Dr. X Will Build a Creature*

DollyAs I post this, today would have been Mary Shelley’s 219th birthday. As you’ll know, her most famous work, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, addresses an ethical question that’s challenged us for a very long time. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should do it? It’s not surprising this question would have come up at the time Shelley wrote this novel. Electricity had recently been channeled for human use, and it frightened a lot of people. And that wasn’t the only scientific development of the day, by any means. To many people, it must have seemed that it was all moving too quickly, in very dangerous directions. So Shelley’s cautionary tale makes sense given the era.

But it’s by no means the only story that addresses that question. We see it come up in crime fiction quite a lot, and it raises interesting ethical issues. And those issues can add a solid layer of suspense to a plot, and invite readers to stay engaged.

Agatha Christie’s play, Black Coffee, revolves around a potentially very dangerous scientific advance. Famous physicist Sir Claude Amory has developed a formula for an atomic bomb (the play was written in 1930, before this possibility became a reality). As you can imagine, the formula is worth a great deal of money, and Sir Claude has come to believe that someone in his family wants to steal it for that reason. And as we get to know the different people in his household, it’s not hard to see why he feels that way. He asks Hercule Poirot to travel to his country home at Abbot’s Cleve to find out who the guilty party is. Poirot and Captain Hastings make the trip, but by the time they arrive, it’s too late: Sir Claude has been poisoned, and the formula’s been stolen. The play itself isn’t regarded as one of Christie’s best works. However, it does raise the question of what we should do with the knowledge of how to make such a devastating weapon. Sir Claude wanted to provide it to the government in order to protect the country, but the question could be asked: should the information be available? It’s a difficult dilemma that US President Harry Truman faced some fifteen years later.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, we are introduced to Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children, Pete and Kim. The Eberharts make the move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. Housing’s less expensive, taxes are lower, schools are good, and it’s the perfect small town to raise a family. At first, things do seem to go well, and everyone settles in. Not long after the family’s arrival, Joanna makes a new friend, Bobbie Markowe. Little by little, Bobbie begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe her. And in any case, they’ve just moved, and the idea of moving again is out of the question. But then, Joanna learns to her dismay that Bobbie was right. Something sinister is going on in the town. Levin doesn’t specifically address the question of whether we should do something just because we can. But the novel does show what can happen when the wrong people have access to frighteningly successful technology.

The question of whether we should do something just because we can is explored in a slightly different way in Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Smilla Jaspersen is a half-Inuit Greenlander who’s now living in a Copenhagen apartment building. She’s terribly upset when ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in the same building, dies from what looks like a tragic accidental fall from the roof of the building. But Smilla isn’t so sure it was an accident. The evidence she sees in the snow suggests something else, and she starts to ask questions. The trail eventually leads back to Greenland, so Smilla gets a place as a maid/cleaner on an expedition ship that’s going there. That’s where she discovers the truth about Isaiah’s death. Some readers have said that the second half of this novel is a little more like a science fiction story than a murder mystery. Certainly it raises the question that a lot of science fiction does: should every scientific investigation be pursued? Are there some things we should leave alone?

Stefan Tegenfalk’s Anger Mode is the first of his trilogy featuring Stockholm County CID detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. In it, a series of brutal murders are committed, all by people who work in some capacity for the justice system. What’s even stranger is that none of the killers has any idea why the murder was committed. Gröhn gets assigned to the case, and soon finds that there are plenty of people, some in very high places, who don’t want him to solve the murders. In fact, his career nearly derails because of it. And in the end, we learn that one important element of this story (and of the trilogy, really) is the question of scientific developments and technology, and where they may lead. It’s a look at the issue within the thriller context.

Of course, lots of other thrillers do a similar thing. Robin Cook’s thrillers, for instance, often raise the question of medical ethics. Novels such as Godplayer, Coma, and Chromosome 6 explore some of what is possible in medicine and science. And they ask whether it’s in our interest to take those fields as far they can go.

Mary Shelley explored that issue in Frankenstein. Nearly 200 years later, we’re still wrestling with it. Every time we make a scientific, medical or technological advance, we are also faced with the question of whether that advance does more harm than good. It’s not an easy issue, which makes it a really intriguing element in a crime story.

ps. The ‘photo is of Dolly, the famous cloned sheep, and one of her offspring.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard O’Brien’s Science Fiction Double Feature.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Mary Shelley, Peter Høeg, Robin Cook, Stefan Tegenfalk

In The Spotlight: John Hart’s The Last Child*

>In The Spotlight: Kel Robertson's Smoke and MirrorsHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Thrillers take many different forms. Some are psychological thrillers, some are espionage stories, and some are international-conspiracy thrillers. But there are other sorts of thrillers with a smaller scope, if you will, but nonetheless have plenty of action and suspense. Let’s take a look at one such thriller today, and turn the spotlight on John Hart’s The Last Child.

Thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon has been devastated since his twin sister, Alyssa, disappeared. She was walking home one day when, from what the police know, she was likely pulled into a car. No-one’s seen her since; not even a body has been discovered. Alyssa’s disappearance has wreaked havoc on the family, too. Johnny’s mother, Katherine, is emotionally devastated and barely functioning (sometimes not even doing that well). His father, Spencer, has gone. It’s been a year, and although the case is still open, the police have made no progress. But Johnny hasn’t forgotten. He is determined to find Alyssa, or at least her body. He’s got a map of the area of North Carolina where his family lives, and a bicycle. And he has a plan for following every lead and every suspect.

One day, Johnny’s skipping school (not unusual for him), spending time down at a local river, when there’s a car accident on the bridge over the river. A man’s body hurtles over the bridge and lands near Johnny. The man dies, but just before he does, he tells Johnny,
 

‘‘I found her…the girl that was taken.’’
 

Johnny soon sees that the man’s death was not an accident, and that whoever killed him could still be around, so he runs. But he is convinced that the man found his sister, and thinks she may still be alive.

Detective Clyde Hunt has also been looking for Alyssa. He investigated her disappearance, and has a relationship with the family. In fact, there are people who say he’s gotten too close to the case. He knows that Johnny is searching, too, and tries to dissuade him. There’s no telling what sort of danger the boy could run into, and as it is, he takes more risks than he should. But Johnny is determined to get to the truth.

Hunt and his team learn that the dead man is David Wilson, a local college professor. So they start looking into Wilson’s background. It’s soon clear enough that he wasn’t responsible for Alyssa’s disappearance, so the team starts tracing his last days, to see where he might have been, and with whom.

In the meantime, another young girl, Tiffany Shore, has gone missing. In the desperate search for Tiffany, Hunt and Johnny Merrimon are both hoping to find links to Alyssa’s disappearance. Each in a different way, they go after answers. In the end, each will have to face some very painful truths when they find out what really happened to Alyssa and to Tiffany.

This is a thriller, with the sort of suspense and tension you’d expect from that sub-genre. For instance, Johnny’s search for Alyssa leads him to some very dangerous places. And there are some ruthless people who are determined to keep certain things secret. And whoever killed David Wilson will probably not hesitate to kill again. There are plot twists, too, and surprises, as many thrillers have.

All of that said, though, the pacing isn’t lightning-quick. And we learn a great deal about the main characters. Johnny is, like most people his age, caught between childhood and adulthood. He feels he has to be brave and find his sister, and sometimes he’s surprisingly shrewd and mature. Other times, we see how vulnerable he is. At different parts of the story, he rides his bicycle – and illegally drives a car. He feels the need to take care of his mother – and still wants his mum. Johnny’s never been one of ‘the popular kids,’ and since Alyssa’s disappearance, he’s become even more of a loner. And yet, he’s observant, he’s smart, and he has to endure more than what a lot of thirteen-year-olds could.

For his part, Hunt knows Johnny, and likes him. He admires the way Johnny tries to look after his mother, and respects the boy’s grit and determination. At the same time, he knows better than Johnny does just how ugly the world can be, and he’s worried for the boy’s safety. It doesn’t make matters easier that Hunt has a strained relationship with his own son, Allen, and a great deal of it has to do with Hunt’s involvement in this time-consuming stressful case.

Another element in this novel is the setting. The novel takes place in small-town/rural North Carolina, where people know each other. The characters are inter-connected, and those relationships play a role in what happens. In terms of the physical setting and the cultural setting, Hart places readers there. And in that sense, there’s also an element of the small-town-with-secrets context. In fact, several of the characters know things that they’re not telling.

The main plot in the novel concerns the search for the two missing girls. So as you can imagine, there is the element of possible (or even real) harm coming to young people. I can say without spoiling the story that Hart doesn’t go into gory, gruesome detail. But readers who do not like to read stories where harm could come to children will want to know that that plot point comes up.

The writing style isn’t the clipped, almost brusque style featured in some thrillers. In fact, it’s what you might call literary. There’s plenty of action and tension, but there’s also narrative description. Readers who prefer more succinct stories will notice this (my edition clocked in at 531 pages).

