Category Archives: Ross Macdonald

Keep Your Friends Real Close and Keep Your Enemies Closer*

Friends Close and Enemies CloserThere’s an old saying, ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ The idea is that the more you know about the people you don’t like or trust, the safer you are. There are a lot of examples of this kind of tense relationship in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Along with the fact that they’re a natural ‘fit’ for a crime novel, those tense relationships can add a solid level of suspense to a story. So not only can they add to a plot, but they can also add interest. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. I know you’ll be able to provide lots more than I could anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police to solve an unsettling case. A group of murders is committed, apparently all by the same person. Prior to each murder, Poirot receives a cryptic warning note; near each body is an ABC railway guide. It looks like the work of what we now call a serial killer, but Poirot isn’t exactly sure of that. And it turns out that he’s quite right. This is not the work of a crazed lunatic who kills for some twisted psychological reason. The murderer has a much different sort of plan and motive. The killer wants to know what leads Poirot and the police are following, and is well aware that they won’t exactly print such things in public notices. So the culprit chooses a very interesting approach to ‘keeping enemies close,’ as it were. Not that that stops Poirot from finding out who’s responsible…

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer is hired by Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida School, to track down a student who’s apparently run away. Seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman has left the school, and Sponti wants him found before his wealthy parents find out he’s missing. He and Archer are discussing the case when the boy’s father Ralph Hillman bursts into the office with some frightening news. Apparently Tom’s been abducted and his kidnappers have contacted the family. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Ralph and his wife Elaine to find out who has taken Tom. It’s not long before Archer sees that all is not as it seems in this case. For one thing, the Hillmans are strangely uncooperative for parents who are distraught about losing their son. For another, there are signs that Tom may have gone willingly with his captors. Archer doesn’t care at all for Ralph and Elaine Hillman, and the feeling is mutual. But he knows that they know Tom possibly better than anyone else, and are in a good position to provide valuable information. So although he neither likes nor trusts them, he has to work with them.

Megan Abbott’s Die A Little, which takes place in 1950’s California, features Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She and her brother Bill have always been close, so when he first says that he’s found the right woman to marry, she’s pleased for him. His fiancée Alice Steele is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant who’s both beautiful and smart, and it’s easy to see why Bill is in love with her. The wedding duly takes place and Lora tries to be happy for her brother. But it’s not long before she starts to dislike and distrust Alice. For one thing, she discovers that Alice hasn’t been exactly honest about her background. For another, Alice has a rather dubious past and some even more dubious friends and connections. Now Lora begins to be afraid (or so she at least tells herself) that Alice might be dangerous for Bill. But Bill wants his wife and his sister to get along; it’s too stressful for him if they’re enemies. What’s more, he really does love Alice, and Lora knows he won’t listen to just her suspicions. So she has to get along with Alice as best she can. Besides, as much as she is repelled by Alice’s life, Lora also finds herself drawn to it. Then there’s a death. And Alice might be mixed up in it…

In Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom, British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann gets a new assignment. He’s told to travel to Thailand and retrieve a black, lead-covered box from the Andaman sea, where it ended up when the ship it was on sank. Swann knows that this operation will require a lot of armed help and cooperation from people in Thailand. And for that, he’ll need the support of one of Thailand’s top crime bosses ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. Getting that support is going to be extremely dangerous for Swann. For one thing, Song is ruthless. For another, Swann has been entangled with Song before. In an earlier confrontation with dangerous underworld types, Swann ended up having to kill Song’s son. He saved Song’s life, and for that, the man owes him. But Swann is pretty certain that Song will not forgive the murder of his son. Still, Song is the only real choice for making sure that people will cooperate with Swann, that the police will stay out of his way, and that there will be plenty of armed assistance should Swann need it. So he has to work with a man he can’t really trust. As it turns out, ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song is going to be the least of Swann’s worries…

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls is the story of two deaths that took place in the Sydney area in 1978. First, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan was found strangled with a silk scarf. At first, the police looked for the killer among Angela’s friends and family members. In fact her cousin Michael ‘Mick’ Griffin was under suspicion for a time. Then, a few months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor was found dead, also strangled with a scarf. This death raised the very real possibility that there might be a serial killer at work; the press dubbed the murderer ‘the Sydney Strangler.’ Young girls were told to be careful, parents to supervise their children more closely, and so on. The strangler was never caught, and the cases have more or less died out of regular conversation. But the families involved have not ‘gotten over it.’ Over thirty years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on the lasting effects of murders on the victims’ families. Angela was an only child, and her parents have died. So Fury visits Angela’s cousin Jane Tait and asks her for an interview. She also wants to interview Jane’s husband Rob, her brother Mick and her mother Barbara. At first, the family doesn’t really want to rake things up again. They’ve all suffered more than enough. And at first they don’t trust Fury; after all, why should they? And she has her own reasons for wanting to dislike them. But very slowly they start to tell their stories. And what comes out of the interviews is that things were not at all the way they seemed on the surface. Bit by bit we learn what really happened to Angela and to Kelly, and how their deaths and the secrets about them have affected everyone.

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. In that novel, we first meet Peter Jamieson and John Young. Jamieson is very much a ‘rising star’ in Glasgow’s underworld, and Young is his right-hand man. Together, they notice something they don’t like. Small-time dealer and criminal Lewis Winter seems to be trying to make a name for himself. If he succeeds, he could be a real problem for Jamieson and Young, especially if he allies himself with one of their rivals. So they want Winter out of the way. To do that, they hire Callum MacLean. He’s a professional who’s done jobs like this before, so they’re sure the job will be done properly. For MacLean’s part, it’s a paid job – a way to make a living. He wants to do it well, get paid as promised, and stay off the police radar, both literally and figuratively. Neither entirely trusts the other. Neither says more than is necessary to seal the deal. Yet they have to work together if they’re going to solve the Winter problem. It’s interesting to see how the relationships among underworld figures work in this novel. They know a lot about each other; they sometimes have drinks and make deals. But they never completely trust each other.

And that’s the way it is in some relationships. There are times when the best way to ensure your own safety is to know exactly what ‘the other side’ is thinking and doing. It’s true in real life and we certainly see it in crime fiction. Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stuart ‘Adam Ant’ Goddard and Marco Pirroni’s Young, Dumb and Full of It.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Megan Abbott, Ross Macdonald, Wendy James

There’s a Light Burning in the Fireplace*

Creepy InssIf you’ve ever been on a road trip, you may know this feeling. You’ve been driving for a while, and decide to stop somewhere for the night and start looking for a place to stay. After all, you’re tired and you could use a meal and maybe some TV before bed. Then you see it: a light ahead of you beckoning you to a motel or inn where you can spend the night. Sounds warm and comforting, right? Just the ticket. Well… perhaps not. If you read enough crime fiction, then you know that there are all kinds of inns, motels and B&B’s that aren’t at all what they seem. I’ve only got space for a few examples here, but they should be enough to give you the idea.

In Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), a man calling himself Enoch Arden arrives at the village of Warmsley Vale. He takes a room at a local inn called The Stag and settles in. A few mornings later he’s found dead of what looks like a blow from a blunt instrument. Hercule Poirot has already gotten interested in events at Warmsley Vale and he investigates to find out who killed the victim and why. It turns out that the dead man was connected to a dispute among the members of the Cloade family over the will of patriarch Gordon Cloade. Cloade always promised his brothers Jeremy and Lionel and his sister Adela that he’d take care of the family. Then he shocked everyone by marrying a widow Rosaleen Underhay. After his tragic death in a World War II bombing incident, it came out that he’d never changed his will. Now Rosaleen is set to inherit her husband’s considerable wealth, leaving her in-laws with nothing. Before his death, ‘Enoch Arden’ hinted that Rosaleen’s first husband is still alive. If so, then her marriage to Gordon Cloade isn’t legal and she cannot inherit. Now Poirot has to sort out what’s going on in the Cloade family to find out the truth about the death. Christie wrote other stories too that are set in dangerous places to lodge (I know, I know, fans of At Bertram’s Hotel).

