Someone Has Altered the Rules*

20150526_073904-1As I post this, today would have been Sally Ride’s 64th birthday. Along with her many accomplishments, one thing that’s always stood out for me about Ride is that she wasn’t bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of the time. In fact, she helped change the rules, if you will, about women (at least American women) in the sciences and in NASA. On a personal note, when my daughter was young, she did a school report on Ride’s accomplishments. As part of her report, she wrote a letter to Ride, who answered her personally and in a very gracious way. My daughter still has that letter. She didn’t choose NASA or physics for her career, but she was among a generation of young people for whom Ride changed the game, if you will.

I’m sure you could think of a long list of other people who have refused to be bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of their times. Those people can make a big difference, and they often have interesting stories. We see characters like that in crime fiction, too. I know you’ll be able to offer a lot more examples than I ever could, but here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

At the time of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there were very strict cultural ‘rules’ that governed what men and women were and weren’t expected to do. Those rules don’t stop Irene Adler, whom we meet in A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia engages Holmes to retrieve a compromising photograph of him with Adler; if it goes public, that photograph could put an end to his plans to marry. Holmes agrees and in doing so, matches wits against a most formidable opponent. In fact, Adler bests him at his own game. Holmes respects her for it, too, referring to her afterwards as the woman.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to sculptor Henrietta Savernake. As the story begins, she’s involved with Harley Street specialist John Christow, who is married to someone else. But she’s hardly the stereotypical ‘kept woman.’ She’s independent, noted in her own right, and not one to wait around on the off chance her lover may stop by. In fact, that’s the one thing Christow finds irksome about her: she cares for him, but isn’t absorbed by the relationship. One weekend, Christow is shot while he and his wife Gerda are visiting some friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and circumstances get him involved in the murder investigation. In the process, he gets to know Savernake, and we see that she doesn’t play by the cultural rules of her day.

Robert B. Parker’s Night Passage introduces Jesse Stone. He’s suffered some real personal and professional setbacks, so he’s ready for a change from life as an LAPD detective. When he gets an offer to serve as Chief of Police for Paradise, Massachusetts, he accepts the job. In fact, he’s a little surprised he’s gotten the offer, because he’s hardly a stellar candidate. Still, with nothing much to lose, he makes the change. Soon enough, Stone discovers why he was hired. The Paradise town council, led by Hastings ‘Hasty’ Hathaway, wanted to hire a police chief that they could control. The cultural ‘rule’ of that town has for a long time been that the chief of police is a sort of ‘figurehead’ job to lend legitimacy to whatever the council wants. When Stone learns this, he decides to change that game, and begins to look into some very dubious things that have been going on in the town. That decision to alter the rules puts Stone in danger, but it makes some big changes in Paradise.

Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer decides to change the game in The Precipice. She’s left her position as a school principal, with the idea of moving to a custom-made home in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She has her dream home built and prepares to move in. But then, some bad luck and poor financial planning make that impossible. With no other choice, Thea has to settle for the house next door – a smaller home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington move into the house Thea still regards as hers. Not only does she resent having anyone living nearby, but it’s a particular sore point that they’ve bought ‘her’ house. Still, Thea grits her teeth and tries to get on with life. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with him and Ellice. Unexpectedly, Thea develops an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. So when she comes to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to do something about it. She thinks of pursuing her concerns with the police; but without actual evidence of a crime, they can’t do much. So Thea changes the game and decides to take matters into her own hands.

We see some altering of the rules in Seán Haldane’s historical novel The Devil’s Making. Chad Hobbes has recently finished his law degree at Oxford, and travels to British Columbia, where he gets a job as a police constable in the town of Victoria. Hobbes began his study in the Divinity program, but changed his views about religion. He’s interested in philosophy, though, especially the implications of Charles Darwin’s recently-published work. The nature of humanity is of particular interest to Hobbes, and as he begins his work, he gets plenty of opportunity to reflect on it. For one thing, he soon runs into the deeply ingrained prejudice against non-Whites. And as the novel begins, he doesn’t question it much. But when Richard McCrory is found brutally murdered, Hobbes begins to change his views. Wiladzap, a leader among the Tsimshian Indians, is arrested for the crime, but claims his innocence. As Hobbes begins the investigation into McCrory’s murder, he gets to know the Tsimshian better, and sees that traditional cultural ‘rules’ about men, women, and the social order don’t necessarily make the sense that he once thought they might. Throughout this novel, we see the impact of Darwin’s work and thought. Certainly his findings and perspective on them altered a lot of social and scientific ‘rules.’

People who do change the game – who alter the rules – may not always be proven right. But they do change our way of thinking, or at least invite us to reflect on it. And that, I think, can move us forward.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Good Night and Thank You.

6 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert B. Parker, Seán Haldane, Virginia Duigan

In The Spotlight: Lisa Unger’s In the Blood

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One strategy authors of psychological thrillers sometimes use is to raise doubts about whether
characters are what they seem to be. That doubt about who can be trusted can add layers of suspense to a story, and can add to the tension. Let’s take a look at how that works today and turn the spotlight on Lisa Unger’s In the Blood.

Lana Granger is about to graduate university with a degree in psychology. She’s not exactly sure what her next steps will be, although she does know she doesn’t want the ‘nine to five’ routine. The other thing she knows is that she needs to find a job. She gets an opportunity when her mentor Langdon Hewes suggests she apply for a position as after-school nanny to eleven-year-old Luke Kahn. Lana doesn’t have experience as a nanny, but at her tutor’s urging, she calls the number listed in the advertisement and goes to the Kahn home for an interview.

Luke’s mother Rachel outline’s Lana’s duties. Luke has severe emotional and social problems, and Rachel has a great deal of difficulty managing him. Still, she tries to make the best of this after-school position, and Lana accepts the job.

From the beginning, Lana has concerns about her charge. He is highly intelligent – even brilliant – but he soon shows that he is also very troubled. It’s not clear, at least to Lana, whether he is simply an extremely bright boy who is bored, whether he’s the unfortunate victim of some hidden abuse, or whether he’s dangerously disturbed. He’s been in and out of several schools, including special schools for what used to be called ‘troubled children.’ And it’s not long before Lana suspects that he may be trying to manipulate her.

Rachel doesn’t prove to be much help in the matter. She seems to be resigned to Luke; her attitude is more of ‘putting out fires’ than proactive solutions. In fact, she’s visibly relieved whenever Lana reports that things have gone well. As she interacts with Rachel, Lana begins to wonder whether she is in permanent denial, whether she’s an enabler, or whether she is hiding what may be her own role in Luke’s problems.

Then one terrible night, Lana’s friend and roommate Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller disappears. When Beck’s parents report her missing, the police begin an investigation that includes interviews with Lana and the young women’s other roommate Ainsley. Lana claims that she doesn’t know what happened to Beck, but the more evidence the police get, the clearer it is that Lana knows more than she is saying. It’s just as clear that Luke is very much ‘tuned in’ to the investigation and to Lana’s reaction to it, and that he may be using what he knows and suspects to manipulate Lana even further. Bit by bit, we learn exactly what happened to Beck, and how it relates to the Kahn family and to a very dark secret in Lana’s past.

From the beginning, there are doubts about who is reliable and can be trusted, and who isn’t. Is Rachel the long-suffering mother of a troubled child, as she seems? Is she abusive? And what about Luke? Lana, too, may not be what she seems. She has a very dark history that plays a role in the novel; since she is the narrator, there’s also the element of the unreliable narrator in this novel. As the story unfolds, we learn little by little who all of these characters really are. Readers who enjoy novels that slowly ‘peel away’ surface levels of characters’ histories will be pleased at this aspect of the novel.

Another element in the novel is the depiction of what it’s like to parent a child with, particularly, emotional/psychological special needs. Like any parent of such a child, Rachel is overextended, exhausted and anxious. She’s tried any number of approaches, schools and the like to try to help her son, and now has to face the possibility that he may never be what most of us would call ‘well.’ She also has to cope with others’ judgements about her decisions. The question of whether Rachel is right or wrong in the way she manages her life and Luke’s is not an easy one. The choices that parents in this situation face are grim, and Unger makes that clear.

The solution to this puzzle – what ties all of the characters together – is not a straightforward one. Readers who prefer not to suspend very much disbelief will notice this. I can say without spoiling the story, though, that it’s not a supernatural or paranormal solution.

This is a story of psychological suspense, so while there is violence, the tension isn’t built through, say, a grim series of discoveries of bodies. Readers who dislike a lot of brutal violence will be pleased to know this novel doesn’t depend on that. That said though, this is not a light, easy novel. There is deep, deep sadness and darkness in some of these characters’ lives. Even though we learn what’s behind the events in the novel, that doesn’t really make the darkness go away, if I may put it like that.

The story is told, for the most part, from Lana’s perspective. Although she narrates the events accurately, that doesn’t mean she is necessarily a completely reliable narrator. And one aspect of the suspense in the novel comes from the question of what she may not be telling the reader.

Interspersed throughout the novel is also a set of journal entries. The reader isn’t told until late in the story who is keeping the journal, but it’s distinct from Lana’s narrative. Readers who do not like novels where the killer’s perspective is given in italics need have no fear, though. This is not a novel in which a mad serial killer goes after victims. At the same time, readers who prefer their stories be told from one perspective will notice this strategy.

In the Blood is the story of soon-to-be university graduate with a very dark, hidden secret who is thrust into a potentially very dangerous situation. It features characters who may be exactly what they seem – or may not – and shows the powerful effects of the past on people’s lives. But what’s your view? Have you read In the Blood? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 1 June/Tuesday 2 June – The Water Rat of Wanchai – Ian Hamilton

Monday 8 June/Tuesday 9 June – The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange – Anna Katherine Green

Monday 15 June/Tuesday 16 June – The Harbour Master – Daniel Pembrey

30 Comments

Filed under Lisa Unger

And Who Was Wrong? And Who Was Right? It Didn’t Matter in the Thick of the Fight*

MemorialDay2015Most people will likely say that they don’t like war. War is ugly, dirty, bloody and brutal, and no-one leaves unscathed, even if one makes it home from the war. And there’ve been conscientious objectors to armed conflict for a very long time.

But some wars give rise to especially strong controversy, and feelings run very high about them. Yet, those who serve their country in the military have to participate in those wars, whether they want to or no, whether they think their country should be involved or no.

Among the modern wars generating perhaps the most controversy has been the Vietnam War. Emotions about that war still are still strong; and at the time, conflicts between those who opposed involvement in the war and those who supported it sometimes turned deadly.

Caught in the middle, as you might say, were members of the military. Whatever their own feelings about the war, they were expected to go. And those who came back often received far from a hero’s welcome. Add this to the not-very-surprising struggles they had with the trauma of surviving a bloody conflict, and it’s not surprising that many Vietnam veterans have had serious difficulties.

The controversy over the war in Vietnam has also, not surprisingly, found its way into crime fiction. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of many, many more than I could, anyway.

Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night treats this theme. Sheldon Hororwitz is an octogenarian, originally from New York, who’s gone to live in Oslo to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Lars. One plot thread of this novel concerns Horowitz looking back on his life and, especially, on the death of his son Saul in Vietnam. Horowitz feels a great deal of guilt about Saul’s death, because as he sees it, he’s responsible. He persuaded his son to go, telling him that it was his responsibility to support his country – to show how loyal he was, to put it another way. During his first stint there, Saul experienced some horrible things that made him question everything about the war. But he went back for a second tour; this time he didn’t come home. Among many other things, this profoundly affects Horowitz’ feelings about Rhea. And it impacts what he does when he gets mixed up in a case of murder.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch comes face to face with his memories of service in Vietnam in The Black Echo. In that novel, the body of an unidentified man is found stuffed in a drainpipe. The dead man turns out to be Billy Meadows, whom Bosch knew when both served in the war in Vietnam. Both men were ‘tunnel rats,’ responsible for finding and destroying the Viet Cong’s underground bunkers and supplies. Like many veterans, Meadows struggled with heroin addiction, so at first, his death is put down to an accidental overdose. But Bosch still feels the connection from the war, and starts asking questions. It turns out that Meadows’ death is more than just a junkie who overdosed. It’s connected to a large bank heist and to wartime events. In both Bosch and Meadows, we see how people came back from Vietnam physically alive, but bearing a lot of scars from service. Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux will know that he also is a Vietnam veteran. Like Bosch, he saw more than his share of ugliness in the war, and it still haunts him.

