Category Archives: Alison Gordon

Just a Little Smile is All it Takes*

nonverbalsWhen most people think of communication, they think of language. But there are plenty of ways in which we communicate non-verbally. Winks, smiles, and of course, that famous one/two-fingered wave, are all examples of the way people send messages without using words. And research shows that we tend to be quite attuned to those non-verbals. In fact, we pay more attention to them than we do to the words people use, or the signs they use, in signed languages.

The police and other investigators know the value of paying attention to non-verbals. That’s how they often get clues as to whether a person is lying. It’s also how they pick up on whether someone is afraid, would like to say more but doesn’t want to, and so on. It’s no wonder, then, that we see those all-important non-verbals in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, John Cavendish invites his old friend, Captain Arthur Hastings, for a visit to his (Cavendish’s) home, Styles Court, in the village of Styles St. Mary. Hastings accepts, happy to renew his acquaintance with Cavendish, his brother Lawrence, and their stepmother, Emily Inglethrop. All is not well with that family, though. Neither Cavendish brother can tolerate Emily’s new husband, Alfred. There are other tensions, too. Still, all goes smoothly enough until the night that Emily is poisoned. There are several suspects with different sorts of motives, but neither Cavendish wants the investigation to be made public. So, when Hastings learns that another old friend, Hercule Poirot, is living in the area, it seems like a very good solution to have him look into the crime. Poirot agrees; Emily Inglethorp was his benefactor, so he feels a sense of obligation. Hastings, of course, tells Poirot everything that he knows about the night of the victim’s death. And one thing he mentions is the ‘ghastly expression’ one the face of one of the characters. Without knowing it, that character has revealed something, and it’s interesting to see how Poirot uses that one non-verbal communication to put one of the pieces of the puzzle in place.

Very often, facial expressions and other non-verbals are important forms of communication when people don’t speak the same language. That can be risky, though, because different cultures have different ways of using non-verbals. For example, in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, we are introduced to the Thornhill family. In 1806, bargeman William Thornhill is convicted of taking a load of wood. From his perspective, he needed to sell the wood in order to feed his family. There is a certain amount of sympathy for him, so instead of being executed, he is sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. He, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long voyage and start life again in Australia. But it’s not going to be easy. There’ve been people in Australia for many thousands of years, so one major challenge is going to be interacting with them. The Thornhills, and many of the other immigrants, speak English. The Aboriginal people have their own languages. So, verbal communication is limited at best. In fact, Thornhill sees their words as,
 

‘between them like a wall.’
 

When Thornhill does encounter Aborigines, there is an attempt to communicate non-verbally. Pointing, pictures drawn in dust, and holding things out with a hand are some of the ways both sides try to communicate. And in some ways, they’re successful. But that doesn’t prevent tragedy. There’s already been bloodshed as the two groups have clashed. Thornhill himself has no desire for butchery, unlike some of the other settlers. But, he’s expected to support his own. Besides, he’s found a piece of land he truly loves, that’s perfect for him and his family. He soon learns that he’ll have to get his hands bloody, too, if he’s going to keep that land.  

As I mentioned, most non-verbals are culturally contextual. One of those is the wai, which is a Thai greeting. Like the Japanese bow, the wai is nuanced, and, among other things, reflects the relative social status of the people involved in the interaction. It’s got several meanings, too, besides greeting. It’s used in thanks, in apology, in farewells, and in other situations, too. It is a very useful gesture, and communicates quite a lot without a lot of fanfare. To see the wai in action, may I recommend Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney, PI, novels. Keeney is an Australian ex-pat who’s now based in Bangkok. She’s been there long enough that she’s fluent in Thai, and that includes the non-verbals that are used in that culture. In more than one situation, Keeney finds that that simple-but-nuanced gesture is very helpful in easing tensions and in getting her out of difficult situations. John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels, and Timothy Hallinan’s ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels also include this simple gesture that can mean so much. A note is in order, too, about the ‘Thai smile,’ which is also woven into these authors’ books. There are dozens of situations in which a smile is used in the Thai culture, and the context often determines what the person who is smiling is communicating. The smile can mean many different things, including, ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘No harm done,’ and ‘I’m embarrassed.’

As this is posted, pitchers and catchers are reporting to their training camps to get ready for this year’s Major League Baseball season. It won’t be long now, baseball fans! So, as we’re thinking about non-verbals, and what they mean, it’s also worth mentioning Alison Gordon’s series featuring sports writer Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry, who works for the Toronto Planet. She follows baseball most especially, and Gordon’s novels often feature scenes from games, where pitchers, catchers, coaches and batters often communicate without using any words at all. Henry is thoroughly familiar with what those non-verbals mean, as was her creator, and it’s interesting to see how that knowledge comes through in Henry’s writing and in the stories.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we do communicate a great deal through facial expressions, eye contact (or lack of it) and other non-verbal means. When detectives pay attention to those messages, they can learn a lot. And it’s always interesting to see how people use non-verbals, especially when they can’t, or don’t choose to, use spoken language.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of Raymond Teller, one half of the famous illusionist duo, Penn and Teller. If you’ve seen these guys in action, you’ll know that Teller doesn’t speak during the show. Instead, he uses non-verbals to get his meaning across, and he’s quite good at it, too. If you’re reading this, Mr. Teller, Happy Birthday!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Everybody Loves You Now.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Kate Grenville, John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan, Alison Gordon

Interview, Who’s Interviewing Who?*

eyewitness-interviewsBeing mixed up in a major crime, especially murder, can be harrowing enough. For many people, it’s only made worse when members of the press want interviews and access. Lots of people have no desire to make their lives public, so they avoid contact with the press if they can.

But there are people who actually do enjoy talking to the press. They like their time in the limelight, and seem to gravitate to wherever the cameras and microphone are. I’m sure you know the kind; you’ve seen them on news shows (e.g. ‘I still can’t believe this happened. He lived across the street for ___ years, and I never suspected a thing….’).

They’re in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigate the death of Poirot’s dentist, Henry Morley. There seems no reason for him to have committed suicide; at the same time, though, there seems no real motive for murder. Japp and Poirot talk to the people who visited on the day he was killed. One of those witnesses is Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, a rather eccentric woman who’s involved in amateur theatrics as well as missionary work. At first, she’s not overly enthusiastic about Japp interviewing her. But then she begins to enjoy it, even saying:
 

‘and if, by chance, my name should be in the papers – as a witness at the inquest, I mean – you will be sure that it is spelled right?…And of course, if they did care to mention that that I appeared in As You Like it at the Oxford Repertory Theatre…’
 

The mystery only deepens when Miss Sainsbury-Seale herself goes missing…

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill shows another reason people might be happy to talk to the press: it can be career-enhancing. In that novel, Carl Lee Hailey and his family are devastated when his ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, is brutally raped and left for dead. The police quickly catch the two men responsible: Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. Hailey is concerned that these men will get away with their crime, and that’s not out of the question. The Haileys are black; Cobb and Willard are white. And this is small-town Clanton, Mississippi. Added to that is his rage over what happened to his daughter, and his sense of helplessness. So, he arranges to get a gun, ambushes Cobb and Willard, and shoots them. There is no choice but to arrest Hailey, although there is a great deal of sympathy for him. He asks local attorney Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. For one thing, a black man has shot two white men. For another, there’s the very real issue of taking the law into one’s own hands. As you can imagine, the media soon get hold of the story, and both Brigance and his counterpart for the prosecution get plenty of requests for interviews. Interestingly, each accuses the other of using the media (and the case) to get the kind of national attention that can catapult a lawyer to the top.

Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry novels offer a very interesting perspective on interviews. Henry is a sports reporter for the Toronto Planet. So, she spends quite a lot of time with baseball players, their coaches and managers, and other sports figures. In The Dead Pull Hitter, she’s drawn into a case of two murders of members of the Toronto Titans. Not only does she feel their loss personally, but she also senses an exclusive story. So, she starts asking questions. And in the end, she and Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro find out the truth behind the murders. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the relationship between the baseball players and the press. Here’s what Henry says about one of them:
 

‘The television guys love him, because he’s always glad to see them. It might have something to do with the money they slip him for interviews, but I think it’s also a matter of control. They only want thirty second clips and feed him soft questions.’
 

Professional athletes know that giving interviews is an important part of what they do; And the more willing they are to talk to the press, the better their public perception. But even these veterans of the interview have a harder time talking to the press when it’s about murder. And Henry has her work cut out for her, as the saying goes, to get the story.

Wendy James’ The Mistake introduces readers to Jodie Evans Garrow. She seems to have the perfect life: she’s well-off, she’s the mother of two healthy children, and she has a successful husband. Everything changes when the past catches up with her. It comes out that, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about this birth, not even her husband. Soon, people start to ask questions, first privately, and then very publicly. Where is the child? If she’s alive, what’s become of her? If she’s not, did Jodie have something to do with it? The media make much of the story, and plenty of people have their say and give interviews. One of them is Jodie’s mother, who’s only too happy to heap criticism on her daughter. She writes a public letter that’s harshly judgmental of Jodie, and then goes on television, too, to be interviewed. She’s doing it as much for the money as she is for anything else. But that doesn’t make her very public rejection of her daughter any easier to take.

Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers features Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne. In one plot thread of the novel, it’s the 30th anniversary of the (South Africa) Springboks’ rugby tour of New Zealand (it’s often called The Tour). This happened in 1981, while apartheid was still very much in force in South Africa. Many people thought that the tour shouldn’t take place because of that policy, and there were plenty of protests. The police wanted to keep order. Rugby fans simply wanted to see some good rugby matches. It all ended up in some very ugly scenes, and those who were there still remember it clearly. Thorne knows it was important, but she also knows that it’s already been covered. Then she finds a story hidden in the larger story. Two dancers dressed as lambs came to some of the games, entertained the crowd, danced, and so on. Then they stopped coming. Later, it was discovered that one was killed. As Thorne looks into what happened that day, she uncovers a lot about the protests, the police and the onlookers. She conducts interviews with several people on both sides, and those interviews are woven into the narrative.

Not everyone’s reluctant to talk to the press. Sometimes people are looking for what Andy Warhol is said to have called their 15 minutes of fame. Others want money or something else. And it’s interesting to see how they behave when the cameras are on.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon and Don Was’ Interview.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, John Grisham, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

We’re For Our Team, Yeah*

team-membersHave you ever played on a sports team? Oh, not necessarily a professional team. But perhaps you played football (no matter how you define that term), baseball, rugby or hockey in school. Or you might have played for a local club. If you did (or still do), then you know that there’s a unique relationship among the players on a team. They share the wins and losses, of course. But they also share a certain kind of intimacy that goes beyond that. And that’s the way coaches like it, since the best teams work together and support each other.

That team relationship can make for a really effective context for a crime novel, if you think about it. For one thing, there’s a disparate group of people who have to live at close quarters with each other. And that (plus the competition) can make for all sorts of effective conflict and tension. For another, team members often know things about each other that friends and families may not. So they’re often useful sources of information and good repositories of all sorts of secrets. Here are just a few examples of how the team dynamic can work in crime fiction. I’ll bet you’ll know of dozens more than I could remember.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter, Sherlock Holmes gets an ‘inside view’ of a rugby team. Cambridge’s rugby coach, Cyril Overton, comes to Holmes with the news that his three-quarter, Godfrey Staunton, has gone missing. Of course Overton is concerned about the young man’s well-being. Beyond that, Cambridge is to face Oxford in a match the next day, and there’s little chance of Cambridge winning if Staunton doesn’t play. Holmes agrees to take the case, and starts to trace Staunton’s movements. Overton, of course, consults with Staunton’s teammates, but gets no help there. And other leads aren’t helpful, either. It’s not until Holmes makes sense of a cryptic telegram and a scent-dog that we learn what really happened to Staunton.

The first of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel/Peter Pascoe series, A Clubbable Woman, has a rugby club as its focal point. One day, veteran player Sam Cannon is badly roughed up during a match, and suffers a concussion. He goes home and falls into a deep sleep. When he wakes, he finds that his wife, Mary, has been bludgeoned to death. As you might expect, Sam himself is the most likely suspect in her murder. But he claims to be innocent. As Dalziel and Pascoe begin to look into the matter, they find out that the key to this mystery lies with the rugby club. Once they untangle the network of relationships, and the backgrounds of the team members, they learn the truth.

