Category Archives: Shona MacLean

I Write About What’s Real to Me*

Authentic Writing Phil Northern DEOne of the many things to love about reading is the sense of place one gets in a well-written novel. Some books give us a new perspective on places we know well; others show us places we’ve never been. But either way, a solid and authentic sense of place and therefore culture adds much to a story. Some would say it’s an essential ingredient.

Giving readers a sense of place and culture is partly a matter of scenery, locations and so on. But it’s more than that. It’s also giving readers a sense of the way the people who live in that place speak, act and interact. Subtle nuances such as eating customs, idioms and so on can give a novel a real richness. They can also add real authenticity to a novel and have readers thinking, ‘I felt like I was there.’

What’s interesting about that authenticity is that we may not pay close attention to it unless it’s not there. That’s when many readers get cranky.  For instance, I read a blog review recently of a novel that takes place in the US, but where the characters didn’t ‘feel American.’ I understand the point. However one defines ‘being American,’ or ‘being Australian,’ or ‘being English, ‘ or ‘being Russian,’ (or any other culture for the matter of that), one wants fictional characters to seem authentic.

As with most things in writing though, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. On the one hand, people do notice a lack of authenticity and sense of place. And they often get ill-tempered about it. On the other hand, if the characters aren’t interesting in and of themselves (apart from their cultures), then what the author intends as authenticity can come off as stereotyped. If the plot isn’t interesting, then the setting can’t always save a story. And there is such a thing as ‘dumping’ information about a culture or setting. That makes readers cranky too. Nonetheless, a skilled author shows what a place is like in all sorts of obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

Some authors (I’m thinking for instance of Deon Meyer, Nelson Brunanski, Denise Mina and Domingo Villar) are members of the cultures depicted in their stories. They write authentically because they know from growing up in those cultures what they’re like. I’m sure you have your own list of favourite authors like that – authors who are skilled at sharing their own ‘home’ settings, cultures, speech patterns and the like. It takes a special ability to balance writing about one’s own culture while at the same time including and welcoming readers who may not know about it. And a word of praise is due too I think to those who translate these authors’ stories. It takes a great deal of skill to capture that authenticity in another language. Trust me. So kudos to people such as Stephen Sartarelli, Anne Trager, Marlaine Delargy and Martin Schifino.

Other authors write truly authentic novels because they’ve lived in an area for a long time and really gotten to know the culture. That’s true for instance of Peter Temple. Born in South Africa, he moved to Australia in 1980 and he’s set his novels there. His stories and characters are distinctly Australian. In fact, his novel Truth won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award, which is given to a novel

 

‘…which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.’

 

You can’t get much more Australian than that.

The same sort of thing might be said of Tony Hillerman. Born in Oklahoma, he moved to the American Southwest and became thoroughly familiar with the Navajo Nation. Hillerman fans know that his Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series portrays life among the Dineh (the Navajo) in a respectful and authentic way. In fact it’s easy to forget (or perhaps it’s just me) that Hillerman was not a member of the Navajo Nation. He spent years among the Navajos and got to know the culture, the language and the subtle nuances of life and interaction before he really wrote about them. And he did so in such an authentic way that the Navajo Nation gave him their Special Friend of the Dineh Award – a mark of true respect.

As an interesting (well, I hope so) side note, Hillerman is said to have been much inspired by the work of Arthur Upfield, Upfield was originally from the UK, but moved to Australia in 1910. Most of his novels are about half-Aboriginal police detective Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. Upfield was neither born in Australia nor a member of any of Australia’s Aboriginal cultures. And yet his depictions of the land and the people ring very true.

Authors can also do a lot careful research to make sure their stories are authentic in terms of characters, language, interactions, setting and the like. Of course, it’s a good idea for any author to ‘do the homework’ as a part of writing a story. Otherwise the story is not only inauthentic, it’s inaccurate. And that’s another thing that can make readers quite grouchy. And authors such as Shona (S.G.) MacLean and William Ryan have to rely quite a bit on that careful work because they write historical series. So they have the added challenge of giving readers a realistic sense of a different time with different technology, assumptions, lifestyles, and lots more.

What about you? Do you find yourself irritated if the characters and setting you’re reading about don’t feel authentic to you? Or are you more plot-driven, so if the story is a good one, that’s what matters? If you’re a writer, what do you tap to make the story authentic? Your own experience? Research? Something else?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of winter in Southeastern Pennsylvania/Northern Delaware. I write about that area in part because it’s my home. I know the place.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hands Like Houses’ Weight.

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Filed under Anne Trager, Arthur Upfield, Denise Mina, Deon Meyer, Domingo Villar, Marlaine Delargy, Martin Schifino, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Temple, Shona MacLean, Stephen Sartarelli, Tony Hillerman, William Ryan

You’re Saying I’m Fragile*

FragileOne of the ways that authors keep the reader’s interest is by developing characters in sometimes unexpected ways. For example, a character may seem quite fragile on the surface, but as the story evolves, we learn that the character has strengths that we didn’t realise. There’s always a risk with that, of course, because a character who seems to change too abruptly or who acts too much ‘out of character’ isn’t believable. But discovering hidden strength under surface-level fragility can make a character all the more interesting.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links for instance, Hercule Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld, an ex-pat Canadian who now lives in France. Renauld’s letter refers to threats on his life, and he makes it clear that he wants Poirot to come to France immediately. Poirot and Hastings go to the small  town of Merlinville-sur-Mer, but by the time they get there it’s too late. Renauld has been stabbed and his body found on a golf course being built near the villa where he lived. As you might expect, the police and Poirot interview people who might have seen something or who might have known the victim. So one of their stops is the villa nearest the Renauld home. In that villa lives Marthe Daubreuil, who is the fiancée of Renauld’s son Jack. When they first meet her, Marthe seems fragile and vulnerable. Poirot even calls her

 

‘…a girl with anxious eyes.’

 

But as the story evolves and we learn more about her, we find that Marthe has quite a lot of strength in her.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur, Kerstin Kvist accepts a position as a private nurse at Lydstep Old Hall, the home of the Cosway family. She’s hoping that the move from her native Sweden to England will allow her to spend more time with her lover Mark Douglas. Her job at the Cosway’s home will be the care of thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. Kvist settles into her job, but soon finds that this is no ordinary family. For one thing, the family seems to live and behave as though it were still the Victorian Era. For another, John Cosway is kept heavily medicated on orders from his mother, the family matriarch. After a short time Kvist begins to suspect that the heavy medication is detrimental to her patient so without telling anyone, she begins to withhold it. That decision has tragic consequences that she couldn’t have imagined. As the novel evolves and Kvist gets to know her patient, so does the reader. And although he seems very fragile on the surface – he is a mental patient after all – we learn that there are depths and strengths to his character. He turns out to be quite surprising in his way.

In Shona (S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, we meet grammar school undermaster Alexander Seaton, a former candidate for the pulpit who left the ministry under a cloud of scandal. Since that time, Seaton has tried to stay ‘under the radar,’ taking on a humble job and trying to stay out of trouble. In many ways he’s quite fragile, although not physically so. Then his good friend Charles Thom is accused of murdering local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson. Thom claims he’s innocent and begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and starts to ask questions about the murder. Bit by bit he’s drawn more and more into the investigation. And, trite as it may sound, that process requires him to find strength within himself that he didn’t know he had.

Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride) introduces us to Gunder Jormann, who lives in the small Norwegian town of Elvestad. He’s not the world’s quickest thinker, but he’s a steady worker and has never been in trouble. His sister Marie has always looked after him and in that sense he seems fragile on the surface. Then he decides to do something no-one expected. He decides he would like to get married. He’s no longer a young man, but he’s still in decent physical shape and he has a steady income, so he doesn’t think his marital prospects are hopeless. As if that weren’t surprising enough, he decides to go to Mumbai to find a wife. At first, Marie is against the idea. But when she sees that her brother is determined, she reminds him of all of the details that are involved in international travel. Things start to change when Jormann actually gets to Mumbai. There, he surprises even himself by his ability to get used to being in a totally different environment. He’s successful at finding a wife, too. She is Poona Bai, whom Jormann met when he started going to the restaurant where she works. Within a short time, he has persuaded Poona to marry him and move to Norway. She has to finish up the details of her life in India, so Jormann goes back to Elvestad first, with the understanding that his bride will follow him. On the day of her arrival though, Jormann’s sister is involved in a terrible auto accident and he can’t leave her side. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport. When the two miss each other, Poona continues on towards Elvestad, but never makes it to Jormann’s home. When her body is later discovered in a field near Elvestad, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. Throughout the novel it’s interesting to see the solid strength of Jormann’s character show beneath his superficial fragility.

Max Kinnings’ Baptism is the story of George Wakeham, a London Underground driver for the Northern Line. He’s by no means weak-willed, but in some ways he’s quite fragile. He’s always wanted to do something creative with his life – something that would have a lasting impact. But although he was part of a band and tried writing as well, he hasn’t felt he succeeded. In that sense he’s quite insecure. Still, he has a stable marriage, two healthy children and a steady job. Then one morning, three people invade his home and take his family as prisoners. They tell Wakeham that if his family is to live, he must do exactly as they say. They give him a special mobile ‘phone which they will use to instruct him, and tell him to report for work as usual, making sure to do everything he is told. With no other option, Wakeham goes to his duty station and takes his place in the cab of his train. The hostage-takers board the train as well, with his family in tow. Then, in the middle of a tunnel, he is ordered to stop the train. Now Wakeham learns to his horror why he was targeted and what the hostage-takers want. In the meantime, DCI Ed Mallory and his team have been alerted to the hostage situation. Mallory is an experienced negotiator, so he tries to work with the hostage-takers to find out exactly what they want. Meanwhile Wakeham works to keep himself and his family alive, and to try his best to protect the 400 passengers on the train. In that process we see that he has a lot of strength that he didn’t know he had.

Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is the central focus in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Durga has been temporarily placed in a prison because she is under suspicion for having committed multiple murders. One night, thirteen members of her family were poisoned. Some were stabbed as well, and the house was burnt. Durga has survived, but she won’t talk about that night. It looks very much as though she somehow ‘snapped’ and is guilty of the crimes. However, there are clues that instead, she was bound and raped, so she may be a victim herself. The only way to find out what really happened is to get Durga to talk, so social worker Simran Singh is asked to travel from her home in Delhi to the Punjab town of Jullundar to help. Simran knows the town well, since she was brought up there, and it is hoped that she’ll be able to break through Durga’s ‘wall of silence.’ Slowly and piece by piece, Simran finds out about the Atwal family, about Durga’s life there, and about some very dark secrets that the well-to-do family had hidden. As the novel evolves, we see that although Durga seems quite fragile on the surface (and in some ways, she really is), she is actually much stronger and more resilient than it seems.

When characters seem one way on the surface, but turn out to have different sorts of depths to them, this can make them all the more interesting. And that’s part of what keeps readers turning and clicking pages. This post only gives me enough space to mention a few examples of fragile characters who turn out not to be so fragile. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Leather and Lace.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Karin Fossum, Kishwar Desai, Max Kinnings, Ruth Rendell, Shona MacLean

I Have My Own Life and I Am Stronger Than You Know*

Unique VoicesMost authors tap their own life experiences and world views when they write. And that makes sense; tapping one’s own experiences has a way of adding authenticity to a story and it allows the author to write in a more natural way. But some authors have taken interesting risks by creating protagonists who don’t have much in common with the author at all. Giving an authentic voice to that kind of character can be a real challenge. Essentially, the author has to re-think her or his assumptions about everything when writing the character. It’s not easy to do, but there are some examples of authors who’ve done it very well.

Agatha Christie created several protagonists who had different voices to her own. One of them is Captain Arthur Hastings (and I’ll bet you thought I was going to mention Hercule Poirot!). Hastings has in common with Christie an English background and wartime experience. But they are quite different, not least in terms of their genders. And it’s interesting to see how Christie goes about giving Hastings his unique voice. We see it for instance in The Murder on the Links. Hastings is returning by train to London after a business trip when he meets a mysterious young woman who is a fellow passenger. The woman, who refers to herself only as ‘Cinderella,’ turns out to play an unexpected role in the case that soon preoccupies Hastings and Poirot. Paul Renauld writes to Poirot to ask his help, and Poirot and Hastings travel to Renauld’s home in France in response. When they get there they find that Renauld has been stabbed. Poirot investigates and discovers that this stabbing is related to Renauld’s hidden past. Throughout the novel, we see Hastings’ interactions with ‘Cinderella’ as well as with other characters. His voice strikes the reader as authentic and his reactions are believable, despite the fact that he has little in common really with his creator.

The same is true of Christopher Boone, whom we meet in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. When he discovers that a neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and find out who is responsible. In the process of investigating, he finds out not just the truth about the dog, but also some truths about his own life. Haddon has had experience working with people with disabilities and Christopher’s character shows that knowledge. But Christopher’s voice is quite different to Haddon’s. This story is told from Christopher’s point of view, so we get an authentic look at the way a person with autism might see the world and might process a series of events. Haddon took a risk in writing Christopher’s voice and it paid off (at least in my opinion, so do feel free to differ with me if you don’t agree). The voice is very believable and that’s part of what makes this novel work.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce has a voice that’s very different to her creator’s voice. While Bradley has said that he has some things in common with his protagonist, the two really are different. Besides the obvious gender difference, Flavia is English and Bradley is Canadian. Flavia is interested in chemistry and Bradley’s professional background was in electrical engineering and technology. And of course, Flavia is a child while Bradley isn’t. And yet, Bradley has created an authentic voice for Flavia. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, she attends a church fête where there are several attractions, including fortune-telling. Flavia has her fortune told, but the experience ends in disaster. Afterwards, she feels a sense of obligation to the Gypsy who told her fortune. When the Gypsy tells her that she and her husband were once forced off the property of Flavia’s own home Buckshaw, here is Flavia’s reaction:

 

‘And that was when it came to me. Before I could change my mind I had blurted out the words.
‘You can come back to Buckshaw. Stay as long as you like. It will be all right…I promise.’
Even as I said it I knew there would be a great flaming row with Father, but somehow that didn’t matter.’

 

In this we see a very eleven-year-old response. Flavia is bright and observant, but like any eleven-year-old, she hasn’t thought out the consequences of what she’s offering. And when the Gypsy is later found murdered, she uses that same enthusiasm to find out who the killer is.

Karin Fossum and her sleuth, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer, both live and work in Norway. But beyond that, they are quite different. Fossum is a poet as well as a novelist, but she has had other work experience too, including hospital work and working as a home aid caregiver. Her creation though is a cop. That’s been his life’s work. In other ways too, they are different. They have different perceptions of life just by dint of their being different sexes. And yet Sejer has a distinctive voice that doesn’t seem forced at all. He is a widower whose process of grieving his wife Elise seems natural, as does his relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel, which begins in He Who Fears the Wolf and evolves as a story arc. He is believable as a middle-aged male cop and doesn’t strike the reader (well, at least this reader) as a female civilian’s perception of what a male cop would be like.

Shona MacLean (who now writes her series as S.G. MacLean) has created a sleuth who’s quite different to her in her Alexander Seaton series. Like MacLean, Seaton is Scottish, but there the resemblance ends. MacLean studied history; Seaton studied religion. MacLean lives in 21st Century Scotland, but Seaton lives in the Scotland of the 17th Century. And of course, there’s the gender difference. To MacLean’s credit though, Seaton’s voice is quite authentic. He inhabits his world just as naturally as we inhabit ours, and he sees the world in a believable way. His voice is very real too as he meets, gets to know, woos and marries Sarah Forbes.

And then there’s Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. She is very different to her creator, being not just female but half-Aborigine. What’s more, her home is Australia’s Northern Territories, a very different environment to Hyland’s own Melbourne. He began by writing,

 

‘…a young whitefella who, whatever I did to him, always seemed to be too much like me’

 

Feedback from a manuscript assessment place caused him to re-think his story:

 

‘So I pulled the whitefella out altogether and Emily stepped forward. That forced me into a plot and some structure.’

 

Hyland took a risk in creating Emily, but fans of this series (of whom I am one) can tell you that Emily’s character is rich, authentic and certainly has a distinctive voice.

And that’s the thing about talented authors. They can create characters who have completely different voices and make those characters just as real as they themselves are. What are your thoughts on this? If you’re writer, have you written characters who have completely different voices to your own?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Leather and Lace.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Karin Fossum, Mark Haddon, Shona MacLean

It’s Witchcraft*

It’s often the case that we fear things that we don’t understand. That’s how myths and scary stories are handed down over time. And one of the most persistent set of stories is the set of stories about witchcraft and sorcery. Those stories come up in many different cultures and are told in different ways and that’s what’s interesting; it’s such a pervasive set of beliefs. The stories that are told at this time of year about wicked women who fly around on broomsticks and cast evil spells are just one kind of example. There are lots of others and as influential as they’ve been in history, it makes sense that they’d show up a lot in different kinds of crime fiction too. And no, I’m not going to mention crime fiction where there are paranormal explanations for things. Really my focus is crime fiction where belief in witchcraft and sorcery plays a role in the story.

For instance, many of Tony Hillerman’s novels feature Navajo beliefs and traditions. And one of those traditions is a belief in skinwalkers, or witches. These are people who practice what the Navajo people call the Witchery Way. They can assume the shape of animals and use their abilities to wreak havoc. Although not all Navajos believe in skinwalkers, it’s a well-known set of stories. We see how influential this belief is in Skinwalkers. In that novel Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee, each in a different way, investigate a series of deaths that seem to be connected to the Bad Water Clinic, run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse. As they piece together the clues, we find that although the deaths have a very prosaic cause, the belief that witchcraft is at work plays an important role in the novel. We also see in this series a real contrast between those beliefs and the Navajo tradition of healing. For instance, in the early Hillerman novels, Chee is studying to be a yata’ali, or Navajo healer. That spiritual tradition of the healing arts is not at all the same as witchcraft but it’s often been mistaken for it. That misunderstanding has led to quite a lot of damage.

There’s a lot of mention of traditional belief in what you might call witchcraft in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels. Most of those novels take place in rural Louisiana where several different cultural beliefs have come together. One of them is juju, adapted from West African tradition. In the Burke novels juju is depicted as similar to, but not identical to, voodoo, and those who have skill at this kind of witchcraft are believed to have powerful abilities. For instance, in A Morning for Flamingos, Robicheaux is, among other things, trying to find out the truth behind the murder of Hipolyte Broussard. Tee Beau Latiolais has been convicted of the murder, but he claims that he isn’t guilty. Robicheaux promises that he’ll find out what really happened and begins to investigate. The trail leads to Gros Mama Goula, who runs a local brothel and who is said to be a juju woman. All sorts of stories have been passed around about her power, and although Robicheaux isn’t superstitious he knows that she has local clout.  When Robicheaux questions her, she startles him with what seem to be some eerie insights into what’s going on his mind. No, it’s not ‘mind-reading’ and no, witchcraft doesn’t solve this mystery. In fact, the scenes with Gros Mama Goula don’t take up a lot of space in this story. But her influence and the influence of traditional beliefs is obvious in this novel.

Belief in witchcraft – or at least uneasiness about it – shows up in M.C. Beaton’s Death of an Outsider too. In that novel, Constable Hamish Macbeth takes a temporary leave from his usual post at Lochdubh to fill in for a colleague in the village of Cnothan. He’s not exactly warmly welcomed and the feeling is mutual. But Macbeth takes up his temporary duties nonetheless and it’s not long before he finds that there are others even more disliked than he is. William Mainwaring and his wife Agatha are English ‘incomers’ who supposedly have taken up crofting. Everyone suspects that Mainwaring is involved in something much shadier, though. As if that’s not bad enough, he’s contemptuous of the locals, overbearing and has made more than his share of enemies. Agatha hasn’t been much easier to like and matters come to a head when she complains that she’s being pursued by a group of witches. She may not be particularly old-fashioned or overly superstitious but she’s uneasy enough about the possibility of witchcraft that she’s quite anxious and upset. Macbeth finds out that there’s a down-to-earth explanation for the incidents that have frightened Agatha Mainwaring but the situation turns tragic when Mainwaring is murdered. Now, Macbeth has to enlist the aid of wary and unhelpful locals to find out the truth behind the victim’s death.

Today there’s a lot more understanding of traditional healing and different kinds of spirituality than there was in earlier times. And we see that stark contrast in historical crime fiction and in crime fiction that includes connections with the past. There are a lot of examples of this; I’ll just refer to one. Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton takes place in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. Apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is poisoned, and everyone believes that local music master Charles Thom is responsible. He’s duly arrested and imprisoned, but he claims that he’s innocent. He begs his friend, schoolteacher Alexander Seaton, to find out the truth behind the murder and Seaton agrees. He begins to ask questions and in the course of his investigations, he finds that both Davidson and Davidson’s beloved Marion Arbuthnott may have been paying visits to a mysterious old woman who’s got the reputation of being a witch with the ability to cast spells, heal, curse and so on. If that’s true, then there are several local people who might have wanted Davidson dead, as feeling against witches is at the boiling point. Then, Marion Arbuthnott dies, too, apparently a successful suicide. When the locals find out that she might have been involved in witchcraft, that story has terrible consequences. In the end, though, it turns out that neither death has anything to do with casting spells. It also turns out that there’s more to the mysterious old woman than meets the eye.

In A Carrion Death by the writing duo known as Michael Stanley, we are introduced to Botswana police inspector David ‘Kubu” Bengu. In this novel, a body is discovered in the Botswana desert. It’s mostly been consumed by hyenas, so there isn’t much evidence as to what happened. The death is initially put down to accident but Kubu isn’t convinced. He begins to ask questions and investigate further. Then there’s another death. As he’s trying to make sense of what’s happened, he runs into traditional beliefs about witch doctors, who are said to have great power and of whom many of the locals are fearfully respectful. Kubu’s been university-educated and doesn’t believe in traditional spirituality. But he does understand that others do, and is reminded of that one Sunday when he tells his father of an encounter between one of his associates and an old man who’s said to be a witch doctor. Kubu’s father reminds him that for many in Botswana, traditional views of spirituality and of witch doctors hold sway and must be respected. No, the two victims were not killed by witch doctors. Their deaths are related to greed, corruption and land-grabbing. But it’s interesting to see the power that the traditional belief system has.

We also see those beliefs depicted in Adrian Hyland’s Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs). Lincoln Flinders is the leader of an Aborigine encampment at Moonlight Downs. When he is brutally murdered, it’s thought at first that his death is the work of Blakie Japanangka, who is a local sorcerer. The two had a heated quarrel, and just after the murder, Blakie disappeared. So everyone makes the obvious connection. But Emily Tempest, who grew up in that encampment and has recently returned, is not so sure. She starts to investigate and in the end, she finds that Flinders’ murder isn’t related to sorcery at all. She also finds out some surprising truths about Blakie Japanangka. In this novel Hyland shares traditional beliefs about sorcerers and the difference between them and those who practice traditional healing. There’s also a thread of that in Gunshot Road, the next novel in this series. It’s easy to develop misunderstandings about traditional healing and what people think of as sorcery and witchcraft and Hyland makes the distinction clear, at least in my opinion.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman and nearly always involves the other residents of Insula, the building in which Chapman lives and has her bakery. One of those residents is Miriam Kaplan, usually known as Meroe, who practices Wicca and owns The Sibyl’s Cave, which sells everything needed for practicing traditional Wicca. She has a very deep knowledge of traditional forms of healing and if you want to, you can call her a witch. But she’s a long way from the stereotyped evil witch with an ugly face and a broomstick. She is in fact a really interesting character through whom Greenwood shares Wicca beliefs and customs. In Trick or Treat in particular we learn about the origins of Samhain, the end-of-harvest festival with which witches are most traditionally associated. You could say that she practices witchcraft as it was originally intended – as it was known before all of the stereotypes and awful legends came up. And her skill with traditional healing, herbs and so on proves useful in more than one case of poisoning that comes up in this series.

Whether or not you are spiritual, it’s hard to deny the power that beliefs about witchcraft and sorcery have had over the years. I’ve only mentioned a few examples of crime fiction where misunderstanding about spirituality and beliefs about witchcraft play an important role. But those beliefs show up in many different cultures too, and that’s what I find particularly interesting.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Sinatra’s Witchcraft.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Michael Stanley, Shona MacLean, Tony Hillerman

Nowhere to Look But Inside*

We all have our weak points, “sore spots” and let’s just say imperfections. Well, at least I hope I’m not the only one! Most of us find ways to compensate for them and sometimes hide from them. For instance, someone who’s never had to earn a living and make ends meet might have real difficulty surviving in “the real world.” That person may deal with that by choosing a wealthy partner, so avoiding any need to face that challenge. But we really learn a lot about our own characters and our own capacities when we’re forced to confront ourselves. In real life those experiences can help us grow. In crime fiction they can add a real layer of suspense to a novel and an interesting facet to a character or group of characters.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) we meet the members of the Cloade family. Family patriarch Gordon Cloade has always taken care of his siblings and their children, and in fact he made it clear to his brothers Jeremy and Lionel and his sister Adela that they would never have to worry about money. So they didn’t. Then something happens that no-one had imagined: Gordon Cloade marries twenty-six-year-old widow Rosaleen Underhay. Before he gets the chance to change his will to protect the rest of his family Cloade is tragically killed by a bomb blast. Now Rosaleen stands to inherit everything and the Cloades have to consider what they will do without the wealth they’d always assumed. The family is reeling from this when a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen might not have been a widow at the time of her marriage. If her husband was in fact still alive, her marriage to Cloade wasn’t legitimate and Cloade’s family will be financially safe. So everyone has a stake in finding out whether there is any truth to what Arden says. Then one night, Arden is killed. Hercule Poirot has already heard of Rosaleen Underhay from a member of his club, and he interests himself in Arden’s death. In the end we find out who Enoch Arden was and who killed him. Throughout this novel we see the various members of the Cloade family forced to confront their dependence on easy money. It’s fascinating to see how each of them reacts to that.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claws introduces us Eva Griffin, who seeks out Perry Mason when she becomes the victim of a blackmailer. Griffin was at dinner with a “friend” up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke when the restaurant was held up. Gossip tabloid reporter Frank Locke found out about this relationship and has threatened to report the story in his paper Spicy Bits unless Eva Griffin pays him. Griffin wants Mason to stop Locke and he agrees to track the reporter down and try to convince him not to go ahead with his blackmail plan. In taking on Griffin as a client Mason takes on more than he’d imagined. In the first place, as Mason soon discovers, Griffin isn’t very honest. She doesn’t even give Mason her real surname, which is Belter. What’s more, she has a habit of constantly lying, so that it’s hard to tell whether anything she says is the truth. Then one night Mason gets a frantic call from his client. Her husband George has been murdered and she soon becomes the most likely suspect. In trying to clear his client’s name, Mason forces her to confront the fact that she’s a manipulative liar. And in fact it’s interesting to see how the dynamic between them develops as she continues to lie to him and he continues to call her on it, even while he’s trying to save her by finding out who really killed her husband.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s always been particularly close to her brother Bill so when he announces that he’s getting married she wants very much to be happy for him. But Bill has chosen former Hollywood wardrobe assistant Alice Steele, and from the moment they meet Lora doesn’t care much for her. Alice has what used to be called a checkered past, and she still has some associations with people who aren’t exactly pillars of the community. But for Bill’s sake Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law. Bit by bit though, she discovers disturbing things about Alice. For example, Alice claims that she’s got a teaching certificate, but Lora finds out that’s not true. There are other things too that don’t add up, so Lora decides to do a little digging. Then there’s a murder. Lora begins to wonder whether Alice might somehow have been involved, since the victim was someone Alice knew. So she starts to look into the case and ask questions. The more Lora learns about Alice’s life, the more she has to confront her own. On the surface, she’s a quiet, respectable schoolteacher and that’s how she’s always seen herself. But Lora finds herself just as fascinated by Alice’s life and her friends as she is repelled by them and one theme of this novel is Lora’s growing realisation of that. And in the end, readers are left to wonder just how successful that confrontation really was.

Shona MacLean’s Scottish teacher Alexander Seaton has been running from himself for quite a while as we learn in The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. At one point he was a very promising candidate for the ministry. His career ended in disgrace because of his relationship with his best friend’s sister Katharine Hays. In the 17th Century world in which Seaton lives, that relationship was enough to keep him from ever getting a pulpit. To make matters worse, he treated Katharine very badly after their relationship was discovered. Seaton has buried himself in his teaching work and done his best to escape what happened. Everything changes when local apothecary’s apprentice Patrick Davidson is poisoned. Seaton’s friend local music master Charles Thom is accused of the murder but Thom swears he’s innocent and begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and begins to look into the murder. In doing so, he’s forced to confront his own failings as well as his refusal to let go of the past. Seaton is also forced to confront his unwillingness to interact with the locals, whom he is convinced hate him as much as he hates himself. Seaton finds out who Davidson’s killer is and also re-discovers himself.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure tells several stories of being forced to confront oneself. In that novel Sydney paramedic Carly Martens and her trainee Aidan Simpson are called to what seems like a basic domestic dispute between Connor and Suzanne Crawford. The next night, Suzanne is brutally murdered and Connor goes missing.  Detective Ella Marconi and her partner Dennis Orchard are assigned the case, which looks at first like a tragic case of domestic violence gone horribly wrong. But it’s soon clear that it’s not that simple at all. For instance, background checks on Connor Crawford show nothing. And it soon comes out that he was keeping a secret from his wife that she was desperate to learn. Then Emil Page, a teenage volunteer at the Crawfords’ nursery business, goes missing too. As this case goes on, several of the characters have to confront themselves. For instance Aidan Simpson is not at all a success as a trainee. He’s arrogant, smug, and inept when it comes to a real paramedic case. He’s habitually late, he’s rude and more. Several people have tried to help him but he’s ignored everyone. In the course of this case Simpson is forced to confront his own lack of knowledge and his own weaknesses. That process is an interesting sub-plot in this novel.

When we are forced to confront ourselves, we learn what we’re really made of and as painful as that can be it can help us grow too. It can also add “flesh” to characters and suspense and tension to a fictional plot.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Katherine Howell, Megan Abbott, Shona MacLean