Service in Vietnam was hard enough for those who volunteered for military service before the war began. It was even harder for those who were conscripted. Many people were so opposed to the war that they chose not to fight. Instead, they went to Canada, rather than be drafted. Vicki Delany treats this theme in In the Shadow of the Glacier. Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith is a fledgling constable for the Trafalgar, BC Police. She gets her first ‘trial by fire’ when she discovers the body of controversial developer Reginald Montgomery. Once it’s clear that Montgomery was murdered, Smith and her superior, Sergeant John Winters, investigate. In one plot thread of this novel, the town of Trafalgar is faced with a dilemma. Ex-pat American Larry O’Reilly has recently died. He came to Canada to avoid being drafted in the war in Vietnam and felt strongly that those who acted according to their consciences should be honoured. So in his will, he’s bequeathed a large sum of money to the town on condition that the money be used to create such a memorial. On the one hand, many citizens, including Smith’s mother Lucy ‘Lucky’ want to do as O’Reilly wanted and create a Peace Garden. Others (and Montgomery was among these) oppose the idea. They’re afraid that it might be too controversial (and therefore, bad for business), since many Americans viewed those who went to Canada as traitors. It’s not an easy question, and still causes a lot of hurt on both sides. And it’s a source of real tension in the story.

And then there’s George Pelecanos’ Hard Revolution, which serves as a prequel to his Derek Strange series. In this novel, Strange is a rookie cop in 1968 Washington, DC, a town on the point of revolution sparked by racial tension and controversy over the war in Vietnam. Burning, rioting and so on are convulsing the city; and it seems as though society is coming apart at the proverbial seams. Strange is a Black cop in a dangerous situation, and it gets even worse when his older brother Dennis gets drawn into a scheme to rob a local shop. Meanwhile, another person Strange knows, Dominic Martini, gets involved with a group of White thugs in the drunken murder of a young Black man and a planned bank robbery. The two events play out against the turbulent times, and Strange has to do his best to negotiate all of the high emotion as he tries to do his job. Both Dennis Strange and Dominic Martini have served tours in Vietnam, and it’s scarred both of them. Here’s what Martini has to say about his return from service:
 

‘In bars, he no longer talked about Vietnam. It didn’t help him with women and sometimes it spurred unwelcome comments from men. When he mentioned his tour of duty, it seemed to lead to no good.’
 

Many Vietnam veterans had a similar experience.

Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) the US observes Memorial Day, a time to remember those who gave their lives in service to their country. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that in any case, let alone in the case of an unpopular war. Whatever your feelings about Vietnam, I think it’s important to honour the memories of those who died there.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is from Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon.

10 Comments

Filed under Derek B. Miller, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Vicki Delany

There’s a Pawn Shop on a Corner*

Pawn ShopsMany people have times in their lives when they’ve run low on money and need a loan. One place people go is, of course, to a bank. But a bank loan isn’t always feasible – not if you have no credit (or poor credit). Besides, banks require information that some people would rather not provide, particularly if they want to stay ‘off the grid.’ So there are plenty of people who look for other ways to raise money quickly.

One solution is the pawn shop. Pawn shops have been around for a very long time, and still provide an important service. Some are disreputable, and even dangerous. But lots of them are simply businesses, like any other small business. And they can provide important clues to detectives who are trying to form a portrait of a murder victim. After all, financial situations can be powerful motives, or at least valuable clues, as to the story behind a killing. What’s more, they can be fascinating in their own right, considering all of the interesting merchandise they may sell.

For a long time, it was a cause for deep shame (and still is, in some cases) if a wealthy family was in need of money. Such people often didn’t want to risk others knowing about their situation, so they wouldn’t go to banks for a loan. Instead, they’d go to places such as pawn shops. That’s the sort of client who might have visited the pawn shop of Jabez Wilson, whom we meet in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-Headed League. Wilson visits Sherlock Holmes because he’s had a very strange experience. He saw and responded to an advertisement for a job doing easy work. The only requirement was that the successful candidate must have red hair. At first, the job worked out well; Wilson was asked to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was easy enough, and he was paid. But one day, he went to work as usual only to find the doors locked and a sign announcing the disbanding of the Red-Headed League. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate this league, and find that the whole thing was really a cover for a plot to rob a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to persuade her husband, the 4th Baron Edgware, to grant her a divorce so she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot reluctantly agrees to at least speak to Edgware, and he and Captain Hastings make a visit. Edgware tells them that he has no objections to a divorce; surprised by this, Poirot and Hastings pass the news on to their client. That night, Edgware is stabbed. His wife is the obvious suspect, and it doesn’t help her case that someone who looked just like her came to the house and gave her name at the door just before the murder. But Jane says she was at a party in another part of London, and there are plenty of people who will swear she was there. As Poirot, Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp look for other suspects, they concentrate on Ronald Marsh, Edgware’s nephew and the heir to both title and fortune. It turns out that he was in real financial trouble and his uncle refused to help. When his alibi proves false, Marsh says that he was desperate for money, and that his cousin Geraldine, the victim’s daughter, gave him her pearls to pawn. The pawn shop proprietor supports Marsh, too. It’s an interesting look at the way someone might raise money quickly at that time.

Aaron Elkins’ Loot introduces us to Boston pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. One day an unusually valuable object comes his way. Someone drops off what could be a rare painting at the shop. Pawlovsky wants a sense of how much it’s worth, so he calls his friend, art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. Revere visits the shop and takes a look at the painting. Much to his surprise, it looks like a priceless Velázquez, one of several paintings that were ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. Revere wants to do more research on the work, and at first, wants to take it with him. Pawlovsky refuses, even though it’s quite dangerous for him to keep something so valuable in his shop. Reluctantly, Revere agrees to do his research and come back later. When he does, he discovers Pawlovsky’s body. He feels guilty about what might be his role in the man’s death; besides, he wants to know who killed his friend. So he decides that if he can trace the painting forward, from the time the Nazis took it to the time it showed up in the shop, he can find out who the murderer is. The trail leads to Europe and some very dangerous people…

Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo is the first outing for his Harry Bosch, who’s with the LAPD. When the body of an unknown man is found in a drainpipe, it’s assumed the victim is a junkie who died of an overdose. But Bosch finds out to his shock that the dead man is Billy Meadows, a friend from Bosch’s stint in Vietnam. He looks back over the case to find out who would have wanted to kill Meadows. One of the clues that was missed in the first, cursory investigation is a pawn ticket that was in the dead man’s pocket. He traces that ticket to the pawn shop of a Mr. Obina, who has his own story to tell. His shop was broken into, and he’s been waiting for someone – anyone – to come and take a report and investigate. Bosch does what he can to get someone out there quickly; in return, Obina tells him that the bracelet corresponding to the pawn ticket was stolen in the robbery. It turns out that the theft of the bracelet is closely related to Meadows’ murder.

Private detective Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver finds a pawn shop useful in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour hires Gilver when she begins to suspect that her husband may be trying to kill her. Gilver takes a job at the Balfour home as a maid and begins her investigation. One night, Lollie’s husband Philip ‘Pip’ is murdered. The police take over the case, and Gilver provides what help she can. There are several possibilities when it comes to suspects, because to say the least, the victim was not popular. His will opens up other possibilities. In the process of following up leads, she decides to learn more about Phyllis, the housemaid. One day, Gilver follows Phyllis as she goes on her ‘day out.’ Surprisingly, Phyllis goes to a pawn shop. At first, Gilver thinks that Phyllis has got hold of some family treasure or other and is pawning it to line her pockets. But as it turns out, she has another reason for going…

Pawn shops can be really interesting places in and of themselves, and there are often a lot of personal stories that go with the merchandise. Little wonder they have their place in crime fiction. I’ve had my say. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Merrill’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

19 Comments

Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catriona McPherson, Michael Connelly

We Are Grateful You Found Her a Spot on The Sound Radio*

OntheAirThere’s a lot of excitement here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…. I’m a guest on Tell Me a Story, a regular feature on The Magic Happens Radio Network! All sorts of terrific authors and other talented folk appear on this show; I’m honoured to be among them. I’m on the air live from 10:30am PDT/17:30pm GMT to 11:00am PDT/18:00 GMT. If you’d like to listen the link is right here. After the broadcast, I’ll be posting a link to the podcast, so if you can’t listen live, but you’d like to hear me drone on, you’ll be able to do that.

 

Thanks very much to The Magic Happens and to Tell Me a Story!

 

This just in…

The podcast is now available, so if you’re interested, it’s right here .

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Good Night and Thank You.

15 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized