Category Archives: Peter Temple

I Want to be Elected*

VotingWhen many people think of elections and politics, they think of national-level elections. And that makes sense, since presidents and prime ministers have a great deal of power, and those elections get a lot of press. But it’s often the local and state/province/department – level elections that have the most impact on our day-to-day lives. For example, when you apply for a permit to build a house or develop some land, you generally don’t do so at the national level. So smaller elections can be very important.

They can stir up real passion, too, and the buildup of tension and excitement can be an interesting backdrop for a crime story. An election can also serve as an interesting sub-plot, even if it’s not the most important plot thread of a story.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, up-and-coming Saskatchewan politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is preparing to make a very important speech at a local picnic/barbecue. He’s widely seen as his party’s next leader, so everyone wants to hear what he has to say. As he’s beginning his speech, though, he takes a sip of water and then suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. One of his campaign workers and speechwriters is political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn. She’s also a personal friend. When Boychuk dies, she decides to deal with her grief by writing a biography of him. The more she learns about Andy Boychuk’s life, the more she sees that there are sides to him that no-one knew. That search for the truth also leads Kilbourn to the truth about who killed Boychuk and why – and into real danger for herself.

We see the power of local politics too in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts. Danny McKillop spent eight years in prison for the drink driving murder of Melbourne citizens’ rights activist Anne Jeppeson. Now he’s been released, and he is desperate to contact the attorney who represented him Jack Irish. But before Irish can meet up with his former client, McKillop is murdered. Irish feels guilty already because he didn’t do a good job of defending McKillop in the first place. So he decides to look into the murder. He soon discovers that the victim was most likely framed for the killing of Anne Jeppeson. If that’s the case, then not only is the killer still free, but that person also probably murdered McKillop. As Irish and journalist Linda Hillier get closer to the truth, they discover that it’s all related to dirty politics, greed and intrigue.

Alan Orloff’s Deadly Campaign features a U.S. Congressional campaign. Edward Wong has just won the Democratic primary election, and will soon be preparing to face his Republican opponent in the larger general election. One night there’s a celebration event at the Northern Virginia restaurant owned by Wong’s uncle Thomas Lee. During the evening, a group of thugs bursts in and breaks up the party, using baseball bats to cause damage to the restaurant. Wong’s family does not want the police involved, but his uncle sees things differently. Lee asks his friend Channing Hayes, who co-owns a nearby comedy club, to ask around and see if he can find out who’s responsible for the attack, before anyone gets hurt or worse. Hayes reluctantly agrees. It’s not long though before the Wong family finds out that Lee and Hayes have been looking into what happened. The family leaders make it very clear to both that their involvement is not necessary; the matter is settled and there is no need to ask any more questions. They also make some not-very-veiled threats about the consequences if either man continues to investigate. Lee though is determined to find out the truth and Hayes feels no choice but to continue. Besides, he’s not exactly enamoured of the Wong family. And what the two find is that the attack is related to politics, greed and power-grabbing. And so are some murders that also occur in the novel…

We see an example of more local politics in Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street. Artemus Ackerman is mayor of the small city of Calendar. A former magician, he wants to convert an old local theatre building into a museum of magic. To do that, he’ll need funding and the support of city leaders. He thinks he may be getting everything arranged when there’s a fire on the same street as the building. Then there’s another. And another. It’s soon obvious that there’s an arsonist at work. If the arsonist isn’t caught, there won’t be public support for this new museum. What’s more, people will likely lose their confidence in their mayor. Ackerman’s smart enough to know this, so he asks his publicist/assistant Maggie Wakeling to find out what she can. She works with Fire Marshal George Copeland to get to the bottom of this nightmare before anyone is killed.

In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover discovers the body of malicious real estate developer Parke Stoddard in a local church. Myrtle’s son Red, who’s the local police chief, doesn’t want his mother involved. In fact, he’d much rather her do things other retired people do – play Bingo, go to church meetings, and so on. But Myrtle is by no means ready to be ‘put out to pasture.’ To show that she’s not going to be pushed aside, she decides to investigate. The victim made more than her share of enemies in her relatively short time in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina, so there are plenty of suspects. One of them is City Councilman Benton Chambers, whom the victim was blackmailing. As Myrtle discovers, Chambers is not the ‘family man’ and ‘man of the people’ that he would have his constituents believe he is. So one very good possible motive for murder here is political.

One of the funniest commentaries on local politics (at least I find it funny) is in Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, the first in his series featuring Absaroka County, Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire. In this novel, Longmire and his team investigate the murders of two young men who are connected with a vicious gang-rape two years earlier. Longmire isn’t what you’d call a political animal, although he does know the value of showing up at community events and so on. He’d rather just do his job. Still, he understands that he has his job because of people’s votes. At one point in the murder investigation, one of the crime scene investigators says this to Longmire:
 

‘You blow one homicide, it looks like a mistake. You blow two, it starts looking like negligence. Or worse yet, stupidity.’

 

Here’s how Longmire answers.
 

‘I thought I’d use that on the bumper stickers in the next election, VOTE LONGMIRE, HE’S STUPID.’

 

I wonder if that slogan would be successful… ;-)

It’s not just national-level politics that can get downright dirty. Local and state/provincial/department politics can be dangerous too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alice Cooper’s Elected.

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Filed under Alan Orloff, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Peter Temple, Shelly Reuben

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

Do You Remember Your President Nixon*

NIXON RESIGNATIONAs I post this, it’s forty years today since Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States. Whatever you think of Nixon’s presidency, his politics, or the scandal that brought down his administration, it’s hard to deny the impact of his resignation, at least in the US.

Of course, there’d been scandals before at very high levels of the US and other governments. But this was the first time for the US that a scandal led to a presidential resignation. What’s more, the investigation into Nixon’s activities and those of other members of his administration were very public – on television for the world to see. For many people who’d always trusted their government, the Nixon resignation was a rude shock and a bitter lesson that sometimes that trust is misplaced.

But if you look at crime fiction, you see that high-level government scandal has been around for a long time. There are a lot of examples of this plot point in the genre; space only permits me a few. But I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of many more than I could anyway.

A few of Agatha Christie’s stories feature government scandals. One of them is the short story The Incredible Theft. In that story, Lord Charles Mayfield hosts a house party that consists of himself, his secretary Carlisle, Retired Air Marshal Sir George Carrington and Carrington’s wife Julia and son Reggie. Also present is an enigmatic American Mrs. Vanderlyn. During the visit, Mayfield and Carrington want to consult about the plans for a new air bomber. Those plans have been kept top secret since they would be of great interest to England’s enemies. During the evening, the plans are stolen. Recovery of the plans is essential in order to protect them, and it’s got to be done quietly, too. Otherwise the scandal and the insinuation that someone powerful is aiding the enemy could bring down the government. So Sir George calls on Hercule Poirot to help find the plans.

Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life concerns a case from 1963. Cissy Kohler was arrested and imprisoned for her involvement in the murder of her employer’s wife Pamela Westropp. At the time, Ralph Mickledore was also arrested and convicted in connection with the murder. As the novel begins, Kohler has recently been released from prison, and new hints are surfacing that suggest that she was innocent. More than that, they suggest that the investigating officer Wally Tallentire know that and hid evidence of it. When Superintendent Andy Dalziel finds this out, he’s determined to prove those allegations false. Tallentire was his mentor, and he has absolute faith in the man’s integrity. So Dalziel looks into the case again and from a different angle, so does Peter Pascoe. One interesting thing about this case is that it was tried in the same year as the famous Profumo case, in which John Profumo’s relationship with Christine Keeler was made public and eventually led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. In fact that scandal is mentioned in the novel as a way of explaining public attitudes towards the Westropp case, and the assumption that Kohler was guilty.

In Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is recovering physically and psychologically from his last case (detailed in Dead Set). His plans are to work on his Ph.D. thesis and have a normal life, whatever that means. But he’s drawn back to AFP work by a double murder at Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra. The victims are Alec Dennet, a member of the 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government, and Dennet’s editor Lorraine Starke. As the investigating team learns, Dennet and Starke were working on Dennet’s memoirs at the time of their deaths. Since the manuscript has disappeared, it looks as though someone committed murder to be sure it wouldn’t be published. And that suggests several possible suspects. For one thing, there are some very highly-placed people who don’t want everything about the Whitlam government’s activities to be known. For another, there are some very nasty groups from other countries too who would very much like that manuscript, not just for the information it may contain, but also for its monetary value. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at the effects of a scandal years after it’s broken.

And then there’s Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege. Washington-based former cop-turned-PI Dana Cutler is hired by prominent attorney Dale Perry to follow a young intern Charlotte Walsh and report on where she goes and whom she sees. Cutler doesn’t see why a ‘nobody’ intern could be of interest to anyone, but a fee is a fee. So she begins her work. Then one night, Walsh leaves her car in a mall parking lot, is picked up in another car and is taken to a secluded safe house. Cutler is shocked to find that Walsh is meeting with US President Christopher Ferrington. The next morning, Cutler learns that Walsh’s body has been found in her car, which is still in the parking lot. Now Cutler is an important witness – and a target for some very powerful people who don’t want the young woman’s death investigated. It turns out that Charlotte Walsh’s murder is connected with another murder and a common experience the two victims had.

