Category Archives: Adrian Hyland

She Talks to Angels*

Communicating With the DeadIf you’ve seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, then you’ll know that its main focus is a young boy who can hear and see those who’ve died. For a very long time, people have wanted to believe that they could communicate with loved ones who’ve passed away. That’s been the driving force behind countless séances.

Each culture is different with respect to whether we communicate with those who’ve died. In some cultures, there’s a vital important link between the dead and the living. In others, there is no such link, and the idea that the dead might communicate is not taken seriously.

Whatever one’s cultural or personal beliefs, the idea of communicating with lost friends and loved ones has had a powerful influence on people. And, given that a lot of crime fiction is about murder, it shouldn’t be surprising that this idea is woven into the genre, too.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that he had a great interest in spiritualism. It’s ironic, considering that his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, is a man of science and logic. Holmes is not one for séances and other spiritualist traditions. But his creator certainly was.

Agatha Christie touches on this theme in a few of her stories. In The Last Séance, for instance, Raoul Daubreuil pays a visit to his fiancée Simone, who is a very successful medium. She is worn out from the work, though, and wants nothing more than to be done with it forever. But she has made one last commitment – a sitting for Madame Exe, who is desperate to stay in contact with her dead daughter Amelie. At first, Simone doesn’t want to do this last séance. She is exhausted; more than that, she is afraid. She fears the consequences of working with Madame Exe any longer. But Raoul insists that she keep her commitment, and Simone finally allows herself to be persuaded. Madame Exe duly arrives, and in the end, we see the tragic consequences. Christie fans will know that she also mentions spiritualism in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Murder in Mesopotamia and the short story Blue Geranium, among others.

In one plot thread of Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich. She was a Roma girl who, according to the first reports, fell into a canal from a building where she was trying to rob an apartment. Brunetti isn’t so sure that she died accidentally, and starts asking questions. Brunetti doesn’t believe in spiritualism. But he can’t deny that Ariana haunts him:
 

‘…and the girl’s face…would return to him at odd times and more than once in his dreams.’
 

That’s part of what spurs him on to find out the truth about her death.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past is in part the story of the death of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson. One winter day, she and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go diving into Lake Vittangijärvi, hoping to explore the ruins of a WWII plane that went down there. The two are deliberately trapped and killed. A few months later, Wilma’s body re-surfaces, and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her team investigate. In the meantime, attorney Rebecka Martinsson has been having strange dreams in which a young girl appears, trying to communicate with her. Martinsson doesn’t believe in ghosts, or in the dead communicating with the living, but she knows what she’s experienced. And it’s interesting to see how her experiences are woven into the story.

In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, Jason Barnes is riding a bus one day when three young people begin harassing another passenger, Luke Murray. Jason intervenes, and for a time, the bullying abates. But then, Luke gets off the bus. So do the three bullies, and so does Jason. The harassment starts up again, and this time it escalates. The fight continues all the way into Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed, and Luke badly wounded. Both boys’ parents are understandably devastated by what’s happened. There is, of course, a police investigation into the incident, and Jason’s parents Andrew and Val do the best they can to help. Part of the plot involves the slow discovery of what really went on and what led up to it. Another part has to do with the impact that Jason’s death has on his family. In the end, though, Andrew and Val are able to begin healing; and, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s one great scene in which Andrew does have a sense of really connecting with Jason.

There are many cultures in which it is believed that those who’ve died really do communicate with the living. It’s not done in the Western sense of using the planchette or having a séance. In fact, there isn’t really a strong dividing line between the living and the dead in some cultures. We see that, for instance, in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary, some of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels, and Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. All of these touch on Australian Aboriginal people’s connections with their dead.

We also see that link in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri may be a medical professional, but that doesn’t mean he ignores the unexplainable. In fact, he actually does see the spirits of people who’ve died. Again, it’s not in the traditional Western sense, but it’s quite real for him. There are other novels and series, too, that touch on this sense that those who have died communicate with the living (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire stories). When it’s done effectively, it can add a fascinating layer to a story. It can also add some depth to characters.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Black Crowes.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Colin Cotterill, Craig Johnson, Donna Leon, Nicole Watson

This is the End*

Books with Great EndingsNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books did a terrific post on crime books that she felt had the best endings. And that got me to thinking about which crime novel endings I’ve liked best. It’s actually not easy to write a good ending to a book. On the one hand, most readers want an ending that falls out logically from the story. ‘Out of the blue’ endings, or endings that are too far-fetched, are annoying. And readers want a sense that the important plot points (in the case of crime fiction, that’s usually the solution to the mystery) have been resolved.

On the other hand, an ending that is too ‘pat,’ where everything is tied up in a neat little ‘package,’ is annoying as well, and isn’t realistic. Life is usually messier than that. And an ending that’s too anticlimactic leaves the reader wondering, ‘Is this all there is?’

Nonetheless, there are some crime novels that have very powerful, memorable endings. They stay with the reader, and they encourage the reader to think about the book long after it’s finished. Of course, your idea of what sort of ending falls into that category is going to differ from mine. But, keeping in mind that this is just my opinion, here, in roughly chronological order of publication, are…

 

Margot’s Choices For Crime Novels With the Best Endings

 

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

In this story, Hercule Poirot is asked to solve the murder of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, who’s been found stabbed in his study. In some ways, the novel is reflective of the Golden Age style. There’s a wealthy dead man, several likely suspects in the household, the ne’er-do-well most likely suspect whom the police have targeted, the young lovers, and so on. It’s clear that Christie had mastered the art of the Golden Age whodunit. But then she turned it on its head and broke the rules with this novel. It’s got one of the most famous dénouements in crime-fictional history.

 

Presumed Innocent – Scott Turow

This novel introduces Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, who at this point is a Kindle County prosecuting attorney. When one of his colleagues, Carolyn Polhemus, is murdered, Sabich is assigned to the case. His boss has made it clear that that case must be handled both delicately and openly, with no hint of cover-up. Sabich gets started on the investigation, but there’s something he hasn’t told his boss: up until a few months before her death, he was involved with the victim. When that fact comes out, Sabich is removed from the case and replaced by a rival. That’s only the beginning of his trouble, though. Soon, evidence is found that suggests Sabich is the killer. In fact, the evidence is so compelling that he is arrested for the crime. Now on the other side of the table, so to speak, Sabich asks his friend and colleague Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him, and Stern agrees. This ending is particularly powerful for me because not only does Turow provide a strong ending to the court case, but also, the truth about Carolyn Polhemus’ death is, in my opinion, brilliantly done.

 

Gone, Baby, Gone – Dennis Lehane

If you’ve read this novel, then you’ll probably already guess why I chose it. For those not familiar with the story, the real action in it begins when Dorchester, Massachusetts PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro get a visit from Lionel McCready and his wife Beatrice. They want Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate the heartbreaking disappearance of their four-year-old niece Amanda. Both PIs are familiar with the case, as the media has made much of it. After all, it’s a missing child. And that publicity is part of why Kenzie and Gennaro are reluctant to take the case at first. They don’t see what they can do that dozens of police and all sorts of media outlets can’t do. But Beatrice McCready is insistent and determined, so the PIs agree to at least speak to Amanda’s mother Helene. Before they know it, they’re drawn into a gut-wrenching case of a missing child, and are faced with several difficult choices as they investigate. The ending to this story is, for me, one of the more powerful endings in crime fiction. It raises some important and fascinating topics for debate and discussion, and is surprising without being so completely impossible that it’s not credible. I can’t say more without spoiling it, but if you’ve read it…you know what I mean.

