Category Archives: Virginia Duigan

A Fortress Steep and Mighty*

SecurityOne of the most important needs we have is the need for security. We need to feel that we can depend on our lives to stay more or less stable. In fact, if scholars such as Abraham Maslow are right, the only needs that are more urgent are our physical needs such as air, water, food, and physical safety. The need for security plays a major role in many of our decisions. If you’ve ever known someone who kept a dull and dreary job because it was more secure than risking a career change, you know what I mean.

The need for security also plays an important role in crime fiction. It acts as a motivator, it adds to character development and it can add a layer of tension to a story. Here are just a few examples from the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood, we meet the Cloade family. They’ve always had the security of knowing they’d have no financial worries. Family patriarch Gordon Cloade has seen to their needs and has promised they’d never have to be concerned about money. Then everyone’s sense of security is shaken when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay. What’s worse, he dies tragically in a bomb blast without changing his will. Now Rosaleen is set to inherit everything, leaving the rest of the Cloades with nothing. The possibility of security returns in the form of a mysterious stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden. He hints that Rosaleen may actually have been married to someone else at the time of her marriage to Cloade. If that’s true, then she can’t inherit. When ‘Enoch Arden’ is killed, Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation. Throughout this novel, we see how each of the Cloades deals with the feeling that their precious security may no longer be a given.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of the Hillman family, who’ve built a secure, safe upper-middle-class life. When their seventeen-year-old son Tom begins to have some difficulties, they send him to Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled teens. One day he disappears from the school. Fearing that the school will be held liable, headmaster Dr. Sponti hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. During their meeting, Tom’s father Ralph Hillman comes into the office with the news that Tom’s been abducted and that there’s been a ransom demand. Archer returns with Hillman to the family home where he agrees to find out who’s kidnapped Tom. In the process, he finds that things are not at all what they seem on the surface. This is not a case of kidnapping a rich boy for the money. Then, there’s a murder. As Archer gets closer to the truth, he finds that the Hillmans depend greatly on the sense of security they get from their reputation and their social standing. When that’s threatened, it’s a threat to their very identity.

Karin Fossum’s  Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride)  includes another treatment of the need for security. Gunder Jormann has lived all his life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and life is slow-paced, even a bit dull, but secure. Jormann himself isn’t exactly the quickest thinker, but he is steady and dependable, a lot like the town.  Then he makes the surprising announcement that he’s going to find a bride. What’s more, he’s going to Mumbai to do so. His sister Marie isn’t at all sure he should do this. It certainly doesn’t sound like a safe, smart thing to do. But Jormann goes ahead with his plan and travels to Mumbai, where he meets Poona Bai. They strike up a relationship and Poona agrees to marry him. He travels back to Norway to make the house ready for her, while she stays behind to finish up her life in India. On the day of Poona’s arrival in Norway though, Marie is involved in a car accident and Jormann has to stay with her. So he asks an acquaintance to meet Poona at the airport. They miss each other though, and Poona never arrives at Jormann’s house. The next day her body is discovered in a nearby field. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the killing. In this case, security isn’t specifically the reason for Poona’s death. But it does play an important role in the way everyone responds to her and to her murder.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces us to fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, but functions at a high enough level that he can go to school and learn academic material. Because of his autism, Christopher has a high need for security. Everything has to be in a certain order, there are certain routines he has to follow, and so on. His comfort and ability to function depend quite a lot on his sense that things are stable. One day Christopher discovers that the neighbour’s dog has been killed. At first, he’s accused of being responsible. So to prove his innocence, he decides to become a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and discover who the guilty person is. In the process of finding out the truth, Christopher finds out a lot about himself. A lot of his assumptions come into question and all of it calls into question the stability he’s always assumed.

We also see the role that the need for security plays in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s planned the perfect dream house in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s looking for the security of a quiet, secluded life in her new home. Then, poor financial decision-making results in a serious blow that means she has to sell her perfect house and settle for the smaller house next door. Her security is further threatened when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy ‘her’ house and move in. She doesn’t want anyone living nearby and even refers to them as ‘the invaders.’ Soon afterwards, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them and Thea’s sense of security is even further threatened when Kim takes an interest in her. Little by little though, she and Kim form a kind of awkward friendship and she senses real promise in the girl. That’s why she feels particularly upset when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When she learns that the police aren’t going to do much, Thea decides to take her own action. This story is told in the form of journal entries Thea makes as a part of a writing class she’s taking. The journal prompts force Thea to confront her own past and it’s interesting to see how her security is threatened by that too.

And then there’s Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. The setting for this novel is an exclusive gated community outside Buenos Aires called The Cascade Heights Country Club. The community represents security to its wealthy residents. There’s a six-foot-high perimeter fence, a group of security guards, etc., all designed to keep the scary ‘larger world’ out. But no-one is really as secure as we’d like to think. And when national economic troubles find their way into Cascade Heights, everyone begins to feel the crumbling of that sense of security. Then one night there’s a tragedy at the home of one of the residents. That tragedy shakes the foundations of life for several of the people who live in Cascade Heights, and we really see how dependent people are on their sense of security, whether or not that security is illusory.

It seems we all have the need to feel secure. When that sense of security is threatened, the experience can shake us to the core. And that can make for a rich layer in a crime novel. I’ve given just a very few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock. Yes, I know I’ve used this one more than once. It’s a great song. You’re welcome.  ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Karin Fossum, Mark Haddon, Ross Macdonald, Virginia Duigan

We’re On Our Way Home*

HomesYou can tell a lot about people from the kinds of homes they have. For example, people who are fond of art deco may have homes that are furnished with geometric-patterned carpets and furniture with spare lines. People who love gardening may very well have as ‘open’ a home as they can, with a sun room or something like it.  When authors use that match between character and home setting, they can show (not tell) readers quite a lot. Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is a neat, orderly person. Symmetry matters to him and it shows in the way he lives. Here’s a description of his home from Mrs. McGinty’s Dead:

 

‘The lift took him up to the third floor where he had a large luxury flat with impeccable chromium fittings, square armchairs, and severely rectangular ornaments. There could truly be said not to be a curve in the place.’

 

It’s an interesting way of letting readers know a little about Poirot. His home is in keeping too with his way of looking at life. It really suits him and adds harmony if I may put it that way to the stories in which he features.

The same might be said about the New York brownstone home where Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe lives. Fans will know that Wolfe is passionate about orchids. His home reflects that in that he has an entire area set aside for his prized plants. Stout didn’t have to go on and on about the way Wolfe feels about orchids; the orchid room shows us that. Readers also can see without having to be told that Wolfe is fond of ‘creature comforts.’ The furniture (at least the furniture he uses) is luxurious and comfortable. His kitchen and dining areas are large and well-appointed. And then of course there’s the custom-made elevator. The house is made to suit the needs of a large person, too, so although Archie Goodwin likes to remind readers of how large Wolfe is, he really wouldn’t have to; the size of the house and its rooms and furnishings show us that. I honestly couldn’t see Wolfe in a rustic country cottage. It would be jarring. As it is, Wolfe’s home and surroundings are, you might say, an extension of himself.

Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway also has a home that’s very well-suited to her particular needs, tastes and lifestyle. She and her daughter Kate share a small home in a rural part of North Norfolk, not far from the Saltmarsh. The house is small, with comfortable but certainly not luxurious furnishings. And although Galloway isn’t slovenly, it’s the kind of house that doesn’t need a lot of attention, tidying or heavy-duty cleaning. And that suits Galloway just fine, as she isn’t the ‘home conscious’ type. Galloway’s home also reflects her more or less solitary nature. She has a few close friends, and she works well enough with other people, but she’s no extrovert. She enjoys her own company and she is passionate about her work. So her small house out in the back of beyond suits her quite well. I couldn’t imagine her ‘fitting in’ in a flat in the middle of a large city.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa has a home that reflects his tastes and personality. He’s a bibliophile. Or, to be more precise, he’s a person who loves stories. So he has a large collection of books and quite a lot of space in his home is devoted to them. But he is devoted to his work, and since he’s single, he doesn’t feel a powerful urge to spend all of his evenings at home. So the books remain stacked in various places rather than put onto bookshelves. His home is comfortable enough, but he hasn’t dedicated a lot of time to choosing a particular décor or style of furniture. And that makes sense given the fact that he isn’t married, doesn’t have children and spends a lot of time on the job.

And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson. When we first meet her in The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), she’s living in a small Stockholm apartment. But circumstances in that novel and later novels take her back to her home town of Kiruna. There, she lives in the house previously owned by her grandparents, and she can still feel her grandmother’s presence at times. As time goes on, Martinsson learns (or re-learns) that she belongs in that part of Sweden, close to nature. Her emerging personality is reflected in her home too. It’s in a rural area, away from people, which is just how she likes it. It’s comfortably-enough furnished, but Martinsson is not one for luxuries or a lot of ‘creature comforts,’ so her home doesn’t have them. It’s interesting to see how her home and surroundings provide sanctuary for her, too.

There’s a strong example of personal investment in a home in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s decided to have a home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She has her dream house built exactly the way she wants it, and she’s pleased that it’s ‘away from it all.’ She’s not fond of her fellow human beings and is happy not to have anyone living nearby. The house exactly reflects her personality and tastes, and she’s preparing to enjoy life there. Then some financial setbacks and mistakes leave her no choice but to sell the house. Devastated at being forced to give up the home that so perfectly suits her, she has to settle for the house next door, which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, her perfect home is bought by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, people she considers ‘invaders.’ In her perception, they’ve taken over her home and therefore, taken a piece of her if I may put it that way. As if that’s not enough, they invite Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim to live with them. Against odds, Thea and Kim form an awkward kind of friendship though, and when Thea finds out that Frank may not be providing an appropriate home for the girl, she makes her own plans to deal with it.

There are a lot of other examples of the way a home can reflect its owner and show the reader what that person is like. It can be an effective strategy to reveal a character’s personality without going into a lot of verbal detail. Now, I’ve had my say. Your turn. Do you notice home surroundings in your crime fiction? If you’re a writer, did you consciously plan your protagonist’s home?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Two of Us.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Elly Griffiths, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Rex Stout, 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