Category Archives: Virginia Duigan

I’ve Found a Paradise That’s Trouble Proof*

RetreatsLet’s face it: life gets a bit much sometimes. When that happens, it’s nice to have a sort of retreat – a special place to go to get away from it all. An interesting post from author and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has got me thinking about how many fictional characters have those kinds of special places. Pop culture fans will know for instance that Superman has his famous Fortress of Solitude. And if you look at crime fiction, you see that there are plenty of characters who have special retreats like that. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we meet James Sheppard, doctor for the village of King’s Abbot. Even in a peaceful village, life can get busy, especially for a doctor, so Sheppard has a special retreat in his house. He’s built a workroom where even the maid

 

‘…is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.’

 

Sheppard gets drawn into a case of murder when his friend, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd, is stabbed in his study one evening. The prime suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced that he’s innocent, so she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot is impressed with Flora’s sense of conviction so he agrees to look into the matter. In the end, Poirot finds that Ackroyd knew more than was safe for him to know about one particular villager.

Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate is the story of the shooting murder of Native activist Morton Cavendish. Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP is a witness to the killing, and happened to know Cavendish anyway. So he’s determined to find the killer. He’s even more fixed on the investigation when it turns out that Cavendish’s death could be related to another case Matteesie’s working on: the disappearance of a Cessna with three men aboard. One of the people of interest in this case is Cavendish’s son William. William may or may not be involved in either or both incidents. But it’s likely that he has a lot of information no matter how innocent he may be. So Matteesie wants to find him. It turns out that William has a special place – a retreat he’s had since adolescence – where he goes sometimes just to be by himself. That retreat turns out to play a key role in the story.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn is shocked and in grief when her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during a political speech at a community picnic. It’s bad enough that Boychuk was a friend, but what makes things worse is that this brings back the murder of Kilbourn’s husband Ian, whose loss she still mourns. As a way of dealing with her loss, Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuck. As she gathers material for her book, Kilbourn also finds herself investigating the murder. As it turns out, Boychuk’s death had nothing really do to with his political views, and everything to do with his past. Kilbourn’s home has a ‘granny flat’ above the garage, and she uses that both as an office and as a retreat. She spends her share of time in the granny flat and in this book, that fact plays an important role in what happens.

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice introduces us to retired school principal Thea Farmer. She bought what she intended as a retreat in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, and was planning it as her dream home. She’s not much of a one for people, and what she wants most of all is to be away from as many of them as possible. But financial issues and poor decisions mean that she has to give up her dream home and settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Thea’s perfect retreat is soon purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington. Thea refers to these new neighbours as ‘the invaders;’ not only have they purchased the home she considers her own, but they have also taken away her sense of retreat and privacy. Despite her intentions to have nothing to do with ‘the invaders,’ Thea finds herself getting involved in their lives when Frank’s niece Kim moves in. Thea reluctantly warms up to Kim and sees that she has real promise as a writer. So when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to do something about it. Special places and retreats play an important part in this story.

Many other sleuths also have retreats and special places they go when they want to get away. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he spends his share of time in his orchid room. And everyone in his life knows better than to disturb him when he’s communing with his plants. He does love the orchids, but he also uses to the time to get away.

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux has his share of difficult times and trauma, both because of his personal life and because of his job as a New Iberia, Louisiana cop. He gets away from it all by taking his boat out and going fishing. It’s his escape – his special place.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She has her home and bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Although she doesn’t go looking for mysteries to solve, they seem to find her. And even when they don’t, she’s kept quite busy with her business, her relationship with her lover Daniel Cohen, and her duties as servant to three cats. So sometimes Chapman likes to get away and relax. When she does, she doesn’t have far to go. Insula has a lovely rooftop garden where Chapman takes a glass of wine or a drink and enjoys the view. The rooftop is also the scene of some terrific get-togethers of the building’s residents.

And of course, there’s D.S. Nelson’s own Blake Heatherington. As the series featuring him begins, he’s a milliner whose family has been in the business for a long time. He understands hats and the kinds of personalities that are best suited for different kinds of hats. You might say that hat-making is in his blood. So even when he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day business of millinery, Heatherington enjoys creating hats. And he’s got a special retreat for just that purpose. He goes there to try new creations, to think over his cases and to be alone with his thoughts.

