Category Archives: Alice LaPlante

Sometimes I Don’t Speak Right*

Difficult InterviewsInterviews with witnesses and suspects are critical to any investigation. Certainly those people can lie or be wrong; still, what they say and don’t say often provides important information about a case. Some witnesses (and suspects too) are particularly challenging to interview. They may have mental or emotional limitations that make it hard to reach them; and it may be difficult to make sense of what they say. Sleuths have to be especially careful in those cases, and use all of their interviewing skills to get the information they need.

In crime fiction, this challenge can add a layer of interest and suspense to a story. It’s got to be done carefully, or the witness/suspect can seem more of a ‘curiosity object’ than a real human being. But in deft hands, such a plot point can add some depth to a novel.

Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders has a few interesting examples of this sort of interview. In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate a series of killings. The only things the murders seem to have in common is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each death, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. In the course of the investigation, Poirot interviews Lady Clarke, who is the widow of the third victim, retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. She has cancer, and is kept under sedation most of the time because of the pain. This means that arranging a conversation with her requires planning, so that she can remain lucid during the interview. When Poirot speaks with her, she does ‘drift off’ at times. But she also has moments of clarity; and she says some things that turn out to be very helpful.

Interviewing children nearly always requires delicacy and care. That’s especially true in the case of seven-year-old Melody Quinn, whom we meet in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. Melody is the only witness to the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez, so LAPD detective Milo Sturgis wants to find out what she knows. But she’s not always coherent, and Sturgis is sure there’s more she could tell the police. He asks his friend, child psychologist Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware is reluctant at first; but in the end he agrees to at least speak to the child. When he does, he discovers that she’s heavily medicated with Ritalin and other drugs intended for children with ADHD. After considerable effort, Delaware convinces her mother Bonita to allow him to reduce her daughter’s medication so he can communicate with her. When he does, the child starts having nightmares and showing other symptoms of distress, so neither Bonita nor Melody’s doctor allow him any more access to her. But what she says during their short time together turns out to be significant.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn takes an interest in the murder of a colleague Reed Gallagher, who headed the School of Journalism. One of Gallagher’s students, Kellee Savage, may have important information about the murder. As she’s also in one of Kilbourn’s classes, the two talk about the death. But Kellee has psychological and emotional conditions; and it’s not easy to interact with her. So at first, Kilbourn doesn’t take seriously some of the things Kellee says. Then one night, Kellee disappears. As the investigation goes on, Kilbourn learns that Kellee had some valuable knowledge about Gallagher’s death.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Chicago surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. She’s been diagnosed with dementia, and has had to leave her profession. But as the story begins, she still has many more good days than bad days. One night, the woman next door, Amanda O’Toole, is murdered. Her body has been mutilated in a skilled way that only a surgeon would be likely to know, so police detective Luton naturally takes an interest in White. And as she investigates, Luton finds more and more reason to think White is guilty. But at the same time, the evidence doesn’t completely add up; there are enough inconsistencies that it’s also quite possible White is innocent. But she is gradually slipping away from coherent thinking, so Luton finds it very hard to interact with her at times. In the end we discover what really happened to the victim, and it’s interesting to see how Luton goes about finding out the truth.

Martin EdwardsThe Hanging Wood introduces readers to Orla Payne, a troubled young woman who is haunted by the disappearance of her brother Callum twenty years earlier. Everyone’s always thought their uncle had something to do with what happened, but Orla’s never really believed that. Still, Callum hasn’t returned and his body was never discovered. Orla wants the case re-opened, so she calls the Cumbria Constabulary to ask DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team to look into it. But she is drunk when she calls, and emotionally very fragile in any case, so Scarlett finds it difficult to talk to her. Then Orla dies, apparently a suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not having worked harder to communicate with Orla, and commits herself to finding out the truth about Callum’s disappearance.

There’s a very interesting case of a witness/suspect with limitations in T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton. The body of a mysterious young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s good reason to believe that Elton Spears is responsible for her death. For one thing, he’d already been in trouble with the law before for inappropriate contact with young girls. For another, he was known to be in that area at the time of the murder. Solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. Working with this client isn’t easy though. Spears is a mentally troubled man who isn’t always coherent. He can’t do much to defend himself; he can’t even really explain his movements on the night in question. But Harwood wants to clear Spears’ name, so he and barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court, work to prove the young man innocent.

In real life, police and attorneys (and other investigators) sometimes have to work with witnesses or suspects who can’t be coherent and don’t seem reliable. And yet, those people can sometimes have important insights and valuable clues. So part of the task of solving a case is to find ways to reach those witnesses and suspects. That plot point can add a real layer of suspense to a crime story, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from War’s Why Can’t We Be Friends?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Gail Bowen, Jonathan Kellerman, Martin Edwards, T.J. Cooke

There Are Places I Remember*

RemeniscencesAn interesting post at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about a plot point that’s become more common in crime fiction in the last years. The genre is arguably featuring more older people as central characters (the reasons for that are, I think, the stuff of another conversation). Their reminiscences and ‘looking back’ on older crimes can be an effective way to tie those crimes in with newer ones.

That premise – that an older person looks back and tells the story of an older crime – isn’t of course brand-new. For instance, a few of the short stories in Anna Katherine Green’s 1915 collection The Golden Slipper and Other Stories have that plot point. Green’s sleuth is New York heiress and socialite Violet Strange, who has a secret career as a private investigator. More than once she finds that modern cases are connected with older ones, and that the key is an older person’s reminiscences.

We see that same plot point in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, and in that novel, it’s the older person who takes on a central role. As the story opens, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates the case, which seems to make little sense at first. Burke had no family and wasn’t known to have anything really valuable that would be worth stealing. He had no known local enemies either. And yet, Alberg doesn’t think this was a freak, random killing. Since Wilcox reported the murder and claims to have discovered the body, Alberg becomes convinced that he knows more than he’s saying; and of course, Alberg’s right. As the novel goes on, we learn about the history between Wilcox and Burke, and what was behind the murder. That part of the story relies on Wilcox’s reminiscences and memories.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House is the first in the Arthur Bryant/John May series. Bryant and May been a part of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) for several decades, but everything changes when a bomb goes off in the PCU offices. In order to solve this case, May needs to return to the team’s first (1940) case, which had at its heart London’s Palace Theatre and its doomed production of Orpheus. That story, which included more than one murder and a disappearance, is told from May’s now-older perspective. And as it turns out, his memories of what happened, and the outcome of the Palace case, have everything to do with solving the modern-day case.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind takes an innovative approach to the ‘older person looking back’ plot point. Dr. Jennifer White is a retired Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who left her position after being diagnosed with early dementia. Now she lives with a caregiver, Magdalena, but as the story begins, she’s still quite high-functioning. She becomes involved in a case of murder when her neighbour, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole, is killed. Detective Luton is assigned to the investigation and is soon interested in White as a suspect. White knew the victim well for thirty years, and the body was mutilated in a professional way that suggests a doctor or other medical professional is the culprit. But that evidence doesn’t conclusively prove White is the murderer. What’s more, White’s dementia is progressing, which makes it increasingly difficult for Luton to find out from her exactly what happened on the night of the murder. This story is told from White’s point of view, so readers learn the story of her relationship with the O’Tooles through her memories. Bit by bit, the truth of the crime comes out through those reminiscences.

And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Amateur divers seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go out to explore Lake Vittangijärvi. The ruins of a World War II plane that went down there have never been recovered, and the young people want to see what they can find. They locate the plane, but are trapped under the ice by a murderer and killed. Wilma’s body surfaces in the spring, and Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate. With help from attorney Rebecka Martinsson, they discover that this case has everything to do with the area’s past. And some of the vital information they get comes from the memories of older residents; through those memories we learn about an older event that triggered a lot of what’s gone on in the area since then.

And I don’t think a post about the ‘older person looking back’ motif in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. That’s the story of Sheldon Horowitz, an octogenarian from New York, who’s gone to live in Norway to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Lars. One thread of this story follows Horowitz as he rescues a small boy from the thugs who murdered his mother, who lives upstairs from Rhea and Lars. Horowitz hides the boy and then goes on the run with him. Another thread of the story tells Horowitz’ own personal history, including his stint in service during the Korean War, and the death of his son Saul in Vietnam. Those memories play a role in the way Horowitz reacts to the modern-day events. What’s interesting here is that Horowitz is slowly slipping away from being grounded in the modern day because dementia is starting to take a bit of a toll. But as readers familiar with this novel will know, he’s still smart, capable and resourceful.

Sometimes, older people don’t remember very recent things. But they often remember details from many years earlier, and those can be crucial in solving modern-day cases. These are just a few examples (I’m sorry, fans of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Johan Theorin). Which ones do you remember?

Now, may I suggest that the next stop on your blog round be FictionFan’s Book Reviews. There you’ll find excellent and thoughtful reviews, plenty of wit, and great ‘photos. And porpentines.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles In My Life.

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Filed under Alice LaPlante, Anna Katherine Green, Åsa Larsson, Christopher Fowler, Derek B. Miller, Johan Theorin, L.R. Wright, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

I’d Rather be Anything but Ordinary Please*

Outside the BoxOne of the things that can make a fictional sleuth or protagonist interesting and memorable is an unusual way of thinking. I’m not talking here about simple creativity of thinking although of course that can be an appealing trait. I’m really talking about a mindset that sees the world in a different way. Like anything else in a crime fiction novel, an unusual way of thinking can be overdone and so pull the reader out of the story. When that happens the sleuth is less believable. But when it’s done well, having a sleuth or other protagonist who looks at the world in a very unusual way can add richness to a story and can make for a very memorable character.

For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Queensland police inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is half Aborigine/half White. His way of looking at the world and his cases is unusual in part because of his cultural background. On the one hand, Bony is well aware of the European way of looking at life. He is a police detective, so he knows police procedure and he understands that way of thinking. At the same time, he is well versed in ‘the book of the bush.’ He thinks in terms of what the signs of the bush and nature tell him, and often gets very useful information from what he sees in nature when he investigates.  For instance, in The Bone is Pointed, Bony investigates the five-month old disappearance of Jeff Anderson, who was working Karwir Station, a ranch near Green Swamp Well, when he disappeared. One morning, Anderson went out to ride the fences on the ranch; only his horse returned. At first, everyone thought the horse (who was known for being difficult) threw him, but there is no sign of his body. No-one misses Anderson very much as he’s both sadistic and mean-tempered. But Sergeant Blake, who investigated the disappearance, now believes that Anderson either was murdered or deliberately went into hiding. Bony is assigned to investigate the man’s disappearance and begins to look into the case. He uses a very unusual but effective combination of his knowledge of the bush and the people who live there and his knowledge of police procedure and working with European-Australians to find out what really happened to Jeff Anderson.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla Jaspersen also has a very unusual way of thinking about the world. She is half-Inuit/half-White and was brought up on Greenland. So by the standards of most people in Copenhagen where she now lives, she doesn’t look at the world in the usual way. She is also a scientist who has learned to think about the world like a scientist does. And in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), she uses her unusual way of thinking to solve the mystery of the death of Isaiah Christiansen. Isaiah is a young boy, also a Greenlander by birth, who lives in the same building where Jaspersen does. When he dies after a fall from the snow-covered roof of the building, everyone puts it down to a tragic accident. But Jaspersen thinks otherwise. First, Isaiah was extremely at home in the snow and wouldn’t have made the kinds of mistakes that can end up in a tragic fall. What’s more, certain aspects of the snow and the marks in it suggest to Jespersen that the boy’s death was more than just a fall. So she begins to investigate. The answers lead Jaspersen back to Greenland and an excavation there where Isaiah’s father died. Throughout this novel, we see Jaspersen’s unusual way of thinking, at the same time both scientific and informed by her cultural background. She understands snow, ice and glaciers in a very traditional, culturally-contextual and deep way; she has a real feeling for them. At the same time she understands them from a scientific point of view and those two ways of thinking give her a very unusual perspective. They also point her in the right direction in solving this mystery.

We see a very unusual way of thinking in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. He’s high-enough functioning to communicate and to do quite a lot for himself. But he doesn’t think like ‘the rest of us’ do. When he discovers that his neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and find out who was responsible. The novel is written from Christopher’s point of view and that gives us a glimpse into how a person with his form and level of autism might see the world. It’s an interesting perspective and although Christopher is not skilled socially, we see that he is highly accurate at remembering details. His unique skills are part of what leads him to the answers he’s looking for – and to a truth about himself that he never knew.

There’s also the unique perspective of Dr. Jennifer White, whom we meet in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. White is a skilled Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in hand reconstruction. She has also been diagnosed with dementia. As the novel begins, White is still able to function fairly well although she has had to retire from active work. Her daughter Fiona and son Mark have arranged for her to have a live-in caregiver Magdalena. One night, White’s neighbour Amanda O’Toole is murdered and Detective Luton is assigned to the case. Forensic tests show that O’Toole was mutilated in a way that points to a murderer with highly developed medical skill, so Luton begins to wonder whether White might be guilty. But the evidence isn’t completely convincing, so Luton isn’t sure White is the murderer. White’s advancing dementia means she has progressively fewer lucid times and even if she did think the way ‘the rest of us do,’ Luton knows she wouldn’t be likely to admit to the murder if she is guilty. So Luton has to use all of her abilities to get to the truth about Amanda O’Toole’s murder. It turns out that the O’Toole and White families have a long history together and that this murder has everything to do with their pasts. Since this novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, we get to see the case unfold through the eyes of someone who thinks in a very unusual way.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost introduces us to ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who has a unique way of looking at the world. As the novel begins, Kate dreams of being a detective, and has already started her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. Her partner is Mickey the Monkey, a stuffed monkey who travels everywhere in Kate’s backpack. Kate’s favourite occupation is looking for suspicious characters and activity and there are few better places to do that than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center. Kate doesn’t have a lot of friends, and she doesn’t think the way other people do, but that doesn’t bother her. She’s perfectly content to live the way she’s living. But her grandmother Ivy, who is her caregiver, thinks Kate would be better served by going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate is finally persuaded to go when her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer agrees to go with her to the school. The two board the bus together but Kate never returns. No trace of her is found, and everyone blames Palmer for her disappearance. In fact, his life is made so difficult that he leaves town. Twenty years later his sister Lisa is the assistant manager at Your Music, a store in Green Oaks. Her job is to put it mildly uninspiring and she’s in a dead-end relationship. But life changes for her when she meets Kurt, a security guard at the mall. Kurt’s been seeing strange things on his security cameras: a vision of a young girl with backpack that has a monkey sticking out of it. Lisa is reminded of Kate, whom she met a few times, and each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt explore the past as we learn what really happened to Kate. Throughout this novel we see that Kate thinks in a way that’s unlike just about anyone else. That aspect of her personality makes her perhaps the most alive person in the novel, even twenty years after she’s disappeared.

More recently, Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker introduces us to Patrick Fort, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Fort’s father was struck by a car and killed when Fort was young and it’s partly for that reason that Fort is fascinated by what makes people die. He enrols at university in Cardiff to study anatomy mostly because of his fascination with the causes of death. Part of this novel is told from Fort’s perspective as he and his peers study a cadaver. Patrick notices some things about the cadaver that don’t tally with the official reports and that makes him curious about this death. Bit by bit we learn through Patrick’s very unusual way of looking at the world what happened to the dead man. Another thread of this story which is later tied in with Patrick’s experience is told from the perspective of Sam Galen, who’s in a coma in a neurological unit but hasn’t lost his ability to think. As he slowly re-unites with the world, we learn what happened to him and what life is like in that unit.  We get another perspective on the same unit from Tracy Evans, who is a nurse there. I confess I haven’t yet read this novel, but it was such a good example of a protagonist (in this case Patrick Fort) with a unique way of looking at the world that I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

Sarah Ward at Crimepieces has done a terrific review of Rubbernecker. Her review is what got me thinking about protagonists who don’t think like ‘the rest of the world’ so thanks, Sarah, for the inspiration. Folks, Sarah’s excellent blog is well worth a spot on your blog roll if you’re not already following it.

Characters with unique ways of thinking have to be drawn deftly or the story risks contrivance and melodrama, to say nothing of the risks to believability. But when such a character is done well, having an unusual way of looking at the world can add depth to a novel and set it apart from others.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s Anything but Ordinary.

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Filed under Alice LaPlante, Arthur Upfield, Belinda Bauer, Catherine O'Flynn, Mark Haddon, Peter Høeg

Put Our Service to the Test*

Domestic StaffFor the most part the days are long past when people had households consisting of maids, butlers, valets and so on. And yet, lots of people still hire others to cook or clean, mind children, look after elderly parents and so on. Even if those folks don’t live in, they still have keys and lots of access. If you think about it they are vulnerable too so hiring someone to work in one’s home entails quite a lot of mutual trust. There’s an odd sort of intimacy too between employer and employee. All of those factors mean a rich source of characters and plot lines for crime fiction.

One of the most powerful examples of what I mean is in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. Wealthy and well-educated George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper. In a tragic lapse, a too-trusting Jacqueline doesn’t check into her new housekeeper’s background carefully enough. Still, all goes well at first. Then little incidents suggest that something about this housekeeper isn’t what it seems. From Eunice Parchman’s perspective, her new employers are getting far, far too close to finding out a secret she’s keeping. Then, George Coverdale’s daughter Melinda discovers what the housekeeper has been so desperate not to reveal. And that seals the family’s fate one awful Valentine’s Day. In this novel, we know what happens right from the beginning of the novel. The real suspense is in the backstory and the buildup to the story’s climax. And one of the themes in the novel is the way the Coverdales and their housekeeper see each other.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, the focus is on the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is a particularly gifted world-class violinist. Then one night he finds that he can’t play at all. He’s terrified by the incident and decides to get psychological help to understand why he’s had this block of his skill. The process of psychotherapy leads Davies to understand that his past has a lot to do with what’s happened. In the meantime Davies’ mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a terrible accident – a hit-and-run incident. Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate Eugenie Davies’ death, and that trail leads them to a horrible event in the family’s past. Twenty years earlier, Eugenie Davies’ two-year-old daughter Sonia was drowned in what appeared at first to be a horrible accident. When it began to look as though more was involved their nanny Katja Wolff was arrested and imprisoned. She’s recently been released from prison and as the story unfolds, we see how the drowning and the nanny’s imprisonment and release are all tied in with what’s happened to Gideon Davies and to his mother.

There’s a very appealing relationship between Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran and his housekeeper Iris Cobb. One of the appealing things about it is that the relationship develops over several books in the series. When the two first meet, Qwill is a feature-writer for a large city’s newspaper. When he uncovers corruption and murder in the city’s antiques business, he encounters Cobb, whose husband is an antiques dealer. As it turns out, she is not only quite knowledgeable about antiques, but she is a gifted cook as well. When circumstances leave her alone in life Cobb moves to Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ There she goes into business with a local art/antiques dealer and also becomes Qwill’s housekeeper. She and Qwill really do look out for each other and Braun is to be credited for making their relationship a solid friendship and a case of mutual respect rather than the all-too-easy blossoming romance.

A cleaning lady turns out to be an important source of information in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. In that novel, Göteborg homicide detective Irene Huss and her team investigate the death of Richard von Knecht, who apparently committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of his penthouse. When forensics evidence suggests that von Knecht was murdered, the team pursues the case. One of the people they want to interview is von Knecht’s cleaning lady Pirjo Larsson. The only problem is that she seems to have disappeared. The explanation becomes tragically clear when her body is later discovered in the charred remains of an apartment von Knecht used as a business office. It turns out that Larsson had some key information about the von Knectht case and was killed because of what she knew.

And then there’s Magdalena, whom we meet in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. Magdalena works as housekeeper and caregiver for Dr. Jennifer White. White is a former surgeon who’s has been diagnosed with dementia and has been forced to retire. Although she has plenty of lucid moments as the novel begins, those moments become fewer and farther between as the novel goes on. Then White’s seventy-eight-year-old neighbour Amanda O’Toole is found murdered. Although there’s no direct proof, there are suggestions that only a surgeon with White’s skill would have been able to leave some of the forensic evidence that was found. What’s more, we learn that White and O’Toole had a long relationship that wasn’t always warm and friendly. In fact they had a terrible argument shortly before she was murdered. The story is told from White’s increasingly scattered and incoherent point of view, so we don’t know for a very long time exactly what happened on the night of the murder, nor whether White really is a murderer. But we get the sense all along that Magdalena knows more than she is saying. We also learn that she has her own secrets to keep. She’s an interesting character and in her interactions with White and White’s children Fiona and Mark, we see the unique relationship that develops between caregivers and family. They aren’t really family but they aren’t really not family either.

And of course no crime-fictional post about modern domestic employees would be complete without a mention of Adelina Cirrinciò, housekeeper, cook and cleaning staff for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano. She feels she owes him a debt for the help he’s given her; her son’s been in legal trouble and Montalbano has been not just supportive but also of practical assistance. For Montalbano’s part he is quite dependent on Adelina and he knows it. She is a superb cook and more than efficient at her other tasks too and Montalbano will go very far to keep her happy and mend fences when she gets angry. Adelina feels quite proprietary about her boss too, and is not at all happy with his choice of lover Livia Burlando. And Adelina makes it quite obvious how she feels about Livia. She also is quite forthright in her way when she’s worried about Montalbano, or when she thinks he’s making a mistake. Camilleri has made of her an interesting and shrewd character while at the same time using her character to weave some domesticity and sometimes comic relief through the series.

Today’s house cleaners, child minders, caregivers and other domestic employees play important roles in family life. Their stories are integrated with those of family members so it makes sense that we’d meet them in crime fiction too. Which ones have stuck with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Be Our Guest.

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Filed under Alice LaPlante, Andrea Camilleri, Elizabeth George, Helene Tursten, Lilian Jackson Braun, Ruth Rendell

So Drive, Go Ahead Drive*

One of the main characteristics of crime fiction is that, well, there’s a crime. Very often there is more than one crime and in a lot of crime fiction, that crime is murder. Sometimes, though, in some mystery novels, the crime and its investigation almost seem to take a “back seat” to another feature of the novel, such as its setting or the characters involved. That doesn’t mean that the crime is ignored, but other facets of the novel capture our attention more.

Agatha Christie’snovels are for the most part driven by the crime(s) and the investigation. And yet, there are some in which the mystery is less important (although of course, it’s very much there). For instance, in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda are invited for a week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also in that house party will be several other members of the Angkatell family. As the novel begins, we see the preparations for this weekend and several conversations that give us backstory about the family and its relationships. The Christows and the other guests arrive at the Angkatell house and settle in, and we see their interactions. On the Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited for lunch. When he arrives, he’s much annoyed to find that the Angkatells seem to have provided an “amusement” for him: there’s a body lying by the pool and what looks to be the murderer standing over it. All too soon, though, Poirot realises that this is real; John Christow has been shot. Inspector Grange is called in and Poirot assists in the investigation. Of course witnesses are interviewed, clues are found, and in the end, the murderer is revealed. But in this novel, the story is as much about the Angkatell family and their relationships as it is about anything else.

The same is true of Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest. That’s the story of a large Irish Catholic family and what happens to the family when one of its members returns after a long absence. This family, led by a matriarch known only as Mam, gathers when eldest daughter Bridget “Bridie” returns to the family after ten years of living in a convent. Another sister DeeDee has also returned. She left the family after her divorce from Terence, and is now bringing her new fiancé James to meet everyone. Needless to say, there’s a lot of tension when everyone gets together. One of the big reasons for it is that Mam has never accepted DeeDee’s divorce, and still sees Terence as DeeDee’s husband. Terence sees it that way, too. Mam has also not accepted the fact that Bridie is no longer in the convent; she believes that her daughter will go back to her religious life. The tension and underlying resentments in the family surface one night when everyone has gathered at Mam’s house. At one point, James and Terence are having a loud argument and everyone rushes up the stairs. So everyone’s “on the scene” when DeeDee takes a fatal fall down the stairs. At first, James is the only one who believes that DeeDee didn’t die by accident. And in the end, with help from DeeDee’s brother Kevin and Kevin’s wife Eleanor, he is proven right. What’s interesting about this novel is that although there is a murder, and we do find out what happened, the main focus of the story is on the family itself, its dysfunction and the effect of denial on everyone.

Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is also an interesting case of a murder mystery where the crime and its investigation are arguably not as central as other aspects of the story. In that novel, New York City detective Elijah “Lije” Baley is assigned to investigate a particularly delicate case. Noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton has just been murdered and Police Commissioner Julius Enderby wants Baley to take the case. This case has serious political implications because in the futuristic New York where the novel is set, humans are divided into two adversarial groups. One group, the Earthmen, are descended from humans who never left the planet. The other, the Spacers (of whom Sarton was one), are descended from people who did leave the planet. The two groups have completely different outlooks on life, including the use of robots. Spacers rely on them as partners; Earthmen fear them. In order to keep this investigation from unleashing violence between Earthmen and Spacers, Baley is assigned a partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. He’s not happy about it, but his dislike turns to dismay when he learns that Olivaw is a robot. Despite the delicate nature of the case and Baley’s dislike of Olivaw, the two begin to work together to solve it. They do, in fact, find out who killed Sarton and why, and the novel shows that process. But perhaps more important is the look that the novel gives at what life on Earth might be like in the distant future. Much attention is devoted to living arrangements, food, work life and so on. There’s also a detailed look at prejudice. Those elements of the novel are so important that you might say the mystery takes a “back seat” to them, although it’s certainly there.

That also happens in several of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. Dalhousie is a philosopher and edits the Journal of Applied Ethics, so several of the novels focus on larger philosophical and ethical issues. There are certainly mysteries, but they are not always the main focus of the novels. For instance, in The Right Attitude to Rain, Dalhousie gets a visit from her American cousin Mimi McKnight and Mimi’s husband. During the course of that visit, Dalhousie gets a chance to meet the McKnights’ friends Tom Bruce, also an American, and his new fiancée Angie. Both Dalhousie and Mimi McKnight have the strong feeling that there’s tension between the couple; at one point, Tom even tells Dalhousie about a troubling incident in which he nearly fell from a cliff, and Angie did nothing to help him. The McKnights’ visit ends and they return to the U.S. Shortly afterwards, Dalhousie gets a letter from her cousin that includes the awful news that Tom Bruce’s home burned down, and Bruce himself barely escaped alive. It’s possible that Angie started the fire. It’s possible that Tom Bruce himself did. In the end, although Dalhousie has a theory of what happened, and does take some action, we don’t know exactly what happened. In that sense, this story is much more about the characters and their interactions than it is about the mystery surrounding Tom and Angie.

In Mark Haddon’sThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we meet fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, so he doesn’t see the world in the way that most of us do. When he discovers the body of a neighbour’s dog one day, he decides to find out who killed the animal and why. He wants to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes. Although he’s limited by his difficulty with social interactions, Christopher Boone is a smart boy, and eventually, he does find out the truth about the dog. He also finds out an important truth about his family that changes everything for him. And it’s really that story – of Christopher and his family – that’s more important than anything. The interactions that Christopher has with his family members, neighbours, and other people are as much the focus of this story as anything else is. So is Christopher’s own growth.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. When she’s found dead, Detective Luton is assigned to find out the truth about her murder. The most likely suspect is O’Toole’s neighbour, sixty-five-year-old Jennifer White. But Luton’s investigation of White is hampered by the fact that White has dementia and is slowly losing her grip on what most of us think of as reality. Still, Luton is convinced that White knows all about the crime and may in fact have committed it. This novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, and we see the events through her increasingly hazy and detached eyes. And that is the central focus of the story really. We learn about her life and personal history, the way she sees things, what her relationship with O’Toole was and the history between the two families. We also see a stark portrait of someone who is slipping gradually away. Yes, we find out who killed O’Toole and why, but in the end, that’s not as important in a way as the story of Jennifer White’s experience with dementia is.

And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which tells the story of Larry Ott and Silas Jones. Ott’s the town loner of Chabot, Mississippi, who’s always been considered a little strange, especially since the night 25 years earlier when he took Cindy Walker out on a date, and she never came back. Everyone’s always thought him guilty of murder although he was never arrested or tried. Now, another girl, Tina Rutherford, has gone missing and all eyes, so to speak, are on Larry Ott. In fact, it’s so much assumed that he’s guilty that he’s attacked and shot. Jones is the town constable. He lived in Chabot as a child and at the time, became close friends with Ott. But the two had a rupture in their friendship. Jones moved north and went to university. Now he’s back and he has a disappearance and a severe wounding to solve. He also has to face his own past and the past he shared with Ott. This novel is about the disappearances of Cindy Walker and Tina Rutherford. But really, it’s about Ott and Jones; it’s about racism and small-town politics. It’s bout dealing with one’s personal past, too. The crimes are there and it’s not that they don’t matter. But those other elements figure in very strongly.

There are other crime fiction novels like that, too, where the crime itself is there, but really, our attention’s on something else. Do you enjoy novels with that approach, or do you prefer crime fiction where the crime “does the driving?”

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Drew Davis’ Drive.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Alice LaPlante, Isaac Asimov, Marian Babson, Mark Haddon, Tom Franklin