In The Spotlight: Meg Gardiner’s China Lake

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Thrillers come in all forms. Some, of course, involve espionage, international conspiracies and the like. But not all of them do. For example, Meg Gardiner’s China Lake, the first in her Evan Delaney series, is an Edgar Award-winning thriller. But it’s not a stereotypical thriller (if there is one). Let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

Evan Delaney is a science fiction author and legal researcher who lives and works in Santa Barbara, California. One day, she attends the funeral of an AIDS activist friend. During the observance, a fanatic religious group called the Remnant makes an appearance, picketing and shouting insults. Delaney soon learns, to her shock, that her former sister-in-law, Tabitha, has joined the group. Tabitha left Delaney’s brother, Brian, and their six-year-old son, Luke, and the breakup was hard on everyone. Now, she’s back, and it’s soon clear that she wants Luke. Brian is in the military, and is sometimes deployed overseas. So, his sister is one of Luke’s legal guardians. This means that she’s involved in Tabitha’s dispute with Brian.

This isn’t just a matter of former spouses going to court over custody, either. Tabitha is backed by the Remnant, and they are willing to take drastic measures to get Luke. It’s not long before Delaney finds herself their target. The Remnant engages in all sorts of harassment to try to get Luke, including vandalism, threats, and more.

Then, Pastor Pete is found dead in Brian Delaney’s home. He’s a very likely suspect in the murder, for several good reasons, and is soon arrested. There’s evidence against him, and the Remnant is only too happy to blame him, and by extension, his sister, for the murder. And the police are interested in her as well.

Delaney soon finds, to her dismay, that the Remnant has plans that go far beyond bringing Luke to live with them. The more she hears about what the members of the Remnant believe, and what they intend, the more danger she sees, and not just for herself and Luke. With the police already suspicious of her, Delaney knows she can’t really count on their support. So, she works with her partner, attorney Jesse Blackburn, to get to the truth, and try to stop the Remnant. The closer they get to the answers, the more dangerous things get. And there are other deaths as the novel unfolds. Still, in the end, we learn who and what lie behind everything. And it turns out that past history plays a big role in what happens.

This is a thriller, and the pacing is consistent with that. There are several unpleasant surprises, narrow escapes, and characters who are not what they seem to be. And there is real danger. Readers who enjoy ‘high octane’ novels will appreciate the twists and turns in the plot. Also consistent with the sort of novel it is, this story is violent in some places. Readers who prefer books with less grit and profanity will notice that. As is the case with some thrillers, there are also some things that some readers may feel stretch credibility. Readers will likely have different opinions about what ‘counts’ as too much of a stretch.

What’s more unsettling than the actual violence in the novel is the way the Remnant operates. This is a far-right, militant Christian group that takes the Christian Bible literally, and is preparing for Armageddon. The members consider themselves soldiers preparing for a war. On the surface, the group appears to do good work. Several members claim that the group rescued them from drugs, gangs, and prostitution. But just beneath the surface is bigotry of all kinds, misogyny, and more. It’s a very dangerous group, and, without spoiling the story, I can say that Delaney isn’t being paranoid in fearing what the group might do.

The histories of some of the characters play roles in the plot, and are important elements in the story. The Delaney siblings are close, although they argue, the way a lot of siblings do. There’s some tension between them over Jesse (he and Brian have a strained relationship), but Brian trusts his sister absolutely. For her part, Evan loves and admires her brother, although she’s not blind to his faults. She is devoted to Luke, and the feeling is mutual.

The story is told from Evan Delaney’s point of view (first person, past tense), so we get to know quite a bit about her. She’s smart and resourceful, with plenty of courage. But readers who are tired of ‘superhero’ protagonists need not fear. She is also vulnerable, and feels the same fear that anyone in danger might experience. She makes mistakes, and sometimes has a habit of being more outspoken than is prudent. And more than once, she relies on help from others; she can’t do it all herself. Still, readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate Evan Delaney.

The setting for the novel is Santa Barbara and China Lake, which is home to a large US military installation. That location, and Brian Delaney’s profession, mean that readers get a sense of the military life. While the story doesn’t really take place on the base, it plays a role.

