Tired of Waiting For You*

I’ll bet you know the feeling. You’re at a job interview, a medical appointment, a bank, or perhaps even a mechanic. At some point, you’re asked to wait. That wait can seem endless, especially if you’re already feeling a little tense (you’re anxious about the job, or wondering what the medical news will be, or whether you’ll get that loan, or how much the car’s going to cost this time).

The tension people feel at those times is almost palpable, and in real life, it can be useful. People may not be as much on their guard, and that can be helpful for police detectives. It can also add a layer of suspense to a crime story. There’s an element of character depth, too that such suspense can add (how does a certain character behave under stress?).

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, a group of passengers is on a flight from Paris to London. Towards the end of the flight, one of those passengers, Marie Morisot, is discovered dead of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in that same cabin. So, the police, in the form of Chief Inspector Japp, ask those people to wait in a separate room until each can be interviewed. That scene is full of tension as the wait goes on. In this case, Japp doesn’t artificially extend the passengers’ wait, but it’s interesting to see how it impacts all of them. Hercule Poirot was on this flight, so he works with Japp to find out who the killer was.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime military use. One day, a postman named Jospeh Higgins is brought to the hospital with a broken femur. The operation to set the bone is risky, as all operations are; still, it’s considered straightforward. Tragically, though, Higgins dies during the surgery. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is assigned to do the routine paperwork, but he soon comes to believe that this death was not an accident. Then, there’s another death, this time, an obvious murder. The only really viable suspects are the people who were involved in the original death. So, Cockrill keeps a close eye on them, more or less keeping them in the same place. And they’re soon shunned by other people at the hospital. The tension that goes with being suspected, and with being cooped up, adds much to the atmosphere of this novel.

In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called to the exclusive Randolph Hotel. Laura Stratton, an American tourist who was staying there, has died of an apparent heart attack, and a valuable jewel has been taken from her room. The missing piece is called the Wolvercote Tongue, and is part of a Saxon buckle that’s on display at the Ashmolean Museum. Before her death, the victim was going to donate that piece to the museum, so the fact that it’s missing is a real blow on several levels. The next day, Dr. Theodore Kemp, the museum’s curator, is found dead. It seems clear that the two incidents are related, so Morse and Lewis investigate them that way. And they start with Laura Stratton’s tour group. During the investigation, the tour group can’t move on to the rest of their stops, so there’s a bit of a claustrophobic feel as they wait for Morse and Lewis to unravel the truth. In the end, it’s all tied to a past tragedy.

Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday begins as Judge Harish Shinde and his law clerk, Anant, travel to Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, for a two-week holiday. One of Shinde’s old friends, Shikhar Pant, has invited them for a visit, and it’s a good excuse to get out of the Delhi heat. Among the other guests at Pant’s home is his cousin, Kailish Pant, a well-known writer. There’s tension right away, mostly over the work being done by two other guests, Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who run an NGO. They’re trying to provide AIDS information and other reproductive health support to some of the rural areas, and many people see that as obscene. Others feel threatened for other reasons. And opinion among Pant’s guests is quite divided. Matters come to a head one afternoon when Kailish Pant is murdered. Inspector Patel is assigned to investigate, and he begins to talk to the house party. The judge and Anant work with Patel to find out who the killer is, and their job isn’t made any easier by the very tense atmosphere that’s created by that feeling of having to wait.

And that feeling of anxiety and suspense is there no matter how luxurious the atmosphere. For instance, in Swati Kaushal’s Drop Dead, we are introduced to Shimla Superintendent of Police Niki Marwah. She and her team are called to the ultra-luxurious Lotus Resort when the body of Rakesh ‘Rak’ Mehta is discovered in a valley not far from the resort. He was the CEO of Indigo Books India, and had brought his senior staff to the Lotus for a retreat. The case is soon identified as a ‘suspicious death,’ and Marwah and the team look more closely at the members of the victim’s staff. They learn that each of Mehta’s senior employees had a motive for murder, so until the investigation is complete, the staff will have to stay where they are. And that adds a solid layer of atmosphere and suspense, even in an elegant, extremely comfortable place like the Lotus.

There are plenty of other examples of this sort of tension. You see it as people wait for police interviews, in those ‘country house’ mysteries, and in other places, too. And it’s little wonder; anxious waiting really does add a layer of tension to a story.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Colin Dexter, Swati Kaushal

A Creative Effort ;-)

Isn’t this magnificent? It’s Salvador Dalí’s L’homme Invisible. Paintings like this one can certainly make you think. And this one makes me think of…

 

 

 

 

 

 

…a quiz! Oh stop it! You ought to know by now to be prepared whenever you visit this blog! 😉

 

Art is all around us, including in stories. And, as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your crime-fictional artists and art-related novels, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer and see how many you get right

Ready? Pick up the brush… if you dare! 😉

 

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Swimming in a Library*

If you’ve read Ian Sansom’s Israel Armstrong series, you’ll know that Armstrong is the librarian for Ireland’s Tumdrum and District region. What that amounts to in this very rural region is that he drives the mobile library, and, of course, delivers and picks up books. Some of his patrons really do live in the back of beyond, as the saying goes, and this is how they get their hands on books. Laurie Cass’ Bookmobile Cat mysteries feature Minnie Hamilton, who has charge of Chilson, Michigan’s bookmobile. She, too, makes books available in an innovative way. There are other mysteries, too, that feature mobile libraries, and it’s an interesting context. There are several possibilities for plots, and the small-town, rural, or remote setting can be very appealing.

The mobile library is a really effective way get books to people who may not live near a library, nor have easy transportation to one. In fact, the ‘photo you see at the left is of the bookmobile that serves part of the area where I live. It makes various stops at different places throughout the week, so that people who can’t get to one of our public libraries can still get books. There’s a twin-sister Spanish-language bookmobile in my area, too.

Of course, I live in a place with good roads and enough funds for a couple of bookmobiles. I thought it might be interesting to take a look at places where book lovers get their books in different ways. Some of these variations on the bookmobile theme are ingenious, and they make books accessible even for people who don’t live anywhere near a city or a suburb.

For example, this is a ‘donkey library’ in Ethiopia. It’s the brainchild of Ethiopia Reads founder Yohannes Gebregeorgis. Donkeys can travel on all sorts of roads that autos, vans, and so on can’t. So, the ‘donkey library’ is well-suited for a place where many people live remotely.

And here is Colombia’s own ‘Biblioburro’ library. Luis Soriano created this innovative approach to serving the reading needs of remote places in that country. Now, his two burros, Alfa and Beto (yes, those names are deliberately chosen) travel all over, making sure that people in rural areas can get books. Soriano’s been working on getting a permanent building for the library, but that project is still ‘in the works.’

Jambyn Dashdondog operates this children’s ‘camel library’ in Mongolia. Motor vehicles may have a difficult time getting around in the terrain of that area, but camels are tailor-made for the job. And that means that children who live in those remote places can get a chance to read books.

 

And then there’s this ‘horse library,’ the idea of Ridan Sururi. He and his horse, Luna, bring boxes of books around to some of the remote places on Java. The library patrons enjoy Luna’s company, and they love having books available. Sururi travels among villages, and also stops at area schools. He’s gotten his family involved in helping, too.

But of course, you don’t need to have a horse, a camel or a donkey to make books accessible to people. Many places now have ‘mini-libraries’ in trees, on boats, and so on. There’s even this ‘pop-up’ library on Sydney’s Bondi Beach.

What about you? Have you seen some really ingenious library ideas? Please feel free to share them. There are all sorts of innovative ways to connect book lovers with books! And, honestly, wouldn’t some of these places be really effective contexts for a mystery series?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Athlete’s In the Library.

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In The Spotlight: Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There are certain police procedures that are followed in just about every country (e.g. looking for physical evidence, talking to family members of victims, tracing financial information). But each country and culture is a little different. And, in each country, the police procedure reflects those differences. Let’s take a look at how that plays out today, and turn the spotlight on Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods, the first of his DI Darko Dawson novels.

One day, in the small Ghanaian town of Ketanu, a woman named Effa discovers the body of Gladys Mensah in a nearby wood. As it happens, Gladys’ brother Charles has just reported her missing, so Inspector Fiti of the local police was already aware that there was concern about her. When her body is discovered, the investigation begins.

The victim was a medical student who volunteered with Ghana’s Ministry of Health. So, the Minister of Health takes an interest in the case, and wants Ghana’s best to investigate the murder. That means sending someone from Accra CID to the site, and that someone ends up being DI Darko Dawson. He’s a skilled detective, but it also matters greatly that he speaks Ewe, the language of the Kitanu region of Ghana. So Darko takes leave of his wife, Christine, and son, Hosiah, and makes the trip.

For Dawon, the trip offers the opportunity to re-connect with his Auntie Osewa and Uncle Kweku, and their son, Alifoe, who live in Kitanu. He hasn’t seen them in many years, and he’s looking forward to doing so now. He doesn’t get much of a chance for a relaxing visit.

This particular murder promises to be complicated. For one thing, Gladys alienated the chief and High Priest of the village, Togbe Adzima, who’s seen as an intermediary between the physical world and the spirit world. With him live three trokosi, wives of the gods, who serve at the shrine, and bear the gods’ children through Adzima, so as to bring fortune to their families. Gladys saw this is a form of enslavement, and was trying to find a safe place for the trokosi to go, so they could leave the shrine. More about this custom shortly. For now, suffice it to say that Gladys’ views on this, and on sexual health and AIDS/HIV prevention, did not endear her to Adzima.

But there are other possibilities, too. More than one man was interested in Gladys. If she rejected one of them, and he resented it enough, anything could happen. And then there’s the fact that Gladys was trying to make condoms, AIDS/HIV prevention information, and other important health resources available to people in the village. Some people see that as immoral. And those activities might have angered someone enough to do something about it.

It takes a slow untangling of the various relationships in the area, and Dawson has to learn the histories some people had with Gladys. But in the end, he discovers who killed the victim. And, he uncovers truths about himself.

The novel takes place in modern Ghana (it was published in 2009). So, readers get to see how traditional beliefs and customs mix with modern science and medicine in that country. For instance, many people believe in witchcraft, or at least respect the possibility that it exists. And yet, they also go to clinics for antibiotics. Traditional healers and ancient remedies are used, but people also go to hospitals for operations. This duality is reflected in young Hosiah, who has a heart murmur. His parents are saving money for an operation, but his grandmother wants him to go to a traditional healer. It makes for a real debate, and Quartey presents both views.

Another way we see the mix of old and new is in the custom of the trokosi. Those opposed to it see it as a form of slavery. Those who follow the custom, or at least approve of it, say that the girls go to the shrine to help their families, and that slavery is not involved. Again, both sides of this debate are depicted in the novel. And I can say without spoiling the story that readers who are tired of cowed, helpless females, or the ‘woman as victim’ will appreciate that that doesn’t really happen here. There’s more empowerment than it may seem.

The Ghana setting is depicted clearly in other ways, too. Food, customs, sense of time, daily life, are all very distinctively Ghana. There is a little use of Ewe and a few other local languages as well. At least for me, it was a very straightforward matter to work out what the words mean from context, and there’s a glossary at the end to help. There’s also, by the way, a bit of explanation of a few cultural things that readers might not know.

This is a police procedural, so readers see how the local police are connected to other police, and to Accra. It’s not like cities such as Berlin, London or Melbourne, where there’s a strong police infrastructure. Different places have to cooperate, share resources, and so on. And the evidence has to be sent out to process. Still, the police (with the exception of a few characters – no spoilers) are skilled professionals who want to do their jobs the best they can. There is a bit of resentment at Darko’s presence (‘Why does Accra have to get involved? We can handle our own cases!’), but by and large, he’s accepted.

That is, until he runs afoul of some of the locals. Adzima, for instance, dislikes Darko from the start. And the feeling is mutual. That’s a strike against him right away. And it doesn’t help matters that Darko makes mistakes, as we all so. In fact, a few times he follows the wrong trail, and it gets him into big trouble. So does the fact that he doesn’t always control his temper as well as he should. That said, he’s not the all-too-common ‘maverick with demons who can’t work with anyone and can’t learn.’ And he faces consequences when he goes too far – consequences he understands and accepts, if not exactly likes.

It’s also worth noting here that Darko has a loving relationship with his wife, his son, and his brother Cairo. In that sense, he’s got a stable home life. He’s haunted by the loss of his mother twenty-five years earlier, and by other family-history matters, but he doesn’t wallow in that.

Wife of the Gods is the story of a small town in Ghana on the border between modern science and medicine and Western ways, and traditional life and ancient ways. It addresses several pressing issues, such as AIDS/HIV, and the choices young women have and do not have. And it features a detective who cares deeply about the job he does, and is determined to make things right, if I can put it that way. But what’s your view? Have you read Wife of the Gods? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 1 May/Tuesday, 2 May – Can Anybody Help Me? – Sinéad Crowley

Monday, 8 May/Tuesday, 9 May – Lonesome Point – Ian Vasquez

Monday, 15 May/Tuesday, 16 May – Sisters of Mercy – Caroline Overington

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A Brand New Book*

If you’re a bibliophile, or even simply love reading, it’s probably in part because you had access to books when you were young. There’s a great deal of research that suggests that a print-rich environment is associated with earlier literacy, more time spent reading, and so on. And there’s other research that suggests that cultivating a habit of reading is helpful on a lot of levels (not just academic). But I’ll bet you probably already knew or suspected all of that.

