I Have a Thick Skin*

Life teaches most of us to develop a thick skin, as the saying goes, at least professionally. Criticism isn’t always fun, and dealing with it takes skill. And it helps – a lot – to have a thick hide. Having one doesn’t mean you enjoy criticism, or think it’s fun. It means you learn not to take it personally.

In crime fiction, having a thick (or thin) hide can add a really interesting layer of character development. It can also add to a plot, if you think about it. After all, a thin skin can lead to all sorts of interesting conflict and suspense.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, we are introduced to Elsa Greer (later, Lady Dittisham). She is one of the five people ‘on the scene’ on the day that famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned. His wife, Caroline, is the main suspect, and there’s plenty of evidence against her. In fact, she is arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter. A year later, she dies in prison. Sixteen years after the murder, the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant visits Hercule Poirot. She is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. In order to get to the truth, he interviews the five people most closely concerned (including Elsa), and gets written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it from each one. We soon learn that Elsa was Crale’s mistress, a fact which certainly came out at the trial. She’s described as ‘hard boiled,’ and tells Poirot that she didn’t care about the insults she got from people who thought of her as a ‘home wrecker.’ In fact, she developed a tough hide about all that sort of thing, even though ‘ladies’ were supposed to shrink from public criticism. On that level, she’s an interesting character.

Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel also has a very thick skin. Like most of us, he doesn’t think criticism is fun. But he doesn’t take it personally, and fans of this series knows that he gives as good as he gets, as the saying goes. In fact, that’s one thing that Peter Pascoe, Edgar Wield, and the other members of Dalziel’s team have to learn. When you work with Dalziel, you have to have a thick hide. He’s hardly gushing in his praise, and he doesn’t mince words when he dresses people down. It takes Dalziel’s staff some time to get used to his forthright ways, and not take it personally. When they do, they learn that he is also loyal to them, and willing to take on ‘the top brass’ on their behalf if necessary.

Another character with a thick skin is Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. And for him, that’s a job requirement. His boss is Nero Wolfe, who can be very caustic in what he says, and isn’t afraid to say it. But many people think of Archie as an employee in name only. Really, he’s more of a partner, even though Wolfe pays his salary. Archie has learned not to take Wolfe’s diatribes personally, and he’s not afraid to give it right back, as the saying goes. He’s one of the few people whom Wolfe doesn’t intimidate. Archie’s not overly intimidated by the police, either, and doesn’t take their remarks to him personally. Sometimes, he even gets himself into trouble because he doesn’t react in an ‘appropriately’ humble way when the police lay into him. In fact, fans of this series know that some of the funnier lines in these novels come from Archie.

Of course, not all fictional characters are thick-skinned. And sometimes, characters can hide that thin skin beneath false bravado. For example, in Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, we are introduced to famous director Peter Alan Nelson. On the one hand, he is a well-known director, and every word he says counts. He’s waited on hand and foot, and is very accustomed to getting his way. But he doesn’t handle demurrals or criticism well at all; underneath, he has a thin skin. He does not like to be wrong, and doesn’t deal well with objections. Years earlier, he was married to Karen Shipley, and they had a son, Toby. The marriage ended, and Karen and Toby left. Now, Nelson wants to re-establish a relationship with his son, and he hires Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole to find them. At first, Cole demurs. After all, there are any number of reasons that these people might want to go on with their own lives. But Nelson insists, and a fee is a fee. So, Cole tracks Karen and Toby down, and discovers that they’re living in a small town in Connecticut. It seems like a straightforward case – until he also discovers that she’s mixed up with some very dangerous Mob types…

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we meet her in Still Life, she’s recently been named to the Sûreté du Québec, and she’s thrilled about it. She’s also determined to ‘make good,’ as much because of her personal situation as anything else. So, when she is appointed to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache on a murder case, she does everything she can at first to ingratiate herself with him. But she is new at her job, and knows a lot less than she thinks she does. What’s worse, she has a thin skin and doesn’t deal well with criticism. She’d rather blame others than reflect on her own actions. When she makes mistakes, as we all do, Gamache tries to counsel her and help her become a productive part of the team. She won’t listen to him, though, in part because she can’t deal with criticism. That causes all sorts of problems which, as fans know, are part of a story arc in this series.

