Category Archives: Alice LaPlante

You Got a Different Point of View*

Many crime stories are told, for he most part, from the point of view of the sleuth. Sometimes they’re told from the point of one of a pair of sleuths (I’m thinking, for instance, of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes stories). That makes sense, since the sleuth is often the story’s protagonist.

Sometimes, though, a story is told from the point of view of a different character. That can be tricky to do well, but when it does work, it can make for an interesting perspective. And, that different point of view can mean that readers get to see the sleuth through different eyes, as the saying goes.

Agatha Christie did that in several of her stories. For instance, Murder in Mesopotamia is the story of the murder of Louise Leidner, who accompanies her archaeologist husband, Eric, to a dig a few hours from Baghdad. Louise has reported strange noises, hands tapping on windows, and other odd occurrences, and her husband wants to ease her mind. So, he hires a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to stay at the expedition house and look after his wife’s needs. Not long afterwards, Louise is bludgeoned to death one afternoon in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to investigate. This story is told in first person (past tense) from Amy Leatheran’s point of view. That allows for a really interesting perspective on Poirot, as well as perspectives on the other people in the expedition house.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is told mostly from the point of view of the suspects in the death of Joseph Higgins. Most of the action in the novel takes place at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for military use (WW II). One day, Higgins is brought there with a broken femur. It’s not life-threatening, but surgery will be required. Tragically, Higgins dies during the operation in an incident that’s put down to a terrible accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent police is sent in to do the requisite paperwork. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that Higgins might have been murdered. For one thing, that’s what Higgins’ widow claims. For another, one of the people who was present when Higgins died has too much to drink at a party, and then blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. That night, she, too, is killed. As Cockrill gets closer and closer to the truth about these deaths, we follow the thought processes of the suspects, and we see how they view Cockrill.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to one of his sleuths, Dr. Gideon Fell. When Tad Rampole finishes his university studies in the US he decides to travel. His mentor suggests that he make plans to meet Fell, and Rampole agrees. On his way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, Rampole meets a young woman named Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten right away and wants to know more about her. When he meets Fell, he learns some of the Starberth family story. It seems that, for two generations, Starberth men were governors in the nearby Chatterham Prison, which has fallen into disuse. From those years has come a tradition that every Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his visit, each one is to open the safe in the room and follow the instructions that are written on a piece of paper kept in the safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. Tragically, he dies from what looks like a fall from the balcony attached to the room. Although it seems like an accident at first, it turns out to have been murder. Fell solves the crime, but the story isn’t really told from his perspective. It’s told from Rampole’s perspective. It’s an interesting way to see Fell’s character from the outside, so to speak.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Jennifer White, a Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who’s been diagnosed with dementia. She’s had to retire, and now lives with her caregiver, Magdalena. One night, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole is murdered. She lives next door to White, so, naturally, the police want to know if there’s any information White has. Detective Luton takes the case and wants to talk to White, but learning the truth won’t be easy. Since White has dementia, she may or may not be lucid, and she is very likely not going to be reliable. But Luton is convinced that she knows all about the murder and might even be guilty. So, she tries to find ways to get White to share her story. The novel is told from White’s point of view, so readers see Luton from that perspective. And, as the story goes on, and White’s condition deteriorates, her view of Luton changes, too.

And then there’s Donna Morrisey’s The Fortunate Brother, which features the members of the Now family. Sylvanus Now, his wife, Addie, and their son, Kyle, live in The Beaches, Newfoundland, where they’re still reeling from the death three years earlier of Kyle’s brother, Chris. His death was a tragic accident, not a murder, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the family, and they’re all suffering. Then, a local bully named Clar Gillard is killed. In one sense, there are plenty of suspects. He was mean and cruel, and no-one will miss him. But it’s not long before the police start to focus their attention on the Nows. And there’s evidence that could support any of the three of them being guilty. At the same time as they’re coping with being suspects in a murder investigation, they’re also facing a family health crisis. Having to deal with both of these crises at the same time draws the family together just a little. And, very slowly, they start to do a small bit of healing. Interestingly, we don’t ‘get into the heads’ of the police here. The story is told from the different perspectives of members of the Now family.

When a story is told from a different perspective like that, it can give readers a different view of the sleuth. It can also offer an interesting way to look at the experience of being involved in a criminal investigation. It’s not easy to write this sort of story well, but it can be effective.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Pet Shop Boys’ A Different Point of View.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, Donna Morrissey, John Dickson Carr

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