Category Archives: Paddy Richardson

Thank You For Opening Your Door*

HouseguestsOne of many things people have to prepare for at this time of year is house guests. People often take time to visit friends and relatives, and those visits can be wonderful. But they also involve lots of logistics, from food, to where everyone will sleep, to things such as extra towels and bedding, and many other details. And then there’s the dynamics of people sharing a home when they’re not accustomed to it. With all of that going on, it’s no surprise that house guests can make a terrific backdrop/context for a murder mystery.

You’ll notice in this post that there won’t be a mention of the traditional ‘country house murder,’ where a group of people are gathered and one of them becomes a victim – too easy! And there are lots of other ‘house guest’ contexts. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective fiction writer Ariadne Oliver accepts an invitation to visit Judith Butler, a woman she met on a cruise of the Greek islands. During her stay, she helps out at a local children’s Hallwe’en party at another home. On the afternoon of the party, one of the guests Joyce Reynolds boasts that she’s seen a murder. Everyone hushes her up and no-one believes her. But that night at the party, Joyce is murdered. It’s certainly clear to Mrs. Oliver that there probably was a murder and that the killer overheard Joyce’s comments. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to travel to Woodleigh Common, where Judith Butler lives, and investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the case. He finds that this murder and another that occurs are linked to the town’s history. At one point, Poirot asks Mrs. Oliver if there is space in her London home to accommodate guests. Here is her response:
 

‘I never admit that there is…if you ever admit that you’ve got a free guest room in London, you’ve asked for it. All your friends, and not only your friends, your acquaintances or indeed your acquaintances’ third cousins sometimes….say would you mind just putting them up for a night? Well, I do mind. What with sheets and laundry, pillow cases and wanting early morning tea and very often expecting meals served to them, people come.’
 

In this case, though, Mrs. Oliver ends up making an exception.

One plot thread of Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls concerns an important Government Man who consults Mma. Precious Ramotswe on a private matter. He believes that his new sister-in-law is poisoning his brother and plotting to kill him. He wants Mma. Ramotswe to look into the matter and stop his sister-in-law before it’s too late. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to take the case, and travels to the Government Man’s home village, where his brother and sister-in-law live. There she gets to know the various members of the household. She feels a little uncomfortable exploring her client’s suspicions and still being treated as a guest, and matters are not made easier by the tension in the household. Then one afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she recovers a bit, Mma. Ramotswe pieces together what happened. She finds out some surprising truths about the household too.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack introduces readers to Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, a Buenos Aires police officer at a time (the late 1970s) when it’s very dangerous to live in Argentina. One day, he and his team raid a brothel. They make a few arrests, but several people get away because they have ties to people who are in power. Lescano is making a final walk-through when he discovers a young woman Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. She looks eerily like Lescano’s dead wife Marisa, so almost as a reflex action, he shelters her in his home. Eva is grateful to be rescued (we learn as the story goes on why she was hiding). But she has no reason at all to trust Lescano. He’s a police officer and in her experience, the police are brutal and sadistic. But he asks nothing of her. Lescano finds himself drawn to Eva, at first because of her resemblance to Marisa. As time goes by though, he gets to know Eva just a bit (she is not forthcoming), and finds her own personality appealing too. Eva’s stay with Lescano certainly has its awkwardness. Neither really trusts the other, especially at first. But they become allies.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, fledgling psyciatrist Stephanie Anderson meets a new patient Elisabeth Clark. After several sessions, Elisabeth begins to open up just a little. She has had mental and emotional problems since the abduction of her younger sister Gracie several years earlier. Gracie was never found, and the experience still haunts the family. It also haunts Stephanie, who lost her own younger sister Gemma in a similar way seventeen years earlier. Little by little, Elisabeth starts to put her life together again, and Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who wrought this havoc on both families. She travels from Dunedin, where she’s been living and working, to her home town of Wanaka. As one of her stops, she is invited to stay with Elisabeth’s father Andy, who is deeply grateful for his daughter’s returning mental health. In fact, he’s so grateful to Stephanie that he insists she stay as long as she wants at the lodge he owns, free of charge, as his guest. Although she doesn’t really even know Andy, Stephanie finds herself beginning to relax for the first time in a long time, and the visit prepares her to face the devastation her family suffered.

One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing team’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. More than once, Bess becomes a guest in someone’s home as she investigates mysteries. In A Duty to the Dead for instance, she is invited to visit the Graham family at Owlhurst in Kent. She nursed Arthur Graham before his death from battlefield wounds; in the process, he came to know and trust her and the feeling was mutual. So he gave her a very cryptic message, insisting that she commit it to memory and that she deliver it in person to his brother Jonathan. Bess is reluctant, but an injury of her own gives her the opportunity to pass along the message during her convalescence in England. The visit to Owlhurst is a very difficult one. For one thing, there is a great deal of tension in the family. For another, Bess learns that this family has many secrets. Having delivered Arthur’s message, Bess would actually just as soon end her visit, but she’s drawn into an emergency situation. Before she knows it, Bess is also drawn into a larger case of past murder and present death, all relating to that message.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. One afternoon, Paul Fowler and some friends are tossing a football around when he suddenly collapses. It’s soon determined that he was killed by a sniper’s bullet, and New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare investigate. They look into the lives of Fowler’s ex-wife Trina as well as the lives of his friends, and make some interesting discoveries. One of them is that Fowler had been laid off from his job, and was staying with a friend Seth Garland. When the team visits Garland’s home, they find a stark difference between the two men’s lifestyles. Garland is neat and orderly; Fowler…was not. I can say without spoiling the story that that difference isn’t the reason Fowler was killed. But it’s that sort of thing that can make being (or hosting) a house guest a challenge.

Whether you’ve been one or had them, the house guest situation can be delightful. But it’s also got lots of logistical and other challenges. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here because I’ve got to go count towels and sheets and plan food shopping. Your turn…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Wiggly Tendrils’ Song of the Grateful House-Guests.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Paddy Richardson

How on Earth Did I Get so Jaded*

HurriedChildhoodDuring the 1980’s, Tufts University Professor David Elkind wrote a groundbreaking book The Hurried Child. In it, he made the powerful argument that many of today’s children are put under an untenable amount of pressure to grow up too quickly. One example of this pressure (and we’ve all seen this I think) is media hype that presents children as ‘little adults’ and sometimes even sexualises them. Another is the tendency (although this certainly isn’t the case all the time) for parents, especially single parents, to treat their children more as confidants than as children. All of this, Elkind argues, can do real damage to children, and serves to rob them of those crucial years of childhood development. The book’s been through several editions and is still widely read, which suggests among other things that these problems haven’t gone away.

It’s not always easy to clearly define the boundary between responsibility that helps a child develop important skills, and responsibility and pressure that isn’t appropriate for children. I think we’d all agree that it’s beneficial for young people to learn to, say, be responsible for their schoolwork or their spending money. But, Elkind argues, pre-teens aren’t ready for adult pressure such as sexual attention, and they’re not served well by the enormous pressure that’s sometimes put on them to ‘be the best,’ such as you sometimes see at sport events. There are plenty of children too who are expected to help provide family income and this, Elkind argues, also hurries children.

This issue crosses socioeconomic lines too. Whether or not you agree with each of Elkind’s arguments (and I do recommend the book), it really does seem that many children in all social classes are pressured to grow up quickly. It’s true in real life, and we see that plot thread in crime fiction too.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies on a group of such children: the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they’re a group of street children who help him with his investigations. They know London very, very well, and can often observe and get information without calling attention to themselves, so they’re quite useful to Holmes. Conan Doyle doesn’t portray them as living very unhappy lives, but it’s interesting to see how even in this more ‘clean scrubbed’ picture of pressured childhood, the boys respond very positively to Holmes’ leadership and interest in them.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of London bargeman William Thornhill. In 1806, when he’s caught stealing a load of wood, he, his wife Sal and their children are transported to Australia. There, they do their best to make lives for themselves. Thornhill comes to love the land he’s moved to, and therein lies the problem. Other people of course have been living on that land for millennia, and there are real cultural and other conflicts between the new arrivals and the people who’ve always been there. Thornhill would like to resolve matters peacefully, but that view is by no means uninanimous, so some terrible crimes are committed. The first part of this novel tells of Thornhill’s early life in London. Born to a very poor family, he soon learns that the family will not survive if the children don’t do as much as they can, as early as they can, to earn money. In that society, it’s taken in a matter-of-fact way, and allowing children to actually be children is a luxury that the poor simply cannot afford.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the murder of financial advisor Dennis Brinkman. At first Brinkman’s death was thought to be a terrible accident, as his body was found under one of the ancient machines he collected. But his friend Benny Frayle is sure that he was killed, and won’t rest until his death is investigated. At first Barnaby and Troy aren’t convinced that this is a murder, but then there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poison after a séance in which she saiid things about Brinkman’s murder that only the killer would be likely to know. Now Barnaby and Troy are faced with two murder cases. In one of the sub-plots of this story, we meet Ava Garrett’s pre-teen daughter Karen, who has had to grow up far too fast. They live in a not-too-well-kept council house along with Ava’s lodger Roy Priest, who’s also seen too much for his nineteen years. Ava is not a physically abusive parent, but she is self-absorbed and irresponsible. So it’s left to Karen and, when he can help out, Roy, to do the ‘adult work’ of managing the household. That’s not the reason for the murders, but it’s a clear example of a hurried child.

We also see one in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies has always had a rare musical ability and has become a world class violinist. One terrifying day though, he finds that he can’t play note. So he begins to work with a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of his musical block. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers soon learn, this was no accident. As the novel goes on, we see how that death is related to Gideon’s inability to play, and how both are related to a long-ago family tragedy. Part of the novel shows what the Davies family has been like, and how Gideon was pressured from a very early age to grow up because of his musical ability. And that pressure has a lot to do with the kind of person Gideon is now.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok, features American ex-pat Rafferty, a travel writer who is also fairly good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s married to Rose, a former bar girl, now the owner of an aparment cleaning company, who herself had to grow up too fast. He’s also in the process of adopting Miaow, a former street child who’s seen more during her childhood than anyone should have to see in a lifetime. Being forced to grow up too fast has had a profound effect on Rose and on Miaow and through them, on Rafferty. Although he does his best to provide a good life for both, there’s a hardness to them, especially Miaow, that comes from not having had the chance to be a child.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She is academically gifted, and her dreams go far beyond the limits of her home in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. Her teacher, Ilsa Klein, has high hopes for her as well, and considers her a very promising student. Then everything begins to fall apart. Serena stops coming to class regularly, and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. It’s clear that something is wrong, and Ilsa wants to help, so she alerts the social welfare authorities. That turns out to be a mistake, as Serena’s mother is deeply resentful of that ‘interference.’ Then Serena disappears. Her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington, where she lives, back to Alexandria to help in the search. To her it’s shocking that three weeks have gone by and nothing has been done to find Serena. As the story moves along, we see that Serena has had to grow up too fast, and so have her siblings. In part it’s because of the family’s dysfunction; in part it’s because of the family’s socioeconomic situation. There are other factors too. And they play a role in the events that happen in the novel.

There are a lot of other crime novels in which we meet children who are forced to grow up before they’re ready. It’s very hard on them, and certainly doesn’t aid in helping them to become fulfilled, productive adults. There’s an eloquent commentary on it in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, which takes place in Glasgow. In this scene, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is visiting her friend Leslie. Here’s what Leslie has to say about a neighbour’s child:
 

‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’

 

Which novels with hurried children have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Denise Mina, Elizabeth George, Kate Grenville, Paddy Richardson, Timothy Hallinan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crowd Went Crazy*

Crowd EnergyThere’s something about excitement that seems to be infectious. Think for instance about the difference between the way you feel when you get online tickets to see a favourite musician in concert, and the way you feel when you’re in line to get in, sharing that excitement with a lot of other people who are also fans. The energy level, if you want to put it that way, is fed by everyone’s enthusiasm, so that the excitement can reach almost a fever pitch. That much energy can be a real jolt of adrenaline. It can also lead to conflict and worse, as all high-energy moments can. You see that in real-life situations (e.g. fights at sporting events or concerts), and it’s definitely there in crime fiction. That kind of mass excitement can make for a real layer of tension in a story.

For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers explores the way group energy works. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne is working on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. She’s gathering her interviews and background material, and is getting ready to put her piece together. Then her boss asks her to turn her focus on the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Sprinboks tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s often called. At that time, apartheid was very much in place in South Africa, so a lot of people deeply opposed the Sprinboks’ visit. On the other hand, dedicated rugby fans (of which there were many) wanted to watch the tour matches. They were excited about the upcoming competitions and didn’t really care as much about the politics involved. The Springboks duly toured, but their visit led to a lot of ugly protests and the police reaction was sometimes violent. Thorne knows the story was important, but she believes it’s already been done enough. Still, at her boss’ request, she looks for a fresh angle on what happened and she soon finds it. In the midst of the fever-pitch excitement about the actual rugby and the equally strong passion rising from the protests, there was a murder. It was never solved, and Thorne thinks that looking into it will be the new angle she needs.

That’s not by any means the only novel in which we see that level of fever-pitch energy about a sporting event. Peter Temple’s Melbourne PI Jack Irish is a Fitzroy supporter, and whenever he stops in to his father’s old haunt The Prince of Prussia, he shares his love of the team with others. Some of his father’s old friends still go there, and football is everyone’s favourite topic of discussion. Here’s a scene for instance from Bad Debts. Irish has just returned from a trip out of town:
 

‘‘I had to go to Sydney,’ I said. ‘Work.’…
‘What kind of work does a man have in Sydney on Satdee arvo?’ said Norm O’Neill in a tone of amazement. These men would no more consider being away from Melbourne on a Saturday in the football season than they would consider enrolling in personal development courses.’

 

For most of these men, a good part of the excitement they get from football is the shared energy that comes from spending time with other Fitzroy fans.

It’s not just sport either of course that generates that kind of crowd-fed-frenzy. Film and theatre stars and events do too. In Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue, for example, a large crowd is waiting outside the door of the Woofington Theatre. They’re all eager fans of acting sensation Ray Macable, and they’re anxious for the start of the evening’s performance. Everyone’s excitement and shared energy builds until the doors are finally opened. Then people begin to push forward in the way that crowds do. That shared excitement is part of the reason for which no-one notices that a man waiting in the group has been stabbed. When he falls forward, dead, the police are summoned and Inspector Alan Grant takes over the investigation. One of the challenges he faces is that everyone was so excited about the play that they paid little attention to anything else going on.

Sometimes, religious or spiritual gatherings can generate that kind of shared excitement too. There are a lot of examples of this in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha. He is the founder and leader of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission is to expose people – he calls them the godmen – who prey on others’ need for spiritualism in order to cheat them. To do that, he and his group try to debunk every spiritual myth they can. One morning, he attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. The group is going through their laughing exercises when according to witnesses the goddess Kali suddenly appears and stabs Jha. Certainly there’s evidence that he was stabbed to death. Many people say that the goddess actually did appear and killed Jha in retribution for his lack of faith. But PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri doesn’t think so. So he and his team look into the matter. They find that more than one person might have wanted the victim dead, and could have had the necessary knowledge to create the illusion that Kali was responsible. One of those suspects is Maharaj Swami, a spiritual leader who has his own ashram. Puri and his team decide to do a little undercover work to find out more about this man. One of Puri’s associates is a young woman who goes by many names, but is usually nicknamed ‘Facecream’ because she blends in anywhere. She pretends to be drawn to Swami’s spiritual message and joins the ashram as a new recruit. At the various group meetings and spiritual events, it’s easy to see how religious and spiritual fervor can spread. That excitement causes a lot of behaviour that you wouldn’t likely see if the group weren’t gathered together, all sharing the event.

Political rallies and other gatherings can also bring out this group energy that leads almost to frenzy. We see that in several crime novels. For instance, in Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, which takes place in 1932, Rowland Sinclair and his family are some of the few wealthy and powerful people who’ve escaped the worst of the Great Depression. Their lives are drastically changed though when Sinclair’s uncle, also named Rowland, is found bludgeoned to death. At first, the police wonder if the victim’s housekeeper Mrs. Donelly might know more than she’s saying about the murder. But Rowland is sure she’s completely innocent. He decides to ask some questions and find out the truth for himself. The trail soon leads to a far-Right group called The New Guard, and their leader Colonel Eric Campbell. So Rowland goes undercover as a new recruit to this faction, hoping he can get close to Campbell and get the answers he wants. In the end, we do learn the truth about Sinclair’s death. We also see the fervor engendered by some of the New Guard’s rallies. There’s at least as much frenzy there as there is at any rock concert.

That sort of shared excitement can make people who ordinarily behave sensibly do all sorts of things, like yelling, hugging complete strangers and more. It can even make you ‘camp out’ most of the night during a near-blizzard to get tickets to an event. Wait, what? There’s something wrong with that? Hey, I got third-row centre seats to that concert! ;-)
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Sally Simpson.

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Filed under Josephine Tey, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Sulari Gentill, Tarquin Hall

Tell Her About It*

SwimmingInTheDarkI don’t usually outright recommend books to people – at least not on this blog. That’s mostly because everyone has different tastes and is looking for something different. Besides, I’d rather people made up their own minds as to whether a book I mention sounds interesting or not.

But today is not an ordinary day. Today I’m proud to take my turn sharing a book on Petrona Remembered, the blog dedicated to great crime fiction, and in memory of Maxine Clarke, who was a true friend to the genre.

The book I’ve decided I would recommend to Maxine if I could is Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman has dreams that go far beyond her ‘wrong side of the tracks’ home in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s a very promising student, passionate about learning, and her teacher Ilsa Klein has high hopes for her. Then things begin to go wrong. Serena loses interest in school. She begins to skip class and when she is there, pays little attention to what’s going on. Klein begins to be concerned about Serena and alerts the school’s counselor.

It comes out that Serena has a very dysfunctional family situation, so she gets little support at home. What’s more, her family has little use for the authorities, and her mother deeply resents what she sees as interference from social service representatives.

Then, Serena disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to Alexandra when she learns what’s happened. She’s shocked to discover that nobody’s really taken an interest in the girl’s whereabouts. She’s been missing for three weeks, and no-one has really searched thoroughly for her. Resolving to do just the opposite, Lynnie starts looking for her sister.

In the meantime, we learn more about Ilsa Klein and her mother Gerda. The Klein family, originally from Leipzig, fled what was once East Germany during the 1980’s, when the Cold War was in full force. They made their way to New Zealand and have built new lives for themselves.

Gerda remembers the Stasi, the East German secret police, and knows from tragic experience the power they had. She’s happy in New Zealand, and appreciates the second chance at life that she’s gotten. Ilsa likes New Zealand too. But she was too young to understand what life under the Stasi was really like. And even after all these years, she misses the culture, the food, and her own language.

Although these two women have different perspectives on life, on Germany and on New Zealand, they both get involved in Serena Freeman’s life. And their decision has consequences that they couldn’t have imagined. They end up finding themselves drawn into much more than they thought.

I’d like to think Maxine would have enjoyed this novel. She particularly liked novels where larger issues are brought to the ‘human’ level and we see that in this story. For example, without preaching about social class and the role it plays in our lives, Richardson shows how class has affected the Freeman family and their local reputation. Richardson also shows, at a very human level, what it’s like to live under a government that spies on its own citizens and uses scare tactics and secret police to control people. And there’s the issue of immigration, which is also addressed at the human level.

And yet, these larger issues are also discussed at a larger level, and Richardson doesn’t offer pat, easy answers. I’d like to think Maxine would have appreciated that too. She preferred books that don’t offer easy, superficial answers to sometimes very complex and difficult issues.

What of the mystery itself – the story of Serena Freeman’s disappearance? Maxine appreciated stories where the mystery is believable – where people do credible things and, well, act like real people. And that’s the case in this novel.  The truth about Serena’s disappearance makes sense and the characters react to it, to her and to the events in the book in ways you can imagine, given the story. The plot is taut and suspenseful, too, and I think Maxine would have liked that as well.

Maxine wasn’t much for a lot of gore, and didn’t care for gratuitous brutal violence. So I’d like to think she’d be pleased that this book isn’t ‘blood-soaked.’ There are scenes of violence, but they aren’t overdone and they aren’t extended. Oh, and I think she’d also like the fact that Richardson doesn’t use the ‘female-in-distress’ plot point as the focus of the novel. Maxine got quite impatient with that.

Maxine enjoyed novels with a solid sense of place and atmosphere, too, and we see that in this novel. Richardson depicts both settings – South Island and Leipzig – distinctly, including culture and lifestyle as well as physical setting.

So is there anything about this novel that Maxine might not have liked so well? It’s written in the present tense, and Maxine commented to me a few times about her preference for the past tense. But I think she’d have looked past that easily. She’d have appreciated the focus on the characters, the pace of the plot, the larger issues discussed and the fact that Richardson accomplishes all of this without resorting to brutal violence.

All in all, I think Maxine would really have enjoyed this book. I’m truly sorry she won’t have the chance to read it.

It’s an honour and a pleasure to be a part of Petrona Remembered and to recommend a great book to Maxine. MCWant the chance yourself? Want to share your own great crime novel? Sure you do! Contact me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) and I’ll give you the details!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

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