What a Brave New World We Live in*

Limits of TechnologyIn Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot is talking to two young people about the brand-new world they want to create:

 

‘In your new world, my children, let there be freedom and let there be pity…that is all I ask.’

 

He touches on an important point. What should be the limits to our technological and sociological development? To put it another way, just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

It’s a complicated question and I don’t have the complete answer. But it’s addressed in a lot of novels including crime fiction. Let me just give you a few examples.

In Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Home Secretary Sir Derek O’Callaghan has prepared an Anarchy Bill which is specifically directed against leftist revolutionaries and their activities. One day he suffers a ruptured appendix during a speech in the House, and is rushed to a private hospital run by his physician Sir John Phillips. He is taken into surgery, but dies shortly after the procedure. At first it looks as though it’s a tragic case of ‘nothing the doctors could do.’ But it’s not long before it’s proven he was poisoned. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate the murder and soon find that there are several suspects. And because of the sequence of events, almost all of them had the opportunity. When Alleyn and Fox put the pieces of the puzzle together, they find that the killer believed that because something can be done, it should.

Several of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers also explore the limits of what medicine can and should do. To take just one example, there’s an interesting debate about stem cell research in Seizure. US Senator Ashley Butler has been an outspoken opponent of stem cell research. But when he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he knows that barring some sort of miracle, he will never achieve his dream of becoming President of the US. So he secretly contacts Dr. Daniel Lowell, who runs a biotechnology company that does stem cell work. The agreement that they work out is this: Butler will quietly withdraw his objection to stem cell research if Lowell operates on him. Plans are made to perform the controversial operation Lowell has in mind at the Wingate Clinic in the Bahamas. The surgery is carried out, but it has some frightening unforeseen consequences. This novel addresses both the important benefits and the potential terrible consequences of certain kinds of medical research and procedures.

One of the story arcs in Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy (Anger Mode, Project Nirvana, The Missing Link) has to do with a ‘wonder drug.’ Stockholm County CID Inspector Walter Gröhn and Detective Jonna de Brugge investigate what appear to be a series of killings that are committed for no apparent reason other than rage. That investigation leads to a much larger exploration as the novels go on of what science and biotechnology are capable of doing – and whether it should be done. The trilogy also explores the ramifications of the wrong people getting hold of certain kinds of technology.

In Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek, which takes place in 1957, Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin gets involved in a dangerous investigation that starts with a funeral. Berlin’s wife Rebecca asks him to speak to a friend of hers Beryl Moffit, whose husband Cyril recently died. There was an oddity about the funeral and Beryl isn’t exactly sure what to do about it. Berlin agrees to talk to her and soon finds himself drawn into something much larger than he thinks. What looks on the surface like odd procedures at a funeral home is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in a larger case of intrigue, high-level cover-ups and murder. And at the core of it all is a set of serious questions about whether ends justify means. Does being capable of doing something mean it should be done? And what are the larger consequences if it is done?

 These kinds of questions are also explored in William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, which takes place in pre-World War II Moscow. CID Captain Alexai Korolev and Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are asked to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. As it is, the matter is delicate because Azarov was working on a top-secret government project. But the detectives begin their investigation. Then there’s another murder; this time, the victim is someone Korolev and Slivka thought might be a suspect in Azarov’s murder. The Powers That Be have a theory about the killings, and that’s the one they want Korolev to ‘rubber stamp.’ But he and Slivka are fairly certain that it doesn’t explain everything. So they decide to continue with their investigations. In the end they uncover something both chilling and unexpected. And that discovery raises again the disturbing issue of the limits to which we should go.

Science, medicine and technology have moved us forward in critical ways. We need those fields, and supporting them is essential. But as crime fiction shows us, this raises some important questions. How do we support scientific and technological development, and at the same time retain our humanity if I may put it that way? How do we balance medical achievement with protecting individual people?  Just because we can push the button, so to speak, does this mean we should? The answers are not easy. What do you think?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Adrian Belew’s Brave New World.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Ngaio Marsh, Robin Cook, Stefan Tegenfalk, William Ryan

Well, It’s a Rainy Night in Paris and I’m Sitting by the Seine*

paris-riverseine9There’s something about Paris. Whether it’s the world-class food and wine, the art, the music or the fabled romance of the place, people are often drawn to that city. There’s something almost magical about it for some people. But besides everything else, Paris is a large, modern city. And there’s crime there, just as there is in other places. Let’s take a look at some crime fiction that takes place in Paris and you’ll see what I mean.

