There’s a Storm Front Coming*

ForeshadowingOne of the things that just about all crime novels have in common is that something bad happens in the novel. Often it’s murder. So crime fiction fans know before they even begin to read a novel that it’s probably going to involve something terrible.

In that sense, you wouldn’t think that foreshadowing – giving the reader a hint about bad things to come – would be a useful device for a crime writer. But the fact is, even in crime novels, foreshadowing can build suspense and tension, and can get the reader caught up in the story.

Some authors are quite straightforward. They don’t hint at danger; they let you know about it. Here for instance is the first line of Liza Marklund’s The Bomber:
 

‘The woman who was soon to die stepped cautiously out of the door and glanced around.’
 

While Marklund doesn’t tell us who the woman is or how she will die, that’s a very clear sign of what’s to come. The woman, in fact, turns out to be civic/business leader Christine Furhage, who’s played a major role in bringing the Olympic Games to Stockholm. When her body is found after a bomb blast at Olympic Village, it’s thought at first to be the work of terrorists. Crime reporter Annika Bengtzon and her team know that this is major story, so they begin to look into it. What they find is that this death has nothing to do with extremists or terrorists.

In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, we meet superstar enertainer Gaia Lafayette:
 
‘Gaia Lafayette was unaware of the man out in the dark, in the station wagon, who had come to kill her. And she was unaware of the email he had sent. She got hate mail all the time…’
 

It turns out that the danger to the star is real. She’s just taken the leading role in an historical drama, to be filmed on her ‘home turf’ of Brighton and Hove. So she travels there with her son Roan and her entourage. Superintendent Roy Grace, who’s already involved in a difficult and brutal murder case, is told that protecting Gaia Lafayette is a priority, since no-one is interested in the bad publicity that would come to the area if anything happens to one of its most famous citizens. Grace agrees to do his best to provide protection. But he finds himself caught in a much more complicated situation than he’d imagined, where it’s not really clear what the source of the danger to his charge is. And James alerts us clearly to that danger.

Some authors foreshadow by contrasting the beginning of a story with a hint that things are about to change. That’s what Wendy James does in The Mistake.
 
‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’
 

And it is, too. Jodie Evans Garrow is the wife of successful attorney Angus Garrow, who’s being mentioned as the possible next mayor of their New South Wales town of Arding. She’s the mother of two healthy children who’ve been doing well, and life really is content. It all changes when 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. No-one knows about that other child, whom Jodie named Elsa Mary – not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the over-curious nurse looks into the matter, she can find no record of adoption. Now questions begin to be raised. What happened to the baby? If she was adopted, where is she? If not, is she alive? If she died, did Jodie have something to do with it? Now the Garrow family become pariahs, and as we slowly learn the truth about Elsa Mary, we see what happens as a family starts to come apart at the seams, so to speak.

Some crime writers use foreshadowing that’s a little more subtle. In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas for instance, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is hired by business magnate Charity Wiser to find out who is trying to kill her. To that end, he’s invited to join the members of her family for a cruise on her ship The Dorothy. That way, so the plan goes, he can ‘vet’ them and figure out which one of them is the would-be murderer. Here are Quant’s thoughts about the cruise:
 

‘I’m not convinced my decision would have been different otherwise, but I found myself answering in the affirmative before I’d thought the whole thing through. But really. A free Mediterranean cruise? Come on!’
 

We know, because this is a crime novel, that something bad is going to happen. In fact, several bad things, including murder, happen. Quant knows the cruise is risky too. Rather than go on and on about the possible danger, Bidulka hints at it and invites the reader to board the ship and find out what happens next.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, Boston art historian/expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from an acquaintance Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop in the area. Pawlovsky thinks that he may have gotten his hands on a valuable painting and he wants Revere’s judgement about its worth. Revere agrees and visits the pawn shop. To his shock, he discovers that Pawlovsky is probably right. This looks to be a very valuable Velázquez that was ‘borrowed’ by the Nazis ‘for safekeeping.’ Revere wants to do more research on the painting before he can be absolutely sure, so he asks Pawlovsky to lend him the painting, saying that it’s not safe to keep something so valuable in a pawn shop. Pawlovsky refuses, which is the first hint that something is about to go very wrong. Revere agrees to be gone no more than two hours. When he returns,
 

‘I saw that Simeon hadn’t come back out front to pull the metal shutters closed, although five o’clock had come and gone.’
 

You can imagine that things take a very bad turn, as Revere discovers that Pawlovsky has been killed. Revere feels guilty about having left the man alone with such a valuable painting, and determines to find out who the killer is. It occurs to him that if he can trace what happened to the painting after the Nazis ‘secured it for safekeeping,’ he can find the killer. This he sets out to do, and it ends up bringing him danger he hadn’t imagined.

And then there’s Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, which begins in the village of Malton-under-Wode. There, we are witness to a conversation between Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns, and a friend. They’re discussing Linnet Ridgeway, who’s just purchased nearby Wode Hall. Here’s what Mr. Burnaby’s friend says about Linnet:
 

‘It seems all wrong to me – her looking like that. Money and looks – it’s too much. If a girl’s as rich as that, she’s no right to be a good-looker too. And she is a good-looker…got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair.’
 

It turns out that Mr. Burnaby’s friend is right about Linnet Ridgeway. She’s beautiful, wealthy and smart, so it’s understandable that she’d turn the head of Simon Doyle, fiance of her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. When she and Simon marry, they take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon. On the second night of that cruise, Linnet is shot. Jackie’s the primary suspect, since she had a very good motive and since she’s along on the cruise. But it’s soon proved that she could not have killed the victim. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to look elsewhere for the murderer. Christie hints from the beginning that all will not go well for Linnet and although the foreshadowing is faint at first, crime fiction fans know that something is going to go very, very wrong.

And that’s the thing about foreshadowing. It can be subtle or obvious; it can happen right at the beginning of a novel or a bit further on. But however it’s used, it can build suspense and tension. Which ‘foreshadowing moments’ have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Storm Front.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Liza Marklund, Peter James, Wendy James

Somebody Get Me a Doctor*

ContagionThe human instinct for self-preservation is powerful. So it makes sense that we have a deep-seated fear of contagious disease. That’s part of the reason, for instance, that the recent news about Ebola in West Africa (and a few cases elsewhere) is so frightening. Ebola is a deadly virus and it’s contagious. So it’s only natural that we fear it.

That fear is certainly understandable, so it’s realistic when you see it in a novel. It can also add a great deal of tension to a story. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to think of more than I could anyway.

In Charles Dickens’ day, there were many illnesses people feared. One of them was smallpox, and we see that as part of the plot in Bleak House. The central plot of that novel concerns the Jarndyce case, a dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. The novel traces the lives of some of the people concerned in that case, including philanthropist John Jarndyce, who’s distantly related to one of the original parties to the dispute. He takes an interest in the well-being of an orphan Esther Summerson, and arranges for her to be hired as companion to Ada Clare, who is also distantly connected to the Jarndyce case. The two women get on very well together, and Esther builds a solid life for herself. As it turns out, she is also connected to the Jarndyce case, and as the novel moves on, we see how the lives of these people, and some others also linked to that case, intersect. While this isn’t always considered a crime novel, there is murder involved, and a police inspector who investigates the case. There is also trouble in the offing for Esther. At one point in the novel, she helps nurse a sick young boy back to health. The result is that she becomes ill herself with what is likely smallpox. It leaves her with permanent physical scars, and while she goes on with her life, it’s a solid example of why so many people feared that particular contagious illness.

The worldwide influenza pandemic that broke out after World War I was also frightening to many people. We see a bit of that fear in Chris Womersley’s Bereft. Quinn Walker returns to his home in Flint, New South Wales, after serving in the Somme during The Great War. He’s hoping for the chance to rest and heal from the physical and emotional wounds he’s suffered. But he finds that Flint is far from a peaceful place right now. The influenza pandemic has reached his home town and even touched his family, as his own mother has fallen ill. Everyone’s frightened by the illness. Walker knows that he’s not welcome in his own home in any case, since many people, including his father, believe that he’s responsible for the murder of his sister ten years earlier. So he hides out in an abandoned shack. There he meets a young girl Sadie Fox who’s also hiding. With her help, Walker starts to get past his scars and he discovers what really happened to his sister. He also finds the courage to get word to his mother that he’s alive.

Caroline and Charles Todd, who write as Charles Todd, also use the influenza pandemic as a theme in An Unmarked Grave. In that novel, World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford has become accustomed to dealing with soldiers who’ve been wounded in combat. But as the pandemic begins in 1918, she finds herself and her colleagues overwhelmed with influenza patients as well. There’s special concern too because this illness has also spread to some of those caring for patients, which makes it all the more dangerous. Then, the body of a soldier who’s been hidden among the influenza patients is discovered. His identification’s been removed, so it’s hard to know who he is. But it’s clear that he’s been murdered. And it turns out that he’s a friend of Crawford’s family too. Moved by the death, Crawford wants to find out who killed the man and why, but now she faces a major complication: she’s caught influenza herself, and may not live long enough to solve the murder.

In Thomas N. Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, we are introduced to Dr. Calvin Doohan, a Scottish transplant to San Francisco. When Doohan learns of an outbreak of a virulant influenza-type virus, he volunteers his services to the local Public Health Department to track down the source of the virus and try to contain it. The Centers for Disease Control, in the form of Dr. Suzanne Synge, join the local team and work begins in earnest to try to stop this outbreak. After patient interviews and other medical detective work, it’s established that many of those affected attended a convention at the Hotel Cordoba. The team also discovers that this particular illness was spread deliberately. Now Doohan is faced not just with the challenge of trying to contain the illness, but also with the challenge of finding out who’s responsible. And when he finds that out, he also discovers that there are people in important places who do not want anyone to know the truth.

Those who’ve read Robin Cook’s medical thrillers will know that several of his novels include the plot theme of a virus that’s deliberately spread. One example comes in Outbreak. Oh, and as a side note, the novel is nothing like the 1995 Wolfgang Peterson film with Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Rene Russo. The plot of the novel is quite different. In it, a dangerous illlness seems to be spreading through the Los Angeles-based Richter Clinic. The Los Angeles health authorities ask for help from Atlanta’s Center’s for Disease Control, which sends Dr. Marissa Blumenthal. After a short time, Blumenthal and her team establish that these patients are dying from the highly contagious Ebola virus. The team manage to stop that particular outbreak, but soon there’s another, this time in St. Louis. Then there’s an outbreak in Phoenix. Now it’s clear that someone or some group is spreading the illness deliberately. Blumenthal slowly tracks down the truth, and discovers a deadly conspiracy.

With today’s straightforward air travel and regular contact among people at gatherings, it’s quite easy to imagine a quick and deadly spread of illness. And as we know from recent news, it happens. The fear of that sort of contagion is real, and that’s part of why this plot point can add suspense to a crime novel as well.

On another note, the vast majority of you folks who are kind enough to read this blog are in no danger from the current Ebola outbreak. But thousands of people have already died from it, and more probably will. There are many health professionals who’ve donated their time to fight Ebola in West Africa, which is a lot more than I would have the courage to do. You can help them in their work. One of these groups is Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). You can check them out and support what they do right here.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Van Halen.

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Filed under Caroline Todd, Charles Dickens, Charles Todd, Chris Womersley, Frank Robinson, Robin Cook, Thomas N. Scortia

How on Earth Did I Get so Jaded*

HurriedChildhoodDuring the 1980’s, Tufts University Professor David Elkind wrote a groundbreaking book The Hurried Child. In it, he made the powerful argument that many of today’s children are put under an untenable amount of pressure to grow up too quickly. One example of this pressure (and we’ve all seen this I think) is media hype that presents children as ‘little adults’ and sometimes even sexualises them. Another is the tendency (although this certainly isn’t the case all the time) for parents, especially single parents, to treat their children more as confidants than as children. All of this, Elkind argues, can do real damage to children, and serves to rob them of those crucial years of childhood development. The book’s been through several editions and is still widely read, which suggests among other things that these problems haven’t gone away.

It’s not always easy to clearly define the boundary between responsibility that helps a child develop important skills, and responsibility and pressure that isn’t appropriate for children. I think we’d all agree that it’s beneficial for young people to learn to, say, be responsible for their schoolwork or their spending money. But, Elkind argues, pre-teens aren’t ready for adult pressure such as sexual attention, and they’re not served well by the enormous pressure that’s sometimes put on them to ‘be the best,’ such as you sometimes see at sport events. There are plenty of children too who are expected to help provide family income and this, Elkind argues, also hurries children.

This issue crosses socioeconomic lines too. Whether or not you agree with each of Elkind’s arguments (and I do recommend the book), it really does seem that many children in all social classes are pressured to grow up quickly. It’s true in real life, and we see that plot thread in crime fiction too.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies on a group of such children: the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they’re a group of street children who help him with his investigations. They know London very, very well, and can often observe and get information without calling attention to themselves, so they’re quite useful to Holmes. Conan Doyle doesn’t portray them as living very unhappy lives, but it’s interesting to see how even in this more ‘clean scrubbed’ picture of pressured childhood, the boys respond very positively to Holmes’ leadership and interest in them.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of London bargeman William Thornhill. In 1806, when he’s caught stealing a load of wood, he, his wife Sal and their children are transported to Australia. There, they do their best to make lives for themselves. Thornhill comes to love the land he’s moved to, and therein lies the problem. Other people of course have been living on that land for millennia, and there are real cultural and other conflicts between the new arrivals and the people who’ve always been there. Thornhill would like to resolve matters peacefully, but that view is by no means uninanimous, so some terrible crimes are committed. The first part of this novel tells of Thornhill’s early life in London. Born to a very poor family, he soon learns that the family will not survive if the children don’t do as much as they can, as early as they can, to earn money. In that society, it’s taken in a matter-of-fact way, and allowing children to actually be children is a luxury that the poor simply cannot afford.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the murder of financial advisor Dennis Brinkman. At first Brinkman’s death was thought to be a terrible accident, as his body was found under one of the ancient machines he collected. But his friend Benny Frayle is sure that he was killed, and won’t rest until his death is investigated. At first Barnaby and Troy aren’t convinced that this is a murder, but then there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poison after a séance in which she saiid things about Brinkman’s murder that only the killer would be likely to know. Now Barnaby and Troy are faced with two murder cases. In one of the sub-plots of this story, we meet Ava Garrett’s pre-teen daughter Karen, who has had to grow up far too fast. They live in a not-too-well-kept council house along with Ava’s lodger Roy Priest, who’s also seen too much for his nineteen years. Ava is not a physically abusive parent, but she is self-absorbed and irresponsible. So it’s left to Karen and, when he can help out, Roy, to do the ‘adult work’ of managing the household. That’s not the reason for the murders, but it’s a clear example of a hurried child.

We also see one in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies has always had a rare musical ability and has become a world class violinist. One terrifying day though, he finds that he can’t play note. So he begins to work with a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of his musical block. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers soon learn, this was no accident. As the novel goes on, we see how that death is related to Gideon’s inability to play, and how both are related to a long-ago family tragedy. Part of the novel shows what the Davies family has been like, and how Gideon was pressured from a very early age to grow up because of his musical ability. And that pressure has a lot to do with the kind of person Gideon is now.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok, features American ex-pat Rafferty, a travel writer who is also fairly good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s married to Rose, a former bar girl, now the owner of an aparment cleaning company, who herself had to grow up too fast. He’s also in the process of adopting Miaow, a former street child who’s seen more during her childhood than anyone should have to see in a lifetime. Being forced to grow up too fast has had a profound effect on Rose and on Miaow and through them, on Rafferty. Although he does his best to provide a good life for both, there’s a hardness to them, especially Miaow, that comes from not having had the chance to be a child.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She is academically gifted, and her dreams go far beyond the limits of her home in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. Her teacher, Ilsa Klein, has high hopes for her as well, and considers her a very promising student. Then everything begins to fall apart. Serena stops coming to class regularly, and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. It’s clear that something is wrong, and Ilsa wants to help, so she alerts the social welfare authorities. That turns out to be a mistake, as Serena’s mother is deeply resentful of that ‘interference.’ Then Serena disappears. Her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington, where she lives, back to Alexandria to help in the search. To her it’s shocking that three weeks have gone by and nothing has been done to find Serena. As the story moves along, we see that Serena has had to grow up too fast, and so have her siblings. In part it’s because of the family’s dysfunction; in part it’s because of the family’s socioeconomic situation. There are other factors too. And they play a role in the events that happen in the novel.

There are a lot of other crime novels in which we meet children who are forced to grow up before they’re ready. It’s very hard on them, and certainly doesn’t aid in helping them to become fulfilled, productive adults. There’s an eloquent commentary on it in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, which takes place in Glasgow. In this scene, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is visiting her friend Leslie. Here’s what Leslie has to say about a neighbour’s child:
 

‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’

 

Which novels with hurried children have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Denise Mina, Elizabeth George, Kate Grenville, Paddy Richardson, Timothy Hallinan

Can’t Know the Fears That Your Elders Grew By*

Parents' SecretsLots of people think they know their parents very well. After all, people who grew up with their parents have been around them for a long time. And in some ways, children really do have a better sense of their parents than we sometimes think.

But children rarely know everything about their parents. And sometimes they learn the most surprising – even shocking – things about people they always thought they knew intimately. Crime fiction uses this plot point quite frequently, so I’ll just mention a few examples.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, biographer and crime writer Erica Falck is sorting through her parents’ things after their deaths. Along with the clothing and other things she’d expected, she is shocked to discover a Nazi medal. Certainly no-one in her family had ever hinted that there was Nazi sympathy among the members. Falck wants to find out more about this possible connection, so she visits local historian Erik Frankel, who may be able to shed light on those years. Two days after her visit, Frankel is killed. Falck’s husband, police officer Patrik Hedström, investigates officially; in her own way Falck investigates too. In the end, they find out the connection between the town’s history and Frankel’s murder.

Steve Hamilton’s Ice Run begins with the death of Simon Grant, an elderly man who seems to have died of exposure not far from the Ojibway Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie (Soo), Michigan. Former police officer Alex McKnight is at the hotel with his new love interest, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Constable Natalie Reynaud when the death happens. Oddly enough, they had a strange encounter with Grant before he died, and Grant left them an odd message: a homburg hat filled with ice and snow and a note that says I know who you are. All of this makes McKnight very curious, so when he gets news of Grant’s death, he starts to ask questions. It turns out that Simon Grant had a history with the Reynaud family, and that that history still plays an important role in people’s lives. In the end we find that there are things about Natalie’s family that have been kept secret for a long time…

In Jane Casey’s How to Fall, eighteen-year-old Jess Tennant travels with her mother Molly from London to the small town of Port Sentinel, where Molly grew up. The plan is to spend the summer there as both Molly and Jess deal with Molly’s bitter divorce from Jess’ father. Also in the offing is a reunion with Molly’s twin sister Tilly and her family. A year ago, Tilly’s daughter (and Jess’ cousin) Freya died in a terrible fall from a cliff, and everyone is still adjusting to life without her. Jess never met her cousin, so she’s curious about her. And the more she learns, the more she suspects that Freya might not have died by accident. Determined to find out the truth, Jess uncovers more than it’s safe for her to know. She also learns some very surprising things about her mother’s past – things she hadn’t suspected.

That’s also the case with Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford, whom we meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Kat’s a TV presenter who’s had more than her share of media invasion of her privacy. So she decides she’s had enough of the TV life, and plans to go into the antiques business with her mother Iris. Iris seems open to the idea as a way to move on after the death of her beloved husband Frank. Then one day Kat gets a surprising call from her mother. Iris has purchased the carriage house on the property of Honeychurch Hall in Little Dipperton, Devon, hundreds of miles from London. Kat’s shocked at this news and concerned about her mother, so she goes immediately to Devon. When she arrives, she finds that the carriage house is in sad need of repair and that Iris has broken her hand in a car accident. So she decides to stay on for a bit to help her mother. That’s how she gets drawn into the mystery of a strange series of events. There’s sabotage, a disappearance, theft, and finally the murder of Verga Pugsley, housekeeper at Honeychurch Hall. It turns out that all of these events are related. And all of them have to do with the Honeychurch family history. As Kat uncovers the truth, she also finds out important things about her mother – things she’d never imagined.

There’s also Scott Turow’s Innocent, which concerns the death of Barbara Bernstein. Her husband, Kindle County chief appellate judge Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, wakes up one morning to find her dead of what looks like natural causes. But before long, questions begin to arise about the case. For one thing, Sabich waited 24 hours after her death before contacting the authorities or his son Nat. For another, the toxicology report on her body shows a large dose of an anti-depressant. And then there’s the fact that Kindle County Prosecutor Tommy Molto suspects that Sabich might have been guilty of another murder twenty years earlier. This and other evidence suggests that Sabich might have killed his wife, so he is arrested and charged with murder. He asks Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him and the case moves to trial.The story is told in part from the perspective of Nat Sabich, who is an attorney himself. As the novel goes on, we see that Nat knows his father well. On the other hand, there are things about his father’s life that he never knew…

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls introduces us to Jane and Rob Tait and their daughter Jess. One day Jess attends a talk given by journalist Erin Fury, who’s working on a story about families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. Jess knows that hers is one of those families; in 1978, her mother’s cousin Angela Buchanan was killed and her body discovered with a silk scarf round her neck. At first the police investigated the family, but then, another young girl Kelly McIvor was killed, and her body also found with a scarf round the neck. Since then everyone has assumed that the deaths were the work of a killer the press dubbed ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ No-one was ever arrested for the crimes, and although Jess knows the story, she doesn’t really know the details. Through her, Erin Fury gets contact information for Jane and Rob and prepares to talk to the family. As she meets with the Taits and with Jane’s brother Mick, we learn about what really happened to Angela and Kelly. And Jess finds things out about her parents that she didn’t know.

And that’s the thing about parents. Everyone has a history, including parents. It’s sometimes really surprising what we find out about them. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs). Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Hannah Dennison, Jane Casey, Scott Turow, Steve Hamilton, Wendy James

In The Spotlight: Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Cornell Woolrich isn’t perhaps as well-known as some of his contemporaries such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Yet his work was quite influential and was the basis of several noir films of the era. It’s about time this feature included a Woolrich novel, so let’s look at one today and turn the spotlight on Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

The novel begins late one night when New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a walk by the river. He sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge and rushes to save her. He gets to her just in time and convinces her to go with him away from the bridge. He sees immediately that she’s both well-off and good looking, and there seems no reason for her to want to commit suicide. But she clearly wanted to, which makes Shawn curious. They go to an all-night restaurant where he persuades her to tell her story.

She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid, and aside from losing her mother at the age of two, she’s had a good life. That is, until recently, when her story takes a bizarre and darker turn. It all starts when her father takes a business trip to San Francisco. The housemaid warns her of terrible danger if he returns on the date he planned. At first Jean doesn’t take the warning seriously, but enough of her wonders if it’s true that she almost sends him a telegram asking him to change his plans.

When the plane Reid had intended to take crashes with no survivors, Jean is of course convinced that he has died. Then she finds out that he got a telegram and changed his plans. Although she didn’t contact him, someone must have done so. When he gets back home, she tells her father about what happened. Now both Reids want to know what’s behind this incident. They talk to the housemaid and at last convince her to introduce them to the man who knew about the crash before it happened. He is Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who is, as he sees it, cursed with being able to predict the future accurately.

