Category Archives: Teresa Solana

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

Golden Words and Silver Tongue*

Silver TongueHave you ever known someone with the kind of glib persuasiveness that could make you believe black was white? Not all people with a so-called ‘silver tongue’ have unpleasant ulterior motives, but they can certainly get people to do whatever they want. And very often you do find that confidence tricksters and other scam artists are persuasive like that. The savvy person knows that nothing comes without a price, and things that look too good to be real probably are. But even they can sometimes be moved to do things they might not ordinarily do, and all because of the so-called ‘silver tongue.’

We certainly see plenty of characters like that in crime fiction. In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for example, detective story author Ariadne Oliver has come to the village of Broadhinny to collaborate on the adaptation of one of her novels for the stage. Her partner in the project is budding playwright Robin Upward, who lives in the village with his mother. He’s got talent, and a vision of what he wants the play to be, and one of the sub-plots of the novel concerns his attempts to convince Mrs. Oliver that he’s right. For her part, Mrs. Oliver doesn’t care at all for Upward’s ideas about the play. The result he has in mind is nothing like her book, and that infuriates her. So he doesn’t succeed at winning her over, but it’s not for want of a ‘silver tongue’ and a real effort to persuade her. The play loses its interest for Mrs. Oliver when Hercule Poirot arrives in the village. He’s been asked to investigate the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. Superintendent Spence thinks the man’s innocent though, and Poirot sets out to find the truth.

John Grant’s (AKA Jonathan Gash) Lovejoy also has a glib and persuasive way about him. He is an antiques dealer who is absolutely passionate about getting hold of the pieces he wants. In fact, that’s his main interest in life. And when he has his eye on a particular object, or when an opportunity comes his way, he can be highly charming and persuasive. He will say whatever it takes to get what he wants at the best prices possible. He admits it himself in The Judas Pair:

 

‘We dealers are pretty slick. Some are all right but some are not…Cleverer than any artist, better than any actor. They’ll pick your house clean in any way they can and brag about it in the pub afterwards.’

 

In that novel, Lovejoy works to track down a pair of mythical dueling pistols, one of which was likely used to commit murder. He finds himself involved even more deeply when there’s another murder.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, we meet Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone, a marine biologist (mostly in name) who works for a large agribusiness firm owned by Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut is ‘in the sights’ of government authorities who believe his company is pouring toxic waste into the Florida Everglades. In order to prevent a media disaster and government prosecution, Hammernut engages Perrone to prove that the water near his firm is not polluted. Perrone is happy to oblige. For one thing, that proof is worth a lot of money to Hammernut. For another, Perrone has come upon a way to alter water tests so that it looks as though the water is safe. All goes well for a time. Perrone has a very glib tongue and has talked his way out of all sorts of difficult situations and into all sorts of women’s beds. Even his wife Joey trusts him, and she’s basically a smart person. That intelligence becomes a problem when she finds out what her husband’s been doing. Seeing no other option, he takes her on a cruise, allegedly to celebrate their anniversary, and pushes her overboard. Joey survives though, and finds her own way to strike back. In the meantime, Perrone has to use his glibness again when the police begin to suspect him.

Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) introduces us to C.C. de Poitiers. She’s a celebrated ‘life coach’ who’s founded a company Be Calm to sell her image, her lifestyle suggestions and the inevitable related products and services. She’s got a best-selling book in print, too, with the same name. She’s quite good at selling herself and her message, and lots of people take her at her word. But the reality of her life is quite different. When she and her family move to the small Québec town of Three Pines, everyone soon sees that she is hard-edged, malicious and verbally cruel. On Boxing Day, everyone gathers for the traditional curling match that takes place in the area. During the match, de Poitiers is electrocuted. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate the murder and they have plenty of suspects.

One of the funnier examples of the ‘silver tongue’ is in Teresa Solana’s series featuring Barcelona PI brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Of the two of them, Borja is the one with the persuasive ability. He has the gift of being able to charm just about anyone into anything, and talk his way out of nearly every dicey situation. In fact, he even persuades his brother to get involved in more then one risky plan in A Not So Perfect Crime, when they investigate their first murder. And he juggles two mistresses, one of whom is wealthy enough that Borja can easily wear the designer clothes he prefers, and indulge in expensive haircuts and meals.

And he’s not the only PI who can be glib and persuasive. Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon-based PI Russell Quant would much rather talk his way out of a situation than throw punches or use a weapon. He can get people to do what he wants too, when he puts his mind to it. In Flight of Aquavit for instance, he is hired to find out who’s been blackmailing successful accountant Daniel Guest. The trail leads to a local repertory theatre company, but Quant knows that they won’t just volunteer personal information to a stranger, so he’ll have to be at his most charming and persuasive. So he adopts another name and ‘cover story’ and turns on the proverbial charm. He manages to convince the receptionist to get the information he wants, and uses it to get closer to the answers he needs. There are plenty of other PIs too who have that ability to be glib (I know, I know, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin).

And then there’s Jack Hardy, whom we meet in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. That’s the fictional account of the life of Maggie Heffernan, who was imprisoned in Melbourne in 1900 for the drowning of her baby son. James shows us how it all began when Maggie meets Jack. He’s not only attractive, but he’s persuasive and glib. It’s not long before she’s in love with him and he seems to reciprocate. He leads her to believe that they’ll be married as soon as they can, but that they have to keep their engagement secret until he gets himself set up in a good job. Shortly afterwards, he leaves to find work in New South Wales. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to him repeatedly but gets no answer. Knowing that her parents won’t accept her back in their home, she travels to Melbourne and finds a job in a Guest House. Once baby Jacky is born, she moves to a home for unwed mothers and their infants. That’s where she hears that Jack has gone to Melbourne. When she finally tracks him down, he rejects her utterly and she finally understands that she was taken in by his ‘silver tongue.’ She and baby Jacky are turned away from six lodging places that night, and that’s when the tragedy happens.

A lot of people associate a ‘silver tongue’ with lawyers because they have to be as persuasive as they can in the courtroom. Their job is to make their case as effectively as possible, so the art of persuasion is important. I’ll bet you could come up with lots of examples of legal novels where the attorneys have to depend on that quality.

Whether it’s a sales rep, a con artist, an attorney or someone else, the ‘silver tongue’ can be a valuable asset when you want to have your way. Which examples of this have you enjoyed in crime fiction?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Deep Purple’s Lady Luck.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Carl Hiaasen, John Grant, Jonathan Gash, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Teresa Solana, Wendy James

Well, It’s a Rainy Night in Paris and I’m Sitting by the Seine*

paris-riverseine9There’s something about Paris. Whether it’s the world-class food and wine, the art, the music or the fabled romance of the place, people are often drawn to that city. There’s something almost magical about it for some people. But besides everything else, Paris is a large, modern city. And there’s crime there, just as there is in other places. Let’s take a look at some crime fiction that takes place in Paris and you’ll see what I mean.

Although Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot makes his home in London, he travels to Paris too when it’s needed. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, Poirot is faced with an unusual case. Marie Morisot, a Paris moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle, suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It’s soon shown that the victim was poisoned and Chief Inspector Japp begins to investigate. The only possible suspects in this case are the other passengers, one of whom was Hercule Poirot. In fact, the jury at the coroner’s inquest suspects him of the crime. Poirot works with Japp and with French authorities to find out who the killer is, and part of the trail leads to Paris, where Madame Giselle lived and did business. In fact, Poirot finds several useful clues during his trip there.

Fans of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret will know that he is a member of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris, the criminal investigation division of France’s Police Nationale. Maigret does of course investigate crimes that occur in the French countryside and in other French cities. But he and his wife live in Paris. Fans will know that he’s acquainted with just about every café and bar in the city, as that’s where he often does his best observation and deduction.

Also set in Paris are many of Fred Vargas’ Commissare Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg, also of the Police Nationale, works with a disparate group of people whom others might consider eccentric, even misfits. But he and his team actually form a very effective group of detectives. These novels have an almost surreal feel about them, but they also offer a picture of what it’s like to live and work in Paris. Adamsberg is an unusual sort of detective. He doesn’t necessarily follow obvious clues or go after obvious suspects. He also solves cases and settles problems in sometimes-unorthodox ways, to the occasional chagrin of his team members. But he and his team (including of course, Snowball the office cat) get there in the end.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer offers, among other things, an interesting look at the way Paris has become increasingly diverse in the last decades. Catherine Monsigny is a newly-minted attorney who volunteers for a group that works with undocumented immigrants who get into legal trouble. She has a full-time paid position too, but this volunteering gives her valuable experience. It’s also the way she learns of the case of Myriam Villetreix, an immigrant from Gabon who’s been accused of poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston. With support from her employer and mentor, Monsigny takes this case and prepares to defend Myriam. It turns out that this case will force Monsigny to confront a terrible incident from her own past. As a three-year-old, she witnessed her mother’s murder, which took place not far from where the Villetreix case is unfolding. The two cases aren’t, strictly speaking, related. But Monsigny finds the answers to both sets of questions. And in this novel, we get a solid sense of Paris as well as an interesting look at French jurisprudence.

We also get a look at modern-day Paris in Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman. This novel features Chief Nico Sirsky, head of the Paris CID La Crim’, and his team. The body of Marie-Hélène Jory is found in her Paris home. It’s not a typical robbery-with-murder sort of killing, and although the murder is brutal, there’s not much to go on in terms of evidence. Then there’s another murder. The second victim is Chloé Bartes, who is murdered in the same brutal way as the first victim. This time, the killer has left a message: seven days, seven women. Now the team sees that the murderer has a specific plan and that they’ll have to act fast if they’re to prevent more killings. Besides the murder plot itself, Molay also gives readers a look at the way a Paris criminal investigation of this magnitude is carried out, and how different agencies (police, crime scene experts, psychologists, the courts, etc.) work together.

There are also plenty of novels in which the protagonist travels to Paris, even if the main investigation takes place elsewhere. For instance, in Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime, Barcelona private investigators (and brothers) Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez are hired by powerful politician Lluís Font. He believes that his wife Lídia is having an affair, and he wants the brothers to find out if he is right. A week of following her produces no results, and the Martínez brothers are inclined to report to their client that he’s wrong about his wife. Then one evening they do get a possible lead that she may be hiding something, quite possibly an affair. Before they can follow up on that lead though, Lídia is poisoned. Her husband becomes the obvious suspect even though he is wealthy and powerful. So he insists that the Martínez brothers stay in his employ and find out who killed his wife. Although they’ve never investigated a murder before, the brothers agree. One key to this mystery is a painting that was done of Lídia by an artist who may in fact be her mysterious lover, if there was one. To track down the artist, the brothers travel to Paris. At first, the city doesn’t impress Eduard very much. It seems to have changed a lot since he was there many years earlier, and no longer has the appeal for him that it did. But Paris works magic on him as it does on a lot of people, and by the end of that short trip there, Eduard remembers what he loved so much about it. And in the end, the Martínez brothers find out who killed Lídia Font and why.

And that’s Paris for you. It’s got its share of crime, nasty history and secrets. But it’s got an irresistible appeal, delicious food and wine, and wonderful art and music. Little wonder so many stories and series are set there. I’ve only mentioned a very few. Your turn.

 

ps  Thanks to A Paris Guide for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Georges Simenon, Sylvie Granotier, Teresa Solana

Who’s Into Crystal, Who’s Into Healing?*

New AgePeople tend to want life to make sense. They want answers and many want to believe in something greater than themselves. For lots of people, the answer is organised, Western-style religion, but that doesn’t work for everyone. Some instead turn to New Age and alternative spirituality. The appeal of New Age spirituality can be quite strong for people who don’t really identify with a particular religious denomination, but still want answers to life’s big questions. There are a lot of New Age shops, books, temples and spiritual advisors in real life, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re there in crime fiction too.  You’ll notice, by the way, that I’m making a distinction here between alternative spirituality and cults. Cults are a post-worthy topic all their own…

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Miss Emily Arundell. Her death was originally put down to liver failure, but when it turns out that she was actually poisoned, Poirots looks more deeply into the case. One of the suspects in this case is Miss Arundell’s companion Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. It seems that Miss Arundell has left her entire fortune to Miss Lawson, and it’s quite possible that Miss Lawson knew about that. So Poirot tries to find out as much as he can about Minnie Lawson. One of his stops is at the home of two of her friends, Isabel and Julia Tripp. The Tripp sisters are eccentric characters who practice spiritualism among many other things. They aren’t exactly the most appealing and sympathetic characters in the novel, but there’s something quirky about them, and as a matter of fact, they and their spiritualism give Poirot an important clue.

In Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob, we meet Florida Department of Corrections officer Kathy Diaz Baker. She’s just shaken off her former husband and started her own life when she starts to get some unwelcome attention from Judge Robert ‘Maximum Bob’ Gibbs. Gibbs doesn’t have many endearing qualities, and he’s certainly made his share of enemies. After all, he got his nickname because he’s notorious for handing out the maximum sentences that the law allows. But when Baker finds out that one of her parolees Elvin Crowe may be trying to kill the judge, she can’t ignore it. It only complicates matters that the judge has hatched his own scheme. He wants to kill his wife Leanne, an avid New Age spiritualist. Here, for instance, is a bit of a conversation that Leanne has with her husband:

 

‘He might say to her, ‘How do you know my heart isn’t open?’
‘I can see it isn’t.’
‘Yeah, how?’
‘By your aura.’
‘I forgot, my aura. What’s it look like today?’
‘It’s bright red.’
‘Maybe it’s my high blood pressure. Ask me how come, I’ll tell you.’
‘Your aura should be mostly blue. Yours is orangey-red. Big and way too wide. Doesn’t it hurt?’
‘Only when you bring it up,’ Bob Gibbs said.’

 

Leanne used to be a water-park ‘mermaid’ but a scary event with an alligator ‘reformed her.’ Gibbs can’t stand her anymore and wants her out of the way, and his plot is to frighten her to death with a dead alligator. Of course, this being Elmore Leonard, the various schemes and plots have a way of blowing up in people’s faces, as the saying goes, and not working out at all the way they’d planned…

In Rhys Bowen’s Evans to Betsy, a New Age centre called Sacred Grove has opened near the Welsh town of Llanfair. Run by famed psychic Randy Wunderlich, it’s gained some local interest. One of the residents Betsy Edwards has been convinced by the Sacred Grove leadership that she has ‘second sight,’ and is drawn into the group. This concerns Constable Evan Evans, but at first, there’s not much he can do. Then a local girl Rebecca Riesen goes missing. The trail seems to lead to Sacred Grove, so Evans is convinced that something dangerous is going on there. And that feeling only gets stronger when Wunderlich is found dead.

Of course, not all New Age practitioners are depicted in a negative way. For example, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features an interesting character named Miriam Kaplan, who goes by her Wiccan name Meroe. Meroe owns and runs a Wiccan/New Age shop called The Sibyl’s Cave, where she sells, among other things, New Age books, materials and so on. She’s skilled in New Age arts, too. She’s also a good friend to Greenwood’s protagonist Chapman, who has a bakery in the same building. Meroe is an interesting and strong character, and proves to be intelligent, steady and helpful.

There’s also Teresa Solana’s Barcelona-based Eduard Martínez, who has a PI business with his brother Josep ‘Borja.’ Eduard is happily married to Montse, who has her own New Age centre called the Alternative Centre for Holistic Well-Being. The Centre offers all sorts of alternative therapies, classes and so on, and there’s a strong ‘hippie’ New Age feeling to it. But Montse is portrayed as level-headed, intelligent and a solid character. Eduard loves her very much and respects her. And her centre and approach to her work are contrasted in a very interesting way to another centre in The Sound of One Hand Killing. In that novel, the Martínez brothers are hired to look into the activities of another centre called Zen Moments. They sign up to take a class there as a way of getting an inside look at the place, only to be caught up in a murder investigation. First, Eduard’s neighbour Brian Morgan is murdered. Then Horaci Bou, Zen Moments’ director, is killed. If the Martínez, brothers are to find out the truth about what’s been going on at the centre, and keep their own names clear, they’re going to have to find out what’s behind the murders.

Geoffrey McGeachin touches on New Age spirituality too. In Fat, Fifty and F***ed, banker Martin Carter is retrenched. On his last day at work, he can’t resist getting his hands on a million-dollar payroll and a stolen police 4WD. That’s when he meets Faith, a librarian who has her own problems with a biker. Martin and Faith take off to meet up with an old classmate of Martin’s, and that’s when their adventures really begin. One of their encounters is with a biker gang with a difference. This is a New Age biker gang that runs a clean and well-kept motel and a retirement home. Not exactly the typical dangerous bikers you read about sometimes…

New Age spirituality is appealing to a lot of people, so it’s little wonder that there are so many New Age facilities, books, classes and so on. It’s got a certain mystery about it too, so it’s also little wonder that it features in crime fiction plots.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Christine Lavin’s Sensitive New Age Guys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard, Geoffrey McGeachin, Kerry Greenwood, Rhys Bowen, Teresa Solana

Around the Corner the Skies Are Blue*

Rays of HopeWhether it’s fictional or real, murder is of course a horrible crime, and well-written crime novels don’t make light of that. But on the other hand, a novel in which there is no ray of hope or reason to be positive can be awfully depressing. That’s why it can add much to a novel if there is a character with a positive outlook on life: one who can make us see that everything will work out somehow or other. I’m not talking here about comic relief; that’s another topic entirely. Rather, I mean characters whose overall positive outlook on life can lighten an otherwise dark story.

One such character is Robert Crais’ L.A.-based PI Elvis Cole. Part of Cole’s appeal is that he has a sometimes wisecracking sense of humour and he isn’t overly pessimistic. He knows how horrible murder is and he doesn’t look at investigating as a fun, happy pastime. But at the same time, overall, he has the sense about life that it will be all right. For example, in The Monkey’s Raincoat, Ellen Lang hires Cole to find her husband Mort, who’s disappeared and taken their son Perry with him. Cole knows that plenty of people disappear because they want to disappear. Still, he is concerned about the boy’s safety, so he agrees to look into the matter. The situation becomes urgent when Mort is found dead, with no sign of Perry anywhere. Now Cole has to find out who killed the victim if he has any hope of finding his son. Throughout the novel, Cole does his best to support Ellen Lang and give her as much hope as he can while still being truthful. He doesn’t make light of the situation but he does take a positive attitude.

So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is no stranger to life’s sadness. The former wife of an abusive husband, Mma. Ramotswe has lost a child and her father, so she knows that life often brings sorrow. But she has an overall optimistic and positive attitude that provides a great deal of comfort and solace for her clients. For instance, in Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Ramotswe is hired by an important Government Man to find out whether his sister-in-law is, as he believes, trying to poison his brother. Mma. Ramotswe travels to the Government Man’s home village, where she begins to get to know the people in his family. One afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she is able, Mma. Ramotswe has conversations with everyone, and uses her own recall to piece together what happened. She learns how and by whom everyone was poisoned, and she uses her positive outlook on life to help resolve some issues within the family.

Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez also has an overall positive attitude about life. When he and his brother Eduard take on their first murder investigation in A Not So Perfect Crime, Eduard isn’t sure they’re prepared to look into a crime like that. He tends to be cautious and would rather focus the brothers’ efforts on cases that are more similar to what they’ve done before. But Borja has an upbeat, ‘It’ll all work out’ view of life. Besides, the client Lluís Font is powerful and wealthy. When he is accused of murdering his wife Lídia, it’s in the Martínez brothers’ interest to clear his name and build their reputation. And they do discover who the murderer is, despite some (sometimes very funny) setbacks. Throughout the novel, Borja’s positive outlook on life may be a bit on the ‘happy-go-lucky’ side, but it does serve to keep the investigation going and to complement his brother’s occasional pessimism.

It’s not always the sleuth whose positive attitude can really serve a crime novel. Sometimes other characters do that too. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a group of people who live in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Chapman herself owns a bakery in that building and through her eyes we get to meet the other residents. One of them is (retired) Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk. He’s getting on in years and at times he’s hurt or laid-up with illness. But even then, he has a more or less optimistic attitude about life. He’s an expert in the classics and often uses references from those writings to make sense of life. He’s had his own sorrows, but he proves a solid source of overall optimism and steadiness that proves a real comfort. And he has old-fashioned manners and courtesy that remind the other residents of the way it is possible to treat others.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer sometimes has very difficult and ugly cases to solve. And although he has a close relationship with his daughter Ingrid and his grand-son Matteus, he has his own share of life’s sorrows. He’s a widower who still misses his wife Elise, and he has seen some terrible things in the course of his work. But there is also optimism and hope if you will in his life. Beginning with He Who Fears the Wolf, Sejer develops a relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel. She helps him to understand some of the people who figure in that novel. That understanding helps Sejer as he investigates the murder of Halldis Horn, whose body is found in her front yard. Since she lived alone in a remote place, there aren’t many witnesses. But one likely suspect is a troubled young man named Errki Johrma who was seen in the area. The case isn’t that simple though, and Sara provides helpful insights. She is realistic and doesn’t shy away from life’s sadness. But she is also a generally optimistic, sometimes-spontaneous person who adds a bright note to Sejer’s life.

And then there’s Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, whom we meet in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That story features Jodie Evans Garrow, who meets Bridie during their childhoods. Jodie hasn’t had a lot of happiness in her life, but Bridie is positive and optimistic, with big dreams. She brings a proverbial ray of sunshine to Jodie and the girls become inseparable. Then Bridie moves away and life goes on for both of them. Later, Jodie marries Angus Garrow and settles down to what seems like an enviable life. Angus is a successful attorney, Jodie has a comfortable home and upper-middle-class lifestyle, and they have two healthy children. One day their daughter Hannah is involved in a car accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital – the same hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another baby girl whom she’s never discussed with anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal records. Now the whispers start and soon the media gets hold of the story. If the child is alive, where is she? If not, what happened to her? Did Jodie kill her? Before long the accusations become very public and Jodie is made a social pariah. Then by chance, she meets Bridie again at a book club meeting. Bridie proves the same source of support she was during the girls’ childhood and her basically positive outlook on life provides real solace for Jodie.

And that’s the thing about people and fictional characters who offer hope and have positive outlooks on life. They don’t deny that life can be hard, but they firmly believe that things will get better. Which ones do you like best?

 

In Memoriam…

 

ShirleyTemple and SidCaesar

 

This post is dedicated to the memories of two people who gave much hope and ‘sunshine’ when people needed it. This past week we lost both Shirley Temple Black and Sid Caesar. They both had private troubles, but kept on going and offered the world a hopeful look at life. For that, I am grateful. They will be much missed.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roger Edens’ and Earl Brent’s Around the Corner.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Robert Crais, Teresa Solana, Wendy James