You Have Lost Your Innocence Somehow*

As we get older and (hopefully) mature, we also tend to lose our innocence about the way the world works. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean that we become complete cynics. Rather, it means that we learn (sometimes, sadly, the hard way), that not all people can be trusted, and that there’s plenty of corruption and worse in the real world.

That experience can be very difficult for a person, and we all deal with it in different ways. And, in a crime novel, it can add to a character’s development. It can also add tension and even suspense to a story as the character faces that loss of innocence.

There’s a sense of that experience in Agatha Christie’s Three-Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). In it, we are introduced to Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore. On the surface, she tries to be jaded. But she is quite innocent in her way, although she’s neither gullible nor completely naïve. One evening, she is invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. At the party, one of the other guests, the Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Not long afterwards, several of the same people, including Egg, attend a house party at the home of Dr. Bartholomew Strange. At that gathering, Strange dies, also of poison. It seems clear that the two deaths are linked, as is another death that occurs. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the case, as he attended the first party. And in the end, he finds out who the murderer is, and how the killings are connected. As the novel goes on, we see how Egg loses her innocence about who can be trusted and who can’t.

John Grisham’s The Firm is the story of Mitchell ‘Mitch’ McDeere. As the novel begins, he’s a Harvard Law School graduate, and an attractive candidate for a number of law offices. He’s smart and ambitious, and that’s exactly the sort of lawyer that the Memphis firm of Brendini, Lambert, & Locke want to hire. They make Mitch an irresistible offer, and he accepts. He settles in, and all seems to go very well at first. Mitch’s new colleagues help him pass the Tennessee Bar Exam, and everyone welcomes him as a colleague. But then, he begins to have questions. It seems that several members of the firm have died, and he wants to know more about why. By the time he begins to see some things going on at the firm, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. And he’s going to have to find a way to get out of his situation if he’s going to stay alive. Throughout the novel, we see how Mitch loses his innocence about what can happen in law firms, especially this one.

Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain? Introduces readers to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrrand. He doesn’t have any clear plans for his future; in fact, he’s rather aimless. But he does have something very valuable: a driving license. And that’s just what professional assassin Simon Marechall needs. He’s nearing the end of his career, but he wants to complete one more job before he retires. He hires Bernard to drive him to Cap d’Agde, on the French coast, where he’ll carry out this last job. Bernard isn’t stupid, but he doesn’t know what his new boss’ business is. When he finds out, there’s a loss of innocence as things start to spin out of control.

In Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat (set in the 1950s) we meet twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who lives in a small Welsh village with her parents and her older sister Bethan.  Gwenni’s a little unusual. She’s what a lot of people call a dreamer, and she’s very much a reader. She’s curious, too. Life in the village goes on as it has for a long time, until the day that Ifan Evans goes missing. Gwenni has a vision/dream in which she sees a body, and when Ifan’s body is eventually found, she wants to know what happened. So, she starts to ask questions. As she slowly puts together the truth about the death, she also learns some dark truths about some people in the village. And, she learns some things about her own family. All of this teaches Gwenni some unhappy lessons, and in the process, she loses some of her innocence.

And then there’s Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. That’s the story of Darren Keefe and his older brother Wally. As children growing up in Victoria, they’re passionate about cricket, and play it whenever they can. And, as it turns out, both have real talent for the game. As they get older, they begin to play professionally, and soon enough, they learn about the dark side of cricket. There’s plenty of ugliness that goes on behind the scenes, and, each in a different way, the Keefe brothers are impacted by it. It affects them differently, because they have very different personalities. But in the end, they both lose their innocence about the game. And the result is tragic.

Of course, not all loss of innocence is tragic. But it’s often sobering. It also can make for a solid layer of character development in a novel, to say nothing of the possibilities for tension and suspense.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Everybody Loves You Now.

6 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Jock Serong, John Grisham, Mari Strachan, Pascal Garnier

Stranded on an Island Alone*

As this is posted, it’s 299 years since the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Among other things, this novel explores the relationship between humans and nature as Crusoe works to find shelter, food, and so on after he is stranded. It’s also, of course, his personal reflection.

And being stranded can be very scary, even if you have some survival skills. After all, lots of different things can happen, and plenty of them are not good. That’s part of why that plot point can add a lot to a crime story. There’s an extra layer of tension that can be very powerful. And the physical setting can add interest to the story, too. There are lots of novels that include that element of being stranded, or close to it. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of others.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story of ten people who accept invitations to visit Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They all arrive and settle in, and at first, all seems well enough. Then, that night, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon, a storm comes up that cuts off access to the island, so these people are stranded. And, now that it’s clear that one of them is a killer, no-one feels safe trusting anyone else. These characters don’t really have to make shelter or forage outside for food. But they are trapped, and they don’t trust each other enough to work well together. Against that backdrop, the survivors are going to have to find out who the killer is if they’re going to stay alive.

Dick Francis’ Second Wind features BBC meteorologist Perry Stuart. In one plot thread, he crashes in the Caribbean after flying a plane through the eye of a hurricane. He thinks he’s about to drown, but instead, washes up on an uninhabited island. He manages to survive, and uses the resources he can find for shelter, food, and so on. Then, he is found by four visitors to the island. At first, it seems that they want to kill him for intruding. Instead, they return him to Grand Cayman. He’s blindfolded, so he doesn’t know where the island he discovered is. But apparently, someone thinks he knows too much for safety. Once he returns to England, Stuart becomes the target of some dangerous people whose plot he slowly uncovers.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is the story of London-born William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children. In 1806, Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of wood. He and his family arrive in Sydney and have to start all over. On the one hand, they are not stranded in the sense of there being no-one else there. On the other, they have to make do as best they can for a lot of things. Still, they slowly start to build a life. Thornhill finds work with a man named Alexander King, who wants him to transport casks of liquor to nearby coves, where they won’t be seen by customs inspectors. Sal puts together a makeshift pub. It’s all rudimentary, but it’s a start. Then, Thornhill gets a job delivering goods on the Hawkesbury River. That’s where he discovers the perfect piece of land that he’s been wanting. But, of course, there have been people in this area for many thousands of years. So, there are bound to be clashes between them and the newcomers. And soon enough, that’s exactly what happens. Thornhill wants no part of the bloodshed and crimes that ensue. He soon learns, though, that if he wants to hold on to his land, he’ll have to get his hands dirty. As the Thornhills get settled on their land, we see how they have to learn to use creatively the things they find there.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that, in more than one novel, Longmire ends up more or less stranded in the mountains. He’s the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, and that means his jurisdiction includes some very rough terrain. He knows the land, and he knows how to make do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for him to stay warm, find food, and take shelter. It’s a good reminder not to take the elements for granted.

And that’s a lesson that Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte knows very well. He’s a Queensland Police Inspector, who is also half white/half Aborigine. He is thoroughly familiar with, as he calls it, the Book of the Bush. And that helps him to survive when he’s out in the ‘back of beyond.’ He knows what’s safe to eat and what isn’t, what sorts of places will offer safe shelter, how to find potable water, and how to spot an oncoming storm.

All of those skills are useful, especially if one ends up as Robinson Crusoe did. That plot line – where characters who are isolated have to make what they can from what’s available – can add suspense to a novel. And it’s interesting to explore the dynamic between people and their surroundings in those situations. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Junior Senior.

21 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Dick Francis, Kate Grenville

You’re Almost Real*

A brilliant post from Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog has got me thinking about fictional writers’ fictional characters. If you think about it, t’s really not easy for an author to create a fictional character who creates a fictional character. It can be a challenge to keep the plot in focus, and to keep the cast of characters clear. But when it’s done well, it can add an interesting ‘picture within a picture’ effect to a story.

Brad’s post was about Agatha Christie’s fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, whose sleuth is Sven Hjerson. And before I go on, let me strongly encourage you to read that post. You’ll be very, very glad that you did. Fans can tell you that Hjerson is Finnish. He’s a vegetarian, and a bit eccentric. In fact, Oliver gets thoroughly fed up with him. But, as she says, people like him. So, she continues to write about him. It’s true, of course, that Hjerson doesn’t solve any of Christie’s mysteries. But he’s an interesting fictional creation of one of her recurring characters.

And he’s not the only protagonist to play that sort of role. Martha Grimes’ series features Inspector Richard Jury and his friend, Melrose Plant. They’re the ones who do the investigating in the novels. But there’s another, even more fictional, character who makes an appearance in a few of the stories. In The Anodyne Necklace, we are introduced to mystery novelist Polly Praed, who lives in the village of Littlebourne. When a disappearance, a vicious attack, and a murder find their way into the village, Polly finds herself enmeshed in a real-life mystery. Her own creation is Detective Plod, who isn’t exactly the most scintillating of characters. In fact, Polly’s novels aren’t exactly compelling, either. But Melrose Plant pretends that he reads and enjoys them all. In The Old Wine Shades, he and Jury are working on the disappearance of a woman and her autistic son. At one point, Plant mentions that he hasn’t had much sleep. Jury says sarcastically,
 

‘‘I’ll bet. The coffee, the fire, the Times, the chair.’’
‘You sound like Polly’s Detective Plod. He lists things endlessly.’’ [Plant]
 

Plod may not be a fascinating character, but he exists to Polly Praed.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to mystery novelist Martin Canning. His series isn’t a thriller-like set of novels with lots of violence and so on. Instead, he’s created a ‘50s world featuring private investigator Nina Riley, who lives in an old Victorian house in Edinburgh. In part, he writes the series in the way he does, because he would like the world to be safer and well-ordered, as he perceives it was during those years. Canning’s novels are, perhaps, quite tame, as the saying goes. But they are popular, and his agent wants him to be a part of a panel at the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Canning doesn’t want to go, but his agent insists. What neither knows at the time is that this trip to Edinburgh will draw Canning into a web of fraud and murder, and push him farther out of his safe, comfortable world than he could have imagined.

And it’s not just fictional mystery novelists who create fictional characters. Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret, for instance, features Edmonton academic Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig. She works as a sessional lecturer, so she doesn’t have much in the way of job security. But she loves what she does, and she’s been in the field (English literature) for twenty years, since she got her M.A. As the story opens, she’s at Grant McEwan University. Then, her friend, Denise Wolff, asks her help putting together a major alumni reunion event at the University of Alberta, where Craig got her degree. Craig agrees, and the two begin to work together. That’s when she learns a piece of disturbing news. A new novel, Seven Bird Saga, is about to be published. The author is the very reclusive Margaret Ahlers, who was the subject of Craig’s M.A. thesis. And that’s how she knows that Ahlers died years ago. So, who is the author of this new novel? As the preparations for the event get underway, Craig starts looking into the mystery, and, in one major plot thread, we learn what happened twenty years earlier, when she was doing her thesis. We also learn about Ahlers’ novels, which were considered true literary achievements. Those novels feature a major character named Isabel, and as Craig follows Isabel’s story, she also learns the truth about Ahlers.

Of course, it never does to take a fictional protagonist too seriously. Just ask novelist Paul Sheldon, whom we meet in Stephen King’s Misery. He is driving through a heavy snowstorm when he has an accident in which he’s injured. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, who happens to be a devoted fan of his work. Grateful for her help, he decides to get back to work on his latest Victorian romance manuscript, which features his main character, Misery Chastain.  At first, it seems that all will be well. But then, Annie decides she doesn’t like the way in which the story is going. She has her own ideas for how this novel should develop, and she has her own ways of wanting to ensure that it goes her way. Her devotion to Misery ends up having disastrous consequences.

And that’s the thing about fictional creations of fictional characters. When they’re done well, even they can seem entirely real. Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration! Now, please, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Brad’s excellent blog. Thoughtful, well-written, interesting discussions of crime fiction await you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Hassles’ Every Step I Take (Every Move I Make). Yes, that’s Billy Joel doing lead vocals. He was a member of the Hassles before he started his solo career.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Janice MacDonald, Kate Atkinson, Martha Grimes, Stephen King

In The Spotlight: Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Noir stories come in different shapes and sizes, so to speak. No matter what sort of noir story, though, the reader knows that the outcome is going to be both unhappy and inevitable. Let’s look at an example of this today and turn the spotlight on Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket.

If I may, let me begin with a comment about the novel from the late and sorely-missed Bernadette, who blogged at both Reactions to Reading and Fair Dinkum Crime:
 

‘The noir label is thrown around with far too much abandon for my liking but as I closed the back cover of this book I thought it might just be the most perfect example of the genre I’ve read.’
 

There you go, Bernadette. I took your suggestion to read this one.

The story begins in the boot/trunk of a car, where Darren Keefe is tied up. He’s sure he’s on his way to being killed, and to him, it seems inevitable. So, readers know right away that something terrible has happened, and that something even worse is about to happen.

As the novel gets underway, Darren begins to tell his story (first person, present tense) from the beginning. And that beginning is his backyard, where he plays cricket with his brother Wally, who is two years older. The Keefes grow up in the Melbourne suburb of Altona, where playing cricket is almost as natural as breathing. For the Keefe brothers (and their mother, Pamela), cricket’s more than a pastime; it’s a way of life. And it’s not long before both brothers show unusual talent for the game.

Pamela knows that. She also knows that, as a single mum who earns a living working at cheap pubs, she can’t provide much in the way of a future for her sons, So, she scrimps, saves, and gives up a great deal to provide them with cricket gear and other things they need, so they have their chance. For them, it’s the most likely way to have a better life.

As the years go by, we see more and more how Darren and Wally develop, both as people and as cricketers. Wally is disciplined, intent on the game, and determined to be the best. Darren has a great deal of natural talent, but he is, to put it mildly, less inhibited. He’s the sort of player who can be superb – even brilliant – in the game, but who is neither consistent nor disciplined. And as time goes on, that contrast between the brothers plays a critical role in what happens between them, and what happens to both of them.

So does what they experience when they learn the hard way about the darker side of cricket. As is the case with many lucrative professional sports, there’s plenty of corruption and worse behind the scenes, and the brothers learn about it all. That, too, plays a critical role in the outcome. As the story evolves, we slowly learn what happens to both brothers, and how it is that Darren has ended up where he is. I won’t say more about the ending, because it’s most effective if the reader knows as little as possible about it.

This is a noir story, and elements of that sub-genre are woven throughout the novel, including its look at cricket. This isn’t the happy, ‘clean’ game of cricket that you might have watched, played, or heard/read about. Serong shows readers the ugly side of the game, and we see how the Keefe brothers lose their ‘cricket innocence,’ if you will, as the years go by.

And cricket matters a great deal in the novel on a few levels. On one level, in many ways, it defines the Keefes’ self-identities, interactions, and more. And that has consequences for both. On another level, cricket is a main topic in the novel. There’s quite a lot of detail about cricket positions, strategies, and more. It’s a passion, even an obsession for those who love the game, and that’s clear in the novel.

Cricket is, of course, played in many places in the world. This novel is uniquely Australian and shows the love affair that many Australians have with the game. In culture, language, and more, Serong places the reader squarely in Australia, especially Victoria.

That said, though, this isn’t a ‘history of cricket’ sort of novel, or even a ‘behind-the-scenes’ description of the game. Rather, cricket is the backdrop and context against which the Keefe brothers’ stories are told. As the novel goes on, we see how their different personalities impact the way they play, and how they impact the outcome of the story. They are opposites in many ways. Wally is single-minded, hard-working, and responsible with a sharp focus on the game and an inability to connect emotionally in any way but through cricket. Darren has once-in-a-generation natural ability, but he has difficulty with impulse control and self- discipline. He makes no excuses for himself and blames no-one else for the consequences he faces as the novel goes on.

In keeping with its noir nature, this isn’t a light, easy novel. Serong explores the dark, ugly side of people and of cricket. The outcome is as tragic as it is inevitable, and there aren’t really any heroes. Readers will also want to know that there is violence, some of it very much ‘on stage.’ The language, too, is consistent with the dark sort of story this is.

The Rules of Backyard Cricket is the story of two boys, both natural athletes, who lose their innocence as they move from childhood cricket play to the world of professional athletes. It takes place in a distinctly Australian setting and features an uncompromising look at the world of cricket. But what’s your view? Have you read The Rules of Backyard Cricket? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 30 April/Tuesday 1 May – Finding Nouf  – Zoë Ferraris

Monday, 7 May/Tuesday, 8 May – Forty Acres – Dwayne Alexander Smith

Monday, 14 May/Tuesday, 15 May – Silent Scream – Angela Marsons

14 Comments

Filed under Jock Serong, The Rules of Backyard Cricket

Many a Thing She Ought to Understand*

Many people begin their careers as trainees. They’re supposed to watch and learn, and they’re supposed to do as they’re asked. Of course, each situation is a little different; but, for instance, student teachers are limited in the amount of autonomy they have for much of their student teaching experience. Medical students are supposed to work only under the close eye of their supervising doctor. There are, of course, lots of other examples.

It’s not easy to be a trainee, if you think about it. You may have brilliant ideas, but you still have to learn how things are done, you still have to work with others, and you still have to be open to doing an awful lot of learning. It can be awkward, uncomfortable, and even disheartening at times, especially when you make a big mistake. But it’s a really important time in professional development. And it’s interesting how often this context shows up in crime fiction.

For instance, Robin Cook’s first major novel, Coma, is the story of a third-year medical student, Susan Wheeler, who is in training at Boson Memorial Hospital. When she discovers some patients went into comas during their surgeries, she begins to ask questions. She soon learns that this was the result of tampering with the patients’ oxygen lines and looks into the matter further. As she does, she finds herself in grave danger, as there are some ugly truths she uncovers. This is a thriller, but it also depicts the lives of medical students and their supervisors. Admittedly, the book was published in 1977, and there have been many changes in medicine in the last 40 years or so. But the essential roles the characters play, and the uncertainties and challenges of being a trainee, haven’t changed that much.

In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, we are introduced to FBI trainee Clarice Starling. The FBI is looking for a serial killer they’ve dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ and they think they have a way to find him. He is a former patient of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a noted, gifted psychiatrist. But Lecter is currently imprisoned in Baltimore’s State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. So, anyone who interacts with him may be at risk. Starling is chosen for the job, which does not exactly thrill some people who think that a trainee is not the right choice for this assignment. Still, she takes up her duties, and goes to visit Lecter. The two begin a dialogue, and Lecter agrees to help the FBI with the search for ‘Buffalo Bill.’ But he imposes a condition. For everything he tells Starling, she will have to share a personal secret. It’s a risky psychological game as the two pursue their agendas, and it doesn’t help matters that there’s still a killer on the loose.

Pablo De Santis’ Enigma of Paris introduces us to Sigmundo Salvatrio, son of a Buenos Aires shoemaker. He wants more than anything to be a detective, so he is thrilled to learn that he’s been accepted at the Academy for Detectives, run by world-famous detective Renato Craig. Craig is the co-founder of an international group of detectives known as The Twelve, and this group is scheduled to make a presentation at the upcoming Paris World’s Fair of 1889. Illness forces Craig to cancel his plans to attend the event, so he sends Salvatrio in his place. Salvatrio meets the other members of The Twelve, including the group’s other founder, Viktor Arkazy. Then, another member, Louis Dargon, is murdered, and Salvatrio works with Arkazy to find the killer. Throughout the novel, we see the roles that Salvatrio and the other detectives’ apprentices play, and how those roles are impacted by their trainee status.

We first meet Tony Hillerman’s Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito in The Fallen Man. In that novel, she is a rookie trainee in the Navajo Tribal Police’s Special Investigations Unit. In one plot thread of this story, the unit is tasked with getting to the truth about a series of cattle thefts. On the one hand, Manuelito knows very well that she is ‘the new kid,’ and has a lot to learn. On other, she learns some important things about the case, and decides to take some initiative. And, in the end, the unit learns who is responsible for the thefts. Manuelito’s need to balance her role as a trainee with her desire to solve the case reflects the dilemmas that many trainees may have. On the one hand, they’re supposed to watch, learn, take advice, and so on. On the other, they also need to learn to take initiative and make choices.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure begins as paramedic Carly Martens and her teammate for the day, Aidan Simpson, are called to the scene of what looks like a domestic dispute between Connor Crawford and his wife, Suzanne. They reassure the paramedics that all is well, although Suzanne has an injury. She insists that it’s minor, and that she’ll be fine, so the paramedics have little choice but to leave. The next day, Suzanne is brutally murdered, and Connor goes missing. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard investigate, and they find what the paramedics have to say is very useful. In one plot thread of this novel, we learn more about Aidan Simpson. He is a trainee, so he’s been assigned to work with different partners on a rotating basis to complete his training. But it’s not working out well. He is smug, arrogant, and unwilling to listen to what anyone says. What’s worse, he is inept. Both Martens and her regular partner, Mick Schultz, have tried to help Simpson fit in and learn his job. But he isn’t willing to try to learn. And that forms a thread in this novel.

And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Lucy Howard is a probationer with the Tasmania Police. She’s smart, and willing to do the work that it takes to learn the job. She’s lucky, too. Her boss is Sergeant John White, who wants her to do well. In fact, one afternoon, the police get called to the scene of a home invasion, and White taps Howard to go with him. For her, the prospect is nerve-wracking, but she is also flattered, and she wants very much to do the job well. Tragically, White is murdered at the crime scene, while he is at the back of the home, and Howard at the front. As the police deal with this death, and with the investigation, Lucy has to face her own feelings of guilt at not being able to save her boss.

It’s never easy to be a trainee. There’s so much to learn, there’s the social fitting-in, and there’s anxiety about doing the job well. That context can be challenging in real life, but it makes for a solid context for a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Maria.

11 Comments

Filed under Katherine Howell, Pablo De Santis, Robin Cook, Thomas Harris, Tony Hillerman, Y.A. Erskine