I Spoke to You in Cautious Tones*

MysteryWritersPodcastInterviewI’m truly honoured and excited to have been interviewed by Dean Abbott of Mystery Writers Podcast. If you’re interested in some of the background to my writing, where I am with my Joel Williams series and what I have to say about marketing, ‘rookie’ publishing errors and other writerly stuff, you can check out the podcast right here.

 

Thanks very much to Dean Abbott for interviewing me. While you’re visiting Mystery Writers Podcast, have a look around and check out Dean’s interviews with other authors.

 

 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s And So it Goes.

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In The Spotlight: Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath

>In The Spotlight: Josephine Tey's The Man In The QueueHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Faye Kellerman’s crime fiction has been consistently highly regarded since 1986. Her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series has won her millions of fans, and it’s about time one of her books was spotlighted on this feature. So let’s do that today; let’s turn the spotlight on the first of the Decker/Lazarus novels The Ritual Bath.

Yeshivat Ohavei Torah is a small Orthodox Jewish community and place of religious study. Located in the rural outskirts of Los Angeles, it’s normally a peaceful place, and except for a few unpleasant incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti, the residents are generally left alone and they cause no trouble. One night though, everything changes. One of the residents, Sarah Libbey, is raped as she leaves the community’s mikvah, or ritual bath. Although it’s not common to have a lot of outsiders in the community, the police are called in. LAPD detectives Peter Decker and Marge Dunn begin the investigation.

One problem they face is that this is a rather insular community and a lot of people aren’t comfortable talking to the police. What’s more, Sarah Libbey is devoutly observant of Orthodox Judaism and isn’t willing to discuss the rape, not even with Dunn. It’s an effort to even get her to consent to an exam, let alone provide any helpful information. So Decker begins to depend on Rina Lazarus, who supervises the mikvah and also serves as a teacher.

Lazarus is a widow who lives in the community with her two sons Shmuel ‘Sammy’ and Yaakov ‘Jake.’  Like the other members of the community, she is deeply religious and unwilling to compromise her beliefs. However, she knows that in order to find out who the rapist is, she’ll have to co-operate with the authorities. So, very uneasily, she begins to work with Decker.

It may be that this rape was committed by a serial attacker dubbed the Foothill Rapist. But there are enough differences in this attack that Decker also thinks the culprit could be someone else. To ensure everyone’s safety, a security guard Florence Marley is hired and for a short time, things settle just a little. But then, Marley is brutally murdered one night. Now the police have a rape and murder to investigate, along with the search for the Foothill Rapist.

One possibility is that the murder and rape were committed by the same person. It doesn’t seem likely for various reasons, but it’s possible. Then there’s the question of whether or not any of the incidents at the yeshiva are related to the Foothill Rapist. As Decker and Dunn face those questions, Lazarus has to deal with the very real possibility that someone at the yeshiva is a rapist or even a killer. She’s known the people who live there for a long time and finds that hard to believe, but she’s smart enough to know that it could be true. She also has to cope with the fear and sense of violation brought on by terrible crimes committed so close to home. In the end, she, Decker and Dunn bridge the many gaps between the yeshiva and the outside world and find out who is behind the terrible crimes.

And those cultural differences and gaps in understanding play an important role in this novel. Decker knows little about Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism. He’s not disrespectful of it, but he feels that solving the case should take precedence over religious traditions and laws. For her part, Lazarus is deeply devoted to her faith. As she puts it,

 

‘I’ve…found that I like being religious. There’s purpose in it and purpose in life is a rare treasure these days.’

 

More than once in this novel, she and Decker have to find ways to pursue the investigation without compromising the religious principles of those who live at the yeshiva and it’s not always easy. And yet you can’t really say that Lazarus is hard-headed or completely unwilling to listen to Decker’s point of view.

Because much of the novel is set at the yeshiva, readers also get a real sense of the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and tradition. Kellerman is herself Orthodox, and her knowledge of and commitment to her faith is clear in this novel. The members of this community have created a meaningful life for themselves and they are a strong group of people.

That said though, there are also several non-Jewish sympathetic characters. Decker, for instance, is a hardworking, skilled cop. He has a close relationship with his teenage daughter, and he does his job effectively. Readers who are tired of dysfunctional, alcoholic cops who are estranged from their children will be pleased with his character. Marge Dunn, too, is portrayed sympathetically.

