Category Archives: Patricia Highsmith

Baby, Look at You Now*

BabyLookatYouNow

Yesterday I posted some pictures of famous crime writers when they were young, and invited you to guess who they are. As promised, here are the answers  :-)
 
 
 
Young and Adult Ngaio Marsh

Why, look! That adorable child became the one and only Ngaio Marsh!
 
 
Young and Adult Colin Dexter

And that fine young man grew into…..Colin Dexter!
 
 
Young and Adult Val McDermid

This little lassie could only be…Val McDermid!
 
 
Young and Adult Arthur Conan Doyle

This little boy is none other than…Arthur Conan Doyle! Elementary ;-)
 
 
Young and Adult Patricia Highsmith

This cheerful young lady blossomed into…Patricia Highsmith! Smiles on the outside, but what a skill at inner noir.
 
 
Young and adult Michael Connelly

And this serious young man? Well, when you’re Michael Connelly, you have a lot to think about! All those great plots and characters…
 
 
Young and Adult Agatha Christie

The devious mind behind that innocent face could only belong to…the ‘Queen of Crime,’ Agatha Christie!
 
Young and Adult Ian Rankin

Isn’t that a great ensemble? It’s being modeled for us by…Ian Rankin! Wonder if Rebus ever wore somthing like that…
 
 
Young and Adult Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton got an early start at reading. Doesn’t seem to have done her any harm…
 
 

And finally…
 
Young and Adult Arthur Upfield

That adventurous young man made the most of his travels in his books. Yes, it’s Arthur Upfield!
 

So… how did you do? Did you recognise that greatness for what it is? Thanks for playing! Happy Weekend!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Highsmith, Sue Grafton, Val McDermid

I Touch No One and No One Touches Me*

Emotional DetachmentIn Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into several odd thefts and murders that occur at a student hostel. As a part of that investigation, they get to know the residents and find out about their backgrounds. One of those residents is Elizabeth Johnston, a brilliant, highly driven law student who is interested, so it seems, only in her work. At one point, Poirot and Sharpe are discussing the likelihood of each resident being the killer. Here’s what Poirot says about Elizabeth Johnson:

 

‘The West Indian girl Elizabeth Johnston has probably the best brains of anyone in the Hostel. She has subordinated her emotional life to her brain – that is dangerous.’

 

It certainly can be dangerous, but there are people who are more or less completely emotionally detached. It’s difficult to write about them because very often, emotionally detached characters feel ‘flat.’ On the one hand, it’s healthy not to get too emotionally caught up in life. But on the other, emotions are a part of the human experience, so we’re accustomed to characters who have them and are sometimes driven by them. And in real life, many people are like that. So it takes skill to make an emotionally detached character interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention. There are some of them out there, though.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes finds the problems he investigates much more interesting as a rule than the people with whom he interacts. As he looks at evidence, makes deductions and so on, he often remains emotionally detached. And yet, he isn’t as completely detached as perhaps he might like to be. For instance, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Holmes gets a new client Violet Hunter. She’s been offered a position as governess to Jeprho Rucastle’s six-year-old son. Rucastle offers her a generous salary, but the position comes with some odd requests that unsettle her a little. They make Holmes uneasy too, and in fact he counsels her not to take the position. At first, she listens to him and declined the offer. Then, Rucastle increases the salary he proposes to pay. This time Violet can’t refuse and she takes the job. Holmes tells her that if ever she should need him, to contact him. This she does when some frightening things begin to happen, and Holmes and Watson rush to the Rucastle home as soon as they can, hoping to prevent disaster for Violet. On the one hand, Holmes is detached in terms of deducing what’s going on at the house and why Violet Hunter is in danger. On the other, it’s clear that he feels for her and wants her to stay safe – not a real case of complete lack of emotion. That said though, Holmes is often detached.

So is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. He can be personable when he wants to be and he has a circle of friends and acquaintances. He even marries as the series of novels featuring him moves along. But he is emotionally detached from most of his fellow humans. He’s responsible for a great deal of crime, including murder. Yet, although he doesn’t delight in killing, he doesn’t have qualms about the crimes he commits unless you count his not wanting to be caught. It’s an interesting case of a character who may be intellectually really interesting, but certainly doesn’t have the full range of human emotions.

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, we are introduced to Martin Lemmer, a bodyguard who is employed by a personal protection company called Body Armour. Emma le Roux hires the company when she decides to make a dangerous trip and Lemmer is assigned to protect her. Emma is searching for her brother Jacobus who everyone thought died in a skirmish with poachers years earlier. But she has reason to believe he may still be alive and she wants to find out. She and Lemmer travel from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out the truth, and in the course of their trip, run up against some very dangerous people who won’t hesitate at all to kill. Especially at the beginning of the novel, Lemmer is emotionally quite detached from his clients. In fact he makes a point of that. He is also emotionally detached from the work he has to do. He’s not at all what you’d call trigger-happy, but his job is to protect his client.

There’s a really interesting case of emotional detachment in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a teenager with autism. He’s reasonably high-functioning, so he can interact with others, learn academics and so on. But his autism prevents him from really making social and emotional connections with the people in his life. When a neighbour’s dog is killed, Christopher decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes and find out who is responsible. As he sets about it, we see how detached he is from the way others feel and react. We also see how that detachment is helpful (in the sense that he is not hampered by social niceties), but at the same time impedes him. In a way, the reader can tell a lot more than Christopher can, at least at first, just by paying attention to the emotional/social site of people.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy shares the lives of Glasgow’s criminal world, including the lives of the professional hit-men who are a part of it. In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Sudden Arrival of Violence, we see how emotionally detached people can be from others. Several of the characters in these novels like their work and take professional pride in what they do. But they are detached from others. And in a way, the more detached they are, the better they do their work.

Emotions can of course be destructive, and it’s healthy to know how to let go of them and ‘step back.’ But what about complete emotional detachment? What do you think about emotionally detached characters? Do you find they take away from a story? Do they seem too ‘flat’ to you? Or do you find them interesting? If you’re a writer, have you created detached characters? How do you do that, considering most of us are emotionally connected with the world?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Deon Meyer, Malcolm Mackay, Mark Haddon, Patricia Highsmith

Far Too Many Sins to Mention*

FaultsNobody’s perfect. That’s a very obvious point, but when it comes to crime-fictional sleuths, I think it bears a little reflection. I think most of us would probably agree that we don’t want our protagonists to be too perfect. After all, a perfect protagonist isn’t realistic. So characters with no weaknesses and faults don’t feel well-developed or authentic.

In the early days of crime fiction, a lot of character depth was arguably less important than it is now. This isn’t to say of course that no classic or Golden Age detective stories have well-rounded protagonists. But the emphasis was on the plot rather than on the evolution of a flawed but still appealing and believable protagonist.

Just as one example, one of the criticisms I’ve read of Dorothy Sayers’ work is that her Lord Peter Wimsey is too perfect. He gets it right too often. Whether you agree with that particular claim or not, it reflects a more general criticism of some of the ‘heroes’ of the stories of that era. People want their protagonists to be believable and that means to be less than perfect.

One response to this interest in the ‘not perfect’ protagonist has been what people sometimes call the ‘anti-hero.’ Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is arguably one example of that sort of character. Ripley is not without any feelings, but he is amoral. He’s been mixed up in fraud, murder, theft and other crimes; on that level, he’s got many deep flaws.

There are also characters such as Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford, whom we meet in The Killer Inside Me. On the surface, Ford seems to be what everyone thinks he is – a pleasant if dull local sheriff’s deputy. Then crime comes to Central City, Texas. First, there’s a vicious beating. Then there’s a murder. As the investigation goes on, we begin to see what Lou Ford is really like, and we learn about his past. Without spoiling the story, I think it’s fair to say that Ford is not a classic detective-story ‘hero.’

There are more modern examples too of the ‘anti hero’ sort of protagonist. For example, some people feel that Leif G.W. Persson’s Evert Bäckström is an anti-hero. Certainly he’s not ‘politically correct.’ He’s not easy to work with, he’s egotistical and he’s bigoted. By most people’s estimation he’s a fairly deeply flawed character.

And yet, the trilogy featuring Bäckström and his team has been well-regarded. A lot of people think that The Killer Inside Me is a classic noir story. And Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels have certainly gotten a great deal of praise. So it’s possible for an ‘anti hero’ to be appealing enough to hold readers’ interest.

That said though, I think we could all think of examples of stories we’ve read with one too many broken, demon-haunted, drunken detectives. I won’t make a list; you’ve all read your share I’m sure. We’ve all had the experience too of reading books we didn’t enjoy because there simply nothing to make us care about the protagonist. So simply giving a character many, many flaws isn’t enough to make her or him interesting.

What’s the balance, then? A protagonist who’s too perfect is not just unrealistic, but can also be annoying. But a protagonist who is too full of weaknesses, flaws and negative qualities puts readers off. How flawed does a protagonist need to be for that character to seem realistic? How many flaws are just too many? When do your ‘eye roll’ moments start?  Of course, different people will have different reactions, but I would really be interested in your input.

If you’re a writer, how do you decide how many weaknesses your protagonist is going to have?  What’s your strategy for making your protagonist human enough to be believable, but not so full of flaws as to be off-putting?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right on Time.

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Filed under Dorothy Sayers, Jim Thompson, Leif G.W. Persson, Patricia Highsmith

Oh Well I Heard a True Confession*

Talking to Total StrangersIt’s interesting how sometimes people tell things to complete strangers that they wouldn’t necessarily tell even to a good friend or family member. In some ways, odd as it seems, strangers can be easier to talk to, since they have no stake in a problem. Then too, a stranger is someone one may very well not see again, so there’s less risk in unburdening oneself. Of course, when that happens in crime fiction, you never know quite where it will lead…

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion in the village of St. Mary Mead (and oddly enough, she doesn’t meet Miss Marple…). When her employer dies, Katherine unexpectedly inherits a fortune. She decides to use some of it to travel, something she’s never had the luxury of doing before, and decides to start by visiting some distant cousins in Nice. Katherine’s taking the famous Blue Train to Nice when she meets wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on the same train. Ruth is dealing with some personal problems and a dilemma, and Katherine strikes her as a sympathetic sort of listener. So Ruth unburdens herself at least to an extent. It turns out that her conversation with Katherine is one of the last that Ruth has before she is murdered that night. So when the train stops at Nice, the police want to interview Katherine and before she knows it, she’s embroiled in a murder mystery. Hercule Poirot has also come to Nice, and he works with Katherine and the police to find out who murdered Ruth Kettering and why.

A train is also the backdrop for Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train trip to visit his estranged wife Miriam. He’s unhappy in his marriage and has a lot on his mind. So when he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s also on a journey, he’s happy for a sympathetic listener. Bruno too has his share of troubles. He’s got a very dysfunctional relationship with his father, and finds Haines a pleasant person to talk to about it. Then the conversation works round to a solution that Bruno proposes. His idea is that each man will commit the other man’s murder. Since neither man has a motive to commit ‘the other murder,’ the police won’t get suspicious. Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously at first, but confiding in a stranger gets him into serious trouble when Bruno kills Miriam and then demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain.

A chance conversation in a taxi gets architect Stephen Booker involved in crime in Robert Pollock’s Loophole or, How to Rob a Bank. Booker has been laid off from his job with an architect firm, and hasn’t been able to find another in his field. So, in order to make ends meet, he’s taken a night job as a taxi driver. That way, so he thinks, he can use his days to keep looking for a new professional position. One night, his passenger is professional thief Mike Daniels. Daniels and his team of fellow thieves are planning to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. But they’ve run into several logistics obstacles since the bank is well-protected and equipped with the latest in security devices and procedures. Daniels is an affable person and not a bad listener, so it’s not long before Booker tells him the story of his job loss and his frustrations. When Daniels learns Booker’s story, he realises that Booker could be just the man who could help the team get past the bank’s security barriers. So Daniels cultivates a friendship with Booker and then proposes that Booker join the team. Booker finally agrees and the team prepares for the robbery. Everything is planned down to the last detail. But no-one has anticipated the major storm that blows in unexpectedly…

