Some of Us Believe in Spiritualism*

SpiritualismFor a very long time, people have been fascinated by what I’ll call spiritualism (mostly for convenience’s sake). Strictly speaking, spiritualism is usually used to refer to the belief in communicating with the dead. And that possibility has certainly intrigued humans. But it’s taken on a wider meaning, too, and now often includes interest in psychics, prescience and so on.  And it’s interesting to see how that way of thinking about spiritualism has been woven into crime fiction.

You’ll notice as I go on today that I won’t be mentioning paranormal stories or fantasy stories. Those certainly have their places for readers who enjoy them. But fascination with spiritualism is also there in other crime fiction as well.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include spiritualism, and it’s interesting to speculate on what she might have thought of it. An interesting conversation with Moira at the excellent Clothes in Books got me thinking about Christie’s views, so thanks for that inspiration, Moira.

In Dumb Witness, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings visit the village of Market Basing. They’re there at the request of Miss Emily Arundell, who wrote to Poirot, asking him to advise her on a ‘delicate matter.’ By the time they get to Market Basing, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. At first, her death is put down to liver failure. But it’s proven in the end that she was poisoned. And there are several suspects, too, as she had a large fortune to leave, and several greedy/desperate relatives. One of the characters in this novel is Miss Arundell’s companion Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. Miss Lawson is a dedicated believer in spiritualism, and often attends séances and other such events. Her good friends, Julia and Isabel Tripp, are just as fascinated by mysticism, and often share those experiences with Miss Lawson. Miss Lawson’s interest in spiritualism is not the reason for Emily Arundell’s death. But it does add an interesting layer, both to her character and to the story. And it shows how strong a belief people can have in spiritualism. For those who do believe, it’s as real as anything else is.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces readers to Ava Garrett. A self-styled medium, she’s developed quite a following. One of those believers is Benny Frayle, who’s recently lost her good friend, financial planner Dennis Brinkley. The official report is that his death was a tragic accident when one of the antique war machines he collects malfunctioned. But Benny’s not so sure of that. The police, in the form of DCI Tom Barnaby, believe they’ve done all they can do, and that there’s no need for further investigation. And, to be fair, the police have done a thorough job. But Benny still thinks it was murder. So she attends one of Ava Garrett’s séances. During the event, Ava describes the murder scene vividly, although she’s not seen it. And she makes it clear that Benny was right. That’s enough for Benny, but the police still don’t really look into the death…until Ava herself is poisoned. One the one hand, I can say without spoiling the story that Barnaby and his team don’t learn the truth through a medium or psychic. But there is an interesting twist in the story that adds a layer to it.

In Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), the small Québec town of Three Pines gets some new residents: CC de Poitiers and her family. CC is a popular lifestyle/self-help celebrity whose book, Be Calm, has sold very well. Not everyone in town is happy about the newcomers, though. For one thing, CC is egotistical, rude, manipulative, and malicious. She manages to alienate everyone in town, including Beatrice Mayer, known locally as Mother Bea. Mother Bea has a yoga and meditation center, also called Be Calm, and is, as she puts it,
 

‘…familiar with all spiritual paths…’
 

She sees beneath the ‘spiritual wellness’ touted in CC’s hype, and is not happy at what she finds. When CC dies of electrocution, there’s no question that it’s murder. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec investigates with his team. They find that more than one person had a strong motive for murder. Admittedly, spiritualism doesn’t solve the mystery here. And it’s not the reason for the murder. But it’s an interesting look at the way spiritualism – or what’s hyped as spiritualism – impacts people.

We see that in Tarquin Hall’s The Man Who Died Laughing, too. Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of unmasking spiritual charlatans. He is the founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (DIRE); and, as such, does everything he can to stop those who prey on others’ fascination with spiritualism. One morning, he’s attending a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when, according to witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that she is punishing him for being an infidel. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri thinks this death has a more prosaic explanation. Jha was a onetime client, so Puri takes a special interest in this case, and decides to investigate it. One part of the trail leads to Maharaj Swami, a well-known spiritualist and advisor. He’s set up his own ashram, which has become quite popular, and seems to have quite a hold on his followers. Spiritualism doesn’t really solve this mystery. But it’s interesting to see how many people want to believe in the things Swami says and does.

There are other sorts of spiritualism in its very broadest sense in crime fiction, too. For example, both David Rosenberg’s The Junction Chronicles and Spencer Cope’s Collecting the Dead feature characters who are synthaesthetes. Their protagonists can sense things accurately that most of us can’t. Rosenberg’s Decker Roberts is able to tell whether someone is lying or not. And Cope’s Steps Craig can sense people’s essence – he calls it their ‘shine’ – on things they’ve touched. I confess I’ve not read the Cope (yet). But it’s a good example of the sort of almost paranormal ability that some characters seem to possess. Many people believe that there are real-life instances of such things, too.

Whether or not things such as psychic ability or spiritualism actually exist, people are fascinated by them. And that in itself is really interesting. Little wonder Arthur Conan Doyle was so intrigued by spiritualism.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Donovan’s Children of the World.

  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, David Rosenberg, Louise Penny, Spencer Cope, Tarquin Hall

Story Of a Crime*

Songs About CrimesA somewhat recent comment exchange with Angela Savage has got me thinking about another sort of crime fiction: songs that tell the story of a crime. There are many such songs from many different periods of history. And those songs are from many different genres, too. There is no way I would be able to mention them all. But if you think about it, a song, especially a ballad, can be a very effective way to tell the story of a crime.

Here are just a very few that I thought of as I was reflecting on the question. I know you’ll have several in mind to share, and I sure hope you do. After all, crime fiction can be musical, just as it can be verbal.

The song that got Angela and me ‘talking’ is Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. Written in 1967, it really has more of a focus on the aftermath of a tragedy than on the story of exactly what happened. Much is left to the listener to infer, and although we all have our suppositions, Gentry doesn’t come right out and tell us what, exactly, happened to make Billie Joe jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge. It’s a ballad with a very strong sense of its American Southern roots, and that comes through both in the dialogue and in the descriptions.

Neil Young’s 1969 release Everybody Knows This is Nowhere includes the song Down by the River. In that song, the narrator tells of shooting the woman he loved. Young isn’t, strictly speaking, specific about why the narrator did this, so there’s more than one interpretation of the reasons. In any case, the narrator makes it clear that,
 

‘This much madness is too much sorrow,’
 

and seems to just want to escape.

Another song narrated by a man who’s just shot his wife is Hey Joe. Interestingly enough, it’s not entirely clear who, exactly, wrote this song. But it’s believed that the song was written by Billy Roberts. You’ll probably be most familiar with Jimi Hendrix’s version, but it was first commercially recorded (as far as I know, so please put me right if I’m wrong) by The Leaves. This song tells the story of a man who kills his wife after discovering her with another man. He then decides to escape authorities by running to Mexico. This song starts before the crime is committed, and moves on to Joe’s confession of the crime, and his announcement that he’s going on the run.

Smackwater Jack is Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s 1971 story of a man who goes on a crime spree. King doesn’t give us a lot of background on why Smackwater Jack ‘snapped.’ We’re just told that,
 

‘…he was in the mood for a little confrontation,’ and that
 

‘…he couldn’t take no more abuse.’
 

I think one of the most haunting lines in this song is,
 

‘You can’t talk to a man with a shotgun in his hand.’
 

Perhaps this is just my view, but it bears an eerie resemblance to some of the tragic shootings we’ve had in the US in recent years.

Bobby Russel’s 1972 song The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia was made memorable by Vicki Lawrence, ‘though it’s also been recorded by other singers, such as Reba McEntire. This song tells the story of justice gone wrong, when a man comes upon a murder scene and is hung for a crime he didn’t commit. He might have had a motive, but as the narrator says, he’s innocent. Interestingly, we find out in the end that the story’s being told by the real murderer, who at the end explains how the crime was committed.

One of Bob Marley’s more famous songs is 1973’s I Shot the Sheriff. Another very famous version was, of course, recorded by Eric Clapton. In this song, the narrator confesses to killing Sheriff John Brown, but swears,
 

‘…it was in self-defense,’
 

and tells the story of how the shooting happened. As he tells the story, he’s on the run for another crime, killing the deputy. The narrator says he’s not guilty of that crime, but it’s implied that he’ll probably pay the price for it.

And then there’s Queen’s 1975 Bohemian Rhapsody. This one’s more surreal than the others are. But it basically tells the story of a man who’s about to be taken away for shooting a man. In the course of the song, the narrator describes his reactions to having shot a man:
 

‘Sends shivers down my spine…’
 

He’s also understandably anxious about facing trial. There’s a sort of vague reference to a trial, too, in which an argument is made to,
 

‘Spare him his life.’
 

It’s one of the more fantasy-like musical crime stories.

Richard Marx’s 1992 Hazard is the story of a young man who’s accused of killing a young woman named Mary. He claims,
 

‘I swear I left her safe and sound.’
 

In fact, he makes it clear he cared about her. But it’s not entirely clear from the song that he’s innocent. There’s also a hint in the song that he may be a very troubled person, and could certainly have been capable of killing Mary. There’s just as much possibility, though, that he’s being framed. Unlike many other ballads, this one doesn’t tell the listener (or viewer, if you’ve seen the video) who the killer is, and invites us to work it out.

There are plenty of contemporary songs, too, that tell the story of a crime. For instance, Rihanna’s 2010 song Man Down tells the story of a young woman who murders the man who raped her. She knows she’s in trouble, and isn’t sure what she’s going to do. She deeply regrets taking the life of someone who,
 

‘Could have been somebody’s son.’
 

There are, as I said, so many other songs that tell the stories of fiction crimes. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Miller, and Cold Chisel have written songs that tell the stories of crimes and their aftermaths. And that tradition goes back many, many centuries. You see? Crime fiction can take several forms…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Walkabouts’ Crime Story.

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Filed under Billy Roberts, Bob Marley, Bobbie Gentry, Bobby Russell, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Young, Queen, Richard Marx

In The Spotlight: Victoria Houston’s Dead Angler

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Lots of people find fishing to be a relaxing and truly enjoyable pastime. You might even say there’s a ‘fishing culture.’ There’s a billion-dollar industry built up around fishing, and plenty of towns rely on it for at least part of their income. For an ‘inside look’ at the fishing culture and the small towns that rely on it, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Victoria Houston’s Dead Angler, the first of her Loon Lake Fishing Mysteries.

Retired dentist Paul Osborne has just gotten his life back together after the sudden death of his wife, Mary Lee. One of the things that he hasn’t done since she died is fish. But when he re-discovers his fishing equipment during a cleaning project, he’s persuaded to give it a try again. One night, he’s fishing with his fly fishing coach Llewellyn ‘Lew’ Ferris, who is also the local sheriff. While they’re on the Prairie River, Osborne finds the body of a woman in the water.

He knows the victim, too. As the town’s dentist, he’s had most of its residents as patients, and this woman is no exception. She is Meredith Marshall, who ,among other things, is a friend of his daughter, Mallory. She grew up in Loon Lake, but has since moved away. Osborne remembers that she had some gold fillings in her mouth, but they’re missing now. And that’s his first clue that this death was likely not natural. Ferris’ regular deputy is away at the moment, and she sees that Osborne has some medical expertise that could be useful, so she makes him her temporary deputy, and the two begin to work on the case.

In order to find out how and by whom Meredith was killed, Ferris and Osborne look into both her relationships and her movements in the last few weeks. Because she’s from Loon Lake, Osborne knows something about her family history. He knows less about her life since she moved away, but the two detectives gradually develop a portrait of her. And that brings up more than one suspect. For one thing, there’s her ex-husband, Ben. She’d inherited quite a lot of money, and it’s not in Ben’s interest for their divorce to become final. And there’s Clint Chesnais, who lives on the Lac Vieux Desert Native American Reservation. He was doing some building and landscaping work for Meredith and her sister Alicia Roderick, who were going to open a restaurant together. There’s word, too, that he and Meredith were more than business acquaintances.  There’s also the matter of Meredith and Alicia’s restaurant plan. That brings up all sorts of possible financial motives.

In the meantime, Osborne has another issue to face. His daughter Mallory, from whom he’s somewhat estranged, has called to tell him that she’s coming for a visit, ‘though she won’t say why. He’s been concerned for her, and isn’t sure how to feel about seeing her again.

Gradually, Ferris and Osborne put together the pieces of the puzzle. In the end, they find out the truth behind Meredith’s death, and another death that occurs. They also uncover some underhanded things that have been going on in town.

This is fishing-themed mystery, so there is plenty of information about sport and hobby fishing. Those who love to fish tend to take it very seriously, and Houston makes that clear. Readers also get an ‘inside look’ at the fishing culture, and the sort of small town that grows up around it.

Loon Lake is a small town, so another element in this novel is the American small-town atmosphere. Everyone knows everyone, and people tend to gather at the local McDonald’s for breakfast, and the local bars later in the day. There are community events and social life revolves around them. The pace of life is slower than it often is in suburban and urban areas, and there’s a lot of interest in outdoor hobbies such as hiking, boating and so on. There’s also an interesting divide between the year-round residents of Loon Lake, and visitors who take summer cottages or spend weekends at one of the area’s hotels. Because everyone knows everyone, people have a history together, and that plays its part in this story.

The story is told in third person, from Osborne’s point of view, so we learn about his character. He’s certainly had some sorrow in his life, but he doesn’t wallow. He’s learning to take life as it comes, as the saying goes. He’s the proud father of two grown daughters, Erin and Mallory. His family life is not idyllic; he’s got a complicated relationship with Mallory, and we learn that his relationship with Mary Lee was far from perfect. But he works to be a good father and grandfather, and he is close to Erin. The sisters are close, too, which makes their father very happy.

A note is in order here about Osborne’s relationship with Ferris. He admits to himself that he likes her very much. But readers who do not like romance in their novels will be pleased to know that this duo does not become a couple. They work well together, and they very much like each other. But it’s not ‘that kind’ of relationship.

For her part, Ferris is the ‘outdoors’ type. She’s a better fly fisher than Osborne is, and she’s not at all afraid to take on a challenge. She’s smart and good at her job, but she’s not perfect. She doesn’t try to play ‘superhero.’

There are other characters, too, who play roles in this story. One of them is Osborne’s friend Ray Pradt. He’s a fishing/hunting guide, and has other irons in the fire, too, as the saying goes. He’s certainly not conventional. You can’t really describe anyone who wears a hat shaped like a stuffed fish as ‘conventional.’ Rather, he lives life on his own terms. He can be annoying, but he’s loyal, knows everyone for miles around, and has some unexpected skills that allow him to be very helpful to Osborne.

The story isn’t what you’d call gritty. But it’s not really light, either. There’s real sadness in the novel, and it’s not the sort of story that ends with the culprit being led away in handcuffs. People’s lives are not magically made all right again. Even Osborne’s personal life doesn’t have one of those ‘sitcom moments’ where things are fine at the end. But there is a sense of hope, and there’s a definite sense that life will go on, and even be good again.

Dead Angler is a look at life in a small Wisconsin community where fishing rules, everyone knows everyone, and nature is a big part of life. It features a pair of sleuths who are very much a part of that community, and a mystery that shows that all communities have their sorrows and tragedies. But what’s your view? Have you read Dead Angler? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 4 July/Tuesday, 5 July – The Constable’s Tale – Donald Smith

Monday, 11 July/Tuesday, 12 July – Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic

Monday, 18 July/Tuesday, 19 July – Unleashed – David Rosenfelt

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Filed under Dead Angler, Victoria Houston

Everything She Wants is Everything She Sees*

High MaintenanceYou know the type, I’ll bet. The sort of person who has no problem sending a dish back to the kitchen three times. Or who insists on getting instant service, answers to questions, and so on. Or who absolutely must have the best in clothes, food, or wine (or all of the above). Yes, I’m talking about high-maintenance people. I’m sure we’ve all met folks like that.

High-maintenance people can be the bane of existence for anyone in any sort of service industry. And they don’t tend to endear themselves to others in personal life, either. But they can make for interesting fictional characters. And they can be a ‘gold mine’ of conflict and tension in a crime novel.

Agatha Christie included high maintenance characters in several of her novels. One of them is Timothy Abernethie, whom we meet in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). He’s the younger brother of patriarch Richard Abernethie, who, at the beginning of the novel, has just died. Timothy is a hypochondriac who really does seem to relish the attention he gets due to his ‘ill health.’ He’s demanding, querulous and petulant, too. When his brother’s will is read, Timothy naturally assumes that he should inherit everything (and it’s quite a fortune), and be trusted to look after the other members of the family. That’s not what happens, though. Instead, the money is divided more or less evenly amongst Richard Abernethie’s relatives, and this infuriates Timothy. But that turns out to be the least of his problems when a suspicion is raised that this death might have been a murder. And when the youngest Abernethie sister, Cora Lansquenet, is murdered, it looks as though someone is determined to get that fortune. The family lawyer, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. It turns out to be a very interesting psychological case.