At the same time, anti-Semitism is addressed in this novel and some of it is ugly. There are several terrible slurs and one scary incident that show that anti-Semitism is alive and well in late-20th-Century Los Angeles. It’s easy to see why the members of the yeshiva community are uncomfortable with outsiders.

The mystery is solved in part through gathering evidence, listening to what witnesses say, following up on leads and so on – in short, through police-procedural means. That aspect of the story is told from Decker’s point of view. Other parts of the story are told from Lazarus’ point of view, particularly scenes of daily life at the Yeshiva. And that information proves useful in finding out what really happened. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice the shifts here, but Kelllerman makes it clear throughout the novel whose perception is being shared.

One important story thread concerns Decker’s and Lazarus’ growing attraction to each other. Each is honest about it, but readers who dislike romance with their crime fiction – especially implausible romance – will be pleased to know that these two don’t immediately jump into bed. Lazarus doesn’t want to lead Decker on as the saying goes; she is devoutly Orthodox and doesn’t want to marry outside her faith. Decker respects that and although each admits the attraction, they also see the important differences between them. Fans of these novels will know what happens to these two as the series goes on; I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read the series.

The Ritual Bath is the story of what happens when a horrible crime comes to a culturally unique and even somewhat mysterious (to outsiders) community. It features protagonists who have both strengths and faults, and gives readers an ‘inside look’ at a religious tradition and way of life that have a long history. The crimes are solved credibly and the story threads are pulled together logically. But what’s your view? Have you read The Ritual Bath? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 21 April/22 April – Paradise City – Archer Mayor

Monday 28 April/Tuesday 29 April – The Red Queen Dies – Frankie Y. Bailey

Monday 5 May/Tuesday 6 May – A Nail Through the Heart – Timothy Hallinen

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People Put Me Down ‘Cause That’s the Side of Town I Was Born In*

Wrong Side of TownWe may not be entirely comfortable admitting it, but social class plays a role in the way some people treat one another. What’s even less comfortable to discuss is that it can play a role in the way people are treated when they go to the doctor, when they need legal representation or when they need police assistance. This is, I admit, a rather broad topic, so one post won’t be nearly enough to do it justice. Let me if I may just give a few examples from crime fiction where social class plays an important role in people’s interactions. I’m sure you’ll think of many others.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle stands accused of murder. The allegation is that she poisoned Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the family estate. She had quite a good motive, too: her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman was infatuated with Mary. What’s more, her wealthy Aunt Laura was devoted to Mary and many people thought she would leave most, if not all, of her considerable fortune to her instead of to Elinor. The family physician Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and begins asking questions. As he does, we learn about the way Mary was viewed because of her social class. More than one person thought she was ‘above herself’ for associating with Roddy Welman. And it’s not necessarily seen as a good thing that Laura Welman took an interest in the girl and had her educated ‘above her station.’

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn is drawn into a case of multiple murder when her daughter Mieka discovers the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a trash bin. At first it looks as though she is the most recent victim in a series of killings that the police have dubbed the ‘Little Flower’ murders. So that’s how the murder is handled. The police don’t ignore her murder, but Bernice was not exactly born into a wealthy and powerful family so they also don’t focus all of their energy on that case. In the meantime, Kilbourn has other concerns. For one thing, her son Peter’s ex-girlfriend Christy Sinclair comes back into the family’s life. She even claims that she and Peter are getting back together. When Christy tragically drowns in what looks like a suicide, Kilbourn starts to wonder whether something more is going on. She is soon proven right. Christy’s death, and some other incidents that happen in the novel, have everything to do with her upbringing on the ‘wrong side of town’ in Blue Heron Point. Social class and background do play roles in this story.

They also play roles in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans has been born and raised on ‘the wrong side of town.’ She doesn’t exactly have a happy life or live in a functional family. But she manages to steer clear of real trouble, work hard and move along in school. Then she meets Angus Garrow, a promising attorney-to-be from a well-to-do family. The two fall in love, marry and have two children, Hannah and Tom. Everything seems to finally be going right for Jodie, until the day that Hannah is involved in an auto accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. It turns out that this is the same hospital in which years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child she’s never mentioned, even to Angus. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the nurse does some checking and finds out that there are no formal adoption records. Now some ugly questions start to be asked. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, why aren’t there adoption records? If she’s not alive, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie soon becomes a social pariah and her upbringing just makes things worse. In fact, her mother-in-law, who’s always looked down on her, becomes one of Jodie’s loudest critics. I can say without spoiling the story that the truth about the baby isn’t really related to Jodie’s ‘wrong side of town’ background. But social class issues are woven through this novel.

In Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we meet brothers Vincent and Noel Naylor. They’ve been raised on the ‘wrong side of town’ and Vincent’s been in trouble with the law more than once. In fact, he’s just recently been released from prison. He’s become convinced that he’s not going to get anywhere in life just by working hard; he’s seen too much evidence that that’s not how things work. Instead, he dreams of the perfect crime: a real payoff that’s worth the risk involved and that will set him up financially. So in one plot thread of this novel, he and his brother and some friends plan an armed robbery. The target is Protectica, a company that transports cash among banks. Everything is carefully arranged and the heist is pulled off. But then things fall apart quickly and end tragically. Now Vincent makes other plans, this time for revenge. And it’s interesting to see how social class affects everyone’s perception of this case.

And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White and probationer Lucy Howard respond to a break-in one afternoon. When White is fatally stabbed, his death hits everyone hard, especially those with whom he worked. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from one of Hobart’s ‘wrong side of town’ districts. He’s been in trouble with the law before, and his family is one of those families about whom people say ‘Well, what could you expect from them?’ For a number of reasons, the police are inclined to handle this matter in their own way, without paying attention to the niceties of policy. But they don’t want to be branded as bullies by the media. What’s more, their suspect is part Aboriginal and there could be all sorts of accusations of racism if the police don’t handle this matter carefully. So the cops are told to do everything strictly ‘by the book.’ This novel addresses all sorts of challenging questions about social class, poverty, its effect on people and its effect on perceptions.

Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark also treats the question of how people from certain social classes are perceived. In one thread of this novel, we follow the story of fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, who comes from a very dysfunctional family on the ‘wrong side’ of Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s determined to do better though, and make something of herself. She works hard in school and shows real academic promise. Then she disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to Alexandra when she learns of Serena’s disappearance, and begins to search for her. As she does, we see how powerful the effect of social class and people’s perceptions are. And when you combine that with dysfunction, the impact is even greater. Lynnie is shocked, for instance, to find that Serena has been missing for three weeks, and almost nobody has done anything about it. And she is well aware that that wouldn’t be the case if the missing girl were from a wealthy family from the ‘right side of town.’

Not all murders, fictional or real, are committed because of social class and a person’s upbringing. But where you live does make a difference, and that’s woven all through crime fiction. Which examples of this plot thread have had an impact on you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe South’s Down in the Boondocks, made popular by Billy Joe Royal.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Gene Kerrigan, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

Picking Up the Pieces of My Sweet Shattered Dream*

Post-WarWorld War II ended in 1945. But the world was not magically made right again after the war. There were many scattered pieces, if I may put it that way, to be picked up, and millions of shattered lives to be put back together. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad unanswered questions and difficult challenges the war left behind. Let’s take a quick look today at the way that uncertain time is addressed in crime fiction. As you can imagine, I’ve only space to mention a few examples here. I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps far better than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) was published in 1948. In it, Lynn Marchmont has recently been demobbed from wartime service in the Wrens. She comes home to the village of Warmsley Vale to pick up her life and instead, gets mixed up in a case of murder. Her family has always depended on patriarch Gordon Cloade for financial support but that all changes when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay, a widow he’s met on a ship. Tragically, Cloade is killed in a bomb blast before he can change his will so at his death, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Then a stranger comes to Warmsley Vale with possible information that Rosaleen’s first husband is actually still alive. If so, she can’t inherit Cloade’s fortune. When two different members of the Cloade family visit Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in the case, he takes an interest. Then, the stranger is suddenly killed; now Poirot gets involved in the murder investigation. Throughout the novel, we see the financial havoc the war has wrought. People are scraping by at best and some are not even doing that well. We also see how difficult the war has been on those who were a part of it. Lynn Marchmont for instance has had to make a sudden and very abrupt change from the danger and excitement of war to the quiet and impoverished life Warmsley Vale offers. It’s a very difficult transition, even for those who didn’t participate in combat. For those who did, it’s even more challenging.

Just ask Charlie Berlin, the Melbourne cop we meet in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin’s recently back from service in Europe, where he also spent some time in a POW camp. Although he’s not the stereotypical demon-haunted, alcoholic detective, he does have what would later be called PTSD. He deals with nightmares and terrible memories. Berlin is seconded to Wodonga to help the local police track down a motorcycle gang that’s been responsible for a series of robberies. Since the latest incident has resulted in severe injuries, the police and the public are eager to see the gang stopped. Berlin’s just starting to find some answers when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first it’s thought that her death is related to the robberies. It’s not though, and soon Berlin has two cases on his hands. Along with the actual investigation, we get a look in this novel at the lingering resentment against people who’ve been The Enemy for years. That enmity didn’t just vanish when the war ended and McGeachin addresses that.

McGeachin also touches on life for Jews who left Germany either just before the war or as a result of being displaced by the war. Jews were not warmly welcomed everywhere, even by people who abhorred the Holocaust. We also see that theme in Sara Paretsky’s Total Recall. In that novel, Dr. Charlotte ‘Lotty’ Herschel asks her friend Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski to do a personal sort of investigation. Herschel has recently heard from Paul Rabudka, who claims to be a Holocaust survivor looking for as many members of his family as he can find. Herschel’s own family escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis and ended up in the United States, but it was a harrowing journey and Herschel wants to forget as much of it as she can. Still, she doesn’t want to ignore Rabudka’s contact. Warshawski agrees to investigate and finds some very dark secrets buried in the past.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past highlights the enmity that lingered between Swedes who collaborated with the Nazis and those who resisted them. In that novel, two young people, Wilma Persson  and Simon Kyrö, go on a diving exploration of a World-War II-era plane that went down in Lake Vittangijärvi. Someone traps the young people under the ice, killing both of them. Several months later Wilma’s body surfaces and police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murders. One of the important threads running through this case is the reality that the end of World War II did not erase the hatreds that had developed because of it. We also see this theme in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast.

One of the many other challenges that arose after World War II was the status of people whose roles had changed because of the war. For instance, millions of women worked in factories to support the war effort. When the war ended, many were not so eager to return to the proverbial kitchen. Women began to see other roles for themselves. We see that in the character of Rebecca Green, whom we meet in The Digger’s Rest Hotel (See above). She’s a journalist/photographer for the Argus, and wants very much to make her way in what is still a man’s world. She isn’t interested at the moment in the ‘hearth and home’ role assigned to women. In her determination to be taken seriously as a professional, we see the challenge that women faced in a post-war world that wasn’t sure how to see them.

The end of the war meant that a lot of people faced job challenges. Factories that had geared up for the war effort had to either close or change their focus. Soldiers came home and needed jobs. All of this had profound effects on work life. We see this in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of his Ezekial ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels. Rawlins has recently lost his job working in a warplane factory. Since he is African-American there are few job opportunities open to him, but he has the same financial obligations as anyone else. This motivates him to accept the offer when DeWitt Albright hires him as an unofficial private investigator. Albright is looking for Daphne Monet, who’s been known to frequent bars in the Black community. The idea is that since Rawlins knows Watts (Los Angeles) very well, he’ll know where to look for her. This turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous a case than a simple search for a missing woman, and it shows how an entire community was affected by the financial upheavals of the war.

There was also the serious question of war criminals. In Stuart Neville’s Ratlines, Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow novels featuring Douglas Brodie, and Philip Kerr’s more recent novels featuring Bernie Gunther, we get a look at the way Nazi criminals escaped (or tried to escape) after the war. We also learn the stories of those who risked their lives to find them. There are other novels too, some that fall into the category of crime fiction and some that are more espionage thrillers, in which the protagonist goes after Nazi criminals and those who support them.

And Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case explores the legal ramifications of German law that related to war criminals. Fabrizio Collini, who emigrated to Germany decades ago, is arrested for murder in the shooting death of Jean-Baptiste Meyer. Caspar Leinen is ‘on duty’ as a legal aid and is assigned to represent Collini. It seems like a very solid case, as Collini offers no alibi and says nothing to defend himself. In fact, he says nearly nothing at all. But Leinen wants to do his best by his client, so he delves more deeply into the incident and the lives of both men.  What he finds is an obscure but vital point of German law that’s had a profound impact. As Leinen investigates, we also see how deep wartime wounds have really gone.

There are other novels too that address the post-war world and the way people tried to pick up their lives again; this is just a smattering. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Carefree Highway.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ferdinand von Schirach, Geoffrey McGeachin, Gordon Ferris, Jo Nesbø, Philip Kerr, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Neville, Walter Mosley

Crime Fiction News Break

 
 

Links You’ll Want

Paddy Richardson

Geoffrey McGeachin

Martin Edwards

Past Offences

Malice Domestic

CrimeFest

Bloody Words

Theakston’s Old Peculiar/Harrogate

Bloody Scotland

Bouchercon

Rebecca Bradley

Crime Book Club

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