 

What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn

This novel begins in 1984, when ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective. In fact, she’s even started her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She doesn’t have much of a life otherwise; she lives in a rather grim English Midlands town with an ageing High Street and more struggling families than people of means. But she is content planning and operating her new company. She spends a lot of time at the newly-constructed Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she is sure she’ll find plenty of crime to investigate. Everything changes when her grandmother Ivy decides that Kate should go away to school. Kate refuses, but Ivy is convinced she’ll have a better chance for a ‘real’ life if she goes. Finally, Kate’s friend, twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer, agrees to go with her to the exclusive Redspoon School to sit the entrance exams. Only Adrian returns, and then the alarm is given, there’s a massive search. But no trace of Kate is found – not even a body. Everyone thinks Adrian is responsible, although he flatly denies it. In fact, he is harassed so badly that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is Assistant Manager at Your Music, one of the stores at Green Oaks. One night, she meets Kurt, one of the mall security guards. Kurt’s been seeing some strange things on his CCTV cameras lately: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. Each in a different way, Kurt and Lisa go back to the past, if you will, and we learn what really happened to Kate Meaney. The answer to that question, and the way it has impacted everyone, makes the ending to this book one of the more emotionally powerful endings I’ve read.

 

Confessions – Kanae Minato

This novel, which shows the ugly side of middle school, begins as Yūko Moriguchi addresses her class. It’s her last day at the school, and she has a powerful message for her students. Her four-year-old daughter Manami died not long ago, and she is convinced that it wasn’t the accident the police thought it was. In fact, she knows Manami was murdered, and she knows by whom: two of her students. What’s more, she knows exactly which students are responsible, and she makes that clear in her speech. Then, she duly resigns. She’s not convinced that the justice system will mete out an appropriate punishment, because the killers are juveniles. So she’s made her own plans. Still, a new teacher is assigned to the class, and life seems to go on. But it’s soon clear that things are not at all ‘normal.’ Before long, life begins to spin out of control for three students in particular. As matters get worse, we see exactly what Yūko Moriguchi planned to do, and we learn the truth about Manami’s death. The tension that’s built in this novel comes to a head at the end, and as the final pieces fall into place, Minato provides a powerful dénouement that raises questions and invites debate.

 

Traces of Red – Paddy Richardson

Connor Bligh has been incarcerated for several years in Rimutaka Prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived, and that was because she wasn’t home at the time of the tragedy. Now there are new little pieces of evidence that suggest that Bligh may not be guilty. When Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne hears of this, she thinks that the Bligh story may be just the story she needs to ensure her place at the top of New Zealand television journalism. So she decides to investigate the case more deeply. In the process, she finds herself more deeply and dangerously drawn in, and closer to the case, than she ought to be. The end of this novel is particularly memorable to me because it shows not just the truth about who killed the Dickson family, but also what the consequences are of the choices that journalists make. And Richardson does so in a way that is unexpected, but still credible. It’s a very powerful ending, for my money.

 

Other Books With Great Endings

Exit Music – Ian Rankin – A terrific end-of-book scene regarding a story arc.

The Half Child – Angela Savage – OK, not as much related to the mystery at hand, but one of the most lovely scenes between two characters that I’ve read. It’s just…great.

Lord Edgware Dies – Agatha Christie – One of the most telling, and unsettling, final lines from a killer:  Do you think they will put me in Madame Tussaud’s? Love it!

What about you? Which crime books have the best endings you’ve ever read?  Now, do please visit Moira’s excellent blog, and check out her fine choices.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ The End.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Catherine O'Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Scott Turow

Speak Your Mind*

Political DissentEven the best-intentioned people don’t always agree on the choices their countries should make. There are a lot of issues, too, that don’t have easy solutions. That’s part of the reason for which there is political dissent. That dissent takes different forms, depending on the kind of government that’s in power, and the issue. But whatever form it takes, political dissent and debate can move a society forward when it’s productive.  That aspect of it is essential. And of course, political dissent can make for a very effective context for crime fiction; after all, there’s plenty of conflict and tension to be had in political debates and dissent.

In Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Sir Derek O’Callaghan has written an Anarchy Bill, specifically directed against leftist revolutionaries and their activities. It’s not a settled matter whether the Bill will be accepted, and it’s interesting to consider the question of whether such legislation squelches freedom of expression or keeps society safer. One day during a speech in the House, Sir Derek collapses due to a ruptured appendix and is rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime physician Sir John Phillips. He survives the surgery, but dies later of what turns out to be an overdose of hyoscine. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate and soon determine that this death was not accidental. As they sift through the evidence and consider all the possibilities, they certainly can’t ignore the fact that the victim had written a controversial bill…

Agatha Christie’s short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister begins when Hercule Poirot gets a visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Prime Minister David MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make an important speech when he was apparently abducted. At this time, World War II is imminent, and there’s a real question as to what Britain’s stance out to be. You’ll know from your history that there was a debate between those who wanted to avoid war, even if it meant appeasement, and those who wanted to oppose Hitler, although it would mean war. MacAdam’s speech is crucial in this debate. He intends a ‘rally the troops’ speech in the hope of cementing support for his anti-Hitler stance. But plenty of his political opponents want to move the country in the other direction. Poirot and Captain Hastings get to work right away; in the end, they find out exactly what happened to MacAdam.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Millions of people are out of work, and times are desperate. The question of what to do is not an easy one, and there’s a lot of debate. There’s also a lot of interest in political factions that promise solutions. Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred are members of a wealthy ‘blueblood’ New South Wales family, so they haven’t personally suffered as a result of the Depression. But they’re certainly aware of it. When their uncle is murdered, Rowly gets involved in the political dissent about what Australia’s future should be. He comes to suspect that an ultra-Right group called The New Guard might be responsible for his uncle’s death. This group, led by Colonel Eric Campbell, believes that Australia will do best with a government run by ‘right thinking men’ who maintain traditional ways of life and the current class order. Rowly infiltrates this group, hoping to find out who, exactly, committed the murder. This puts him in real danger from the Left (among which group he has friends), who will consider him a traitor if they find out he’s joined the New Guard. At the same time as he’s trying to find out who killed his uncle, Rowly also has to negotiate the various political factions who want to further their causes.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and, before retiring, an academician. So she’s no stranger to political debate, and steps into the political fray more than once in the series. She’s frequently involved in Saskatchewan (and national) politics. In fact, in one story arc in this series, she becomes a panelist on a NationTV show called Canada Today. The show features debate on current issues, and includes commentators from across the political spectrum. It figures in a few novels in this series.

Alan Orloff’s Deadly Campaign has as its backdrop Edward Wong’s campaign for a seat in the U.S. Congress. His opponent in the upcoming election will be the incumbent, Sanford Korbell. One evening, a group of thugs disrupts a celebration event at a restaurant owned by one of Wong’s uncles, Thomas Lee. Rather than call in the police, Lee asks his friend Channing Hayes, co-owner of a nearby comedy club, to ask a few questions and find out if anyone local is responsible. When other members of Wong’s family find out about this, they warn Hayes to leave the matter alone. But Lee is determined to find out what happened, and Hayes feels he has little choice to go along. One distinct possibility is that Korbell arranged the attack at the celebration, so Hayes visits Korbell’s headquarters as a part of his search for the truth, and we learn a bit about his political positions as opposed to Wong’s. I can say without spoiling the story that the answer to what is right for Northern Virginia (which is where the novel takes place) isn’t the reason for the attack, or for the murders that take place later in the novel. But it does form an interesting thread of tension in the novel.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible, which takes place during the debate leading up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Rebus fans will know that he’s not at all a political animal. In fact, in one funny scene, he turns off his car radio during a broadcast about the Yes/No debate, preferring to listen to a CD of the band Spooky Tooth. But the debate is woven throughout the story. In one plot thread, for instance, Justice Minister Patrick McCusky, ‘the face of the Yes movement,’ faces embarrassment as his son may have been responsible for a car crash from which he later fled. Matters get worse when the Justice Minister is found dead, apparently as the result of a housebreaking gone wrong. The ‘No’ campaign is facing its own problems. Prominent business leader and ‘No’ advocate Stefan Gilmour could very well have been involved in obstructing a murder investigation against Billy Saunders. That case is more than thirty years old, but it could still come back to haunt Gilmour. It will if internal affairs copper Malcolm Fox has his way. He wants to re-open that case, and he won’t lose any sleep if Rebus, who was a young constable at the time, gets caught in the net. The debate about independence certainly isn’t Rebus’ focus, but it forms a fascinating backdrop to the novel.

Political debate and dissent aren’t always pleasant. In fact, they can be polemical. But that clash of ideas can be the basis from which we move forward.

 

On Another Note…

I’d like to wish a Happy Canada Day to all Canadians. Erm – sorry if there’s extra noise from down here. We’re gearing up for a major election next year, and the rhetoric/polemic/name-calling/mudslinging debate has already started…

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Gail Bowen, Ngaio Marsh, Sulari Gentill

A Matter of Trust*

Rebuilding TrustOne of the most difficult things to do, especially for people who’ve been betrayed, is to learn to trust (or trust again). After all, why should you trust if you’ve already seen what can happen? The tension caused by the instinct not to trust, whether or not it’s warranted, can add an awful lot to a novel. And it is a natural human reaction, so it can also add a layer of credibility to a character. There are myriad novels that make use of this plot thread; I’ll just mention a few.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White. He says that he is innocent, but that doesn’t count for much in the small-town Alabama community where he lives. Robinson has no reason at all to trust his lawyer Atticus Finch, if you think about it. Finch is White, and Robinson has learned the hard way to be wary of Whites. What’s more, Finch is well-connected in the town. If he takes up an unpopular cause like Robinson’s, and gives it more than ‘lip service,’ his law practice (and perhaps much more) is at risk. And yet, the only way to go about this case is for Finch and Robinson to trust each other. It’s awkward at times, but once each man is able to have some faith in the other, the case moves forward.

Malla Nunn’s work discusses similar issues of trust. This series ‘stars’ Emmanuel Cooper, who lives and works in 1950s South Africa, when apartheid was strictly enforced. Even before those laws, there was mistrust among the different ethnic groups in that country; in this series, we see how that mistrust has hardened as a result of the laws. Cooper is White, and a police officer. So it’s easy to see why non-Whites don’t trust him at all, at least at first. Why should they? He is also not completely trusted by the Afrikaners he encounters, because his background is English. As he investigates cases, Cooper has to work very hard to negotiate the deep layers of mistrust he encounters. It takes time, but he demonstrates that he can be trusted. And slowly, he develops contacts in several different ethnic groups. He’s able to penetrate the superficial ‘face’ that people put on in the presence of those they cannot trust.

We also see the slow development of a kind of trust in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow. When a body is discovered in an abandoned mine on Windigo Island, John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police investigates. To his dismay, the body is identified as thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who disappeared five months earlier. Cardinal took the lead in searching for her, but wasn’t able to find her. Now he has the thankless job of informing her mother Dorothy that her body has been discovered. His task is made all the more difficult because he wasn’t able to find her daughter until it was far too late. As if that wasn’t enough to make Dorothy mistrust him, there’s another barrier. Cardinal is White, and the Pines are Ojibwa. So Dorothy has very little reason to trust that he will make her case a priority, or that he can be taken at his word. In the end, Cardinal does find out what happened to Katie. It doesn’t make things all fine again, but it justifies some trust in him.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is half White/half Aboriginal. She is trusted and accepted among her mother’s people at the Moonlight Downs encampment, and that helps to give her a place to belong. That matters, too, because in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) and Gunshot Road, we see that she is not trusted, and certainly not respected, amongst several members of the White community. The feeling is most definitely mutual, as Tempest has seen little reason to trust any of the ‘whitefellers.’ In both novels, members of both groups have to learn to trust each other in order to get cases solved. Tempest has to learn that there are some Whites, including her boss Tom McGillivray, who are trustworthy and in whom she can have faith. In turn, her White counterparts have to learn that Tempest can be trusted to do her job as an ACPO (Aboriginal Community Police Officer).

And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. In one plot thread of that novel, Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India’s Bedia community, embark on what they hope will be a lucrative adventure. Their families have been paid considerable money, in exchange for which they’ve agreed to become part of the dhanda, one name given to India’s sex trade. They’re both hoping that if they can earn enough from a few years in the trade, they’ll be able to return to their villages and support their families. Things go very, very wrong when they are sent to Scotland, where their services are bought by dangerous people. Once they arrive, they are separated. Basanti manages to escape, and goes looking for her friend, but Preeti has disappeared. Basanti learns that the body of a young woman has been discovered in the sea, and that the victim is most likely Preeti. Basanti’s search for answers leads her to oceanographer Calladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who is an expert on tide patterns. He, too, is interested in the discovery of the body and has gathered a great deal of information about it. In order to trace Preeti’s murder back to her killers, Basanti is going to have to learn to trust Cal, something that’s not easy for her, given what she’s been through. And Cal is going to have to trust this enigmatic young woman. In the end, they are able to work together and get some answers.

In all of these examples, there is every good reason for lack of trust. The only way for these characters to get beyond that barrier is to demonstrate – not just with words, but with sincere action – that they are trustworthy.

The terrible murders in Charleston, South Carolina have got me thinking about this issue of trust and mistrust. The murders themselves are of course, horrible. There is no justification for them, and there are no words, even for a writer, to adequately capture the awful reality of what happened. I hope that the victims’ families and friends are at least a bit comforted by the fact that millions of people, including me, stand with them at this time.

Along with standing by those who mourn, I think we need to consider where we go from here. Tears and sorrow are a part of it all, and they are important. But they are not enough. An already-fragile trust was shattered. Now, at least in my opinion, we need to take proactive, meaningful steps – steps that go beyond rhetoric – to deserve trust again. It will be awkward, difficult and painful. It will require soul-searching that will hurt. But in the end, it may spare us something else like this. I hope so.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Giles Blunt, Harper Lee, Malla Nunn, Mark Douglas-Home

But the Cowboy and the Rancher Knew His Name*

WesternsMany people find a real appeal in what I’ll call Westerns, whether books, film or television. Even if you don’t care for them yourself, you no doubt know that they have a strong following. There are arguably several reasons so many people love Westerns, just as there are a lot of reasons for which people have moved to ‘the wide open spaces.’

One of the allures of Westerns and their settings is the chance to start over in beautiful, open land. We see that, for instance, in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s 1806, and William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their children have just arrived in Sydney Cove, Sydney, to start their lives over. Thornhill is a former London bargeman who was sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing wood. He and his family have experienced real poverty in London, so even though transportation is nerve-wracking, it’s also a chance to build new lives. Before very long, Thornhill finds work delivering goods up and down the local waterways; his wife opens a makeshift pub. One day, Thornhill finds a piece of irresistibly beautiful land, and sets about to claim it. And therein lies the problem. People have been living in what is to become New South Wales for many thousands of years, and it’s not long before there are serious, even bloody and brutal, conflicts between the two groups. Grenville doesn’t make light of the crimes committed in the name of new land and new opportunities. At the same time, we see just how tempting that land can be.

Even today, people are drawn to the prospects of open land, the chance to put the past behind, and the opportunity to start all over. That’s arguably part of what makes Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series popular. It’s also, of course, highly regarded as a well-written set of novels. But as we learn about the characters, we see a pattern of people who’ve chosen to live in Absaroka County, Wyoming because it’s beautiful, because it gives them a chance to build their own kinds of lives, and because the open land appeals to them. For instance, Longmire’s deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti is originally from Philadelphia, where she served as a police officer. She’s had her share of ups and downs in life, but she’s found a certain kind of contentment if you will in Absaroka County. Philadelphia may at times offer more conveniences, but Moretti has chosen to start over in the west. I know, I know, fans of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series and of Margaret Coel’s Wind River series…

‘Going West’ offers other kinds of opportunities too. As you’ll no doubt know, many people have taken the risks involved in starting over because of the discovery of gold and other precious metals. Vicki Delany’s historical Klondike series, set during the Klondike Gold Rush, has this theme as a backdrop. These novels feature Savoy Dance Hall owner Fiona MacGillivray, who’s originally from Scotland. She’s got a past that she’d just as well leave behind, and a teenage son Angus. Together, they’ve started over in Dawson, Yukon, just as the area is feeling the full effects of the gold rush. She herself isn’t in search of gold, but she knows that there are a lot of other ways to profit from the surge of newcomers. Taverns, restaurants, food and supply purveyors, dance halls, and of course assayers are all benefiting from the search for riches.

Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn isn’t really a westerner. She’s a retired judge who lives in Florida. But in The Desert Hedge Murders, she certainly gets a taste of the Old West. She travels with her mother’s traveling club, the Florida Flippers, on a sightseeing tour to Laughlin, Nevada. The group gets caught up in a case of murder when the body of a dead man is found in the bathroom of one of hotel rooms the club is using. Then, one of the members disappears and is later found dead in an old mine now used as a tourist attraction. As Thorn helps her mother and the rest of the group, she also experiences ghost towns, information about mining and prospecting, and legends. And burros.

For some people, the appeal of Westerns also comes from the ‘good guys v bad guys’ tension. Cattle rustlers, sheriffs, posses, outlaws and so on can tap the desire a lot of us have to see the ‘good guys’ win and the ‘bad guys’ get their due. Of course, it certainly wasn’t that simple; a quick glance at history makes that clear. But for a lot of readers and viewers, there’s a real appeal to following the adventures of ‘larger than life’ characters.

And it’s that sense of adventure that also draws many people to the Western. A lot of series and novels feature the sort of cliffhangers that you might see in old-style Western serials; one of them is Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series. The protagonist in these stories is Sister Thomas Josephine, a Roman Catholic Vistitandine nun from St. Louis, Missouri. As the series begins, she is making her way to start a new life in Sacramento. Everything changes when the wagon train she’s on is attacked in Wyoming. Left stranded there, Sr. Josephine ends up being falsely accused of murder. She goes on the run and is drawn into all sorts of dangerous situations. Sr. Josephine is definitely not your ‘garden variety’ nun…  I admit I’ve not (yet) read these stories. But I’ve already gotten a solid sense of them from the terrific Col, who blogs at Col’s Criminal Library. You’ll want to check out his great blog and see for yourself why it’s one of my must-visits.

There are also plenty of readers/viewers who are interested in Westerns because they want to know more about the people who have always lived in those areas. Novels that depict the lives of Indigenous people in the West can give readers a window on a fascinating perspective on life. And they fulfil the important role of sharing information that doesn’t always make it to the textbooks. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series, for instance, will know that those novels depict life in the modern US West/Southwest, often from the point of view of members of the Navajo Nation. Those stories give an important perspective on aspects of Western life such as mining, oil prospecting, and land and water rights. They also share the culture and lifestyle of the people who’ve lived in that area for a very long time.

We also see that perspective in Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels. Those stories give readers a look at mining, ranching and prospecting in Australia. Very often they feature the point of view of Bony, who is half White/half Aboriginal. So we see several ways of looking at the same places and events. Adrian Hyland’s books feature Emily Tempest, who’s an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) in Australia’s Northern Territory. Those novels give readers a look at modern life in the ‘great wide open’ parts of Australia.

Whether it’s the myths of the Western or the actual history of settlement, there’s something about the Western in all its forms that can draw people in. Does it have that effect on you? If so, what appeals to you about the Western? If not, what puts you off?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Ballad of Billy the Kid, a song he refers to as ‘completely historically inaccurate.’ Still, for my money, it captures all of the adventure, danger and myth of the Western.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, C.J. Box, Craig Johnson, Kate Grenville, Margaret Coel, Patricia Stoltey, Stark Holborn, Tony Hillerman, Vicki Delany