Category Archives: Tony Hillerman

For You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings*

Inspirational TeachersIf you’ve ever had a teacher who really made a positive difference in your life, you know how important that can be. In today’s world, some students spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents, and a skilled teacher has a great deal of insight into the characters of her or his students. Sometimes those insights can be very useful, too. Let me just share a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Much of Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The school is rocked one summer by several events. First, there’s the shooting death of games mistress Grace Springer. Then there’s the kidnapping of one of the students. Then there’s another murder. Throughout all of this, the school’s headmistress Honoria Bulstrode puts the welfare of her staff and pupils above everything else as she works with the police and later, with Hercule Poirot, to find out what’s behind all of these occurrences. Part of the story is told from her perspective, and in that, we see just how devoted she is to each student. She knows her pupils, she understands their strengths and needs and she has earned their respect.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to lexicographer and amateur detective Gideon Fell. In this novel, recent university graduate Tad Rampole has been advised by his mentor to visit Fell and he makes plans to do so. On his way to Fell’s home in Chatterham, Rampole meets Dorothy Starberth and becomes smitten with her. When he finally meets Fell, he learns an interesting fact about the Starberth family. For two generations, members of the family were Governors at nearby Chatterham Prison, which has now fallen into disuse. Although the family is no longer associated with the prison, they’ve retained one custom from those years. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, each Starberth heir spends the night in the Governor’s Room at the abandoned prison. While there, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions on a note that’s there. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin. His twenty-fifth birthday ends in tragedy though, when he is killed by what seems like a fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. Rampole has been keeping vigil with Fell, and the two of them work with Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold to find out who killed the victim and why. Throughout this novel we see how Rampole’s mentor and Gideon Fell both take a personal interest in the young man. Admittedly that’s not the main plot of the story, but it’s a thread that runs through it.

In Margaret Millar’s Mermaid, twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jasper visits the law offices of Smedler, Downs, Castleberg, MacFee & Powell. As she tells junior attorney Tom Aragon, she’s there to learn about her rights. Very quickly Aragon notices that Cleo is not like other young women; in fact, she has a form of mental retardation. She’s fairly high-functioning though, and seems to be doing well. She attends Holbrook Hall, an exclusive day school for students with certain special needs. When Cleo disappears, her older brother Hilton asks Aragon to find her and persuade her to return home. Aragon is no private investigator, but he agrees to ask some questions. One of the places he visits is Holbrook Hall, where he meets Rachel Holbrook, head of the school. She has a ‘dragon lady’ reputation, but it’s clear that she knows her students well and cares about them. Through her, he learns that the teacher who knows Cleo best is Roger Lennard. At first Aragon makes the obvious inference about Lennard’s interest in Cleo, but when he finds out that Lennard’s gay, he knows he’s wrong about that. What he does learn though is that it’s been Lennard who has supported Cleo’s drive towards understanding her rights and being independent. That new way of thinking plays a major role in the rest of the events of the story.

One of the plot threads in Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns concerns the murder of a high school shop teacher Eric Dorsey. Dorsey does his best to inspire his students to create things that are useful as well as aesthetically appealing. He cares about his students and is quick to encourage them. When he is murdered, there isn’t much to go on at first, but Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee find that his death is related to a missing teenager, a murder at an important ceremonial event, and some underhanded business dealings.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. Academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn may get exasperated with her students at times, but she is dedicated to them. We see that commitment in this novel, where Reed Gallagher, one of Kilbourn’s colleagues in the Department of Journalism is murdered. One key to the murder might be in the person of Kellee Savage, a journalism student who is also in Bowen’s class. When Kellee stops coming to class, Kilbourn gets concerned and asks around among her other students. Bit by bit she learns that Kellee had been out with some of them on the evening she disappeared. Kilbourn starts tracing the young woman’s movements and discovers that they’re closely related to Gallagher’s murder. As Kilbourn works with the students, we can see that she cares about them, wants to support them, and has high expectations for them. Here’s what one says:

 

‘Kibourn’s all right. She’s kinda like my coach – tough but generally pretty fair.’

 

It’s especially meaningful because it’s not said within Kilbourn’s earshot.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet Ilse Klein, who is a secondary school teacher. One of her most promising students is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. Even though she’s not supposed to ‘pay favourites’ among her students, she can’t help but be delighted in Serena’s promise and her passion for learning. For her part, Serena likes Ilse also and respects her. Although she doesn’t quite put it in these terms, she gets the vital message that she has worthwhile ideas, and that she can be somebody as the saying goes. For Serena, this is the first time an adult has really taken an interest in her. Then everything changes. Serena stops caring about school, stops coming to class and stops participating when she is there. Ilse is very concerned, and at one pivotal point, reports her concerns to the school’s counselor. That decision plays a critical role in the rest of the story, and Ilse’s concern for Serena is key when Serena disappears.

There are a lot of other novels in which a dedicated and caring teacher has a real influence on a student – in a positive way. And if you’ve ever had a teacher like that, you know it happens in real life too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Silbar and Larry Henry’s Wind Beneath My Wings, made perhaps most famous by Bette Midler, although it’s been recorded by many other artists too.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr, Margaret Millar, Paddy Richardson, Tony Hillerman

She Climbs a Tree and Scrapes Her Knee*

Gender RolesFrom birth, boys and girls are placed into different social categories. Much of the way we dress, behave, and even speak has a lot to do with gender. Of course, gender’s by no means the only factor that affects us, but it has a significant impact, and it’s one of the first things people notice about us. Each culture has its own views of the way males and females are ‘supposed to’ behave, and it can be a little disconcerting when someone doesn’t follow those prescribed roles. But there are a lot of girls who’d rather play baseball or go fishing than play with dolls. There are a lot of boys who care about cooking or fashion and nearly nothing at all about sport. They’re a part of real life and we certainly see them in fiction too.

I’m not talking here about gay and lesbian characters. Sexual orientation is a different topic. Rather, I’m talking about characters who don’t fill traditional gender role expectations. There are plenty of them in crime fiction; I just have space for a few here, and I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder) is the story of the Lee family. Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant who decides that he wants to gather his family round him for Christmas. None of his children really wants to accept the invitation, but each one sees little alternative. So plans are made to go to the family home Gorston Hall. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying with a friend in the area and he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the murderer is. One of the suspects is Lee’s son David. David Lee has always been a disappointment to his father, as he is sensitive artist and not at all his father’s idea of what a man ‘should be.’ Matters between them aren’t made any better by the fact that David blames his father for his mother’s death. It’s an interesting character study of a man who doesn’t fit the image of what people of the time might have thought a man ‘ought to be.’

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to search for a missing teenager Margaret Billy Sosi, who has disappeared from the residential school she attends. Of course Chee wants the girl found and safely returned, but at the moment, he’s working on another case: the murder of transplanted Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman. Still, he begins asking questions about the girl. Then it’s discovered that Margaret Billy Sosi and the dead man are distantly related. Now Chee comes to believe that the two cases are connected, and so they turn out to be. The trail leads Chee to Los Angeles, where he finds out some important information about why Gorman might have been killed. He also finds the missing girl – that is, until she disappears again. In the end, Chee finds out who killed Gorman and why, and he discovers how Margaret Billy Sosi figures into the case. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the teen’s character. She certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of the ‘girly girl.’ She is unmistakeably female, yet she doesn’t fit a lot of preconceived notions of how a girl ‘ought to’ behave. And that adds to her character.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers tells the story of Wendy Hanniford. When she is murdered in her own apartment, the most likely suspect is her room-mate Richard Vanderpoel. He had the victim’s blood on him, and he can’t account for himself during the time the crime was committed. Wendy’s father Cale Hanniford wants to know what led to her death. More to the point, he wants to know what kind of a person she’d become and how that resulted in her murder. He’s been estranged from his daughter for some time, and this is his way of trying to connect with her. So he approaches former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Scudder isn’t sure what he can do to help, but he does agree to ask some questions and find out what he can. He soon discovers that Vanderpoel won’t be of much assistance, as he’s committed suicide in prison. Bit by bit though, Scudder pieces together both young people’s lives, and comes to the conclusion that Vanderpoel might have been innocent. As Scudder learns more about Richard Vanderpoel, he discovers that the young man wasn’t a ‘typical boy,’ if there is such a thing. Certainly he wasn’t the sport-loving, active, assertive type that’s very often associated with the stereotypical conception of what a ‘boy’ is. As Scudder gets to the truth about Wendy Hanniford’s life and death, he discovers that for both young people, the past has played an important part in their characters and the lives they chose.

