In The Spotlight: Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crime novels that feature archaeologists allow the author tell the story of a dig, and the mystery that may be going on there. At the same time, they allow the author to tell a story from the past. As the archaeology team uncovers different finds, the reader can learn about the people who lived in that place, while at the same time following the present-day events. That’s the sort of dual story that Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel.

In the present time, contract archaeologist Chloe Davis, her business partner, Bill, and a group of their archaeology students travel to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They’re there to excavate the remains of a religious community that burnt down in the 1880s. For Chloe, it’s a homecoming, since she grew up in the area, and her family has farmed the land for many years. But it’s not destined to be a pleasant reunion with family and friends.

For one thing, the local community is not pleased about the excavation. That includes Chloe’s cousin Shane, who belongs to the River Haven Consortium. That’s a development group that wants to subdivide the land into lifestyle blocks. There’s a stipulation, though, that the mission must be properly excavated before the plans can go ahead. Chloe, Bill, and the team have just a short (and grudgingly granted) time to do their jobs before the land gets developed. And there are people who don’t want them to even get started. In fact, more than once, there’s sabotage to the dig site, and a few scuffles.

For another thing, the weather doesn’t help. A spate of rain slows everything down, making it harder for the dig team to get done the work within the time they agreed. This shortens tempers on both sides. Still, the team perseveres.

As the excavation continues, Chloe and the team discover more buried at the site than a burned-out shell of a building. And as they slowly unravel the truth about what really happened to the members of the religious community, they also find that there are some unexpected connections to the present day. And someone doesn’t want them to find out what those connections are.

Because the book tells two stories in two timelines, readers follow along both in the present day and in the late 1880s. Readers who prefer to follow only one timeline will notice this. The present-day timeline is told in narrative form, in the present tense, for the most part. The 1880s timeline is told through a series of journal entries. Very slowly, readers learn what the link is between the two timelines, so that the two stories do link up.

And the pacing is an important element in this novel. There are moments of action, and real danger. But this isn’t a fast-paced thriller. Readers who prefer a more leisurely pace to a novel will appreciate that the story unfolds little by little. And, as a side note, the violence in the novel is not brutal or extended.

The story plays out in small-town New Zealand, both in the past and in the present, and Fowler places the reader there. This is the sort of community where everyone knows everyone, and where family roots are deep. And, as the stories play out, we see how the network of relationships impacts the characters. That network can’t help drawing Chloe into the mystery, even if her archaeological interest didn’t.

The present-day story is told from Chloe’s point of view (first person), so we get to know her character. She is a skilled archaeologist, happily married to a police officer, and the mother of two girls. It’s hard for her to be away from her family, but she keeps in touch with them by telephone, and does visit home during one weekend. There is some wit in the novel, including one sub-plot in which one of her daughters goes through some of the extremes (in this case, Goth to evangelical Christian) that teens often experience. Chloe’s husband, Jim, is a good and loving father, but he has his own job to do, so her absence is hard on him, too. Still, it’s not spoiling the story to say that he’s there when she needs him.

This isn’t to say, though, that Chloe is the stereotypical ‘damsel in distress.’ Readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate the fact that Chloe is smart and resourceful. She gets into difficult situations, but she finds a way through them. She makes mistakes and is vulnerable, as we all are, but she’s also not afraid to get her jeans thoroughly muddied and do what it takes to keep her students safe.

The story from the late 1880s is told (in first person) by a young girl named Charity, whose mother brings her to a religious community run by a man named Brother Jack. As the journal entries go on, we learn what brought them there, what has kept them there, and what it’s like to live in such a place. Life is hard, especially in a spartan religious enclave, and what little there is, is divided up among all of the members. Everyone does a share of work (crafts for sale, farm products, keeping house, doing maintenance, etc.), and there are communal places for eating and sleeping. It’s an interesting look at what a religious community might have been like at that time.

But this is not an ordinary group of people who’ve decided to give worldly goods. There are secrets at the community, and they have their impact many, many years later. As the journal goes on, and we learn what those secrets are, the dig team gets closer to the truth in the present day. And we learn what links the two timelines.

What Remains Behind tells two stories about the same small New Zealand community. It features two protagonists who are linked in ways they don’t know, and shows how, as Chloe puts it,
 

‘Everything leaves a trace. Nothing disappears.’
 

But what’s your view? Have you read What Remains Behind? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 30 January/Tuesday, 31 January – Murder in Bollywood – Shadaab Amjad Khan

Monday, 6 February/Tuesday 7 February – In the Woods – Tana French

Monday, 13 February/Tuesday, 14 February – The Hidden Man – Robin Blake

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Filed under Dorothy Fowler, What Remains Behind

I’m Going to Post it For the World to See*

social-media-and-crime-fiction-reading-and-writingIn case you hadn’t known about it, Mystery Thriller Week is an annual event, taking place this year from 12-22 February. It’s designed to bring together crime fiction authors, bloggers, and readers in an online festival. There’ll be all sorts of events, including author interviews, book reviews, advice for writers, and lots more. If you’re on Facebook, you can get involved in the events there. You can also check it out on Twitter. Even if you’re not, you can join the fun, right here.

I’m so pleased and excited and honoured that I’ve been asked to do a Mystery Thriller Week post as a part of the run-up to the big event. Please come and visit me at the Mystery Thriller Week site, where I’ll be talking about the way social media impacts what readers and authors do, and how they interact. And as you’ll be there anyway, check out some of the great events coming your way. You’ll want to be a part of it!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dec3’s We’re All Friends.

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For Iago*

iago-charactersOne of the best-known fictional villains is Shakespeare’s Iago. As you’ll know, Iago plans his boss and friend Othello’s downfall, even as he seems to be Othello’s ally. Iago secretly works in the background, pulling proverbial strings to manipulate situations and further his own agenda.

Iago may be one of the most famous such villains, but he’s hardly the only one. There are plenty of Iago-like characters in crime fiction. Sometimes, they turn out to be the killer in a whodunit type of crime novel. But even when they don’t, they can be treacherous. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting characters, though.

Agatha Christie mentions Iago in Murder in Mesopotamia. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner, who accompanied her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, to a dig a few hours from Baghdad. As is his custom, Poirot tries to get a sense of the victim’s personality, so that he can learn who might have wanted to kill her. One character describes Louise as ‘a kind of female Iago,’ who enjoyed causing drama and setting people against each other. That’s not really the reason she’s murdered. But it’s an important part of her personality.

In one thread of Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege, former police detective-turned-PI Dana Cutler is hired to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh and find out where she goes, whom she sees, and what she does. Cutler’s not sure why Washington’s top power brokers would be interested in a ‘nobody’ like Walsh, but the fee is generous. At first, not much happens. But then one night, Walsh parks her car at a local mall, is picked up in another car, and travels to a remote house. Cutler follows, and is shocked to find that Walsh’s meeting is with US President Christopher Farrington. With such highly-placed people involved, Cutler decides to quit the job. But it’s not that easy. The next morning, Walsh is found dead in her car. And some very ruthless people discover that Cutler took surveillance ‘photos of Walsh’s meeting with the president. Now, she’s going to have protect herself as best she can. Throughout this novel, there’s a character who maliciously manipulates a number of situations from the background, and it’s interesting to see how that character’s machinations play out.

Peter James’ Dead Simple introduces Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace. He and DI Glenn Branson are faced with a missing person case when Ashley Harper contacts them. It seems that her fiancé, Michael Harrison, went missing after a ‘stag night’ prank. At first, Branson and Grace wonder whether it’s a case of a groom-to-be getting ‘cold feet’ about the upcoming wedding. But Ashley is beautiful, smart and accomplished. There’s no reason anyone can see that her fiancé wouldn’t want to marry her, and Harrison had seemed very much in love and looking forward to the wedding. The team wants to find out what happened during the ‘stag night,’ but all but one of the people who were with Harrison were killed in a terrible accident. That one, injured in the same accident, is in a coma. There’s a chance that Harrison’s best friend, and best man, Mark Warren, might know something. But he was out of town, and didn’t make it back until after Harrison went missing. The more the team looks into Harrison’s disappearance, the less it looks like a stupid stag prank gone badly wrong. What they don’t know is that there’s a character who’s been behind the scenes, manipulating things and setting people against each other. And that ‘Iago’ is a formidable opponent.

In Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders, Dr. Hilla Driver decides to host a sumptuous ‘foodie weekend’ party. The invited guests are, for the most part, members of Mumbai’s glitterati. But among them is also a friend and former police detective, Lalli.  In part, the aim of the party is to show Hilla’s guests the beautiful home she’s recently inherited. In part it’s to celebrate the upcoming eighteenth birthday of her niece, Ramona. At the urging of her cook, Tarok Ghosh, Hilla wants to make this weekend absolutely perfect, and
 

‘‘…put this place on the culinary map.’’
 

To that end, Tarok has planned a special, seven-course meal, and everyone’s excited about it. Then, on the night of the big dinner, Tarok prepares special, custom-made appetizers for each guest. It’s soon clear from these dishes that each guest is hiding at least one secret, and that Tarok knows what those secrets are. There was already some friction among the guests, but this makes matters far, far worse. Late that night, Tarok is murdered. Lalli begins to investigate, and she finds that Tarok’s desire to stir up trouble turned out to be his undoing.