For most of us, it’s important to develop a thick skin, at least in our professional lives. We all have to handle criticism, and sometimes it can hurt. It’s healthy to learn deal with it in ways that don’t debilitate us. Some fictional characters can do that well – some can’t…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joy Ike’s Nomad.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout, Robert Crais

In the Spotlight: Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels are as much ‘windows’ into a particular profession as they are anything else. Those sorts of novels can give the reader real insight into what it’s like to be a member of that profession. That’s the sort of novel Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

Another Margaret isn’t the first in in MacDonald’s Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig series, but it cycles back to the first, The Next Margaret, so it gives the reader a different sort of look at the series. Craig is a sessional lecturer who works mostly in Edmonton. This means that she doesn’t have the job security or other advantages that tenured faculty members have. But she does love campus life, and she’s been teaching English for twenty years, since she got her own M.A. She’s never quite managed to get a tenure-track position, so she makes ends meet by teaching for several area schools, depending on their needs for a given term.

As this story begins, Craig’s teaching courses for Grant McEwan University. Then, her friend, Denise Wolff, asks for her help with a major University of Alberta alumni reunion event to coincide with Homecoming Weekend. Craig agrees, and soon gets drawn into the process.

Then, Denise tells her a disturbing piece of news. A new novel, Seven Bird Saga, is about to be published. The author is Margaret Ahlers, the extremely reclusive writer on whom Craig did her master’s thesis twenty years earlier. And that’s what’s so upsetting about the news. Ahlers died years ago, and Craig has the feeling that this isn’t an innocent case of a manuscript stuck in the back of a filing cabinet for years.

As the big event gets closer, we learn how Craig first came to the university’s master’s program, and how she developed an interest in Ahlers’ work. At this point, the timeline follows Craig’s study of Ahlers’ writing, her work under Dr. Hilary Quinn, and her growing questions about Ahlers, who remains frustratingly difficult to find.

Then, we learn the truth about Margaret Ahlers, and the timeline returns to the present day, as the preparations for Homecoming go into full gear. As the time gets closer, Craig becomes more and more convinced that someone who may be attending the reunion knows more than it seems about Ahlers, and this could pose a danger to Craig, who has too many questions about this new book.

The weekend gets underway, and many alumni and former professors (as well as current faculty members) gather. And that’s when disaster strikes. In the end, we learn the truth about the new book, but not before there’s a murder.

This story takes place in an academic setting, and readers get a look at what it’s like to be a sessional instructor/lecturer. Different countries and universities have different names for such faculty, but whatever you call them, it’s not an easy life. There are no retirement accounts, health care plans, and so on. And the work can be catch-as-catch-can, depending on enrollment, number faculty sabbaticals, and the like.

Readers also get a look at campus politics. There’s a great deal of pressure to find a research niche and publish – regularly – within it. There’s also a lot of pressure to appeal to students, to get grading done quickly, and so on. Anyone who’s ever taught in higher education will find this familiar.

The setting is Edmonton and the Peace River area, and MacDonald places the reader there. As Craig goes to her classes, to the alumni events, and just around town, readers get a sense of what the city is like, and how it’s changed over the years. This is a distinctly Canadian novel.

Another important element in the novel is the timeline, which is actually two timelines. MacDonald integrated an earlier novel, The Next Margaret into this novel. The earlier novel tells the story of Craig’s pursuit of her degree, and her search for Margaret Ahlers. That story is ‘sandwiched’ within Another Margaret. Readers who prefer only one timeline will notice this. It’s worth noting, though, that it’s clear throughout the novel when given events are taking place.

The story is told from Craig’s point of view (first person, past tense), so readers learn quite a bit about her character. She is single, but has a long-term relationship with a local police detective, Steve Browning. Readers who are tired of angst-ridden sleuths who have dysfunctional relationships will be pleased to know that this is a strong one. Neither is perfect, but their bond is solid. Craig is hard-working and practical. She does get ‘burned out’ at times, but she’s smart, capable, and not the ‘damsel in distress’ that can put many readers off.

The solution to the mystery itself may require a little more suspension of disbelief than some readers might prefer. And, in its way, it’s quite sad. But readers who like to know whodunit and whydunit will be pleased that there aren’t any ‘loose ends.’

There is also wit woven throughout the novel. For instance, here’s what Craig says about catching up with other alumni:
 

‘Really, my need to know what people were doing usually limited itself to fictional characters.’
 

And there are several pointed observations about the academic life.

Another Margaret is really two stories in one. It tells one story within the context of telling the story of what happens years later. It features a strong past/present connection, a close look at the academic life ‘from the fringes,’ and features a protagonist whose curiosity about an author gets her into more than she imagined. But what’s your view? Have you read Another Margaret? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 25 September/Tuesday, 26 September – Among Thieves – John Clarkson

Monday, 2 October/Tuesday, 3 October – Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters

Monday, 9 October, Tuesday/10 October –  Close Quarters – Michael Gilbert

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Now Boarding

‘Last call. All aboard, please. Doors are now closing.’

Bobby stepped onto the train and looked behind him as the doors swished shut. He’d done it! He’d managed to get on board before Jay’s boys caught up to him. When it got to the station he wanted, all he’d have to do would be to get on the bus for the airport, and he’d be home free. He slid his small suitcase onto the rack above the nearest seat and sat down, wiping his sleeve across his forehead.

The car Bobby had chosen wasn’t too full, which was just what he wanted. Enough people so he didn’t stand out, but not so full that he’d have to interact with anyone. The older guy at the end of the car was rambling on about how godawful the government was. There was a couple two seats away taking selfies and comparing Facebook posts. And there were two tourists talking to each other in – was it Spanish? Probably. A couple of women on the other side of the car off to a ‘girls’ night out.’ The car felt awfully warm, even though they kept the train temperature-controlled. Bobby put his machine-issued ticket on the seat next to him and looked out the window, hoping nobody was paying attention to him.

The train stopped at the next station, the brakes squeaking loudly as it pulled in. Bobby glanced up as more passengers got aboard. Nobody he knew, and none of them sat down in his car. He let out a long, slow breath and went back to looking out the window.

Then came the next stop. Bobby looked over as the doors opened. For a minute, he didn’t think anyone was going to get aboard. Then, of all people, he saw Trevor come up the stairs and into the car. He thought of moving, but it was too late: Trevor’d seen him. He swallowed hard.

‘Well, look who the hell it is,’ Trevor said. He picked up Bobby’s ticket, dropped it onto Bobby’s lap, and sat down next to him.
‘Trevor,’ Bobby said, in as calm a voice as he could manage. ‘What’s up? Haven’t seen you in a while.’
‘I been around. I’m surprised to see you here. Where’re you heading?’
‘Oh, you know. Just into the city.’
Trevor nodded. Then he looked straight at Bobby. ‘Good thing I ran into you. Jay’s been asking about you.’
‘Yeah?’
‘Yeah.’ Trevor’s expression hardened. ‘He wants to talk to you.’
‘He’s got my number.’
‘No, he wants to talk to you. In person. In fact, he asked me to be sure and let you know.’ Trevor opened his jacket just a little so that Bobby could see the gun peeking out. He read Bobby’s expression.
‘You think I’d use this on you? Here? How the hell stupid do you think I am? And anyway, me and you are just having a little conversation, that’s all.’
Bobby had to stop himself from sagging with relief.

Trevor went on. ‘Look, I got nothing against you personally. But a guy like Jay, you owe him money, you gotta pay it back.’
‘I’m going to pay him.’
‘That’s what you said last week. And the one before. Jay ain’t going to wait a lot longer. That’s why I’m here. As a kind of reminder.’
‘I know.’ Bobby thought a minute. ‘How about this? How about I stop by later tonight when I get back?’
‘Long’s you got Jay’s money.’
‘I will.’
‘That’s good. Jay’ll be happy to hear it. My station’s coming up soon. I’m going to go take a leak.’ Then he glanced over at Bobby and smiled a little. ‘Looks like you already did.’ He got up from his seat and headed towards the small washroom. He came out just before the train reached the next station. On his way to the door, he said, ‘S’long, Bobby.’

When Trevor left, Bobby slumped against the seat. He pulled off his jacket and tossed it on his lap. Only two more stations to go, and then he’d be free. He started to feel a little better. He was actually going to pull this off. Jay would be expecting him, but he’d be thirty thousand feet in the air.

The train finally pulled into the station Bobby needed. He picked up his jacket and took his suitcase down from the rack. When the doors opened, he left the train as quickly as he could without calling attention to himself. The first thing he’d have to do would be to change his clothes, so he headed towards the station’s restroom. When he’d put on a clean pair of jeans and stuffed the others into the trash, he zipped up the suitcase and left.

The bus depot was at the far end of the station complex. Now that the passengers from the train had gone their separate ways, the place was almost deserted. Bobby could hear the echoes of his footsteps as he walked towards the depot. Now that the sun was down, shadows started creeping out from behind the parked cars. Bobby started to imagine figures crouched behind them waiting for him. After a second or two of this, he shook his head to clear it. He was annoyed with himself for being so jumpy.

Then he saw it. The bus depot was only a few hundred yards away. Freedom couldn’t come too soon. He’d almost finished crossing the parking lot when a hand clapped him on the shoulder and spun him around.

‘What’s up, Bobby?’ Jay stood there, a cold smile on his face. Behind him were two of his goons.
‘Hey, Jay,’ Bobby managed.
‘Funny you’d be down here. I kinda thought you might be.’
‘Yeah, well…’
‘Yeah, well, bullshit. You owe me.’
‘I know. I told Trevor –’
‘I know what you told Trevor. But why wait until late tonight when we can settle this right now?’
‘But I don’t –’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that. I got other plans.’ He turned towards one of the cars and clicked the trunk open as his thugs moved closer to Bobby.

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And Still I Feel I Said Too Much*

Well, I certainly hope I didn’t. I’m excited and privileged that Fiona Mcvie of Authorsinterviews has invited me to be interviewed on her blog. Fiona has a remarkable collection of conversations with many different sorts of authors on her blog, and I am fortunate to be one of them.

I hope you’ll stop by and visit me at Fiona’s, where I’ll spilling the beans about several different things. Teal/turquoise, an inspiring English teacher, and what I’d like to tell my readers are all discussed. So is Billy Joel (oh, come on! You can’t be surprised at that!).

While you’re at Fiona’s do get to know some of the many authors she’s interviewed. Who knows, you might find your next top author!

 
 
 

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

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People Livin’ in Competition*

A recent post from Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, has got me thinking about competitiveness. Bill’s post, which you really should read, discusses competitiveness in attorneys. His point, which is very well-taken, is that trial lawyers have to be competitive. Otherwise, they don’t keep the ‘fire’ they need to do all of the work that’s involved in preparing for a trial and seeing it through.

There are many, many legal mysteries that bear him out, too. In John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, William Deverell’s Trial of Passion, and Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, to name just three, we see examples of attorneys who take on difficult cases – and want to win. There are far too many more examples of such novels for me to mention in this one post, so I won’t.

There’s plenty of competitiveness in other crime fiction, too, and it can add a healthy dose of character development, suspense, and plot to a novel. And, since there’s competitiveness in many different professions, the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to integrating it into a story.

Competitiveness is certainly important in the world of athletics. That’s a major part of the plot in Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. Devon Knox has rare gymnastic talent, and her parents, Katie and Eric, want to nurture it. So, when gymnastics coach Teddy Balfour approaches them with a proposition, they’re happy to listen:
 

‘‘Bring her to BelStars [a program he’s started up]  and she’ll find the extent of her power.’’
 

Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (which might not have been an accident) occurs, and changes everything. Devon is gifted, but the question becomes: how far are she and her family willing to go to get to the Olympics? After all, there are only a limited number of young people who can join the US team. So, when one person earns a place, it often means others lose.

Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry series also explores athletic competitiveness (and for the matter of that, journalistic competitiveness as well). Like her creator, Henry is a sportswriter. She works for the Toronto Planet. Henry especially follows the doings of the Toronto Titans baseball team, so she goes along with them on ‘away’ tours, attends the home games, and gets locker-room interviews with players, coaching staff and the like. When the team is in a slump, it’s devastating. When the team does well, it’s euphoric. These players work hard and train intensively to go as far as they can in the World Series competition. Gordon doesn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a mystery series, and the murder plots dominate the books. But the books also give readers a look at what it’s like to be Major League Baseball athlete. It’s not a life for those who aren’t competitive. Neither is the life of those who write and publish stories about sports.

Business can be very competitive, too. In most industries, there’s a finite pool of customers. So, companies vie to get as much of their business as possible. And sometimes, that competitiveness can be deadly. In Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Contagion, for instance, we learn about a major competition between two insurance giants: AmeriCare and National Health. That competition becomes important when a virulent strain of influenza seems to be the cause of a series of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. Medical examiners Dr. Jack Stapleton and Dr. Laurie Montgomery try to find out what’s causing the virus. The hospital’s authorities are interested in keeping the whole matter as quiet as possible, mostly to protect the institution’s image. But Stapleton in particular wants to whatever it takes, regardless of unpleasant publicity, to prevent more deaths. When it comes out that Manhattan General is affiliated with AmeriCares, the question becomes: did someone at National Health have something to do with these deaths, with the aim of discrediting the competition?

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide deals with the competitive world of the beauty pageant circuit. In it, wealthy pageant coach and judge Tristan Pembroke is murdered during a charity art auction being held at her home. The most likely suspect is local artist Sara Taylor, who had a public argument with the victim shortly before the murder. But Sara’s mother-in-law, Lulu, is sure that she’s not guilty. So, she sets out to clear Sara’s name and find out who the real killer is. There are plenty of suspects, too, as Tristan was both malicious and vindictive. And, for the contestants in the pageant, and their families, there’s an awful lot at stake. The beauty pageant life is demanding, expensive, stressful and time-consuming. You don’t stay in it long if you have no sense of competitiveness.

I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that there’s a lot of competitiveness in the academic world, too. Many academic mysteries have plots that involve competition for scholarships/bursaries, prizes, academic jobs, funding and so on. It’s a demanding life that takes a lot of time and effort. Just to give one example, Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James novels take place in the context of St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, where James heads the English Literature Department. One of the sub-plots in the first of this series, Murder is Academic, concerns funding for the program. Each department’s funding is based on its performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). There’s a lot of competition for finite funding, and James knows that she will have to ensure that all of the faculty’s scholarship (including her own) is as impressive as possible. That in itself is stressful. At the same time, she’s caught up in the investigation of the murder of her predecessor, Margaret Joplin. Admittedly, getting funding isn’t the reason for the murder. But it does add to the tension in the novel. And it’s a realistic look at one way in which competition works in academia.

Bill is right that being competitive is important if you’re going to win your case in a trial. It’s also an important personality trait in other fields, too. So it’s little wonder it figures so much in crime fiction. Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Bill’s blog. Thoughtful reviews and commentary await you there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boston’s Peace of Mind.

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Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Grisham, Megan Abbott, Riley Adams, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Cook, William Deverell