Barbara Neely’s Blanche White has to deal with high maintenance people in more than one of her investigations. She’s a professional housekeeper whose clients often make assumptions about themselves and about her because of their different social classes. They also often make such assumptions because many of them are white, and Blanche is black. On the one hand, she’s learned to manoeuver in that environment. She’s also learned that in subtle but real ways, she’s the one in control. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the very natural irritation that comes from being treated in a demanding, high-handed way. In Blanche on the Lam, for instance, she ends up taking a temporary housekeeping job with wealthy Grace and Everett. From the moment Blanche begins her new job, Grace treats her with at best, condescension and at worst, complete disrespect. Both Grace and Everett are demanding, high-handed and very particular. The fact that they’re high maintenance isn’t the reason for the two murders that occur in the novel. But it makes for an interesting layer of tension.

In Geraldine Evans’ Dead Before Morning, DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn investigate the murder of a young woman whose body is found on the grounds of the exclusive Elmhurst Sanatorium. Its owner, Dr. Anthony Melville-Briggs, is extremely concerned lest anything happen to the facility’s reputation, and he wants the case solved as quickly as possible. Soon enough, the body is identified as that of a sex worker named Linda Wilks. Once she is identified, the two sleuths trace leads that may link her to her killer. One very good possibility is that Melville-Briggs himself may be responsible, and Rafferty would like nothing better. Melville-Briggs is high-handed, demanding, and rude. He’s also quite high maintenance in that he expects instant results, instant call returns, and so on. It’s actually Llewellyn who has to remind Rafferty that there are other possibilities.

Toronto PI Sasha Jackson doesn’t have it much easier in Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom. One day, she gets a visit from Christine Arvisais, who wants to hire Jackson to solve a murder case. It seems that Arvisais’ former fiancé, Gordon Hanes, was shot on the day that would have been their wedding day had the engagement not been broken off. Everyone thinks Arvisais is responsible, but she claims to be innocent. From the beginning, Jackson doesn’t care much at all for this client. She’s rude, overly pampered, snooty, and very high maintenance. In fact, she doesn’t want the case solved because she cares who shot Hanes. She only wants to prove she didn’t. Still, a fee is a fee, and Jackson is just getting started as a PI. So she takes the case and gets started looking for answers. She finds that Hanes’ murder is linked to another murder, and in the process, digs up some shady secrets.

Sometimes, high maintenance goes beyond just spoiled and petulant. For example, in Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel, we meet the very high maintenance Eve Moran. From the time she was a small child, Eve has always wanted to acquire. And she’s never let anything, not even murder, get between her and what she wants, whether it’s money, jewels, men, or something else. Her daughter Christine has been raised in this toxic environment, so she and her mother have a very dysfunctional relationship. The more time goes on, the more trapped Christine is in her mother’s web. Then, she sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk of being caught in the same trap. She decides that she’s going to have to free both herself and Ryan if she’s going to save them.

And I don’t think I’d be forgiven if I discussed high maintenance people in crime fiction without mentioning Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Fans will tell you that he’s demanding, extremely particular, high-handed and sometimes very condescending. He definitely insists that the world run by his rules. And his partner, Archie Goodwin, is not afraid to tell him so. Wolfe gets away with what he does because he happens to be a brilliant detective. But that doesn’t make him a delight to be around at times…

And that’s the thing about high maintenance people. They are sometimes most unpleasant, and they’re not popular as bosses, potential partners or customers/clients. But they’re also a part of life. And they can add some interesting tension to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wham! ‘s Everything She Wants.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Geraldine Evans, Jill Edmondson, Patricia Abbott, Rex Stout

In the End, Only Kindness Matters*

OnlyKindnessMattersThere’s been a lot of bad news from all over the world lately. At times like this, I think it’s helpful to remember that people are also capable of great kindness (and OK, the cute ‘roo in the ‘photo is an extra bonus😉 ). I’d bet you’ve experienced kindness in your own life, and shared it with others. It’s all over crime fiction, too.

It’s not easy to write a ‘kind’ scene in a crime novel. After all, those stories are about things that people do to one another, and crime fiction fans don’t want their books too ‘sugary.’ But there are ways to weave such scenes into a crime novel. And, when done well, they can add a welcome bit of light into an otherwise sad novel. For the writer, they can move the plot along, too, and add character development.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), we are introduced to Heather Badcock. She lives with her husband, Arthur, in a brand-new council housing development in St. Mary Mead. Heather’s far from perfect, but she has what’s sometimes called a big heart. So one day, when she sees an elderly lady stumble and twist her ankle, she’s only too happy to help. That lady turns out to be Miss Marple, who is quite grateful for the kindness of a stranger. That’s partly why she gets involved in the case when Heather later dies of what turns out to be poison. Miss Marple is not at all blind to Heather’s faults and weaknesses, but she also sees her good qualities. It’s an interesting case of a character whose positive qualities turn out to have a negative side, if I can put it that way.

In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte travels to the small town of Merino to investigate the death of itinerant stockman George Kendall. In order to get as much information as possible, he goes undercover as ‘just another swagman.’ With the help of Sergeant Marshall of the local police, he arranges to be jailed for ten days for vagrancy, loitering, lying to the police, and interfering with the police. He’s in his jail cell when he meets eight-year-old Florence Marshall (who usually goes by Rose Marie), the sergeant’s daughter.  Florence brings the ‘prisoner’ tea, and strikes up a friendship with him, and Bony is grateful for her kindness. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t condescend to her, which endears him to her. Later in the novel, Bony’s able to repay her kindness.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in Haystack begins as Buenos Aires police officer Venancio ‘Perro’ Lascano and his team raid a brothel. They have to be careful about, too. On the one hand, the ruling far-right junta (the novel takes place in the late 1970s) wants to put on a show of being tough on such crimes. And it’s as much as a death sentence to go against them. On the other, several important community leaders are patrons of the brothel. Still, the police carry out their duty. As Lascano is making one last pass through the establishment, he discovers a young woman hiding there. She’s not one of the brothel workers; rather, she’s using the place as a refuge. Lascano escorts her to safety, where he finds out that her name is Eva. He gives Eva temporary shelter in his home; and at first, she assumes he’s going to want something in return. But he asks neither for information nor sexual attention. In fact, as the novel goes on, he continues to treat her with kindness with no apparent ulterior motive. In the end, that kindness saves her life. This isn’t the main plot of the novel, really. But it does show how a kind gesture can add a ‘lift’ even to a noir story such as this one, where people generally can’t trust one another.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief includes a sub-plot regarding a young boy named François. When his mother, Karima, disappears (her reasons are a part of the main plot), he’s left more or less alone in the world. Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano has compassion for the boy and takes him in temporarily. That’s mostly at the behest of Montalbano’s longtime lover, Livia, who’s visiting at the time. Livia and François, especially, form a bond that benefits both of them. In the end, that kindness allows François to build a new life.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is the story of Stephanie Anderson. When she’s fourteen, her younger sister Gemma goes missing during a school picnic/barbecue. Despite a massive search, no trace of Gemma is ever found. Seventeen years later, Stephanie is just finishing her training in psychiatry in Dunedin. She gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, who tells her a story that’s eerily similar to Stephanie’s own. Elisabeth’s sister Gracie also disappeared, also with no trace. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest, and goes in search of the person who caused so much hurt to both her family and the Clarks. So she travels back to her home town of Wanaka. Along the way, she stays for a short time with Elisabeth’s father, Andy. Although she’s a stranger to Andy, really, he makes her welcome at the Guest House he owns, and treats her with kindness. So do other people she meets along the way. That kindness doesn’t catch the person responsible for the disappearances, but it shores Stephanie up during her journey. And it helps her do some healing.

And then there’s Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings, which introduces Victoria newspaper columnist Nell Forrest. One night, Nell gets a visit from the police, who tell her that there’s been a fire at the home of her mother, Lillian ‘Yen.’ What’s more, a man’s body was found in the ruins of the garage, where the fire started. He is Dustin Craig, who lived next door. At first, the police think that he died in a terrible accident (although there is some question about what he was doing at the next-door house late at night). But soon, it’s proven that he was murdered. Now, Yen herself comes under suspicion, and there’s good reason for that. Nell starts to ask some questions, and discovers that several other people have strong motives for murder. In the course of her search for the truth, Nell herself gets into grave danger. Despite that, though, she finds a way to be kind to another character who’s also in danger. That kindness doesn’t exactly cement a friendship. But it does show that even when things look terrible, people can be kind.

And that’s the thing about kindness. It doesn’t have to be ‘sugary sweet’ (Nell’s isn’t, for instance). And in a crime novel, most readers wouldn’t want such saccharine anyway. But kindness can add a touch of relief to a novel. And in real life, those little kindnesses can make a difference. It doesn’t take much to reach out. And it can be an antidote to everything going on in the world…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jewel Kilcher’s Hands.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Upfield, Ernesto Mallo, Ilsa Evans, Paddy Richardson