Category Archives: Alice LaPlante

I’m Getting Older Too*

One of the major demographic shifts we’ve seen in many countries (certainly not all!) in the last years is the ageing of our population. The ‘baby boom’ generation is now entering into late middle/early old age, and that means a great number of changes. Socially, economically, and in other ways, we’re needing to re-think the way we do things (you’re welcome, younger people…)

I thought about this recently as I was reading The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old. The author has chosen Hendrik Groen as a pen name, too. This isn’t, admittedly, a crime novel. Rather, it’s a novel written in the form of a journal that the titular character keeps for a year. In that journal, Groen records what life is like in an Amsterdam elder care facility. It’s an unusual book with both wit and some darkness, too. And it highlights some of the issues that society faces as its population ages.

Crime fiction also highlights these issues, too, and it’s interesting to see how the genre treats them as time goes on. One thread through Groen’s story is the question of independence. Some elderly crime-fictional characters can do quite a lot (or even everything) for themselves. They may need occasional help here and there, but they’re certainly not invalids. I’m thinking, for instance, of Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s Emily Micaleff. She’s the former mayor of the small town of Port Dundas, Ontario. Her daughter, Hazel (who’s facing retirement herself) is a police inspector, and the main protagonist of this series. Emily’s health isn’t always good, and she doesn’t have the stamina of a younger person. But she’s quite independent, and wants to do things for herself, in her way. Balancing the realities of her age and health against the very normal and healthy desire to be independent isn’t easy.

It’s not easy for Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover, either. She’s a retired English teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. On the one hand, she uses a cane, and she’s not as strong as she once was (she’s in her eighties). She tires more easily than younger people do, and she does have occasional health problems. But she likes her independence, and she’s not at all ready to be ‘put out to pasture.’ It’s a difficult balance, and it’s a thread that runs through that series.

One of the points that Groen makes is that many elderly people do cherish their independence. They want to go to museums, concerts, good restaurants, and the like. In fact, a group of the fictional Groen’s friends form what they call the Old But Not Dead club. Each month, one of the members picks an activity for the group to engage in. They go golfing, to museums, out to dinner, and more. As they do, we see the challenge that society faces in making these activities available to elderly people who may need assistance, extra time, easy access to different places, and so on.

It’s not just independence, though. There’s also the issue of health. As the population ages, more people face health issues that weren’t as widespread (or at least, as well-understood) as they are now. And society will need to find a way to address those problems. One of them, for instance, is dementia in its many forms. Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, for instance features Dr. Jennifer White, who’s been diagnosed with dementia. She’s had to retire because of her illness, and now lives with a caregiver. When the woman next door is murdered, White becomes a suspect. The problem for the police, though, is that it’s difficult to find out the truth from her, because of her advancing illness. Among other things, this novel sheds a light on some of the challenges we face in treating dementia, and working with people who have it.

On the one hand (and Groen addresses this, too), dementia often progresses slowly, so that those diagnosed with it still may have quite a long period of a relatively normal life (whatever that even means). They may need some assistance, or to find a way to remind themselves of things. But they can still live full lives. We see this in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson has developed short-term memory loss, so he uses a notebook to keep track of everything he does. Then, the next day, he can go back to those notes to remind himself of what happened the day before. On the other hand, we haven’t found a cure for dementia. So, patients and their families face the challenge of how to give the person with dementia as much dignity and independence as possible, but also prepare for what is still inevitable.

Perhaps the most important point that Groen makes in the novel (at least to me; your mileage, as they say, may differ) is that elderly people are simply that – people. They want to be treated with dignity and respect, just as anyone else does. They have their own likes, dislikes, complexities, faults, and strengths. And crime fiction is, arguably, seeing that, too. There are plenty of elderly fictional sleuths, from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to the present day. And as time goes on, authors are exploring ageing in more depth. And that, to me, is a good thing. As more and more of us face getting older – perhaps very much older – the more prepared we are for it, and the more prepared society is, the better.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Landslide.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Hendrik Groen, Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Redhill, Mike Befeler

He Hears But Cannot Answer to Your Call*

When there’s a crime, one of the important things that police do is talk to the people involved. Whether those people tell the truth or lie, the investigator can usually get some useful information. So, it’s critical to be able to communicate with witnesses, suspects, and others who can provide information.

But what if that’s not possible (or at least, if it’s very difficult)? In today’s world, if someone involved in a case speaks another language, it’s usually possible to get an interpreter to help facilitate communication. And if a witness simply decides not to speak, that person can sometimes be persuaded to do so. Those are straightforward, if not easy, challenges.

But there are cases where a witness or other involved person cannot communicate. When that happens, the police can be at a real disadvantage. And that can add a really interesting plot twist to a crime novel.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, the Boynton family travels from their home in the US to take a tour of the Middle East. Part of the trip involves a visit to the ancient city of Petra. One the second day of the visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like heart failure. Given her age and health, it wouldn’t be surprising. But Colonel Carbury isn’t so sure. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to ask questions. He finds that the victim was malicious, tyrannical and manipulative, so every one of her family members has a very good motive for murder. One of those members is her youngest daughter, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny.’ Jinny is mentally fragile, and lately, seems to have been losing touch with reality more and more. So, it’s very difficult to make sense of what she says and get to the truth. In the end, though, Poirot discovers who really killed Mrs. Boynton and why.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’ Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces his sleuth, Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, Mørck is named head of ‘Department Q,’ a department created to investigate ‘cases of special interest’ – cold cases. The first one he and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad investigate is the 5-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. She went missing during a ferry trip with her brother Uffe, and it was always believed that she drowned. But now there’s evidence that she might still be alive. If she is, then she may be in grave danger. Mørck wants to talk to Uffe about the incident; after all, he was on the ferry. But he is a very troubled young man who doesn’t really communicate. So, Mørck and the team have to do the best they can with what little they can learn from him, and with other information they learn. And they discover that the roots of Merete Lynggaard’s disappearance are in the past.

In Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, Chicago police detective Luton is assigned to investigate the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. The most likely suspect is sixty-five-year-old Jennifer White, who lives next door. But she has been diagnosed with dementia, and is slowly losing her grip on reality. Still, Luton is sure that White knows all about the crime, and may very well be guilty. So, she works to find ways to communicate. The story is told from White’s point of view, which adds to the tension as well as to a deep sense of unease as the dementia takes greater hold of her thinking.

In Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness, Inspector John Madden of Scotland Yard is called in when a group of murders shocks the village of Highfield. The victims are Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes. The Fletcher’s young daughter, Sophy, survived, because she hid under a bed during the murders. But she is very young, and of course, is suffering from the trauma of having her family members killed. So, she can’t really communicate about what happened. At first, Madden wants Sophy to remain locally, so that she can be available to the police as soon as possible. But Dr. Helen Blackwell, the local GP, insists that Sophy is in no condition to be interviewed or answer questions. At her insistence, Sophy goes to Scotland to stay with her aunt and uncle while Madden and the team investigate. But Sophy has her own way of communicating, and she provides an interesting clue.

Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces Toronto Detective Ari Greene. He and Officer Daniel Kennicott investigate when the body of Katherine Torn is discovered in the bathtub of her home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Thorn’s common-law husband, radio celebrity Kevin Brace, is the most likely suspect; he’s even said he killed her. But Brace’s attorney, Nancy Parish, is determined to do the best job she can for her client. And there is the possibility that he is innocent. She’s going to find this case difficult, though, because her client won’t speak with her. He only communicates through written notes, and even those are not overly informative. Little by little, though, and each in a different way, Greene and Parish find out the truth about what happened to Katherine Thorn.

And then there’s Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreo’s The Cemetery of Swallows, which features Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID. Mallock travels to the Dominican Republic when a French citizen, Manuel Gemoni, murders a Dominican citizen, Tobias Darbier. There’s no question that Gemoni is guilty. In fact, it comes out that he went to the Dominican Republic specifically for the purpose of murder. What isn’t clear is the motive. And Gemoni can’t be much help in the investigation. For one thing, he’s badly injured. For another, he’s not particularly coherent. So, it’s very difficult for the team to know exactly where to start with this investigation.

And that’s the real challenge when people simply cannot communicate. Even if they have useful information in a case, they may not be able to share it. So, the investigating team sometimes has to be creative in finding ways to reach out.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Go to the Mirror.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Rennie Airth, Robert Rotenberg

And Still We Wonder Who the Hell We Are*

lost-identitiesThere’s not much more basic – and more essential to the way we think about ourselves – than our identity. If someone asks your name, you know the answer. You may forget certain things you’ve experienced, but you have a core of memories that tells you who you are and where you’ve been. Imagine if you didn’t.

Crime fiction that makes use of this plot point (characters who don’t know who they are) can be risky. It’s a plot point that has to work hard to be credible. What’s more, it has to fit in smoothly with the rest of the plot. But when it does work, it can add an interesting dimension to a crime novel.

One novel that’s called a lot of attention to this plot point is S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. This novel tells the story of Christine Lucas. Because of injury from a mysterious accident, she wakes every morning with no idea who she is or where she is. Her husband, Ben, knows about his wife’s difficulties, and tries to help her each day to re-orient herself. Her doctor suggests that she start to keep a daily journal, and use it to write anything she does remember during the day. The hope is that she’ll gradually remember her life. Then one day, she sees a note in her journal: ‘Don’t trust Ben.’ Now, everything gets turned upside down. With her memory and sense of identity gone, Christine has no idea why Ben cannot be trusted, if he can’t. And what if she’s the one who can’t be trusted? Perhaps her memories are wrong. As she slowly pieces together what she can of her life, Christine isn’t sure who can be trusted. What she gradually comes to know, though, is that there is something very dark in her past.

Sherban Young’s Fleeting Memory introduces his detective, PI Enescu Fleet. In the novel, a man wakes up to the sound of someone knocking on the door of his cabin. He opens the door to a young woman who asks for his help. She says she has no idea who she is or what she’s doing there. He invites her in and tries to help. When she asks his name, it occurs to the man that he has no idea who he is, either. Thinking he’s mocking her, the woman leaves. That’s when it really hits home that the cabin is unfamiliar, too. So is the dying man he finds in the living room. The man’s last words are
 

‘The answer lies with Keats.’
 

Just then, the protagonist gets another visitor, Enescu Fleet. Fleet’s looking for his dog, who’s run off. And when his host finds out he’s a PI, he thinks he’s found the solution to his problem. Not knowing his own name, he becomes Assistant PI as he and Fleet try to piece together what’s happened. This novel is lighter than some others that feature characters who don’t know who they are, and puts more of a ‘cosy twist’ on the plot point.

That’s not the case with Giles Blunt’s BlackFly Season. In that novel, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Officer Jerry Commanda is having a soft drink at Algonquin Bay’s World Tavern when a young woman comes in, covered with black fly bites, and with her hair matted with leaves. She doesn’t know who she is, nor how she came to be at the tavern. And she has no idea where she lives or anything else that could help Commanda assist her. She’s taken to hospital, where X-rays confirm that she has a bullet lodged in her brain. This means that someone was trying to kill her. So OPP Detectives John Cardinal and Lise Dorme start to investigate. They find that the woman’s injury is related to the murder of a biker gang member, and to some other ritualistic killings.

And then there’s Peter May’s Coffin Road. That novel begins as a man stumbles ashore on a beach of the Isle of Harris.  He has no idea who he is, or why he was in the water, or that he’s apparently been living on Harris for the last eighteen months. He soon learns that he is a writer, who’s working on a book about a local Hebrides mystery: the 1900 disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. The only problem is, when he looks at his outline, he finds that he hasn’t written anything. The only clue he has is a map of the famous Coffin Road. He tries to trace back his movements from the time he lost his memory – and discovers a dead man. Now, he’s faced with the terrible possibility that he committed a murder. D.S. George Gunn investigates, and finds the relationship between the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance, the dead man, and an Edinburgh teen who becomes convinced that her father (thought to have committed suicide) is still alive.

There are also novels in which characters gradually lose pieces of their identities. For instance, Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind features Dr. Jennifer White, a former well-regarded orthopaedic surgeon who has been diagnosed with dementia. Over the course of the book, we learn that there has been a murder in the house next door, and that White may be responsible. But she is gradually losing her identity and her memory, so it’s very hard for the police to establish just what happened. There’s also Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Those stories feature octogenarian Jacobson, who has short-term memory problems. So he often forgets what most of us would consider very basic things.

And that’s the thing about losing one’s sense of identity. We take for granted the knowledge of things like our names, our children’s and grandchildren’s names, our personal stories. When we don’t have that – when we don’t even know who we are – it can be thoroughly frightening. And it can make for a solid layer of suspense in a novel if it’s done well.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.

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Filed under Alice LaPlante, Giles Blunt, Mike Befeler, Peter May, S.J. Watson, Sherban Young

I Know Your Deepest, Secret Fear*

Deepest FearsBoth Ian Rankin and Stephen King have made the point (‘though in different ways) that, among other things, writing helps to exorcise those fears and personal demons that plague just about all of us. And certainly writing can be very cathartic. That’s part of why so many people keep journals.

It’s possible that reading crime fiction can be cathartic, too. There are, of course, many reasons people read crime fiction. One of them might be that it lets us face some of our fears and darker thoughts in a very safe way. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if you look at some of the topics and themes in the genre, you certainly see that it addresses some of our deepest fears.

For example, people are social creatures. We need to depend on each other. That’s especially true for people in our ‘inner circles.’ And that’s why we’re perhaps most vulnerable to family members, partners and close friends. Stories that address that fear quite possibly give us a safe outlet for thinking about it. And there are plenty of them.

Novels such as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, and even Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives explore this sort of fear. In all of them (and many others, too, that I haven’t mentioned), the plot raises the question of how well we really know even those closest to us. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one example of a film that does the same thing. Such stories touch a raw nerve for a lot of people, and bring that fear out into the open.

Along with that is the fear many people have of being outcasts. Most of us don’t mind having our own little quirks and eccentricities, but we still want to be accepted and included. Plenty of crime fiction novels address that deep-seated need we have to belong.

We see this sort of fear in novels such as Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Wendy James’ The Mistake. In all of these stories (and plenty of others), part of the plot involves a character who is made a social pariah. That experience adds tension to the stories. But it also speaks to a deeply human fear of being all alone in the world, and the target of others’ contempt (or worse).

One of the biggest fears people have is the fear that they might be mentally ill – that their sanity is slipping away. When some people say, ‘Am I crazy?’ it’s because they want reassurance that others feel the same way, or saw/heard the same thing, or have the same perception. The alternative – questionable sanity – is so deeply frightening that it’s difficult to really comprehend.

Several crime novels address this fear, too. One of the main characters in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, for instance, starts to doubt her sanity when she begins to have a sense of déjà vu – about a house she doesn’t ever remember visiting before. And the protagonist in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is slowly losing a battle with dementia. Since that story is told in first person, readers get a strong sense of what it’s like to feel that one’s losing touch with reality. We also see this sort of fear addressed and explored in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson is in his eighties, and has developed short-term memory problems. So he keeps a notebook in which he records everything that happens, so that he’ll be able to recall it later.

It’s hard to imagine a worse nightmare for a caring parent than the loss of a child. That may be particularly true in cases of abduction, where parents don’t know what happened to their child. That makes it even harder to come to terms with the loss.

I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, in the last few decades, there’ve been several books in which authors address that awful possibility. Just a few examples are William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, and Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. There are others, too, of course, many more than I have space for in this one post. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has been explored quite a lot in recent years. And, like our other deep, dark fears, it’s in part a way to explore that darkness in a safe way – a way that allows us to keep our distance, as it were.

These certainly aren’t the only truly dark fears that people have. And it might be the case that crime fiction allows those demons to be called out and sent off in a way that doesn’t do damage. It certainly lets authors flush them out.

What do you think? Do you find it cathartic to read crime fiction? If you’re a writer, do you think people write to let out the demons? I’d be really interested in your opinions.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Alice LaPlante, Ellery Queen, Garry Disher, Helen Fitzgerald, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, Mike Befeler, Paddy Richardson, S.J. Watson, Sarah Ward, Stephen King, Wendy James, William McIlvanney

I Am He as You Are He and You Are Me*

Point of ViewOne of the important choices writers have to make is which way they’ll tell a story. Most authors choose first or third person (more about second person in a bit). There are good reasons to choose each one, and a lot depends on what the author wants to accomplish.

Many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are written in the first person, from the point of view of Dr. Watson. One of the big advantages of first person here is that it allows for a really interesting perspective on another character, Sherlock Holmes. As fans will know, Holmes is unusual, even unique. And his skill at deduction is legendary. To see all of that from someone else’s point of view allows for the same kind of wonder (‘How’d he do that?’) that we might feel when watching a magician. And then, of course, Watson’s perspective allows Holmes to explain himself. There are examples of that moment woven through the Holmes stories and novels. One that I like very much comes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, Commissionaire Peterson brings an unusual case to Holmes. He broke up a fight in which some thugs were attacking a man. Everyone ran off, and in his haste, the man dropped his hat and a goose he was carrying. Peterson brought the goose home to his wife, and when she started to prepare it for cooking, she found a valuable gem in its craw. Peterson wants to know the story behind the gem, and for that, he’ll need the man’s identity. Holmes takes one good look at the hat and is able to be so precise about its owner that they soon find out who that person is.

Of course, sleuths are not perfect. Just ask Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. He’ll be very quick to lay out the limitations of his boss, Nero Wolfe. And that’s one of the real advantages of telling most of the Wolfe stories in first person, from Archie’s point of view. We get to see all of Wolfe’s faults (which he himself would hardly be willing to discuss). What’s more, we learn parts of the story that Wolfe wouldn’t necessarily know, since Archie usually serves as Wolfe’s ‘legs, eyes and ears.’

Agatha Christie used first person in several of her stories, too. One purpose that served (similar to what we see in the Stout stories) was to give some insight into another character. I’m thinking particularly of the Hercule Poirot stories in which Arthur Hastings serves as narrator. He certainly admires Poirot’s detection ability, but he is not oblivious to Poirot’s faults and eccentricities. And that gives us insight into Poirot’s character.

Hastings’ perspective also serves another purpose: misdirection. In Lord Edgware Dies, Poirot and Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. The victim’s wife, Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect, but according to the testimony of twelve other people, she was at a dinner party in a different part of London at the time of the murder. It’s a difficult case, and at one point, Poirot explains why he values Hastings’ perspective on it so much:
 

‘‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’’
 

What he means is that he learns from Hastings what the murder wants him to think. Hastings is not stupid, but he doesn’t put pieces of a case together the way Poirot does. He sees and hears things, but isn’t always aware of their significance.

Christie also created several first-person stories where the narrator is unreliable – another form of misdirection. I won’t list titles or characters, as that would give spoilers. But fans will know which ones I mean. And she’s not the only one who uses first person for the purpose of creating an unreliable narrator. A few authors and titles that come to my mind are James W. Fuerst’s Huge, Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind.

There are other reasons, too, for which authors choose the first person. For example, it allows for readers to really get to understand the protagonist. But it’s got its limits. It’s harder for an author to share information that a given character couldn’t know unless that author uses third person. That reader omniscience allows for a great deal of suspense as readers can anticipate what’s going to happen next once they get some information. Karin Fossum does this quite a lot with her Konrad Sejer stories, for instance. As one example, in When the Devil Holds the Candle, we know something terrible is going to happen when best friends Andreas Winther and Sivert ‘Zipp” Skorpe spend a fateful day together. But Sejer doesn’t know. And that tension as the events unfold, and as Sejer later investigates them adds to the suspense.

There’s also the fact that third person allows for multiple points of view. Many, many writers (including yours truly) share stories through different points of view. Doing that gives the reader a broader perspective on the events. It also allows for the evolution of a group of characters (since the reader can get to know more than one of them). Kate Atkinson does this in One Good Turn, for instance. In that novel, we follow the lives of several disparate characters, including her protagonist Jackson Brodie, who all end up in the same place one afternoon when a blue Honda crashes into the back of a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The lead-up to the crash, and the consequences of it, are fateful for several of the characters, and Atkinson shows us that through more than one pair of eyes.

There are some authors who’ve actually chosen to use the second person, too. Charles Stross’ Rule 34 comes to my mind as an example of this. That novel takes place in the near future, in a sort of alternative reality. In it, Edinburgh police detective Liz Kavanaugh and her team investigate several murders that are connected with online spamming, a shadowy criminal group called The Organization, and a former identity thief named Anwar. The points of view shift throughout the novel, but the story is all told in the second person.

There are good reasons to choose one or another way to tell a story. Neither first person nor third person is always ideal, and a lot of people are not comfortable with second person. At the same time, each of these offers some important advantages, too. Do you have a preference? Let me know in the poll below, and we’ll talk about it again when everyone’s had a week to vote. I’ll be interested in what you have to say. If you’re a writer, what drew you to the first/second/third person choices you’ve made?

 

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Stross, James W. Fuerst, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Mark Haddon, Rex Stout, Virginia Duigan