Category Archives: Rebecca Cantrell

I Go to Extremes*

Political ExtremismThere’s something about politics and political movements that can stir up real passion, even fanaticism. I’m not a social psychologist, but my guess is that part of the reason for that is that it’s easy to get caught up in very strong feelings when there’s a charismatic speaker and an enthusiastic crowd. And when the speaker seems to offer solutions to the problems we all face (e.g. financial concerns, safety, our children’s future) and appeals to people’s need for security, that only adds to the power of a political movement. There’s a long history of political leaders appealing to people’s need for security, their sense of injustice or their desire for a better life, whatever that may be. And frank, reasoned discussions and debates about how best to meet people’s needs are important. That’s how we make social progress.

But fanaticism is a different matter. A quick look at crime fiction is plenty to show what can happen when reason gives way to fanaticism. But of course, you already know from history how dangerous that can be.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we meet powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He stands for stability, caution and conservative reasoning. And that pits him against several fanatic political groups who would like to see England’s institutions dismantled and a new order begin. So when Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot one day in his surgery, the Home Office takes an immediate interest. It’s believed that perhaps Blunt is the actual target, and it’s in a lot of people’s interest to keep Blunt safe. Chief Inspector Japp is assigned to investigate and one of his first conversations is with Hercule Poirot. Morley was Poirot’s dentist; in fact Poirot had an appointment at the surgery on the day of the murder. So Japp is hoping that Poirot can provide some insight. Then, there’s another death. And one of Morley’s other patients disappears. To add to this there’s another attempt on Blunt’s life. It’s now clear that there is something much larger going on than the shooting of a seemingly inoffensive dentist.

The world market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it made people very much afraid. ‘The way things always were’ clearly wasn’t working, so it’s not surprising that many turned to sometimes fanatic political movements. That’s arguably part of why National Socialism became popular. We see that in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in 1931. When Berlin-based crime reporter Hannah Vogel discovers to her shock that her brother Ernst has been killed, she decides to find out why and by whom. She can’t really call the murder to the attention of the authorities because she and Ernst lent their identification documents to Jewish friends who’d decided to leave the country. The documents haven’t been returned yet, and Vogel knows that it’s far too risky to call attention to herself if she has no papers. So she starts asking questions herself, very quietly. As she goes in search of the answers, we get a sense of just how desperate many people were at that time. There were plenty of cases of people who quite literally did not have food and sold everything, including themselves, to eat. That desperation and panic in part made people willing to listen to anyone who would help them. And we can see in this novel how political fanaticism could be successful in Germany.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders also takes place against a background of political fanaticism. Over the Christmas holidays of 1943, Melbourne DI Titus Lambert, Sergeant Joe Sable, and Constable Helen Lord investigate a series of brutal killings. The first two are the deaths of John Quinn and his son Xavier. Evidence from those murders suggests that they may be connected to the resurgent Australia First movement, which has adopted many of Hitler’s ideas. Because Australia is among the Allied powers, the movement has to stay very quiet, but it’s no less fanatic for that. Still, the police know they won’t get much information from members of the group unless they have an ‘in.’ So Sable agrees to go undercover as a sympathetic believer in the political extreme Right. Gradually he penetrates the group, and in that plot thread, we see some of the fears, assumptions and beliefs that can lead to political extremism.

The disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ also led to the rise of the Socialist movement and ultimately, to the Russian Revolution of 1917/18. Many people found real appeal in the idea of a ‘workers’ paradise’ and the end of rule by a few wealthy and powerful people. William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series, which takes place in pre-World War II Moscow, takes a look at the fanaticism of the early decades of the Soviet Union. As we learn in the series, at first Korolev himself was a believer in socialism and was caught up in the movement that promised a full, rich life for everyone. He’s since become disillusioned with what the government has done, and he’s seen too many people he knows fall victim to political denouncers. But he’s well aware that there are many political fanatics who would be only too pleased to ‘do their share for the State’ by denouncing him. So he walks a fine line between doing his duty as a member of the Soviet State and keeping hold of his own beliefs.

There’s an interesting look at the clash between fanatics from the Right and the Left in Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, which takes place in 1932 New South Wales. Rowland Sinclair is an artist and intellectual, which means he’s got plenty of avant-garde friends, some of whom are quite firmly on the political Left. At the same time, the Sinclair family is wealthy and established, and Sinclair’s brother Wilfred takes that status very seriously. He has no patience with his brother’s ‘disreputable’ friends and political interest. When the Sinclair brothers’ uncle is murdered, the police theory is that his housekeeper may be responsible. But Rowland is convinced that’s not true. And he wants to know who killed his uncle and why. So he starts to ask questions. There are hints that the murderer may be a member of the fanatic Right, so Sinclair decides to go undercover as a new recruit to get some answers. Now he’s at real risk. If he’s found out, his new companions will have no compunctions about killing him. And if he’s thought to be a member of the fanatic Right, his leftist associates will feel betrayed, and some of them wouldn’t hesitate to kill him either. That tension between groups of extremists adds a strong layer of suspense to this novel.

There’s also Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series, which takes place in the Argentina of the late 1970’s when a military junta was in tight control of the country. The fanaticism of the rightist rulers of the country is equaled by the fanaticism of some of the left-wing opponents of the government. And that political battle plays out as a very suspenseful background to these novels.

We see the disastrous results of political fanaticism in Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money too. Madeleine Avery hires Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles, who seems to have disappeared. Quinlan starts his search at Avery’s Bangkok home, where instead of Avery he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. The evidence suggests that Avery went to Cambodia, so Quinlan moves on to Phnom Penh, where he picks up the trail again. There he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, who proves to be invaluable as Quinlan discovers what really happened to Avery and why. The novel takes place approximately twenty years after the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the country is still deeply scarred by that political movement and the fanaticism that came with it. The effects have been devastating and form a powerful backdrop to the novel.

And no discussion of political fanaticism would be complete without a mention of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. The authors’ leftist political views are clear in this series, but even so, in novels such as The Laughing Policeman and later, The Terrorists, we see the dangerous consequences of political extremism.

Even among individuals who aren’t fanatics, political movements can still bring up powerful feelings. Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn isn’t a fanatic but she does have strong political beliefs. And in The Wandering Souls Murders, she meets Keith Harris, who also has strong political beliefs – quite different to Kilbourn’s. Here’s what Harris says to Kilbourn’s daughter Taylor about it:

 

‘I work for one party, and your mother works for another party. Not much of a reason to fight, when you come right down to it.’

 

And in fact, their political differences don’t prevent Kilbourn and Harris from developing an intimate relationship. The relationship ends after a time, but each respects the other and they engage in some lively debates about what is right for Canada. The undercurrent of politics may not count as fanatical, but it adds a layer of tension to these novels.

Political differences and open, reasoned debate can help move a society forward. But it’s a lot harder to do that than it is for me to write about it because people so often feel so strongly about their politics. Still, it does make for a fascinating backdrop to a crime novel.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Rebecca Cantrell, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, William Ryan

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime*

1930sThe world market crash of 1929 was part of what you might call a ‘perfect storm’ that lasted throughout much of the 1930s. That era – the 1930s – was marked by several movements and events, only a few of which space allows me to mention. But as we’ll see, crime fiction of and about the era reflects a lot of them.

The dire economic straits of the 1930’s comes through in several crime novels. I’ll just mention a few. Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, published in 1931, introduces us to school teacher Hildegarde Withers. As the novel begins, she’s shepherding her students through the New York Aquarium when her handbag is nearly stolen. Miss Withers deters the thief, but ends up getting mixed up in a murder case when the body of stockbroker Gerald Lester is found in the penguin pool. Police Inspector Oscar Piper is called in and begins the official investigation. The Great Crash has financially wiped out many of Lester’s clients and some of them are angry and desperate enough to have committed murder. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at how buying on margin and other common stock market customs contributed to the crash.

In Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which also takes place in 1931, Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel happens to be at a local police station when she notices a shockingly familiar ‘photo in the station’s ‘Hall of the Unknown Dead.’ Her own brother Ernst has apparently been killed. Vogel can’t do much to investigate because neither she nor Ernst has official identification documents. They lent those documents to Jewish friends so that they could leave the country. Still, Vogel is determined to find out what happened to her brother so very quietly, she begins to ask questions. As Vogel investigates, we see just how desperately poor many people were at this time. There are, for instance, lots of women who’ve turned to prostitution simply in order to eat. Many, many people have pawned anything of any value, and regular full meals are not a given. It’s a frightening time financially and that adds to the tension of this novel.

Another part of the ‘perfect storm’ of this era was the combination of natural forces, policy decisions and poor land management that led to famine in several parts of the world.  Part of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale takes place in the Ukraine during 1934-1936. Two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up under Stalin’s regime, and as we learn what happens to them, we see just how desperate people were, just for some bread. Everyone is suffering and although the official message is that everyone must make sacrifices for the State, that doesn’t quell anyone’s hunger. The sisters’ story has a long reach, as we learn when some eighty years later Natasha Doroshenko flees the Ukraine with her daughter Katerina. She takes her daughter to Denmark to escape the people who murdered her journalist husband Pavel. Things aren’t much better for her in Denmark though. First, she ends up in prison for the attempted murder of her new fiancé Michael Vestergaard. Then by chance, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that the people she tried to escape from have followed her. So she escapes police custody and goes to Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross facility that’s been looking after Katerina. Red Cross nurse Nina Borg works at the camp and knows both Natasha and her daughter. So she gets involved when Michael Vestergaard is found brutally murdered and Natasha disappears. The Ukraine famine isn’t the reason for Vestergaard’s murder (or for that matter, for Pavel Doroshenko’s). But it plays a role in the story and we see just how hungry people really were. This plot thread also gives readers a look at the rise of Josef Stalin and the purges of the era. Interested readers can also check our William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series for a look at that aspect of the 1930s.

We also see poverty in the work of Arthur Upfield, whose Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels depict life in Australia’s Outback and other less populated regions during the era. In several of them there’s a real struggle for life, and it’s not made any better by the racism of the day. And I can’t resist a mention of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I admit; it’s not a crime novel as such (although there is a murder in it), but it’s an authentic portrayal of the poverty of the era and the way the American Dust Bowl added to that misery. It’s an unflinching look at what happens to people when it’s sometimes hard just to find anything to eat.

Yet another part of the 1930’s ‘perfect storm’ was the rise of Nazism and the looming threat of World War II. The rising power of the Nazi party is an important theme in Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. It’s also mentioned vaguely in a few of Agatha Christie’s works. For instance, in her short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Hercule Poirot gets a late-night visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Their purpose is to seek his help in finding Prime Minister David MacAdam, who’s apparently been kidnapped. World War II is just on the horizon and MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make a ‘rally the troops’ speech when he disappeared. It’s in the interest of the Nazis for England to take an appeasement approach, so there are several people both inside and outside MacAdam’s government who do not want him to give that speech. Poirot and Hastings are given one day to find MacAdam, so that he can go on as planned.

On a (slight) side note, Christie mentions the Spanish Civil War in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In that novel, Hercule Poirot spends the holiday with Colonel Johnson and is thereby drawn in to the murder of Simeon Lee, an unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch who lived not far away. One of the suspects in that novel is Lee’s grand-daughter Pilar Estravados, who’s half-Spanish and has come from Spain at Lee’s request to spend Christmas there. In a few of the stories she tells, we see some of the horror of the Spanish Civil War.

It shouldn’t be surprising that with all of the harshness of reality in the 1930’s, people wanted to escape. So there was also lots of attention paid to famous criminals like Al Capone. And of course, everyone followed the kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s son. In fact Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express reflects that case. People were also fascinated by the doings of the ‘café society’ and of course, the Royal family. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels of that decade (e.g. Lord Edgware Dies), focus on the lives of the ‘glitterati.’

So do other novels. In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts for instance, Hollywood stars Blythe Stuart and John Royle become the subject of a lot of attention, as did many stars of the day. Stuart and Royle had a very public, very stormy love affair that ended years ago. Each married someone else and each had a child. Now, Magna Studios wants to do a biopic of the two stars and surprisingly, they agree. Ellery Queen is under contract to Magna so he gets involved in writing the screenplay. To everyone’s shock, the two ex-lovers re-kindle their romance and even decide to marry. Rather than let this stop the film’s production, it’s decided to embrace the upcoming wedding and give it the full Hollywood treatment. The two marry on an airstrip and then, with their children, board the plane for their honeymoon. When the plane lands, both Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other, but Ellery Queen discovers that the murder has another motive entirely. There are other novels too (e.g. Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) that take a much more jaded look at the wealthy and powerful of the era.

The 1930s was of course a very hard time economically, politically and in other ways too. At the same time, it was an era that laid the groundwork for a lot of modern attitudes (ask anyone who had a relative who lived during the Great Depression, and you’ll see for instance how mistrust of banks still persists). It was also the height of the Golden Age, so we see a lot of the era portrayed in the crime fiction of the time, only a bit of which I’ve had space to mention here. Little wonder people still find the decade fascinating.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of my grandparents-in-law. It was taken during the early 1930s in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I know, I know, I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I couldn’t resist it for this post.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Arthur Upfield, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, John Steinbeck, Lene Kaaberbøl, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Cantrell, Stuart Palmer, William Ryan

And She Doesn’t Know What’s Coming But She’s Sure of What She’s Leaving Behind*

UncertaintyOne year ends and another begins, and that always brings a little uncertainty. Even if one’s optimistic about what’s going to happen next, life’s rarely a sure thing. And even if one’s pessimistic, you never know what wonderful thing’s waiting round the corner so to speak. That uncertainty brings with it some tension and so it’s not surprising that we see it a lot in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s work sometimes includes a bit of uncertainty and that adds to the depth of the story as well as to its interest. For example, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled during a trip on the famous Blue Train. She was on her way to Hyères to meet her lover, Count Armand de la Roche, when the crime occurred. The victim had with her a valuable ruby set in a necklace, and that ruby has been stolen, so the police are convinced that the motive for the murder was robbery. The count is of dubious reputation and he knew that Ruth had the ruby, so he is the most natural suspect. But the count has an alibi for the time of the murder and claims that he’s innocent. Hercule Poirot was on the same train en route to Nice, so he works with the French police to find out who the murderer is. One of the people they interview is Katherine Grey, who happened to have a long talk with the victim before the murder. She’s a former paid companion who’s just inherited quite a lot of money from her employer and has decided to take some time and travel about. Her first stop is Nice, where a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her daughter Lenox live. In a sub-plot of this novel, Katherine has two admirers, and there’s some uncertainty as to what she’ll do. And even at the end, we don’t know exactly what will happen to her.

Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke takes place in the Berlin of 1931. Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. In that capacity, she’s at the local police station when she happens to look at the photographs displayed in the Hall of the Unknown Dead. To her shock and horror, Hannah sees a ‘photo of her brother Ernst among the dead. She can’t do much about it openly, because she and Ernst lent their identity documents to some Jewish friends who needed them to leave Germany. They promised to return the documents, but that hasn’t happened yet. Hannah is at real risk if anyone discovers the identity switch, so she doesn’t want to call any attention to herself. Still, she wants to find out what happened to her brother, so very quietly she begins to ask questions. Little by little she finds out that Ernst was involved with some very high-ranking members of the Nazi party, which is growing in influence. If one of them killed him, Hannah is taking grave risks by finding out the truth. Still, she persists. At the end of the novel, we do get closure in the sense that we find out who the killer is and why Ernst was murdered. But there is a great deal of uncertainty in the novel. We don’t exactly know what’s next for Hannah, as her life isn’t neatly ‘tied up in a package.’ We also sense the climate of uncertainty about Germany’s future.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole is hired by famous director Peter Alan Nelson.  Years ago Nelson was married to Karen Shipley and they had a son Toby. The marriage broke up, chiefly because Nelson didn’t want family responsibilities at the time. Now Nelson wants to find his family again and re-connect with his son. At first Cole is reluctant; many, many people disappear because they do not want to be found. But he finally agrees and begins the search, which leads to a small Connecticut town. When Cole and his partner Joe Pike locate Karen, they find that she’s gotten herself mixed up with the Mafia. However unwitting her involvement was, she’s in deep now and is frightened of what will happen if she tries to break free. Cole and Pike work to help Karen rid herself of the hold the Mob has over her; in return she agrees to at least meet with her ex-husband. At the end of the story, we don’t really know what will happen with that family. In some ways, questions are answered, but there’s enough uncertainty about their future that it’s also quite realistic.

