Category Archives: Wendy James

Ah, But I Was So Much Older Then, I’m Younger Than That Now*

OlderPerspectivesHave you ever noticed how your perspective on things changes as you get older? For instance, if you visit a home that you lived in as a child, you may see that it’s a lot smaller than you remember. You remember that house with a child’s perspective, but now you see it with a different set of eyes. That different way of looking at things is arguably part of the reason for which our memories can be so unreliable.

We see that plot point quite a lot in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Not only is it realistic, but also, it allows the author to add to the suspense of a story. And in the case of ‘whodunit’ crime novels, it allows for all sorts of ‘red herrings’ and proverbial wrong turns. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of many others.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve a sixteen-year-old case. Her father, famous artist Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, charged and convicted, and with good reason. For one thing, there was physical evidence against her. For another, she had a motive, as her husband was having an affair with the subject of his painting Elsa Greer. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he interviews all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also asks for Carla’s own memories. In two cases, Carla’s and that of her Aunt Angela Warren, the memories of that time are those of children. Carla was five, and Angela Warren was fifteen when Crale was murdered. And it’s interesting to see how their perceptions of things have changed. There are two incidents in particular that didn’t make sense to a younger mind, but now make a lot of sense. The difference in perspective isn’t the solution to the mystery, but it explains several things and adds an interesting layer to the story (I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder).

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988, at a lakeside school picnic at Wanaka. The members of the Anderson family, including fourteen-year-old Stephanie, her younger brothers Jonny and Liam, and her four-year-old sister Gemma, are there with many other local people. During the picnic, Gemma disappears. The police are called in and there’s a thorough search. But no trace of Gemma turns up – not even a body. The family tries to move on as best they can, and seventeen years go by. Now Stephanie is a fledgling psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. One day she hears a haunting story from a patient Elisabeth Clark. Years earlier, her sister Gracie was abducted, and no trace of her was found. This story is so much like Stephanie’s own that, as the saying goes, it won’t leave her alone. Against her better professional judgement, she decides to find out who was responsible for causing so much devastation to these two families. She takes a leave of absence from her work and begins to search for the truth. The trail leads her back to Wanaka and in the end, she does find out who abducted both girls. Throughout the novel we see the way Stephanie viewed everything as a fourteen-year-old versus the way she looks at life now.

In Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, we meet Caspar Leinen, a young attorney who is just beginning his career. One day his name comes up on the legal aid rota and he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Fabrizio Collini, an Italian immigrant to Germany, has been arrested for murder. It seems that he went to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, headed for the suite occupied by Jean-Baptiste Meyer, and shot the man. Collini says that he committed the crime and doesn’t want a lawyer. But German law requires that he be represented. So Leinen prepares to handle the case as best he can. Collini doesn’t do much to defend himself, which means that Leinen will have to take on a lot of the work. He digs into the backgrounds of both men and finds some surprising truths. He also finds a little-known point of German law on which the whole case will ride. In the course of the novel, we also get to know Leinen’s own history, and that plays a role in the story’s events too. It’s interesting to see how his perspective as a boy and teenager changes as he reflects on the same events with adult eyes.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer also deals with the different perspectives that we acquire as adults. Catherine Monsigny is a beginning attorney who gets her chance at a major case when she is asked to defend Myriam Villetreix against a murder charge. She has been accused of poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston, but claims to be innocent. And as Monsigny looks into the case, she sees that there are other possibilities. In the meantime, she comes up against a tragedy from her own past. When she was three years old, she was a witness to the murder of her mother Violet. Her memories are understandably very sketchy, but some things have stayed with her. As it happens, the Villetreix murder happened not very far from the scene of the long-ago murder, and the location haunts Monsigny. In the course of the novel she learns who killed her mother and why. As she does so, we see that her adult perspective, and some discoveries she makes, helps her to see certain events and people in a very different light.