As Alison Gordon’s The Dead Pull Hitter begins, Toronto sports writer Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry is returning to Toronto with the (American League) Toronto Titans baseball team. They’re about to host the Boston Red Sox for an important series of games that could get them into the championship series. After one key win, everyone’s celebrating when word comes that one of the players, Pedro Jorge ‘Sultan’ Sanchez, is dead, and his body’s been found in his home. On the surface, it looks as though Sanchez surprised a burglar, and Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro and his team begin their investigation. Then, another player, Steve Thorson, is murdered. Now, Munro changes the focus of the investigation to the members of the team. And he and Henry find that they can be of help to each other. She can provide him with inside information on the team members, their interactions, and so on. And he can give her exclusive information on one of the most important baseball stories she’s written. It turns out that things happening on the team play a major role in the case.

In Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, we are introduced to Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy. They’ve been best friends for a very long time, with Addy serving as Beth’s trusty lieutenant. Now, Beth is captain of the cheerleading squad, and Addy is still her second-in-command. Together, they rule the school as the saying goes. That is, until the new cheerleading coach, Collette French, starts working with them. Before long, the other girls on the squad, including Addy, are drawn into the new coach’s world, and form a tightly-knit group. Beth, who’s been more or less left out of this new social group, naturally resents both the exclusion and her loss of power as the cheerleaders’ ‘queen bee.’ Addy, though, feels the ‘pull’ of the new coach and of the group of other cheerleaders who spend time with her. Everything changes for Addy when there’s a suicide – or is it? Among other things, this novel explores the intensity of teammate relationships, and the different (and not always) healthy forms they take.

And then there’s John Daniell’ The Fixer. In this novel, we meet Mark Stevens, who was one of the (New Zealand) All Blacks’ stars during his best playing years. Now that he’s getting a little older and closer to the end of his career, he’s taken a job with a French rugby club where the pay is good, and he can ensure that he’ll retire comfortably. Things go well until he meets Brazilian journalist Rachel da Silva. She’s in France to do a story on rugby for her magazine, and wants to do an in-depth piece. She wants Stevens to help her meet the other players and, of course, to give her his perspective. It’s not long before they’re in a relationship, but it turns out to be much more than Stevens bargained for originally. Rachel slowly convinces him that he can make a lot of money betting on matches. Then it becomes hints about fixing matches. And it’s not just a matter of his sense of ethics, either. The stakes get very high when his family back in New Zealand are threatened. One of the important plot lines in this novel is the set of relationships among the players in the club. They have a unique kind of a bond; and, in a way, that’s a big part of the problem for Stevens as he starts to walk a very blurred ethical line.

Teammates really do know each other in ways that lots of other people don’t. That relationship can get intense, and there can even be conflict (or worse). But that sense of team identity is part of what wins games.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ Our Team.

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Filed under Alison Gordon, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Daniell, Megan Abbott, Reginald Hill

In The Spotlight: Alison Gordon’s The Dead Pull Hitter

>In The Spotlight: Kate Atkinson's One Good TurnHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The late Alison Gordon was a groundbreaking sports journalist, and paved the way for a lot of female sportswriters who came later. In fact, she was one of the first female journalists to be allowed into a Major League Baseball locker room. She left behind a legacy that included a mystery series featuring Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry, sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Let’s take a look at that series today, and turn the spotlight on the first novel, The Dead Pull Hitter.

The story begins with the return of the (American League) Toronto Titans from a series of away games. The team is preparing to host the Boston Red Sox for some games, and a lot of people think the Titans could win and make it to the playoffs. Against the odds, the Titans clinch the AL Eastern Division Championship, and are now poised to move on in the playoffs.

During the celebration after the key win, the news comes that one of the players, Pedro Jorge ‘Sultan’ Sanchez, is dead, and his body found in his home. The initial police report is that he probably surprised a burglar. Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro is assigned to the case, and he and his team begin the investigation.

That evening, another player, Steve Thorson, is murdered at the team’s clubhouse. One possibility is, of course, that the same person killed both victims. But as it turns out, Sanchez was blackmailing Thorson (among other people). So another very good possibility is that Thorson killed Sanchez, and was later murdered by someone else. In either case, it seems less and less likely that the first murder was a home invasion gone wrong.

Now Munro shifts his attention to the players and any other people who had access to the Titans’ clubhouse. Kate Henry, of course, is shaken by the murders, as many people are. But she also knows that this will be a very important baseball story, and she wants as much exclusive information as she can get. And on a personal note, she wants the person who killed these players to be caught. So she starts asking questions.

Munro depends on her for inside information on what’s going on with the team, and on the ‘behind the scenes’ relationships among the team members and staff. For her part, Henry wants the exclusive on the murder investigation. So they begin to work together, sometimes smoothly, sometimes very awkwardly. Matters are made more complicated because each sees the need to keep some information from the other. For Munro, it’s because it’s an active investigation. For Henry, it’s because she wants her story, and because she knows many of the people involved. In the end, though, the two get to the truth about these murders. And in the process, they uncover some secrets that certain people have been keeping.

The story takes place in a baseball context, and Gordon weaves a lot of information about the game and about the ‘baseball life’ into it. Readers get a good look at the game itself, at the personalities involved, and at ‘behind the scenes’ things such as player trades, decisions about who will play and why, and so on. There’s also a look at the way players interact with the press and the fans, and the difference between that and the way they are when the cameras are off.

The story takes place mostly in Toronto, so this is a distinctly Canadian novel. And Gordon places the reader there quite clearly. Besides giving the novel a sense of that setting, the Canadian context also gives a different perspective on what many people think of as a US game.

Since Kate Henry is a sports journalist, readers also get a look at what it’s like to travel with a team, get copy for stories, file reports, work with other members of the press, and so on. One of the elements that comes through here is the relationship that players and other team members have with the press. On the one hand, it’s a symbiosis, so each side knows it’s in everyone’s best interest to get along. On the other hand, it’s not always an easy relationship. Members of the press have to earn the trust of the players.

The story is told in first person, from Henry’s perspective. So we learn quite a bit about her. She’s single, having split from her former partner Michael. But she hardly wallows in that loss. She loves her job, and is good at it. She’s deeply knowledgeable about baseball, but doesn’t obsess about the game. She’s capable and bright, but not without flaws. Readers who prefer protagonists who are imperfect but quite functional will appreciate Kate Henry.

The solution is a sad one, and Gordon doesn’t make light of the sorrow and loss caused by the two murders. But this isn’t a bleak story. In fact, there’s a solid sense of wit that runs through it. For instance, at one point, Henry and Munro are talking about Constable Donald MacPherson, who’s been assigned to escort Henry as a security precaution. Here’s what happens when she refers to him as ‘Constable Donny:’
 

‘‘Constable Donny?’ Munro did a slow take, then cracked up. ‘You call him Constable Donny?’
‘Not to his face.’
‘It’s perfect.’
‘Well, he is a little earnest.’
‘Earnest? He’s an escapee from Leave it to Beaver.’’
 

And in another scene, Henry is getting some information for a sidebar story about the Titans’ odds of winning. For that, she calls an acquaintance in Las Vegas. When the conversation ends, she thanks him:
 

‘‘Listen, thanks a lot, Jerry.’
‘You bet.’
I wondered if estate lawyers say, ‘Will do,’ a lot.’
 
There are also some wry observations about the world of baseball and baseball players.

The Dead Pull Hitter is a whodunit sort of mystery with a solid baseball theme, set in a uniquely Canadian context. It introduces a sleuth with a deep knowledge of the game and a strong connection to Canada. It’s also got a solid sense of sometimes-wry wit. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dead Pull Hitter? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 4 January/Tuesday 5 January – A Time to Kill – John Grisham

Monday 11 January/Tuesday 12 January – Dead Before Morning – Geraldine Evans

Monday 18 January/Tuesday 19 January – The Beast Must Die – Nicholas Blake

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