Category Archives: Roger Smith

So Dance in the Light of the Land That They Call Cape Town*

cape-town-photoFor a lot of people, Cape Town has a sort of exotic mystique about it. Possibly because it’s been an important port for hundreds of years, it’s been influenced by many cultures, food traditions, language backgrounds and so on. As you’ll no doubt know, Cape Town has been the home of indigenous African people; Dutch, French and English settlers; Afrikaners; and people from India and other parts of Asia.

The Cape region of South Africa is visually beautiful, too, and there’s a lot to love about it. There’s good food, world class wine (trust me), fine music, rugby and more. And when I was there, I met plenty of courteous, helpful people from all sorts of different ethnic groups. But that doesn’t mean it’s a idyllic place. Cape Town has a high population, a great deal of diversity, and socioeconomic divisions. Like the rest of South Africa, it’s also facing the challenge of forming a new kind of post-apartheid society. All of these factors, plus the challenges that all modern countries face, can make for tension and conflict. So it’s no surprise at all that there’s plenty of crime fiction set there.

Agatha Christie mentions Cape Town in a few of her stories. In one of them, The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Bedingfield. She’s recently lost her father and is now alone in the world as the saying goes. She’s got very little money, but a strong sense of adventure. One day, she happens to be in an underground station when she witnesses a man fall to his death from the train platform. In the chaos that follows the recovery of the dead man’s body, Anne happens to get hold of a piece of paper the man had. When she first reads it, it doesn’t make much sense to her but it’s not long before she deduces that it refers to an upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. With nothing much to keep her in London, Anne buys passage on the ship and soon gets involved in a web of intrigue, jewel theft, and fraud. Cape Town may not be exactly a peaceful place, but for Anne, there’s as much excitement as there is real danger.

While Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series isn’t really set in Cape Town, it gives a solid sense of life in South Africa during the first decades of apartheid. It was a time when every aspect of life (professional, personal, spiritual, medical, etc…) was segregated by ethnic group, and when the non-White majority population were disenfranchised. Apartheid as an institution ended twenty years ago. Still, South Africa is coming to terms with what those policies really meant, what removing them means for a new society, and how to move on. We see that uncertainty in several crime fiction novels and series.

One of them is Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon when their car is ambushed and goes over an embankment. Dell survives, but the other members of his family are killed. It’s not long before the police go after Dell, accusing him of murdering his wife and children. He claims he’s innocent, but it’s soon clear that someone has set him up. Before he knows it, he’s been imprisoned. He has an unlikely rescuer in the form of his estranged father Bobby Goodbread. Goodbread and his son fell out over, among other things, their different views about apartheid. Goodbread was pro-apartheid and fought against the government’s dismantling of those policies. Dell on the other hand feels quite differently. In fact, one of the major sources of contention between the two men is that Rosie was non-White. Despite their differences, the two men have one thing in common. Each wants to go after the man who ambushed Dell’s car: Inja Mazibuko. He’s a native of Zulluland who’s on his way there to get married. As Goodbread and Dell go in search of Mazibuko, we get a look at some of the difficult issues that South Africa is facing as the country works towards a new social order.

Like most of South Africa, Cape Town and the Cape region are home to hundreds of species of rare animals and plants. Protecting that ecosystem means that South Africa has to balance the needs of those species with the realities of economics, valuable tourism and the demand for development. It’s not an easy balance to achieve and it’s taken up in, among other books, Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Jacobus le Roux was an avid conservationist who worked on a project at Kruger National Park. When he disappeared twenty-five years earlier, everyone assumed he’d been killed in a skirmish with poachers. But one day, his sister Emma sees a television show about a wanted man named Cobie de Villiers – a man who looks exactly like her brother. Could the two men be the same person? If so, why hasn’t Jacobus ever contacted her? Emma wants answers, so she hires Cape Town professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her to the Lowveld and find out the truth. It turns out that the real truth about Jacobus le Roux is tied up in greed, corruption and ugly environmental and sociopolitical realities. Throughout the novel, one of the topics of debate is how South Africa should preserve the ecosystem, and whether that can be done without sacrificing the economy.