There’s also Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything. In that novel, thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood and her friend Evie Verver are inseparable. Then one terrible day, Evie doesn’t come home from school. The later it gets, the more worried Evie’s family becomes, and they ask Lizzie to tell them anything she may know that could help. But Lizzie can’t be of much assistance, not to the family and not to the police when they talk to her later. She wants to know what happened to Evie, though, and in her own way, begins to search for the truth. She finds that many of her memories don’t reflect what really happened. And since it’s the adult Lizzie who narrates the story, we also see how her perspective on everything has changed since she was thirteen.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. That story really begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found strangled. This tragedy devastates her parents, the aunt and uncle with whom she was staying when it happened, and her cousins Mick and Jane. At first the police thought that someone in the family might be responsible. But then not many months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, was also found strangled. Everyone began to believe that these deaths were the work of a serial killer dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The cases were never solved, and years went by. Now, more than thirty years later, journalist Erin Fury is doing a documentary on the effect of tragedies like this on the families involved. She interviews both Jane and Mick, along with Jane’s husband Rob, who also knew Angela. As the novel goes on, we see how these characters viewed Angela and the circumstances surrounding her death. We also see how different some of their youthful perspectives are to what really happened and to the adult perspectives they now develop on everything.

And that’s the thing about looking back. On the one hand, there are some very clear memories we have that are actually quite accurate. On the other hand, when we look back, we often do so with our childhood perspective. It’s not until we really think about things with adult maturity that we really understand them. I’ve only brought up a few examples here. Which books with this plot point have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ferdinand von Schirach, Megan Abbott, Paddy Richardson, Sylvie Granotier, Wendy James

Keep Your Friends Real Close and Keep Your Enemies Closer*

Friends Close and Enemies CloserThere’s an old saying, ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ The idea is that the more you know about the people you don’t like or trust, the safer you are. There are a lot of examples of this kind of tense relationship in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Along with the fact that they’re a natural ‘fit’ for a crime novel, those tense relationships can add a solid level of suspense to a story. So not only can they add to a plot, but they can also add interest. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. I know you’ll be able to provide lots more than I could anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police to solve an unsettling case. A group of murders is committed, apparently all by the same person. Prior to each murder, Poirot receives a cryptic warning note; near each body is an ABC railway guide. It looks like the work of what we now call a serial killer, but Poirot isn’t exactly sure of that. And it turns out that he’s quite right. This is not the work of a crazed lunatic who kills for some twisted psychological reason. The murderer has a much different sort of plan and motive. The killer wants to know what leads Poirot and the police are following, and is well aware that they won’t exactly print such things in public notices. So the culprit chooses a very interesting approach to ‘keeping enemies close,’ as it were. Not that that stops Poirot from finding out who’s responsible…

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer is hired by Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida School, to track down a student who’s apparently run away. Seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman has left the school, and Sponti wants him found before his wealthy parents find out he’s missing. He and Archer are discussing the case when the boy’s father Ralph Hillman bursts into the office with some frightening news. Apparently Tom’s been abducted and his kidnappers have contacted the family. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Ralph and his wife Elaine to find out who has taken Tom. It’s not long before Archer sees that all is not as it seems in this case. For one thing, the Hillmans are strangely uncooperative for parents who are distraught about losing their son. For another, there are signs that Tom may have gone willingly with his captors. Archer doesn’t care at all for Ralph and Elaine Hillman, and the feeling is mutual. But he knows that they know Tom possibly better than anyone else, and are in a good position to provide valuable information. So although he neither likes nor trusts them, he has to work with them.

Megan Abbott’s Die A Little, which takes place in 1950’s California, features Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She and her brother Bill have always been close, so when he first says that he’s found the right woman to marry, she’s pleased for him. His fiancée Alice Steele is a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant who’s both beautiful and smart, and it’s easy to see why Bill is in love with her. The wedding duly takes place and Lora tries to be happy for her brother. But it’s not long before she starts to dislike and distrust Alice. For one thing, she discovers that Alice hasn’t been exactly honest about her background. For another, Alice has a rather dubious past and some even more dubious friends and connections. Now Lora begins to be afraid (or so she at least tells herself) that Alice might be dangerous for Bill. But Bill wants his wife and his sister to get along; it’s too stressful for him if they’re enemies. What’s more, he really does love Alice, and Lora knows he won’t listen to just her suspicions. So she has to get along with Alice as best she can. Besides, as much as she is repelled by Alice’s life, Lora also finds herself drawn to it. Then there’s a death. And Alice might be mixed up in it…

In Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom, British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann gets a new assignment. He’s told to travel to Thailand and retrieve a black, lead-covered box from the Andaman sea, where it ended up when the ship it was on sank. Swann knows that this operation will require a lot of armed help and cooperation from people in Thailand. And for that, he’ll need the support of one of Thailand’s top crime bosses ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. Getting that support is going to be extremely dangerous for Swann. For one thing, Song is ruthless. For another, Swann has been entangled with Song before. In an earlier confrontation with dangerous underworld types, Swann ended up having to kill Song’s son. He saved Song’s life, and for that, the man owes him. But Swann is pretty certain that Song will not forgive the murder of his son. Still, Song is the only real choice for making sure that people will cooperate with Swann, that the police will stay out of his way, and that there will be plenty of armed assistance should Swann need it. So he has to work with a man he can’t really trust. As it turns out, ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song is going to be the least of Swann’s worries…

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls is the story of two deaths that took place in the Sydney area in 1978. First, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan was found strangled with a silk scarf. At first, the police looked for the killer among Angela’s friends and family members. In fact her cousin Michael ‘Mick’ Griffin was under suspicion for a time. Then, a few months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor was found dead, also strangled with a scarf. This death raised the very real possibility that there might be a serial killer at work; the press dubbed the murderer ‘the Sydney Strangler.’ Young girls were told to be careful, parents to supervise their children more closely, and so on. The strangler was never caught, and the cases have more or less died out of regular conversation. But the families involved have not ‘gotten over it.’ Over thirty years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on the lasting effects of murders on the victims’ families. Angela was an only child, and her parents have died. So Fury visits Angela’s cousin Jane Tait and asks her for an interview. She also wants to interview Jane’s husband Rob, her brother Mick and her mother Barbara. At first, the family doesn’t really want to rake things up again. They’ve all suffered more than enough. And at first they don’t trust Fury; after all, why should they? And she has her own reasons for wanting to dislike them. But very slowly they start to tell their stories. And what comes out of the interviews is that things were not at all the way they seemed on the surface. Bit by bit we learn what really happened to Angela and to Kelly, and how their deaths and the secrets about them have affected everyone.

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. In that novel, we first meet Peter Jamieson and John Young. Jamieson is very much a ‘rising star’ in Glasgow’s underworld, and Young is his right-hand man. Together, they notice something they don’t like. Small-time dealer and criminal Lewis Winter seems to be trying to make a name for himself. If he succeeds, he could be a real problem for Jamieson and Young, especially if he allies himself with one of their rivals. So they want Winter out of the way. To do that, they hire Callum MacLean. He’s a professional who’s done jobs like this before, so they’re sure the job will be done properly. For MacLean’s part, it’s a paid job – a way to make a living. He wants to do it well, get paid as promised, and stay off the police radar, both literally and figuratively. Neither entirely trusts the other. Neither says more than is necessary to seal the deal. Yet they have to work together if they’re going to solve the Winter problem. It’s interesting to see how the relationships among underworld figures work in this novel. They know a lot about each other; they sometimes have drinks and make deals. But they never completely trust each other.

And that’s the way it is in some relationships. There are times when the best way to ensure your own safety is to know exactly what ‘the other side’ is thinking and doing. It’s true in real life and we certainly see it in crime fiction. Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stuart ‘Adam Ant’ Goddard and Marco Pirroni’s Young, Dumb and Full of It.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Megan Abbott, Ross Macdonald, Wendy James

How Could You Tell Me That I Was Wrong*

Blaming the VictimSocietal attitudes play a major role in the way we perceive people who are involved in crime. In some cases, people are even held responsible for crimes when really they’re the victims if you think about it. ‘Blaming the victim’ has a long history in society, and of course we see plenty of it in crime fiction too. When that plot point is done well, it can really hold a mirror up to a way of thinking.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, for example, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murder of Enoch Drebber, an American visitor to London. One possibility is that his secretary and travel companion Joseph Stangerson is the killer. But when Stangerson himself is murdered, it’s clear that something else is behind these murders. Holmes traces the murders back to past events and a history that Drebber and Stangerson shared. One key point in this plot is that the murderer could very well be described as a victim who’d been blamed for what was really more of a societal wrong.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers is the story of the life and death of twenty-four-year-old Wendy Hanniford. Her father Cale Hanniford finds out that she’s been stabbed and approaches ex-NYPD cop Matthew Scudder to help him find out why. Hanniford knows that Wendy’s room-mate Richard Vanderpoel has been arrested for the crime, and for good reason. He was found with the victim’s blood on him, and he can’t give a satisfactory alibi for the time of the crime. What Hanniford really wants to know is what led to the crime – what Wendy was like as an adult and how she ended up dead. Scudder agrees to ask some questions and begins looking into Wendy’s past. The closer he gets to the kind of person Wendy was, the more it seems that the story of her murder is not as simple as it seems. In the end, we find that Wendy’s death is a solid case of ‘blaming the victim.’