Although Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot makes his home in London, he travels to Paris too when it’s needed. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, Poirot is faced with an unusual case. Marie Morisot, a Paris moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle, suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It’s soon shown that the victim was poisoned and Chief Inspector Japp begins to investigate. The only possible suspects in this case are the other passengers, one of whom was Hercule Poirot. In fact, the jury at the coroner’s inquest suspects him of the crime. Poirot works with Japp and with French authorities to find out who the killer is, and part of the trail leads to Paris, where Madame Giselle lived and did business. In fact, Poirot finds several useful clues during his trip there.

Fans of Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret will know that he is a member of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris, the criminal investigation division of France’s Police Nationale. Maigret does of course investigate crimes that occur in the French countryside and in other French cities. But he and his wife live in Paris. Fans will know that he’s acquainted with just about every café and bar in the city, as that’s where he often does his best observation and deduction.

Also set in Paris are many of Fred Vargas’ Commissare Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg, also of the Police Nationale, works with a disparate group of people whom others might consider eccentric, even misfits. But he and his team actually form a very effective group of detectives. These novels have an almost surreal feel about them, but they also offer a picture of what it’s like to live and work in Paris. Adamsberg is an unusual sort of detective. He doesn’t necessarily follow obvious clues or go after obvious suspects. He also solves cases and settles problems in sometimes-unorthodox ways, to the occasional chagrin of his team members. But he and his team (including of course, Snowball the office cat) get there in the end.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer offers, among other things, an interesting look at the way Paris has become increasingly diverse in the last decades. Catherine Monsigny is a newly-minted attorney who volunteers for a group that works with undocumented immigrants who get into legal trouble. She has a full-time paid position too, but this volunteering gives her valuable experience. It’s also the way she learns of the case of Myriam Villetreix, an immigrant from Gabon who’s been accused of poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston. With support from her employer and mentor, Monsigny takes this case and prepares to defend Myriam. It turns out that this case will force Monsigny to confront a terrible incident from her own past. As a three-year-old, she witnessed her mother’s murder, which took place not far from where the Villetreix case is unfolding. The two cases aren’t, strictly speaking, related. But Monsigny finds the answers to both sets of questions. And in this novel, we get a solid sense of Paris as well as an interesting look at French jurisprudence.

We also get a look at modern-day Paris in Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman. This novel features Chief Nico Sirsky, head of the Paris CID La Crim’, and his team. The body of Marie-Hélène Jory is found in her Paris home. It’s not a typical robbery-with-murder sort of killing, and although the murder is brutal, there’s not much to go on in terms of evidence. Then there’s another murder. The second victim is Chloé Bartes, who is murdered in the same brutal way as the first victim. This time, the killer has left a message: seven days, seven women. Now the team sees that the murderer has a specific plan and that they’ll have to act fast if they’re to prevent more killings. Besides the murder plot itself, Molay also gives readers a look at the way a Paris criminal investigation of this magnitude is carried out, and how different agencies (police, crime scene experts, psychologists, the courts, etc.) work together.

There are also plenty of novels in which the protagonist travels to Paris, even if the main investigation takes place elsewhere. For instance, in Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime, Barcelona private investigators (and brothers) Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez are hired by powerful politician Lluís Font. He believes that his wife Lídia is having an affair, and he wants the brothers to find out if he is right. A week of following her produces no results, and the Martínez brothers are inclined to report to their client that he’s wrong about his wife. Then one evening they do get a possible lead that she may be hiding something, quite possibly an affair. Before they can follow up on that lead though, Lídia is poisoned. Her husband becomes the obvious suspect even though he is wealthy and powerful. So he insists that the Martínez brothers stay in his employ and find out who killed his wife. Although they’ve never investigated a murder before, the brothers agree. One key to this mystery is a painting that was done of Lídia by an artist who may in fact be her mysterious lover, if there was one. To track down the artist, the brothers travel to Paris. At first, the city doesn’t impress Eduard very much. It seems to have changed a lot since he was there many years earlier, and no longer has the appeal for him that it did. But Paris works magic on him as it does on a lot of people, and by the end of that short trip there, Eduard remembers what he loved so much about it. And in the end, the Martínez brothers find out who killed Lídia Font and why.

And that’s Paris for you. It’s got its share of crime, nasty history and secrets. But it’s got an irresistible appeal, delicious food and wine, and wonderful art and music. Little wonder so many stories and series are set there. I’ve only mentioned a very few. Your turn.

 

ps  Thanks to A Paris Guide for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Georges Simenon, Sylvie Granotier, Teresa Solana

For You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings*

Inspirational TeachersIf you’ve ever had a teacher who really made a positive difference in your life, you know how important that can be. In today’s world, some students spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents, and a skilled teacher has a great deal of insight into the characters of her or his students. Sometimes those insights can be very useful, too. Let me just share a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Much of Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The school is rocked one summer by several events. First, there’s the shooting death of games mistress Grace Springer. Then there’s the kidnapping of one of the students. Then there’s another murder. Throughout all of this, the school’s headmistress Honoria Bulstrode puts the welfare of her staff and pupils above everything else as she works with the police and later, with Hercule Poirot, to find out what’s behind all of these occurrences. Part of the story is told from her perspective, and in that, we see just how devoted she is to each student. She knows her pupils, she understands their strengths and needs and she has earned their respect.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to lexicographer and amateur detective Gideon Fell. In this novel, recent university graduate Tad Rampole has been advised by his mentor to visit Fell and he makes plans to do so. On his way to Fell’s home in Chatterham, Rampole meets Dorothy Starberth and becomes smitten with her. When he finally meets Fell, he learns an interesting fact about the Starberth family. For two generations, members of the family were Governors at nearby Chatterham Prison, which has now fallen into disuse. Although the family is no longer associated with the prison, they’ve retained one custom from those years. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, each Starberth heir spends the night in the Governor’s Room at the abandoned prison. While there, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions on a note that’s there. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin. His twenty-fifth birthday ends in tragedy though, when he is killed by what seems like a fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. Rampole has been keeping vigil with Fell, and the two of them work with Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold to find out who killed the victim and why. Throughout this novel we see how Rampole’s mentor and Gideon Fell both take a personal interest in the young man. Admittedly that’s not the main plot of the story, but it’s a thread that runs through it.

In Margaret Millar’s Mermaid, twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jasper visits the law offices of Smedler, Downs, Castleberg, MacFee & Powell. As she tells junior attorney Tom Aragon, she’s there to learn about her rights. Very quickly Aragon notices that Cleo is not like other young women; in fact, she has a form of mental retardation. She’s fairly high-functioning though, and seems to be doing well. She attends Holbrook Hall, an exclusive day school for students with certain special needs. When Cleo disappears, her older brother Hilton asks Aragon to find her and persuade her to return home. Aragon is no private investigator, but he agrees to ask some questions. One of the places he visits is Holbrook Hall, where he meets Rachel Holbrook, head of the school. She has a ‘dragon lady’ reputation, but it’s clear that she knows her students well and cares about them. Through her, he learns that the teacher who knows Cleo best is Roger Lennard. At first Aragon makes the obvious inference about Lennard’s interest in Cleo, but when he finds out that Lennard’s gay, he knows he’s wrong about that. What he does learn though is that it’s been Lennard who has supported Cleo’s drive towards understanding her rights and being independent. That new way of thinking plays a major role in the rest of the events of the story.

One of the plot threads in Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns concerns the murder of a high school shop teacher Eric Dorsey. Dorsey does his best to inspire his students to create things that are useful as well as aesthetically appealing. He cares about his students and is quick to encourage them. When he is murdered, there isn’t much to go on at first, but Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee find that his death is related to a missing teenager, a murder at an important ceremonial event, and some underhanded business dealings.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. Academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn may get exasperated with her students at times, but she is dedicated to them. We see that commitment in this novel, where Reed Gallagher, one of Kilbourn’s colleagues in the Department of Journalism is murdered. One key to the murder might be in the person of Kellee Savage, a journalism student who is also in Bowen’s class. When Kellee stops coming to class, Kilbourn gets concerned and asks around among her other students. Bit by bit she learns that Kellee had been out with some of them on the evening she disappeared. Kilbourn starts tracing the young woman’s movements and discovers that they’re closely related to Gallagher’s murder. As Kilbourn works with the students, we can see that she cares about them, wants to support them, and has high expectations for them. Here’s what one says:

 

‘Kibourn’s all right. She’s kinda like my coach – tough but generally pretty fair.’

 

It’s especially meaningful because it’s not said within Kilbourn’s earshot.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet Ilse Klein, who is a secondary school teacher. One of her most promising students is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. Even though she’s not supposed to ‘pay favourites’ among her students, she can’t help but be delighted in Serena’s promise and her passion for learning. For her part, Serena likes Ilse also and respects her. Although she doesn’t quite put it in these terms, she gets the vital message that she has worthwhile ideas, and that she can be somebody as the saying goes. For Serena, this is the first time an adult has really taken an interest in her. Then everything changes. Serena stops caring about school, stops coming to class and stops participating when she is there. Ilse is very concerned, and at one pivotal point, reports her concerns to the school’s counselor. That decision plays a critical role in the rest of the story, and Ilse’s concern for Serena is key when Serena disappears.

There are a lot of other novels in which a dedicated and caring teacher has a real influence on a student – in a positive way. And if you’ve ever had a teacher like that, you know it happens in real life too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Silbar and Larry Henry’s Wind Beneath My Wings, made perhaps most famous by Bette Midler, although it’s been recorded by many other artists too.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr, Margaret Millar, Paddy Richardson, Tony Hillerman

I Spoke to You in Cautious Tones*

MysteryWritersPodcastInterviewI’m truly honoured and excited to have been interviewed by Dean Abbott of Mystery Writers Podcast. If you’re interested in some of the background to my writing, where I am with my Joel Williams series and what I have to say about marketing, ‘rookie’ publishing errors and other writerly stuff, you can check out the podcast right here.

 

Thanks very much to Dean Abbott for interviewing me. While you’re visiting Mystery Writers Podcast, have a look around and check out Dean’s interviews with other authors.

 

 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s And So it Goes.

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In The Spotlight: Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath

>In The Spotlight: Josephine Tey's The Man In The QueueHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Faye Kellerman’s crime fiction has been consistently highly regarded since 1986. Her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series has won her millions of fans, and it’s about time one of her books was spotlighted on this feature. So let’s do that today; let’s turn the spotlight on the first of the Decker/Lazarus novels The Ritual Bath.

Yeshivat Ohavei Torah is a small Orthodox Jewish community and place of religious study. Located in the rural outskirts of Los Angeles, it’s normally a peaceful place, and except for a few unpleasant incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti, the residents are generally left alone and they cause no trouble. One night though, everything changes. One of the residents, Sarah Libbey, is raped as she leaves the community’s mikvah, or ritual bath. Although it’s not common to have a lot of outsiders in the community, the police are called in. LAPD detectives Peter Decker and Marge Dunn begin the investigation.

One problem they face is that this is a rather insular community and a lot of people aren’t comfortable talking to the police. What’s more, Sarah Libbey is devoutly observant of Orthodox Judaism and isn’t willing to discuss the rape, not even with Dunn. It’s an effort to even get her to consent to an exam, let alone provide any helpful information. So Decker begins to depend on Rina Lazarus, who supervises the mikvah and also serves as a teacher.

Lazarus is a widow who lives in the community with her two sons Shmuel ‘Sammy’ and Yaakov ‘Jake.’  Like the other members of the community, she is deeply religious and unwilling to compromise her beliefs. However, she knows that in order to find out who the rapist is, she’ll have to co-operate with the authorities. So, very uneasily, she begins to work with Decker.

It may be that this rape was committed by a serial attacker dubbed the Foothill Rapist. But there are enough differences in this attack that Decker also thinks the culprit could be someone else. To ensure everyone’s safety, a security guard Florence Marley is hired and for a short time, things settle just a little. But then, Marley is brutally murdered one night. Now the police have a rape and murder to investigate, along with the search for the Foothill Rapist.

One possibility is that the murder and rape were committed by the same person. It doesn’t seem likely for various reasons, but it’s possible. Then there’s the question of whether or not any of the incidents at the yeshiva are related to the Foothill Rapist. As Decker and Dunn face those questions, Lazarus has to deal with the very real possibility that someone at the yeshiva is a rapist or even a killer. She’s known the people who live there for a long time and finds that hard to believe, but she’s smart enough to know that it could be true. She also has to cope with the fear and sense of violation brought on by terrible crimes committed so close to home. In the end, she, Decker and Dunn bridge the many gaps between the yeshiva and the outside world and find out who is behind the terrible crimes.

And those cultural differences and gaps in understanding play an important role in this novel. Decker knows little about Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism. He’s not disrespectful of it, but he feels that solving the case should take precedence over religious traditions and laws. For her part, Lazarus is deeply devoted to her faith. As she puts it,

 

‘I’ve…found that I like being religious. There’s purpose in it and purpose in life is a rare treasure these days.’

 

More than once in this novel, she and Decker have to find ways to pursue the investigation without compromising the religious principles of those who live at the yeshiva and it’s not always easy. And yet you can’t really say that Lazarus is hard-headed or completely unwilling to listen to Decker’s point of view.

Because much of the novel is set at the yeshiva, readers also get a real sense of the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle and tradition. Kellerman is herself Orthodox, and her knowledge of and commitment to her faith is clear in this novel. The members of this community have created a meaningful life for themselves and they are a strong group of people.

That said though, there are also several non-Jewish sympathetic characters. Decker, for instance, is a hardworking, skilled cop. He has a close relationship with his teenage daughter, and he does his job effectively. Readers who are tired of dysfunctional, alcoholic cops who are estranged from their children will be pleased with his character. Marge Dunn, too, is portrayed sympathetically.

At the same time, anti-Semitism is addressed in this novel and some of it is ugly. There are several terrible slurs and one scary incident that show that anti-Semitism is alive and well in late-20th-Century Los Angeles. It’s easy to see why the members of the yeshiva community are uncomfortable with outsiders.

The mystery is solved in part through gathering evidence, listening to what witnesses say, following up on leads and so on – in short, through police-procedural means. That aspect of the story is told from Decker’s point of view. Other parts of the story are told from Lazarus’ point of view, particularly scenes of daily life at the Yeshiva. And that information proves useful in finding out what really happened. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice the shifts here, but Kelllerman makes it clear throughout the novel whose perception is being shared.

One important story thread concerns Decker’s and Lazarus’ growing attraction to each other. Each is honest about it, but readers who dislike romance with their crime fiction – especially implausible romance – will be pleased to know that these two don’t immediately jump into bed. Lazarus doesn’t want to lead Decker on as the saying goes; she is devoutly Orthodox and doesn’t want to marry outside her faith. Decker respects that and although each admits the attraction, they also see the important differences between them. Fans of these novels will know what happens to these two as the series goes on; I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read the series.

The Ritual Bath is the story of what happens when a horrible crime comes to a culturally unique and even somewhat mysterious (to outsiders) community. It features protagonists who have both strengths and faults, and gives readers an ‘inside look’ at a religious tradition and way of life that have a long history. The crimes are solved credibly and the story threads are pulled together logically. But what’s your view? Have you read The Ritual Bath? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 21 April/22 April – Paradise City – Archer Mayor

Monday 28 April/Tuesday 29 April – The Red Queen Dies – Frankie Y. Bailey

Monday 5 May/Tuesday 6 May – A Nail Through the Heart – Timothy Hallinen

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Filed under Faye Kellerman, The Ritual Bath