Gideon Davies, whom we meet in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory isn’t the ‘all boy’ type either. He is a world-class violinist who’s always been more passionate about his music than about anything else. That’s why it’s so frightening to Davies when one night, he finds himself unable to play. He decides to get some psychiatric help to find out what’s blocking him mentally and why he can’t play. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks at first like a hit-and-run car accident. It turns out though that there was nothing accidental about her death. Now Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers dig into the Davies family background. As they do, we learn how this death is related to Gideon’s inability to play the violin, and how both are related to the long-ago drowning death of Gideon’s younger sister Sonia.

Alan Bradley’s sleuth is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia is not at all what you’d think of as a ‘typical’ girl. She’s passionately interested in chemistry – much more so than in dresses, dolls, or other ‘girly’ things. In fact, she has nothing but contempt for her older sisters’ interest in such things. She’s not much of a one to worry about her looks or about what boys might think of her when she’s older. She’s most definitely female, but she certainly isn’t stereotypical.

Neither is Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson. Martinsson is an attorney who, as the series featuring her begins, works in Stockholm. She’s originally from Kiruna though, and moves back there as the series goes on. Martinsson is unmistakeably feminine. At the same time though, she’s hardly ‘girly.’ She lives close to nature, she catches her own food, and she certainly isn’t preoccupied with wondering whether her clothes are fashionable.

Just from these examples, it’s easy to see that strict interpretations of what males or females ‘should’ be like or ‘should’ care about is really limiting. Some of the most interesting characters in crime fiction, anyway, aren’t ‘all boy’ or ‘girly girl.’ They’re individuals. I’ve only had space to mention a few here; which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Maria.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Åsa Larsson, Elizabeth George, Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman

Looking For Evidence to Help it All Make Sense*

Light and Order from ChaosResearch on thinking and knowing has shown us for a long time that humans like things to make sense. When we encounter something that doesn’t fit our mental picture of what ought to be, we mentally wrestle with it until either our mental picture adapts or we learn more about the something we encounter. That’s arguably why so many people love crime fiction. It’s an opportunity to impose some order (who/why/howdunit) on chaos (a murder or murders and the aftermath). Even in crime novels that don’t have a happy ending, we want to know how the pieces all fit together and how it all makes sense. And readers can get very cranky if there doesn’t seem to be any order in a plot.

The drive to impose order on what seems to be chaos is also a motivator for detectives. They want the puzzle pieces to fit together. Of course there are other motivators too; murders are very human events that affect people on many levels. They’re far more than just intellectual puzzles. But at the same time, detectives still want the puzzle to fit together and make sense. Definitely fictional sleuths do. It’s the way we humans seem to be made.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes sees virtually all of his cases as opportunities to impose some sort of order on what seems like chaos. Take for instance The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Hilton Cubitt is worried about his wife Elsie. She’s never told him everything about her past, although she claims that she’s done nothing of which she need be ashamed. But she has had some dubious associations and now the past seems to be catching up with her. She’s been getting some cryptic notes that at first make no sense at all. They’re simply drawings that look like childish scrawls. But it’s precisely because they don’t make sense that Holmes is interested in them. But before he can figure out what the drawings mean, there’s a tragedy at the Cubitt home. Hilton Cubitt is killed and his wife badly wounded. Now it’s more important than ever that Holmes make sense of the drawings. Once he does, he’s able to find out the truth about the murder.

We also see this same drive for things to make sense in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. As Poirot fans know, his watchwords are order and method. And he’s not satisfied until every unexplained detail makes sense. That, for instance, is why he doesn’t ‘buy’ the police theory in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  When retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson Captain Ralph Paton. The two had quarreled violently and what’s more, Paton was known to be in desperate need of the money he would inherit at Ackroyd’s death. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty. She asks Poirot to look into the matter and at first he agrees to do so for her sake. But then he begins to have questions himself about Paton’s guilt. Those questions arise mostly from small things that can’t be explained by the police theory. That desire to have all of the details cleared up help lead Poirot to the truth about the murder.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse also likes the pieces of a puzzle to all make sense. That’s in part why he perseveres in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Quinn is the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. That group is responsible for overseeing examinations given in non-UK countries with a British education tradition. Membership in the Syndicate is prestigious and select, and Quinn was by no means the universal choice. But he settles in and starts his work. Then one day he is killed by what turns out to be poison. Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the death and discover that all sorts of secrets are being hidden by Syndicate members, and that Quinn could easily have discovered one of them. Morse thinks he’s found out the truth, but then when something he learns won’t quite fit in with the rest, he completely re-thinks what happened and that leads him to the real killer.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest likes things to make sense, too. In Gunshot Road for instance, she’s assigned to help investigate the murder of Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins at Green Swamp Well. The killing looks like a case of a drunken quarrel that ended tragically. But for Tempest the pieces don’t fit together. That explanation doesn’t account for what she knows about the man accused of Ozolins’ murder. It also doesn’t account for some physical evidence that she spots not very far from Ozolins’ cabin, where the murder took place. That urge for things to make sense is partly what drives Tempest to chart her own course in the investigation and find out the truth.

In The Twelfth Department, William Ryan’s Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev and his partner Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are assigned to find the murderer of noted scientist Boris Azarov. Azarov’s work was highly classified, so the investigation has to be carefully conducted. They’ve just about settled on a suspect when that person is murdered too. The much-feared NKVD (this series takes place in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow) has a theory about the crimes. And Korolev and Slivka have every reason to ‘rubber stamp’ that theory. It’s not implausible either. But both detectives know that it doesn’t explain everything. They want the truth about the case, and any truthful explanation has to account for everything. So despite the danger of going up against the NKVD, the two continue their investigation.

Not all fictional detectives see the process of imposing order on chaos as a completely intellectual matter. For Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, making sense of it all is a matter of restoring hozro – balance and beauty – to the world. Murder throws things out of balance and Chee wants to set things right and restore the balance by finding out the truth. There are several instances in the novels featuring him where he also acknowledges the sense of chaos in himself that comes from being involved in murders. He’s certainly intellectually curious but for him, it’s just as important to solve crimes to impose what you might call a spiritual order. That’s how he makes meaning.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe also wants to make sense of it all, even though he knows that the answers he gets won’t always be pleasant. He’s got a sense of what ‘counts’ as ‘right’ and ‘just.’ Of course, those are risky words because everyone has a different definition of what ‘the right thing’ to do is, or what’s ‘just.’ That’s the stuff of a separate post in and of itself. But for Marlowe, making sense of the world and imposing some sort of mental order on it is a matter of righting injustices if I can put it like that. It’s that way for John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, too.

We can say that it must be an important personality trait in detectives to want to restore order – for things to make sense. But really, that’s true of all of us. We all seem to want things to make sense. Little wonder that so many of us love solving crime-fictional mysteries.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kansas’ Chasing Shadows.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Tony Hillerman, William Ryan

Come On, Come On, Let’s Work Together*

Community PolicingMany police departments have instituted a policy of ‘community policing.’ The idea here is that building relationships between the police and the community will help reduce crime. What’s more, so the philosophy goes, community policing will lower people’s anxiety about the police and resentment of their presence. So in the event of a crime, there’s less likelihood of people refusing to help. There are all sorts of examples of community policing in action in crime fiction. I’ll just mention a few here.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth is the local bobby for the Scottish village of Lochdubh. The members of the community see him as ‘one of them,’ and they basically trust him. They know he has to do his job to keep order, and he knows that they’re not all perfect angels. Over the years everyone has developed an understanding of how things get done, and it’s worked quite well. In Death of a Cad, for instance, Macbeth spots ‘local layabout and poacher’ Angus Macgregor one morning during a walk down to the sea. Macgregor’s sleeping off more than a few drinks, and has a brace of grouse in the ‘poacher’s pocket’ of his overcoat. Macbeth takes the grouse in order to return it to Colonel Halburton-Smythe, owner of the property from which they were taken. But he doesn’t charge Macgregor with theft. It’s not worth the effort and besides, Macbeth doesn’t expect that Macgregor will immediately change his ways. Instead, he later makes it clear to Macgregor that he knows about the poaching, and asks Macgregor’s help on a case he’s working. Captain Peter Bartlett has been shot in what looks like a terrible accident. Macbeth doesn’t think it is an accident though, and Macgregor helps him find the clue he needs to prove that the death was murder.

Rhys Bowen’s Evan Evans also has a close relationship with the members of his community of Llanfair. He belongs there and he’s trusted. The locals rely on him even when he has to ask difficult questions. What’s more, he knows them well and that knowledge helps him too. He’s also able to put people at their ease because he’s built a good relationship with his community. In Evans to Betsy, for instance, a New Age centre called Sacred Grove has opened in the area. It’s run by renowned psychic Randy Wunderlich and touted as a successful spiritual retreat. But Evans thinks it’s a scam operation. Local resident Betsy Edwards has been convinced that she has ‘second sight’ and has been drawn into Sacred Grove’s operations, and Evans is concerned for her. Then another local girl Rebecca Riesen goes missing. The trail leads to Sacred Grove, so Evans is sure that something dangerous is going on there. Betsy trusts Evans and as he works with her to find out what she knows, we can see how he’s built a solid relationship with the residents of Llanfair. That relationship turns out to be very helpful when Wunderlich turns up dead.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker takes place near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset coast. When the body of Kate Sumner is found on the beach, PC Nick Ingram is called to the scene. Meanwhile, Kate’s toddler daughter Hannah is found wandering around the streets of nearby Poole. Since the victim was from Hampshire, the Hampshire constabulary gets involved in the investigation and in looking after Hannah until her father is located. But the locals know Ingram and he sees a lot of what goes on in the area. So his work is vital to finding out who saw what, and how Kate’s death might have happened. There’s an interesting case in this novel of police from different areas working together.

And then there’s Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police. Benoît Courrèges, who’s usually called Bruno, is police chief in the French country town of St. Denis. He’s built a solid relationship with the locals, who in their turn like and trust him. In fact, he colludes with them on market day to keep E.U. hygiene inspectors from getting anyone in trouble. The local vendors have been making their products for generations, and do not appreciate the inspectors deciding what they can and cannot sell and how they must prepare their goods. For one thing, Bruno agrees with them. For another, he knows the value of a good relationship between the police and the community. That relationship turns out to be vital when the body of Hamid al-Bakr is found in his home. He was a Harki, an Algerian who fought for the French side in the Algerian war. But his status as a war hero hasn’t saved him and the murder suggests an ugly, anti-immigrant motive. Bruno works with Duroc, the captain of the regional gendarmerie, and with national-level detectives to find out who killed the victim and why. Throughout the novel it’s clear that Bruno has a close and trusting relationship with the people he serves.

And lest you think that this sort of community policing can only work in small towns, there are also examples from cities. David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight introduces readers to Superintendent Frank Swann of the Perth police. Swann’s been away from Perth for seven years, but returns when he hears of the murder of local brothel owner Ruby Devine. He and the victim were friends, so he takes a personal interest in the case. What’s more, Swann suspects that corrupt colleagues in the police department know all about the murder and are covering it up. He’s already on their ‘hit list’ because he’s taken a stand against police corruption and called for a Royal Commission hearing. So Swann knows he’s not going to get much help from fellow cops. He turns instead to locals he’s gotten to know through the years, and from them, he gets valuable information about what really happened to Ruby Devine and why.

We also see that kind of close police/community relationship, even in a big city, in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Those novels are set in a thinly-disguised New York City, so it’s a very large place. But homicide cop Steve Carella and his team-mates know a lot of the locals. Over the years they’ve established solid relationships with them and they often get valuable leads on cases that way.

I’ve only mentioned a few examples of community policing here (I know, I know, fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire and Stan Jones’ Nathan Active). But even these few show that it has a lot to recommend it when it works well. Cops can do their jobs more easily when the community trusts them. There’s less crime in a community where the cops can be trusted to do their jobs, and when the members of the community support their law officers. It’s a lot easier for me to write about it than it is to carry it out. And as any crime fiction fan knows, it doesn’t always happen that way. But when it is successful, it can make a big difference.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wilbert Harrison’s Let’s Work Together, made popular by both Harrison and by Canned Heat.

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Filed under Craig Johnson, David Whish-Wilson, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker, Minette Walters, Rhys Bowen, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

Don’t Talk to Me as if You Think I’m Dumb*

Candy Bar and Characters Who Only Seem ScattyAn interesting blog post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about characters who may seem (or actually be) scatty or even deluded, but who are nonetheless shrewd and observant in their ways. In crime fiction, the sleuth does well to pay attention to them; they sometimes have quite a lot of useful information. And although I’m not going to go into it here (it’s really the stuff of another post), there are plenty of sleuths who adopt a scatty exterior to put people off their guards.

Agatha Christie used that sort of ‘deceptively deluded’ character in several of her stories. For instance, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates two deaths. One is the death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. When his family gathers for the funeral and the reading of the will, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first everyone hushes her up. Even she brushes off what she said. But privately everyone begins to wonder. That’s because although Cora has the reputation for being scatty, she also has a knack of saying things that have more than a grain of truth to them. Everyone’s fears seem justified when Cora herself is murdered the next day. One of the suspects in both cases is Cora’s (and Richard’s) niece Rosamund Shane. She and her husband Michael are in the acting profession and are desperate for money to take an option on a play, among other things. Rosamund is on the surface very much like her aunt. She isn’t delusional but she certainly is scatty. And yet, she also has the same shrewdness. She makes a few remarks throughout the novel that in the end prove to be quite penetrating.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee investigates the murder of Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman. He’s recently relocated to the Reservation, but shortly after his arrival, he disappears and is later found dead. At the same time, Chee is asked to find a missing girl Margaret Billy Sosi, who has disappeared from the residential school she attends. Chee thinks the cases might be related since Gorman and Sosi are distant kin. He’s right, too. The trail leads Chee to the outskirts of Los Angeles, where he meets Bentwoman, who is related to both Gorman and Sosi. Bentwoman is very old, not in good health and doesn’t seem to think clearly. Yet she is able to offer Chee some very useful information. And since the Navajo culture has great respect for the elderly, Chee listens.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring is the story of the murder of Reed Gallagher. He was head of the School of Journalism at the university where Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn teaches. He was also married to someone Kilbourn knows, so she gets involved in the investigation of his death. One of the people who may have information about why and by whom Gallagher was killed is journalism student Kellee Savage. She’s had her own mental/emotional issues and isn’t really reliable. And yet she has very useful knowledge about Gallagher’s murder. It makes Kilbourn more human as a character that at first she doesn’t listen very closely to what Kellee says. Later she regrets the decision not to pay close attention when she first talked to Kellee. Still, she uses the information to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

In Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money, Madeleine Avery hires Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles, who seems to have disappeared from his last known address in Bangkok. Quinlan takes the case and begins his search in Bangkok. When he gets to Avery’s apartment, he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds indications that Avery has gone to Cambodia, so that’s where Quinlan heads next. When he gets there, he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, who proves invaluable as a team-mate. The two of them follow Avery’s trail from Phnom Penh to the northern part of Cambodia. Avery had supposedly known of a cache of gold hidden in that part of the country, and it doesn’t take much intuition to guess why he would have headed there. It also doesn’t take much brilliance to figure out that some very nasty people who also wanted that gold went after him. The pieces of the puzzle fall together in northern Cambodia, where Quinlan and Sarin find themselves in a very rural village. Not many people take much notice of the villagers. They’re considered inconsequential in the light of the larger forces that have power in the country. But Quinlan and Sarin get to know them a bit. They especially get to know the village leader. He’s an elderly man whom the authorities and Avery’s ‘business associates’ have brushed off. But he’s much sharper than it seems, and he gives Quinlan and Sarin very helpful information and assistance.

There are also some series ‘regulars’ who are quite a lot more intelligent and resourceful than it may seem on the surface. For instance, Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar novels features law professor Tamar, who gets involved in solving murder cases with former student Timothy Shepherd and some of his fellow attorneys. One of those attorneys is Julia Larwood. On the one hand, she’s impulsive, quite scatty and not at all well-ordered in her personal life. That’s partly how she ends up accused of murder in Thus Was Adonis Murdered.  And it’s how she gets arrested in The Sirens Sang of Murder.  But at the same time, she’s an expert on the Finance Act. She’s also no mental slouch and somehow manages to get out of difficult situations in creative ways.

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ Michael Malone, better known as Cathbad.  Griffiths’ novels feature forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, who first met Cathbad on a dig. Since then he’s become a regular part of her life and a friend. On one level, Cathbad is a Druid and is almost ethereal in his approach to life. Some people might even think he’s delusional. Certainly he’s an unusual and original thinker and that can lead people to underestimate him. But Galloway has learned not to do that. Cathbad has a great deal of wisdom. He also knows the area very well and has a shrewd ability to judge character. Underneath that gentle-if-oddball exterior, Cathbad is very intelligent and resourceful. He’s also a very interesting character.

And that’s the thing about characters who seem to be scatty and even delusional. Like the candy in the ‘photo, they seem soft and chewy on the outside, but they have real substance on the inside. When they’re well-drawn, they’re interesting and they can add some real leaven to the ‘cast’ of a story. I’ve only had space here to mention a few. Which ones do you like best?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now folks, if you haven’t already, do yourself a favour and go visit Clothes in Books. It’s a superb resource for all kinds of interesting insights into fashion and popular culture in literature.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Sarah Caudwell, Tony Hillerman