There’s another example of ‘blaming the victim’ in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep. When Dr. Everett Seeley is forced to give up medicine because of his cocaine habit, he decides to go to Mexico for the time being. He sets up his wife Marion in a Phoenix apartment and arranges for her to have a ‘safe’ job as a filing clerk/typist at the exclusive Werden Clinic. He’s hoping that she’ll be all right until his return, and at first, all goes well. Then, Marion strikes up a friendship with Louise Mercer, a nurse at the clinic, and her room-mate Ginny Hoyt. As Marion gets drawn more and more into their dangerous lives and lifestyles, she finds herself getting closer and closer to the proverbial edge. To make matters worse, she meets businessman Joe Lanigan, a ‘friend’ of Mercer’s and Hoyt’s. The relationship they strike up leads to tragedy for everyone and raises the question of who the victim really is. This novel is based on a real-life case, and in both instances we can ask the question of whether the victim is being blamed.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly begins with the arrest of Marco Ribetti, an activist who ‘s been protesting against several of the glass-blowing factories in the Venice area. He believes they’re illegally dumping toxic waste and are polluting the environment. When he and his group protest against a factory owned by powerful Giovanni de Cal, he’s arrested. De Cal makes quite a scene, blaming Ribetti for causing trouble. Ribetti asks his friend Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello for help in his case and Vianello agrees to see what he can do. He and his boss Commissario Guido Brunetti look into the question of how the glass-blowing factories get rid of toxic waste; that search leads them to Giorgio Tassini, a night-watchman for de Cal’s factory. Tassini has always believed the factories were illegally dumping toxic waste and is only too happy to share his theory with the police. Then one night he’s killed in what seems on the surface to be a tragic accident that occurred because he was working on his own glass project when he should have been attending to his duties. But Brunetti isn’t so sure that’s what happened, and he begins to investigate further. In the end, he finds out the truth about Tassini’s death and we see that the strategy of ‘blaming the victim’ has been used to cover up murder.

In John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, ten-year-old Tonya Hailey, who is Black, is brutally raped by two White men Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. The small Mississippi town in which she lives is shocked at the incident and there’s a lot of sympathy for her family. Her father Carl Lee Hailey is determined that Cobb and Willard won’t get away with what they did. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courthouse. As attorney Jake Brigance prepares to defend Hailey, he’s up against considerable odds. For one thing, there’s little doubt that Hailey shot Cobb and Willard. For another, there are some powerful local people who want to ensure that Hailey is convicted or worse. On the one hand, you can argue that Hailey is a murderer. On the other hand, one can certainly ask the question of who the victim really is.

There’s a clear case of ‘blaming the victim’ in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This is a fictional retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan, who was imprisoned in Melbourne in 1900 for the drowning murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie first meets Jack Hardy while she’s still living at home with her parents in rural Victoria. She falls in love with Hardy and he seems to reciprocate. In fact, they become engaged, although he asks her to keep it secret until he can make a life for them. Shortly thereafter, Hardy leaves for New South Wales to find work. Then, Maggie finds out that she’s pregnant and writes to Hardy with the news. He doesn’t respond, but she continues to try to reach him. Knowing that her parents won’t accept her given that she’s unwed and pregnant, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she finds work in a Guest House. Baby Jacky is duly born and mother and son are both healthy. At first, they go to a home for unwed mothers. But then, Maggie learns that Hardy has moved to the Melbourne area. She finally tracks him down, only to have him outright reject her and the baby, even saying that she’s crazy. With very little money, Maggie goes from one lodging place to another that night and is turned away from six of them. That’s when the tragedy with the baby occurs. She’s arrested and tried for murder, and then imprisoned. Throughout the novel, the question of who is really to blame forms an important theme.

It does in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too.  Ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty has made a life for himself in Bangkok with his wife Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own cleaning company. Also sharing Rafferty’s life is Miaow, a former street child he’s hoping to adopt. One day he gets word that Australian tourist Clarissa Ulrich is looking for him. She’s heard he has the reputation of being able to find people who don’t want to be found, and she wants to find out what happened to her Uncle Claus, who seems to have disappeared. Rafferty agrees to ask a few questions and finds some leads to follow. The trail leads him to an enigmatic and intimidating elderly woman Madame Wing who, it turns out, has another case for him. She agrees to give Rafferty the information he wants if he’ll help her. He takes on that case and ends up getting drawn into a tangled web of murder and revenge for the past. In this novel, it’s clear how people can be blamed for things when actually, they are victims.