There’s also a thread of uncertainty in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Stephanie Anderson is beginning her career as a psychiatrist in Dunedin. One day a patient Elisabeth Clark tells her a terrible story; Elisabeth’s younger sister Gracie was abducted several years earlier, and no traces of the child were ever found. This story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own family history. Seventeen years earlier, her own sister Gemma was abducted. Despite a massive search, no traces of her were ever found either. Stephanie decides to lay her own personal ghosts to rest, so to speak, and goes on a search for the person responsible for causing so much pain. We find out the truth about Gracie’s and Gemma’s disappearances but there are some things that are left uncertain. For instance, Stephanie’s family has been shattered by the loss of Gemma. Knowing the truth about the case is helpful, and we can see ways in which the family is slowly trying to heal. But how far it’ll go and what will happen isn’t clear. There’s also the matter of Stephanie’s personal life. She makes a choice in her personal life but we don’t know exactly what will come of it. It’s an interesting way to end the novel and it adds to the interest.

There’s a great deal of uncertainty at the end of Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Pranav Gupta hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out the truth about the murder of his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ Neil was murdered in Dubai and the official explanation for his death is that he’d been attacked by hoodlums. But Pranav doesn’t believe it. Quant takes the case and travels to Dubai and then to Saudi Arabia, but it’s not just the case that occupies Quant. Some major changes in Quant’s personal life happen too, and as a result, we’re left with some real uncertainty at the end about what’s going to happen to him.

New years, new choices, big changes – they all bring uncertainty with them. But that’s part of what keeps life interesting, even if it does make us uneasy…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Stop in Nevada.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Paddy Richardson, Rebecca Cantrell, Robert Crais

I’m In the Mood to Help You, Dude, You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me*

benefactorsIt’s not always easy, especially for private investigators, to get started in ‘the business.’ They need to build a reputation and they need a solid financial footing. And that’s where having a benefactor or sponsor can be very handy. Benefactors provide financial support and very often they help spread the word about the sleuth, too and that can build a sleuth’s reputation and client base. There are a lot of examples of benefactors and sponsors in crime fiction, and it’s interesting to see that although they may remain in the background during an investigation, their influence can have a real impact.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot for instance is a highly successful private investigator and through the years, he’s made quite a lot of money. But it wasn’t always that way. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we learn that he came to England as a refugee from Belgium. He and some other Belgians were sponsored by Emily Inglethorp, a wealthy benefactor to whom Poirot feels a debt. So when she is poisoned, he is only too happy to undertake the task of finding out who killed her.

There’s another benefactor in Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. That’s the story of the murder of a seemingly inoffensive charwoman. Her lodger James Bentley has been convicted of the crime, but Superintendent Spence doesn’t think Bentley is guilty. So he asks Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and travels to the village of Broadhinny where the murder occurred. It turns out that Mrs. McGinty found out more than was safe for her to know about one of Broadhinny’s residents and was killed to guarantee her silence. Several of the locals are keeping secrets and have a good motive for murder, so Poirot has his work cut out for him as the saying goes. In the meantime, Poirot’s friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is also in Broadhinny. She’s staying with up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward, who is adapting one of her novels for the stage. Upward is the adopted son of Laura Upward, and we soon learn that she is as much his sponsor and benefactor as she is anything else. It’s an interesting dynamic that runs through the story.

Sometimes a sleuth is also a benefactor. That’s the case with Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is both wealthy and titled, and he has access to the highest of social circles. He uses that privilege to sponsor a number of people including Miss Katherine Climpson, who owns and runs a temporary agency. Miss Climpson’s employees certainly do their share of typing, filing and other clerical jobs. But unbeknownst to a lot of people, they also assist when Wimsey needs some extra help on one of his cases. For instance, in Strong Poison, Wimsey needs an important clue that can be found in the office of attorney Norman Urquhart. Rather than going to the office himself and asking openly for that clue, Wimsey arranges for Joan Murchison, one of Miss Climpson’s employees, to take a clerking job at the law office. She finds the clue that Wimsey needs and is therefore an important part of solving the case Wimsey’s working on, the poisoning murder of author Phillip Boyes. In this case, there’s a mutually-beneficial relationship between the benefactor and the person he sponsors.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe’s benefactor was her beloved father Obed Ramotswe. The two were devoted to each other and it was the sale of her father’s cattle after his death that gave Mma. Ramotswe the ‘seed money’ she needed to start her own detective agency. While her father didn’t play the classic ‘sponsor’ role of referring clients and supporting her business during its early days, he did support his daughter’s education. He also looked after her in the sense of wanting to make sure she could live independently. In this case there’s an admitted fine line between being a caring parent and being a benefactor but I still think Obed Ramotswe’s worth mentioning.

A more traditional example of a benefactor is Jacqueline Winspear’s Lady Rowan Compton. She and her husband Sir Julian are one of London’s wealthy ‘better’ families during the time just before and during World War I. In Maisie Dobbs, when we meet these characters, they take into their home thirteen-year-old Maisie Dobbs as a young maid. With help from Maurice Blanche, a friend of the Comptons, Lady Rowan learns that Maisie is extremely intelligent and has a great deal of potential. So Lady Rowan decides to sponsor Maisie. She arranges for the girl’s education, including university. She also helps Maisie get started as a private investigator after World War I. Blanche serves as Maisie’s mentor and teaches her ‘the business.’ But it’s Lady Rowan who serves as Maisie’s benefactor and as the series continues, Lady Rowan refers clients, spreads the word about Maisie’s business and in other ways supports her business.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel is a journalist just before and during World War II. Although she earns a small amount of money for her work, it’s certainly not enough to conduct investigations. But in A Trace of Smoke she meets wealthy banker Boris Krause. Vogel had done an article on a serial rapist who attacked Krause’s daughter Trudi and that’s their first connection. But they soon develop a relationship. Among other things, Krause becomes Vogel’s benefactor when she begins to investigate the murder of her brother Ernst. That search for the truth leads Vogel into some very dangerous places, including the upper echelons of the swiftly-growing Nazi party, so Vogel has to take some serious risks. But Krause has the connections to help to help keep her safe, and he provides financial backing too. In Krause we see an interesting blend of benefactor/sponsor who also develops an intimate relationship with the sleuth.

And then there’s successful men’s clothier Anthony Gatt, who sponsors Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. Gatt also serves as Quant’s personal mentor in a lot of ways, but in a very practical way, he supports Quant’s PI business. Gatt is extremely well connected; he knows everyone who is anyone in Saskatchewan and a lot of other places too. So he refers clients, he makes social connections for Quant, and a few times he provides a place for Quant to stay when he’s ‘on the road.’ Gatt doesn’t directly give money to Quant; his financial support is more subtle. But it’s definitely there.

Benefactors and sponsors don’t always broadcast the support they give. But it’s essential to those who have talent but not a lot of money. I’ve only mentioned a few fictional sponsors, so I’m sure I’ve left out some you like. Who are they?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Friend Like Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Dorothy Sayers, Jacqueline Winspear, Rebecca Cantrell

Does Anything Last Forever?*

An interesting post at Fair Dinkum Crime (You really should be following that blog if you’re not) has got me thinking about what happens as we expand our reading horizons. Reading more widely introduces one to all kinds of ideas, themes, and authors that one wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. It also gives debut authors and authors who are less widely known the chance to get their work ‘out there.’ So I for one think it benefits readers, authors and the genre (in this case crime fiction) when readers stretch themselves. Of course, let’s not talk about what expanding one’s reading horizons does to one’s TBR list… ;-) But there’s another consequence to branching out: one sees one’s old favourites in a different light. Sometimes that’s a positive experience, and sometimes it isn’t. As we evolve in our reading habits, we do get a different perspective and that affects the way we look at the authors and books we always loved before.

For example, authors such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr created memorable novels that feature mostly a focus on plotting as opposed to deep character development. Of course one can point to exceptions in each of these authors’ back catalogues but in general their novels feature intellectual puzzles. That’s their appeal for millions of crime fiction fans. But for those of you who loved those puzzles, what happened to your view when you first read, say, Ruth Rendell’s work or P.D. James’ work? Those authors certainly feature solid mystery plots but their focus is also on deep interesting characters and psychological study. Did expanding your horizons that way change your perception of the ‘whodunit’ kind of intellectual exercise?

Many readers fell in love with the hardboiled PI novel along the lines of Raymond Chandler and later, John D. MacDonald, Peter Temple, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. It’s easy to see why too. A well-written ‘hard boiled’ novel has a solid blend of realism, action, compelling plot and suspense. And the very well-written ones also develop the characters so that they aren’t ‘cardboard cutouts.’ But if you’re the PI-novel type, what happened to your perception when you expanded your horizons to include quieter series such as Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series? Did you change your view of the level of violence and grit in the series you’d always loved? If you’ve broadened your reading to include some traditional ‘country house’ or ‘English village’ series such as Ngaio Marsh’s or Caroline Graham’s work, have you returned with the same interest to the PI sub-genre?

Very often crime fiction fans experience these ‘growing pains’ if you want to call it that when they broaden their reading to include the work of authors from other countries. Each country has a different culture – sometimes several different cultures – and that’s reflected in the crime fiction that comes from that country. So suppose you’ve been a fan of L.A. crime fiction such as the work of Michael Connelly. What happened to your perception of that sort of crime fiction after you expanded your reading to include work such as Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels or Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels? Those series reflect the cultures of their authors and thus expose readers to those cultures. After experiencing those different cultures did you return to Connelly’s work with the same enthusiasm?

There are also many crime fiction fans who originally fell in love with historical crime fiction such as Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series. If that describes you, what happened to your perception of that context and those authors when you began to read crime fiction set in the modern day? Do you still enjoy virtually returning to medieval times? What about when you began to read historical crime fiction set in different eras, such as Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series which is set just before World War II? Did that change your perception of the historical crime fiction you’d always loved?

Sometimes of course we broaden our reading only to realise how much we really do enjoy the novels we’ve always loved. In those cases, returning to a favourite author’s work is like re-uniting with a dear friend. Yes we’ve matured but that doesn’t change our feelings about that author’s novels. I know I have my favourites whose writing I always enjoy. It doesn’t always work out that way though, even if the author has continued to innovate and create well-written books.

When that happens – when we see that our tastes have simply changed – it can be a little sad, especially if we have some very good memories of a particular author or series. But people grow and expand their horizons and sometimes that simply means that our favourite clothes if you will simply don’t fit any more.

Has that happened to you? What’s happened to your perception of your favourite authors’ novels as you’ve widened the scope of your reading? If you’re a writer, has your writing changed as your reading has changed? Just wondering…

Thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading for the inspiration for this post. Folks, you really should be following her superb blog. I know it’s one of my must-reads.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kenny Loggins’ Heart to Heart.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Caroline Graham, Ellery Queen, Ellis Peters, Håkan Nesser, John D. MacDonald, John Dickson Carr, Louise Penny, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Peter Temple, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Cantrell, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton