Category Archives: Teresa Solana

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

You Picked a Real Bad Time*

Bad TimingReading and reading experiences are often very subjective. Of course, no matter who’s doing the reading, ‘flat’ characters, stilted dialogue and cumbersome detail are signs that a book isn’t well-written. But the fact is, our impressions of a book are also affected by things such as personal taste and preference. What we think of a book is also arguably affected by when we read that book. Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean about the way timing can impact our impression of a book.

A lot of people prefer lighter reading during holidays. Somehow, lighter, cosy mysteries such as Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series or comic caper novels such as Carl Hiaasen’s just seem to ‘fit’ when you’re beach reading or curled up by the fire. There are many, many examples of this kind of lighter reading, and of course, personal taste is going to figure into which novels one chooses. But there’s something about holidays and vacations that seems to invite one to read a lighter novel.

What’s interesting is what happens when you pick up that kind of novel at another time, say, when you’ve just been reading about an important social issue and you want to mull it over. Suddenly, the Bev Robitai or Simon Brett theatre-based novel that seemed so absolutely perfect…doesn’t seem that way anymore. Nothing at all has happened to the quality of those novels (I recommend both authors, by the way). They’re still interesting stories with appealing characters. What’s happened is that the timing isn’t right for them.

The same kind of thing happens with novels such as Unity Dow’s The Screaming of the Innocent or Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Those are both difficult novels to read in that they deal with important but harrowing social issues. And there are times when one’s open to those more challenging stories. You might just have read an article about a certain topic, or you might have just come back from a holiday and be ready for a challenge. At those times, books like these can feel like the perfect choice. You can appreciate the message and you’re willing to invest yourself in the harder parts of the story.

But suppose you decide to try something such as Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second when you’re off on a fun trip. The same book that you might have thought of as difficult, even harrowing, but exceptionally well-written and worth reading, now becomes far too difficult to read. Now this kind of book is unutterably depressing and hard to finish. The fact is (and you already know this of course) nothing’s happened to the book’s quality at all. It’s still an excellent story with a lot of ‘food for thought’ and some compelling characters. The timing’s just wrong for the book.

Did you ever notice that when you’re planning to travel somewhere, you get quite interested in reading books that take place in your destination? I know that’s happened to me. So if you’re planning a trip to Spain you might be especially interested in Teresa Solana’s, Antonio Hill’s or Domingo Villar’s work. I’ve only mentioned a very few examples of Spanish crime fiction but you get my point. As you read those books you try to get every nuance of culture and geography you can, since you’re attuned to it.

But what if you choose a book like Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X when you’re having ‘one of those weeks’ and you’ve only got small amounts of reading time? Then, the very nuances of culture and geography that you love at other times can seem burdensome, or you might not pay attention to them and really appreciate them. That feeling might not have much to do with the quality of a given book. Rather, it’s the timing of your reading.

There are times when the action and suspense of thrillers such as Lindy Cameron’s Redback are exactly right. Thrillers like that can be the perfect accompaniment to a quiet evening when it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be up against international terrorists. But maybe it isn’t the best choice if you’re not feeling well and not ready to deal with edge-of-the-seat ‘roller coaster rides.’

A ‘quieter’ sort of mystery such as you find in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series might be really appealing for those times when you have a few days to follow along and appreciate the subtler approach and more slowly-evolving story line. At those times, you can see the real appeal of character development and nuance. But pick that sort of book up when you’re waiting in an office or when you’re anxiously awaiting word on whether you got that job, and you could easily find such a novel too slow. Those details of character development that so draw you in at other times now just seem irritating. The series hasn’t changed (by the way, I recommend Brunanski’s series – I really like Bart’s character a lot). The fact is, it’s the kind of series that’s best enjoyed when you’ve got the time to ‘slow the pace down’ a bit.

And I think we’d all agree that mood plays a role too in what we think of a book. Grumpy or feeling crotchety? Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice might be the perfect fit. Need a good, irreverent laugh? Christopher Brookmyre has done some very funny novels. You get the idea.

So as we all start to plan what we’re going to read in 2014, do you think about this timing issue? Do you plan your reading so that you’ll take the lighter stuff with you on holiday for instance? Or do you adapt yourself to the book you’re reading?  What about when you start a book and then realise it’s the wrong time for that novel? Do you give up or pick it up at another time?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

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Filed under Antonio Hill, Bev Robitai, Carl Hiaasen, Cath Staincliffe, Christopher Brookmyre, Domingo Villar, Keigo Hagishino, Kishwar Desai, Lindy Cameron, Nelson Brunanski, Simon Brett, Susan Wittig Albert, Teresa Solana, Unity Dow, Virginia Duigan

Here in Status Symbol Land*

Status SymbolsEvery culture and even social group has different values. So the things that confer high status on someone vary a great deal. But just about every culture does have some way of conferring higher status on some people than on others. And those status symbols sometimes take on extreme importance. Status symbols are woven throughout culture in real life, so it makes sense that they are also woven throughout crime fiction. Let me just give you a few examples of what I mean.

In some cultures, ‘blue blood’ confers high status on people, even more than money does. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels touch on this sort of status symbol. In Death on the Nile for instance, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are aboard the Karnak on a cruise of the Nile. One night, fellow passenger Linnet Doyle is shot and Poirot and Race begin to investigate. The most likely suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Linnet married. But Jackie couldn’t possibly have committed the murder, so Poirot and Race have to look among the other passengers. One of those passengers is Marie Van Schuyler, a ‘blue blood’ American who takes ‘birth status’ very seriously. In fact, she barely speaks to anyone on board the cruise because most don’t have a ‘good enough’ background. When Poirot asks her if she knew Linnet Doyle or anyone in her family, here is Miss Van Schuyler’s response:

 

‘My dear mother would never have dreamed of calling upon any of the Hartz family [Linnet’s mother’s family] who, outside their wealth, were nobodies.’

 

Poirot himself is just a bit of a snob, but even he sees what a status symbol ‘blue blood’ is to Miss Van Schuyler, and in a sub-plot of the novel, he has an interesting way of making use of that.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, status doesn’t come from a particular surname or birth circumstance. It comes from cattle. If you think about it, that makes sense too, as someone who can afford a lot of good cattle is likely to have more means than someone who can’t. And it’s not just amount of cattle either. Even more status is accorded someone whose cattle is healthy, strong and of high quality, as that implies that a person is wise enough to choose cattle well. Such a person is Obed Ramotswe. He isn’t extremely wealthy, but he is very skilled at choosing good cattle, and he’s amassed a herd that gives him high status. When he passes away, he leaves the cattle to his daughter Precious, who understands how important good cattle are. She uses the proceeds from the sale of the cattle to open her own detective agency, and fans of this series know that she credits her father with making her agency possible. There are a few other plots too in this series in which we see how much of a status symbol cattle is in this culture.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series takes place in Delhi, where an important status symbol is to have a driver. Even if one is perfectly capable of driving oneself, it’s still important to have a driver. And in Delhi traffic conditions it makes a lot of sense to have a driver who is very familiar with the area. Puri isn’t a particularly wealthy man. And he doesn’t have a high-status job such as a diplomat or a famous surgeon might. But he has a driver whom he calls Handbrake. Handbrake knows the roads in and around Delhi intimately and is often able to get Puri where he wants to go much faster than Puri could on his own.

Teresa Solana pokes some fun at Barcelona status symbols in A Not So Perfect Crime. In that novel, powerful politician Lluís Font hires brothers Josep ‘Borja’ and Eduard Martínez to find out if his wife Lídia is having an affair. The brothers take the case and follow her for a week, but see no evidence at all of infidelity. Then one evening Lídia is poisoned. Her husband is, of course, the most likely suspect, and he’s arrested. But he claims to be innocent, and asks the Martínez brothers to continue to work for him and find out who really killed Lídia. Neither brother has any experience on murder cases, but there’s a lot of potential here in terms of money and future clients, so they continue to investigate. At one point early in the novel, we get a clear and witty look at status symbols in the circles in which the Fonts move:

 

‘..when lunching with a lady friend, women from a certain social class first go shopping in order to appear in the restaurant laden with bags and, so much the better if they’re the exclusive designer variety. It’s a matter of quality rather than quantity. This way I’ve learned that a single Loewe or Vuitton bag beats any number from Bulevard Rosa or the Corte Inglés, that Armani and Chanel level peg, and that Zara is a no-no. That is Borja’s Bags’ Law. And it’s not the only unwritten code that reigns in particular zones of Barcelona’s upper reaches.’

 

In this case, it’s the name on a shopping bag that confers status.

The prison culture is unique and has different ways of conferring status on people. There is of course, the custom of tattoos that indicate why the person is in prison, which gang the prisoner belongs to and so on. Those tattoos are important status symbols. So is the prisoner’s reputation. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, for instance, Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth when brothel owner Ruby Devine is shot. The investigation hasn’t gotten very far, in part because Ruby wasn’t an ‘important person’ and in part because it’s possible that her killer was a corrupt cop, a member of the so-called ‘purple circle.’ If so, the members of that ‘purple circle’ will do everything they can to prevent the truth about her death from coming out. Swann persists though, and learns that Ray Hergenhan, who’s in prison for armed robbery, may be the murderer, possibly paid by the cops. During one of their conversations, Hergenhan admits that he’s never denied killing Ruby because being considered guilty of murder is a prison status symbol. But he also says that he really isn’t guilty. It’s an interesting example of what ‘counts’ as a status symbol in a given culture.

And then there are retirement communities such as those we encounter in Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are and Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes Are Murder. The two books are quite different, but each one takes place at least in part in retirement homes. In those social groups, an important status symbol is number of visits, especially from one’s children and grandchildren.

Culture has a lot to do with what becomes a status symbol, but just about every culture has them. Little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Catherine O'Flynn, David Whish-Wilson, Mike Befeler, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana