Category Archives: Robert Crais

Around the Corner the Skies Are Blue*

Rays of HopeWhether it’s fictional or real, murder is of course a horrible crime, and well-written crime novels don’t make light of that. But on the other hand, a novel in which there is no ray of hope or reason to be positive can be awfully depressing. That’s why it can add much to a novel if there is a character with a positive outlook on life: one who can make us see that everything will work out somehow or other. I’m not talking here about comic relief; that’s another topic entirely. Rather, I mean characters whose overall positive outlook on life can lighten an otherwise dark story.

One such character is Robert Crais’ L.A.-based PI Elvis Cole. Part of Cole’s appeal is that he has a sometimes wisecracking sense of humour and he isn’t overly pessimistic. He knows how horrible murder is and he doesn’t look at investigating as a fun, happy pastime. But at the same time, overall, he has the sense about life that it will be all right. For example, in The Monkey’s Raincoat, Ellen Lang hires Cole to find her husband Mort, who’s disappeared and taken their son Perry with him. Cole knows that plenty of people disappear because they want to disappear. Still, he is concerned about the boy’s safety, so he agrees to look into the matter. The situation becomes urgent when Mort is found dead, with no sign of Perry anywhere. Now Cole has to find out who killed the victim if he has any hope of finding his son. Throughout the novel, Cole does his best to support Ellen Lang and give her as much hope as he can while still being truthful. He doesn’t make light of the situation but he does take a positive attitude.

So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is no stranger to life’s sadness. The former wife of an abusive husband, Mma. Ramotswe has lost a child and her father, so she knows that life often brings sorrow. But she has an overall optimistic and positive attitude that provides a great deal of comfort and solace for her clients. For instance, in Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Ramotswe is hired by an important Government Man to find out whether his sister-in-law is, as he believes, trying to poison his brother. Mma. Ramotswe travels to the Government Man’s home village, where she begins to get to know the people in his family. One afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she is able, Mma. Ramotswe has conversations with everyone, and uses her own recall to piece together what happened. She learns how and by whom everyone was poisoned, and she uses her positive outlook on life to help resolve some issues within the family.

Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez also has an overall positive attitude about life. When he and his brother Eduard take on their first murder investigation in A Not So Perfect Crime, Eduard isn’t sure they’re prepared to look into a crime like that. He tends to be cautious and would rather focus the brothers’ efforts on cases that are more similar to what they’ve done before. But Borja has an upbeat, ‘It’ll all work out’ view of life. Besides, the client Lluís Font is powerful and wealthy. When he is accused of murdering his wife Lídia, it’s in the Martínez brothers’ interest to clear his name and build their reputation. And they do discover who the murderer is, despite some (sometimes very funny) setbacks. Throughout the novel, Borja’s positive outlook on life may be a bit on the ‘happy-go-lucky’ side, but it does serve to keep the investigation going and to complement his brother’s occasional pessimism.

It’s not always the sleuth whose positive attitude can really serve a crime novel. Sometimes other characters do that too. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a group of people who live in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Chapman herself owns a bakery in that building and through her eyes we get to meet the other residents. One of them is (retired) Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk. He’s getting on in years and at times he’s hurt or laid-up with illness. But even then, he has a more or less optimistic attitude about life. He’s an expert in the classics and often uses references from those writings to make sense of life. He’s had his own sorrows, but he proves a solid source of overall optimism and steadiness that proves a real comfort. And he has old-fashioned manners and courtesy that remind the other residents of the way it is possible to treat others.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer sometimes has very difficult and ugly cases to solve. And although he has a close relationship with his daughter Ingrid and his grand-son Matteus, he has his own share of life’s sorrows. He’s a widower who still misses his wife Elise, and he has seen some terrible things in the course of his work. But there is also optimism and hope if you will in his life. Beginning with He Who Fears the Wolf, Sejer develops a relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel. She helps him to understand some of the people who figure in that novel. That understanding helps Sejer as he investigates the murder of Halldis Horn, whose body is found in her front yard. Since she lived alone in a remote place, there aren’t many witnesses. But one likely suspect is a troubled young man named Errki Johrma who was seen in the area. The case isn’t that simple though, and Sara provides helpful insights. She is realistic and doesn’t shy away from life’s sadness. But she is also a generally optimistic, sometimes-spontaneous person who adds a bright note to Sejer’s life.

And then there’s Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, whom we meet in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That story features Jodie Evans Garrow, who meets Bridie during their childhoods. Jodie hasn’t had a lot of happiness in her life, but Bridie is positive and optimistic, with big dreams. She brings a proverbial ray of sunshine to Jodie and the girls become inseparable. Then Bridie moves away and life goes on for both of them. Later, Jodie marries Angus Garrow and settles down to what seems like an enviable life. Angus is a successful attorney, Jodie has a comfortable home and upper-middle-class lifestyle, and they have two healthy children. One day their daughter Hannah is involved in a car accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital – the same hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another baby girl whom she’s never discussed with anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal records. Now the whispers start and soon the media gets hold of the story. If the child is alive, where is she? If not, what happened to her? Did Jodie kill her? Before long the accusations become very public and Jodie is made a social pariah. Then by chance, she meets Bridie again at a book club meeting. Bridie proves the same source of support she was during the girls’ childhood and her basically positive outlook on life provides real solace for Jodie.

And that’s the thing about people and fictional characters who offer hope and have positive outlooks on life. They don’t deny that life can be hard, but they firmly believe that things will get better. Which ones do you like best?

 

In Memoriam…

 

ShirleyTemple and SidCaesar

 

This post is dedicated to the memories of two people who gave much hope and ‘sunshine’ when people needed it. This past week we lost both Shirley Temple Black and Sid Caesar. They both had private troubles, but kept on going and offered the world a hopeful look at life. For that, I am grateful. They will be much missed.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roger Edens’ and Earl Brent’s Around the Corner.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Robert Crais, Teresa Solana, Wendy James

But I Got Cat Class and I Got Cat Style*

zenasstedaureliocolumn1Ciao, my Bellas!

I am Aurelio Zen, Assistant Editor at It’s a Crime! (Or a Mystery…). Now, before I go any further, let me encourage you to pay a visit to my home blog, where She Who (thinks she) is in Charge and I always provide top-quality crime fiction information and reviews.

I’m here today on special assignment because Margot Kinberg is not intelligent enough to be worthy of being owned by a cat. Therefore there was no choice but to have me come in to discuss the vital role that cats play in crime fiction. You don’t believe me? You must certainly have been listening to a dog lately then. Let me put you right on how very important cats are in the genre.

Let’s start with Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. British Intelligence operative Colin Lamb happens to be in the town of Crowdean on his own business one afternoon when he’s quite literally run into by Sheila Webb. She’s a secretary who was sent to a house in the same neighbourhood for what she thought was a typing job. What she’s found instead is the body of an unknown man. Lamb summons the police in the form of Inspector Richard Hardcastle, and the hunt for the killer is on. There are some odd aspects of this murder, so Lamb thinks the case may be of interest to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. It turns out he’s right and Poirot guides the investigation. Next door to the house where the body was found lives Mrs. Hemming, a widow who is servant to a houseful of cats. She is, quite naturally, far more interested in her masters’ well-being than she is in a murder, but she says something that proves to be very useful to the investigation.

Robert Crais’ PI sleuth Elvis Cole is owned by a cat. The cat, of course, chooses to remain more or less feral, but Cole sees that it’s fed and cared for and he is, in his own way, comforted by the cat’s presence. Interestingly enough, the only human who seems intelligent enough to interact properly with Cole’s cat is his partner Joe Pike. Pike is a tough guy with an interest in weapons and a background that includes military duty. He’s really not intimidated by anyone. But he also knows the proper way to relate to us feline rulers. So Cole’s cat gets along with him.

Åsa Larsson’s series includes police detective Sven-Erik Stålnacke, who is owned for a time by a cat he calls Manne. That relationship doesn’t last, but in The Black Path, he meets a widow named Airi Bylund who is very much a cat person. In that novel, Stålnacke and his partner Anna-Maria Mella are investigating the murder of Inna Wattrang, Head of Information for Kellis Mining. The trail leads to some very nasty business at the top of the corporate ladder, to say nothing of some international intrigue. But none of that matters. What does matter is that Stålnacke and Bylund are able to bond because of – that’s right – cats. Before cats, Stålnacke lives by himself, lonelier than he cares to admit. After cats? Of course – a relationship. That’s feline power.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is owned by three cats. One, Horatio, shares her home and later, does his share of monopolising her lover Daniel Cohen. Chapman knows the real truth about cats: if they approve of a person, that person is probably worthy. Chapman also keeps two Rodent Control Officers Heckle and Jekyll. They ensure that mice and rats pose no threat to Chapman’s bakery and despite concerns from Health Department officials, the fact is, the Mouse Police are a much safer and more environmentally-friendly deterrent to such vermin than are traps or poison. And the Mouse Police do their jobs well. When their shift ends early in the morning, Chapman feeds them and then lets them out to get dessert from the nearby restaurant. It all works very well for them.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series will know that she is owned by Flint. Now, Flint doesn’t stoop so low as to actually act like a human and solve mysteries. But Flint provides good company for Galloway and her daughter Kate. And to be honest, Galloway prefers Flint to most humans. As she herself puts it at the end of A Dying Fall,

 

‘My life is just me and Kate and Flint.’

 

Wise woman.

One of the most interesting crime-fictional cats is without a doubt Snowball, who runs Commissaire Adamsberg’s office in Fred Vargas’ series. Snowball’s favourite human among those on Adamsberg’s team is Violette Retancourt, and that makes sense. Retancourt is gifted with animals and she and Snowball have an understanding. In This Night’s Foul Work, the team is faced with some odd cases that could be connected. Two drug dealers have been found with their throats cut, and it looks like it could be the work of serial killer Claire Langevin, who’s recently escaped from custody. These murders could also be related to the bizarre killings of some Normandy stags. In the midst of all of this, Retancourt goes missing. At first, only Snowball seems aware of her absence (humans!!). But gradually some of the other members of the team notice that she’s gone. Finally, when she doesn’t return, the decision is taken to let Snowball track her. It turns out to be the right decision, as Snowball is able to lead the team to Retancourt. We also find out why she disappeared and how that is related to the other plot threads in the novel. Snowball soon puts paid to all of the nasty remarks made about cats’ lack of intelligence. I mean, really!

There are also several series such as Lorna Barrett’s Booktown series and Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series where the human sleuths are accompanied by feline partners. In the Booktown series, which takes place in Stoneham, Massachusetts, Tricia Miles owns Haven’t Got a Clue, a bookshop specialising in crime fiction and mystery. In turn, Miles is owned by her feline overseer Miss Marple. That’s almost as good a name for a cat as mine. And fans of the Cat Who… series will know that in those novels, journalist Jim ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is owned by Koko and Yum Yum, two elegant seal-point Siamese.  And of course there’s Carol Nelson Douglas’ Midnight Louie series. Fans of those novels will know that Midnight Louie owns PR freelancer Temple Barr.

There are other series and novels too of course that feature fearless felines. How could they not? Which ones do you like best?

Now, then, time for me to return to She Who (thinks she) is in Charge. What would she do without me? Ciao!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Stray Cats’ Stray Cat Strut.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Carole Nelson Douglas, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Kerry Greenwood, Lilian Jackson Braun, Lorna Barrett, Robert Crais

And Those Who Are Successful, Be Always on Your Guard*

HollywoodMany people are fascinated by movie stars. They seem to inhabit an entirely different, and much more luxurious, world than the rest of us do. When you watch them posing on the red carpet, and hear about the homes they have and so on, it’s easy to imagine that they have perfect lives. Of course, that’s not true. Any tabloid story will remind you of that. The reality is that sometimes that ‘Hollywood image’ can make a person even more vulnerable than ‘regular people’ are. Even if you couldn’t care less about movie stars, the contrast between that outer image of glamour and the sometimes tragic reality of a star’s life can be compelling. And it can make for a real source of tension and suspense in a crime novel.

For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d) features famous star Marina Gregg, who’s just bought Gossington Hall in the village of St. Mary Mead. Yes, that Gossington Hall – the one that Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly own in The Body in the Library. Marina and her husband Jason Rudd want to make a good impression in the local community, so they plan a charity fête at the Hall. Many of the locals are excited about it, but none more than Heather Badcock, who is one of Marina Gregg’s biggest fans. On the day of the event, Heather is of course among the large group of people who are eager to see the house and meet its famous owner. She’s ecstatic when she gets the chance to speak to her idol, but everything changes when she suddenly becomes very ill. When Heather dies of what turns out to be poison, everyone assumes that her murder was accidental, since the drink that killed her was originally intended for Marina. That theory makes sense too, since more than one person had a motive to murder the movie star. When it’s shown that the drink was intended all along for Heather, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry look into Heather’s past to find out who would want to murder her. Among other things, this novel shows just how vulnerable even a famous Hollywood star can be.

Blythe Stuart and John Royle find out just how vulnerable famous Hollywood stars can be in Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts. Years ago, the two had a stormy and very public affair that ended badly. Each married someone else, and each now has an adult child, but their feud never really ended. The Magna Studios executives think that the Stuart/Royle drama is bankable, so they decide to film a biopic about the couple. Ellery Queen is temporarily on retainer at Magna, and he’s tapped to work on the screenplay. Much to everyone’s surprise, both stars agree to do the film. What’s more, they re-kindle their romance and even decide to marry. It’s decided to take this decision in stride and embrace the wedding, giving it the full Hollywood treatment. The couple will be married on an airstrip and then fly off for their honeymoon. The ceremony duly takes place, and the newlyweds and their children take off. When the plane lands though, both Stuart and Royle are dead. They’ve been poisoned and at first, their children blame each other. When Queen investigates though, he finds that there’s another explanation entirely.

In Robert Crais’ Voodoo River, we meet popular Hollywood TV star Jodi Taylor. She’s an adoptee who’s in her mid-thirties and beginning to wonder about her biological heritage. She’s wondering, for instance, whether she or any children she might have are at high risk for a genetic disorder. She and her personal manager Sid Markowitz hire Elvis Cole to trace her biological parents and find out what her medical background is. They’re determined to keep this all a secret though, and Cole agrees. He travels to Louisiana, where Jodi was born. When he gets there, he finds that the legal issues involved in finding an adoptee’s biological parents are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. He runs into a local thug, a part-time investigator with his own agenda, and some murders. Oh, and a very mean snapping turtle. It turns out that Jodi is a lot more vulnerable than Cole imagined, and it’s a clear reminder that Hollywood fame is no guarantee of safety.

Certainly working on a Hollywood film set can be dangerous. Just ask production assistant Angella Barton, who’s found murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building in Michael Connelly’s Lost Light. Harry Bosch works on the case briefly, but wasn’t officially assigned to investigate. So he doesn’t follow up until four years later. He’s taken early retirement and opened his own PI office, but Angella Barton’s murder still affects him. When he finds out that the case wasn’t really solved satisfactorily, he looks into it again. This murder turns out to be related to a US$2 million robbery from the set of a film that Barton’s employer was making. It’s a stark reminder that a lot goes on behind the scenes of what seem to be magical lives.

We also see that in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. The city of Brighton is to be the on-location site for the filming of the story of Maria Fitzherbert, mistress to King George IV. Cast in the lead role is Gaia Lafayette, an entertainment superstar who’s turned her hand to acting. LA film producer Larry Brooker is counting on this film to be a hit. He’s desperate for a winner for both financial and professional reasons and he’s hoping that Gaia’s name will be the draw he needs. Then, Gaia gets a frightening note warning her not to accept the role. Not one to back down from a challenge, she doesn’t heed it. Then there’s an attempt on her life. There’s a lot at stake with this film for Brighton, and Superintendent Roy Grace is charged with protecting Gaia while she’s filming. He certainly doesn’t wish harm to come to her, but he’s got other pressing issues. An unidentified body has been found in a disused chicken shed. And Grace’s partner Cleo is about to give birth. But when the body turns out to be connected to his other case – protecting Gaia Lafayette – Grace has to pay more attention to what he’s been asked to do.

There are of course other novels that show how vulnerable even the most successful and famous film stars can be. Maybe it’s just as well I’m not one of them…

 

Talking of Hollywood, I must say, you see the nicest people there.

 

Kerrie and Bob

 

As you can see, I had the chance to spend some time with Mysteries in Paradise’s very own Kerrie and her husband Bob, who made a stop in Los Angeles during their travels. We had a terrific time in Hollywood – it was a delight to see you both!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Robert Crais

When I Look Back I Almost Can’t Believe It*

ReflectionTaking the time to ‘step back’ and reflect can teach us a lot about ourselves. We’ve all got things to be glad and proud of, and also things we’d just as soon forget (erm – I sure hope I’m not the only one in that situation…). Reflecting and looking back can be painful, but it can also help us learn. In crime fiction, it’s an interesting way to add depth to characters and to show not tell about events in the past that have to do with the present story. It can also be an effective way for the author to add plot twists and complications. After all, people’s perspectives on the past are not always accurate.

There’s a fascinating example of looking back in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife Caroline was the natural suspect and there was plenty of evidence against her. In fact, she was convicted of the crime and died a year later in prison. But Carla has always believed her mother to be innocent. Now she wants her mother’s name cleared and Poirot agrees to look into the case. To do that, he interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each person. Those accounts, plus what he learns from other sources, give Poirot the information he needs to find out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. One of the really interesting aspects of this novel is the way in which each person’s memory of the events is affected by a host of factors. Because of that, as each person reflects on that time, we see the events in a different light.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town we meet Peter Alan Nelson. He’s a famous Hollywood director who’s spent years living a self-indulgent life. Now he’s looking back with some regret because he lost contact with his twelve-year-son Toby after the breakup of his marriage to Toby’s mother Karen. That reflection spurs Nelson to try to locate Karen and Toby and re-establish contact so that he can at least be a father to his son. But by that time, Karen and Toby have disappeared. So Nelson hires PI Elvis Cole to trace his missing family. Cole’s unwilling at first; people might want to disappear for any number of reasons. But he’s finally persuaded and starts the search. He and his partner Joe Pike trace Karen and Toby to a small Connecticut town where she is now vice-president of a local bank. She is also mixed up with some very nasty Mafia people. She’d like to break free of their grip but as you can imagine, that’s easier said than done. So Cole and Pike agree to help solve her problem with the Mob if she’ll at least meet with her ex-husband. She agrees and Cole and Pike get to work. Of course, it’s not going to be as easy as it may seem…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma. Precioius Ramotswe gets a visit from a successful civil engineer Mr. Molofelo. He owns an ostrich farm and recently had a nasty run-in with some poachers. That near-death experience has caused him to reflect on his life and look back at some things he’s done. Years ago when he was a student, Mr. Molofelo lived with the kindly Tsolamosese family. While he was there, he stole a radio from them. During the same time, he had a girlfriend Tebogo Bathopi. When she became pregnant with his child, he did little to help her. Now Mr. Molofelo wants to make things right with his former host family and with his former girlfriend, so he asks Mma. Ramotswe to track them down. She agrees and in due course, finds out where they live. In this case, Mr. Molofelo uses his reflection to do some good.

Some people of course don’t look back on their lives with any regret at all. Such a character is Simeon Lee, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder). He’s the wealthy and tyrannical patriarch of a dysfunctional family that gathers for Christmas at the family home Gorston Hall. Lee has done all sorts of terrible things, but here’s what he says about it:

 

‘I don’t regret it, you know. No, I don’t regret anything. I’ve enjoyed myself…every minute! They say you repent when you get old. That’s bunkum. I don’t repent.’

 

Lee may not regret his choices, but the saying that ‘old sins cast long shadows’ proves true when he is brutally murdered on Christmas Eve. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend Colonel Johnson, and he’s persuaded to work with Superintendent Sugden to find out who killed Simeon Lee and why.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, retired school principal Thea Farmer looks back on her life when she takes a creative writing class. Her teacher Oscar poses questions to the class, and the members respond in the form of journal entries. Through Thea’s entries, we learn that she had a custom-made ‘dream home’ built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Everything fell apart though when poor financial decisions forced Thea to sell her dream home and settle for the house next door, a home she calls ‘the hovel.’ When Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea considers her own, she has nothing but contempt for them, even calling them ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s niece Kim comes to live with the family. At first Thea is prepared to dislike Kim heartily, but she discovers that Kim has a great deal of writing talent, and she develops a sort of friendship with the girl. So when Thea begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, she decides to take her own measures. Throughout this novel, Thea looks back on her past, on what caused her to leave her position, what caused her to lose her money, and so on. In all of this, it’s interesting to see the way she looks at her life. Although she knows she’s not perfect, at the same time, she doesn’t really acknowledge her own role in the things that have happened to her.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary is the story of what happens when the Corrowa people of Brisbane unsuccessfully pursue a land title claim to Meston Park. Just a few hours after Judge Bruce Brosnan rules that the Corrowa have no legal claim to the park, he is murdered. The police, mostly in the form of Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Higgins and Detective Sergeant Jason Mathews, immediately start to look among those who were involved with the title claim lawsuit. They don’t ignore Brosnan’s personal life either. Then, there’s another murder. As the police try to link the two killings, readers learn the history of Meston Park, which was once Brisbane’s boundary. We also learn about the Corrowa people’s activism and the long and painful history of race relations in the city. On a personal level, we learn about one activist in particular Charlie Eversely. He’s spent a lifetime working for basic human rights and justice for his people. He’s done his best, but he’s also become disillusioned and when we learn his story, it’s easy to see why. His daughter Miranda has become an attorney working for an Aboriginal legal aid group, and was one of those who pursued the Corrowa people’s claim to Meston Park. Her sense of defeat and regret when the case is lost has driven her to real despair. Here’s what Charlie has to say about his own past and about its effect on Miranda:

 

‘‘Darlin’, I know I haven’t always been a good father to you.’
‘That’s not true.’
Charlie smiles sadly, shakes his head. ‘I had no business bringing grog into our house. No business at all.’
‘Dad, I know you had a lot of problems back then.’
‘I just need you to know that I love you very much and I have always been proud of – ’
‘Dad…’
‘For once in your life, Miranda, don’t interrupt…’
‘I’m sorry, Dad.’
‘You got nothing to be sorry for. When your mum passed away, I turned to grog. That’s how I taught you to work through your problems…’’

 

As Higgins and Matthews sort through the events and interact with the various people involved in the case, we get an unflinching look at racism, relations between the police and the public, and social class issues. We also see how people look back and cope (or don’t) with their own histories.

Looking back and reflecting can be very difficult – even painful. But it can teach us a lot.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rembrandts’ Someone.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Nicole Watson, Robert Crais, Virginia Duigan

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