The Last Child is the story of a desperate search for truth, and for two missing girls. It features a detective who’s on a razor’s edge, and young boy who simply will not give up until he finds his sister. It takes place in a distinctly small-town/rural location, and shows the devastation wrought when a family member disappears. But what’s your view? Have you read The Last Child? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton

Monday, 12 September/Tuesday, 13 September – Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog – Boris Akunin

Monday, 19 September/Tuesday, 20 September – In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer Fleming

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Filed under John Hart, The Last Child

Why Did Those Days Ever Have to Go?*

Historical NuancesThe world changes, sometimes very quickly. So it’s easy to forget what life was like in the not-too-distant past. That’s one advantage of reading well-written novels from different eras: they offer a look at life at a certain time and in a certain place. And sometimes they include subtle nuances that really add to the atmosphere of a story – nuances we don’t really think about unless we compare them with our lives today.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when one of the other passengers, Marie Morisot, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other people on board the flight, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have a limited supply of suspects. Along with the mystery in this novel (who killed Marie Morisot, how, and why), readers also get a sense of what airline travel was like at the time (this book was first published in 1935). Planes were smaller, full meals were served, and flight was much noisier than we see today. There were many other differences, too, and Christie shares those nuances.

Pheobe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, first published in 1931, is the first in her series featuring Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo. In the novel, Prudence Whitsby and her niece Betsey are staying at their Cape Cod summer cottage to escape the heat and humidity of the city. Staying nearby is famous writer Dale Sanborn. One night, Prudence’s cat escapes and she trails it to Sanborn’s cabin, where she discovers that he’s been murdered. The police are alerted and local sheriff Slough Sullivan takes charge of the investigation. Soon enough, the evidence points to Bill Porter, a friend of the Whitsby family, as the guilty party. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work’ Asey May doesn’t think his employer is the killer. So he works with Prudence to find out who really murdered Sanborn and why. Besides the mystery, this novel explores the ‘summer culture’ of that era, before people had air conditioning. Anyone who could afford to do so would go to the shore or the mountains to escape the city heat, and we see that here. We also see what life was like in the sort of small seaside town where summer visitors congregated.

Technology has arguably created a revolution in the way detectives get information. But it wasn’t very long ago, when you think about it, that PIs didn’t have those resources (neither, really, did police). And we see that in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels. The first Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only, was published in 1982. In it, Warshawski is hired to find a young woman, Anita Hill, who’s gone missing. She starts with a visit to Anita’s boyfriend, Pete Thayer. But when she gets there, she discovers that Pete’s been murdered. Now Warshawski’s faced with a missing person case that involves murder and fraud. As she investigates, readers get a sense of PI work in the days before the Internet, mobile telephones and GPS navigation. Warshawski uses telephone books, maps, lots of ‘legwork,’ face-to-face interviews, and so on as she solves cases.

Readers also see those nuances in Mike Ripley’s Angel series. Beginning with 1988’s Just Another Angel, the series features jazz musician, unlicensed cab driver, and occasional PI Fitzroy MacLean Angel. In the first novel, Angel meets Josephine ‘Jo’ Scamp. The two enjoy each other’s company and the evening ends in a one-night stand. Both agree that that’s all it is, so Angel doesn’t think much more about it until five months later when he sees Jo again. This time, she wants his help. It seems that a former friend, Carol Flaxman, has made off with some credit cards and a valuable emerald pendant, and Jo wants them back. Angel is very reluctant to take the case on, but in the end, he’s persuaded. He tracks Carol down and gets Jo’s property back, but that’s only the beginning of his adventures. As it turns out, this case puts Angel up against the police (who suspect Jo of criminal activity), Jo’s husband (who is not someone you want angry with you) and a very large and angry bouncer with an agenda of his own. As Angel searches for Carol, and as he tries his best to get out of the mess he’s in, we see how PIs worked in the days before easy access to information. Incidentally, readers also see the nuances of life as a London jazz musician of that time. There was no Facebook with band pages; there was no Twitter to put out the word about a gig. So musicians had to learn of gigs, and spread the news of their own events, via word of mouth – and flyer.

Sometimes a novel or a series captures the entire atmosphere of an era. That’s the case in Len Deighton’s Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom novels. In Berlin Game, which was published in 1983, Sansom is sent from MI5’s London Central offices to Berlin. It seems that one of MI5’s agents, code-named Brahms Four, wants to come to the West. Sansom’s task is to persuade Brahms Four to stay in place for just a little longer. In the meantime, MI5 has an even bigger problem. There’s a mole at what appears to be a very high level. So Sansom has two serious challenges: solving the Brahms Four issue, and finding the mole before it’s too late. This novel, and the others in the series, show the nuances of the Cold War in everyday life. What’s more, they show small details of what espionage was like at this point in that conflict. The atmosphere and culture of London and Berlin during the early 1980s is an important part of the novel, and readers get a look at it.

And that’s the thing about some novels and series. They give readers a real sense of the nuances and subtleties of an era. And it’s those small things, like landlines, airline food, and paper maps, that really show (or remind) readers of what life was like. Which novels have given you a real sense of an era?

ps. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned historical novels. To me, that’s a different way of looking at a time and place.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Wonder’s I Wish.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Sara Paretsky, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Len Deighton, Mike Ripley

Instant Karma’s Going to Get You*

Mending KarmaIn Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s called karma – bringing upon oneself the inevitable results of one’s own actions. Good deeds tend to mend one’s karma; bad deeds have the opposite effect. Western spiritual traditions have different concepts, but there’s still the underlying principle that what you do comes back to you, if you will.

Many people believe in karma, or something similar to it. So it’s not surprising that we see a lot of fictional characters who try to redeem themselves, especially if they’ve done things of which they’re particularly ashamed. Self-redemption can make for an interesting layer of character development. And it’s effective as a source of conflict in a story, as well. It’s an appropriate fit for crime fiction, too, if you think about it.

One such character is G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau. When we first meet him in The Blue Cross, he is a most accomplished and notorious international thief. In this story, he’s after a silver cross covered in precious blue stones. The cross is the property of Father Brown, who’s taking it to a gathering of priests. As the story goes on, we see how Flambeau is pitted against Father Brown and against Valentin, head of the Paris police. As time goes on, Flambeau decides to quit his life of crime. He becomes instead a private investigator – and maintains a friendship with Father Brown. One can’t say that Flambeau makes the conscious decision to mend his karma; still, it’s clear that he sees a way to redeem himself. And he becomes quite good at what he does, too.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we are introduced to Davide Auseri. For the past year, he’s been sunk in a deep depression, and spent most of his time drunk. His father has tried several remedies, including rehabilitation facilities, to help him, but nothing’s worked. Then, Davide’s father meets Dr. Duca Lamberti, who’s recently been released from prison, where he served time for euthanasia. Auseri hires Lamberti to try to help Davide, and Lamberti agrees. In the course of some rather unorthodox therapy, Lamberti learns the reason for Davide’s condition: he believes he’s responsible for the death of Alberta Radelli. A year ago, they met by chance and decided they liked one another’s company. After spending a day in Florence, though, Alberta begged him to take her with him, and not return her to Milan. Davide refused, and Alberta threatened to kill herself. He held firm, though, and she was later found dead of what’s been called a suicide. Lamberti comes to believe that the only way to help Davide is for him to redeem himself, if you will, by learning the truth about what happened to Alberta. So he and Davide look into the case. They find that the victim’s death had nothing to do with Davide. Although he doesn’t speak of it in terms of mending karma, Davide undertakes the investigation as a way to do some good after what he feels he’s done.

Fabio Montale, whom we first meet in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, is a Marseilles police officer. In fact, he patrols the area of Marseilles where he grew up. When Montale was young, he and his best friend Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, and their friend Manu, caused more than their share of trouble in town. One night, what started out as petty crime turned tragic, and that changed everything for Montale. Although he promised to remain loyal to his friends, he re-thought the course his life was taking. He first joined the army, and then returned to his old haunt as a cop. Now he’s trying to do some good as a sort of way to make things right. Then, Manu is murdered, and Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his death. When Ugo himself is killed, Montale feels a real obligation to find out what happened to his friends. It’s an interesting case of a man who knows he cannot take back the past, but wants to do his small part in the future.

Although he’s from a very different culture, John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep has a similar motivation in being a Bangkok police officer. Several years earlier, Sonchai and his friend, Pichai Apiradee, killed a drug dealer. Both were extremely remorseful about taking a life, and spent time at a monastery facing what they’d done. Being devout Buddhists, they wanted to mend their karmas. To do that, both became members of the Royal Thai Police. In this way, they would protect lives instead of taking them. Since the novels in this series are written from Sonchai’s point of view, we learn quite a lot about the Buddhist approach to doing right and mending karma.

And then there’s Maura Cody, a former nun who plays an important role in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. Mara left the convent for good reasons, and carries a burden of guilt for things that happened in her past. This is an important part of the reason she chooses to get involved when she happens to see something as she’s looking out of one of her windows. At first, she’s not sure she should get involved. But she wants a way to redeem herself – to do some good. So she reports what she sees, and becomes a critical witness to two cases that Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Garda Rose Cheney are investigating. Maura’s role in those cases doesn’t erase the past. But it does give her an opportunity to ‘do it right this time,’ if I may put it that way.

There are plenty of other fictional characters who are motivated by that sort of wish for self-redemption and mending karma. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).

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Filed under G.K. Chesterton, Gene Kerrigan, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Jean-Claude Izzo, John Burdett

Amen! ;-)

Clergy in Crime Fiction QuizWhether you have a set of religious beliefs or not, it’s hard to deny the impact of religion on our society – and on our crime fiction. And that’s got me in mind of…

 

 

 

…a quiz!  Oh, don’t look at me like that! It’s hardly my fault if you chose to visit this blog today, is it?  😉

 

Many crime novels and series feature members of the clergy and of religious orders. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your crime-fictional religious characters, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question with the correct answer, and see how many you get right.

 

Ready? Open the sacred text to begin… if you dare!😉

 

Sacred Text

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