In The Spotlight: Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. This will be the first of five special editions of this feature. For each of the next several weeks, I’ll be spotlighting one of the finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. I was privileged to be on the panel this year, and had a great experience. So, what better than to share it with you? We’ll start with this year’s winner, Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons.

Thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell is at a crossroads in his life. A car crash left him without the use of his legs, and his marriage to his wife, Anna, has ended. He wants to start over, so he buys a small cottage in the tiny town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island.
 

‘…almost as close to the bottom of the world as you can get without actually moving to Antarctica.’
 

He settles in and reluctantly arranges to meet with his assigned therapist, Betty Crowe. He also begins to meet some of the other local residents, and is surprised to find that the word is already out about him. It’s that sort of a small town.

When Bell discovers a tabby cat living in the cottage, he decides to try to track down the cottage’s former owner, Emily Cotter, to see if the cat belongs to her. That’s how he learns about a double tragedy that took place at the cottage. In 1988, Emily’s daughter, Alice, disappeared. Brothers Darrell, Sean, and Archie Zoyl, who own land nearby, were suspected of killing the girl, and there was evidence against them. But it wasn’t enough to convict them, although they were arrested three times. A year later, Emily’s husband, James, also disappeared.

Finn’s curious about what happened, so he begins to read up on the disappearances. He starts to ask questions, too. In fact, his determination to find out what happened to the Cotters begins to feed his openness to starting his life again. So does his work with Betty.  But it seems very few people are willing or able to give him any answers, although it’s hard to believe that no-one would know anything.

Then, some frightening things begin to happen, and it’s soon clear that someone does not want Finn to find out the truth about that old case. And, the more he looks into it, the more certain he is that something truly ugly is going on in the town. It’s not long before Finn’s not even sure who can be trusted and who can’t. And the closer he gets to the answers he wants, the more real danger there is for him.

This novel is a thriller. So, there are narrow escapes, people who seem trustworthy but aren’t, and real danger for Finn. The pace is consistent with that sort of novel, too. And there are plot twists and nasty characters.

At the same time, the novel tells Finn’s personal story (from his point of view), so in that sense, it is more reflective than many thrillers are. Finn’s rather an unlikely hero. He’s had a serious drinking problem (hence his divorce and the car accident), but has stopped drinking. Now, he’s trying to figure everything out. He’s prickly, sometimes aloof, and quite cynical; he himself admits that he’s not a happy person, and not a nice one. At the same time, he slowly learns to conquer the depression that led to his other problems. It’s not an easy process, a matter of two steps forward and one back, as the saying goes. For Finn, finding out what happened to the Cotters is a form of redemption.

And it’s an ugly truth, too. The secrets of Riverton go back for a long time, and involve some horrible things. This isn’t one of those light ‘murder in a small town’ sorts of mysteries. There’s sadness and darkness here, and finding out the truth doesn’t really make everything all right again. That said, though, Finn does slowly find himself healing and beginning to fit in to his new life.

Another element in this story is its setting. Riverton is a small town with a long history (it’s one of New Zealand’s oldest towns), and a motley crew of residents. Everyone knows everyone, and there are a lot of kinship ties within the town. For instance, Patricia, the local hair stylist, is a cousin of Tai Rangi, who introduces Finn to Murderball – wheelchair rugby. There are other networks, too, based on the Māori concept of family, which is quite different to what Finn’s known. The town can feel isolated, though. In fact, Finn describes it as ‘the middle of nowhere.’ And that isolation adds to the suspense of the novel.

The story is told in two timelines, both mostly using the present tense. In one timeline, the present, Finn is at a very dangerous cliff, at risk of falling off it. In the other timeline, five months previously, Finn tells the story of how he ended up in Riverton, why and how he got interested in the Cotter case, and what led to the scene at the cliff. The timelines come together towards the end of the book, as one timeline catches up to the other and we learn the truth about the town, its history, and its secrets. Readers who prefer only one timeline will notice this. So will readers who prefer their stories not be told in the present tense.

Dead Lemons is the story of a man who comes to a small town to start over, and finds himself drawn into the dark secrets of the town’s past. It features some ugly crimes, and shows how people can still be affected by trauma, even years after a tragedy. It’s set in a distinctly New Zealand town, and offers a look at life there, and at the slow process of healing. But what’s your view? Have you read Dead Lemons? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 27 November/Tuesday, 28 November – Days Are Like Grass – Sue Younger

Monday, 4 December/Tuesday, 5 December – The Student Body – Simon Wyatt

Monday, 11 December/Tuesday, 12 December – The Frozen Shroud – Gordon Ell

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Filed under Dead Lemons, Finn Bell

And Though She’s Not Really Ill, There’s a Little Yellow Pill*

Most of us would probably agree that what have sometimes been called ‘street drugs’ (heroin, for instance) are dangerous and just as well illegal. Certainly, they’ve wreaked havoc on innumerable families. And, of course, crime fiction is full of references to those sorts of drugs and the trade in them.

It’s sometimes not as clear-cut with other sorts of drugs, though. For instance, people with certain mental and emotional illnesses benefit greatly from certain drugs. There are other people, too, such as people with certain learning and attention disabilities, who can benefit from certain medications. It’s not always an easy question what role those drugs should play, and people have very different opinions on the topic.

That question comes up in crime fiction, and it’s interesting to see how the answer to it has changed over time as public and professional views on the topic change. And even today, there isn’t consensus. There rarely is with complex issues that don’t have easy answers.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he is a user of both morphine and cocaine. He doesn’t use drugs for fun, and he doesn’t deal in them. Rather, his drug use reflects the views of his generation. More than one easily-available medication of that time contained cocaine or heroin, and people saw those drugs as perfectly legitimate. Dr. Watson disapproves of Holmes’ use of those drugs, but he doesn’t make much headway in getting his friend to stop.

There’s an interesting discussion of barbiturate use in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies. In one plot thread, we are introduced to American actress Carlotta Adams. She’s quite the sensation of the day, with a one-person impersonation show. She’s quite gifted, too, and popular. One night, she apparently takes an overdose of Veronal and is found dead the next morning. At first, it’s put down to a tragic accident. At the time, plenty of people take sleeping medicine (it’s actually mentioned in more than one of Christie’s stories). So, no-one thinks much of it. And yet, the dead woman’s maid swears she wasn’t a regular drug user. And it turns out that this overdose was far from accidental. Hercule Poirot connects this murder to the stabbing murder of wealthy, unpleasant Lord Edgware, and finds the surprising link between them. On the one hand, a local doctor expresses his strong disapproval of drug use:
 

‘‘Why these girls must have drugs, I can’t think.’’
 

On the other hand, it’s not an unusual thing to use powerful barbiturates.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur, we meet Kerstin Kvist, a Swedish nurse who’d decided to move to England to be closer to her lover, Mark Douglas. She accepts a job with the Cosway family, where her duty will be to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia. On the surface, the job looks like exactly the right choice for Kerstin. But all too soon, she begins to suspect that all is not what it seems. For one thing, the family still seems to be living in the Victorian Era, which is odd in itself. Also, family matriarch Mrs. Cosway has given strict instructions that her son is to be kept heavily medicated. Kerstin doesn’t think he needs that much medication; so, bit by bit, she reduces his dosages without telling anyone. Her decision has tragic consequences, which she documents in a diary that she keeps.

One of the ongoing debates in the world of education, especially special education, is how much (if any) medication children should be given when they are diagnosed with attention and other learning disorders. It’s not an easy question. It’s addressed a bit in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks, in which we first meet child psychologist Alex Delaware. One day, he gets a visit from his friend, LAPD detective Milo Sturgis. It seems that a psychiatrist named Morton Handler and his lover, Elena Gutierrez, have been brutally murdered. The only witness is seven-year-old Melody Quinn. Getting any information from her is going to be difficult, though. For one thing, she’s a child, with a child’s perspective. For another, she’s on heavy medication for ADHD and other learning issues. Sturgis is hoping that Delaware will be able to communicate with the child and find out whatever information she has. Delaware is reluctant to take on this task, but he agrees. He soon finds, though, that it’s all but impossible to have any meaningful conversation with Melody. The child’s doctor, Dr. Lionel Towle, refuses to reduce her medication, so Delaware convinces her mother to let him reduce it. At first, it seems that Melody might open up and trust Delaware. Very soon, though, she begins to have severe nightmares. That’s enough for her mother and doctor to bar Delaware from seeing her again. By this time, though, Delaware is curious about the case, so he works with Sturgis to find out the truth.

Several medical thrillers, such as those by Robin Cook, also explore questions around the ethics of medication. In Acceptable Risk, for instance, a new line of psychotropic drugs is being developed, and the result turns out to be disastrous. One of the issues Cook raises is how much pressure pharmaceutical companies should put on researchers to develop new medications. Another is what the limits of such research should be, especially if the result could potentially be helpful to millions of people.

These aren’t easy questions. Nor are other questions about pharmaceuticals and medications. Attitudes towards them have changed as time has gone by, and we see both that complexity and those changes in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Jonathan Kellerman, Robin Cook

You Can Rely on the Old Man’s Money*

If you’ve ever been concerned that you haven’t been able to give your children what you wish you could, you’re not alone. Most parents want the best for their children. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want them to struggle the way I had to.’

It’s only natural for parents to want their children to have everything. But there’s an old expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ And it might very well apply here. If you’ve met children who’s always had everything they wanted, and never had to work for it, you know the effect that can have on their dispositions. And that’s to say nothing of how unprepared such children are to deal with life’s challenges.

There are plenty of examples of young people who’ve always had everything they wanted in crime fiction. They don’t always make for sympathetic characters, but they can add interest to a story, and they can add plot threads.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, we are introduced to Ronald Marsh. Having grown up in a ‘blueblood’ family, he hasn’t really wanted for anything. He’s never learned to manage his money, so he’s in quite a difficult financial situation. In fact, that makes him a suspect when his wealthy uncle, 4th Baron Edgware, is murdered. The victim’s wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the primary suspect. She wanted a divorce so that she could marry again. But she says she was at a dinner party in another part of London, and there are twelve people willing to swear that she was there. So Chief Inspector Japp has to look elsewhere for the murderer. Hercule Poirot is involved in the case, since he visited the victim on the day of the murder. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Ronald Marsh copes with the stress of being suspected of murder, of being in need of money, and so on. It’s clear that he was never prepared to work for goals and to deal with adversity.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep introduces us to the Sternwood family. General Guy Sternwood is upset because a book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent him an extortion letter that mentions his daughter, Carmen. Sternwood hires Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him from harassing the family. Marlowe doesn’t find the Sternwoods pleasant at all, but he agrees to take the case. By the time he tracks Geiger down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood was in the room at the time of the killing, but she’s either too drugged or too dazed to say much or remember anything. Marlowe quickly gets her out of the way before the police suspect her, and thinks that this will be the end of his work with the Sternwoods. The next day, though, the Sternwoods’ chauffer dies in what looks like a suicide (but is it?). Now, Marlowe gets more and more deeply involved with the family as he helps to find out what’s behind that death. Throughout the novel, we see that Carmen Sternwood and her older sister, Vivian, have always had every material thing they wanted. They haven’t had love and affection from their parents, but they’ve always been indulged. And that has a profound impact on them.

Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood gives readers a look at the ultra-privileged lives of Bollywood superstars. In it, top film director Nikhil Kapoor is found dead in his writing studio, apparently of a freak electrical accident. His wife, superstar actress Mallika Kapoor, also dies of an apparent cocaine overdose. The Powers That Be want this case wrapped up quickly, and the deaths attributed to tragic accident; but Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan isn’t so sure. So, he begins to look into the matter. He learns that, not long before the deaths, Nikhil Kapoor had hosted a private party at which he said one of those present had killed before, and would kill again. With this information in hand, Khan begins to investigate the people who were at the party, and find out which one Kapoor might have had in mind. And in the end, he finds out the truth about those deaths, and one other murder. As the story evolves, we meet the Kapoors’ son, Rohan. He’s been very much indulged his whole life, and is thoroughly spoilt. He’s smart enough, but he’s never had to work for a living, or make a life for himself. That overindulged background has an important impact on him.

In Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson gets a new client, Christine Arvisais. It seems that her former fiancé, ‘blueblood’ Gordon Hanes, was shot on the day that was supposed to be their wedding. Everyone thinks that Christine’s responsible, but she claims she is innocent. Sasha doesn’t care at all for this new client; Christine is spoiled, self-entitled, and rude. But a fee is a fee. So, she starts looking into the case. And it’s not long before she finds that there could definitely be other explanations for Hanes’ murder. Throughout the novel, we see that Christine has always had everything she wanted. And she’s actually quite hampered by not knowing how to work for herself or deal with life’s unexpected blows. And that life of indulgence has certainly had an impact on her personality.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of the Garrow family.  Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who comes from a ‘blueblood’ family. He’s doing quite well, even being spoken of as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s been indulged most of his life, and his mother still works to make sure he has whatever he wants. And on the surface, he does. His wife, Jodie, is smart and attractive, and he’s got two healthy children. Then, everything changes. His daughter, Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. Angus doesn’t know about this child, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her baby.  Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overzealous nurse can’t find any formal records. Soon, the whispers start. Then there are some very public questions about what happened to Jodie’s baby. There’s even talk that Jodie may have had something to do with the baby’s disappearance. Now, Jodie is a social pariah, and Angus finds it very hard to cope with this challenge. He’s never really had to face adversity before, and he’s always had everything. It’s interesting to see what happens to him as the novel goes on.

There are plenty of other examples of fictional children who’ve never been refused anything (right, fans of James. M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce?). They’re almost never really pleasant, happy people. But they can add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Daryl Hall and John Oates’ Rich Girl.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, James M. Cain, Jill Edmondson, Raymond Chandler, Shadaab Amjad Khan, Wendy James

When Was the Last Time That We’ve Opened a Book*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog on a regular basis, you’ll know that I don’t do book reviews. There are others a lot better qualified than I am to do that. But I do enjoy talking about books, especially with other book lovers. That’s one thing I love about the book blogging community.

Nearly five years ago, the book blogging community lost one of its dear friends, Maxine Clarke. As a way of remembering Maxine, and the contributions she made to the community, Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan made a terrific suggestion. It was his idea that different crime fiction bloggers would contribute reviews of fine crime fiction they’d read to Petrona Remembered, a rich resource for crime novels. I’m proud to say I’m contributing today.

Please pay me a visit at Petrona Remembered, where I’ll explain why I think Maxine would have really enjoyed Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy. Then, if you’re so inclined, please consider contributing a review of one of your own top crime fiction reads. Maxine always liked to hear about the books people were enjoying.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Into it. Over it’s Open a Book.

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Diamonds Never Lie to Me*

There’s something about jewels. In part, it’s their mystique, of course. But they are considered to have a lot of intrinsic value. What’s more, they’re often small, so they can be easily transported, traded, and so on. It’s little wonder, then, that the jewel trade is such a lucrative one. Companies such as De Beers have made fortunes through the years. That alone means that the jewel trade is a very attractive target for all sorts of crime.

That, plus the hold the jewel trade has on a lot of people’s imaginations, means that there are plenty of references to it in crime fiction. Here are just a few. I know you’ll think of others.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Demetrius Papopolous. Based in Paris, he is a highly respected dealer in jewels and valuable antiques. So, he’s aware of it right away when new collections of diamonds, rubies, and other jewels go on the market. This expertise makes him a very useful contact for Hercule Poirot, who’s tracing a valuable ruby known as Heart of Fire. It was purchased by wealthy American businessman Rufus Van Aldin for his daughter, Ruth. But she’s been murdered, and the ruby (along with the necklace that held it) is gone. As one angle of investigation, Poirot tries to determine what’s happened to the jewel. As he interacts with M. Papopolous, we learn a little about the side of the jewel trade that involves exclusive dealers and their clients.

Jewel dealers have played an important role in times of anxiety, when people were scrambling to get as much ready cash as possible. For instance, during the last years of the Weimar Republic, many Germans were desperate for money. Their currency had little value, and the Great Depression of the early 1930’s was in full force. We see a bit of that in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. Journalist Hannah Vogel lives and works in 1931 Berlin, not long before the Nazis take power. Everything is scarce, and very few people have money. Hannah herself has been slowly selling her jewelry, as her salary gives her barely enough to keep going. In the main plot of this story, she discovers to her shock that her brother, Ernst, has died. She wants to find out how and why, but she has to move very quietly, so as not to attract any attention. Still, she doesn’t give up; and in the end, she finds out the truth about Ernst’s death. Along the way, she has more than one conversation with Herr Mordecai Klein, the jeweler with whom she’d been doing business. Those conversations shed some interesting light on the way people used the jewel trade to manage during that time of panic.

Because the jewel trade is so lucrative, many governments cooperate with the mining industry to ensure a steady supply of gems. That’s what’s happened between the government of Botswana and the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC) in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. The story starts when Professor of Ecology Bengani Sibisi and his guide discover the remains of an unknown man near rural Dale’s Camp. At first, it looks as though the dead man wandered too far from camp and was attacked by wild animals. But it’s not quite that simple, and Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu begins to look into the matter more closely. There seems to be a connection between this death (and another) and BCMC, so Bengu and his team pay particular attention to the way the company does things. So, readers learn about how diamonds are discovered, how their ownership is established, and how they are bought, sold, and transferred.

Sometimes, of course, the jewel trade has a darker side. In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, for instance, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team are faced with a puzzling case. An unidentified Senegalese immigrant has been shot, execution-style, at one of the city’s open-air markets. The first step in trying to find out who the killer was is to find out more about the victim. So, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello start asking questions about the man. It takes some time, both because of the language barrier, and because the man was in Italy illegally. But eventually, Brunetti and Vianello find the home where the dead man lived. As they look through his possessions, they find a hidden cache of diamonds. Now, the case takes on a whole new complexity as the detectives link this murder to the illegal ‘conflict diamonds’ trade.

And then there’s Faye Kellerman’s Sanctuary. In one plot thread of this novel, LAPD Detective Peter Decker and his police partner, Marge Dunn, investigate a strange disappearance. Wealthy Los Angeles jewel dealer Arik Yalom and his family have disappeared. Later, the Yalom parents are found dead, and their two teenage sons are suspected. But they’re still missing. So, Decker and Dunn follow leads through Los Angeles’ diamond district, all the way to South Africa, and eventually to Israel, the Yalom family’s original home. Along the way, readers learn something about the diamond industry and its worldwide reach.

Diamonds and other jewels really do have a fascination for a lot of people. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that we see that industry showing up in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Barry and Don Black’s Diamonds Are Forever.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Faye Kellerman, Michael Stanley, Rebecca Cantrell