Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

Mother’s Gonna Keep You Right Here Under Her Wing*

MotheringSpeaking as a mother, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You may already know this, but mothers spend a lot of time second-guessing themselves. Trust me. Most mothers (fathers, too!) love their children very much and want to do a good job of raising them. The trouble is that children don’t come with user’s manuals (wouldn’t it be wonderful if they did?). So there are plenty of times when it’s easy to wonder if you’ve done the right thing (e.g. Was I too harsh? Did I just get manipulated into saying ‘yes’ when I shouldn’t have? Should I give advice?).

Ever interested in providing public service, I’m here to dispel any doubts you may have about your parenting skills. As crime fiction shows us, there are plenty of mums out there whose bad parenting and dysfunction are guaranteed to make you feel much better about yourself as a mother.

Take Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Boynton, for example. When we meet Mrs. Boynton and her family in Appointment With Death, they are touring the Middle East and planning a trip to Petra. Mrs. Boynton is a tyrant and a mental sadist who has all of the members of her family thoroughly cowed. One afternoon during the family’s trip to Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what seems like a heart attack. That’s not far-fetched either, as she is getting on in years and her heart is weak. But Colonel Carbury has some questions about that explanation and he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and talks to each person on the sightseeing tour, including the members of the Boynton family. It turns out that each one of them had a very good motive for murder, and as we find out more about the family, we find out how dysfunctional a mother Mrs. Boynton really was.

Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool tells the story of the wealthy Slocum family. Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter about her to her husband James. The letter alleges that she’s been having an affair, and Maude is sure that if her husband finds out about it, he’ll divorce her. Archer agrees to take the case and begins his work. He soon finds that the Slocum family has its share of dysfunction. Maude’s mother-in-law, matriarch Olivia Slocum, has control of the family money and manipulates everyone financially. What’s more, she’s the domineering type who keeps her son tied to her proverbial apron strings. When Olivia is found dead in the family swimming pool, it seems quite possible that a member of her family could have been responsible. Archer also finds out though that oil magnate Walter Kilbourne wants the drilling rights to the Slocum land, and Olivia Slocum was not willing to cede them. So it’s just as possible that Kilbourne or someone he paid could have killed the victim. Among other things, this is definitely a case of a mother who makes other mothers feel better about their parenting.

In Minette Walters’ The Scold’s Bridle, the body of Mathilda Gillespie is found in her bathtub with her wrists slashed. On her head is a ‘scold’s bridle,’ a medieval punishment device with a tongue clamp that was used on nagging wives. The first theory is that this is a bizarre case of suicide. But then it comes out that the victim has willed her considerable fortune to her doctor Sarah Blakeney. Now it’s rumoured that Blakeney killed her patient to get her hands on that money. In order to clear her name, Blakeney goes back through the dead woman’s life to see who could have wanted to kill her. Then she discovers some old diaries that give her the real clues to the murder. Without spoiling the story I can say that Mathilda Gillespie wouldn’t win the award for ‘Mother of the Year.’

Ruth Rendell has written more than once about dysfunctional motherhood both under her own name and as Barbara Vine. Let me just offer one example. In One Across, Two Down (which Rendell wrote under her own name), we meet Stanley and Vera Manning, who live with Vera’s mother Maude. Maude is not exactly ‘perfect mother’ material – at all. She belittles her daughter and despises her son-in-law and for Stanley’s part the feeling is most definitely mutual. But Maude is a wealthy woman, and Stanley and Vera are barely getting by. So there doesn’t seem much choice but to bide their time until Maude dies. Matters come to a head though, and Stanley decides on a course of action. Things don’t work out as planned though, and in fact, they soon spin out of control. Throughout the novel, we can see clearly that Maude is by no means a paragon of good motherhood.

Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) introduces us to C.C. de Poitiers. She has set herself up as a sort of ‘life coach’ and celebrity, but in her personal life, she is far from a role model. She is verbally sadistic and extremely selfish, and no-one is happy when she and her family move to the small Québec town of Three Pines. Soon enough, de Poitiers has alienated just about everyone and caused some serious resentment. Then, at the traditional Boxing Day curling match, she is murdered by electrocution. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team take on the case. They soon find that they have a long list of suspects. One of the threads that run throughout this novel is the way dysfunction and dysfunctional motherhood have worked in the de Poitiers family.

There are of course a lot of other crime novels in which mothers prove to be severely dysfunctional to say the least. Some of them I’m not mentioning because it would give away spoilers. Besides, the vast majority of mothers care deeply about their children and do the best job they can to raise their children with love. But those other kinds of mothers are certainly out there. Mums like that may give you the shivers, but they do make those of us who are mothers ourselves feel a lot better about our own parenting.  Which ones stand out in your mind?

Many thanks for the inspiration to Moira at Clothes in Books. Her post on bad mothers in literature at the Guardian’s book page really got me thinking. Do read it and do pay her excellent blog a visit. It’s a treasure trove of commentary on clothes, culture, fiction and what it all says about us.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roger Waters’ Mother.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, Minette Walters, Ross Macdonald, Ruth Rendell

I Need to Know*

WaitingIt’s devastating to hear the news that a loved one has died. Any crime fiction novel that doesn’t acknowledge that is, at least in my opinion, not portraying loss realistically. That said though, it’s possibly even harder when a loved one is missing. Not knowing whether that person is dead or alive takes a tremendous toll. You can’t start the grieving process really, because the missing person could still be alive. On the other hand, after a certain point, it’s hard to hold out hope. It’s a sort of ‘twilight zone’ and it is awful. Just a quick look at a few crime fiction novels should be enough to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is the story of the stabbing death of American businessman Samuel Ratchett. He’s en route across Europe on the Orient Express when the murder occurs, and the only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same coach. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, so he investigates Ratchett’s death. One of the pieces of evidence refers to another case: the kidnapping of three-year-old Daisy Armstrong. She was the daughter of wealthy and loving parents, and her abduction took a terrible toll on her family. Part of that toll was waiting to hear from the kidnappers, and not knowing whether she was safe.

Dr. Raymond Akande and his wife Laurette go through a horrible experience of waiting in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola. Their twenty-two-year-old daughter Melanie goes to the local Employment Bureau one afternoon to keep an appointment with a job counselor there. When she doesn’t return, Akande gets concerned and asks Inspector Wexford, who is one of his patients, to look into the matter. At first Wexford isn’t overly concerned. Melanie is an adult and it’s not unreasonable that she’d have gone off for a few days without necessarily telling her parents. But when more time goes by, Wexford begins to wonder what’s happened to her and an official investigation begins. Melanie’s last known contact was Annette Bystock, an employment counselor. When Bystock herself is killed, it’s clear that something may be going on at the Employment Bureau. In the meantime, the Akandes are very anxious for any news, and Wexford is uncomfortable that he can’t give them any real information. Then, a body is found in a local wood, and Wexford thinks it might be Melanie’s. It’s not though, and we can see the Akandes’ anger at the mistaken identity. Some of that anger comes from the fact that they still do not have answers. In the end, Wexford and his team put the case together, but throughout the novel, he feels guilty about what the Akandes are suffering as they wait for the truth about Melanie.

DCI Harry Nelson has a similar burden in Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places. Ten years ago, Lucy Downing went missing. Nelson and his team have never been able to find out what happened to her. He’s never even been able to give her parents the admittedly ice-cold consolation of closure. Then, the skeleton of a young girl is discovered in a remote area of Norfolk called the Saltmarsh. Nelson doesn’t know how old the bones are, or whether they might be Lucy’s remains, so he gets help from an expert Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist at North Norfolk University. She determines the bones are much, much older – probably from the Iron Age. On the one hand, it’s exciting news for Galloway in that it opens up a promising site for a dig. On the other, Nelson is left with no new answers. Then he begins to get anonymous, cryptic letters that make a veiled reference to Scarlet Henderson, another young girl who’s gone missing recently. Nelson contacts Galloway again to see if she can help him make sense of the letters. In the end, Nelson does find out what happened both to Scarlet and to Lucy. And Griffiths shows what it’s like for families who are waiting for news – any news – about their loved ones.

One plot thread of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Hypothermia concerns a young man Davíd, who went missing thirty years earlier. Inspector Erlendur was one of the investigators, and he and his team were never able to find any trace of the young man. Davíd’s father still visits the police station once a year to see if there’s any news, but Erlendur has never been able to help him. This year, the old man says that he doesn’t have much longer to live and he wants to know what happened to his son before he dies. So Erlendur re-opens the case. He finds that a young woman named Gudrún disappeared at about the same time Davíd did, and begins to wonder whether the two cases were related. As Erlendur gets to the truth about these missing young people, we can see how difficult it’s been for their families not to know what happened to them – not to have answers.

That’s also true for Dorothy Pine, whom we meet in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow. Five months earlier, her thirteen-year-old daughter Katie disappeared after school one day. Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police was on the team that investigated the disappearance, but they weren’t able to come up with any solid leads on Katie’s whereabouts. Dorothy calls in sometimes asking if there is any news about her daughter. But Cardinal is never able to give her any information. Then the body of a young girl is found in an abandoned mineshaft on Windigo Island. When it turns out to be Katie’s body, Cardinal has the thankless job of informing her mother. Dorothy now has the closure that she wanted but of course, that’s little comfort. Still, she is willing to help Cardinal find out who killed Katie. So she gives him as much information as she can and there’s a poignant scene in which he goes through Katie’s things. It shows how very hard the wait has been for her mother. Eventually Cardinal and his partner Lise Delorme are able to tie in Katie’s death with the disappearances of other young people.

It’s not always family members, either, who want answers and therefore, some closure. In Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson gets a new client. Brothel owner Candace Curtis is worried about one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria, who seems to have gone missing. Of course it’s possible that the young woman simply decided to leave, but Curtis doesn’t think that’s what happened. And she really is worried about Santamaria, since in that line of work, a lot of things can go wrong. Jackson agrees to take the case and begins to ask questions. It turns out that Curtis was right to be concerned; Jackson’s search for answers takes her into the seamier side of Toronto’s sex trade, and into some ugly truths about human trafficking. As Curtis does her best to help Jackson, we can sense how difficult it is for her not to know what’s happened to ‘one of her girls.’

It’s awful, truly awful, to learn that someone you care about has been killed. But a lot of people would say that it’s worse not to know. I’ve only included a few examples here. Which gaps have I left?

 

On Another Note

 

Malaysia Airlines Plane

 

This post is dedicated to the families and friends of those lost on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  My thoughts and wishes go out to them as they go through the grieving process and wait for answers. I hope that all the answers come soon.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Tom Petty song.

 

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Elly Griffiths, Giles Blunt, Jill Edmondson, Ruth Rendell

I’m in a Playground in My Mind*

Fictional Places that Seem RealI’m going to let you in on a little secret if I may. It’s not always easy to create an entirely fictional place when you write. On the one hand, creating a fictional setting means that you don’t have to verify street names, local landmarks and the like. You can locate buildings, parks, streets and so on anywhere you like. And there’s no end to the possibilities for the kinds of characters you create.

But on the other hand, a completely fictional setting still has to be credible. Even readers who live in the region where the fictional town or city is located have to believe the place could really exist. The climate, the kinds of businesses, the pastimes and the character types have to ring true or readers won’t be drawn into the story. And if you write a series set in that fictional place, it has to change and evolve as the series goes on. That happens to real-life places. Buildings go up and are torn down. People move in and out. Businesses open, close and change. A fictional setting has to reflect that evolution if it’s to be believed.

Some authors have created fictional settings that are so authentic that people have believed they actually exist. For example, Agatha Christie created St. Mary Mead, the home of Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train and later of course the home of Miss Jane Marple. Interesting that in a village like that, the two women never meet. Still, St. Mary Mead is a very credible kind of English village with a cast of ‘regular’ characters who fit in there. There’s the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, there’s Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and there are others too. St. Mary Mead also changes as time goes by, as you would expect. That’s one of the themes for instance in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, council housing and other social changes have come to the village, and some residents aren’t too happy about them. Miss Marple takes the changes in stride but it’s clear that the village is evolving as real places do.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in fictional Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a mining town in the western part of Pennsylvania and most of the characters there fit right in. Chief of Police Balzic for instance reflects the Polish-American and Italian-American influences in that region and the town residents tend to be working-class ‘regular folks.’ It’s a fictional town but the series reflects the culture, economy, character types and climate of that area. Trust me. To my knowledge (but please, correct me if I’m mistaken), Rocksburg is completely fictional. But it might be a real place for its authenticity.

That’s also true of Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham. Fans of her Inspector Reg Wexford series will know that most of the novels in it take place in this fictional town. It isn’t a real place, but it’s certainly authentic. In novels such as Road Rage and Simisola, we see the town adapt (or not) to social and other changes. The cast of ‘regulars’ is authentic; so are details such as climate, kinds of businesses and physical setting. Fans of the series will tell you that to them, Kingsmarkham might very well be an actual place. In fact, it’s said that Rendell once had to remind a reader that she created the place when that reader questioned her about it. I don’t have all of the details but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were true. Kingsmarkham is very genuine.

So is Three Pines, the rural Québec creation of Louise Penny.  As fans of this series will know, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec spends his share of time there. Beginning with Still Life, readers have gotten to know many of the locals very well. Gamache doesn’t live there, but he’s become one of them in his way. The place is authentic. It fits in with the region and it develops and evolves as the series goes on. Buildings change hands, people come and go, and there’s a cast of recurring characters that adds much to the authenticity of this fictional place. The climate and culture are also realistic. I would guess that plenty of people have done an Internet search for Three Pines, thinking they would find it on an actual map. Here’s what Penny says about the place:

 

‘I love Three Pines. I created it because I would want to live there.’

 

It may not be on maps, but it’s a believable town.

We could also say that about Vigàta, the fictional home of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Vigàta is located in Sicily and is based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle. It’s not a real place, but it’s quite authentic. The trattorias, the buildings, the local culture and the character types ring very true, and that’s not just because it’s inspired by a real place. Camilleri creates an authentic sense of setting with the subtle and not-so-subtle details that make a place genuine.

There are other series too that are set in fictional towns based on real places. For example, Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series is set in Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. That town is based on a real place, Wakaw, Saskatchewan. Robert B. Parker’s Paradise, Massachusetts is the home of his Jesse Stone series. Paradise is loosely based on Swamscott, Massachusetts. And fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that Durant, Wyoming, the setting for those novels, is based on an actual place, Buffalo, Wyoming.

Plenty of cosy mystery series are also set in fictional places that feel quite real. Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series is like that. It’s set mostly in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ And Elizabeth Spann Craig’s got two series set in fictional towns in North Carolina. But those places seem genuine. They’re populated with believable characters, the places evolve as the series goes on, and the culture and climate reflect the region.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Tilton Sentinel’s newest edition is out and I want to catch up on the news. :wink:  While I’m gone, feel free to share the fictional places that seem very real to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss’ Playground in My Mind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, K.C. Constantine, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Robert B. Parker, Ruth Rendell

I Got the Crossword Puzzle Half Complete*

CrosswordsCrossword puzzles are a very popular form of entertainment. For some people, it’s the easy four-to-eight clue television crossword. Others prefer more challenging crosswords. And of course, there are folks who can do the Times crossword puzzle in ink. Crosswords have become such a part of people’s ‘down time’ that it’s hard to believe they’re only 100 years old. So in honour of the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at just a few examples of how crosswords have found their way into crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Curtain, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings meet again at Styles Court, which Poirot fans will know is the scene of their first case together. This time Poirot’s health is failing and he wants Hastings to be his ‘eyes and ears’ to help catch a killer. Styles Court has been turned into a Guest House and Poirot believes that one of the guests, known only as X, is a dangerous killer who’s already struck more than once. Hastings begins to look into the case but then there’s another murder and it seems that X has struck again. While this case is going on, Hastings is struggling with something else:  the Times crossword. He’s stuck on one of the clues, the answer to which is Iago. Interestingly enough, the answer is supposed to have five letters; Iago has only four. No matter; it’s an important aspect of the mystery, and I’m certainly in no position to criticise Christie about such details…

Fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series will know that Morse is an avid fan of crossword puzzles, and they show up more than once in the novels. For instance, in The Daughters of Cain, Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate two murders. One is the killing of Felix McClure, former Ancient History don at Oxford. The other is the murder of McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. As you might guess, the two deaths are related, but not in the way you might think. One of the people who figure in this case is a prostitute who goes by the name of Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith. She and Morse strike up a kind of friendship which, under other circumstances, might have been more. But she is a suspect in a murder investigation that Morse is conducting, so both of them know that any kind of relationship between them would be at the very least extremely complicated. That doesn’t mean they don’t care for each other though, and towards of the end of the novel, Ellie gives him a silver hip flask. And as it happens, hip-flask is the one crossword puzzle answer Morse has been searching for; the clue is Kick in the pants? and Morse finds it quite frustrating to be missing that one answer. If you’re a crossword puzzle fan, you know that frustration.

Ruth Rendell takes a darker look at crosswords in One Across, Two Down. Stanley Manning is a fuel pump attendant who’s never really got on in life professionally. It doesn’t help matters that he’s got a prison record too. He and his wife Vera live with Vera’s mother Maude, who despises her son-in-law. The feeling is, as you might imagine, mutual. Stanley’s very much looking forward to the considerable inheritance Vera will get when Maude dies, but for the moment he’s biding his time. His main leisure activity is crossword puzzles and he gets an immense satisfaction from solving the daily puzzle in the Telegraph. But even the pleasure of crossword puzzles isn’t enough to prevent matters between Stanley and Maude from coming to a head. He decides on a plan of action but as Ruth Rendell fans will guess, things don’t work out the way he intends. These characters aren’t exactly likeable, but you can’t help understanding Stanley’s love of crosswords…

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series features newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. He’s a lover of words so he finds crossword puzzle clues rather easy. In The Cat Who Saw Red, for instance, Qwill’s editor has asked him to write a new gourmet column for The Daily Fluxion. One of his first stops will be the home of Robert Maus, an attorney who’s also a renowned chef and gourmet. He’s the leader of a group called The Gourmet Club, and Qwill gets an invitation to dinner at ‘The Maus Haus’ through a friend. One of the people he meets there is Charlotte Roop, a crossword puzzle fan who’s most pleased to meet a ‘newspaper person.’

 

‘She drew a crossword puzzle from the outer pocket of her enormous handbag. ‘Do you know a five-letter word for love that begins with a?’
‘Try a-g-a-p-e,’ Qwilleran suggested.
Miss Roop frowned. ‘Agape?’
‘It’s a Greek word, pronounced ag-a-pe.’
‘Oh my!’ she said, ‘You are brilliant!’ Delightedly she penciled the word in the vertical squares.

 

Of course, crosswords are soon forgotten when one of the members of the Gourmet Club, who just happens to be an old flame of Qwill’s, disappears…

There’s even a mystery series that features crossword puzzles. Parnell Hall’s  Puzzle Lady series features Cora Felton, a grandmotherly-looking type who’s really anything but. She’s fond of her gin, fond of going out, and she’s a skilled amateur sleuth. But she ‘looks the type,’ so her picture and name are featured on the daily ‘Puzzle Lady’ crossword puzzle that’s syndicated in a large number of newspapers. The real brains, if you will, behind the puzzles is Cora’s niece Sherry Carter. Sherry doesn’t mind being out of the limelight; in fact she prefers it that way. It’s an interesting premise for a series, and it shows just how popular crossword puzzles are.

OK, cruciverbalists, let’s get our pencils and wits sharpened. But before we tackle that next puzzle, let me invite you to visit Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema. It’s a fantastic resource for popular culture, including crosswords. G’wan – you’ll be glad you did! I’ll save the puzzle for you.

 

 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Utopia’s Chapter and Verse.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Lilian Jackson Braun, Parnell Hall, Ruth Rendell

And Then? And Then?*

Keeping the TensionIn a lot of crime fiction, part of the reason for investing oneself in a story is to try to work out who the culprit is. It’s a bit like a matching of wits between author and reader. But there are plenty of crime novels where we know who the killer is right from the start or soon after the story begins. In those cases, the author has to find some other way to keep the reader interested and wanting to know what happens next. That’s not easy to do, as it means one’s got to keep the tension level strong and add interest. But when it is done well, that sort of story can be an interesting alternative to the more traditional whodunit approach to telling a story.

Some authors keep readers engaged by exploring the background of a crime. And that approach can be very powerful. That’s what Ruth Rendell does in A Judgement in Stone. The very first sentence of the novel tells us who the murderer is, and even a bit about the motive:

 

‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’

 

And yet, the story stays strong throughout as Rendell explores Eunice Parchman’s background and psychology, and describes how the well-off and educated Coverdales hire her as housekeeper. The story of Eunice’s tenure in the household and the events that lead up to the murders takes a psychological approach that explains how and why someone like Eunice Parchman would kill people like the Coverdales. And that’s part of what keeps the tension and interest strong.

Sometimes, especially in thriller-type crime novels, the author builds the tension and keeps readers interested by putting the focus on the battle of wits between the criminal(s) and the protagonist(s). That’s what Frederick Forsyth does in Day of the Jackal. A far-right French terrorist group Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) plans to have French president Chales de Gaulle assassinated. The group’s members are already known to the police because of a prior attempt at assassination, so none of them will be able to get close to the president. That’s why they decide to hire an outside killer – an Englishman known only as The Jackal. The contract is agreed on, and The Jackal starts to prepare. The French government becomes aware that there’s a plot, but no-one knows who the assassin will be or where and when the killer will strike. Against those odds, French detective Claude Lebel is assigned to track down the killer and stop him before he can carry out his end of the contract. In this novel, the details of the preparation for the assassination, and the battle of wits between Lebel and his enemy add interest and tension to the story.

Martin Clark takes a slightly different approach to that battle of wits in The Legal Limit. Brothers Mason and Gates Hunt have grown up in rural Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a terrible childhood with their abusive alcoholic father, but the two brothers have responded to life in very different ways. Mason took advantage of all the opportunities that came his way. He went to university on a scholarship and has become a lawyer. Gates on the other hand squandered his athletic ability and now lives mostly on money he gets from his mother and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One day Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Thompson ends up leaving but that night, the Hunt brothers are coming home from a night of drinking when they encounter Thompson again. Before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both. Years later, Mason has become a commonwealth prosecutor. When Gates is convicted of cocaine trafficking, he begs his brother to help him get out of jail. Mason refuses and Gates threatens him with implication in the murder of Wayne Thompson. Mason calls his brother’s bluff as the saying goes, and Gates follows through. In this story, we know who the killer is. We know what led up to it too. The tension is built in part through following the legal battle between the brothers and their lawyers. It’s also built through Clark’s exploration of the complicated relationship between them.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is another interesting example of how authors keep the tension and interest going even when we know the truth about a crime. Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer gets a visit from Runi Winther. She’s worried because she hasn’t seen or heard from her son Andreas for a few days. At first, Sejer doesn’t do very much about the case. He sees no cause for great concern, and he reassures his visitor that her son is probably just fine. But when more time goes by with no sign of Andreas, Sejer starts to look into the matter. The last person to see Andreas seems to have been his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. The two young men spent the day of Andreas’ disappearance together, and Sejer is sure that Zipp knows something about what happened. But Zipp claims he doesn’t. Sejer has reason to think that Zipp’s not telling everything he knows and he’s right. We know from early in the novel exactly what happened to Andreas and the events that led up to it. And no, Fossum avoids the obvious: Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does indeed know the truth and part of the interest in this novel is the conflict between him and Sejer as Sejer tries to find out the truth while Zipp is just as determined to keep quiet about it all.

Sometimes it’s the ‘whydunit’ aspect of a crime or set of crimes that keeps the reader’s interest. That’s what happens in Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called in when Ryszard Malik is shot twice and killed in his own home. They’re just working on that case when there’s another murder. And another. Now the police have to figure out what the three victims have in common. When they do, they learn that there will be a fourth unless they can catch the killer first. What’s interesting about this novel is that we know who the killer is very quickly in the novel. But at first, we don’t know what the motive is. The slow reveal of that motive is part of what keeps the interest alive. Another element that keeps the reader engaged is the ‘chess game’ between Van Veeteren’s team and the killer.

T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach to building tension when we know the killer’s identity in Defending Elton. The body of an enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. Some pieces of evidence point to Elton Spears, a troubled young man with mental problems and some deficiencies. And yet, there is the principle that under British law, an accused person is considered innocent until proven guilty. What’s more, the evidence isn’t entirely conclusive and there are hints that Spears may not be guilty. Since Spears can’t be much help in the case, solicitor Jim Harwood works with barrister Harry Douglas to investigate what really happened. We know soon after the novel begins who the killer is. Instead of using the ‘whodunit’ approach to keeping the tension and interest, Cooke takes a ‘Will the killer get away with it?’ angle on the story. The answer to that question is not a given…

A lot of crime fiction fans (myself included) like to match wits with the author in the ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. But there are lots of other approaches to keeping the reader engaged in a novel, even if we know who the killer is. Oh, and did you notice that I’ve not mentioned novels where we follow a serial killer’s thought processes throughout the novel? Maybe it’s my own bias, but that’s just not my thing. And it’s my blog, so there! ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Along Came Jones, made popular by the Coasters.

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Filed under Frederick Forsyth, Håkan Nesser, Karin Fossum, Martin Clark, Ruth Rendell, T.J. Cooke