Que Bonita es Barcelona*

Writers are like everyone else: we are products of our times, and we live through events as the rest of the world does. And those events sometimes have a real impact on us. Well, they do on me, at any rate.

And therein lies the issue. Like millions of others, I am heartbroken about the loss of life and the devastation in Barcelona. I’ve been there. I’ve walked down its streets and explored its history (did you know that Barcelona is home to Europe’s oldest synagogue?). So, there’s a really personal sense of loss. I felt the same way about what happened in London before that. And in Charlottesville. And in Manchester, although I admit I’ve not been there. And in other places, too. This has been, so far, a terrible year in terms of the awful things people can do to each other.

The thing is, I’m a writer. Writers are, in general, observers. That’s part of what we do. And we can’t help seeing what goes on around us (am I right, fellow writers?). The question is, what do we do with it? How do writers cope with some of the awfulness of life that we can’t help seeing?

Some writers speak out about it. That’s what Margaret Atwood has done in The Handmaid’s Tale. She herself has said that everything that happens in that novel has happened, or is happening, in real life. She’s used those things as inspiration, and brought a lot of things to our notice. Perhaps this novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, but crimes are certainly committed in it.

They are in George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, too. Like Atwood, Orwell spoke out about what he observed, and used what he saw to inspire his writing. And there’ve been many crime writers who’ve done the same. Attica Locke, Kishwar Desai, Antti Tuomainen and Sara Paretsky are only a few examples of authors who’ve been deeply affected by major issues like poverty, racism, and climate change, and have discussed them in their writing. I know you’ll think of many more.

Other writers have made other choices. For instance, Agatha Christie lived through two world wars. She was tragically familiar with wartime shortages, the loss of people she knew, and so on. In fact, she safeguarded both Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which were written during World War II, in case she didn’t survive it.

And yet, if you read Christie’s work, you see comparatively little discussion of the real costs of war. She certainly mentions war and its losses in books such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Taken at the Flood and some other work, too. But her stories really focus on the mysteries at hand, the characters involved, and so on. And in some books, such as Five Little Pigs, there’s no mention of the war at all, although that particular novel was published in 1942.

Christie isn’t the only author who didn’t really write about what she was living through at the time. The ‘Queen Team’ also wrote during World War II. Calamity Town, for instance was published in 1942. And yet, you don’t see a lot of discussion of war losses, shortages and so on. In fact, Calamity Town doesn’t really mention World War II at all.

Every writer is different, of course. Some deal with their sense of grief and loss and heartbreak through their writing. Others prefer to escape those sorrows and write other sorts of stories. Still others are motivated in different ways. I don’t think there is a ‘right’ way to cope, to be honest.

What do you folks think? If you’re a reader, are you comfortable with books in which the author explores the raw grief, anger and heartbreak that go with war, terrorism, loss, and sorrow? Or does that keep you too close to it all? If you’re a writer, do you deal with your sense of anger and grief at these horrible events by writing? Or do you use your writing to go (and take the reader) elsewhere?

As for me, I can’t answer that question right now – at least about the terrorism we’ve seen lately. It’s too recent. But just because I’m not writing about the heartbreak doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Manuel Moreno. In English (my translation) the title means: How beautiful Barcelona is.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Attica Locke, Ellery Queen, George Orwell, Kishwar Desai, Margaret Atwood, Sara Paretsky

Be My Bodyguard*

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, successful American business magnate Samuel Ratchett is making a journey across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. When Ratchett learns that Hercule Poirot is on the same train, he makes an unusual proposal. He wants to hire Poirot as a sort of bodyguard, since he feels threatened. Poirot refuses, angering Ratchett. It turns out Ratchett was right to be concerned, though, because he’s stabbed to death the next night. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the first-class carriage, and Poirot works to find out who the killer is.

Perhaps we can’t easily imagine Poirot in the role of bodyguard, but there are plenty of people who work in that capacity, in real life as well as crime fiction. They’re professionals, but at the same time, they aren’t law enforcement officers or PIs. So, they fill interesting roles, and they can be interesting characters. And situations that call for bodyguards can add real tension to a story.

In Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary, we are introduced to Glenn Hadlock. He’s recently been released from prison, so his job choices are limited. Then, he sees an advertisement that catches his attention. Victor Scofield is looking for a bodyguard/chauffer for his wife, Eileen. Hadlock decides to apply, and is granted an interview. He learns that Scofield is permanently disabled, and can’t leave his room. But, he says, he doesn’t want to impose the same limitations on Eileen. So, he’s decided to hire someone to escort her. Hadlock gets the job, and at first, everything goes well. The pay is good, he gets a free apartment in the Scofield mansion, and Eileen is pleasant company. But it’s not long before Hadlock discovers that this job has a lot of hidden dangers…

There are plenty of dangers for bodyguard Martin Lemmer, too, whom we meet in Deon Meyers’ Blood Safari. He works for a Cape Town private security firm called Body Armour, and he’s had his share of risky experiences. But he gets in much deeper than he thought when Emma Le Roux hires him to escort her from Cape Town to the Lowveld. She’s following up on a lead that could help her locate her brother, Jacobus. She’d thought he was killed years ago in a skirmish with poachers, while he was working at Kruger National Park. It turns out, though, that he may very well still be alive. If so, she wants to find him. Lemmer goes with her, and soon learns that some extremely dangerous people are determined not to let anyone find out the truth about Jacobus Le Roux. Lemmer’s going to need all of his skills if he’s going to keep himself and his client alive.

In Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence, we are introduced to Jade de Jong. Ten years before the events of the novel, she left her native Johannesburg when her police-detective father was killed. She went to the UK, where she spent several years working in private security and bodyguarding. Since then, she’s become a PI. So, she’s well able to take care of herself. But even she’s not prepared for what awaits her when she goes back to Johannesburg. Annette Botha has been killed in what looks like a carjacking gone wrong. But then, there’s another murder. And another. The three deaths don’t seem on the surface to be linked, but there are little pieces of evidence that they might be. Police Superintendent David Patel, who was a friend of de Jong’s father, is glad she’s back in town, and grateful for her help in the investigations. And, in the end, Patel and de Jong find that the three murders are, indeed, linked, in a way they hadn’t imagined.

When key police witnesses are believed to be in danger, they’re often provided ‘safe’ accommodations and bodyguard protection. That’s what happens in T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell. In that novel, London attorney Jill Shadow becomes involved in a web of drugs trafficking, high-level corruption, and murder when she gets an unusual request. Bella Kiss has been arrested at Heathrow Airport on suspicion of drugs smuggling. She doesn’t deny the charges, but won’t say anything about who paid/coerced her to carry the drugs. And Shadow’s been asked to do what she can to defend the young woman. It’s clear that Bella is afraid for her life, and Shadow wants to help her. But it’s not going to be easy, since this client isn’t saying anything. Bit by bit, and after a murder, Shadow comes closer to the truth, and it gets her into grave danger – so grave that she has to be taken to a safe house. There’s she’s provided with a bodyguard/procurer called Ralph, who is her only link to the outside world. And we see how important that protection becomes when some powerful and nasty people target Shadow.

And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, which in part tells the story of superstar Gaia Lafayette. A native of Brighton, she’s returning from the US to her home town to do a film. There’s already been at least one attempt on her life, so her personal security is a major issue. She has an entourage that includes personal bodyguards, but her representatives want to be assured of her safety during her stay at Brighton. So, Superintendent Roy Grace is told that the local police will need to make the star’s safety a priority. This isn’t good news for Grace, who’s already dealing with a bizarre murder. But the authorities don’t want there to be any questions about the town’s willingness to protect visitors. So, the word comes down that Grace will have to manage as best he can. And it’s interesting to see the relationship between the police who are supposed to protect the visitors, and the personal bodyguards who have the same charge.

Bodyguards have a unique perspective on security and on their charges. And they certainly have challenging, sometimes dangerous, jobs. That can make for an interesting layer of suspense and character development in a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Robyn Hitchcock.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Jassy Mackenzie, Peter James, Robert Colby, T.J. Cooke

Down to Elvis Presley Boulevard Where All the Faithful Cried*

As this is posted, it’s 40 years since the death of Elvis Presley. Whatever you think of his music, Presley was a worldwide phenomenon, and millions of people still make the pilgrimage to his home at Graceland. Oh, and by the way, you’ll want to check out Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, which takes place in Memphis, and which has plenty of mentions of (and even a big event at) Graceland.

Presley’s passing left his legions of fans grief-stricken. There are even those who swear that he’s still alive; that’s how much he meant to them. But it’s often that way when someone you’ve put on a pedestal dies. If it’s a famous person, there’s a wide outpouring of emotion. If it’s someone you’ve personally had as an idol (say, a colleague or friend or mentor), the grief may not be as public, but it’s no less there. Certainly, that’s true in real life, and it is in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife, Gerda, are among a group of people invited to spend a weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area and has been invited for lunch, arrives just after the shooting; in fact, at first, he thinks it’s an ‘amusement’ staged for his benefit. Very soon, though, he sees that it’s all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the murderer is. As he does, we see just how many people put Christow on a pedestal. And even for those who didn’t do that, we see clearly that his death has left a gaping hole, if I can put it like that.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate when eighteen-year-old Andreas Winther disappears. When Andreas’ mother, Runi, first reports him missing, Sejer isn’t overly concerned. There are, after all, plenty of reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he’s going. But when more time goes by, and he doesn’t return, Sejer begins to look more seriously into the matter. He begins with Andreas’ best friend, Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. I can say without spoiling the story that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does know a lot more than he’s saying about their last day together, and about what might have happened to Andreas. And, as the story goes on, we see that, in a way, Zipp hero-worshipped his friend, and is dealing with his own kind of grief and sense of loss.

Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) is the story of the murder of Viktor Stråndgard. His body is discovered in a Kiruna church called the Church of the Source of All Our Strength. The victim was an up-and-coming church leader who was sometimes called The Paradise Boy. He had many, many followers, so his death makes national news. In fact, that’s how Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson hears about the murder. It’s especially shocking to her because she grew up in Kiruna, and knew the Stråndgard family. Then, she gets a call from the victim’s sister, Sanna, a former friend. Sanna says that the police suspect her of the murder, and she needs Martinsson’s help. At first, Martinsson refuses; she had her own good reasons for leaving Kiruna in the first place, and has no desire to return. But Sanna finally persuades her to go. Martinsson hasn’t been there long when Sanna is actually arrested for the murder and imprisoned. Now, if she’s to clear her former friend’s name, Martinsson will have to find out who the real killer is. As she looks into the case, we see how Viktor Stråndgard’s death has impacted the church, his followers, and plenty of other people as well.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is the first in his series featuring Shanghai police detective Chief Inspector Chen Cao. One morning, the body of a woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. Very soon, she is identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. That means this investigation is going to have to be done very delicately. The victim was somewhat of a celebrity, and her death has been reported widely, leaving many people upset. What’s more, she had high political status, and moved in circles with some important people. So, it’s going to be critical that the case be handled as carefully as possible.

A similar thing might be said of William Ryan’s The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), which takes place in the then-USSR in the years just before World War II. It’s the story of the murder of Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya, a dedicated Party worker and up-and-coming actress. When she’s found dead at a filming location, it looks at first as though it might be a suicide. But there are enough questions about it that Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev is seconded to Odessa to find out the truth. And that’s going to be a problem. If the victim died by suicide that’ll be put down as a tragedy, but no more. If it’s a murder, though, the matter could turn very ugly for some important people. And, since the victim was a celebrity, albeit a minor one, there’ll be news reports, and word will get out. So, Korolev will have to tread very, very lightly as he investigates.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. The real action in this novel begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan goes missing and is later found dead, with a scarf round her head. At the time, the police concentrate heavily on her family, especially her aunt, uncle and cousins, with whom she’s staying during the summer. Then, a few months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is killed. She, too, is found with a scarf. Now, the Sydney police seem to be dealing with a mass killer that the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. No-one is ever arrested for the crimes, though, and the cases go cold. Years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on the families of murder victims. She approaches Angela’s cousin Jane Tait, who gives very reluctant permission to be interviewed. She also interviews Jane’s brother, Mick, and their parents, Barbara and Doug Griffin. As the story goes on, we learn the story of that summer, and we learn what really happened to both Angela and Kelly. Admittedly, Angela is not a film or music idol. But Jane put her up on a pedestal, in a way, and her loss struck a devastating blow from which the family still hasn’t really recovered. It’s an interesting case of a person who isn’t famous, but who is still someone’s idol.

The loss of an idol can have a profound impact on a person. And that can make for an interesting crime plot or layer of character development. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Elvis Presley Boulevard.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Karin Fossum, Qiu Xiaolong, Riley Adams, Wendy James, William Ryan

Glisten Like a Pearl at the Bottom of the World*

Fair warning: this post will likely be injurious to your budget and to your TBR. Just sayin’…

I’ve been once again privileged this year to be a part of the panel for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. It’s been a terrific experience, and I’ve had the opportunity to read some excellent crime fiction. There are some fine new Kiwi voices out there, and I’m excited to have gotten the chance to hear some of them. Lucky me!

Want to know who the finalists are for the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel??? Here they are, in alphabetical order by author’s surname:

 

Finn Bell – Dead Lemons

The blurb:

In the far south a young girl goes missing, lost without trace in the wilderness beyond her remote family cottage. A year later her father disappears in the same place. Then nothing. At all. Eventually the years grow over the grief. The decades wear away the questions, life flows past the forgotten tragedy.
Until Finn moves into the abandoned home, looking for a fresh start.
A place to heal himself far from his old problems. But rebuilding life is complicated by chance encounters and odd occurrences leaving Finn with the growing suspicion that the people here are harboring a terrible secret. Suspicion turns to obsession the deeper Finn digs while also facing steadily escalating dangers in the here-and-now. Soon Finn’s own journey of recovery becomes inextricably linked with his need to unravel the mystery. Past and present finally collide when Finn starts to learn the truth about this place and himself. Now he must choose between exoneration and condemnation, justice and vengeance.

 

Jonothan Cullinane – Red Herring

The blurb:

Murder, political intrigue, bent cops and the fate of a nation – a thriller set in the murky underworld of 1951 New Zealand.
A man overboard, a murder and a lot of loose ends …
In Auckland 1951 the workers and the government are heading for bloody confrontation and the waterfront is the frontline.But this is a war with more than two sides and nothing is what it seems.
Into the secret world of rival union politics, dark political agendas and worldwide anti-communist hysteria steps Johnny Molloy, a private detective with secrets of his own.
Caitlin O’Carolan, a feisty young reporter, is following her own leads. Together they begin to uncover a conspiracy that goes to the heart of the Establishment – and which will threaten their own lives in the process.
 

Gordon Ell – The Ice Shroud

The blurb:

When a woman’s body is discovered frozen in the ice of a river near the alpine resort of Queenstown, Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan faces both a mystery and a moral dilemma. The identity of the nude woman is critical to the motives and manner of her murder, and Buchan is personally involved. So are a number of locals, from ski bums to multi-millionaire businessman.
Newly appointed to head CIB in the Southern Lakes district, Buchan hunts the killer through the entanglements of corruption and abuse that lie barely below the surface of the tourist towns.
The assistance of a woman traffic sergeant is critical to the hunt but she brings her own dilemmas. The community is practised at keeping its secrets, and finding the truth comes at a price.

 

Simon Wyatt – The Student Body

The blurb:

A popular fifteen-year-old girl is strangled to death at a school camp on Auckland’s west coast. The posing of the body suggests a sexual motive. Nick Knight, a week into his role as a newly promoted detective sergeant, is tasked with the critical job of leading the Suspects Team.
Nick – who turned his back on a lucrative career as a lawyer – is well-versed at dealing with the dark sides of human nature. With no shortage of suspects, he sets a cracking pace on the trail of the murderer, grappling his own personal demons along the way. But are things really as they seem?

 

Sue Younger – Days are Like Grass

The blurb:

A beautiful New Zealand summer. An ugly past that won’t stay buried. Paediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman has reluctantly returned to Auckland from London. Calm, rational and in control, she loves delicately repairing her small patients’ wounds. Tragically, wounds sometimes made by the children’s own families. Yossi wants to marry Claire. He thinks they’ve come to the safest place on earth, worlds away from the violence he knew growing up. He revels in the glorious summer, the idyllic islands of the gulf. But Roimata, Claire’s fifteen-year-old daughter, is full of questions. Why is Claire so secretive about her past? Why won’t she talk to the man who could solve the mystery that dominated her childhood? When a family refuses medical treatment for their boy, Claire’s story is in the headlines again. All Claire wants to do is run. This is a novel about the wounds a family can make. About a woman caught between the past and the present. And about her need to keep everybody safe. Especially herself.

The winner will be announced soon, so watch this space!!

There are also Ngaio Marsh Awards for Best Crime Novel, and (for the first time!) for Best Non-Fiction, too. You’ll want to check them out right here on Crime Watch, the source for Kiwi crime fiction, and crime fiction from around the world. G’head – there are some great books there!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Split Enz’ Six Months in a Leaky Boat.

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Filed under Finn Bell, Gordon Ell, Jonothan Cullinane, Simon Wyatt, Sue Younger

In The Spotlight: Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol’s The Cemetery of Swallows

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Plenty of crime novels don’t fit easily into one category. On the one hand, that can make them a little challenging to describe and discuss. It’s more challenging to market them, too. On the other hand, such books broaden the scope of the genre, and possibly draw new readers to it. One such book is Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol’s The Cemetery of Swallows, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

The story begins in a very cryptic way, in the Dominican Republic. Manuel Gemoni travels from France to the small Dominican town of Carabello, with one purpose: to commit murder. His target is a Dominican citizen, Tobias Darbier. One afternoon, he succeeds, but he is badly injured in the process. There is no question that Gemoni is guilty, but the matter is complicated because he’s a French citizen. So, Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID goes to the Dominican Republic to work with the local authorities.

One of the most baffling things about the case is the apparent lack of motive. When questioned, Gemoni has only said that he killed Darbier because,
 

‘‘He had killed me first.’’
 

That, of course, makes no logical sense. And in any case, there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the two men. Gemoni’s sister, Julie, who also works for the Paris CID, wants to help her brother as much as possible. And Mallock considers her a friend. So, for her sake, and because it’s his job, he looks into the case more deeply.

One of the issues is the delicate matter of international diplomacy. The Dominican Republic authorities want to try Gemoni there, as he killed a Dominican citizen. But again, Gemoni is French. What’s more, he’s severely injured. So, after some negotiation, it’s agreed that Gemoni will be escorted back to France, where he will stay until he’s recovered. Then, he’ll be returned to the Dominican Republic for trial. That doesn’t leave Mallock a lot of time to investigate, but he starts the work.

As Gemoni starts to recover, he tells a very improbable story that even Mallock finds nearly impossible to believe. But background research corroborates everything Gemoni says. What more, Mallock knows Gemoni, and doesn’t see him as a pathological liar or a murderer. Still, the story is so strange that, when the case is heard, the jury doesn’t accept it. Now, Mallock has to go through everything again, and get to the truth. It turns out that this murder is connected to a long-ago event, but not in the way it seems at first.

In a sense, this is a police procedural. So, one element in the novel is the way the police of both countries go about finding the truth. Evidence, witnesses, records, and so on, are all used. And there are some scenes at the different police stations of the two countries, so readers get a sense of how the police do their jobs. Mallock’s team is cohesive, and there’s a sense of mutual respect. Readers who are tired of police politics and ‘patch wars’ will appreciate this.

Because they’re different countries, there are real differences between the way things are done in the Dominican Republic, and the way they’re done in France. One important element in the novel is the mostly-Dominican setting, and the way Mallock has to adjust to being there. On the one hand, he’s a high-ranking officer in the Paris CID, and he’s there on behalf of his country, so he brings some expertise. But he is also a guest, and in a different place, and he knows that that means he needs to adjust to what his hosts do. Everything – procedure, availability of resources, daily life, etc. – is different, and sometimes that irritates Mallock. The local police aren’t always thrilled with him, either. But there are also things Mallock learns while he’s in the Dominican Republic. It’s an interesting case of ‘fish out of water,’ but at the same time, neither Mallock nor his hosts are made out to be bumblers.

There are tense, suspenseful moments in the novel, but it has a ‘literary’ flow and pace in it. Readers who are interested in a thriller, or who prefer the suspense of a traditional whodunit, will notice this. Readers who enjoy description, and who prefer a more leisurely pace, will appreciate it. There are one or two pieces written in the present tense, but for the most part, the novel is written in the past tense, mostly from Mallock’s perspective.

There is an element of the non-prosaic in the novel. For instance, there’s a discussion of reincarnation, a spiritual ritual, and other traces of things that not everyone believes or actually can see. I should quickly say that case isn’t solved by divine revelation or the paranormal. But there is the need to suspend disbelief; readers who don’t like to do that will definitely notice that element. That said, though, Mallock is a practical person, who doesn’t hold with things mystical as a rule. Certainly, he’s not a gullible person.

The Cemetery of Swallows arguably doesn’t fit neatly into any of the usual sub-genres of crime fiction. It’s a literary novel that features a murder and the history that led to it. It takes place mostly in the Dominican Republic, and tells the story of a Paris detective and his team, who try to make sense of a case that doesn’t seem to make much sense at all on the surface. But what’s your view? Have you read The Cemetery of Swallows? If you have, what element s do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 21 August/Tuesday, 22 August – Corridors of Death – Ruth Dudley Edwards

Monday, 28 August/Tuesday, 29 August – The Colaba Conspiracy – Surender Mohan Pathak

Monday, 4 September/Tuesday, 5 September – The Earth Hums in B Flat – Mari Strachan.

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Filed under Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, The Cemetery of Swallows