Category Archives: Shona MacLean

I Didn’t Get a Chance to Defend Myself*

ArrestedWhen the police investigate a crime, they have to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But evidence doesn’t always immediately point to the actual criminal. Sometimes that means that an innocent person is arrested or even convicted. It happens in real life, and that plot point adds tension and suspense to a crime novel too. It’s incredibly hard on a person to be arrested for a crime, especialy for those who aren’t accustomed to the justice/prison system. That stress can affect one deeply, and that can add to a crime story too, in terms of character development and suspense.

Agatha Christie deals with this issue in several of her novels. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, James Bentley is arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the murder of his landlady. He isn’t a particularly pleasant, friendly person, so he doesn’t have many supporters. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence, who gathered the evidence in the case, believes Bentley may be innocent. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and goes to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder took place. It’s not long before he learns that there are several other possibilities; Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about people, and she’d found out something it wasn’t safe for her to know. As the novel goes on, we see how the experience of being wrongly accused of a crime has affected Bentley. He is convinced that no-one cares what happens to him, and certain that he won’t get a fair deal, as the saying goes. Christie doesn’t discuss too much what happens to Bentley when the real murderer is caught, although in Hallowe’en Party it’s mentioned that he’s gotten married. It’s not hard to imagine though that re-integrating himself into everyday life can’t have been easy. (I know, I know, fans of Ordeal by Innocence and Sad Cypress).

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder introduces readers to Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy business magnate Dietrich Van Horn. He’s been troubled lately by blackouts during which he has no idea what happens. He becomes especially frightened one day when he wakes up covered in blood. Sure that he’s done something terrible, he visits his old college friend Ellery Queen and asks his help. Queen agrees and thogether, the two men try to piece together what’s happened. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, where his father and stepmother Sally live. While they’re there, there’s another blackout incident. This time, Sally Van Horn is killed. Howard is accused and becomes convinced that he is guilty. And the experience of being the focus of a murder investigation (and believing he is a killer) takes a terrible toll on him. Although Queen finds out the truth about the case, that doesn’t really change much for his former friend. Queen fans will know that this plot point – the terrible experience of being arrested when one’s innocent – is also a part of Calamity Town.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is arrested for the rape of Mayella Ewell. Since Robinson is Black and Ewell is White, this is a particularly emotionally-charged case. Robinson claims he’s not guilty, but almost no-one believes him. Prominent attorney Atticus Finch takes the case and begins to look into what really happened. As he does, we see how difficult it is for Robinson. Finch finds out the truth, but that doesn’t mean that life becomes perfect again. It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties Robinson has in getting back to something like a normal life after his experiences.

Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton includes a similar plot point. Alexander Seaton is the undermaster of a grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He gets drawn into a criminal investigation when the body of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is found in Seaton’s classroom at the school. Local music master Charles Thom, who is a friend of Seaton’s, was Davidson’s romantic rival, so he’s the immediate most likely suspect. He’s quickly arrested and imprisoned, although he claims he’s innocent. When Seaton visits his friend in prison, Thom asks Seaton’s help. He claims again that he’s innocent and asks Seaton to clear his name. Seaton reluctantly agrees and begins to ask some questions. Little by little, he finds out that this case is more complicated than it seemed on the surface, and that plenty of other people could have wanted to kill Davidson. As the novel goes on, we also see how difficult it is for Charles Thom to languish in prison, with no really effective way to defend himself.

And then there’s Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl. One morning, Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer John Ceepak is having breakfast at a restaurant with summer cop Danny Boyle. While they’re eating, twelve-year-old Ashley Hart stumbles up the street screaming incoherently. Ceepak and Boyle manage to calm the girl enough to tell them what’s wrong. She and her father, wealthy developer Reginald Hart, were taking a morning ride on the Turtle Tilt a Whirl, a ride at the town’s amusement park. Then, Ashely tells the police, a strange man with a gun shot her father and then ran off. When the police go to the scene, they see Hart’s body and the evidence Ashley described. The trail soon leads to a local homeless man nicknamed ‘Squeegee’ because he sometimes works at a car wash business. He’s disappeared, though, so tracing him won’t be easy. Ceepak and Boyle finally track ‘Squeegee’ down, and it does seem as though he could be guilty. But as Ceepak points out, that’s only one possibility. The police do find out who killed Hart and why, but in the meantime, it’s very hard on ‘Squeegee,’ who can’t really do much to defend himself.

There’s also Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake. John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie own a fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They live further south, in a small town called Crooked Lake, where everyone knows everyone. Because the town is so small, Bart learns about it very quickly when his friend Nick Taylor is fired from his job as head greenskeeper at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. Needless to say, Taylor’s furious about it, particularly since he doesn’t believe he’s done anything to deserve being separated. He blames Board of Directors member Harvey Kristoff, so he’s the natural suspect when Kristoff’s body is found later that day on the grounds of the golf course. The police are called in, and they follow the trail of evidence where it naturally leads – straight to Taylor. He’s soon arrested and charged. But he claims that he’s innocent, and his attorney Frank Hendrickson believes him. Bart doesn’t want to believe Taylor’s guilty either, so he’s only too happy to help clear his name. As it turns out, Taylor’s by no means the only one with a motive for muder, and Bart finds out who the real killer is. But it’s clear throughout the novel that being charged with murder is very hard on Nick Taylor. It doesn’t help matters that Crooked Lake is a small town, so everyone knows him and knows about his arrest.

The process of being arrested and charged with something as serious as murder takes a major toll on a person. Even knowing one’s innocent doesn’t always help much. It can add suspense and substance to a crime novel plot when the author acknowledges that.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buddy Guy and George Buddy’s Innocent Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, Nelson Brunanski, S.G. MacLean, 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.

  

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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