There are also several books by Margaret Truman, including Murder at the White House, in which scandal at the very highest levels of government is explored. But Nixon’s resignation didn’t just change people’s attitudes about government and its leaders. It also made heroes out of journalists such as Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered what was going on in the Nixon administration.

The perception of journalists as interfering annoyances (you see this attitude come up in some classic crime fiction) changed for a lot of people during the Watergate investigation. And we see that shift in some modern crime fiction. For instance, Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon is a crime reporter who breaks several high-level scandals in the series that features her. One of the recurring characters in Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is journalist Linda Hiller. She helps Irish bring down some very powerful people in Bad Debts, and even though she doesn’t appear in all the novels, she’s presented in a positive light, as a someone who’s working to stop corruption. And of course to get herself a major story. And Ian Rankin’s John Rebus co-operates more than once with journalist Mairie Henderson. The image of the reporter/journalist as the gutsy, heroic protagonist may not have originated with Woodward and Bernstein, but it certainly got a boost as a result of their Watergate investigation.

The Nixon resignation had powerful and lasting effects, and not just on those directly involved. It was one of the pivotal US events of the 1970s. Little wonder that scandals are still given nicknames that end in ‘-gate.’

ps. If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you know that I almost always take my own ‘photos. But this one’s far better than any I could take. Thanks, Channel One News.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Young Americans.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Kel Robertson, Liza Marklund, Margaret Truman, Peter Temple, Philip Margolin, Reginald Hill

Hooray and Hallelujah, You Had it Coming To Ya*

Bursting Bubbles and BalloonsMost of us don’t take pleasure in others’ misfortune. Every once in a while, though, we do like to see certain people being ‘taken down a peg.’ That’s especially true if the person being humbled is arrogant or annoyingly officious. It can be satisfying to see people like that put in their proverbial place. That’s certainly true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction too.

There’s a incident like that in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer in France at the request of Paul Renauld. He’s written to Poirot claiming that he is in possession of a secret that some very nasty people want to know. Because of that, his life’s in danger. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to France though, it’s too late. Renauld has been stabbed and his body found by a golf course that abuts his home. The Sûreté has sent M. Giraud to solve the murder, and almost from the moment they meet, he and Poirot are at odds. Poirot is not known for his humility about his detection skills, but Giraud is far worse. He’s arrogant, rude and condescending, and Poirot soon has enough of him. It gets to the point where Poirot decides to put Giraud in his place. He bets the Inspector five hundred francs that he can solve Renauld’s murder before Giraud does. As you might expect, Poirot wins the bet, pulling Giraud down more than one peg, as the saying goes. And what does Poirot do with his winnings? He buys a model foxhound to adorn his mantel. Here’s what he says to Hastings about it:

 

‘Is he not a splendid fellow? I call him Giraud!’

 

It’s not hard to fault him for that…

I think we all have our particular favourite quote or ‘zinger’ that puts a character in her or his place. One of mine comes in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, the first of his Van Veeteren series. Eva Ringmar has been found murdered in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect, and it doesn’t help his case that he was so drunk on the night of the murder that he remembers very little about anything. He’s put on trial and cross-questioned by an officious prosecutor who quickly gets everyone annoyed. When the prosecutor asks Mitter how he knows he didn’t kill his wife (since he was so drunk), here’s what Mitter says:

 

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’

 

Truly an inspired response…

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, Colonel Halburton-Smythe and his wife Mary plan a weekend house party, mostly for the purpose of ‘showing off’ up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering, who’s become engaged to their daughter Priscilla. One of the guests is Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons. He may be ‘important,’ but he’s unpleasant, arrogant and lecherous. Needless to say he doesn’t get on well with the other guests. The weekend begins, and Bartlett makes a bet with fellow guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can bag a brace of grouse before Pomfret does. Early the next morning, Bartlett sneaks out before the agreed-upon hour, so he has more time to get his grouse. He never makes it back to the house and is later found killed, apparently the result of a terrible shooting accident. At least that’s what DCI Blair thinks. And that’s what the Haliburton-Smythes think too. But local bobby Hamish Macbeth isn’t so sure of that. Fans of this series will know that Blair is arrogant, pushy and sometimes rude, especially to Macbeth. So it’s with great pleasure that Macbeth presents Blair – in the presence of the ‘well-born’ Haliburton-Smythes and their guests – with evidence that Bartlett’s death was murder. Blair’s consternation is quite satisfying…

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometimes-attorney Jack Irish is investigating the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. That murder is very likely connected to the hit-and-run killing of citizen activist Anne Jeppeson, so Irish ends up looking into both deaths. The trail leads him to a charity group, the Safe Hands Foundation, and he goes to see one of its executives. However, the security guard is both officious and implacable and refuses at first to telephone up to announce Irish’s arrival. Here’s how Irish handles it:

 

‘Then he wanted my driver’s license.
‘I’m not trying to cash a cheque here, sonny,’ I said. ‘Just phone the man.’
Tight little smile. ‘The body corporate lays down the security proceedings.’ Flat Queensland voice. Pause. ‘Sir.’
‘This isn’t Pentridge,’ I said. ‘Didn’t they retrain you for this job? Just phone.’
He held my gaze briefly but I’d got him in one. ‘I’ll check,’ he said.’

 

Irish wastes no time whatever bursting this security guard’s proverbial bubble.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that Brunetti is supervised by Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. Fans will also know that Patta is self-important and arrogant, unless he’s in the company of the well-to-do and powerful, in which case he’s a toady. Whenever an investigation may lead to someone who ‘matters,’ Patta does everything he can to dissuade Brunetti from pursuing it. So it’s always especially satisfying to Brunetti when he can burst his boss’ bubble, so to speak, with irrefutable proof that someone important is guilty of murder. That’s what happens in Through a Glass, Darkly, when Giorgio Tassini is killed. Tassini is night watchman at a glass blowing factory, and at first, his death is put down to a tragic accident. But Brunetti isn’t sure that’s true, and starts to dig deeper. He discovers who the killer is, and when he finally gets the proof he needs, it gives him great pleasure to be able to

 

‘…ruin the Vice-Questore’s lunch.’ 

 

Fans of these series really can’t blame Brunetti for that attitude…

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. The area is known for its cuisine; for centuries, residents have taken pride in the way they prepare and serve food. But since the advent of the EU and EU policies, there are new rules about the way food is to be stored, handled, prepared and served. On the one hand, the residents of St. Denis don’t want to make or eat tainted food any more than anyone else would. It’s not that they object to food safety. On the other, the EU inspectors are not local and don’t understand local traditions and customs. What’s more, they’re officious and obdurate, and they refuse to accept that the locals may have their own legitimate ways of ensuring food safety. So although Bruno is sworn to uphold the law, and is generally law-abiding himself, he does take pleasure in taking the EU inspection team down a few notches. When he learns that they’re paying a visit to St. Denis in Bruno, Chief of Police, he helps to let everyone in town know, so that code violations can be covered up. And it’s not hard for him (or the reader) to feel some sympathy for some locals who slash the tires on the inspectors’ official car. Bruno certainly doesn’t want violence, and he can’t condone breaking the law. But seeing the inspectors taken down a notch has a real appeal.

I think that’s probably a common feeling. We may not like embarrassing people publicly. And we may not condone violence. But sometimes we do get some real satisfaction when officious, arrogant people, especially if they are powerful, have their proverbial balloons burst. These are just a few examples. Which have I left out?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matty Malcek and Johnny Mercer’s Goody Goody. This song has been recorded several times, including by Ella Fitzergald, Frankie Lymon and Chicago. Check out a few versions and see which one you like.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Håkan Nesser, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker, Peter Temple

Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World*

RebuildingFor obvious reasons, a lot of crime novels include characters who are dealing with a great loss or trauma in their lives. Sometimes those characters are protagonists; sometimes they’re not. Either way, the author has to choose how to depict that coping process. And it is a process. On the one hand, most people understand that it takes time to pick up the pieces of life when something awful happens. On the other, there’s also pressure to move on and start living again. Sometimes that pressure is internal (e.g. ‘I really shouldn’t feel this way. I need to get on with my life.’). Other times, the pressure comes from well-meaning family members, friends, co-workers, etc. (e.g. ‘Come on, you really should start dating again/get back to work/etc.’). That process and the tension that comes with it can add much to character development in a novel, and it does reflect reality. Here are just a few examples. I’m quite certain you can think of many more than I could.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder is a former member of the NYPD. His career with the police ended after he targeted two armed thieves who murdered a bartender. In the process of going after them, he accidentally shot a young girl Estrellita Rivera. The shot was ‘clean,’ and no-one really blames Scudder. Even the victim’s family members understand that it was a terrible accident, but an accident. Still, that incident has permanently altered Scudder’s view of himself and of life. Despite pressure to move on and see the shooting for what it really was, Scudder has his own way of dealing with it, and it’s not a quick, easy process.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve has had to endure her share of life’s blows. As the series featuring her begins, she’s living with the loss of her husband Ian, who was murdered one night when he stopped to help two young people whose car had broken down. In the course of the series she continues to pick up the pieces and work out a new kind of life for herself and her family. It’s not always easy, either, particularly as she forms new intimate relationships. But that process adds to her development as a character.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a Melbourne PI/sometimes-lawyer with his own share of sorrow to bear. He was a full-time attorney when a disturbed client shot his wife Isabel. Irish knows he wasn’t at fault for the murder, but it left him devastated all the same. At first he drowned his sorrows in far, far too much drink. But in Bad Debts,as the series begins, he’s begun to climb out of the proverbial bottle and get back to being alive. As the series moves on, we see that on the one hand, the process of living with what happened to Isabel is not easy. Irish grieves in his own way, and people have sympathy for him. On the other hand, life has not stopped. There are people in Irish’s life who care about him and who don’t want to see him completely disintegrate. They don’t pressure him with comments such as ‘You really ought to start dating again,’ or ‘Snap out of it!’ But they do encourage him to be a part of the human race again if I may put it that way. It’s interesting to see how they influence Irish.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), we first meet Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson. She’s originally from Kiruna and although she had her own reasons for leaving, she puts them aside and returns for the sake of an old friend Sanna Stråndgard. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been murdered, and it isn’t long before the police begin to suspect that Sanna might be the killer. She claims she’s innocent, and asks Martinsson to act for her. In the course of the investigation, Martinsson goes through a traumatic incident that continues to affect her after the end of the novel. As the series goes on, she slowly starts living again. On the one hand, the people around her do have sympathy for her, and their first response is concern for her well-being. On the other, there is pressure for her to return to work and pick up her life again. There’s even awkwardness because she’s not ‘back to normal,’ whatever that means. Martinsson knows that coping is not going to be that simple, if it’s even possible, and it’s interesting to see how she slowly builds a new life in her own way.

Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant lives and works in Saskatoon, although he also travels quite a lot. On two levels, Quant deals with personal loss and tragedy as this series goes on. First, of course, there’s the fact that his cases bring him, and sometimes those he cares about, up against real danger. Quant is not superhuman, and some of his experiences leave him with real emotional trauma. Then there’s the matter of his personal life. On that level, Quant has to cope, as we all do, with the ups and downs of relationships and the deep sadness when they end. In some ways, he’d like very much just to pick his life up and move on. But as he learns, life’s not that simple and it can leave lasting scars. In this series, Quant’s friends and family members find ways to help him pick himself up and go on. So in that sense they do put what you might call pressure on him. But it’s not the uncaring, ‘Get it together!’ sort of pressure that often just makes things worse. Instead, they remind him that life is generally a very good thing, and rely on him to take their cue.

In Split Second, Cath Staincliffe explores the way families move on after tragedy strikes. One day, Luke Murray is riding a bus when three fellow passengers begin to bully him. Jason Barnes, who’s also on the bus, intervenes and for a time the harassment stops. Then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. Jason does, too, and the bullying starts again. Jason continues to stay involved and the fight escalates all the way to Jason’s front yard. When it’s all over, Luke’s been gravely injured and Jason is dead of a stab wound. As the police work to find out who the bullies were and what the story is behind the incident, Jason’s parents Andrew and Val have to cope with the worst thing that can ever happen to any caring parent. Everyone is sympathetic, but as time goes by, we can see how they begin to feel pressure to pick up their lives. It’s not overt pressure and you could argue that they bring most of it to bear on themselves. But there is tension as they struggle to find a way to re-build themselves. In the meantime, Luke’s mother Louise faces that sort of pressure too. Her son is in a coma from which he may not recover, and everyone understands her deep sense of sorrow. At the same time, her daughter Ruby has a life ahead of her, and Louise still has to be there for her. That tension between accepting that dealing with grief is a process, and the pull to pick up the pieces, certainly plays a role in this novel.

It does in real life too. Life doesn’t stop just because a horrible thing has happened. And sometimes balancing that with the very normal and healthy need to grieve is difficult. OK, over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this song is a line from Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee’s The End of the World, made popular by Skeeter Davis.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Gail Bowen, Lawrence Block, Peter Temple