One of the eerier inns in fiction is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Mary Yellan travels to Bodmin, on the Cornish coast, to obey her mother’s deathbed wish that she join her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at the inn they run. On the one hand, she isn’t happy about leaving the only home she’s ever known. On the other, she wants to respect her mother’s wish, and she’s looking forward to a reunion with her aunt, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Even the coachman who takes her there warns her about the inn, but Mary is determined to go ahead with her plan. At first all goes quietly enough, although it seems odd that no-one ever stays at the inn. But then Mary discovers the reason. The inn is really a cover for some sinister things going on. As she finds out more and more about what’s really happening, she also finds that she’s in great danger herself. This is one of those novels that people don’t always think of when they think about crime fiction, but at least in my opinion, it qualifies. There is plenty of crime, including murder, in the story…

In Ross Macdonald’s short story The Singing Pigeon, PI Lew Archer is heading north from the Mexican border with California. He decides to stop for the night at a seedy-looking motel called the Siesta. When he first arrives, there’s no-one at the front desk although the main door’s unlocked. After a wait, the motel’s owner finally appears and gives Archer a room. The next morning, Archer is wakened by a young woman’s screaming. He rushes out of his room to the room next door to see what’s going on, and almost immediately it’s clear that no-one is going to tell him the truth. There’s blood on the bed sheets and the young woman who screamed starts to say something about it but she’s soon hushed up. The owner, who turns out to be her father, says that one of the guests had a nosebleed. Archer is sure that the man is lying but since there is no body, there’s not much he can do. He checks out of the Siesta and drives off. Not very far away, he finds the body of a man and makes the obvious inference. He returns to the motel and little by little, he finds out the truth about the dead man and his connection to the Siesta and the family who owns it.

And then there’s the B&B featured in Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. Billy Weaver has just come to London from Bath to start a new job. He plans to stay at the Bell and Dragon, but as he’s on his way there, he happens to pass a small, homey-looking place with a B&B sign. On impulse, he decides to go in. He’s greeted immediately by a pleasant landlady who makes him welcome and assures him that there’s a room for him. The place is clean and comfortable, so Weaver decides to stay there instead of at the Bell and Dragon. Later, his landlady asks him to sign the guest register. As he does so, Weaver notices that two other names in the register are familiar to him. Little by little, he works out why. And by the time he does, well… this is one of Dahl’s creative crime stories. You can read it yourself right here.

Fans of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret will know that he often stays at inns when he and his team investigate a case. That’s what happens in Maigret and the Yellow Dog (AKA The Yellow Dog), which takes place in the village of Concarneau. In that novel, M. Mostaguen leaves the Admiral Hotel, where he’s been spending time with a group of his friends. Somewhat the worse for wear after quite a bit of drinking, he tries to light a cigar. It’s windy though, so he steps into a nearby doorway. That’s when he’s shot and badly wounded by someone who’s been lurking in the house. Maigret and his team are called in and begin to investigate. They take up temporary quarters at the Admiral and get to know M. Mostaguen’s regular group of drinking friends. On the night Maigret meets them though, someone tampers with a bottle of wine that they’re sharing, and the group comes very close to being poisoned. Now it looks as though someone is targeting the town’s leading citizens. Then, there’s a death. Now it’s clear that the detective team is up against a killer. And part of the truth about the events in Concarneau can be found right at the inn where the team is lodging…

So if you’re planning a road trip this weekend, do be careful where you stay. You never know what might be lurking behind that friendly-looking sign for the motel or inn. It might be better to book your room ahead of time online, after a thorough search of the reviews from previous guests…

 

ps. The ‘photo is of one of the more famous creepy inns in crime fiction. This is the set of the Bates Motel, which fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s films will know from Psycho.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard O’Brien’s Over at the Frankenstein Place.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Georges Simenon, Roald Dahl, Ross Macdonald

Baby, We Were Born to Run*

RisktakingIt’s common among young people (and sometimes, not-so-young people) to believe in the ‘it can’t happen to me’ myth. That myth of indestructibility is arguably part of the reason for which many young people take the kinds of risks that they probably wouldn’t take if they were older. You see this myth playing out in a lot of crime fiction, and it can be both compelling and poignant. After all, young people are not indestructible. I’m only going to be mentioning a few examples here, but I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie includes several characters in her stories who seem to believe in their own indestructibility. I’ll just mention one. In And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), we meet Anthony Marston, a young man who’s received an invitation to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. He accepts the invitation and travels to the island, where he finds that a group of other people have received and accepted invitations. After dinner on that first night, each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. In Marston’s case, he’s accused of having killed two small children in a reckless driving incident. Later that evening, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Then there’s another. Now it’s clear that someone lured these people to the island and seems bent on killing them one by one. The survivors will have to find out who that person is if they hope to stay alive. More than once in this novel, Marston’s youth, apparent strength and seeming invincibility are mentioned, and that gives his death all the more impact. I know, I know fans of The Man in the Brown Suit’s Anne Bedingfield…

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman. His parents Ralph and Elaine have placed him at the Laguna Perdida School, a boarding school for ‘troubled students.’ One day Tom disappears from the school. Dr. Sponti, who is head of Laguna Perdida, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy before his parents discover that he’s missing. But it’s already too late. During their meeting, Ralph Hillman bursts into the office saying that Tom has been kidnapped. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Tom’s parents to try to get him back. Almost immediately something seems ‘off.’ For one thing, the Hilmmans aren’t nearly as forthcoming about Tom as you’d expect from parents who were distraught about a missing child. For another, there’s some evidence that Tom may have joined the kidnappers willingly. If so, he may be part of a plot to extort money from them. Archer’s trying to track down leads when one of the people Tom’s with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. Now it’s clearer than ever that this is not an ‘textbook’ kind of kidnapping. Throughout this novel, we see ways in which Tom (and some of the other young people at the school) have behaved in that ‘indestructible’ way. Many of them take risks that they probably wouldn’t if they really contemplated the danger involved.

We see a bit of that perception of invulnerability in Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food too. Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman is concerned when two of her employees Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge begin behaving very oddly. In fact, they behave so strangely that Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen think they may be on a new kind of drug. It turns out that the girls bought weight loss tea at a club one night and were poisoned by it. Now Chapman wants to find out who poisoned the tea and why. At one point, she also makes another discovery. Kylie and Goss are always worried about gaining any weight at all, so instead of reading the instructions and taking the tea as directed, they took a much larger and stronger does than was recommended, so they’d lose weight faster. Their choice to buy this tea from someone they barely knew, and to take it in the way they did, is a reflection of how young people often don’t think through the consequences of what could happen to them. After all, ‘it won’t happen to me.’

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer investigates the disappearance of Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and likes nothing better than a little adventuring. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, who goes along with Andreas’ plans more out of a desire for the friendship than any enjoyment he gets out of their adventures. One day the two meet as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. When his mother Runi first goes to the police about it, Sejer isn’t too worried. Lots of young men take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. But as more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre look into the matter. To do this, they trace Andreas’ movements on the day he disappeared. Although Zipp isn’t at all forthcoming, especially at first, he eventually tells Sejer what happened that day. But even he doesn’t know what happened to Andreas. As it turns out, Andreas was convinced that everything would be all right – nothing bad would happen to him. But the truth turns out to be quite different…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, there’s an interesting sub-plot about an upcoming event. Mma. Sylvia Potokwane plans a benefit in aid of the orphanage she directs. One of the attractions is to be a parachute jump, and she wants Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs a local garage, to do the jump. Secretly he’s afraid to jump, especially from such heights, but of course he won’t admit that to Mma. Potokwane. Besides, she is strong-willed and persuasive. So he reluctantly agrees. As the day draws closer he gets more and more nervous about it. But his wife Mma. Precious Ramotswe has an idea that works out well for everyone involved. She suggests that Charlie, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistants, might be glad for the chance to do the jump. That way he can do some good and impress the local girls. And that’s exactly what happens. Charlie is a little nervous, but he feels indestructible enough (and is interested in enough in being admired by the young ladies) that he’s eager to do it. It’s an interesting look at the way young people as opposed to more mature adults view risk-taking.

Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who’s growing up in a small Welsh town during the 1950s. Gwenni’s a bit of a dreamer, and doesn’t always fit in. But life goes on for her, her sister and her parents until the day that a one of the locals Ifan Evans disappears. Later, he’s found murdered. Gwenni wants to find out why he was killed and by whom, so she starts her own kind of investigation. She’s not completely heedless as she goes about it, but she doesn’t really appreciate the risks she’s taking nor the danger she could bring on herself.

And that’s the thing about a lot of young people. They have that sort of myth of indestructibility that sometimes leads them to take all sorts of risks. In that sense, they’re both brave and extremely vulnerable. Which characters like that have stood out for you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Mari Strachan, Ross Macdonald

A Fortress Steep and Mighty*

SecurityOne of the most important needs we have is the need for security. We need to feel that we can depend on our lives to stay more or less stable. In fact, if scholars such as Abraham Maslow are right, the only needs that are more urgent are our physical needs such as air, water, food, and physical safety. The need for security plays a major role in many of our decisions. If you’ve ever known someone who kept a dull and dreary job because it was more secure than risking a career change, you know what I mean.

The need for security also plays an important role in crime fiction. It acts as a motivator, it adds to character development and it can add a layer of tension to a story. Here are just a few examples from the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood, we meet the Cloade family. They’ve always had the security of knowing they’d have no financial worries. Family patriarch Gordon Cloade has seen to their needs and has promised they’d never have to be concerned about money. Then everyone’s sense of security is shaken when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay. What’s worse, he dies tragically in a bomb blast without changing his will. Now Rosaleen is set to inherit everything, leaving the rest of the Cloades with nothing. The possibility of security returns in the form of a mysterious stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden. He hints that Rosaleen may actually have been married to someone else at the time of her marriage to Cloade. If that’s true, then she can’t inherit. When ‘Enoch Arden’ is killed, Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation. Throughout this novel, we see how each of the Cloades deals with the feeling that their precious security may no longer be a given.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of the Hillman family, who’ve built a secure, safe upper-middle-class life. When their seventeen-year-old son Tom begins to have some difficulties, they send him to Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled teens. One day he disappears from the school. Fearing that the school will be held liable, headmaster Dr. Sponti hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. During their meeting, Tom’s father Ralph Hillman comes into the office with the news that Tom’s been abducted and that there’s been a ransom demand. Archer returns with Hillman to the family home where he agrees to find out who’s kidnapped Tom. In the process, he finds that things are not at all what they seem on the surface. This is not a case of kidnapping a rich boy for the money. Then, there’s a murder. As Archer gets closer to the truth, he finds that the Hillmans depend greatly on the sense of security they get from their reputation and their social standing. When that’s threatened, it’s a threat to their very identity.

Karin Fossum’s  Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride)  includes another treatment of the need for security. Gunder Jormann has lived all his life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and life is slow-paced, even a bit dull, but secure. Jormann himself isn’t exactly the quickest thinker, but he is steady and dependable, a lot like the town.  Then he makes the surprising announcement that he’s going to find a bride. What’s more, he’s going to Mumbai to do so. His sister Marie isn’t at all sure he should do this. It certainly doesn’t sound like a safe, smart thing to do. But Jormann goes ahead with his plan and travels to Mumbai, where he meets Poona Bai. They strike up a relationship and Poona agrees to marry him. He travels back to Norway to make the house ready for her, while she stays behind to finish up her life in India. On the day of Poona’s arrival in Norway though, Marie is involved in a car accident and Jormann has to stay with her. So he asks an acquaintance to meet Poona at the airport. They miss each other though, and Poona never arrives at Jormann’s house. The next day her body is discovered in a nearby field. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the killing. In this case, security isn’t specifically the reason for Poona’s death. But it does play an important role in the way everyone responds to her and to her murder.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces us to fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, but functions at a high enough level that he can go to school and learn academic material. Because of his autism, Christopher has a high need for security. Everything has to be in a certain order, there are certain routines he has to follow, and so on. His comfort and ability to function depend quite a lot on his sense that things are stable. One day Christopher discovers that the neighbour’s dog has been killed. At first, he’s accused of being responsible. So to prove his innocence, he decides to become a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and discover who the guilty person is. In the process of finding out the truth, Christopher finds out a lot about himself. A lot of his assumptions come into question and all of it calls into question the stability he’s always assumed.

We also see the role that the need for security plays in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s planned the perfect dream house in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s looking for the security of a quiet, secluded life in her new home. Then, poor financial decision-making results in a serious blow that means she has to sell her perfect house and settle for the smaller house next door. Her security is further threatened when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy ‘her’ house and move in. She doesn’t want anyone living nearby and even refers to them as ‘the invaders.’ Soon afterwards, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them and Thea’s sense of security is even further threatened when Kim takes an interest in her. Little by little though, she and Kim form a kind of awkward friendship and she senses real promise in the girl. That’s why she feels particularly upset when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When she learns that the police aren’t going to do much, Thea decides to take her own action. This story is told in the form of journal entries Thea makes as a part of a writing class she’s taking. The journal prompts force Thea to confront her own past and it’s interesting to see how her security is threatened by that too.

And then there’s Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. The setting for this novel is an exclusive gated community outside Buenos Aires called The Cascade Heights Country Club. The community represents security to its wealthy residents. There’s a six-foot-high perimeter fence, a group of security guards, etc., all designed to keep the scary ‘larger world’ out. But no-one is really as secure as we’d like to think. And when national economic troubles find their way into Cascade Heights, everyone begins to feel the crumbling of that sense of security. Then one night there’s a tragedy at the home of one of the residents. That tragedy shakes the foundations of life for several of the people who live in Cascade Heights, and we really see how dependent people are on their sense of security, whether or not that security is illusory.

It seems we all have the need to feel secure. When that sense of security is threatened, the experience can shake us to the core. And that can make for a rich layer in a crime novel. I’ve given just a very few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock. Yes, I know I’ve used this one more than once. It’s a great song. You’re welcome.  ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Karin Fossum, Mark Haddon, Ross Macdonald, Virginia Duigan

This is Your World, I’m Just Livin’ In It*

Matriarchs and PatriarchsOne of the more enduring character types in fiction is the patriarch or matriarch. She or he is the head of the family and, formally or informally, has the final say on family decisions. Sometimes these heads of families are warm, loving people. But that’s not always the case. There’s a wide variety of patriarchs and matriarchs in crime fiction, and only space enough to mention a few of them. But this should give you an idea of what I mean.

Agatha Christie created several head-of-family characters. One of them is Roger Ackroyd, whom we meet in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. He’s a retired manufacturing magnate who’s amassed a large fortune. He does ‘rule the roost,’ but although he’s thought of as frugal, you couldn’t really call him despotic. In fact, Christie shows a sympathetic side to his character. One night he is stabbed in his study. The most obvious suspect is his stepson Captain Ralph Paton, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. But his fiancée Flora is sure he’s innocent. So she persuades Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Needless to say, with a large fortune like that, there are plenty of suspects.

Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool lets readers into the wealthy Slocum family. Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter to her husband James. The letter alleges that she’s been having an affair, and Maude is sure that if James finds out about it, he’ll divorce her. Archer takes the case and begins to look into the matter. He soon finds that the Slocum family is headed by Maude’s mother-in-law Olivia Slocum. She’s the one with control over the family fortunes and as Archer finds out, she also has control over her son James. The family isn’t what you’d call happy, so when Olivia is found dead in the family’s swimming pool, Archer starts looking close to home for suspects. There are other people to consider though. The Slocum property includes land that oil company executive Walter Kilbourne wants for drilling, and Olivia refused to grant drilling rights. There are other possibilities too.

Michael Dibdin’s Ratking introduces us to the Miletti family, the wealthiest and most powerful family in Perugia. When their family patriarch Ruggerio Miletti is abducted, Aurelio Zen, who works with the Ministry of the Interior in Rome, is seconded to Perugia to help find him. He soon finds that the searching out the people who abducted Miletti is just one of his challenges. The members of the Miletti family have been told not to involve the police, so they’re wary of accepting help or input from anyone in law enforcement. And the Perugia police, who aren’t too happy about Zen’s presence as it is, are unwilling to upset the family or to appear too eager to toady to the rich. So the process of solving this case is difficult. It gets even more difficult when there is a ransom demand and a lot of disagreement about how to handle it. The family finally agrees to involve Zen in their plan, but things don’t go as intended. Throughout this novel we get a look at the dynamics in the Miletti family, and we see through their eyes what Ruggerio Miletti is like.

In Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, journalist Mikael Blomqvist is hired by Vanger family patriarch Henrik Vanger. Nearly forty years earlier, his grand-niece Harriet disappeared, and was always thought to have drowned. But he has reason to believe she may still be alive. He wants Blomqvist to find out what happened to Harriet. In exchange, he agrees to help Vanger bring down industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, who won an expensive libel suit against Blompvist and his publication Millennium. Blomqvist agrees, and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander go into the background of the Vanger family and the history of the day that Harriet disappeared. And that history yields all sorts of family and business secrets.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features the Garrow family. Helen Garrow is the matriarch of this ‘blueblood’ family, and is none too pleased when her younger son Angus falls in love with Jodie Evans. Jodie is from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ as the saying goes, and only managed her scholarship to a good school through hard academic work. Helen believes that Jodie is ‘not our sort,’ and too ambitious, and discourages Angus getting serious about her. But Angus and Jodie are in love, and they marry anyway. Over the years, Helen and Jodie get used to each other, and they have in common Angus’ well-being. But then comes a bombshell. It’s discovered that Jodie had a baby years earlier – a baby she never discussed with Angus. When she’s first asked about it, Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption. But no formal records of adoption can be found, and before long, some ugly questions are asked. If the child is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? Once the questions begin to threaten the family’s reputation, Helen Garrow does her best to ‘close ranks’ and keep the family’s social position intact. It’s easy to see though, that although she loves her grandchildren, Jodie’s well-being and the truth about the other baby are not her prime concerns.

Anthony BIdulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas is the story of the wealthy Wiser family, which is led by matriarch Charity Wiser. She believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. At her behest, her granddaughter Flora hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the would-be murderer is. Her plan is to invite Quant to join the whole family on a cruise on her private boat, so that he can sleuth the various family members. Quant finds he’s got more than he bargained for when first, there’s an attempt on Charity Wiser’s life and then, there’s a murder. Woven throughout the novel is the indomitable and powerful personality of Charity Wiser. She is most definitely a matriarch.

There are a lot of other fictional powerful heads of family. I’ve probably not mentioned the ones that most stick out in your mind. Who are they?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Willa Dean Parker, Homer Banks and Bettye Jean Crutcher’s It’s Your World. It’s best known as a Sam & Dave song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Michael Dibdin, Ross Macdonald, Stieg Larsson, Wendy James