And then there’s Margie Orford’s Gallows Hill, the fourth in her Clare Hart series. Hart is an investigative profiler who’s called in when a dog makes a grisly discovery: a large group of bones in the area where Cape Town’s gibbets used to be. Most of the bones are upwards of 200 years old, and could be slaves or condemned prisoners. But there’s one set of bones that’s quite different. These bones, the remains of an unidentified woman, are only about 20 years old. The finding of the bones causes a lot of controversy, since the area had been set aside for a big development project. And there’s the important question of who the woman was and how her body ended up among the much older remains. SAPS Captain Riedwaan Faizal, who is Hart’s partner as well as her professional colleague, works with her to find out the truth about this murder. Among other things, this novel brings Hart and Faizal up against corporate greed, the politicians who benefit from that greed, and corrupt police who help make sure that nothing changes.

Cape Town is of course only one part of a varied country. It’s beautiful, vibrant, energetic, sometimes violent, and full of history. These are just a few novels that take place there. Which have you enjoyed?
 

ps. The ‘photos I took there during my trip weren’t particularly good. So….thanks, African Outposts, for this beautiful one.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fourplay’s Cape Town.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Malla Nunn, Margie Orford, Roger Smith

This is My Generation, Baby*

GenerationsEach generation sees the world in a slightly different way. That’s in part because each generation grows up in a different time, with different kinds of advantages and pressures. Sometimes it seems as though the younger (or older) generation inhabits a different planet. And in a lot ways that’s not far from reality. If you think about your own family, you probably could give lots of examples of times where it seems you don’t even speak the same language, let alone have the same outlook on life. We certainly see a lot of that in crime fiction too. I’ll just give a few examples; I’ll bet you’ll be able to share lots more than I could think of anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some odd thefts and other occurrences at a student hostel. When one of the residents Celia Austin confesses that she’s responsible for some of the thefts, it seems the matter is over. Two nights later, though, Celia suddenly dies in what seems like a case of suicide. Once that death is proven to be a murder, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe know that this is much more than a few petty thefts. As Poirot looks into the case, he learns that Celia had an unusual reason for taking the things that she took. It’s a modern approach to meeting a very old challenge, if I may put it that way. And it serves to highlight the different ways that different generations look at the world. Christie takes on that difference in outlook in several other stories too (e.g. After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) and Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts)).

There’s a very distinct (and very sad) generation gap that’s referred to in Tony Hillerman’s stories featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Older generations of Native Americans (Leaphorn is a member of the Navajo Nation) were well-versed in the ways of their people. They kept the traditional ways and maintained their culture. But for younger generations it’s been much more difficult. For a long time, young Native American children were (sometimes forcibly) sent to mission schools and other boarding schools, where the emphasis was on assimilation. Children were required to wear Western clothes and hair styles, speak only English and follow Christianity. Those schools have closed, but Leaphorn was affected by that emphasis on Western ways. He attended,

 

‘A Bureau of Indian Affairs high school that had a sign in the hall. It said, ‘Tradition is the Enemy of Progress.’ The word was, give up the old ways or die.’

 

The pressure of dominant-culture media, economic forces and global communication has meant that in many ways the younger generations have lost touch with their people’s way of life, although in some areas that’s been changing. Hillerman addresses that issue in several of his novels.

There are distinct generation gaps in Qui Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police takes charge of the investigation of the murder of national model worker Guan Hongying. The case is delicate because the victim is a celebrity of sorts, and had several highly-placed friends in the Party. As the story evolves, there’s an interesting sub-text of the gap in world view and values among the generations. There’s the older generation, who have traditional values, beliefs and world views. There’s the Maoist generation, who have been profoundly impacted by Maoist theory and politics, and who experienced the Cultural Revolution. And there’s the younger generation, who are impacted by the growing capitalism in China and by global media. Each generation sees the world, and China, differently.

In Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, we meet Cape Town journalist Robert Dell. He, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive when they are ambushed and the car goes over an embankment. Rosie and the children are killed, but Dell survives. The next thing he knows, though, he is being accused of murdering his family. Soon, he’s charged and jailed, and it looks as though whatever trial there may be has a predetermined outcome. Dell is rescued, though, by his father Bobby Goodbread, from whom he’s been estranged. The reason for the estrangement shows the difference in thinking between two generations. Goodbread is of the ‘Old Guard.’ He was pro-Apartheid and a supporter of ‘the way things have always been.’ To him, the new society is far too chaotic and dangerous. Dell on the other hand repudiates his father’s positions. He sees Aparheid as a moral wrong that has left deep scars, and he sees the changes in South Africa as necessary. His wife was non-white and their children were multiracial. But despite their differences, Goodbread and Dell have one goal in common: they want to travel to Zululand to find Inja Mazibuko, the man who murdered Dell’s family. Mazibuko is about to get married, and his intended bride Sonto, who is usually called Sunday, also reflects a generation gap. She works at an ‘authentic Zulu village’ – a tourist attraction mostly visited by Whites. Sunday wears traditional dress at work, but secretly listens to an MP3 player. She has her own personal reasons for not wanting to marry Mazibuko, one of which is that this marriage was arranged. One thing that guides her thinking is the modern belief that people should decide for themselves whom they’ll marry.

Anya Lipska’s Death Can’t Take a Joke highlights another interesting generational difference in thinking. Janusz Kiszka is a Polish immigrant to London. He’s got a reputation as a ‘fixer,’ as someone who can find things, solve people’s problems and so on. When his friend Jim Fulford is stabbed, he is determined to find out who is responsible. In the meantime, DC Natalie Kershaw is investigating the death of a man who seems to have jumped from the top of the Canary Wharf Tower. The two cases do have a connection, and Kershaw and Kiszka form an uneasy alliance to find out the truth. At one point, the two travel to Poland, and Kiszka makes an interesting observation. He is from the generation that was determined to throw off Soviet-dominated control of the country. That generation, from his perspective, had a strong sense of national pride and solid Polish values and traditions. He notices that the young people, who’ve grown up after the end of the Soviet era, have much less of a sense of national pride. On the one hand, they are more global in outlook. On the other, they have less of a sense of what it is to be Polish. It’s a fascinating look at the effect of global media on a generation of people.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein and her parents left Leipzig during the Cold War years when leaving what was then East Germany meant risking one’s life. They ended up in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island, and made lives for themselves. Ilsa loved her former home, friends and extended family and found it difficult to adjust to a new country and a different language. But over the years she has settled in and become a secondary school teacher. She begins to be concerned when one of her most promising students Serena Freeman starts slipping away. Serena skips school and even when she is there, shows little interest. It’s a disturbing change and Ilsa wants to help if she can. She and her mother Gerda find that getting involved in Serena’s life has consequences that they couldn’t have imagined. Throughout the novel, we see a marked generational difference between Gerda’s and Ilsa’s feelings about Germany. Ilsa is nostalgic for Leipzig and her life there. She acknowledges that New Zealand has been a good place, with basically good people, but it’s never really been her home. Gerda on the other hand sees things differently. She is older and knows exactly what the Stasi, the East German secret police, were like. She remembers the betrayals and denunciations, and for her, Germany has no appeal. It’s a very interesting difference in perspective, and generation plays a big role in it.

Even for people who haven’t been through experiences such as war and repression, just belonging to a different generation means a different outlook from the previous and younger generations. It’s part of what defines a person. Where have you seen this difference in outlook in the crime fiction you’ve read?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s My Generation.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Paddy Richardson, Qiu Xiaolong, Roger Smith, Tony Hillerman

And He Walked the Length of His Days Under African Skies*

Nelson MandelaI had the opportunity to travel to South Africa in 2000, just a few years after the end of Apartheid and the transfer of power to a democratically-elected government. Of course, no country is perfect, and any crime fiction fan can tell you that some violent things happen in South Africa. Want more on this? Try the work of Deon Meyer, Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn or Roger Smith. Also check out AfricaScreams, which is an excellent blog site devoted to crime fiction from that part of the world.

But that wasn’t the impression of South Africa I got from my trip. I’m not naïve enough to think that one visit makes me an expert – hardly. And I know that there’s a lot I didn’t see. But here is what I did experience. I saw one of the most physically beautiful countries I’ve visited. I met kind, hospitable and friendly people, too – of all sorts of racial backgrounds. One day for instance, I got to talking with a fellow delegate to the conference I was attending. She invited me to join her family at the bungalow where they were staying, and everyone welcomed me, a stranger from thousands of miles away.

I also experienced real conversation about South Africa’s history and its future. No-one denied the pain of Apartheid; there was quite a lot of openness about those years, even among people who had everything to gain by avoiding the topic. And the discussion about South Africa’s problems was real and frank. But at the same time, I sensed a common purpose in the dialogue among everyone, and a determination to go forward rather than let old wounds fester.

That hope, that willingness to try to work together, and that recognition of what a lovely country South Africa is and can be was inspired by the example and the work of Nelson Mandela. Many other people, whose names I don’t unfortunately know, worked hard and sacrificed much (including, for some, their lives) for the cause of social equity. And there are many real and serious issues that face the country, as they do all countries. But Mandela’s work, example, leadership and personal commitment showed us all what is possible. I know I saw it when I was there.

Nelson Mandela gave the world a vision of what can be when we have the heart and the strength to work together without bitterness. Thank you, South Africa, for lending him to the world. He will be sorely missed.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Under African Skies.

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Filed under Deon Meyer, Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn, Roger Smith

They’ve Found a Tourist Attraction*

TourismWhere I live, the tourist season has well and truly begun. You’d think that Southern California would get more tourism during the Northern Hemisphere winter but that’s not what happens. There are a lot of visitors here of course from colder climates, but there are also many, many people who come here to escape the heat and humidity of a Midwest or Deep South summer. Tourism is an important part of our economy, so keeping the tourists happy matters. But honestly, it’s not always fun having tourists around. If you’re a local, try getting to work on the unusually-crowded roadways, or getting a table in one of the nicer restaurants, or finding a parking space, or finding a place on the beach. That’s not to mention the way some tourists (‘though certainly not all!) treat the area and the locals. If you live in a place with tourist attractions, you know precisely what I mean.

A well-written (as ever) review at Fair Dinkum Crime (the place for everything about Australian crime fiction) is what actually got me to thinking about tourism. I’ll wait while you go check out the review. And while you’re at it, do follow Fair Dinkum Crime. There’s no better source for what’s new in Aussie crime fiction. The review was written by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, which blog you’ll also want to follow if you’re not already – simply a superb crime fiction review blog.

The review itself doesn’t focus a lot on tourism, but it did trigger my thinking. Tourists are important for a lot of different economies, but they’re not always welcome (and sometimes, for very, very good reasons). This makes for some interesting tension, and that of course means it’s a great theme for crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death for instance, we meet a group of tourists including the Boynton family. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a tyrannical mental sadist who’s had her family members cowed for years. When she suddenly dies during a sightseeing trip to Petra, her family is finally freed of her presence and can start over. At first her death is put down to heart failure, but Colonel Carbury isn’t entirely satisfied. So he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area on an excursion of his own, to investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the family dynamics as well as Mrs. Boynton’s personal history. As he does so, we get to know the rest of the people on this journey and it’s interesting to see the ‘tourist dynamics.’ For instance, there’s the demanding and particular Lady Westholme MP and her companion Miss Pierce. In Lady Westholme’s opinions and views, we see the stereotypical ‘nightmare’ tourist who expects everything to be a certain way, preferably just like home. There are also the members of the Boynton family and family friend Jefferson Cope, who are enthralled by what they see. And then there’s Mahmoud, the local who is in charge of guiding the tourists. In his opinions we see the resentment of some locals for tourists. This whole thread adds an interesting layer to this plot.

Sometimes being a tourist can put you in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s what happens in Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone. One morning an unknown Senegalese immigrant is shot, execution-style, in a Venice open-air market while he’s setting out his wares. The killers are professionals so they’ve ensured that they won’t be remembered. And yet, Commissario Guido Brunetti knows that the more people he talks to, the more likely it is that someone will have seen something. Keeping track of the numerous tourists in the area isn’t his responsibility but this case is different. American tourists Drs. Fred and Martha Crowley were present when the victim was murdered, and so were a few other members of their tour group. So Brunetti interviews them as part of his investigation. Their input doesn’t immediately solve the crime, but it does help. And in their conversations we see how the police have to strike a balance when dealing with, especially, international tourists. On the one hand, Brunetti needs to solve the crime. On the other, these tourists are foreigners from a wealthy country and there is every financial reason to encourage more tourism. So treating them well is essential. For the Americans’ part, they want to get on with their trip and their itinerary did not include a police case. Still, they do want to help and they know that any piece of information might be valuable.

The trouble that tourists can cause is a major theme in Carl Hiaasen’s Tourist Season. Skip Wiley is the leader of Las Noches de Diciembre (The Nights of December), a Florida eco-terrorist group. Wiley is upset at the loss of Florida’s natural beauty and blames the tourist industry. So he and his gang set out to do whatever is necessary to stop more tourists from coming to Florida. ‘Whatever is necessary’ will end up involving kidnapping, murder and later, dynamite. The first victim is B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, head of Greater Miami’s Chamber of Commerce. At first, the police think the killer is Ernesto Cabal. Cabal is a small-time burglar who was caught driving Harper’s stolen car. He says he’s not guilty, and Brian Keyes, who’s hired by the Public Defender’s office to help on the case, believes him. Keyes’ search for the people who are really behind the murder and other bizarre events in the story will mix him up with, among others, obdurate police officers, a very hungry pet crocodile named Pavlov, and an Orange Bowl beauty queen who hates the ‘beauty pageant scene.’

There’s a thoughtful and honest (‘though not really positive) view of the tourist/local relationship in Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets. Wealthy Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth, his sister Wendy and several of their equally-moneyed friends have booked a skiing holiday in Trafalgar, British Columbia. One evening, the well-appointed SUV the group has rented plunges into the Upper Kootenay River, taking Wyatt-Yarmouth and his best friend Ewan Williams with it. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and Sergeant John Winters begin to look into the deaths. Forensic results show that Wyatt-Yarmouth died as a result of the plunge into the river. But Williams had been dead for several hours before the accident. What’s more, he shows signs of blunt force trauma to the head. So the police investigate his death as a murder. As they examine the lives of the victims, they find some complicated relationships among them and their friends and family members. They also find that there was considerable friction between them and some of the locals (saying more would give some important things away). In a related sub-plot, Jason and Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth’s parents arrive to claim their son’s body. In their reactions to the town, the police and the locals, we see why tourists are so often resented. The fact that he was a tourist is not the reason Ewan Wililams was killed. But it does play a role in the novel and so does the underlying tension between the tourists and the locals.

In Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, we meet sixteen-year-old Sonto, who usually goes by her English name Sunday. She has been promised in marriage to locally powerful Zulu leader Inja Mazibuko. Sunday has her own very personal reasons for not wanting to marry Inja, but her aunt has benefited financially from this arrangement, and forces Sunday to go through with the wedding plans. As the wedding day approaches, Inja heads back to Zululand after carrying out some ‘business’ in the Cape Town area. He is in the pocket of the minister of justice and has just committed four murders to help protect his ‘patron.’ Mazibuko has framed former journalist Robert Dell for three of the murders, but Dell has escaped from prison with help from his father Bobby Goodbread. Now the two of them are also heading to Zululand to catch Inja. When they get to Zululand, their paths cross with Inja’s and with Sunday’s as they try to find Inja and Sunday tries to avoid her fate. So how does tourism play into this novel? Sunday works at an ‘authentic Zulu village’ which has been set up for tourists. Her job is to be ‘one of the villagers’ and serve the visitors. In fact there’s one humourous scene in which she is wearing her ‘authentic’ Zulu dress – and has an MP3 player too.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Half Child. In that novel, Bangkok PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. According to police reports, she fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from he roof of the Pattaya hotel where she was living. The police believe Maryanne committed suicide but Delbeck doesn’t think so. So Keeney agrees to travel to Pattaya and find out the truth. One of the people whose help she enlists is Police Major General Wichit. As head of Bangkok’s Tourist Police, Wichit has to deal with all sorts of tourists. Although he understands all too well the importance of tourism for the economy (and his job!), he also doesn’t have much respect for tourists who do stupid things that lead to them getting scammed:

 

‘…his toughest challenge was not to laugh in the face of reports made by exasperated farangs [foreigners]. How they’d paid a large sum of money for a handful of Burmese rubies that turned out to be red glass…How they’d played a friendly game of cards with a fellow who said he worked as a croupier at the casino, only to be robbed of all their traveller’s cheques. How they’d exchanged money with an agent outside the currency exchange only to come away with a wad of ‘Hell Bank Notes’ – fake money the Chinese burned at funerals – sandwiched in between a few baht. It never ceased to surprise Wichit how people kept falling for the same old tricks.’

 

Wichit feels the same combination of resentment at some tourists and acknowledgement of their importance that all of us do who have to deal with tourists.

What about you? Do you live where there’s a lot of tourism? Is there friction between tourists and locals? Which novels have you enjoyed that deal with this?

Thanks, Bernadette, for the inspiration.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chris de Burgh’s Tourist Attraction.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Roger Smith, Vicki Delany

‘Cause Nothing’s Going Right and Everything’s a Mess*

NoirFor the past seventy years or so, noir has been an important part of the world of crime fiction. Today it’s considered a significant sub-genre; a quick glance at blogs, online and traditional literary magazines and of course, new crime fiction titles is all it takes to see that noir is a force to be reckoned with in the genre.  Noir fiction is by its nature bleak and sometimes very depressing. And noir deals with the ugly, the dirty and the unpleasant. So why do we read it? What is it about noir that appeals to readers? Of course, we choose what to read for a whole constellation of reasons. But here’s my thinking about what makes noir a part of so many people’s reading diets.

As I mentioned, noir is dirty and gritty and sometimes unpleasant. It turns over rocks and takes a look at what’s under them. And that’s just what some people like about it. Because it’s unflinching, noir addresses issues that aren’t as easy to address in other sub-genres. For example, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is the story of Central City, Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Ford is well-enough liked, although no-one would exactly call him scintillating. But Ford is carrying a dark secret which comes out slowly as the novel moves on. First, local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. Then there’s a murder. As we follow along in this investigation, we find out that Ford is not the nice, if a bit dull, guy that everyone thought he was. In fact, he himself refers to this as ‘the sickness.’ So on that level Thompson takes an unflinching look at mental illness. This novel also explores prostitution and domestic violence as well as the ugly reality of the effect of violence and murder on a small town. The story takes up difficult and challenging issues.

So does Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. Former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon when their car is ambushed not far from Cape Town and sent over an embankment. Dell survives but the other members of his family are killed. Soon he’s accused of the murder and imprisoned. He’s been framed, but at first he doesn’t know why or by whom. His father Bobby Goodbread engineers his escape and together the two go in search of the person who killed Dell’s wife and children and framed him. This novel addresses several difficult but very real issues that would be hard to treat honestly in another kind of novel. For instance, one of the themes in the story is the reality of race relations in modern South Africa. That’s a complex and sometimes unpleasant topic. So are corruption and nepotism, which are also treated in this novel.

In Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, Dublin police detective Bob Tidey is part of the team that’s investigating the murder of Emmet Sweetman, a crooked banker who made a fortune during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. At the same time, Vincent Naylor, a young thug who’s recently gotten out of prison, is planning his own master stroke – an armoured car robbery. Drawn into both of these cases is Maura Cody, a former nun who has her own history. As Kerrigan tells the story of these three people, he also explores some unpleasant issues that it would be hard to do justice to without some grit. In the story behind Emmet Sweetman’s murder we see how greed and poor planning played roles in the Irish financial collapse of 2008 and how that collapse started a chain reaction of real misery. In the story of Maura Cody we learn of the wrenching horror of some of the abuses some Irish priests and nuns committed. This too is an ugly issue that would be hard to address in a different kind of novel.

But it’s not just the fact that noir explores difficult issues that makes it appealing. It does so in an honest way – no sugarcoating or glossing over the truth. And that realism resonates with a lot of readers. For example, Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She is devoted to her brother Bill, so she is quite concerned when he marries Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. For Bill’s sake Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law but bit by bit she discovers some unsettling things about Alice. The more she learns, the more Lora has to face the fact that at the same time as she’s repulsed by Alice’s seamy world, she’s also drawn to it. Then there’s a murder. Lora wants to find out just how involved Alice may have been in this killing so, telling herself she’s doing so to protect her brother, she begins to ask questions. As she slowly finds out the truth, readers get a very realistic picture of 1950’s Hollywood. Underneath the glitter there really was a lot of abuse, corruption and other ugliness and Abbott doesn’t gloss over that. Nor does she make light of what can happen when one person becomes obsessed with another person.

The tragedy of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia cannot be overstated. Andrew Nette takes a very realistic look at the devastation left behind in Ghost Money. Madeline Avery hires Australian former cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles. His last known address is in Bangkok so Quinlan starts there. When he arrives he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds evidence that Lee has fled to Cambodia. So Quinlan’s next stop is Phnom Penh. There, he learns that Avery may have been involved in some shady business deals and could have made some very nasty people angry. As Quinlan traces Avery to northern Cambodia, he discovers the brutal reality of life in Cambodia. War, mistrust, greed, corruption and prejudice have all taken heavy tolls and Nette doesn’t sugarcoat any of it. But (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do), not to be realistic about these issues would mean not doing them justice.

That sense of authenticity adds a layer of suspense to Karin Alvtegen’s work as well. In Betrayal, she looks at the ugly reality of lies. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have been happy enough until Eva discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. Blaming him entirely for their marital problems, she makes a fateful choice that doesn’t seem like a problem at first. Then she finds out who Henrik’s lover is. That prompts Eva to a course of action that also has a tragic consequence. As things begin to spin out of control, Alvtegen shows us honestly what happens to a marriage when the people in it lie to each other and to themselves.

Noir is unvarnished, gritty and sometimes really ugly. But it looks at important issues that are hard to address in any other way. And it does so in an honest way. I know I haven’t mentioned all of the noir greats, but they’ve added to the genre. What do you think? Do you read noir? Why? What’s its appeal for you? If you write noir, what draws you to it?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You.

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Filed under Andrew Nette, Gene Kerrigan, Jim Thompson, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Roger Smith