Do you have a special sort of retreat like that? If you’re a writer, does your protagonist?

Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration! Folks, now that you’ve been kind enough to stop here, please consider making your next stop D.S. Nelson’s terrific site. It’s got good conversation about writing and some terrific collaborative short stories, among lots of other great things.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Up On the Roof, made popular by the Drifters.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Scott Young, Virginia Duigan

Oh, I Want to See You Again*

CHaracters You Want to See AgainStandalones have a lot to offer the crime fiction genre. They allow the author to experiment, they allow readers to try new-to-them authors without making a commitment to a series, and they allow for variety. But here’s the thing: they can also introduce us to characters we’d like to see again. The problem with that of course is that if a novel is a standalone, there’s no saying whether or when we’ll see those characters again. Everyone’s different, but here are a few standalone crime-fictional characters I’d like to see again. In a few cases, as you’ll see, it won’t be possible. But still…

Agatha Christie is of course well-known for her series and recurring characters, but she also wrote several standalones. One of them is Why Didn’t They Ask Evans (AKA The Boomerang Clue). In that novel, we meet Bobby Jones, who’s playing a round of golf with his friend Dr. Thomas when they make a horrible discovery. A man has fallen over a cliff where Jones and Thomas were looking for a golf ball. Thomas goes off to get help retrieving the body while Jones stays behind. At first Jones thinks the man is dead, but he isn’t – not quite. He manages to say, ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ just before dying. The dead man is identified as Alex Pritchard, who’d recently returned to England after a ten-year absence. Jones is prepared to think of Pritchard’s death as a tragic accident until someone tries to kill him. Now it’s clear that something much more is going on, and Jones and his friend Lady Frances ‘Frankie’ Derwent begin to ask questions. To my knowledge (And please correct me if I am wrong), Christie didn’t write about these protagonists again. They’re appealing though, and I’d have liked to see more of them.

Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles are also an appealing duo I’d have liked to see in more than one novel. I know they appear in a series of films, but they only appear once in written crime fiction – in The Thin Man. In that novel, Nick and Nora are on a visit to New York when they are drawn into the search for a missing business executive Clyde Wynant. At first it seems possible that Wynant wanted to disappear. And it doesn’t take a lot of interaction with his family to see why. But then, his secretary Julia Wolf is murdered. Now the search for Wynant becomes even more important since he’s a suspect in her death. Nick and Nora Charles are both intelligent and resourceful, and they are a good match for each other. I’d have liked to see what Hammett would have done with them in further outings.

I’d also like to see more of Ben Revere, the Boston art historian we meet in Aaron Elkins’ Loot. Revere has gotten into the habit of visiting a pawnshop owned by Simeon Pawlovsky, and the two have a sort of friendship. One day, Pawlovsky calls Revere and asks him to take a look at a new acquisition. Pawlovsky thinks that a painting he’s just been sold may be valuable, but he’s no expert, so he wants Revere’s opinion. Revere finds the visit quite worthwhile, as the painting turns out to be an extremely valuable Velázquez. A short time later, Pawlovsky is murdered. The Velázquez is one of several paintings that were ‘taken to safety’ by the Nazis and later disappeared, so Revere thinks that if he can trace the painting from the time it was ‘acquired’ to the time it was sold to the pawn shop, he may be able to find out who killed Pawlovsky. The trail leads Revere to Russia, Hungary and Austria – and into some real danger as he goes up against several ruthless people. Revere is thoroughly knowledgeable about art, but he’s a very human character and he’s likeable. It’d be interesting to see more of him.

Paddy Richardson’s Stephanie Anderson is another character I’d like to see again. She’s a Dunedin psychiatrist whom we meet in Hunting Blind. She’s just starting her career when one of her clients Elisabeth Clark tells her a tragic story. Several years earlier, Elisabeth’s younger sister Gracie was abducted. No trace of the girl was ever found, and the loss has devastated the family. This story is eerily similar to what happened in Anderson’s own family. Seventeen years ago, her younger sister Gemma was abducted during a summertime school picnic. Despite an exhaustive search, no trace of her was found either, not even a body. Anderson decides to find out who was responsible for so much wrenching sorrow in both families. In the process, she’s hoping to move along in her own grieving process. So she journeys from Dunedin to her home in Wanaka. In the end, she finds out what happened to her sister and to Gracie Clark. She also truly begins to heal. I like Stephanie Anderson’s character very much, and I would like to know what happens next in her life.

And then there’s Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer. She’s a former school principal who had a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Then, some poor financial decisions forced her to sell her home and settle for the house next door – a house she calls ‘ the hovel.’ To make matters worse, new neighbours Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington move in to her ‘dream home.’ She dislikes them heartily, referring to them as ‘the invaders.’ Still, bit by bit she gets to know them and even forms an odd sort of friendship with Frank. Then Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with him and Ellice. At first, Thea’s not at all happy about this. But as she gets to know Kim, she sees in the girl some real writing talent and in her own way, she becomes fond of the girl. But that turns out to be exactly the trouble when Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Thea is a fascinating protagonist. She’s highly intelligent with an acerbic kind of wit and a prickly, even misanthropic attitude towards her fellow humans. But there are really interesting depths to her and I’d like to see her again.

The thing about standalones is that they aren’t intended as series. So perhaps these characters wouldn’t fare as well if they ‘starred’ again. But they might.  Which standalone protagonists would you like to see again?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dennis Wilson’s Farewell My Friend.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Paddy Richardson, Virginia Duigan

When I Look Back I Almost Can’t Believe It*

ReflectionTaking the time to ‘step back’ and reflect can teach us a lot about ourselves. We’ve all got things to be glad and proud of, and also things we’d just as soon forget (erm – I sure hope I’m not the only one in that situation…). Reflecting and looking back can be painful, but it can also help us learn. In crime fiction, it’s an interesting way to add depth to characters and to show not tell about events in the past that have to do with the present story. It can also be an effective way for the author to add plot twists and complications. After all, people’s perspectives on the past are not always accurate.

There’s a fascinating example of looking back in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife Caroline was the natural suspect and there was plenty of evidence against her. In fact, she was convicted of the crime and died a year later in prison. But Carla has always believed her mother to be innocent. Now she wants her mother’s name cleared and Poirot agrees to look into the case. To do that, he interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each person. Those accounts, plus what he learns from other sources, give Poirot the information he needs to find out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. One of the really interesting aspects of this novel is the way in which each person’s memory of the events is affected by a host of factors. Because of that, as each person reflects on that time, we see the events in a different light.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town we meet Peter Alan Nelson. He’s a famous Hollywood director who’s spent years living a self-indulgent life. Now he’s looking back with some regret because he lost contact with his twelve-year-son Toby after the breakup of his marriage to Toby’s mother Karen. That reflection spurs Nelson to try to locate Karen and Toby and re-establish contact so that he can at least be a father to his son. But by that time, Karen and Toby have disappeared. So Nelson hires PI Elvis Cole to trace his missing family. Cole’s unwilling at first; people might want to disappear for any number of reasons. But he’s finally persuaded and starts the search. He and his partner Joe Pike trace Karen and Toby to a small Connecticut town where she is now vice-president of a local bank. She is also mixed up with some very nasty Mafia people. She’d like to break free of their grip but as you can imagine, that’s easier said than done. So Cole and Pike agree to help solve her problem with the Mob if she’ll at least meet with her ex-husband. She agrees and Cole and Pike get to work. Of course, it’s not going to be as easy as it may seem…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma. Precioius Ramotswe gets a visit from a successful civil engineer Mr. Molofelo. He owns an ostrich farm and recently had a nasty run-in with some poachers. That near-death experience has caused him to reflect on his life and look back at some things he’s done. Years ago when he was a student, Mr. Molofelo lived with the kindly Tsolamosese family. While he was there, he stole a radio from them. During the same time, he had a girlfriend Tebogo Bathopi. When she became pregnant with his child, he did little to help her. Now Mr. Molofelo wants to make things right with his former host family and with his former girlfriend, so he asks Mma. Ramotswe to track them down. She agrees and in due course, finds out where they live. In this case, Mr. Molofelo uses his reflection to do some good.

Some people of course don’t look back on their lives with any regret at all. Such a character is Simeon Lee, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder). He’s the wealthy and tyrannical patriarch of a dysfunctional family that gathers for Christmas at the family home Gorston Hall. Lee has done all sorts of terrible things, but here’s what he says about it:

 

‘I don’t regret it, you know. No, I don’t regret anything. I’ve enjoyed myself…every minute! They say you repent when you get old. That’s bunkum. I don’t repent.’