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse. Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help investigate the murder of Angel Macritchie. That murder bears a lot of resemblance to one MacLeod’s already investigating, and it’s hoped that, if it is the same killer, joining forces with the Lewis police will help to catch the murderer. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, as he was raised on Lewis. But it’s not a happy prospect; he had his reasons for leaving. As MacLeod investigates, he also has to face his own past. And that turns out to have real consequences. He learns that someone has been manipulating events behind the scenes, much as Iago does.

Characters such as Iago may not be overtly malicious. And, in crime fiction, they may not even turn out to be murderers. But they’re almost always dangerous. And they can add suspense to a crime story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by S.J. Tucker.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kalpana Swaminathan, Peter James, Peter May, Phillip Margolin

The Call of the Mountains, the Call of the Alps*

alpsIt’s the time of year when a lot of people enjoy cold-weather sports. And what better place than the Alps? There’s stunning scenery, all sorts of hiking, skiing and skating activities, après-skis, and lovely places to stay. And, since the Alps extend to eight different countries, there are all sorts of languages spoken and cultural traditions.

But if you think that means the Alps are safe and peaceful, think again. If you look at crime fiction, you see all sorts of examples that prove otherwise. Warm clothes and a cheery hearth don’t always keep people safe…

In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, we are introduced to Anne Meredith. During a winter trip to Switzerland, she meets an enigmatic man named Mr. Shaitana. As she puts it,
 

‘I didn’t know him well at all. I always thought he was a most frightening man.’
 

But he has a certain macabre appeal, and he does have very interesting parties. About nine months later, back in England, Anne is invited to dinner at Mr. Shaitana’s home. Also invited are seven other people. Four of them (including Hercule Poirot) are sleuths. The others are people Mr. Shaitana hints have committed murder. After dinner, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the game, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. It’s now clear that he was right about at least one person in the group, and that person wasted no time keeping him quiet. Poirot works with the three other sleuths to find out who the killer was. And, in the process, they find out some truths about the other guests, too. In this case, that meeting in Switzerland ended up drawing Anne Meredith into a murder case.

Scotland Yard detective Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, take a trip to the Italian Alps in Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski. They’re planning to stay at the Bella Vista Hotel in Santa Chiara for a holiday, which Henry is combining with a bit of investigating. Right from the time they arrive at the hotel, there’s tension among some of the guests. But everyone seems determined to have a good time. Then, one evening, several of the hotel guests are taking the chair lift from the village of Santa Chiara up to the hotel. On the way up, they see the other chair lift going down. In it is the body of one of the hotel guests, Austrian-born businessman Fritz Hauser. Capitano Spezzi and his team investigate the murder. Later, when he’s discovered Henry Tibbetts’ profession, Spezzi begins to work with him to find out who the killer is. Oh, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that there’s a very dramatic ski-escape scene here.

Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour takes place in the French Alps. The residents of the towns of Ventebrune and Pierrefor are unsettled when nine sheep are discovered with their throats slashed. At first, it looks like the work of a wolf. But then, a sheep breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found murdered in one of her sheep pens. She’s been killed in the same way as the sheep were, and now, there are whispers that a werewolf is on the loose. Those who believe that story even think they know who the werewolf is: a loner named Auguste Massart. He seems to have disappeared, though, so the villagers decide to try to track him down so that they can find out the truth. But they’re not successful, and end up asking Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg to investigate. He travels to the Alps and looks into the matter. As you can imagine, there are no werewolves behind the deaths.

In Michael Dibdin’s Medusa, a group of Austrian cavers discover a decomposed corpse in a disused military tunnel in the Italian Alps. The body turns out to belong to Leonardo Ferrero, an Italian soldier who was said to have died in a freak air accident years earlier. The body is taken to the morgue, from whence it soon disappears. It doesn’t take long for it to be clear that there’s some sort of cover-up going on. The Interior Ministry suspects that something untoward may be going on, so they send Aurelio Zen to investigate. And it turns out that he has to peel back several layers of secrets and corruption to find out the truth about what happened to Ferrero, and how it’s related to a secret Italian military organization called Medusa.

And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. That novel begins in 1974 at a monastery in the Swiss Alps. An unnamed art restorer has come to the place to look at some frescoes in the chapel, with an eye to restoring them. During his stay, he meets an old man who’s living in the care home on the monastery’s property. One day, the old man promises to tell him a story – ‘a good story’ – in exchange for having it recorded. So, the art restorer buys some tapes and the old man begins his tale. The story concerns the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy to New York at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, the family did well. But then, patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco got into a bar fight and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, son of notorious gangster Tonio Lupo. The elder Lupo put a curse on the Franco family, saying that all three of Ben Franco’s sons would die at the age of forty-two, the age Luigi was when he was killed. The old man then relates the stories of the three sons and their fates as his listener records them. Years later, those recordings play a role in the story, which ends in modern times. And it all starts because of what’s supposed to be a harmless visit to the Alps.

See what I mean? The Alps are beautiful, and a visit there may seem wonderful, especially if you’re sweltering in summer heat or dying for a break from fog, cold rain or slush. But safe? I don’t know about that…

Thanks, Alpenwild, for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eluveitie’s The Call.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Fred Vargas, Michael Dibdin, Patricia Moyes

You’ll Feel Your Mind Slipping Away*

poe-horror-and-crimeAs this is posted, it would have been Edgar Allan Poe’s 208th birthday. Whether you’re a fan of Poe’s writing or not, it’s hard to deny his impact on literature and culture. Personally, I like it that the Baltimore (US) professional football team is called the Ravens.

Certainly, Poe had a tremendous influence on crime fiction. In fact, he is often regarded as the creator of modern detective fiction. His C. Auguste Dupin stories featured a detective in ways that hadn’t been done before. And fans can tell you that that he also created memorable horror stories.

What’s interesting about those horror stories is that they rely much more on psychological suspense and tension than on gore and violence. And, for many people, that psychological approach can build more tension, and is more frightening, than outright violence is.

Poe is by no means the only author to create stories with that element of psychological suspense, even horror. We see it quite a lot in crime fiction. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have retired from domestic service and opened their home to lodgers. They’re quite particular about the people they accept, so they haven’t had many lodgers. But one day, a stranger comes to ask about a room, and seems to be exactly the sort of lodger they want. Calling himself Mr. Sleuth, this new roomer pays his rent fully and promptly. He has quiet habits, too, and ‘speaks like a gentleman.’ The Buntings need the money, so they agree quickly to an arrangement. In the meantime, London is caught up in the news of a series of murders of young women, committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger. Robert Bunting, in particular, is as taken with this news as anyone is, and follows the details with interest. At first, his wife doesn’t want anything to do with stories of the murders. But slowly, and with growing horror, she begins to suspect that her new lodger may actually be the murderer. That creeping fear, and the hints (rather than actual scenes) of violence add a great deal of suspense to this story.

Shirley Jackson was noted for her ability to create eerie, frightening stories without gore. Fans can tell you that The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are both quite creepy novels. And then there’s her short story, The Lottery, which you can read right here. Do these stories count as crime fiction? Perhaps The Haunting of Hill House would be counted more as horror than as crime fiction. But We Have Always Lived in the Castle features arsenic poisoning and its consequences. And The Lottery….  I don’t want to spoil it in case you’ve not read it. But as far as I’m concerned, it includes a crime.

Daphne du Maurier also combined elements of horror and crime in her work, and much of the tension is psychological, rather than dependent on violence. In Jamaica Inn, for instance, Mary Yellan goes to live with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience Merlyn. Their home is a lonely inn on the moor in Cornwall, and it’s far from a warm, friendly place. The inn itself is eerie enough, and the more Mary finds out about the inn and some of its secrets, the eerier the story gets. There’s a real sense of horror as Mary discovers the truth about the inn. And there is some violence. But du Maurier relies much more on psychological suspense to build the tension and move the plot along.

Many people regard Stephen King as one of the masters of the modern horror story. But he has also used his skill at building eeriness and horror in the crime stories he writes. For instance, Delores Claiborne and Mr. Mercedes are certainly crime novels. But they also have elements of the horror story in them, too. There’s arguably an eerie sort of atmosphere, and the tension that builds is as much psychological as it is anything else. The same might be said of Misery. In all of those stories (and others King has written), there is violence – more than there is in some of the other examples I’ve mentioned here. But the violence isn’t the focus of the stories. Rather, it’s the psychological tension.

And I don’t think I could discuss that mix of crime and horror in fiction without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock’s film work. Several of his films are based on crime fiction, but even those that aren’t have that element of psychological suspense that really carries the plot along. And in some of those films, there really is very little violence. But they’re still suspenseful and eerie.

There are a lot of other authors (right, fans of, Hake Talbot, Patricia Highsmith and Pascal Garnier?) who have combined elements of horror with elements of the crime story to create eerie stories. It’s not easy to do that, especially if one doesn’t focus on gory violence. But when it’s done well, a dose of horror can add genuine suspense and creepiness to a crime story.

So, if you think about it, Poe didn’t just leave a legacy in terms of detective fiction (although he certainly did do that). He didn’t just leave a legacy of horror stories, either (although, of course, he did that, too). He showed how one might write a truly frightening, eerie story with a solid plot, but without resorting to a lot of gore.

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Don’t tell me it never rains in Southern California.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Alan Parsons Project’s The Cask of Amontillado. This track comes from their release Tales of Mystery and Imagination. All of the songs are Poe titles, and the songs themselves inspired by Poe’s stories.

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Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Hake Talbot, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Pascal Garnier, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King