Against his better judgement (and the maid’s warning), Reid begins to visit Tompkins regularly when he is faced with important decisions. As each of Tompkins’ predictions comes true, Reid believes in him more and more. Then comes the bombshell. Tompkins predicts Reid’s death on a certain night at midnight. Now everything changes, as Reid firmly believes that there is no way to escape his certain fate. If the prediction is correct, he’s got three more days, and Jean can no longer tolerate the stress; hence her decision to end it all.

Although he’s not fanciful, Shawn is drawn in by this story. He persuades Jean to come with him to the police department and involve his boss, who may have a better idea of what to do. When Shawn’s boss McManus hears the story, he immediately suspects that Tompkins may be trying to manipulate Reid, who is, after all, a wealthy man. So he gets a team of detectives together to look into the telegram, the other predictions, and the details of what is predicted about Reid’s death. Bit by bit, the team finds out about Tompkins’ and Reid’s backgrounds, and learns what may be behind everything.

In the meantime, Shawn does his best to protect both Reid and his daughter in order to prevent the tragedy that’s been foretold. As the time gets closer and closer, we see how each of them responds to the increasing sense of fear. We also see how McManus and his team try to uncover the truth before it’s too late.

This is a psychological study as much as it is anything else. So we see how Harlan Reid changes, even physically, as the time gets closer to his predicted death. We also see how the pressure affects his daughter. The fear of death and its inevitable approach have a strong impact. In that way, this is arguably a novel of psychological suspense, and the tension is built as the various characters react to the increasing psychological pressure.

Since there is a focus on psychology rather than on other things, the violence in the novel doesn’t ‘take the stage.’ It’s mentioned, but readers who prefer to avoid gore and a high ‘body count’ will be pleased that this novel has neither. It’s arguably a case of imagination being more powerful than actual reality.

The novel is also part police procedural. So we follow the police as they try to find out who is manipulating Reid before he’s killed. Is Tompkins also being manipulated? Is he an innocent pawn or is he a shrewd scam artist? Part of the trail leads to an itinerant circus, so the police investigate that as well. And that leads them straight into another murder investigation which may or may not be connected. As the police look into that death as well as the apparent threat to Reid’s life, we see the pragmatic reality of trying to prevent a murder.

There is an element of fatalism in the novel as well. Right from the beginning, Reid doesn’t want to believe that Tompkins’ predictions will be accurate; neither does his daughter. In fact more than once it’s clear that he’s hoping his decisions will turn out disastrously, just to prove that you can’t predict the future. The tone of the novel (it is a noir novel after all) is one of the inescapability of one’s fate; it’s a bit like watching two cars hurtling towards each other, knowing what will happen and being unable to prevent it.

That said though, readers who like prosaic solutions to their mysteries need fear not. There are questions left unanswered, but the case isn’t really solved by psychic power. It’s possibly more accurate to say that in this novel, we see the strength of psychology. The belief that someone can predict the future, especially when there is evidence that it may be true, can take a very strong hold.

Woolrich’s writing style is quite descriptive:
 

‘It was a short cut, a sort of branch trail, that left the main highway at about the Hughes farm and rejoined it again at mid-village. The main highway took a slight bend getting in, and this little trail ran straight. It was the string to the highway’s bow. It was tree-walled and bramble-blind and not very good, but it was the shortest line between two points.’
 

Readers who prefer straightfoward storytelling will notice this.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is the story of what happens when a terrifying possibility takes hold. The story is told from multiple perspectives, and the ending, like the endings of most noir novels, is not a cheerful one. It has a strong thread of psychological tension and features a cast of characters who may or may not be trapped in their own inevitability. But what’s your view? Have you read Night Has a Thousand Eyes? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 27 October/Tuesday 28 October – The Dying Light – Alison Jospeh

Monday 3 November/Tuesday 4 November – The Suspect – Michael Robotham

Monday 10 November/Tuesday 11 November – A Duty to the Dead – Charles Todd

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