Using the plot point of ‘blaming the victim’ allows an author to explore societal issues in the context of telling a story. It also allows for character depth. These are just a few examples; which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Cell Block Tango. 

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Lawrence Block, Megan Abbott, Timothy Hallinan, Wendy James

Hello Old Friend*

Renewing RelationshipsHave you ever renewed a relationship with someone you hadn’t seen in years? In some cases it seems as though no time at all has gone by, and people pick up the relationship just where it left off. But we all change over time, and we all have life experiences that affect us, sometimes deeply. So sometimes those reunions can be awkward. And it doesn’t make it any easier that we often have mental images, left over from the past, of how the people in our lives ‘should’ act, speak and think. It can be difficult to accept it when someone doesn’t fit that image. Whether they’re easy, even joyful, or awkward, those reunions are full of history, character and so on. And that means that they’re also interesting plot points for stories. There are plenty of them in crime fiction too; let me just give you a few examples. I know you’ll be able to think of many more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we meet Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife Gerda are invited for a weekend visit to The Hollow, the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. During their visit, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and gets involved in the case. In one of the related sub-plots, we learn that fifteen years earlier, Christow had been involved with now-famous actress Veronica Cray. Their romance ended with Christow getting a broken heart, and he’s never really been able to leave it all completely in the past. When he and Gerda get to The Hollow, he’s shocked to learn that Veronica has taken a cottage in the area, and is eager to renew their relationship. When the two reunite, Christow has a sudden awareness that they’ve both changed and that he has moved on. Here’s what he says to Veronica:

 

‘I’m a man fifteen years older. A man you don’t even know – and whom, I daresay, you wouldn’t like much if you did know.’

 

Veronica has her heart set on Christow though, and her rage at his rejection makes her a suspect in his murder.

There’s an interesting case of reunion in Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. Famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson hires PI Elvis Cole for a delicate domestic case. Years ago Nelson was married to Karen Shipley and they had a son Toby. The marriage fell apart and Karen disappeared, taking Toby with her. Now, Nelson wants to begin to be a father to his son, so he engages Cole to trace Toby and his mother. At first Cole is reluctant. After all, a lot of people disappear precisely because they don’t want to be found, especially in cases like this one. But eventually Cole is persuaded to look into the matter and he and his partner Joe Pike start the investigation. It doesn’t take long to find Karen and Toby; they’ve moved to a small town in Connecticut. But it turns out that a reunion with her ex is the last thing on Karen’s mind. She’s got major problems of her own, including trying to get free of a Mob trap into which she’s fallen. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that there is a reunion, and Crais shows how awkward such experiences can be. Nelson has a mental image of the wife he knew and of his son as a baby. The reality of course is quite different. For her part, Karen has an image of the self-involved man she left, and has to adjust to the fact that perhaps her ex really wants to try to be a father.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, we are introduced to biographer (later crime writer) Erica Falck. She’s returned to her parents’ home in Fjällbacka to sort through their things after their deaths. Then she learns of the sudden death of her former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner. The two were best friends during their childhoods, but hadn’t really been close for twenty-five years. Erica wants to know the sort of person Alex became, so she decides to write a biography of her former friend. In the process, she learns that the adult Alex is quite different to the friend she knew as a girl, and that a lot happened in the meantime. She also begins to get a sense of who might have wanted to kill Alex. At the same time, police officer Patrik Hedström and his team are officially investigating the death. It’s been made to look like suicide, but of course, it isn’t. In one plot thread of this novel, Erica discovers that the friend she remembers from childhood turned out to be a different person in adulthood. In another, Erica and Patrik, who knew each other years ago, re-discover each other. And that becomes the basis for the relationship that develops between them.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has more than one reunion with the love of his life Eleanor Wish. Early in the Bosch series, she’s an FBI agent. For several reasons, she leaves her position and becomes a professional poker player. When Bosch reunites with her in Trunk Music, they decide to marry. As fans of Angels Flight will know, the marriage doesn’t last and you might say that Eleanor disappears. A few years later the two meet up again in another case, and Bosch learns that he is the father of (then) four-year-old Maddie. Eleanor figures again in 9 Dragons. In all of these reunions, we see how both people have to re-adjust their images of each other. We also see how Bosch has to adjust his mental image of Maddie as she grows up, since she doesn’t live with him until 9 Dragons.

Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point also features a reunion of sorts. Brothers Leo and Patrick Varela were born and raised in Belize, but have since moved to Miami. Now, Leo is a poet and a mental health care worker. Patrick has gotten involved in politics and is poised for real success that could lead to a career on the national level. Everything changes when they get a visit from an old friend Freddy Robinson. Robinson grew up in Belize with the Varela brothers and he knows all about their former lives. In fact, he tries to use something he knows about them as leverage when he asks Leo for something. Robinson is working for some very dubious ‘employers’ who want information on Patrick Varela’s political strategy. One person who may know the truth is in the care of the facility where Leo works, and Robinson wants Leo to arrange for that patient’s release. When Leo refuses, Robinson threatens to tell what he knows. Seeing no other option, Leo agrees. And that’s when the real trouble starts. In this novel, it’s interesting to see how Robinson has a mental image of the Varela brothers from their years in Belize, and how different that is to the reality of the brothers’ lives in Miami.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. During their girlhoods, Jodie Evans Garrow and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan became close friends. Then Bridie moved away and each girl went on with her life. Jodie married successful attorney Angus Garrow and is now the contented mother of two children. Her life seems just about perfect on the surface. Then, her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child Elsa Mary. Jodie never told anyone, not even Angus, about this baby, but a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now the questions begin. What happened to Elsa Mary? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? The gossip evolves into an all-out attack on Jodie, who becomes a social pariah. Then, unexpectedly, she has a reunion with Bridie. Both women have changed over the years of course. And at first, there’s a little awkwardness. But gradually, they renew their friendship and we can see how they get past the mental images they had of each other and re-establish their relationship.

When people who haven’t seen each other in years try to pick up the pieces, there’s often that kind of awkwardness when the mental image they had doesn’t fit the person they see in front of them. But sometimes those relationships can be re-established, and that can provide a welcome continuity in life. Or they can be very dangerous. I’m thinking for instance of Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel. When academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn finds out that a former friend Sally Love is having an exhibition of her art at the Mendel Gallery, she decides to attend, and try to re-establish the friendship. That decision has drastic consequences and ends up getting Kilbourn involved in a very sad murder investigation.

These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Eric Clapton.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Gail Bowen, Ian Vasquez, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Wendy James

Golden Words and Silver Tongue*

Silver TongueHave you ever known someone with the kind of glib persuasiveness that could make you believe black was white? Not all people with a so-called ‘silver tongue’ have unpleasant ulterior motives, but they can certainly get people to do whatever they want. And very often you do find that confidence tricksters and other scam artists are persuasive like that. The savvy person knows that nothing comes without a price, and things that look too good to be real probably are. But even they can sometimes be moved to do things they might not ordinarily do, and all because of the so-called ‘silver tongue.’

We certainly see plenty of characters like that in crime fiction. In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for example, detective story author Ariadne Oliver has come to the village of Broadhinny to collaborate on the adaptation of one of her novels for the stage. Her partner in the project is budding playwright Robin Upward, who lives in the village with his mother. He’s got talent, and a vision of what he wants the play to be, and one of the sub-plots of the novel concerns his attempts to convince Mrs. Oliver that he’s right. For her part, Mrs. Oliver doesn’t care at all for Upward’s ideas about the play. The result he has in mind is nothing like her book, and that infuriates her. So he doesn’t succeed at winning her over, but it’s not for want of a ‘silver tongue’ and a real effort to persuade her. The play loses its interest for Mrs. Oliver when Hercule Poirot arrives in the village. He’s been asked to investigate the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. Superintendent Spence thinks the man’s innocent though, and Poirot sets out to find the truth.

John Grant’s (AKA Jonathan Gash) Lovejoy also has a glib and persuasive way about him. He is an antiques dealer who is absolutely passionate about getting hold of the pieces he wants. In fact, that’s his main interest in life. And when he has his eye on a particular object, or when an opportunity comes his way, he can be highly charming and persuasive. He will say whatever it takes to get what he wants at the best prices possible. He admits it himself in The Judas Pair:

 

‘We dealers are pretty slick. Some are all right but some are not…Cleverer than any artist, better than any actor. They’ll pick your house clean in any way they can and brag about it in the pub afterwards.’

 

In that novel, Lovejoy works to track down a pair of mythical dueling pistols, one of which was likely used to commit murder. He finds himself involved even more deeply when there’s another murder.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, we meet Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone, a marine biologist (mostly in name) who works for a large agribusiness firm owned by Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut is ‘in the sights’ of government authorities who believe his company is pouring toxic waste into the Florida Everglades. In order to prevent a media disaster and government prosecution, Hammernut engages Perrone to prove that the water near his firm is not polluted. Perrone is happy to oblige. For one thing, that proof is worth a lot of money to Hammernut. For another, Perrone has come upon a way to alter water tests so that it looks as though the water is safe. All goes well for a time. Perrone has a very glib tongue and has talked his way out of all sorts of difficult situations and into all sorts of women’s beds. Even his wife Joey trusts him, and she’s basically a smart person. That intelligence becomes a problem when she finds out what her husband’s been doing. Seeing no other option, he takes her on a cruise, allegedly to celebrate their anniversary, and pushes her overboard. Joey survives though, and finds her own way to strike back. In the meantime, Perrone has to use his glibness again when the police begin to suspect him.

Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) introduces us to C.C. de Poitiers. She’s a celebrated ‘life coach’ who’s founded a company Be Calm to sell her image, her lifestyle suggestions and the inevitable related products and services. She’s got a best-selling book in print, too, with the same name. She’s quite good at selling herself and her message, and lots of people take her at her word. But the reality of her life is quite different. When she and her family move to the small Québec town of Three Pines, everyone soon sees that she is hard-edged, malicious and verbally cruel. On Boxing Day, everyone gathers for the traditional curling match that takes place in the area. During the match, de Poitiers is electrocuted. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate the murder and they have plenty of suspects.

One of the funnier examples of the ‘silver tongue’ is in Teresa Solana’s series featuring Barcelona PI brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Of the two of them, Borja is the one with the persuasive ability. He has the gift of being able to charm just about anyone into anything, and talk his way out of nearly every dicey situation. In fact, he even persuades his brother to get involved in more then one risky plan in A Not So Perfect Crime, when they investigate their first murder. And he juggles two mistresses, one of whom is wealthy enough that Borja can easily wear the designer clothes he prefers, and indulge in expensive haircuts and meals.

And he’s not the only PI who can be glib and persuasive. Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon-based PI Russell Quant would much rather talk his way out of a situation than throw punches or use a weapon. He can get people to do what he wants too, when he puts his mind to it. In Flight of Aquavit for instance, he is hired to find out who’s been blackmailing successful accountant Daniel Guest. The trail leads to a local repertory theatre company, but Quant knows that they won’t just volunteer personal information to a stranger, so he’ll have to be at his most charming and persuasive. So he adopts another name and ‘cover story’ and turns on the proverbial charm. He manages to convince the receptionist to get the information he wants, and uses it to get closer to the answers he needs. There are plenty of other PIs too who have that ability to be glib (I know, I know, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin).

And then there’s Jack Hardy, whom we meet in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. That’s the fictional account of the life of Maggie Heffernan, who was imprisoned in Melbourne in 1900 for the drowning of her baby son. James shows us how it all began when Maggie meets Jack. He’s not only attractive, but he’s persuasive and glib. It’s not long before she’s in love with him and he seems to reciprocate. He leads her to believe that they’ll be married as soon as they can, but that they have to keep their engagement secret until he gets himself set up in a good job. Shortly afterwards, he leaves to find work in New South Wales. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to him repeatedly but gets no answer. Knowing that her parents won’t accept her back in their home, she travels to Melbourne and finds a job in a Guest House. Once baby Jacky is born, she moves to a home for unwed mothers and their infants. That’s where she hears that Jack has gone to Melbourne. When she finally tracks him down, he rejects her utterly and she finally understands that she was taken in by his ‘silver tongue.’ She and baby Jacky are turned away from six lodging places that night, and that’s when the tragedy happens.

A lot of people associate a ‘silver tongue’ with lawyers because they have to be as persuasive as they can in the courtroom. Their job is to make their case as effectively as possible, so the art of persuasion is important. I’ll bet you could come up with lots of examples of legal novels where the attorneys have to depend on that quality.

Whether it’s a sales rep, a con artist, an attorney or someone else, the ‘silver tongue’ can be a valuable asset when you want to have your way. Which examples of this have you enjoyed in crime fiction?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Deep Purple’s Lady Luck.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Carl Hiaasen, John Grant, Jonathan Gash, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Teresa Solana, Wendy James