This isn’t the sort of story where everything is all right at the end. There are deaths, and the events in the novel mean trauma for several characters. Readers who prefer stories where the ‘bad guys’ are led away in handcuffs will notice that this isn’t that sort of novel. That said, though, we do learn the truth about Pastor Pete’s death, and the other deaths that occur. And there is a feeling that life will go on, and can even be good again.

China Lake is a thriller in which past history and the ambitious plans of a militant religious group combine. It’s set in Central California, in Santa Barbara and China Lake, and features a protagonist who is determined to protect her family and community. But what’s your view? Have you read China Lake? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
 
 
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Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 27 February/Tuesday, 28 February – River of Darkness – Rennie Airth

Monday, 6 March/Tuesday, 7 March – In the Cold Light of Mourning – Elizabeth J. Duncan.

Monday, 13 March/Tuesday, 14 March – L.A. Confidential – James Ellroy

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Filed under China Lake, Meg Gardiner

Sorry, I’m Not Here Just Now…

guest-post-20-february-2017Hi, it’s Margot. Sorry I can’t take your visit just now. I’m off visiting Jane Risdon, crime writer, blogger, and expert in the music business. Jane’s also one of the contributing authors for In a Word: Murder, for which I’m most grateful. Please do come pay me a visit at Jane’s. I’ll be talking about the disaster that led to my newest release, Past Tense, and how something good came out of it all.

And, as you’ll be there anyway, do have a look around Jane’s excellent site. You’ll find great flash fiction, photography, and ‘on the road’ stories. And try her short stories, too. You’ll be very glad you did.
I’ll be back tomorrow with In The Spotlight.

Beep

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Somebody Help Me, We Gotta Stop a Crime*

preventing-murderIn many crime novels, a great deal of the suspense comes from the effort to catch the culprit(s). But there are some crime stories in which the real tension comes as the sleuth tries to prevent a crime (usually murder). That sort of story is a bit tricky to do, since it may mean a crime story in which there is no murder. And it’s a bit more difficult to keep the pace and suspense going with that sort of story. But when it’s done well, such a story can keep readers’ interest. And it allows the author some flexibility (will the murder be prevented?).

In Agatha Christie’s short story Wasps’ Nest, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to an acquaintance, John Harrison. He tells Harrison that he’s there to prevent a murder, and then brings up the subject of Claude Langton. It seems that Langton was formerly engaged to Harrison’s fiancée, Molly Deane, but Harrison claims that all is well between him and Langton. Nevertheless, Poirot insists, there is a real likelihood of murder. And it’s interesting to see the impact of Poirot’s visit.

Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes starts with an attempt to prevent a death. New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he comes upon a young woman who’s about to jump off a bridge. He manages to coax her away from the bridge, and then takes her to an all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Although she lost her mother when she was only two, she’s had a more or less happy life until recently. Not long before her suicide attempt, her father met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins – a man who is cursed, as he puts it, with knowing the future. Since that time, Harlan Reid has paid regular visits to Tompkins, and every prediction he’s heard has come true. Now, Tompkins has said that on a certain night at midnight, Reid will die. Since that prediction, Reid has been a shadow of his former self, and his daughter is distraught. Shawn decides to do what he can for her and her father. Part of the plot of this novel follows the Reids and Shawn as the time for Harlan Reid’s death (at least, the time foretold by Tompkins) gets closer. It’s interesting to see how all three respond to that stress.

Elmore Leanord’s Maximum Bob tells the story of Florida judge Robert ‘Maximum Bob’ Gibbs (so named because he has a habit of giving out the harshest penalties the law allows). One day, an alligator is found on his property. It does its share of damage, but no-one’s injured. Still, the police are called in, in the form of Gary Hammond. Gibbs wants to make as little of the incident as possible, but Hammond wonders whether the animal might have been brought to the property deliberately. Then, matters get more serious: shots are fired at Gibbs’ home one night. It’s now clear that someone is trying to kill the judge, and Hammond has to start to work quickly before there’s another, perhaps successful, attempt. He’s got plenty of suspects, too. For one thing, Gibbs’ harsh justice has made him plenty of enemies. So has his wandering eye. Hammond and parole office Kathy Diaz work to find out who’s trying to kill the judge.

There’s quite a lot of suspense in Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. In that novel, SP (Special Police) Officer Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police gets a new, and very difficult, assignment. A fugitive named Kunihide Kiyomaru has turned himself in to police in Fukuoka. He is guilty of the rape and murder of a young girl, Chika Ninagawa, and Mekari’s task will be to go to Fukukoa and bring Kiyomaru back to Tokyo to face justice. This isn’t going to be an easy task, though. Chika’s grandfather, who is extremely wealthy, has offered a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru and proves that the deed has been done. Thousands of people already know about this bounty, and are planning to have their try for the money. And as the journey begins, many more learn about it. So, Mekari and his team will have to go up against many thousands of possible killers if they’re going to bring Kiyomaru back to Tokyo alive.

And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. In that novel, Brighton and Hove Police Superintendent Roy Grace and his team are investigating the murder of a man whose torso was found in a disused chicken coop. It’s not an easy case, and matters are not helped when Grace is told that he will need to provide protection for superstar entertainer Gaia Lafayette. Originally from Brighton, she now lives in Los Angeles, where she’s become an international celebrity. She’s also become the target of a stalker who’s already made one attempt on her life. She and her entourage want to return to Brighton to do a film there, and of course, that will mean all sorts of potential revenue for the city. But it will also mean a potential security nightmare. So, Grace is told to make protecting her a priority. With the other case going on, as well as the usual police work (and some story arc events in Grace’s own life), it’s going to be a difficult assignment. And he’s up against someone who is determined to get to the star.

These are just a few examples, of course, of that plot point. And it can be very suspenseful to follow along as the protagonist tries to prevent a murder. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne’s Voice of America.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard, Peter James, Cornell Woolrich, Kazuhiro Kiuchi

If I Were Huckleberry Finn, I’d Do the Things He Did*

huckleberryfinnAs this is posted, it’s 132 years since the US publication of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the novel had been published two months earlier in the UK). As you’ll know, the novel has been the focus of a lot of controversy (‘fodder’ for a post in itself, perhaps). And it wasn’t roundly accepted. Louisa May Alcott, for instance, wanted Twain to,
 

‘stop writing for…our pure-minded lads and lasses…if he cannot think of something better to tell…’
 

Still, the novel has become a classic. Even those who don’t care for it acknowledge its influence (and Twain’s) on literature in general, and US literature in particular.

But The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn’t the only exploration of coming of age and self-discovery. There are lots of examples out there, including examples from crime fiction.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place mostly at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. Late one night, Grace Springer, the school’s games mistress, is shot in the brand-new sports pavilion. The police are called in, but they don’t make much progress before there’s a kidnapping. Then, there’s another murder. One of the pupils, fifteen-year-old Julia Upjohn, finds an important clue to the murders. She’s smart enough to know that she’s now in grave danger, so she decides to do something about it. She sneaks out of the school, and goes to visit Hercule Poirot. She’s heard of him, because her mother is good friends with Maureen Summerhayes (Remember her, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead?). Poirot returns to the school with Julia, and works with the police to find out what’s behind the incidents at the school. That summer term turns out to be quite a time of adventure and self-discovery for Julia.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces readers to fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, but is quite high-functioning, so he attends school, works with a therapist, and mostly lives what a lot of people would call a ‘regular’ life – or close to it. Still, because of his autism, there are a lot of subtleties and nuances that Christopher isn’t aware of when he interacts with people. One day, he discovers the body of the dog that belongs to the people next door. They’re prepared to blame Christopher for the animal’s death, but he knows he didn’t harm the dog. So, he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. He starts asking questions and following leads. As he does, he learns important truths about himself, and he has more than one adventure.

So does ten-year-old Kate Meaney, whom we meet in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. The story begins in 1984, in a rather bleak Midlands city. Kate wants very much to be a detective; she even has her own agency, called Falcon Investigations. When the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens nearby, Kate is sure that she’ll find lots of suspicious activity there, so she spends quite a lot of time at the new mall. She has more than one adventure as she goes in search of criminals. But her grandmother, Ivy, thinks that the girl would be much better off going away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate and her friend, Adrian Palmer, go to the school, but only Adrian returns. No sign of Kate – not even a body – is found. Then, twenty years later, a mall security officer starts to see strange images on his security camera: a girl who looks a lot like Kate. By chance, he meets Lisa Palmer, who works in the mall, and is Adrian’s younger sister. Each in a different way, they go back to the past, as you might say, and we learn what happened to Kate.

Mari Strachen’s The Earth Hums in B-Flat is the story of twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who lives in a small Welsh village in the 1950s. She doesn’t quite fit in where she lives, as she’s a bit of a dreamer. But she lives a fairly normal life until the day one of the locals, Ifan Evans, disappears, and is later found dead. For various reasons, Gwenni wants to find out who’s responsible. So, she starts searching for the truth. That search leads her on more than one adventure, some more dangerous than others. And in the process, she also finds out quite a bit about herself.

In William Kent Kreueger’s Ordinary Grace, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother, Jake, are growing up in 1961 New Bremen, Minnesota. Everything changes for Frank the day a local boy is killed in what looks like a railroad accident. Frank knows he’s not supposed to go down to the railroad tracks, but he also wants a bit of an adventure. So, he and Jake go down to the tracks, where they find a dead man. Frank can’t resist the chance to see the dead body more closely, so he goes to have a look. And he and Jake get drawn into a much greater adventure than they’d thought. Then, tragedy strikes Frank’s family, and he learns a great deal about himself, about family, and about growing up.

Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks introduces readers to fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. As the story begins, he’s finally worked up the courage to leave his abusive father, Joe. Adam’s been very much kept under lock and key for most of his life, so he has very little knowledge of the outside world. Fortunately for Adam, a young man named Billy Benson happens to visit the house just as Adam’s preparing to leave. He befriends Adam, and the two spend the next week together. Billy knows all about how to scrounge food and a place to stay, and Adam learns a great deal from him. As the two get to know each other, they learn some things that neither is entirely comfortable accepting. And they learn that they are connected to each other, and to an abduction that took place ten years earlier.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Fireside Books’ Leaders and Legacies series. These books feature Canada’s prime ministers as young sleuths, and follow their adventures and growing-up experiences.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may not have been the first coming-of-age adventure, but it’s one of the best known. And a lot of people consider it one of the best written. And, whatever you think of it, it’s certainly been influential.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sam Lewis, Joe Young, and Cliff Hess’ Huckleberry Finn.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Honey Brown, Mari Strachan, Mark Haddon, Mark Twain, William Kent Krueger

The Phantom of the Opera is There*

operasDo you enjoy the opera? Operas run the gamut from light and comic to very dark and tragic. And there are all sorts of forms of opera. When you think about it, there can be at least as much drama behind the scenes of an opera as there is on stage. So, it’s no wonder that opera features in crime fiction. It’s said, for instance, that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler (she features in A Scandal in Bohemia) is a former opera singer. And there are lots of other examples, too.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Swan Song, we are introduced to renowned opera singer Paula Nazarkoff. She’s much in demand, but makes time to accept an invitation from wealthy Lady Rustonbury to take the lead in an opera production to be staged at her country home. The diva sets one condition, to which Lady Rustonbury agrees, and plans are made. On the night of the production, famous baritone Roscari, who was to take the male lead, is taken ill. Fortunately, Edouard Bréton lives nearby, and is persuaded to take Roscari’s place. The production goes ahead, and the audience is transfixed. At the pivotal point, though, Bréton is murdered. The truth about this murder lies in the victim’s past. You’re absolutely right, fans of Lord Edgware Dies.

In Rex Stout’s novells, The Gun With Wings, Nero Wolfe gets a visit from Margaret ‘Peg’ Mion and Fred Weppler. They explain to Wolfe that they’re in love and want to marry, but they can’t. That’s because there’s still suspicion surrounding the death of Peg’s former husband, famous opera singer Alberto Mion. The official account is that he committed suicide, and on the surface, it looks that way. He was found in his soundproof studio, with a fatal gunshot wound, and the gun lying next to his body. But Peg insists that he would never have killed himself. She tells Wolfe that she and her lover can’t really feel comfortable marrying until they know the truth. Wolfe takes the case and soon learns that there are other suspects. For instance, baritone singer Gifford James had a grudge against the victim – had even injured him in a quarrel. And there’s Clara, James’ daughter, whom Mion had seduced. There are other possibilities, too. There’s also, of course, the chance that one or both of Wolfe’s clients murdered the victim. It’s a sort of ‘impossible, but not really’ mystery, but Wolfe gets the answers.

Gladys Mitchell’s Death at the Opera (AKA Death at the Wet) finds her sleuth, Mrs. Bradley, investigating a murder at the Hillmaston School. Maths mistress Calma Ferris is shy and quiet, but has still managed to upset several people at the school. For example, she’s alienated the games mistress, the art master, and the English mistress, among other problems. On the other hand, she’s offered to underwrite the school’s upcoming production of The Mikado. And, in fact, she is selected to take the role of Katisha. She doesn’t turn up for the performance, and is later found backstage, drowned in a sink full of water. The school’s Headmaster asks Mrs. Bradley to look into the matter, and she agrees. As any fan of Gladys Mitchell can imagine, this is far from a straightforward case…

Ngaio Marsh’s Photo Finish features renowned coloratura soprano Isabella Sommita. She’s being stalked by a photographer named ‘Strix’ who’s been taking unflattering ‘photos of her and selling them to newspapers. In order to escape this, Isabella accepts an invitation from her lover, Sir Montague Reece, to stay at Waihoe Lodge, his home in southern New Zealand. Also invited are Sir Roderick Alleyn and his wife, Agatha Troy, who’s been commissioned to paint a portrait of the singer. Isabella appears in an opera written especially for her, and, shortly afterwards, is found stabbed. Alleyn investigates, and finds that there are several possibilities. For one thing, ‘Strix’ has made his way to the lodge. Then there’s the victim’s new lover, who wrote the opera. And there’s Reece. In the end, Alleyn finds out the truth, and it’s not what one might have expected.

In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Opera, Georgetown School of Law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith, and his wife, Annabel Reed-Smith, get involved in an upcoming production of Puccini’s Tosca. The opera will be staged at the Kennedy Center’s Washington National Opera, and Smith is to serve as an ‘extra’ (his wife is on the National Opera Board). Taking part in this production will be a very promising Toronto soprano, Charise Lee. One day, she doesn’t show up for rehearsal, and a search is made. She’s found stabbed in the chest, and the Board asks Smith to help look into the case. He works with former cop-turned-PI Raymond Pawkins to find out who killed Lee and why.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first of her series featuring Venice police detective Commissario Guido Brunetti. In that novel, world-renowned conductor Helmut Wellauer is poisoned backstage with cyanide during a performance of La Traviata at the Teatro La Fenice. Brunetti is called to the scene, and begins investigating. He soon finds more than one motive for murder. For one thing, Wellaeur was well known (and disliked) for his homophobia. It’s also said that he had Nazi sympathies. And then there are the personal reasons that several people might have for murder. It’s not an easy case. Fans of this series will know, too, that Flavia Petrelli, whom we meet in this novel, makes a return in Falling in Love, in which she comes to Venice to take the lead role in Tosca. Unfortunately, she’s acquired a determined stalker. When her friend, Federico ‘Freddy’ D’Istria is attacked, Brunetti learns that this stalker is extremely dangerous; he’ll have to work quickly to find out who he is.

See what I mean? Opera can be exciting, even magnificent. But safe? I’m not so sure of that…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe’s The Phantom of the Opera. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gladys Mitchell, Margaret Truman, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout