Category Archives: Tarquin Hall

I Got the Feeling That Something Ain’t Right*

Growing SuspicionsHave you ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window? Even if you haven’t, you probably know the premise: L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies is laid up with a broken leg; to pass the time, he begins to observe what’s going on in the other apartments that face the same courtyard his does. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that one of those other people, a man named Lars Thorvald, may be a murderer. Part of the tension in the film comes from the the fact that we don’t see the suspected murder, and there’s no real evidence that anyone’s been killed. And yet, Jeff is convinced that something is very wrong. Everything Thorvald does has a logical explanation; yet it also has a possibly sinister one as well. And of course, the more convinced Jeff is that Thorvald is a murderer, the more possible danger there is for him and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont.

It’s arguably a bit harder to depict that kind of growing suspicion with words, but it can make for a suspenseful plot point in a crime novel. Is someone a character observes a criminal or not? We see that in all sorts of crime fiction; space only permits me a tiny sampling.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Marie Morisot, who goes by the name of Madame Giselle, is poisoned while en route from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Chief Inspector Japp concentrates his attention there. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find the killer. One evening, two of the other passengers, Jane Grey and Norman Gale, are having dinner and discussing the case. They notice detective novelist Mr. Clancy eating at the same restaurant and decide to sleuth him. As they do, they come to believe that he’s acting most suspiciously:
 

‘His direction, too, was erratic. Once, he actually took so many right-angle turns that he traversed the same streets twice over.
Jane felt her spirits rise.
‘You see?’ she said excitedly. ‘He’s afraid of being followed. He’s trying to put us off the scent.”
 

Mr. Clancy does other things too that make the two suspect him.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their move to the quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the move seems like an excellent decision. The town is lovely, they’ve been welcomed, and their children Pete and Kim have settled into school and begun to make friends. Then Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something dangerous is going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna thinks Bobbie is overreacting. But then other things happen that convince Joanna that Stepford is not the idyllic place it seems to be. Everything she observes seems to have a very plausible explanation; in fact, she herself wonders whether she may be crazy. But she learns that what she’s noticed also has a very sinister explanation as well.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King learns that her brother Bill has met and fallen in love with Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora wants to be happy for her brother since they’ve always been close. But she’s not at all impressed with Alice. On the surface, Alice seems terrific; she’s beautiful, pleasant and quite devoted to Bill. But Lora has her doubts. Still, she puts the best face on it when Bill and Alice get married. Then, little things begin to surface that make Lora doubt Alice even more. Everything she learns has a plausible explanation, and Alice provides them. But Lora’s suspicions continue to grow. Then there’s a murder, and Alice may be mixed up in it. Lora is afraid for her brother, so she decides to find out whether that’s true. The more she learns about Alice’s world, the more repelled Lora is by it; at the same time though, she is drawn to it. And that sense that something is probably – but not definitely – very wrong adds a layer of tension to the story.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces us to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. The ‘bread and butter’ for his private investigations company is ‘vetting’ potential brides and bridegrooms. Before final wedding arrangements are made between families, one or the other often hires an agency such as Puri’s to make sure that the prospective new family member is respectable and meets the family’s standards. One such case is that of Brigadier General Kapoor, who hires Puri to look into the background of Mahinder Gupta, who is slated to marry Kapoor’s granddaughter Tisca. On the surface, there seems no problem with Gupta, and there’s no one thing in particular that upsets Kapoor. But he has the feeling that something isn’t right about the bridegroom-to-be, and he’s become worried. As Puri and his team investigate, they find out something that Kapoor didn’t know.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. She’s planned and had built a ‘dream house’ in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But poor financial decisions have meant that she has to change her plans drastically. Instead of the perfect home, she’s had to settle for the smaller house next door – ‘the hovel,’ as she refers to it. To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have purchsed the home that Thea still sees as her own. She dislikes them both intensely, and even more so when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them. Still, Thea develops a kind of friendship with Kim. So when she slowly begins to be convinced that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate environment for the girl, Thea gets concerned. She soon learns that the police aren’t going to do anything about it because they don’t have actual evidence that there’s any problem. Everything Thea witnesses has a plausible explanation. But she is certain that Kim is at risk. So she makes her own plans to deal with the situation.

Everything may appear perfectly innocent on the surface, but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes little suspicions can grow, whether or not they’re well-founded. That possibility can make for a solid layer of suspense in stories (and in films!). Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan

I Will Remember You*

MemorialsAn interesting post from Cathy at Kittling: Books has got me thinking about Día de los Muertos, a memorial celebration that’s typically observed in Spain and in Latin American countries. It’s a time to remember loved ones who have died, and in lots of places it’s marked by parades, food, visits to cemeteries and the decoration of private family memorials. You’ll want to check out Cathy’s post to see some of the artwork and other observations.

Día de los Muertos isn’t celebrated in every culture. But many cultures do have some way of remembering loved ones who’ve died. And people often find personal ways to do so as well. They do in real life and they do in fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet well-known sculptor Henrietta Savernake. One weekend she is invited to join one of her cousins Lady Lucy Angkatell and her husband Sir Henry at their country home. Henrietta is pleased about it because, among other things, she’ll get to spend some time with her lover John Christow, who’s also been invited. Christow is married, so they can’t be very public with their relationship, but everyone knows about it. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch that day and arrives just after the shooting. To him it looks like a macabre tableau arranged for his ‘benefit.’ He soon sees though that it is all too real, and works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why. At the end of the novel, Henrietta has to deal with the grief she feels, and she wants some way to remember her lover, even though they weren’t officially a couple. Here is how she does so:
 

“I must take my grief and make it into a figure of alabaster.’
Exhibit No. 58. ‘Grief.’ Alabaster. Miss Henrietta Savernake…’

 

She may not be able to publicly put flowers on his grave, but she finds her own kind of memorial.

Lawrence Block’s New York PI Matthew Scudder has to deal with the fact that while he was a police officer, he killed a young girl Estrellita Rivera in a tragic accident. He was chasing some thieves who’d just shot the owner of a bar, and Estrellita was shot by mistake. Although her family never blamed him for what happened, Scudder feels the burden of it. Whenever he has the opportunity and is in a Roman Catholic church, he lights a candle for her. It’s his way of remembering her.

One of the older Roman Catholic traditions is that bones, piece of cloth and other things belonging to saints were to be revered. They were regarded as holy and used as memorials to the saint. This belief plays a major role in Ellis Peter’s A Morbid Taste For Bones, the first of her Brother Cadfael stories. Fans will know that Cadfael is a Benedictine monk in 12th Century Shrewsbury Abbey. In this novel, Cadfael travels with a group of monks to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to retrieve the bones of St. Winifred and take them back to the abbey. As you can imagine, the people who live in Gwytherin are unwilling to have a group of English monks take their prized memorial away. Among other things they regard St. Winifred as their protectress. So there’s already hostility between the monks and the townspeople. Then Lord Rhysart, who led the opposition to the monks, is killed. If the monks are to return to the abbey in safety, and with the bones, it will have to be proved that none of them is responsible. So Cadfael works to solve the murder.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri has his own way of remembering those who have gone before. He visits temples, although he isn’t what you would call blindly religious. He also keeps a personal shrine in his Delhi office. Here’s how it’s described in The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing:
 

‘The first thing he did upon entering his office – that is, after turning on the air conditioning – was to light an incense stick in the little puja shrine below the two frames hanging on the wall next to his desk. One contained a photograph of his father, Om Chander Puri, the other a likeness of Chanakya, the detective’s guide and guru who had lived around 300 BC and founded the arts of espionage and investigation. The detective said a short prayer, asking for guidance from them both, and then buzzed in his secretary.’
 

Puri feels a connection not just with his own personal ancestors, but with those from the broader history of India as well.

Some people of course develop smaller ways to reflect on and remember those who’ve died. Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer, for instance, has a prized photograph of his wife Elise, who died of cancer. He doesn’t obsess over her loss, ‘though he misses her very much. But he keeps that ‘photo in place of pride. He remembers her often and sometimes reflects on what she might think or say about what he does.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China, Shanghai Police Bureau Chief Inspector Chen Cao investigates what seems to be the suicide of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The official explanation for his death is that he killed himself because he was under investigation for corruption. Chen is assigned to the case under the assumption that he’ll ‘rubber stamp’ that account of Zhou’s death. But Chen isn’t entirely satisfied with the ‘suicide story.’ So he begins to ask some questions and works to find out what really happened to the victim. In one plot thread of this novel, Chen gets an invitation/request from his assistant Detective Yu. Yu’s wife Pequin wants to remember her dead father on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. It’s the Buddhist tradition to have a celebration to mark that occasion, and when possible, the memorial takes place at a Buddhist temple. Normally, a Party cadre such as Chen wouldn’t attend a religious observance like that. However, it’s a request from his friend and assistant. What’s more, it’s a mark of pride for Yu and his wife to have such an important person as Chen attend the memorial. So Chen agrees. It’s an interesting look at Buddhist customs for remembering dead loved ones as they’re observed in China.

Of course, not all cultures have such memorials. In some cultures, for instance, those who have died are still considered to be a part of one’s life, so creating memorials simply isn’t a part of daily living. In others, memorials to those who have died are seen as possible openings for malevolent spirits. So once loved ones have died, they are not mentioned. That said though, in a lot of cultures and a lot of different ways, we do remember those we’ve loved who have died. These are a few examples. Over to you.

ps. The ‘photo is of a yahrzeit candle. In the Jewish tradition, these candles are lit at certain times of the year to remember family members who have died.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a the title of a Sarah McLachlan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Karin Fossum, Lawrence Block, Qiu Xiaolong, Tarquin Hall

Of Course Mama’ll Help to Build the Wall*

Helicopter ParentsMost parents have hopes and dreams for their children. If you’re a parent, then you know the feeling of wanting your children to have everything life has to offer. It’s a fairly natural desire if you think about it. What’s more, for many parents, their children are a reflection on them. If one’s child has a problem, does something wrong, etc., it says something about the parents. Whether that’s true or not, there are a lot of parents who see it that way.

If you put those two feelings together, it’s easy to see why there are parents who protect their children too much from the consequences of their actions. In the world of (at least US) education, these are called ‘helicopter parents’ – parents who swoop in to rescue their children even when it’s not appropriate to do so. They’re certainly out there in real life, and although their desire to protect their children is perfectly natural, that sort of rescuing can have very negative consequences. It happens in the real world, and it happens in crime fiction too. Here are a few examples; I know you can think of many, many more.

In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen to Dinner), we meet American actress Jane Wilkinson. She’s currently married to George Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware, but she wants to get rid of him. Her reason is quite simple: she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton and wants to marry him. So she asks Hercule Poirot to intervene on her behalf and ask that Lord Edgware withdraw his objection to a divorce. Surprisingly, Edgware agrees and Jane is now free to marry the Duke. Shortly after that, Edgware is murdered one night, and the police are convinced that Jane is responsible. The only problem is that she has an alibi vouched for by a dozen other people. She tells the police that she was at a dinner in another part of London at the time of the murder. So Chief Inspector Japp and Poirot have to look elsewhere for the killer. At one point, Poirot gets a surprising visit from the Dowager Duchess of Merton, the Duke’s mother. She dislikes Jane Wilkinson intensely and feels that she’s a bad influence on Merton. So she wants Poirot to stop the wedding that will likely take place now that Edgware is dead. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Poirot doesn’t agree to interfere. And it’s an interesting example of a ‘helicopter parent…’

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker is concerned for the safety of his family. He’s not pleased with the kinds of people his two children Angie and Paul may be associating with, and he wants to protect them. So he moves his family to a new home in a suburban housing development called Valley Forest Estates. One day, Walker goes to the main sales office to complain about the workmanship in his house and ask for repairs. While he’s there he witnesses an argument between a sales executive and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker discovers Spender’s body near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker and his family are drawn into a far more dangerous situation than any they faced in the city. In this case, his attempt to rescue his children backfires badly.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit tells the story of Gates and Mason Hunt. They grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father, but they’ve somehow managed to survive. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s had and is now preparing to be an attorney. Gates, though, has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from the young men’s mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Later that night, on the way back from a ‘night on the town,’ the Hunt brothers have another encounter with Thompson and the argument starts anew. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother hide the evidence and life goes on for the two brothers. Throughout these years, Sadie Grace does her best to ‘rescue’ Gates. She gives him money and in other ways tries to protect him from the consequences of what he does. But then, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a stiff jail sentence and begs his brother, who’s now a commonwealth prosecutor, to get him out of jail. At first Sadie Grace supports Gates and asks Mason to help him. But this time, Mason refuses. Then Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When it becomes clear that he intends to do just that, Sadie Grace stops rescuing him. This time, she renounces him. And now, Mason has to do everything he can to clear his name.

In one story arc early in Gail Bowen’s series, her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, has to accept the fact that her daughter Mieka isn’t going to finish at university. Mieka has dropped out to begin her own catering business. On the one hand, Kilbourn loves her daughter and wants to see her succeed. On the other, she’s well aware that the business world is not always kind to small start-up businesses, and Mieka won’t have a university degree to help her. So Kilbourn has a strong desire to rescue her daughter from what she sees as a bad situation. Mieka of course doesn’t see it that way, and she and her mother have some difficult conversations about what she’s doing. As a result of an uneasy truce, Mieka goes ahead with her business, and it turns out to be much more successful than her mother thought it would be.

Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer has to deal with ‘helicopter parents’ in more than one of his investigations. In Black Seconds for instance, he faces a terrible case. Nine-year-old Ida Joner decides to ride her bicycle to a local kiosk to buy some candy. When she doesn’t return, her mother Helga becomes anxious and starts the frightening process of trying to find out where her daughter is. Her search turns out to be fruitless and she becomes more and more panicked as the hours go by. Eventually Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called in and begin a professional search. As we learn what really happened to Ida, we see the role that wanting to rescue one’s child plays in the events. I can’t say much more without spoiling the story; suffice it to say that Sejer has to get past that reality to find the truth.

There’s another example of ‘helicopter parenting’ in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a visit one day from successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. He’s been accused of the rape and murder of a family servant Mary Murmu. Mary went missing a few months ago, and it’s assumed that she’s dead. Kasliwal claims that he isn’t responsible for her disappearance, and that the police are simply trying to make an example of him to show that they’re not beholden to wealth and power. He wants Puri to find out what happened to Mary and clear his name. Puri doesn’t make the mistake of assuming his new client is telling the truth, but he takes the case. When he discovers the truth about Mary’s disappearance, we learn the role that that urge to rescue has played in the case. We see it in two other cases Puri handles in this novel as well. Those cases are requests for background checks on potential spouses – the sort of case that’s the ‘bread and butter’ of Puri’s agecy. In both of those situations, anxious parents want to rescue their children from the marriage partners they’ve chosen.

And then there’s C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Travel development specialist Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the devoted adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. One day their world is turned upside down when they discover that the baby’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. As you can imagine, the McGuanes refuse point-blank. Then Garrett’s father, powerful judge John Moreland comes to his son’s rescue, if you want to call it that. He and Garrett pay a visit to the McGuanes. During that conversation, he makes it clear that if the McGuanes relinquish their rights, he’ll see that they have both financial and legal support for another adoption – a quick and easy one. He makes it just as clear that if they don’t agree, there will be serious consequences. When they call his bluff, Moreland issues a court order giving them twenty-one days in which to surrender Angelina to the court. Both McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to fight this order. And ‘whatever it takes’ turns out to be much more than either imagined. This story shows a chilling side of being a ‘helicopter parent.’

It’s perfectly natural to want to rescue one’s child and keep him or her safe from trouble. But sometimes, facing the consequences of their actions isn’t a bad lesson for young people to learn…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Mother.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Linwood Barclay, Martin Clark, Tarquin Hall

The Crowd Went Crazy*

Crowd EnergyThere’s something about excitement that seems to be infectious. Think for instance about the difference between the way you feel when you get online tickets to see a favourite musician in concert, and the way you feel when you’re in line to get in, sharing that excitement with a lot of other people who are also fans. The energy level, if you want to put it that way, is fed by everyone’s enthusiasm, so that the excitement can reach almost a fever pitch. That much energy can be a real jolt of adrenaline. It can also lead to conflict and worse, as all high-energy moments can. You see that in real-life situations (e.g. fights at sporting events or concerts), and it’s definitely there in crime fiction. That kind of mass excitement can make for a real layer of tension in a story.

For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers explores the way group energy works. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne is working on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. She’s gathering her interviews and background material, and is getting ready to put her piece together. Then her boss asks her to turn her focus on the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Sprinboks tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s often called. At that time, apartheid was very much in place in South Africa, so a lot of people deeply opposed the Sprinboks’ visit. On the other hand, dedicated rugby fans (of which there were many) wanted to watch the tour matches. They were excited about the upcoming competitions and didn’t really care as much about the politics involved. The Springboks duly toured, but their visit led to a lot of ugly protests and the police reaction was sometimes violent. Thorne knows the story was important, but she believes it’s already been done enough. Still, at her boss’ request, she looks for a fresh angle on what happened and she soon finds it. In the midst of the fever-pitch excitement about the actual rugby and the equally strong passion rising from the protests, there was a murder. It was never solved, and Thorne thinks that looking into it will be the new angle she needs.

That’s not by any means the only novel in which we see that level of fever-pitch energy about a sporting event. Peter Temple’s Melbourne PI Jack Irish is a Fitzroy supporter, and whenever he stops in to his father’s old haunt The Prince of Prussia, he shares his love of the team with others. Some of his father’s old friends still go there, and football is everyone’s favourite topic of discussion. Here’s a scene for instance from Bad Debts. Irish has just returned from a trip out of town:
 

‘‘I had to go to Sydney,’ I said. ‘Work.’…
‘What kind of work does a man have in Sydney on Satdee arvo?’ said Norm O’Neill in a tone of amazement. These men would no more consider being away from Melbourne on a Saturday in the football season than they would consider enrolling in personal development courses.’

 

For most of these men, a good part of the excitement they get from football is the shared energy that comes from spending time with other Fitzroy fans.

It’s not just sport either of course that generates that kind of crowd-fed-frenzy. Film and theatre stars and events do too. In Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue, for example, a large crowd is waiting outside the door of the Woofington Theatre. They’re all eager fans of acting sensation Ray Macable, and they’re anxious for the start of the evening’s performance. Everyone’s excitement and shared energy builds until the doors are finally opened. Then people begin to push forward in the way that crowds do. That shared excitement is part of the reason for which no-one notices that a man waiting in the group has been stabbed. When he falls forward, dead, the police are summoned and Inspector Alan Grant takes over the investigation. One of the challenges he faces is that everyone was so excited about the play that they paid little attention to anything else going on.

Sometimes, religious or spiritual gatherings can generate that kind of shared excitement too. There are a lot of examples of this in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha. He is the founder and leader of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission is to expose people – he calls them the godmen – who prey on others’ need for spiritualism in order to cheat them. To do that, he and his group try to debunk every spiritual myth they can. One morning, he attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. The group is going through their laughing exercises when according to witnesses the goddess Kali suddenly appears and stabs Jha. Certainly there’s evidence that he was stabbed to death. Many people say that the goddess actually did appear and killed Jha in retribution for his lack of faith. But PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri doesn’t think so. So he and his team look into the matter. They find that more than one person might have wanted the victim dead, and could have had the necessary knowledge to create the illusion that Kali was responsible. One of those suspects is Maharaj Swami, a spiritual leader who has his own ashram. Puri and his team decide to do a little undercover work to find out more about this man. One of Puri’s associates is a young woman who goes by many names, but is usually nicknamed ‘Facecream’ because she blends in anywhere. She pretends to be drawn to Swami’s spiritual message and joins the ashram as a new recruit. At the various group meetings and spiritual events, it’s easy to see how religious and spiritual fervor can spread. That excitement causes a lot of behaviour that you wouldn’t likely see if the group weren’t gathered together, all sharing the event.

Political rallies and other gatherings can also bring out this group energy that leads almost to frenzy. We see that in several crime novels. For instance, in Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, which takes place in 1932, Rowland Sinclair and his family are some of the few wealthy and powerful people who’ve escaped the worst of the Great Depression. Their lives are drastically changed though when Sinclair’s uncle, also named Rowland, is found bludgeoned to death. At first, the police wonder if the victim’s housekeeper Mrs. Donelly might know more than she’s saying about the murder. But Rowland is sure she’s completely innocent. He decides to ask some questions and find out the truth for himself. The trail soon leads to a far-Right group called The New Guard, and their leader Colonel Eric Campbell. So Rowland goes undercover as a new recruit to this faction, hoping he can get close to Campbell and get the answers he wants. In the end, we do learn the truth about Sinclair’s death. We also see the fervor engendered by some of the New Guard’s rallies. There’s at least as much frenzy there as there is at any rock concert.

That sort of shared excitement can make people who ordinarily behave sensibly do all sorts of things, like yelling, hugging complete strangers and more. It can even make you ‘camp out’ most of the night during a near-blizzard to get tickets to an event. Wait, what? There’s something wrong with that? Hey, I got third-row centre seats to that concert! ;-)
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Sally Simpson.

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Filed under Josephine Tey, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Sulari Gentill, Tarquin Hall

We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?

 

ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

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Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan