Alternative Facts? Or Not? ;-)

Just look at the news today, and you’ll see that it can be hard to tell what’s real and what’s ‘fake news.’ Trying to work out which is which is a challenge, and that’s got me thinking about…

 

 

 

…a quiz!!! Oh, stop it! It’s hardly my fault if you haven’t studied, is it? 😉

In this world of fake news and ‘alternative facts,’ it’s important to get the facts right. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your crime-fictional facts, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Decide whether each ‘fact’ you see is real or fake, and see how many you get right.

Ready? Start up the polygraph to begin… if you dare!  😉

 

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Buried in the Family Well*

Have you ever researched your family? Some families don’t have a long history, but others have a very long history indeed. And those families that have been around for a hundred years or more collect all sorts of stories. Some of them can still have an impact, too, even after generations.

Family histories are interesting in and of themselves, and they can add a real dimension to a crime novel. They can build suspense, add layers of character development, and even make for a motive for murder. They can also add context to a story.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, we learn the history of the Baskerville family. The story goes that, in the 1600s, Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he’d become infatuated. Since that time, there’ve been several strange deaths in the Baskerville family. They’re said to be caused by a curse on the family that takes the form of a phantom hound. And the latest victim seems to be Sir Charles Baskerville, who’s been found dead in the park on the Baskerville property. Is the Baskerville history really the cause of Sir Charles’ death? If so, then there is real danger ahead for the newest Baskerville, Sir Hugh, who is coming from Canada to take on the title and property. An old family friend is concerned about Sir Hugh’s safety, and asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. He agrees, and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter. They find that this mystery has a very prosaic explanation. I know, I know, fans of The Musgrave Ritual.

Agatha Christie wove family histories into several of her novels and stories. One of them is Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). In that novel, we are introduced to wealthy Miss Emily Arundell, the last of her generation of the Arundell family. She’s well aware that the next generation is eager for her money, and she’s often told them that they’ll get everything when she dies. But, when she takes a fall down a set of stairs, Miss Arundell begins to wonder whether someone isn’t willing to wait that long. During her recuperation, Miss Arundell writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking him to look into a delicate matter for her (‘though she doesn’t specify just what that is). By the time Poirot and Captain Hastings get to the Arundell home, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died of what her doctor claims is liver failure. Poirot isn’t so sure, though, and he and Hastings search for the truth. In the course of their investigation, they meet Miss Caroline Peabody, who knows quite a bit about the Arundell family history. What she tells them doesn’t solve the case, but she gives them helpful background information. I see you, fans of After the Funeral.

The Blackwood family is the focus of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. As the story begins, we meet Mary Katherine ‘Merricat,’ Blackwood, her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian, who live a rather isolated life in their old Vermont home. As the story moves on, we learn about a tragedy in the Blackwood history: the deaths of three other family members. And it’s soon clear that the other residents of the village think that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible. Still, Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian go on with their lives, doing as much as much as they can to keep the outside world at bay. Then, Charles Blackwood, a cousin to Merricat and Constance, pays a visit. His arrival triggers a series of events that spins out of control and ends in more tragedy.

In Shona (S.G.) MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows, we are introduced to Maeve O’Neill. She is the matriarch of the old and once-powerful Irish O’Neill family, and what she wants most is to see her family once again dominate Ireland. But it’s the 17th Century, and the English have taken control of Ulster, where she lives. This has led to several conflicts and a lot of scheming, as some people have sided with the English in exchange for power within the new order. Others resist, determined to maintain their Irish identity and religion. Against this background, there’s a wedding in the O’Neill family, to which a traditional Irish poet has been invited. Instead of using his poetry to celebrate the occasion, though, the poet curses the O’Neill family. What’s worse, parts of the curse seem to be coming true. So, Maeve sends her grandson, Sean Fitzgarrett, to Scotland to ask his cousin, Alexander Seaton, to help lift the curse. Seaton is reluctant, but is finally persuaded to go to Ireland, where his mother was born. He soon finds himself drawn into the religious and political conflicts of the day, and learns that the deaths and tragedies mentioned in the curse have more to do with greed and politics than with the curse. Despite everything, Maeve O’Neill still dreams of her ancient family’s return to power.

Peter May’s Entry Island is the story of the Mackenzie family. Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec lives and works in Montréal. But he’s sent to Entry Island, one of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine/Magdalen Islands, to help investigate the murder of James Cowell. It’s believed that, since Mackenzie is a native speaker of English, he’ll find it easier to get information from the island’s mostly English-speaking residents. As soon as he arrives, Mackenzie is struck with a sense of déjà vu, although he’s never been to Entry Island. What’s more, he begins to have vivid dreams about stories his grandmother used to tell him about his Scottish ancestor, also called Sime, who lived in the mid-19th Century. In one plot thread, we follow the investigation into Cowell’s murder. In another, we learn the history of the Mackenzie family, and how that history has impacted the present-day Sime.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte mysteries. Tayte’s a genealogist, so he’s very accustomed to looking into family backgrounds. And sometimes, what he finds there is dangerous. More than once in this series, Tayte uncovers secrets from the past that still impact modern-day descendants. And that puts him at grave risk.

Long family histories can often include fascinating stories and people. There’s a lot of opportunity there for character development, too. But there’s also risk, and sometimes, motive for crime.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chris Ward and David Michael Tyson’s Family Secret.

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The Spy Who Loved Me is Keepin’ All My Secrets Safe Tonight*

The spy thriller doesn’t really fit neatly into the crime fiction genre. Certainly there are crimes committed in spy stories; but those novels generally aren’t ‘whodunits,’ or even ‘why/howdunits.’ Their suspense comes from the ‘cat-and-mouse’ plot, or sometimes from the question of which characters can be trusted and which can’t. There are other ways, too, in which spy novelists add tension and suspense to their stories.

The spy novel can take a number of forms, too. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have done their share of espionage. In novels such as By The Pricking of My Thumbs and N or M?, they find ways to outwit highly placed and well-funded spies. By no means are they bumbling amateurs, but they’re also not the sort of people we usually think of when we picture a ‘typical’ spy. And that’s part of what makes them successful.

It is for Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, too. As fans can tell you, at the beginning of the series, she’s a widowed New Jersey woman with grown children. She’s looking for a new purpose when she sees an advertisement from the CIA. She’s selected for what’s supposed to be a very easy mission: a simple delivery to Mexico. No espionage or other spy activity is involved. But things don’t work out that way, and Mrs. Pollifax is soon in much deeper than anyone thought. As the series continues, she shows the advantage she has in not looking threatening. She’s simply a late-middle-aged woman going about her business. This series is cosier than a lot of spy series are; and in that sense, it’s not, strictly speaking just a set of spy novels. But it does show the diverse ways in which fictional spies find their way into the genre.

The Cold War between the UK, USA, and their allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies provided a very effective context for some memorable fictional spies and spy thrillers. For instance, it would be hard to discuss fictional spies without discussing the work of John le Carré. His George Smiley (and some of this other characters) have become iconic. And the stories are as much about the characters as they are about the espionage and the ‘thriller’ aspects of his novels. Novels such as Call For the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold take readers into the lives of the people in the various spy agencies. That makes them more human, and it’s one reason for which many people argue that he’s the best in the spy/espionage genre.

But there are plenty of others. Authors such as Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum and Jack Higgins have also created memorable stories. The Cold War has frequently been the context for those stories, but so has World War II and its aftermath.

Today’s world, of course, is a changing landscape in terms of geopolitical realities. And authors such as Daniel Silva and Tom Clancy have addressed those changes. So has le Carré, among others. And we can see in both this changing landscape and the sorts of spies and other espionage artists that there isn’t only one way to be a spy.

But in popular culture, perhaps the most memorable spy is Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Whether you’ve read the books, seen the films, or both, it’s hard to deny that character’s influence. And it’s not hard to see why. Bond is suave, sophisticated, and smart. He has all sorts of gadgetry at his disposal, and he travels in some of the highest circles. He’s got plenty of skills, too, from baccarat to boating. And there are the women…

Several actors have portrayed Bond over the years, and we could certainly debate about which one was the best Bond. One of them, Sir Roger Moore, left us yesterday, and he will be missed. In the years between 1973 and 1985, he took the role of Bond in films such as Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, Moonraker and Octopussy. He may not have originated the role, but he definitely left his mark on the franchise.

I know, I know, fans of The Saint; he left his mark there, too.

What about you? Do you read espionage/spy novels like Fleming’s, Deighton’s, Ludlum’s or Clancy’s? Which spy characters have stayed with you?

 

In Memoriam

This post is dedicated to the memory of Sir Roger Moore, who brought Bond to life for many people.

 

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s Nobody Does it Better.

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Don’t Give Up*

The news of yesterday’s suicide attack in Manchester is shocking and disturbing. My deepest sympathies to those who lost loved ones in the attack; I wish you peace and healing as you move on. My wishes, too, for quick recovery to those who were injured. Please know that millions of people everywhere stand with you as you cope. I hope that knowing you are not alone will help you stay strong.

One of my social media contacts asked a thought-provoking question about this attack: are we getting inured? Do we no longer allow ourselves to feel deeply about such awful acts of violence? If that’s true, what does that say about us?

Humans can adapt to a lot of situations; it’s part of how we survive as a species. There’s an argument, too, that if we really stopped and absorbed every suicide attack, every senseless murder, and so on, we’d be frozen into immobility. That’s true in life, and if you read crime fiction, there are many, many examples of it there, too. Fictional police, for instance, have to do their jobs, no matter what horrors they see. They can’t ‘freeze up.’ The same goes for fictional PIs, and so on.

On the other hand, becoming too detached doesn’t work, either. There are plenty of crime-fictional examples of characters who are so detached as to be thoroughly dysfunctional. They can’t do their jobs well, they can’t maintain relationships, and they can’t connect with the world enough to be dedicated to what they do.

There’s another way, too, that we can look at this question of how inured we are (or aren’t). If you consider the crime novels that are published each year, there are plenty in which there’s some brutal, ugly violence. Some of it’s quite gratuitous, too. And there’s arguably more of it than there used to be in the genre. A friend of mine once put it this way: you’ve got to out-Hannibal Hannibal Lecter. You may not read such books yourself, but they’re big sellers.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not arguing that such books shouldn’t be published. I’m too dedicated to freedom of expression for that. But it’s a piece of evidence that we’ve gotten accustomed to extreme violence in our crime fiction. And that makes me wonder what this says about us.

I know that people are feeling a lot of different things about the Manchester attack: anger, shock, sadness, and lots of other things. That’s only natural. If we’re going to retain our humanity, we need to feel those things about all the attacks we hear about, whether they’re at a concert, an outdoor market, or anywhere else, and wherever in the world they occur. Those feelings hopefully keep us from being too inured to others’ suffering. And hopefully, they help us to stop this needless violence, and keep us from behaving in inhumane ways. There’s enough of that in the world already.

My thoughts and wishes for peace and healing to those who lost loved ones in the Manchester attack, and to the injured and their families. We are with you.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Peter Gabriel song.

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In The Spotlight: Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Victorian London can be a very effective context for a novel. The physical setting alone can be appealing. And there are all sorts of possibilities for plots and characters. So, it’s little wonder that several series are set in that context. Let’s take a look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry, the sixth in his Barker & Llewellyn series.

Cyrus Barker is a private enquiry agent; Thomas Llewellyn is his assistant. One day they get a visit from Inspector Terence Pool of Scotland Yard. He has a very odd sort of commission that he wants to discuss with Barker. It seems that the British government has granted diplomatic immunity to one Sebastian NIghtwine, who’ll soon be returning to London. And Nightwine has expressed concern that he may be in danger from, of all people, Barker.

That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Barker and Llewellyn have crossed paths with Nightwine before; in fact, it was Barker’s discovery of several of Nightwine’s crimes that drove Nightwine to flee the country in the first place. Now, the British government thinks it needs Nightwine’s help for a secret mission. So, he’s been brought back to London.

Barker strongly suspects that Nightwine has his own agenda, which will probably include revenge. What’s more, Barker has no illusions that Nightwine has reformed, so he’s convinced that there’s a criminal plot, too – one that the British government has not discovered. Forbidden by police to go anywhere near his quarry, Barker has to be creative in finding out Nightwine’s real motives. But once he does, he sees that there is real danger if Nightwine isn’t stopped.

Then there’s a murder, for which Barker is neatly framed. Now, Barker and Llewellyn are on the run from the police, who are not without resources. Every officer in London is on the lookout for them, and all of Barker’s funds are cut off.  This leaves Nighwine free to carry out his plot. So, without money or access to ‘the usual channels,’ Barker and Llewellyn have to solve the murder, clear Barker’s name, and thwart Nightwine’s plans. To do that, they’re going to have to use all of their skills.

As I mentioned, this novel takes place in London, and Thomas clearly places the reader there. From Trafalgar and Leicester Squares, to the docks, to the slums, readers follow along as Barker and Llewellyn follow leads, go into and out of hiding, and so on. And it’s the London of 1886. So, readers who are also familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle may find some of the lifestyle described in this book to be familiar.

But if you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson case, it really isn’t. Barker and Llewellyn are a quite different pairing. And the differences go beyond the fact that Holmes and Watson are more or less friends and colleagues, while Llewellyn is Barker’s employee.

For one thing, in most of the Holmes/Watson stories, Watson quite admires his friend. He seldom has a word of criticism for Holmes, although it’s clear in the stories that Holmes isn’t perfect. That’s not the case with Barker and Llewellyn. Llewellyn respects his boss’ intelligence and ability to solve crimes. But he’s hardly blind to Barker’s imperfections, and he certainly doesn’t hero-worship the man. In this scene, for instance, Barker asks Llewellyn to get a list of passengers who will be on the same ship to London as Nightwine:
 

‘‘What are you planning to do with the information?’ [Llewellyn]
‘I intend to board the Rangoon, of course. What odd ideas you get into your head sometimes.’
‘But he warned you off…’
‘Legally, I have the right to enter the vessel, so long as I do not molest Nightwine in any way or keep Poole and his men from performing their duties. My defense will be iron-clad if I can find someone aboard ship with whom I am acquainted and who will vouch for my attendance there.’
‘Hence the passenger list.’
‘Ah, light breaketh.’
I sighed. One does that a lot when working for Barker.’
 

Llewellyn respects Barker, and he’s glad for the job. But to him, Barker is all too human.

The snippet above also hints at another element in this novel: the wit. One the one hand, this isn’t a ‘jolly romp’ sort of mystery. On the other, there are funny comments and moments woven through it. For instance, in this scene, Barker and Llewellyn arrive at the dock when the ship carrying Nightwine arrives. Poole spots them:
 

‘Poole wagged a finger in his [Barker’s] face. He was one of the five people I knew brave enough to get away with it. I was not one of those people.
‘You’re up to something.’ [Poole]
‘Of course I’m up to something. I’m a private enquiry agent. We live by our wits.’’
 

As I mentioned, this isn’t a comic caper sort of novel. But it definitely has funny moments.

It’s also worth noting that, in this series, the police are presented in a more positive way than they often are in the Conan Doyle stories. Barker does say some disparaging things about them, but it’s not a story full of bumbling coppers. And, when he and Llewellyn go on the run, he’s well aware that the police are a force to be reckoned with.

The mystery itself – Nightwine’s plan, the murder, and the frame-up of Barker – is solved, and we learn what’s behind everything. We also, by the way, learn some things about Barker’s backstory. But I can say without spoiling the novel that this isn’t one of those cases where the guilty party is led away in handcuffs. There are some gritty scenes and moments, too. So, you couldn’t really call this a light, cosy sort of story. That said, though, the violence is not extended nor unusually brutal.

Fatal Enquiry gives readers a look at life in late-Victorian London. It weaves the story of the animus between Nightwine and Barker into the crime plot, and features two enquiry agents whose working relationship forms an important part of the story. But what’s your view? Have you read Fatal Enquiry? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 29 May/Tuesday, 30 May – Never Buried – Edie Clair

Monday, 5 June/Tuesday, 6 June – You  – Zoran Drvenkar

Monday, 12 June/Tuesday, 13 June – Red Ink – Angela Makholwa

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