 

Lee may not regret his choices, but the saying that ‘old sins cast long shadows’ proves true when he is brutally murdered on Christmas Eve. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend Colonel Johnson, and he’s persuaded to work with Superintendent Sugden to find out who killed Simeon Lee and why.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, retired school principal Thea Farmer looks back on her life when she takes a creative writing class. Her teacher Oscar poses questions to the class, and the members respond in the form of journal entries. Through Thea’s entries, we learn that she had a custom-made ‘dream home’ built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Everything fell apart though when poor financial decisions forced Thea to sell her dream home and settle for the house next door, a home she calls ‘the hovel.’ When Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea considers her own, she has nothing but contempt for them, even calling them ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s niece Kim comes to live with the family. At first Thea is prepared to dislike Kim heartily, but she discovers that Kim has a great deal of writing talent, and she develops a sort of friendship with the girl. So when Thea begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, she decides to take her own measures. Throughout this novel, Thea looks back on her past, on what caused her to leave her position, what caused her to lose her money, and so on. In all of this, it’s interesting to see the way she looks at her life. Although she knows she’s not perfect, at the same time, she doesn’t really acknowledge her own role in the things that have happened to her.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary is the story of what happens when the Corrowa people of Brisbane unsuccessfully pursue a land title claim to Meston Park. Just a few hours after Judge Bruce Brosnan rules that the Corrowa have no legal claim to the park, he is murdered. The police, mostly in the form of Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Higgins and Detective Sergeant Jason Mathews, immediately start to look among those who were involved with the title claim lawsuit. They don’t ignore Brosnan’s personal life either. Then, there’s another murder. As the police try to link the two killings, readers learn the history of Meston Park, which was once Brisbane’s boundary. We also learn about the Corrowa people’s activism and the long and painful history of race relations in the city. On a personal level, we learn about one activist in particular Charlie Eversely. He’s spent a lifetime working for basic human rights and justice for his people. He’s done his best, but he’s also become disillusioned and when we learn his story, it’s easy to see why. His daughter Miranda has become an attorney working for an Aboriginal legal aid group, and was one of those who pursued the Corrowa people’s claim to Meston Park. Her sense of defeat and regret when the case is lost has driven her to real despair. Here’s what Charlie has to say about his own past and about its effect on Miranda:

 

‘‘Darlin’, I know I haven’t always been a good father to you.’
‘That’s not true.’
Charlie smiles sadly, shakes his head. ‘I had no business bringing grog into our house. No business at all.’
‘Dad, I know you had a lot of problems back then.’
‘I just need you to know that I love you very much and I have always been proud of – ’
‘Dad…’
‘For once in your life, Miranda, don’t interrupt…’
‘I’m sorry, Dad.’
‘You got nothing to be sorry for. When your mum passed away, I turned to grog. That’s how I taught you to work through your problems…’’

 

As Higgins and Matthews sort through the events and interact with the various people involved in the case, we get an unflinching look at racism, relations between the police and the public, and social class issues. We also see how people look back and cope (or don’t) with their own histories.

Looking back and reflecting can be very difficult – even painful. But it can teach us a lot.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rembrandts’ Someone.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Nicole Watson, Robert Crais, Virginia Duigan

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

You Know Everything’s Coming Together Now*

Story PiecesSome crime novels don’t follow a strictly linear plot. Rather, the reader is given various pieces of a story and as the story goes on, sees how those pieces fit together. That sort of plot takes a deft hand, because it’s important that the story not seem chaotic. But when the plot makes sense overall, and when the reader is willing to ‘let go’ and let the pieces fall together, this kind of story can make an interesting alternative to the traditional, more linear plot.

Agatha Christie sometimes experimented with not-exactly-linear plots. For instance, Sad Cypress begins as Elinor Carlisle, on trial for murder, is asked to say whether she is guilty or not guilty of poisoning Mary Gerrard. Then, in flashback form, we learn a bit more about Elinor and about her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman. In bits and pieces, we learn about Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura too, and we see how her history relates to those of Elinor and Roddy. When Aunt Laura is taken ill, both young people go to visit her and readers follow along as they renew their acquaintance with Mary, who’s the lodgekeeper’s daughter at Aunt Laura’s home. Roddy finds himself infatuated with Mary and that’s used against Elinor when she is later arrested for poisoning Mary. Dr. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura’s doctor, wants Elinor’s name cleared, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. As Poiroit does, we very slowly see the bits and pieces of this story fall together. In the end, we learn how past relationships have led to both Aunt Laura’s death and Mary’s. The story isn’t really told chronologically, but it does make sense as the pieces are slowly fitted together.

That’s also true of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. The story’s focus is a car accident in which Paul Bradley, who’s driving a silver Peugeot, is hit from behind by the driver of a blue Honda. The two men get into a loud argument and the other driver soon wields a baseball bat with which he intends to kill Bradley. As one would expect, a crowd has gathered by now. One of the onlookers is mystery novelist Martin Canning, who’s never done a brave thing in his life. But almost by instinct he throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Watching all of this is former cop-turned-PI Jackson Brodie. With this background laid, Atkinson goes on to tell the story of how each character came to be at the scene of the accident, why the accident happened, and what happens to each person as a result. Atkinson doesn’t tell these stories in a linear way. Rather, each piece of the story is explored, and then we slowly see how all of the pieces fit together. And yet, the main plot – what led to the car crash and what resulted from it – isn’t ‘lost in the shuffle.’

Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi is concerned because he hasn’t been home for a few days, so she goes to the police. At first there’s not much cause for worry. There are many reasons why a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother. But when more time goes by, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre begin to look into the matter. One important source of information is his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. But Zipp claims that he doesn’t know where Andreas is. Sejer is fairly certain that Zipp knows more than he’s telling and Sejer’s right. As the story unfolds, we follow the events of the last day Zipp and Andreas spent together. We also follow the lives of some of the people with whom they interacted. There’s also the thread of the ongoing interaction between Zipp and Sejer as Sejer tries to find out what really happened. Fossum doesn’t tell this story in chronological order. Rather, each piece of the story slowly adds to the whole picture that we get of what happened to Andreas.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to Thea Farmer, who has left her job as a school principal and had a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Then she suffers a financial setback and has to sell her perfect home. She moves instead to the house next door which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, a new couple Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy Thea’s dream house. Right from the start Thea doesn’t like them; in fact she refers to them as ‘the invaders.’ Bit by bit though she establishes a kind of rapport with Frank. And then when  Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them, Thea forms a kind of bond with her too. It’s that bond that leads Thea to a fateful decision when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice may not be providing an appropriate home environment for Kim. This story isn’t really told in a linear way. We go back and forth and pick up bits and pieces as we learn Thea’s story. Slowly, we learn why she stopped teaching, why Kim moved in with her uncle, and what happens when Thea decides to take matters with her neighbours into her own hands. Duigan uses Thea’s responses to prompts from her writing coach to tell the story, so interspersed through the novel are also scenes from her writing class. It all comes together, but not in a linear way.

That’s also true of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. The focal point of the novel is the murder of thirteen members of the Atwal family. They’ve all been poisoned and several of them stabbed as well. What’s more, a devastating fire, presumably set to cover up the murders, has destroyed much of the home. The main suspect is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, but there are also signs that she could very well have been a victim too, but just happened to survive. The major problem is that Durga hasn’t said anything about the events of that night, and without her telling what she knows, the police can’t make any progress on the case. Social worker Simran Singh is asked to work with Durga in the hopes that she’ll be able to get the girl to discuss the murders. Bit by bit, Simran does find out what happened on the night of the murders. She also finds out some very disturbing things about the Atwal family and about the local community. The story isn’t told in chronological order, although we do follow the events logically. Rather, we learn bits and pieces as Simran does.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that those stories are also not always told in chronological, linear order. Rather, we meet characters and see some events from their perspectives. Then we follow along as the members of Adamsberg’s team get involved in cases. Bit by bit the pieces fall together and we learn how everything fits in. But the stories aren’t told in sequence.

It’s not easy to tell a coherent story that really falls together without using a fairly chronological approach. But when the author does it skillfully and without losing sight of the main plot, it can be a very interesting alternative to more typical storytelling approaches. What do you think? Do you like this approach to storytelling or do you prefer a more linear one? If you’re a writer, do you experiment with this kind of approach?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Anthem-Revelation.

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Filed under Fred Vargas, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Kishwar Desai, Virginia Duigan