Category Archives: Agatha Raisin

What’s So Wrong With Happy Endings?*

The thing about crime stories is that they involve, well, crime. Often (not always) that crime is murder. So, crime fiction fans don’t expect things to go smoothly and happily in the books they read. And, in many ways, if a story is too smooth and happy, it’s not realistic. Stories like that are often not as absorbing, either (if there is no conflict – nothing that’s a problem – what’s the point of suspense going to be?).

At the same time, many crime fiction fans want their stories to be optimistic. The ‘bad guy’ is led away to face justice. Or, the murder victim was a cruel, mean character whom no-one much will miss. And, even when the story is a lot more complex than that, readers often want there to be a sense of positivity (i.e. life will go on, and things will be all right, even good). And there are many crime novels where we see that sort of optimism.

In several (certainly not all) of Agatha Christie’s stories, for instance, there’s a sense that things will be all right, even as there’s an acknowledgement that a death has caused a lot of pain. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling murder of famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. She and her family were staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay when she was killed, and several people who are staying at the same hotel are potential suspects. Poirot works with the police to find out who the real killer is. At the end, the killer is brought to justice, and we get the sense that all will be well in the lives of those who were mixed up in the investigation.

Jill McGown’s A Perfect Match introduces Detective Inspector David Lloyd, and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill of Stansfield CID. They’re called in to investigate when the body of Julia Mitchell is discovered in Thorpe Wood, near the town. Soon enough, the evidence rules out a rape or robbery gone wrong, so the police begin to look for a more personal motive. At first, they think they have their man in Chris Wade, who had an argument with the victim not long before she was killed, and who has gone missing. But the case proves to be more complicated than that, and will involve untangling a network of relationships, and uncovering several lies people have told. In the end, Lloyd and Hill discover who the real killer is, and that person is led off to face justice. It’s not that this is a ‘jolly, happy murder.’ But there is a sense of things being made right again, if I may put it that way.

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie introduces his sleuth, 11-year-old Flavia De Luce. In the novel, Flavia overhears her father having a loud argument with a visitor one evening. She doesn’t know who the other man is, but he certainly seems to know her father. The next morning, she finds the man’s body in a cucumber patch. Inspector Hewitt happens to like Colonel De Luce and takes no pleasure in arresting him. But the evidence points directly to him as the killer. So, Hewitt has no choice in the matter. Still, Flavia is convinced her father is innocent, and is determined to prove it. So, she starts asking questions. In the end, and after more than one dangerous situation, Flavia finds out the truth. Bradley doesn’t make light of the danger, nor of how scary it is to have one’s parent accused of murder. But the ending is optimistic, and we get the sense that things will be all right.

Of course. not everyone wants an optimistic ending to a crime story. Some readers prefer very bleak outcomes. And many novels have that sort of pessimism. James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is like that, for instance. Insurance representative Walter Huff goes to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, hoping to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t at home when Huff stops by, but his wife, Phyllis is. Huff finds himself attracted to her right away, and the feeling seems to be mutual. They soon start an affair, and before long, Phyllis tells him of her plan to kill her husband. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he goes along with the plan, even to the point of writing the double-indemnity life insurance policy she has in mind. The murder is duly committed, but that’s just the beginning of Huff’s troubles. This isn’t a story that ends well, or that makes anything all right again. In fact, it’s a bleak ending.

So is the ending to Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said. That novel’s focus is a small Lancashire town and an unnamed thirteen-year-old narrator who lives there. As the story begins, she’s waiting for her fourteen-year-old friend, Harriet, to return from a trip to Wales. In the meantime, she meets middle-aged-and-unhappily-married Peter Biggs. She feels an attraction to him but is unwilling to do anything about it until her friend comes back. What Harriet does return, she wants the narrator to avoid any emotional involvement, but rather, to see this as a sort of observation experience. Then the two girls hatch a plan to, as Harriet puts it, humble Biggs. The girls begin to carry out their plan, but everything falls apart when they see something they weren’t meant to see. Things soon spin out of control, and it all ends in horrible tragedy. This one certainly doesn’t have an optimistic ending.

And neither does Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. Fabien Delorme learns that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash. The marriage wasn’t really a happy one, so although Delorme will miss her, he’s not torn apart the way he might have been if they’d been a loving couple. The thing that does truly upset him is that Sylvie wasn’t alone in the car. She’d been having an affair with a man named Martial Arnoult, who was also killed in the crash. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine, he becomes obsessed with her. He even follows her when she takes a trip to Majorca. The two begin a relationship, but it soon spins very, very badly out of control. And the end solves nothing and makes nothing all right again.

And that’s how some people like their crime fiction. Others prefer crime fiction to be more optimistic, and to suggest that the world will come back together. Where do you stand on this question? Do you like optimism in your crime novels? Pessimism? If you’re a writer, what sort of novel do you prefer to write?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from A.R. Rahman and Don Black’s Happy Endings.

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Alan Bradley, Beryl Bainbridge, James M. Cain, Jill McGown, Pascal Garnier

Unknown Enemy*

There are a number of ways to build tension and suspense in a crime novel. And that suspense is an important part of keeping the novel engaging for readers. One of the approaches crime writers sometimes use is to include what you might call an unknown enemy.

I’m not talking here of the evil villain out to take over the world. Rather, I mean situations where a character is targeted by an unknown person. If you think about it, that is an eerie feeling. Most of have a fairly good sense of who might be gunning for us. But what if you had no idea who was targeting you? That anxiety, and the wondering whom to trust, would likely add to your unease.

We see that in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, we are introduced to Jerry Burton and his sister, Joanna. They’ve recently moved to the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can continue his recovery from a wartime injury. They’ve not been there long when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, the Burtons learn that they’re not the only victims. Other people in town are also receiving such ‘poison pen’ letters, and it’s got everyone upset. Then, a letter to a local solicitor’s wife leads to a suicide. And then there’s a murder. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case when the local vicar’s wife, who knows her, suggests she might be able to help. Part of the tension of the novel comes from the fact that people don’t know who this unknown enemy is, and why that person might be targeting them.

There’s a similar plot point in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. Amsterdam Inspector Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small town of Zwinderen to help with an unusual problem. Several people in town have received ugly anonymous letters. This is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so one’s local reputation matters a lot. The tension caused by the letters is so high that the result has been two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t made much progress, so it’s hoped that Van der Valk will be able to help. And in the end, he and his wife, Arlette, find out who wrote the letters and why. One important cause of unease in the novel is that the local residents don’t know who their enemy is, if I may put it that way.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, we are introduced to London psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. He gets involved in a murder case when the body of a former client, Catherine McBride, is pulled from Grand Union Canal. Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz wants whatever insights O’Loughlin may have about this case, so he persuades a very reluctant O’Loughlin to help out. Then, there’s another murder – one that very much implicates O’Loughlin. Now, Ruiz actively wonders whether his consultant may know more about the case than he’s letting on. What’s more, the leads that O’Loughlin has given Ruiz don’t seem to pan out. Before long, it’s clear that someone has set O’Loughlin up, and is framing him for multiple murders. The problem is, O’Loughlin doesn’t know who would deliberately target him. He’ll have to go back to his own past, and go after a very dangerous killer, if he’s going to clear his name. And part of the suspense as he does so comes from the fact that he doesn’t know who’s after him.

Neither does Merete Lynnggard, who is featured in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). In the novel, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck is assigned to head up a new police initiative, ‘Department Q.’ This new department will be devoted to cases ‘of special interest’ (i.e. cold cases), and is at least in part designed as a way to demonstrate that the police take all of their investigations seriously. Shortly after Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad take up their duties, they begin to look into the five-year-old disappearance of Lynnggard, who was a promising politician. Everyone thought that she went overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But new evidence suggests that she may still be alive. If so, Mørck and Assad may not have much time to find her. I can say without spoiling the story that part of its tension comes from the fact that Lynnggard didn’t even know who was targeting her.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder, the first of her series featuring research assistant Verity Long. She works for famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport, who uses old cases as inspiration for her novels. When Long goes house-hunting, she discovers the body of well-known TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Badly shaken up by the experience, she’s happy on one level to let the police handle the investigation. At the same time, though, she found the body, so like it or not, she is involved. And she’s both curious and skilled as a researcher. So, she starts to ask questions. And it’s not long before she runs into serious danger. More than once in the story, it’s clear that someone is targeting her. And part of the suspense comes from the fact that she doesn’t know her enemy.

There are, of course, a lot of other crime novels in which someone has a secret enemy. That plot point can add suspense, even drama, to a story if it’s done effectively. And it can add to character development.
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Lynda Wilcox, Michael Robotham, Nicolas Freeling

When They Built You, Brother, They Broke the Mold*

brothersAn interesting post from Cleo, at Cleopatra Loves Books, has got me thinking about the roles that brothers play in fiction. There are plenty of stories about the bonds we may have with sisters, and that’s all to the good. But our bonds with brothers are also important, and they’re different to the bonds we have with sisters.

Bonds with brothers play important roles in crime fiction. And it’s interesting to see how they’re woven into plots in different ways. That’s realistic, though, if you think about it. There are many different kinds of relationships we could have with a brother.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he has an older brother, Mycroft. Dr. Watson doesn’t learn about Mycroft’s existence until The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter. In that story, Mycroft has heard a strange story from Mr. Melas, who lives on the floor above him. When Sherlock and Dr. Watson visit Mycroft at the Diogenes Club, they hear the story, too. It seems that Mr. Melas was abducted for a specific reason: he is bilingual in Greek and English. And someone forced him to translate during a very unsettling interrogation. This problem leads to a case involving greed and inherited property. And it shows an interesting side of Sherlock Holmes. In one scene, he and his brother are looking out a window and have a conversation about two men that they see:

“Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example.’
‘The billiard-marker and the other?’
‘Precisely. What do you make of the other?’
The two men had stopped opposite the window. Some chalk marks over the waistcoat pocket were the only signs of billiards which I could see in one of them. The other was a very small, dark fellow, with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm.
‘An old soldier, I perceive,’ said Sherlock.
‘And very recently discharged,’ remarked the brother.
‘Served in India, I see.’
‘And a non-commissioned officer.’
‘Royal Artillery, I fancy,’ said Sherlock.
‘And a widower.’
‘But with a child.’
‘Children, my dear boy, children.’
‘Come,’ said I, laughing, ‘this is a little too much.”

The conversation shows that private sort of language that brothers can develop. It also has hints of the competition, however friendly, that come up between brothers.

There’s an interesting brother/sister relationship in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AK Poirot Loses a Client). In that novel, wealthy Emily Arundell has a potentially fatal fall down a flight of stairs. As she’s recuperating, she begins to think her fall was no accident. So, she writes to Hercule Poirot to ask him to investigate. She’s not specific in her request, but Poirot is intrigued by her letter, and he and Captain Hastings visit Miss Arundell. By the time they get there, though, it’s too late. She has died of what’s put down to liver failure. Poirot isn’t satisfied, though. And, at any rate, he feels a responsibility to his client, although she has died. So, he and Hastings investigate the matter. They find that this death was a murder, and that more than one person had a very good motive. Two of the suspects are Miss Arundell’s niece, Theresa Arundell, and her brother, Charles. Both are desperate for money, and Charles had even said something to his aunt that easily be could construed as a threat. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Theresa and Charles try to protect each other, even as neither completely trusts in the other’s innocence. They understand one another at a very deep level.

In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we meet brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve been raised in an abusive environment, but they’ve survived. Gates did his best to protect his younger brother, and Mason feels a sense of duty towards Gates for that reason. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he gets, and ends up going to law school on a scholarship. For his part, Gates squanders his considerable athletic talent, and ends up living on money he gets from his mother and from his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. One day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The fight starts again later that night, when the Hunt brothers are coming home from a night out and encounter Thompson. The argument spirals out of control and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason still feels a strong sense of loyalty and gratitude to his brother, so he helps Gates hide the gun and cover his tracks. The years go by, and the Hunt brothers move on in life. Mason becomes a prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gates starts having brushes with the law, culminating in an arrest for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a lengthy sentence, and asks his brother to help get him out of prison. This time, Mason refuses to support his brother. Gates threatens him, saying that if he doesn’t help, Gates will implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason knows that his brother isn’t above making good on that threat, and that’s exactly what happens. Now, Mason has to defend himself against a murder charge. One of the themes in this book is brotherly protectiveness and the loyalty that can engender – even when it can prove dangerous.

Fans of Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Reykjavík Inspector Erlendur can tell you that Erlendur is haunted by an experience he had as a boy. He and his younger brother, Bergur, were caught outdoors in a blizzard. Erlendur survived the storm, but Bergur was lost. The storm was so severe that no trace of him was ever found. Elendur has been carrying the weight of guilt and responsibility ever since, and a big part of the reason for that is that he is the older brother. A part of him feels that he should have protected Bergur, even though, as an adult, he understands that it’s not as simple as that.

And then there’s William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. This coming-of-age story features thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother, Jake. It’s the early 1960s in small-town Minnesota, and the Drum brothers are looking forward to baseball, going down to the local river, and relaxing. Everything changes when a boy that the Frank and Jake knew is killed on a railroad track. People say it was an accident, but it may not be. Then, murder strikes their own family. When that happens, the brothers have to depend on each other in ways they haven’t before. And they learn new things about each other. It’s a fascinating look at the way brothers perceive one another.

Relationships with brothers can be complicated. But they’re also fascinating. So, it’s little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction. I’ve only had space here for a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and visit Cleo’s terrific blog. Fine reviews await you there.

ps. The ‘photo is of the brother/sister dance at a friend’s wedding. It was a truly lovely wedding, and I couldn’t imagine a better depiction.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Terry’s Song.

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Martin Clark, William Kent Krueger

It’s the Same Old Story But it’s Told a Different Way*

First, thanks to all of you for voting in my poll.  I really appreciate your interest in what I write here; it means a lot to me. You voted that you wanted to read and talk some more about some of crime fiction’s trends and possible future directions, so here goes :-).  I find the topic of what’s happening in crime fiction really fascinating and I’m glad you do, too. Crime fiction has evolved and continues to evolve; if it didn’t it would become far too stale to win and keep fans. Here are a few more of my ideas on some of the changes crime fiction has gone through in the last years.

 

Motives For Murder

In classic and Golden Age crime fiction, motives for murder tended to be extrinsic. Murderers in those novels kill for gain, out of fear or anger, or sometimes for revenge or love. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate two deaths. Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson are American visitors to London, staying at a rooming house. Drebber is murdered and at first it seems as though his landlady’s son Arthur Charpentier is the culprit. Charpentier’s innocent, though, and the police have to look elsewhere for the criminal. Then, Stangerson is murdered. Holmes finds out who the killer is and what the motive is. In this case, it’s revenge for an old sin.

Gain is the motive for the poisoning murder of Emily Inglethorp in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that novel, the victim has a large fortune to leave and several relations who would be only too glad to have it. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work together to find out which one of the people in Emily Inglethorp’s life was desperate enough to kill. Lots of other Golden Age novels and stories are also built around motives of gain, fear, revenge, or some other extrinsic motive, and even today, lots of novels feature that kind of motive. Mine do.

But in the last hundred years or so, we’ve learned quite a lot about the way the human mind works. Beginning with the work of people like Sigmund Freud, we’ve begun to learn more and more about psychology. That knowledge has found its way into crime fiction. Today’s crime fiction features quite a number of psychological motives for murder. For example, Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone begins this way:

 

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

 

This is a novel about, among other things, the effect of “being on the outside.” It explores psychology in a way that early crime fiction didn’t. So does 13 Steps Down, another of Rendell’s standalones. Rendell’s certainly not the only one to explore psychology in her novels. Martin Edwards does the same with his Lake District series featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Many other authors do, too.

Today we even see novels that explore mental illness such as bi-polar disorder, depression and PTSD. I see this trend continuing as we learn more and more about the way the human mind works. In a way, that adds an interesting dimension to the genre. On the other hand, our interest in psychology has also been part of the motivation behind the proliferation of serial killers in today’s crime fiction. Some of them work quite well, but it’s very, very difficult to do that successfully.

 

Grittiness

Early crime fiction and a lot of Golden Age crime fiction tends to be almost clean-scrubbed in its depiction of life. Of course there are exceptions but as a rule, the detective fiction of the time is fairly sanitised. For example, in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is tried for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. She’s got a motive, too, since they’d quarreled shortly before his murder, and since she had arsenic, the murder weapon, in her possession. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and, smitten by Vane, determines to clear her name. He gets his chance when the jury cannot agree on a verdict and Vane is granted a new trial. Wimsey interacts with several people in this novel as he searches for the real killer, including people who don’t live in very reputable parts of town. And yet, we don’t get dark, seamy descriptions of life there. Nor are we given a real description of what life in prison was probably like for a woman at the time this novel was written.

With the advent of the “hardboiled” genre from authors such as Raymond Chandler and later, John D. MacDonald, we begin to see grittier descriptions of neighbourhoods and people. For example, we get a very uncompromising look at Glasgow in Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy. We get also get a very harsh, uncompromising and gritty look at Melbourne in Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series. Those series have lots of differences, but what they have in common is that the author does not take pains to “scrub up” the setting, the people, the motive for murder, or much of anything else. We even see this grittiness in some lighter novels, although it’s less marked. In Marth Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, for instance, some of the action takes place in London, but it’s hardly the London that the tourists see. Inspector Richard Jury and his friend Melrose Plant visit some very seedy homes and pubs, and Grimes doesn’t mince words in describing them, although it’s also fair to say that she also doesn’t get as gritty as descriptions we see in some other series.

 

Explicitness

Along with the increased grittiness we see in more recent crime fiction, there’s also a lot more explicitness. Perhaps this trend started as readers wanted crime fiction that was more realistic.

In early crime fiction and much Golden Age crime fiction, for instance, there are essentially no mentions, other than in oblique terms, of physical intimacy. Certainly there aren’t graphic descriptions of it. There are also essentially no explicit, graphic depictions of violence, including murder. For example, in Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue, an unknown man is stabbed while waiting with a group of other people to see a play. We know the man’s been murdered, but we don’t get every gory detail. And in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, we know perfectly well that Harriet Vane and Philip Boyes had an intimate relationship. Yet the details of it are not described.

With the advent of noir and other “hardboiled” crime fiction, we begin to see more descriptions of violence. Certainly the violence in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man is more explicit than it is in Tey’s work. We also begin to see more explicit description of physical intimacy in this kind of crime fiction than in earlier crime fiction.

In some of today’s crime fiction, both violence and physical intimacy are described in sometimes very graphic detail. And even crime fiction that doesn’t dwell on those scenes sometimes includes them. For instance, we see both in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. That particular novel works well because neither the violence nor the intimacy overtakes the plot. And that’s perhaps the key. Including explicitness doesn’t have to ruin a novel; in fact sometimes it falls out naturally from the plot. It’s when those scenes are gratuitous that they take away from a novel.

What’s ironic is that these scenes, and the treatment of formerly taboo topics such as rape, are increasingly common while at the same time, certain things such as pejorative terms and “isms,” which used to be perfectly acceptable in crime fiction, no longer are. Those developments give an interesting perspective on how our views of what is and isn’t acceptable have changed.

Will this trend towards explicitness and the treatment of very taboo topics continue? In the short run they probably will, as books with this theme sell well. I am hopeful that in the long run, it’ll be the quality of the plot and characters rather than explicitness that people will want. People may in fact become bored with books that offer nothing but relentless explicitness and those books will stop selling. In closing, let me just share what Agatha Christie had to say about this same topic back in the mid-1930’s. In Death on the Nile, we meet once-popular novelist Salome Otterbourne who’s has increasingly lost her audience, mostly because of the themes of her books. She and her daughter Rosalie are taking a cruise of the Nile when the real-life murders of fellow passenger Linette Ridgeway Doyle and other characters prove far more gripping than anything Otterbourne’s written:  Here’s what Rosalie Otterbourne says about her mother’s declining sales:

 

“People are tired of all that cheap sex stuff… ”

 

What do you think? Do you see changes in motives for murder, realism/grittiness and more explicitness? Where do you see the genre heading from here?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bon Jovi’s The More Things Change.

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Denise Mina, Deon Meyer, Dorothy Sayers, John D. MacDonald, Josephine Tey, Martha Grimes, Martin Edwards, Peter Temple, Raymond Chandler, Ruth Rendell

Free to Do it All My Way*

There’s something about youth and youthful vigour that can add real energy to a crime fiction novel. As Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot says in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect),

 

“Youth is strong, youth is powerful…And one thing more – youth is vulnerable.”

 

It’s that combination of strength, energy and vulnerability that can make young, up-and-coming characters so interesting in crime fiction. They can add a spark of life and poignancy.

For instance, in Christie’s The Secret Adversary, we meet Thomas “Tommy” Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley. They’re young, energetic people who decide, and without a lot of planning and preparation, to hire themselves out as adventurers. It’s a bold and daring move, but they’ve got the energy and vitality. Neither of them is stupid or gullible but they don’t have any idea of what they’re taking on. Soon enough they find out when they get drawn into the search for a secret treaty that was supposed to have been destroyed when the Lusitania was sunk. The Beresfords get mixed up in international espionage and a case of murder as they try to find out what happened to the treaty. They also get themselves into much more danger than they could have imagined.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, we meet Margaret Billy Sosi, a sixteen-year-old Navajo teen who attends a boarding school. She’s alarmed when she receives a postcard from her grandfather that contains a cryptic warning.  With all of the energy and vitality of youth, she leaves the boarding school and goes in search of her grandfather, only to find out that he’s dead. She then sets off to find out what happened to him. In the meantime she’s been discovered missing. So Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to find her. At the time, he’s on another case – the murder of Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman. But as Gorman and Sosi are kin, Chee thinks the cases may be connected. And so they are. Chee finds Sosi and does his best to keep her safe, but she disappears again. In the end, he does track her down, and he finds out who killed Gorman as well as who killed Sosi’s grandfather. Throughout this novel, we see how strong and vital a person Sosi is; at the same time, we also see how vulnerable she is.

Carolyn Graham’s Sergeant Gavin Troy is also young and energetic, especially in the earlier novels in her series featuring Inspector Tom Barnaby. Troy likes to get on with investigations, although he doesn’t hurtle blindly ahead. He’s not at all what you’d call violent, or even bullying. But he doesn’t yet have his boss’ sense of restraint. He’s handsome and flirtatious, too, and in some ways very much full of himself, so to speak. He’s got vigour, “spark” and life. And yet, he’s also vulnerable. He sees all too clearly that he’s got a lot to learn about being a good detective, and he’s keenly aware of it when he makes “rookie mistakes.” For instance, in A Place of Safety, he, Barnaby and their team are investigating the disappearance of Carlotta Ryan, a troubled teenager who’s been staying with the local curate and his wife. One of the only witnesses to her disappearance is Charlie Leathers, who doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation. When Leathers himself is garroted, it’s clear that a lot more is going on here than it seems on the surface. At one point, Barnaby and his team are having a conference about the cases. Barnaby makes an open-ended suggestion about the case.

 

“Troy liked this idea of open-ended dialogue, if only so that someone else could make a fool of themselves for a change by finishing it.”

 

Troy tries the same technique himself a moment later, only to fail miserably. It’s a funny look at how youthful characters can combine eagerness and energy with vulnerability.

We see the same combination in Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. She’s been recently appointed to the Sûreté du Québec, and is pleased with her accomplishment. She sees herself on “the fast track” and is certain she knows what to do. When she’s teamed up with Inspector Armand Gamache and his team, Nichol is convinced that she’s ready to be a full-fledged detective. She’s certainly not in the least interested in any advice Gamache has to offer. In fact, she’s annoyingly smug and arrogant, despite Gamache’s best efforts to teach her. Nichol is energetic and quick to follow up on her own ideas. She’s also very, very vulnerable. She isn’t accepted by the team, and isn’t wise enough to know that her own arrogance is a big reason for that. She blames her lack of competence on Gamache and the others instead of being open to learning. In fact, as Penny tells us in Bury Your Dead,

 

“She was the agent no one wanted. The agent who couldn’t be fired because she wasn’t quite incompetent or insubordinate enough. But she sure played around the cliff.”

 

Nichol is hardly a friendly, likeable character. But we can see her combination of eagerness and vitality with vulnerability and anxiety.

Much more likeable is that same combination in Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. Tempest is an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) who grew up in the Moonlight Downs camp. After a long absence, she returns to Moonlight Downs in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs). Shortly after her return, tragedy strikes when her friend and the leader of the Moonlight Downs community Lincoln Flinders is murdered. The most obvious suspect is local sorcerer Blakie Japananga, who had a bitter argument with Flinders and who has since disappeared. But Tempest isn’t sure that this murder is that simple, so she starts to ask questions. In Gunshot Road, she asks questions again when prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins is murdered and John “Wireless” Petherbridge becomes the obvious suspect. In both cases, Tempest takes initiative and goes off on her own quest for the answers. She’s young, strong and energetic. She knows she’s not perfect, but she’s certain she’s on to the truth. At the same time, Tempest is vulnerable. She gets herself into a great deal of danger and she even admits that she’s not sure she knows what she’s doing. She sometimes rushes into things, and let’s not mention the damage to her official car. That mix of youth, vigour, energy and liveliness with vulnerability and lack of wisdom add to her appeal as a character.

There are other up-and-coming characters, too, who have that same combination. They can add real “spark” and interest to a novel. Which are your favourites?

 

ps  Oh, the ‘photos? The one on the left is my daughter when she was about three – sure that she could “do it all.” The one on the right is her daughter, now nearly eight months old and just as sure of herself :-).

Oh, and that sleeping bag is imprinted with characters from The Lion King. You can click the ‘photo to enlarge it and see what I mean.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Tim Rice’s I Just Can’t Wait to be King.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Raisin, Caroline Graham, Louise Penny, Tony Hillerman