Science Lab ;-)

science-in-crime-fiction-quizEveryone’s back in school for the autumn or spring term. It’s time to tackle those chemistry labs and biology experiments! All of this has put me in mind of…

 
 
 
 

…a quiz! Oh, stop it! Did I force you to come to this blog today? I don’t think so!😉
 

Detectives couldn’t solve cases without good science. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your crime-fictional scientists, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer and see how well you do.

Ready? Go into the lab to begin…if you dare!😉

 

sciencelab

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In The Spotlight: Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels don’t fit neatly into the conventional ‘crime novel’ structure. And that can be good for the genre, as it makes it more flexible and inclusive. That’s the sort of novel Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.

Wealthy and successful São Paolo businessman Olavo Bettencourt has a life many people would envy. He has a beautiful home in an exclusive, well-guarded part of the city; he has a beautiful ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and a healthy young son, Olavinho.

Olavo is an advertising executive, so he’s very much in demand by people who want their businesses to do well. And with Brazil’s government getting more open, political candidates are using advertising more and more. All of this draws Olavo into a web of corrupt deals and dirty business. He likes the money and power, and he certainly likes the ‘perks.’ But he’s really much more trapped in that web than he thinks. And his world is not nearly as perfect as he’d like to think it is.

Olavo’s vulnerability becomes all too clear when a gang decides to kidnap Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, since Olavo has a great deal of money, and would likely do anything he’s told in order to get his son back. The plans are made, and the gang sets everything in motion. On the appointed morning, the kidnappers wait near the Bettencourt home, where they’ll abduct Olavinho as he’s being transported to the private school he attends. But they end up kidnapping the wrong boy.

Instead of Olavinho, they’ve abducted the mute son of the Bettencourt’s housekeeper.  Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they took, and what to do about their plans to kidnap the real Bettencourt son. For his part, Olavo has to decide what to tell the media and the police. After all, the more that’s known about him, the more vulnerable he is to criminal investigation.

As frantic efforts are made on both sides, the story follows the various people involved, and readers learn a great deal about how business is done in contemporary Brazil.

In one sense, this is a thriller. As the action plays out, there are various twists and turns in the plot. There’s violence, too. And the pacing is fairly swift. That said, though, (at least for me), the story doesn’t require the number of suspensions of disbelief that are sometimes seen in thrillers.

As the story unfolds, we get to know the characters, and we see beneath the public masks they wear. Olavo Bettencourt, for instance, is a much-disliked person. He is venal and corrupt, and thinks he’s a lot more important than it turns out that he is. He’s usually dismissive of his wife, treating her more as an ‘arm decoration’ for parties and a ready bed partner than an actual person. And he can be verbally cruel to her, too.

For her part, Mara is also deeply flawed. She’s clawed her way up from being a poor girl from the proverbial backstreets, and has done a lot of questionable things to get there. She likes having security and comfort, but she loathes her husband. And as the book goes on, she gets more and more disgusted with playing the role of his beautiful mannequin. To say the least, this isn’t what you’d call a functional family.

There are some sympathetic characters in the novel. For example, it’s easy to feel for Irene, the family housekeeper and mother of the boy who has actually been abducted. She sees everything that goes on in the family, and does what she has to do to survive in a country that offers few opportunities if you don’t have money.

And the country – contemporary Brazil – is an important element in the story. As we learn about Olavo’s many deals and the people behind them, we learn how politics, corporate money and wealth work together there. We also see some of the stark differences among the social classes. While it’s hard to have sympathy for the kidnappers, it’s not hard to see how one might take advantage of an opportunity for quick, easy money, where nobody’s supposed to get hurt.

The story is told from several different perspectives. There’s Mara’s, there’s Olavo’s, there’s Irene’s, and there’s the point of view of one of the kidnappers. There are also other characters whom we meet. Readers who prefer one point of view will notice this.

It’s also worth noting that this novel isn’t told in a linear, chronological fashion. It begins with the kidnapping and its fallout, and then slowly tells the story of what led to it. Then the story continues with the aftermath, approaching it from a variety of perspectives. Readers who prefer a story to be told chronologically will notice this. Each section is identified by the date and time, so it’s a straightforward business to work out when the events happen. But it does ask for attentiveness.

This isn’t a light novel with a happy ending. But there are signs that life will go on. Some of the characters make choices that suggest that things will get better; and we can see how some things will be all right again. The ending leaves the door open, as the saying goes.

Happiness is Easy takes a look at modern Brazilian society through the means of a high-profile kidnapping and its aftermath. It features some not-very pleasant characters (and some sympathetic ones), and raises some important questions about corruption, wealth and what really ‘counts’ as valuable. But what’s your view? Have you read Happiness is Easy? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 3 October/Tuesday, 4 October – The Good Boy – Teresa Schwegel

Monday, 10 October/Tuesday, 11 October – Inside the Black Horse – Ray Berard

Monday, 17 October/Tuesday, 18 October – The Gentlemen’s Club – Jen Shieff

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They’re Tearing it Down Now, But it’s Just as Well*

changesChange is often difficult, even if the change is a good one. It upsets the status quo and it means that we have to get used to something new. And that can be very hard. Yet, as we all know, change is inevitable. It’s how we grow as a society and individually. So it’s really not a question of whether there’ll be change, but how we respond to it.

That feeling of tension as things change can add a great deal to a crime novel (or any novel, really). For one thing, showing the way people respond to change can add a layer of character development. And change in general can add an interesting layer of tension and even conflict to a story.

For example, one of the plot threads in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d) has to do with the coming of council housing to the village of St. Mary Mead. It’s something quite new for the people who live there, and not everyone is happy about it. Many people liked the village just as it was. But Miss Marple knows that change is inevitable, so fighting it probably won’t do much good. In fact, she’s curious about what the new housing is like. So one day, she takes a walk in the new part of town. Unfortunately, she twists her ankle and ends up with a mild, but painful, injury. She’s rescued by Heather Badcock, who lives in one of the new houses. As they talk, she learns that Heather is a major fan of famous actress Marina Gregg, and is excited that her idol has bought a house in the area. On the day the re-done house is opened to the public, Heather finally gets the chance to meet Marina Gregg. Shortly afterwards, she dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Since the cocktail was originally meant for the actress, the first theory is that she was the intended victim. But soon, Miss Marple sees that Heather was meant to be the victim all along. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Heather isn’t killed because she lives in a council house. But it does make for an interesting thread of tension in the story.

So does the coming of the mall and the mall culture in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Before the advent of the mall, people did their shopping in downtown areas. When malls arrived, this made major changes in people’s shopping habits, their social lives, and the structure of many, many towns. This major change is the backdrop for this novel, in which we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. The story begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens in Kate’s small Midlands town. Kate’s a budding detective with her own business, Falcon Investigations. She thinks that there’s sure to be crime to investigate at the mall, so she spends a great deal of time there. Then one day she goes missing. Despite a massive search, she’s never found. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt starts to see a strange image on his security camera – a girl who looks a lot like Kate. By chance, he meets Lisa Palmer, Assistant Manager at the mall’s music store, and the two form an awkward sort of friendship. Each in their own way, they go back to the past, and we learn what happened to Kate. Throughout the novel, we see the impact of the change from the ‘High Street’ concept of shopping to the ‘mall’ concept. A lot of people like it; many people hate and fear it. But everyone’s impacted by it.

Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond introduces to Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Avon and Somerset Police. He’s old-fashioned in a lot of ways, and one of them is his view of what detection really is. When the body of former television star Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman is discovered in Chew Valley Lake, Diamond and his assistant, John Wigfull, investigate. Diamond is firmly convinced that cases are best solved through ‘legwork,’ talking to witnesses, and getting evidence. He has little patience for computer reports and other technology, as he feels that nothing beats old-fashioned sleuthing. One of the sub-plots in this novel is the tension between Diamond and those who feel that computers are a critical part of modern police work. Among other things, this novel shows the inexorable advance of computer technology and modern forensics techniques. It makes Diamond uneasy, but that change has transformed the way the police find answers.

A great deal of Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses take place in 1966 South East London. It’s a time of great social upheaval, including changes in the roles of women, experimentation with drugs and sex, and of course, all sorts of new forms of music. Caught up in this time of change are teenage sisters Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan. They’ve been raised as ‘good girls’ from the working class; Bridie in particular is devoted to her Roman Catholic beliefs, and has an old-fashioned approach to life. But the two girls are fascinated by the music and the fashions of the times. So they wangle their mother’s permission to go dancing one Friday night at the Palais Royale. That evening ends in tragedy, and has a permanent impact on everyone involved. Throughout the novel, we see how unsettling some of the social changes are. While some people are excited about the new fashions, lifestyles, and social roles, there are others who want to keep the status quo.