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, art expert/historian Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. Pawlovsky has just gotten a painting that could be worth something and he wants Revere’s professional opinion. Revere agrees and takes a look at the painting. It turns out that it’s likely an extremely valuable Velázquez that was one of many ‘acquired’ by the Nazis during World War II. When Pawlovsky is murdered, Revere thinks that perhaps finding out how the painting got into the shop will lead to the killer’s identity. So he starts tracing the painting forward from when the Nazis took it to the present day. Before his death, Pawlovsky had arranged for Revere to meet his grand-niece Alexandra ‘Alex’ Porter. When the two meet for the first time, Alex finds Ben pleasant to talk to and ends up telling him a lot about her family background. In turn Ben finds her pleasant to talk to as well, and it’s interesting to see how the opportunity to talk to a stranger is helpful to them both. In fact, Alex proves to be a useful ally as Ben traces the painting and in the end, finds out the truth about Pawlovsky’s murder.

There’s a very interesting kind of opening up to a stranger in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s all ready for this next phase of her life when some disastrous financial decisions mean she has to sell her beautiful home. As the novel begins she’s had to take the house next door to her dream home – a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ As if that’s not bad enough, new neighbours buy her perfect home and move in. As it is, Thea isn’t much for company and would prefer to keep as much to herself as possible. But Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have bought Thea’s dream home and she thinks of them as ‘the invaders.’ Thea is a very private person who tells very little about her life to anyone. But she and Frank eventually do develop a kind of rapport. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Elllice. Perhaps because Kim’s not threatening, and perhaps because Thea recognises real talent when she sees it (Kim is a born writer), Thea strikes up a friendship with Kim despite her dislike of strangers. And for her part, Kim likes Thea very much despite her prickliness. They end up telling more about themselves to each other than either thought would happen. But that’s precisely what leads to tragedy when Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing a safe and appropriate home for Kim…

We normally think of sharing confidences with trusted friends and family members. But it’s odd how sometimes, people feel most comfortable talking with a stranger on a bus, a park bench, or a gym. And I haven’t even mentioned the myriad novels in which it’s the sleuth who’s the sympathetic stranger…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Bartholomew and Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino’s True Confession.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan

Eisenhower, Vaccine, England’s Got a New Queen*

1950sIf you watch television shows (especially US television shows) from the 1950s, you might get the impression that it was a peaceful decade with an emphasis on a happy suburban life and economic prosperity. Certainly there was an increase in consumerism. But the reality was of course quite different from that serene surface. The 1950s brought a lot of major changes and they were hardly peaceful years. And since crime fiction reflects the times in which it was written (or about which it’s written), we see a lot of the major developments of the 1950s in the crime fiction from and about that era.

Agatha Christie wrote several novels during that time period, and her work shows some of the major changes going on at the time. Life for many was transformed after World War II and that included the loss of many of the great old homes and estates. We see commentary about this in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) and in Dead Man’s Folly. In the former, Enderby House, the home of the Abernethie family, is being sold after the death of the last real family patriarch Richard Abernethie. In the latter, Nasse House, which had been in the Folliat family for generations, is now the property of Sir George Stubbs and his wife Hattie, and is one of the few homes that hasn’t been turned into a guest house or hostel. In fact, the next home over has been turned into a hostel, and that plays a role in the novel.

So does a new generation of young people, and we see this in Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). The residents of a student hostel become the focus of an investigation when one of them seems to commit suicide after admitting to a series of petty thefts. Of course, things aren’t as they seem…  Several of the main characters of this novel are young people who have a different outlook on life to the outlook their parents had. Christie also uses this novel to comment on some of the other major issues of the 1950s, one of which is the Cold War between the UK, the US and their allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. There’s more than one remark about communists and communist sympathy in this novel.

That theme also plays an important role in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death, which takes place during the same time. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins has been separated from the airplane manufacturing company where he worked, and now earns his living ‘doing favours for friends.’ And that’s just what gets him into trouble. He gets a letter from an IRS agent threatening him with jail time for not paying taxes on income that he earned solving a case. The only way out seems to be to help the FBI take down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler. Rawlins has been told his tax problems will go away if he helps the FBI so, not seeing much choice, he agrees. In the process, he becomes a target for someone who tries to frame him for two murders. There’s a lot of talk in this novel about patriotism, communism and one’s civic duty. But what’s interesting is that this novel is told from the perspective of a Black American and more than once Rawlins reflects on why he should be such a patriot when his country hasn’t done much for him. It’s a compelling commentary on the segregation and racism of the era. It’s also an interesting peek at the nascent civil rights movement that began in earnest later in the decade (Christie by the way comments on race issues too in Hickory Dickory Dock).

There’s also a fascinating look at Cold War thinking and politics in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek, which takes place in 1957. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is a World War II veteran who is still trying to deal with the scars from the war. But he’s more or less managed to put his life together. He’s got a stable marriage and two healthy children and life is going on for him. Then, his wife Rebecca asks him to help a friend of hers look into an oddity about the death of her husband. Berlin agrees and before he knows it, he’s drawn into a case involving high-level cover-ups and some odd events at local funeral homes. The Cold War theme is woven through this novel quite effectively, as is the reality of life for many of those returning from World War II. The armed hostilities had ended, but for many of those service people the 1950s was a time of real difficulty as they had to adjust to a peacetime life and do their best to deal with their emotional and physical scars.

There was a deepening interest in and emphasis on psychology, especially what used to be called ‘abnormal psychology’ as the 1950s got underway, and we see that in the psychological kinds of thrillers/crime novels of that era. For instance, Patricial Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is the story of a chance encounter between Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, who are fellow passengers on a cross-country train journey. What starts out as a friendly conversation evolves into a discussion about each man’s problems: Haines is unhappy in his marriage, and Bruno has a bad relationship with his father. When Bruno suggests that each man kill the other man’s ‘choice victim,’ Haines brushes it off as almost a joke. It becomes all too real though when Bruno actually fulfills what he sees as his side of the bargain and insists that Haines do the same. Highsmith’s exploration of psychology reflects the growing interest in the topic of that decade, as does the work of other writers such as Jim Thompson.

We also see a fascinating look at psychology in Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher who gets drawn into a completely alien, seamy world when her brother Bill marries Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora tries for her brother’s sake to be friendly with her new sister-in-law, but Alice has a hidden past and a lot of secrets, and a big part of Lora doesn’t trust her. And yet at the same time as she is repulsed by Allice’s world, she also finds it alluring. And when Alice seems to be implicated in a murder that occurs, Lora finds herself more and more pulled into Alice’s life. Besides the psychology we see in this novel, we also see some of the sociological phenomena of the era. There’s the surface-level conformity that was expected at the time which hides some ugly truths. There’s also an interesting look at the way women were viewed. The women’s movement that’s been called ‘Women’s Lib’ among other things was still some time off, but already women were beginning to be dissatisfied with society’s limited expectations of them. At the same time as many conformed in terms of dress, household roles and so on, they also wondered if this was all there was, so to speak. And some did more than wonder. Die a Little also reflects something else about the era: the beginnings of more open discussions about sexuality (anyone read Peyton Place???).

We also see that in novels of the day such as Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, in which some of the characters are prostitutes and in which there is more obvious innuendo than we see in earlier novels. Cop Hater also shows the blurred lines between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ that is characteristic of a lot of more modern crime fiction. 

On the surface of it, the 1950s was a time of social conformity and neat categorisation, where ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ the two sexes, different racial groups and different social classes still occupied different worlds. That meant there was some ugly racism, blatant sexism and other social issues that weren’t addressed. But at the same time the proverbial lid was being lifted off that box, and a lot of what went on beneath the surface is explored in the crime fiction of and about the era. And that’s to say nothing of the music of the era… And with new tools such as psychology, we see how writers were exploring the ‘why’ and ‘what started it all’ of crime as well as its actual investigation.

What do you think of ‘50s crime fiction and historical crime fiction? What do you think it reflects about the era? If you’re a writer who explores that era, what draws you to it?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of holiday shopping in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1951. Among other things I think it shows the rising consumerism of the era.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Geoffrey McGeachin, Jim Thompson, Megan Abbott, Patricia Highsmith, Walter Mosley