Category Archives: Tony Hillerman

I Must Be Strong and Carry On*

Funeral CustomsPeople who die usually leave behind friends, colleagues and loved ones who need to go through the process of grieving. And for a lot of people, that process involves a funeral or memorial service. Many people find that a ritual service helps them accept the death and begin the difficult process of letting go. And each culture has its own way of letting go of those who’ve died. Since death is so much a part of crime fiction, it’s no surprise at all that we see many examples of funerals, memorial services and so on in the genre. There’s only space in this one post for a few examples, but I’m sure you can think of more than I could, anyway.

Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) starts with the funeral of patriarch Richard Abernethie. As is the custom at that time and in that place, the family members gather at the Abernethie home Enderby after the service. Among the mourners is the family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle, who’s been through this before with other clients. He knows the ritual very well and at the expected time, he informs the family of the terms of Abernethie’s will. At this gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and even she tells the group to pay no attention to her. But secretly everyone wonders whether she was right. When she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was. Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. In the end he finds out the truth about both Abernethie’s death and that of his sister. It’s interesting to see how people’s beliefs about what is ‘the proper thing to do’ at funerals comes into play at the beginning of the novel even though Christie doesn’t depict the service itself.

In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte visits the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall, whose body was found in an isolated hut. He’s just arrived when one of the town’s most respected citizens Ted Bennett dies of a heart attack. Bony’s in the process of looking into the Kendall case when there’s another grisly discovery. Transient worker John Way’s body is found in the same hut, and it seems he committed suicide. Bony doesn’t think that’s true though, and certain aspects of the two deaths seem to connect them. It turns out that Bony’s right, and in the end he finds out what really happened to both men, and how it’s connected to the death of Ted Bennett. On the day of Bennett’s funeral, a storm threatens, and it’s interesting to see how everyone rushes to make sure all of the decencies are observed before the storm hits.

Burial customs play an important role in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee investigates the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who went missing from the school she attends. Chee believes that this case is related to another case he’s investigating, the disappearance and later murder of Albert Gorman. Gorman was a Los Angeles Navajo who’d moved to the Reservation. Chee is right that there’s a connection, and the trail leads him to Los Angeles, where he finds out important things about Gorman’s history. He also finds out the truth about why Gorman’s been killed. At one point in the novel Chee goes to the home of one of Gorman’s kinsmen where he believes Gorman may have been hiding out. That’s when he discovers that Gorman’s dead. The body is prepared in the traditional Navajo way, but there are just a few things about that preparation that aren’t consistent with tradition. That’s what begins to put Chee on the right path. This novel also discusses Navajo beliefs about the dead and about rituals used by those who come in contact with the dead.

One of the story arcs in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series concerns the death of Kilbourn’s first husband Ian. He was a rising politician who was murdered one night when he stopped to help a young couple whose car wasn’t working. When he refused to take them to a party, the young man, Kevin Tarpley, murdered him. Tarpley was convicted and imprisoned for the crime. In A Colder Kind of Death, Tarpley is shot while he’s exercising in the prison yard. Then his wife Maureen, who was with him on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is also killed. Now suspicion falls on Kilbourn. It’s soon shown that she had nothing to do with the killings, but she still wants to deal with the grief that that this experience brings up. Part of the way she does that is by looking at old footage of her husband’s funeral. That process helps both her and her son Angus, who is also dealing with his father’s murder. It’s not vital to the case, but it’s interesting to see how each of them reacts to the footage, and what each remembers about the funeral.

Alan Orloff’s Diamonds For the Dead is the story of the death of Abe Handleman, who had a fatal fall down a flight of stairs. His son Josh returns to the family home in Northern Virginia to arrange his father’s funeral. That’s when he discovers that his father had a cache of very valuable diamonds – and they’re missing. What’s more, his father’s best friend Lev Yurishenko tells Josh that his father didn’t die accidentally, but was murdered. At first Josh doesn’t want to believe it, but the missing diamonds seem to support that theory. So he begins to ask some questions. He finds out that there was more to his father than he knew. He also finds out the truth about his father’s death. As a part of this novel, we see the traditional Jewish custom of burial as soon as possible after the death. We also see the custom of sitting shiva – a week-long period of mourning that’s observed in traditional Jewish homes.

Police sometimes attend funerals and memorial services of murder victims, particularly if they believe they can get some insight into who the killer might be. That’s what happens for instance in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met are investigating a series of killings committed by a murderer who tries to destroy his victims’ bodies by fire. When the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it looks at first as though she may be the so-called Burning Man’s latest victim. But little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise. Partly to follow up on that possibility, Kerrigan is asked to focus on the Haworth case. She attends Haworth’s funeral and in one moving scene, she gets the chance to speak to the victim’s parents. She knows it’s the worst possible time to ask them any questions, but she also wants to solve the case as quickly as possible. In the end, something she sees at the funeral gathering helps Kerrigan to put some of the pieces together.

Funeral and memorial rites often help people let go and we see that in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. American ex-pat Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is a Bangkok-based travel writer who has a reputation for being able to find people and solve problems. So Australian Clarissa Ulrich seeks him out when she goes in search of her Uncle Claus. The two were close when she was growing up, but she hasn’t heard from him and she’s worried for him. Rafferty agrees to ask questions and is soon drawn into an ugly case of murder, awful hidden secrets and more. One murder in particular hits Rafferty very hard. His wife Rose, who’s a former bar girl, and his foster daughter Miaow, who’s a former street child, both understand that this is tearing Rafferty apart, and will only get worse. They are also products of the Thai culture, and have a set of culturally-based beliefs about death and about letting go. With their help, Rafferty goes through a particular ritual, and it’s clear that it has a cleansing effect on him.

We see a similar effect in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. PI Jayne Keeney is an ex-pat Australian who lives and works in Bangkok. She goes north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner Nou is murdered. The official police theory is that Didi is responsible and one night he is killed in what police say was an incident of violently resisting arrest. Keeney doesn’t believe that though. She thinks the police are covering up the real reason for both killings and she begins to ask questions. Her search leads her to the Thai sex trade, human trafficking and corruption. In the end she finds out the truth about these deaths and she’s able to officially have her friend’s name cleared. At the very end of the book, she finds her own way to ritually let go of Didi in a poignant memorial scene.

Funerals and memorial services are woven into crime fiction partly because in real life, they often help people start the healing process. Of course they can also be useful for detectives. And that’s not to mention the many times that funerals are used to cover up illegal activities (there’s an interesting case of that in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek). They are deeply rooted in our various cultures. I’ve only had space for a few instances from the genre. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton and Will Jennings’ Tears in Heaven.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Jane Casey, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

This is My Generation, Baby*

GenerationsEach generation sees the world in a slightly different way. That’s in part because each generation grows up in a different time, with different kinds of advantages and pressures. Sometimes it seems as though the younger (or older) generation inhabits a different planet. And in a lot ways that’s not far from reality. If you think about your own family, you probably could give lots of examples of times where it seems you don’t even speak the same language, let alone have the same outlook on life. We certainly see a lot of that in crime fiction too. I’ll just give a few examples; I’ll bet you’ll be able to share lots more than I could think of anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some odd thefts and other occurrences at a student hostel. When one of the residents Celia Austin confesses that she’s responsible for some of the thefts, it seems the matter is over. Two nights later, though, Celia suddenly dies in what seems like a case of suicide. Once that death is proven to be a murder, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe know that this is much more than a few petty thefts. As Poirot looks into the case, he learns that Celia had an unusual reason for taking the things that she took. It’s a modern approach to meeting a very old challenge, if I may put it that way. And it serves to highlight the different ways that different generations look at the world. Christie takes on that difference in outlook in several other stories too (e.g. After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) and Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts)).

There’s a very distinct (and very sad) generation gap that’s referred to in Tony Hillerman’s stories featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Older generations of Native Americans (Leaphorn is a member of the Navajo Nation) were well-versed in the ways of their people. They kept the traditional ways and maintained their culture. But for younger generations it’s been much more difficult. For a long time, young Native American children were (sometimes forcibly) sent to mission schools and other boarding schools, where the emphasis was on assimilation. Children were required to wear Western clothes and hair styles, speak only English and follow Christianity. Those schools have closed, but Leaphorn was affected by that emphasis on Western ways. He attended,

 

‘A Bureau of Indian Affairs high school that had a sign in the hall. It said, ‘Tradition is the Enemy of Progress.’ The word was, give up the old ways or die.’

 

The pressure of dominant-culture media, economic forces and global communication has meant that in many ways the younger generations have lost touch with their people’s way of life, although in some areas that’s been changing. Hillerman addresses that issue in several of his novels.