There’s an interesting look at major social change in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. He’s a police detective in Madras (today’s Chennai) in the early 1920’s, the last years of the British Raj. There are many people who are pushing for Indian Home Rule, with all of the political and social changes that would bring. But there are plenty of people who like the status quo. Sometimes, it’s because they benefit from it. Other times it’s because they’re comfortable with it. Either way, that tension adds a great deal to the series. Le Fanu himself accepts that Home Rule will come at some point soon, and he’s ready to adjust to it. On the other hand, Arthur Jepson, Madras Commissioner of Police, is against Home Rule, and sees nothing but anarchy coming from it. It makes for an interesting difference (among many) between the men.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s 12 Rose Street. Political scientist and former academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve gets involved in a major controversy over the Racette-Hunter Centre. Located in Regina’s impoverished North-Central district, Racette-Hunter is intended to benefit the community, but there are plenty of people who don’t want that change. Joanne’s husband, Zack Shreve, is running for mayor of Regina, and he’s the one who spearheaded Racette-Hunter. So both Joanne and Zack are affected when it seems that someone is trying to sabotage both his campaign and the project.

And that’s the thing about change. It makes a lot of people uneasy. But change is inevitable, and a lot of changes can be good. That tension can make for a very interesting thread in a mystery plot.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s This is the Time.   

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Peter Lovesey, Steph Avery

Ballad For F. Scott Fitzgerald*

gatsbyAs this is posted, it would have been F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 120th birthday. His best-known work, The Great Gatsby, has been examined from a number of different perspectives, and it’s widely considered his finest novel (although, speaking strictly for me, Tender is the Night is excellent, too, if bleak). For years, it’s been part of school curricula, and sometimes students groan about having to read it.

I wonder what they might think about the novel if it was taught as a crime novel. There’s a real argument, I think, that there are several elements of the crime novel, in particular the noir novel, in The Great Gatsby. That may not have been Fitzgerald’s primary goal when he wrote it, but I think those elements are there.

To begin with the obvious, there’s a murder in the novel. Granted, it doesn’t come until close to the end of the story, but we see the buildup of tension and conflict that leads to it. And the motive for the murder falls out naturally from the story. There’s an investigation (admittedly, it takes up very little space in the novel) that shows how witnesses with an agenda respond to police questions.

That part of the novel also shows how social class and wealth can impact the way a crime is reported, and what happens to the people involved. Those with money and privilege don’t get the same treatment as do those without those advantages. We see that in all sorts of modern crime novels, too; I’m sure you could name many more examples of that than I could.

There’s also an accidental death in the novel, and a cover-up of what really happened; that, too, is an element we often see in crime novels. Along with the cover-up, we have a false confession from someone who’s willing to take the blame for what happened. What’s interesting, too, is the terrible consequences of that willingness. If you look at noir crime fiction, you see plenty of examples of stories where a character takes the blame for a crime, perhaps with good reason, but pays a terrible price for that.

There are other elements, too, that we often see in noir novels. For example, there’s quite a lot of betrayal in The Great Gatsby. Daisy Buchanan betrays both her husband, Tom, and Jay Gatsby. And Tom Buchanan’s not exactly upstanding either; he’s having an affair with Myrtle Wilson. There’s a larger betrayal, too, in the novel. The members of the upper-crust group that Gatsby so wants to accept him have their own way of being cruel, and that plays a role in the novel as well.

As is the case with many crime novels, and, in particular, noir novels, the characters in The Great Gatsby are deeply flawed. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, through whose eyes we see the rest of the characters. Most of them are mercenary, and some are downright abusive. And several of them (including Gatsby) have their secrets to hide. They can be very cruel, and only Carraway seems to have any ‘moral compass’ or personal integrity.

There’s also the matter of the way the story turns out. In noir stories, we may find out the truth behind a murder or other crimes, but that doesn’t tend to make things any better. And noir stories don’t generally end very happily. That’s the case with The Great Gatsby. Readers know who’s responsible, both for the accidental death and the murder. But the end of the story doesn’t put things right again, if I can express it that way. Knowing the truth doesn’t solve anything.

The Great Gatsby doesn’t, perhaps, have the level of physical brutality that we see in some other noir novels. But there’s certainly violence in the story; and there’s no great outcry against it among many of the characters. It’s also worth noting that there’s plenty of using, betraying, and lack of what most of us think of as morality.

In that last sense, The Great Gatsby could be argued to resemble some of Raymond Chandler’s work. There’s an Everyman sort of protagonist, who has his own personal integrity and sense of what’s right. He encounters a group of decadent, wealthy people who have neither; and the story shows how he interacts with those people, and what the outcomes of their stories are. Of course, there are many differences, too, but we can see elements of that sort of noir story in The Great Gatsby.

Perhaps that’s part of the legacy of both the novel and its author. The Great Gatsby has earned its place as an important piece of literature. But it also fits into the category of crime fiction – noir, most likely – as well. And one might make the argument that there are other categories of story that could include it as well.

What do you think? Do you see the novel as a piece of crime fiction? Do you think it has those elements?

 

ps. Sorry, there’s no green light at the end of that dock…

 
 
 

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

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Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling*

fear-of-the-darkWe all have our fears, and sometimes even phobias. One of the more common fears people have is fear of the dark. For those people, the scene in the ‘photo you see isn’t peaceful or romantic. It’s frightening. If you think about it, fear of the dark is understandable. Things and places look different in the dark, even if they’re familiar. Shadows can take on different dimensions and look a lot more threatening. And if you consider our origins as a species, there are certainly predators that came (and still come) out at night. So a heightened feeling of danger at night probably made sense. And plenty of people still prefer daylight.

That instinctive reaction to the dark plays a role in crime fiction, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Among other things, weaving fear of the dark into a story allows the author to create a tense atmosphere, and tap readers’ instincts. What’s more, adding in a fear of the dark can make for an interesting layer of character development.

Agatha Christie made use of that instinctive fear of the dark in And Then There Were None. In that novel, a group of people is invited for a trip to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation. When they arrive, they’re surprised to learn that their host isn’t there. But they settle in as best they can. After dinner on that first night, each is accused of having been responsible for at least one other death. Just about everyone protests innocence; but later that evening, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The next morning, another is found dead. It’s soon clear that there’s a murderer on the island, and that the survivors are going to have to find out who it is if they’re to stay alive. At one point, a storm cuts off power, and everyone is affected. Even the more stalwart among the guests feel the need to keep the candles lit, and that feeling adds a real layer of tension to the story.

We see a similar situation in Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month. In that novel, a well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in the small Québec town of Three Pines. During her stay, she’s persuaded to hold a séance. The first attempt isn’t a success, so another is scheduled during the Easter break. It’s to be held at the old Hadley house, which fans of this series will remember. The atmosphere of the house is eerie enough (if you follow the series, you’ll know what I mean). And when everyone arrives, it’s only lit by candles:
 

‘The darkness seemed darker, and the flickering flames threw grotesque shadows against the rich wallpaper.’
 

The setting is creepy enough, but everything turns much worse when Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies of what turns out to be an overdose of a diet drug. The darkness, and our sense that it’s dangerous, is used effectively here.

Sometimes, fear of the dark can be a helpful clue to a person’s character. In one plot thread of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Hypothermia, for instance, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur gets interested in the death of a woman named Maria. The first theory of the crime is that she hung herself out of despondence at the death of her mother, Leonóra, with whom she was extremely close. But Erlendur learns something very interesting: Maria was afraid of the dark, so she didn’t go out at night. Why, then, would she have left the house during the night to hang herself? It doesn’t quite add up for Erlendur and he pursues the case more deeply.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace introduces readers to Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s been devastated by the death of her beloved husband, Stefan, and the trauma has had some powerful impacts on her. She is afraid of the dark, so she always keeps her home well-lit, even when she’s sleeping. Still, she functions well enough professionally, and has a stable list of clients. Then one day, she gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. What’s worse, someone manages to get her case notes, so all of her confidential sessions are now accessible to her stalker. It’s not long before she is sure that someone is watching her; now, the very lights that make her feel safe at night may actually be making her more vulnerable. Matters get far worse when the body of a client, Sara Matteus, is found in the water on Bergman’s property. And there’s a suicide note that links the death to Bergman. At first, she is a suspect. But soon enough, it’s clear she’s being framed. So, she has to work to find out who the killer is and why she’s being set up.

R.J. Harlick’s sleuth is Meg Harris, who inherited a property called Three Deer Point, in Outaouais, in Western Québec. Meg’s recently left an abusive relationship, so when the series starts (with Death’s Golden Whisper), she’s still dealing with that trauma. And her ex-husband, Gareth, is not as eager to let go of their relationship as Meg is. It all makes for a great deal of stress, which isn’t made any easier when Meg gets caught up in a land rights dispute and a case of multiple murder. One of the lasting effects of being with an abusive partner is that Meg is afraid of the dark. It doesn’t completely debilitate her, but it’s definitely there.

And that’s the thing about fear of the dark. It may not be completely debilitating, but for a lot of people, it’s real. And for some people, it’s incapacitating.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buck Ram, Morty Nevins, Al Nevins, and Artie Dunn’s Twilight Time.

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