There are a lot of places where it’s so easy to get books that we don’t think very much about it. We may complain about the price of a book, or get annoyed if we’re far down on the ‘hold’ list at the library. But we do have easy access to books.

That’s not the case everywhere. Some people live remotely. There isn’t a nearby library or bookshop, and it’s harder than you think to get books delivered. Other people simply don’t have the money to buy books, and they don’t live near a library. Still others (mostly young people) simply don’t have good role models for reading, and don’t have access to books at home. They may be literate, but that doesn’t mean they can easily get books. And, there are those who are incarcerated, in hospital, in shelters and so on, places that may not have many books.

As this is posted, it’s World Book Night, a time to focus on making books available to people who might not otherwise get them. I’m always happy to talk about this issue, as I’m utterly convinced by the research that links reading to many, many benefits. And, besides, reading’s fun – why not share that fun?

To help celebrate World Book Night, I thought it might be fun to look at some crime-fictional cases of people who share books and the love of them with others. They’re out there in real life (and they’re heroes to me), and they pop up in the genre, too.

In Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, for instance, we are introduced to Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham. She’s originally from the Lake District, but now lives and teaches in London. Higher education, especially for young academicians, doesn’t pay well. Trust me. So, Jane lives in an economically depressed former council block. One of the other people who live there is thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole. She has, to say the least, a disastrous home situation, and has befriended Gresham as a mentor. She shares Gresham’s love of poetry, and is extremely bright, but she has little access to books and other learning materials at home. Gresham lends her whatever she can, and is always happy to ‘talk books.’ That support means a lot to Tenille, who becomes quite devoted to her mentor. When Gresham learns that there may be an unpublished Wordsworth manuscript, she can’t resist the opportunity to try to find it. Such a discovery would make her career as a scholar. So, she travels to the Lake District, where the manuscript is said to be, to look for it. Unbeknownst to Gresham, Tenille has run away from home, and follows her mentor. And she turns out to be very helpful.

Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series features Israel Armstrong. Originally from London, Armstrong dreamed of a career as a professional librarian, perhaps even someday working for a prestigious university, or even the British Library. As a first step, he takes a job with the Tumdrum and District Library in Ireland. And, as he soon learns, it’s hardly the British Library. He’s engaged to drive the area’s bookmobile to a series of remote stops, and as the series goes on, he gradually gets to know the area and the people who live there. These may not be wealthy people, and they live in a very rural place. But they want access to books, and the municipality is obliged to provide it. So, Armstrong becomes that link.  And, over time, he learns to see his role as providing books to people who might not otherwise find it easy to get them.

Jaqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series begins just before World War I. As soon as Maisie is old enough, she begins work as a domestic in the home of Sir Julian and Lady Rowan Compton. At that time, domestic servants aren’t expected to be intellectual, to pursue education, and so on. In fact, plenty are not even literate. But it doesn’t take long for Lady Rowan to see that Maisie is very bright and intuitive. So, she arranges for Maisie to meet her friend Maurice Blanche, who is a doctor and psychologist. Together, Blanche and Lady Rowan mentor Maisie, sponsor her through her university studies, and prepare her for a professional adult career. Maisie spends World War I serving as a nurse at military field hospitals, but after the war, becomes a private investigator. And her success owes much to the access she’s had to books and ideas because of her mentors.

There are other examples, too, of characters who work to make books and reading available to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access. And the alternative – no access to reading – is tragic. In real life, it means not being able to keep up with current events, not having access to some of humankind’s great ideas, discoveries, and so on, and not being able to manage one’s life. Ruth Rendell shows a bit of what that’s like in A Judgement in Stone. As we learn about one of the main characters, Eunice Parchman, we discover that she doesn’t know how to read. She’s intelligent, but for several reasons, never learned. She is so cut off from everyone because she can’t learn what’s in books that it has tragic effects on her. And that, in turn, has disastrous effects on the family who hires her as their housekeeper.

On this World Book Night, I invite you to stop for a moment and think about how easy it is for you to access something to read. And then I invite you to do something to make it a little easier for others to have that same access. There are a lot of individuals and agencies that work hard to make books an everyday reality for people who wouldn’t otherwise get them. You can check some of them out on the ‘Literacy’ tab right here on my site. Or, feel free to ask me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) if you’d like ideas.

 

‘Books are a uniquely portable magic.’ – Stephen King

‘Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.’ – Malala Yousafzai

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Graham Parker.

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Filed under Ian Sansom, Jacqueline Winspear, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid