Ceepak and Danny Boyle find themselves mixed up in plenty of them, too. In novels such as Tilt a Whirl, Whack a Mole and Fun House, Grabenstein shows how the combination of locals and visitors, the crowds and the behind-the-scenes chaos of carrying off events can hide some very well-planned murders.

So do be careful, please, if you plan to attend a fête, a festival or a fair. You never know what can happen! Roll up and give it your best shot! C’mon, try for a prize! Everyone a winner, guaranteed! ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Waits’ and Kathleen Brennan’s Jersey Girl. Yes, I know I’ve used this one before. I’m homesick and it’s my blog. ;-) – Besides, it’s a great song, so you’re welcome. ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Chris Grabenstein, Earlene Fowler, Nelson Brunanski, Shelly Reuben

I’ve Been Moved By Some Things That I’ve Learned*

Lessons From ReadingOne of the real pleasures of reading, at least for me, is the things that I learn about when I read. My guess is, that’s true of most book lovers. Of course a good plot and believable, interesting characters matter. Otherwise a novel becomes a textbook. But a well-written story can also offer readers insights and information that they didn’t know before. And perhaps it’s just my perspective, but I think that knowledge is a good thing. We all know different things and read different books, so for each of us, what we learn will also be different. But, speaking strictly for myself, here are a few things I’ve learned from the crime fiction that I’ve read.

 

Different Communities I Didn’t Even Know Were There

 

Of course people migrate all over the world. But I’ve still been surprised to learn about some of the communities there are in some unexpected places. For instance, in Craig Johnson’s Death Without Company, Absaroka County, Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire is faced with a very difficult crime. Mari Baroja, a resident of the Durant Home for Assisted Living, is found dead of what turns out to be poison. Longmire, his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, and new hire Santiago Saizarbitoria begin sifting through the evidence, starting with the members of the victim’s family. Bit by bit, we learn about Mari Baroja’s past, and how incidents from fifty years ago have influenced what happens in the present day. One of the interesting things about this novel is that the victim is a member of Wyoming’s Basque community. It turns out that Wyoming has a large Basque population, something I hadn’t known before. But Johnson weaves that into the story so that it comes up naturally, rather than feeling forced.

Another community I learned about through crime fiction is the Ukrainian community in Canada’s prairie provinces. We get a look at that community in Gail Bowen’s first Joanne Kilbourn mystery Deadly Appearances. Up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during a speech that he’s giving at a Sunday School picnic. Kilbourn was a friend of Boychuk’s as well as being one of his political campaign workers. So she’s devastated at his loss. She decides to write a biography of Boychuk to help her deal with her grief. In the process of finding out about Boychuk’s life, she also finds out who murdered him. And readers find out about Saskatchewan’s Ukrainian community, to which Boychuk belonged. Anthony Bidulka’s PI Russell Quant is also a member of that community since his mother is Ukrainian, and readers learn about Saskatchewan Ukrainians in the novels that feature him. In those series and in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series, readers learn about the Ukrainian influence on the Canadian prairie. There are even Ukrainian language programs in some schools in that part of the country.

I’ve learned about other communities I hadn’t been aware of too. There just isn’t room to mention all of them.

 

Things About the Legal System

 

One of the things that I enjoy about well-written legal mysteries is that sometimes, they turn on an important point of law that isn’t always widely known. So besides solid characters and plotting, I’ve also learned some interesting legal precedents and facts.

For example, in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, the case of Lindy Markov hinges on what’s been called ‘palimony’ in the United States. Lindy and her common-law husband Mike have been together for twenty years when Mike has an affair with his company’s vice-president for financial services Rachel Pembroke. Very soon Lindy finds herself removed from the company position she’s held and ordered to evacuate the home she’s shared with Mike for their entire relationship. She hires Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly to sue Mike on her behalf for her share of the profits from the company she helped him build. In part, this case has to do with the rights that a common-law spouse has. The answer isn’t clear-cut, and it varies by jurisdiction. This novel also taught me a lot about the process of jury selection and the work involved in preparing for a major trial.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features Virginia brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. The two share an unhappy childhood, but that’s about all they have in common. Gates squanders his athletic ability and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare money and money he gets from his mother. Mason on the other hand makes use of every opportunity he gets, wins an academic scholarship to university and then goes on to law school. One night, he’s with his brother when an argument flares up between Gates and his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and the Hunt brothers move on. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and begs his brother, now a Virginia commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of prison. Mason refuses, and Gates then threatens that if his brother doesn’t co-operate, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason calls his brother’s bluff and soon enough he’s indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. With the police targeting him and Gates willingly lying about the murder, Mason doesn’t have many options. But there’s one point of law that may be exactly what he needs. It’s a fact of law that I didn’t know until I read this novel. With help from his deputy prosecutor Custis Norman, Mason uses that legal point to his advantage.

Those are of course just two examples of novels where an important aspect of the law is explored. When they’re done well, such novels make points of law not just comprehensible to a non-attorney, but really engaging as well.

 

Politics and History That I Didn’t Know Before

 

Some political history makes international headlines, but there’s a lot that I didn’t know about before I started reading crime fiction. And sometimes, politics can be really interesting. For instance, in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, readers learn about Australia’s 1972-1975 Gough Whitlam government. In that novel, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen and his team investigate the murders of former Whitlam government official Alec Dennet and the editor of his memoirs Loraine Starck. Then it comes out that the manuscript they were working on has disappeared. Now it looks as though someone was afraid that Dennet might reveal some uncomfortable things about high-ranking people in the Whitlam government. The truth is both more complicated and simpler than that, but it leads to some interesting background on that government.

I also learned a lot about Australia’s women’s movement in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. That’s a fictionalised account of the 1900 trial of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. As the novel makes clear, it’s much more complicated than a mother who simply ‘snapped.’ As James gives readers the background on Maggie’s life and the circumstances that may have led to the death of her son, we also learn that her cause was taken up by leading members of the Australian movement for women’s suffrage. One character in the novel for instance is Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. I didn’t know that. The novel also gives some really interesting background on the women’s movement that had a powerful effect on the Heffernan trial. I also didn’t know before reading this novel (and afterwards, doing a bit of looking on my own) that South Australia was the first state to grant women’s suffrage (in 1895). Australian women were given the vote at the federal level in 1902, nearly twenty years before it happened in the U.S.  The things crime fiction teaches you!

Those are just a few of the many things that I’ve learned about that I never knew before reading crime fiction. What about you? I’m not talking here of things like recipes or names of places, as interesting as those can be. Rather, I mean things going on, perhaps even in your lifetime, that you never knew. If you’re a writer, has something you learned inspired you to write a story about it?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Staines’ River.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Gail Bowen, Kel Robertson, Martin Clark, Nelson Brunanski, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Wendy James

I’m in a Playground in My Mind*

Fictional Places that Seem RealI’m going to let you in on a little secret if I may. It’s not always easy to create an entirely fictional place when you write. On the one hand, creating a fictional setting means that you don’t have to verify street names, local landmarks and the like. You can locate buildings, parks, streets and so on anywhere you like. And there’s no end to the possibilities for the kinds of characters you create.

But on the other hand, a completely fictional setting still has to be credible. Even readers who live in the region where the fictional town or city is located have to believe the place could really exist. The climate, the kinds of businesses, the pastimes and the character types have to ring true or readers won’t be drawn into the story. And if you write a series set in that fictional place, it has to change and evolve as the series goes on. That happens to real-life places. Buildings go up and are torn down. People move in and out. Businesses open, close and change. A fictional setting has to reflect that evolution if it’s to be believed.

Some authors have created fictional settings that are so authentic that people have believed they actually exist. For example, Agatha Christie created St. Mary Mead, the home of Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train and later of course the home of Miss Jane Marple. Interesting that in a village like that, the two women never meet. Still, St. Mary Mead is a very credible kind of English village with a cast of ‘regular’ characters who fit in there. There’s the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, there’s Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and there are others too. St. Mary Mead also changes as time goes by, as you would expect. That’s one of the themes for instance in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, council housing and other social changes have come to the village, and some residents aren’t too happy about them. Miss Marple takes the changes in stride but it’s clear that the village is evolving as real places do.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in fictional Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a mining town in the western part of Pennsylvania and most of the characters there fit right in. Chief of Police Balzic for instance reflects the Polish-American and Italian-American influences in that region and the town residents tend to be working-class ‘regular folks.’ It’s a fictional town but the series reflects the culture, economy, character types and climate of that area. Trust me. To my knowledge (but please, correct me if I’m mistaken), Rocksburg is completely fictional. But it might be a real place for its authenticity.

That’s also true of Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham. Fans of her Inspector Reg Wexford series will know that most of the novels in it take place in this fictional town. It isn’t a real place, but it’s certainly authentic. In novels such as Road Rage and Simisola, we see the town adapt (or not) to social and other changes. The cast of ‘regulars’ is authentic; so are details such as climate, kinds of businesses and physical setting. Fans of the series will tell you that to them, Kingsmarkham might very well be an actual place. In fact, it’s said that Rendell once had to remind a reader that she created the place when that reader questioned her about it. I don’t have all of the details but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were true. Kingsmarkham is very genuine.

So is Three Pines, the rural Québec creation of Louise Penny.  As fans of this series will know, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec spends his share of time there. Beginning with Still Life, readers have gotten to know many of the locals very well. Gamache doesn’t live there, but he’s become one of them in his way. The place is authentic. It fits in with the region and it develops and evolves as the series goes on. Buildings change hands, people come and go, and there’s a cast of recurring characters that adds much to the authenticity of this fictional place. The climate and culture are also realistic. I would guess that plenty of people have done an Internet search for Three Pines, thinking they would find it on an actual map. Here’s what Penny says about the place:

 

‘I love Three Pines. I created it because I would want to live there.’

 

It may not be on maps, but it’s a believable town.

We could also say that about Vigàta, the fictional home of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Vigàta is located in Sicily and is based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle. It’s not a real place, but it’s quite authentic. The trattorias, the buildings, the local culture and the character types ring very true, and that’s not just because it’s inspired by a real place. Camilleri creates an authentic sense of setting with the subtle and not-so-subtle details that make a place genuine.

There are other series too that are set in fictional towns based on real places. For example, Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series is set in Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. That town is based on a real place, Wakaw, Saskatchewan. Robert B. Parker’s Paradise, Massachusetts is the home of his Jesse Stone series. Paradise is loosely based on Swamscott, Massachusetts. And fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that Durant, Wyoming, the setting for those novels, is based on an actual place, Buffalo, Wyoming.

Plenty of cosy mystery series are also set in fictional places that feel quite real. Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series is like that. It’s set mostly in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ And Elizabeth Spann Craig’s got two series set in fictional towns in North Carolina. But those places seem genuine. They’re populated with believable characters, the places evolve as the series goes on, and the culture and climate reflect the region.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Tilton Sentinel’s newest edition is out and I want to catch up on the news. :wink:  While I’m gone, feel free to share the fictional places that seem very real to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss’ Playground in My Mind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, K.C. Constantine, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Robert B. Parker, Ruth Rendell

She’s a Modern Woman*

Strong Female CharactersOne of the many (I think anyway) positive developments in crime fiction has been the evolution of the strong female character. I’m not talking here, as you’ll see, of female protagonists. Protagonists are supposed to be strong. I’m talking here of other characters. And it isn’t just because I’m female that I see this as a positive thing. Anything that serves the genre – and strong, well developed characters do – is I think a plus. The key is of course to create a strong character who happens to be female, rather than to call a lot of attention to her gender. There are many examples in crime fiction; I only have space for a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the King of Bohemia hires Sherlock Holmes to retrieve a compromising photograph. He’s on the point of getting married, but the wedding won’t take place if a photograph of him with actress Irene Adler comes to light. Holmes agrees to take the case and tracks down Irene Adler. As Holmes fans know though, she bests him at his own game, so to speak. It all works out satisfactorily enough, but she certainly shows her strength as a character. Little wonder she remains the woman for Holmes. And what’s interesting is that Conan Doyle shows her as a strong and well-developed character who happens to be a woman rather than as a woman who, surprisingly, is also strong.

Agatha Christie created several very strong female characters. I’ll only mention Honoria Bulstrode, whom we meet in Cat Among the Pigeons. She’s the Headmistress of Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. When the school’s games mistress Grace Springer is shot late one night, the school becomes the focus of a police investigation. Then there’s another murder. Finally, one of the students Julia Upjohn gets an important clue about the events at the school. She takes this clue to Hercule Poirot, who knows a friend of her mother’s. Poirot sees the importance of the clue and its potential for danger to Julia, and goes to the school. In the end he connects the deaths to a kidnapping, some stolen jewels and a revolution in a Middle Eastern state. Throughout this novel, Miss Bulstrode remains a strong character. She is determined to see her school through this time even though many parents have decided to withdraw their daughters. She’s intelligent and can be forceful, but she also has compassion. She’s an interesting person.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a Saskatoon-based PI. His next-door neighbour and a truly fascinating character in her own right is Sereena Orion Smith. She’s got a very interesting history that Bidulka reveals bit by bit as the series evolves. I can’t give away much of it without spoiling story arcs, but suffice it to say that she’s a strong, independent person. And she has a habit of being there for Quant when he really needs her. Sereena is somewhat enigmatic but she’s a solid character with a lot of wisdom. She’s also shrewd and at the same time has a solid level of human warmth. Those facts are a lot more important as the series moves along than is the fact that she’s female.

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series takes place in the small town of Durant, Wyoming, where Longmire is sheriff. His deputy is Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, and as fans will know, she is anything but meek and deferent. She’s a good detective; she’s smart, skilled and courageous too. And Johnson has made her most definitely her own person. She’s a former member of the Philadelphia police force who ended up in Durant at first because of her husband. Later she settles in and turns out to be a valuable team member. And she is a force to be reckoned with, especially when she teams up with Ruby, the department’s dispatcher/administrator. And yet, Vic is not a superhero. She has her own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. She’s an interesting character and a good detective who happens to be female, rather than the other way round.

Nelson Brunanski’s small-town Saskatchewan mysteries feature John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He’s a ‘regular guy’ who with his wife Rosie owns a fishing lodge. He and Rosie are also the parents of Annie and Stuart. Bart is neither a cop nor a PI; he gets drawn into investigations when murder strikes his community and his circle of friends and acquaintances. Even though Rosie isn’t the main protagonist in this series, make no mistake about it; she is a strong character in her own right. She often serves as her husband’s conscience and she’s more than happy to speak her mind. She’s smart and practical too, and Bart knows better than to ignore what she says. In fact it’s obvious through the series that he has a lot of respect for her. She isn’t perfect any more than any of us is. But that’s part of her appeal. She’s an interesting character who provides solid leaven to this series. And that has nothing to do with her gender.

Several of Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels feature interesting and strong characters who happen to be female. I’ll just mention one. In Web of Deceit, we are introduced to Jane Koutofides. She’s a paramedic who joined the profession a bit later in life, after her children had grown. She’s good at her job and enjoys it although she admits she has things to learn. One day she and her partner Alex Churchill are called to the scene of a one-car accident in which the driver Marko Meixner has hit a pole. The paramedics insist that he be taken to hospital for an examination but at first Meixner refuses to go. They finally manage to get him to come along with them, but Meixner insists that he is in danger and they will be, too, if they spend any time with him. At the hospital there’s talk of giving Meixner a psychiatric examination but he leaves before that’s done. Later that day, Meixner is killed when he falls or is pushed in front of an oncoming commuter train. Inspectors Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare investigate, and Koutofides’ evidence turns out to be important. In another line of this plot, Koutofides has a personal challenge. She’s in a relationship with news presenter Laird Humphreys. He claims that he wants to keep their relationship secret to keep the media at bay. But as she later learns, that’s not his only reason. When she finds out the truth, we see both her vulnerability, which makes her human, and her strength of character. We see that in her response to other events in the novel too.

And then there’s Robert Gott’s DC Helen Lord, who features in The Holiday Murders. She’s well aware that at this time (the novel takes place in 1943) women in the police force aren’t likely to get very far. They’re basically glorified stenographers. But she gets the chance to prove herself when DI Titus Lambert and Sergeant Joe Sable investigate the brutal murders of John Quinn and his son Xavier. There isn’t much funding available for a thorough investigation, but Lambert knows Lord is smart and has potential. So he invites her to join the team. At first she’s there to help Sable create a ‘cover story’ for a part of the investigation. But she is a natural detective and Lambert comes to rely on her. She’s not the main protagonist of this novel really. But as the story unfolds, we see that she is smart, quick-witted and brave. What makes her character even more interesting is that she also has her weaknesses. She’s untrusting, sometimes impulsive, and can be a little arrogant. All in all, she’s a strong and very believable character. And that has nothing to do with her gender.

And that’s the thing about really well-drawn strong female characters who aren’t protagonists. They are interesting and strong apart from their genders.

 

On Another Note…

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Today would have been the 82nd birthday of noted naturalist Dian Fossey. Her work with mountain and other gorillas taught the world much. Her courage taught the world possibly even more. She is much missed. Talk about a strong female character…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Modern Woman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Katherine Howell, Nelson Brunanski, Robert Gott

Well, I Was Born in a Small Town*

SmallTownI don’t usually stay on the same topic over two days on this blog, but an interesting comment exchange has got me thinking even more about how small towns are portrayed in crime fiction. There are of course plenty of creepy small towns and villages in the genre. But there are also many very pleasant small towns. Yes, murders happen there or affect the people there, but the towns themselves are good places to live, with good people. So let’s turn the topic on its head today and look at some of the nicer small towns in crime fiction.

There’s an interesting little town Market Basing depicted in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings visit Market Basing when Poirot receives a letter from Emily Arundell, asking for his assistance in a delicate matter. She doesn’t specify the problem, and by the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, she has already died of what seems to be liver failure. It turns out that she was poisoned though, and Poirot and Hastings begin to investigate. There are several suspects, too, since Emily Arundell was a wealthy woman with some financially desperate family members. The village of Market Basing is a sleepy sort of place with its share of eccentric characters. For instance, there’s Miss Caroline Peabody, an outspoken and witty elderly lady who provides Poirot and Hastings with some valuable information. And there are sisters Julia and Isabel Tripp, who have all sorts of eccentricities. But none of the local characters is portrayed as sinister, nor is the village depicted as a group of people all hiding an awful secret. It’s just not an eerie place.

Neither is Trafalgar, British Columbia, home to Vicki Delany’s Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. It’s got appeal as a skiing and winter holiday destination (Check out Winter of Secrets for more on that) and as a place to enjoy the area’s natural beauty (In the Shadow of the Glacier and Valley of the Lost have more about that). But it’s a quiet, peaceful small town. Smith was actually born and raised in Trafalgar, and everyone there knows her. In fact that sometimes makes it a little awkward for her when she’s trying to do her job. But the people of Trafalgar are basically good people. They don’t always agree on things of course, and sometimes that leads to real dissent. But at the heart of it, Trafalgar is a good place to live and work, and its residents do generally care about one another.

That’s also true of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan, the home of Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. Everyone knows everyone in Crooked Lake, and people work together and help one another. It’s that sort of town. So in the first Bart Bartowswki novel Crooked Lake, it’s a real shock to the community when Harvey Kristoff, who’s on the Board of Directors of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course, is killed. The chief suspect is former Head Greenskeeper Nick Taylor, who’s recently been terminated. Taylor is understandably furious and upset at losing his job, but he claims he didn’t kill Kristoff. Bart wants to believe his friend, so when Taylor asks him to clear his name, Bart agrees. As he talks to people and follows up on leads, we see what the town of Crooked Lake is like. People know one another and care about each other. The town itself is a safe, good place to live and that actually adds to the distress everyone feels at the murder and at what happens as Bart asks questions. This is definitely not one of those ‘sinister towns with a smiling façade.’

Louise Penny fans will know that Three Pines, a small Québec town, is also a good place to live. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec learns that in Still Life. He and his team go to Three Pines when beloved former schoolteacher Jane Neal is found dead, apparently from a tragic hunting accident. The evidence soon suggests that she was murdered though, and Gamache and the team set up an investigation. As they look into the victim’s history and relations with others in the town, we see what a pleasant community Three Pines is. The residents really do care about each other. They all have flaws and histories, and they’re hardly perfect people. But they’re also not sinister people who are hiding awful, awful secrets. And I certainly wouldn’t mind eating at the bistro. :-)

Rhys Bowen’s Constable Evan Evans lives and works in the Welsh village of Llanfair. He’s attached to the people of Llanfair and the feeling is mutual. It’s a small, quiet place where people really do care about one another. That’s part of the trouble in Evanly Bodies, when Evans is named to a new Major Incident response team that’s to be ‘on call’ in case of an emergency. The team is called into action to investigate a series of shootings, and Evans is hard at work on that case. But trouble is brewing at home. The Khan family has recently arrived from Pakistan and set up shop in Llanfair. Their sixteen-year-old daughter Jamila strikes up a few new friendships, including one with Evans’ wife Bronwen. She has adapted well to the local ways and wants to stay in Wales, but her parents’ plan is to send her back to Pakistan to get married. When Jamila disappears, her family blames the locals, and in particular Bronwen Evans. In order to help Jamila if he can, Evans returns to Llanfair and looks into the girl’s disappearance. As he does so, we can see how much he values the village and the people who live there. And as the truth comes out, we see that Llanfair is really a good place to live and work, and not at all a sinister ‘evil in the heartland’ kind of place.

You could say the same thing about Tumdrum, Ireland, which we get to know in Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series. When librarian Israel Armstrong first arrives in Tumdrum in The Case of the Missing Books, he’s not at all prepared for the village and its distinctive ways. In fact at first, he doesn’t like the place at all. And when he discovers that the fifteen thousand books he’s supposed to have charge of have been stolen, matters only get worse. But as Armstrong investigates, he also gets to know Tumdrum better. He finds that it’s actually a rock-solid village with people who may be eccentric but are actually good neighbours.

And then there’s M.C. Beaton’s Lochdubh, a small Highlands town in the police care of Constable Hamish Macbeth. Macbeth is quite fond of his peaceful life; in fact he’d rather be fishing than detecting. The town itself is peaceful and quiet, and it’s easy to see that it’s basically a good place to live. Macbeth cares about the people of Lochdubh, so when the need arises, he turns out to be a shrewd, skilled detective. You can see the way the residents of the village feel about each other in Death of a Bore. In that novel, well-known screenwriter John Heppel moves to the Lochdubh area and announces a series of writing classes. Several of the local residents are writers with aspirations, so they’re eager to sign up. At the first class session though, Heppel denigrates the students and their work. Everyone’s upset and dismayed and of course, Macbeth hears about it. He pays Heppel a friendly visit and suggests that he be more supportive of the members of the class. Heppel won’t listen though and the second class goes, if possible, worse than the first. Now there’s real anger against Heppel and Macbeth can see why. When Heppel is murdered, Macbeth has the thankless job of finding out who hated Heppel enough to kill him. It’s not easy, since he feels a real connection to Lochdubh and its people.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series and of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret series will know that those two detectives often spend time in quiet, small villages and towns. And those places are not at all sinister.

That’s the thing about small towns. A lot of them are genuinely friendly places with good people. Thanks to Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan and to Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write for reminding me of that. Now, may I suggest you do yourself a favour and go visit their excellent blogs. Both well worth a prominent place on your blog roll.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp’s Small Town.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Fred Vargas, Georges Simenon, Ian Sansom, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Nelson Brunanski, Rhys Bowen, Vicki Delany