Category Archives: Shona MacLean

Now Here I’m Facing Adventure, Then Why Am I So Scared*

YouthAt some point in life, we’ve all faced the prospect of starting out – of beginning our careers. It’s an exciting time in many ways; there’s so much to look forward to, and young people often have a lot of passion for their work. On the other hand, it’s a very nerve-wracking time too. Many young people don’t yet have confidence in themselves as they will when they’re older. And they often don’t have the wisdom that they will when they’re older either. So it can be a scary experience to get started in a career. In fiction, characters who are just getting started in their careers can add some richness to a story just because of that interesting mix of energy and anxiety. Here are a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s  Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boyntons, an American family on a tour of the Middle East. During their travels, they decide to make a visit to Petra for a few days. On their second day there, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks like a heart attack. But Colonel Carbury isn’t sure that’s what happened, so he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s making his own trip to the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and interviews each of the people in the Petra tour group. One of those people is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny’ Boynton, Mrs. Boynton’s daughter. She is mentally fragile after a lifetime of living with her tyrannical mother, but Dr. Theodore Gerard, who was on the Petra tour, sees great potential in the girl. He is a specialist in psychological cases and plans to treat her at one of his clinics and then see that she gets her preparation for the stage. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Ginny shows herself to be a talented actress. And yet, she still shows some of the natural anxiety of young people starting out.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is a proud mother and now grandmother. The series featuring her shares her home life as well as her life as an academic and a political science expert. Readers get to know the members of her family and we see how their lives evolve. As the series begins, Kilbourn’s oldest daughter Mieka is off to university, with the mixture of excitement and anxiety that you might expect. Later, she decides to start her own catering company. Her mother has lots of concerns about this, since she wanted Mieka to finish her degree program. But Mieka is determined to make a go of it and see if she can be a success. As she talks about her business plan, we can see how she is both anxious about it and excited at the same time:

 

‘Her [Mieka’s] voice was strong. ‘I want my chance. I know I may get flattened but I have to try.’ 

 

As the series goes on, Mieka continues to develop and gets some of the confidence that people often acquire as they mature.

We see the same development in Vicki Delany’s Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. As the series featuring her begins with In the Shadow of the Glacier, Smith has just started her career with the Trafalgar Police. She’s smart and determined to do well, but at the same time, she’s inexperienced and anxious. That’s especially evident when she discovers the body of developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley. At first it’s assumed that Sergeant John Winters will work with his usual partner Detective Lopez. But Lopez is out of town and Winters is paired with Smith. This makes her almost as nervous as finding the body did. But at the same time, she’s excited at the opportunity to work on this murder case. And she’s got the makings of a good cop. Smith matures as the series develops, and it’s interesting to watch her growth.

In Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl, we are introduced to Danny Boyle, a ‘summer cop’ in Sea Haven, New Jersey. He’s used to police work like directing traffic and issuing parking tickets. But then one morning, the body of wealthy developer Reginald Hart is discovered at an amusement park. Boyle works with Officer John Ceepak to find out who killed Hart and why. As the novel goes on, we see that he’s anxious about working as a full-time cop. He’s also a little nervous about working with Ceepak. At the same time, he’s got a sense of excitement about it and wants to make good.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer sees beginning attorney Catherine Monsigny taking on her first major case. Myriam Villetreix has been charged with poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston and she wants Monsigny to defend her. As Monsigny prepares for the trial, she’s excited at the opportunity to work this high-profile case. It could make her career. She’s also anxious though, and takes quite a lot of time over the research, her strategy and even the clothing she’ll wear. She doesn’t see herself as incompetent, but she’s not yet confident enough in her skills to really trust her instincts. At  the same time she is haunted by the memory of her mother’s death. Monsigny’s mother Violet was murdered and because she was not much more than a toddler at the time, Monsigny doesn’t have clear memories of that day. As it happens the trial will take place not far from where the murder occurred, so she also returns to that earlier murder to find out who killed her mother and why.

Shona MacLean (who now writes as S.G. MacLean) created Alexander Seaton, a former candidate for the ministry who is now a teacher. In The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, he is undermaster of the grammar school in Banff, Scotland. When the body of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is found in Seaton’s classroom, he gets involved in investigating the murder. Towards the end of the novel, Seaton gets an opportunity for a teaching job at a school in Aberdeen. For a young man like him, it’s a plum job and on that level he’s excited about it. On the other hand, Seaton already has doubts about himself and he’s anxious about how he’ll do. But his mentor Dr. John Forbes encourages him and helps him to develop some faith in himself, and as the series goes on, we see Seaton start to mature.

In Jean-Pierre Alaux’s and Noël Balen’s Winemaker Detective series, oenologist Benjamin Cooker takes on a new assistant Virgile Lanssien. Cooker has a notable reputation as a wine expert, and Lanssien is a little nervous about working with him, and anxious to make a good impression. At the same time, he is himself quite competent, and he’s excited to develop his knowledge and skills. In Lanssien’s character we see that combination of anxiety and excitement that’s characteristic of young people just starting their careers.

If you remember what it was like to start out, you know just what that combination feels like. Which examples from crime fiction have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s I Have Confidence.

  

 

 

16 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Gail Bowen, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Nöel Balen, Shona MacLean, Sylvie Granotier, Vicki Delany

Passes on Her Painful Information*

Dying CluesIt would make murder investigations much easier if victims were able to tell the police who killed them. Of course, today’s technology means that DNA and other evidence can often provide lots of information. But it would save a great deal of work if the victims could speak. In crime fiction anyway, they sometimes actually do. One of the plot points that we see in crime fiction is the dying clue. The victim says something, is grasping something or in some other way implicates someone in the murder. That’s a tricky plot point because of course, if the sleuth understands the clue straight away, there’s not much of a plot. But if it’s done well, the dying clue can add to a story.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father Charles. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For one thing, his father objected to his choice of fiancée. For another, father and son were seen quarreling loudly just before the murder. McCarthy claims that he is innocent, and his fiancée Alice Turner believes him. She begs the police to look into the matter more closely. Inspector Lestrade thinks he has his man, but he agrees to look at the case again. He asks Sherlock Holmes to go over the evidence and Holmes and Watson investigate. When they question McCarthy, he says that his father said something just before he died. At first it sounds like the rambling of someone who’s losing consciousness. But Holmes is able to deduce that in fact, the dead man gave his son a dying clue.

Agatha Christie used dying clues in several of her stories. In Five Little Pigs, for example, Carla Lamerchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out who killed her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect and in fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted. She died a year later in prison. While she was alive, she claimed to be innocent, but never put up much of a fight to defend herself. Now, sixteen years later, her daughter wants the truth. Poirot interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder, and also gets a written account from each one. In the end, he finds out from those accounts who killed Crale and why. Interestingly enough, he also finds that Crale left a dying clue. It wasn’t as obvious as saying or writing the killer’s name, but it’s clear from the clue that Crale was identifying his killer.

Several Ellery Queen mysteries also make use of the dying clue. To take just one instance, in The Last Woman in His Life, wealthy jet-setter John Levering Benedict III invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to use his guest house for a getaway weekend. Also present for the weekend are Benedict’s three ex-wives, his attorney and his attorney’s secretary. They’re all staying at the main house, and as you can imagine, the atmosphere is ripe for murder. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says he’s been killed. Queen rushes over from the guest house but by the time he gets there, it’s too late. Benedict is dead of a blow from a heavy statuette. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. In the end, Queen does discover who the killer is, but it turns out that Benedict told him from the very beginning. During the telephone call, he started to tell Queen who his killer was. Had he finished, or had Queen understood the meaning of what Benedict did say, it would have led straight to the killer.

There’s no doubt as to the dying clue Maria Lövgren leaves when she and her husband Johannes are murdered in Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers. Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander and his team investigate when the Lövgrens are brutally attacked in their rural farmhouse. Johannes doesn’t survive the attack, but Maria does – barely. She’s rushed to hospital, but medical care can’t save her. Still, she lives long enough to say the word foreign. That word ignites the simmering resentment many locals feel against immigrants. Now the team is up against two murder cases, media hype and an ugly undercurrent of anti-immigration sentiment. Then there’s another murder. The team pieces together what happened, and Maria Lövgren’s dying clue has its role to play.

There’s also an interesting dying clue in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is undermaster of the grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He is shocked one morning when he hears that the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson has been discovered in his classroom. Davidson’s been poisoned and the most likely suspect is his romantic rival Charles Thom. But Thom insists that he’s innocent and asks Seaton, who’s a friend, to clear his name. Seaton has no experience in murder investigations, and he has his own reasons for not wanting to call a lot of attention to himself. But for the sake of the friendship he agrees. It turns out that someone else did indeed kill Davidson, and bit by bit, Seaton finds out who it was. Along the way, he discovers that Davidson left a dying clue, something he said just before his death. Although the clue’s not understood correctly at first, when Seaton figures out what Davidson actually said, it’s a clear pointer to the killer.

Most killers know their victims, so it makes sense that a victim who’s thinking clearly could leave a helpful dying clue. But in a lot of cases that’s not possible. And even where it is, dying clues can be garbled, misunderstood or otherwise not be as useful at the start as you’d think. And after all, how interesting would a crime novel be if the clue was clearly understood from the beginning? But in the end, dying clues can be very helpful, and they can certainly add an interesting plot point to crime fiction. Which ‘dying clue mysteries’ have you liked? If you’re a writer, do you use dying clues?

 
 
 

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

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, 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.

26 Comments

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.

12 Comments

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.

24 Comments

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