There are distinct generation gaps in Qui Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police takes charge of the investigation of the murder of national model worker Guan Hongying. The case is delicate because the victim is a celebrity of sorts, and had several highly-placed friends in the Party. As the story evolves, there’s an interesting sub-text of the gap in world view and values among the generations. There’s the older generation, who have traditional values, beliefs and world views. There’s the Maoist generation, who have been profoundly impacted by Maoist theory and politics, and who experienced the Cultural Revolution. And there’s the younger generation, who are impacted by the growing capitalism in China and by global media. Each generation sees the world, and China, differently.

In Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, we meet Cape Town journalist Robert Dell. He, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive when they are ambushed and the car goes over an embankment. Rosie and the children are killed, but Dell survives. The next thing he knows, though, he is being accused of murdering his family. Soon, he’s charged and jailed, and it looks as though whatever trial there may be has a predetermined outcome. Dell is rescued, though, by his father Bobby Goodbread, from whom he’s been estranged. The reason for the estrangement shows the difference in thinking between two generations. Goodbread is of the ‘Old Guard.’ He was pro-Apartheid and a supporter of ‘the way things have always been.’ To him, the new society is far too chaotic and dangerous. Dell on the other hand repudiates his father’s positions. He sees Aparheid as a moral wrong that has left deep scars, and he sees the changes in South Africa as necessary. His wife was non-white and their children were multiracial. But despite their differences, Goodbread and Dell have one goal in common: they want to travel to Zululand to find Inja Mazibuko, the man who murdered Dell’s family. Mazibuko is about to get married, and his intended bride Sonto, who is usually called Sunday, also reflects a generation gap. She works at an ‘authentic Zulu village’ – a tourist attraction mostly visited by Whites. Sunday wears traditional dress at work, but secretly listens to an MP3 player. She has her own personal reasons for not wanting to marry Mazibuko, one of which is that this marriage was arranged. One thing that guides her thinking is the modern belief that people should decide for themselves whom they’ll marry.

Anya Lipska’s Death Can’t Take a Joke highlights another interesting generational difference in thinking. Janusz Kiszka is a Polish immigrant to London. He’s got a reputation as a ‘fixer,’ as someone who can find things, solve people’s problems and so on. When his friend Jim Fulford is stabbed, he is determined to find out who is responsible. In the meantime, DC Natalie Kershaw is investigating the death of a man who seems to have jumped from the top of the Canary Wharf Tower. The two cases do have a connection, and Kershaw and Kiszka form an uneasy alliance to find out the truth. At one point, the two travel to Poland, and Kiszka makes an interesting observation. He is from the generation that was determined to throw off Soviet-dominated control of the country. That generation, from his perspective, had a strong sense of national pride and solid Polish values and traditions. He notices that the young people, who’ve grown up after the end of the Soviet era, have much less of a sense of national pride. On the one hand, they are more global in outlook. On the other, they have less of a sense of what it is to be Polish. It’s a fascinating look at the effect of global media on a generation of people.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein and her parents left Leipzig during the Cold War years when leaving what was then East Germany meant risking one’s life. They ended up in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island, and made lives for themselves. Ilsa loved her former home, friends and extended family and found it difficult to adjust to a new country and a different language. But over the years she has settled in and become a secondary school teacher. She begins to be concerned when one of her most promising students Serena Freeman starts slipping away. Serena skips school and even when she is there, shows little interest. It’s a disturbing change and Ilsa wants to help if she can. She and her mother Gerda find that getting involved in Serena’s life has consequences that they couldn’t have imagined. Throughout the novel, we see a marked generational difference between Gerda’s and Ilsa’s feelings about Germany. Ilsa is nostalgic for Leipzig and her life there. She acknowledges that New Zealand has been a good place, with basically good people, but it’s never really been her home. Gerda on the other hand sees things differently. She is older and knows exactly what the Stasi, the East German secret police, were like. She remembers the betrayals and denunciations, and for her, Germany has no appeal. It’s a very interesting difference in perspective, and generation plays a big role in it.

Even for people who haven’t been through experiences such as war and repression, just belonging to a different generation means a different outlook from the previous and younger generations. It’s part of what defines a person. Where have you seen this difference in outlook in the crime fiction you’ve read?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s My Generation.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Paddy Richardson, Qiu Xiaolong, Roger Smith, 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