Category Archives: Andrea Camilleri

Pass the Biscuits, Please*

Food DescriptionsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way food descriptions and meals fit into crime fiction. By the way, if Clothes in Books isn’t on your blog roll, you’re missing out. It’s the place for great discussions on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in fiction. On the one hand, the kind of food we eat, the amount, and so on says a lot about us. So food can be used as a very effective way to develop characters. And because food is so culturally contextual, a meal can also provide cultural background too.

On the other hand, too much description of anything, food or otherwise, can overburden a story and take away from the main plot. In this, as in just about anything else in a novel, it seems that there needs to be a balance.

There are plenty of meals described in Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories. I’ll just mention one example. In Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four are sleuths; four are people Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. Here’s a bit of the description of the dinner:
 

‘Poirot’s prognostication was amply justified. The dinner was delicious and its serving perfection. Subdued light, polished wood, the blue gleam of Irish glass.’
 

Interestingly enough, there’s no real discussion of the actual food. In this case, the conversation is more important. During the meal, Mr. Shaitana throws out hints about getting away with murder. One of his guests takes what he says too much to heart, and during after-dinner bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four suspects: the four people playing bridge in the room in which he was killed. So the four sleuths look into their backgrounds to find out who the killer is.  Of course, Poirot being the gourmand that he is, there are also mentions of food in the stories that feature him. But they tend not to be particularly descriptive.  In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Poirot travels to London on the famous Orient Express train. At one point, he and M. Bouc, who is a director of the Compagnie Internationale des  Wagon Lits, are having lunch:
 

‘Poirot sat down and soon found himself in the favoured position of being at the table which was served first and with the choicest morsels. The food, too, was unusually good.
It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment.’
 

Those matters soon turn deadly when fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place in the Périgord, a region that particularly prides itself on its gastronomic culture. Bruno is the Chief of Police in the small town of St. Denis, and although he cares about his job and takes it very seriously, he certainly doesn’t forget to eat. In Bruno, Chief of Police, for instance, he works with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale to solve the murder of Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr. At one point, they have a dinner picnic:
 

‘The fish were just right…She saw thin slivers of garlic that he had placed inside the belly of the trout, and he handed her half a lemon to squeeze onto the pink-white flesh, and a small side plate with potato salad studded with tiny lardons of bacon.’
 

They also have baguettes with pâté, Champagne, and some rosé. In this series, that careful attention to food really reflects the culture of the Périgord and adds to the sense of place.

Food is also an important part of life for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Fans of this series will know that the novels have lots of description of delicious food. Here, for instance, is just one snippet from The Snack Thief, in which, among other things, Montalbano investigates the murder of Aurelio Lapècora, who is stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. At one point, he takes a lunch break. Here’s a description of the hake he orders:
 

‘Then, eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out their joy – the pieces of hake, that is – at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.’
 

Although there is quite a lot of food discussed in this series, Camilleri doesn’t go on about it for any real length of time. In this case, the food descriptions add some depth to Montalbano’s food-loving character, and they give a sense of the local culture.

It’s the same thing with Tarquin Hall’s stories featuring Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby,’ and part of the reason for that nickname is that he loves food. As he goes about his business, Hall gives readers an interesting look at the sort of food that’s popular in Delhi. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a meal that Puri’s wife Rumpi cooks (from The Case of the Missing Servant):
 

‘Rumpi was busy in the kitchen chopping onions and tomatoes for the bhindi. When the ingredients were ready, she added them to the already frying pods and stirred. Next, she started cooking the rotis on a round tava, expertly holding them over a naked flame so they puffed up with hot air like balloons and became nice and soft…
Presently Rumpi served him some kadi chawal, bhindi and a couple of rotis. He helped himself to the plate of sliced tomato, cucumber and red onion, over which a little chat masala had been sprinkled…’   
 

With less than a paragraph, really, Hall uses this meal to give some interesting cultural insights as well as set a homey scene. And for those who don’t know the terms, there’s a glossary in the back of the novel (at least in my edition). The real focus of these novels is the cases Puri and his team investigate; but Hall also manages to weave in some powerful food descriptions.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is half-Ukrainian. And although he identifies himself as Canadian, rather than Ukrainian, he enjoys traditional Ukrainian cooking. In A Flight of Aquavit, for instance, his mother Kay pays him a visit. They have their ups and downs and awkward moments, but he’s well-fed:
 

‘I comforted myself with the ultimate in Ukrainian comfort food – pierogies lightly fried in butter, garlic and onion and drowned in a rich, creamy sauce of mushrooms and dill.’  
 

Bidulka doesn’t take up page after page to describe food in this series; yet, the descriptions he does provide give character depth and an interesting cultural context to the stories.

And of course, no discussion of food descriptions in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is a dedicated devotee of fine food. He can be (and often is) brusque, even rude. But he knows the value of his chef Fritz Brenner, and he appreciates a properly done meal. There are many books, as Wolfe fans know, in which Fritz’ creations are mentioned, and others that include other delicious meals (Too Many Cooks comes immediately to my mind). And yet, despite the fact that Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine food, Stout keeps the focus in his stories on the plots and the characters.

And that’s the thing about descriptions of food and meals. They can provide a rich layer of character depth and cultural background. But they are best served in moderate portions. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobbie Genry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Martin Walker, Tarquin Hall

Livin’ it Up When I Hit the Ground*

ElevatorsYou may not even remember the last time you used one, because we use them so frequently. And a lot of times we don’t even think about it when we do. I’m talking about elevators – lifts. No matter what you call them, they are extremely convenient, especially when the alternative is to take a lot of stairs.

You might not think about this, because they’re so mundane, but elevators are also really useful in crime fiction. They make very effective places for characters to interact. Also, in lots of modern public elevators, there are CCTV cameras that allow for helpful information about who goes in and out of a building. They can be dangerous places, too, so it’s little wonder some people don’t like them. They’re all throughout the genre, but space only permits me a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot goes to his dentist Henry Morley for his regularly scheduled cleaning. Later, Chief Inspector Japp pays him a visit to tell him that Morley has been shot in his surgery. The official explanation is suicide, but Japp doesn’t agree. Poirot takes an interest in the matter, especially when the case is complicated by the death of one patient and the disappearance of another. One of the things that has to be established is who came to see Morley and at what times. For that information, Poirot and Japp rely on Alfred, the boy who answers the door and takes patients up in the elevator to see Morley or his partner Dr. Reilly. They hope Alfred will have a good memory of who came and went, and who went up and down in the elevator at the time in question. Alfred has a lot of trouble getting names right, but he provides Poirot with an important clue.

If you’re a fan of Ngaio Marsh’s work, you probably thought of A Surfeit of Lampreys (AKA Death of a Peer) as soon as you knew the topic of this post. Roberta Grey is more or less adopted by the very eccentric Lamprey family during their visit to her native New Zealand. When Roberta is left, as the saying goes, alone in the world, she travels to England and is immediately taken in by the Lampreys. She’s therefore mixed up in it all when the Lampreys have a case of murder in the family. They’re not particularly good at making wise financial decisions, and have traditionally gone to wealthy but unpleasant Gabriel ‘Uncle G’ Lord Wutherwood, the older brother of family patriarch Sir Charles Lamprey. Uncle G finally decides to stop supporting his brother’s family, and he and Sir Charles have a violent quarrel about it. Shortly after that, Uncle G is murdered in an elevator. Inspector Roderick Alleyn takes the case, and has to work through an odd assortment of family members and a variety of motives to find out who the killer is.

An elevator is also the scene of a murder in Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. One morning, semi-retired business executive Aurelio Lapècora is murdered in the elevator of his apartment building. Commissario Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the case, which at first looks like a private murder. But the team is also investigating another case, the accidental (or was it?) killing of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be aboard an Italian fishing ship when he was killed. Montalbano comes to believe the two cases are related, and so they are (although not in the way you might think). One of the interesting aspects of this story is Montalbano’s attempt to find out exactly when Lapècora was murdered. Was he killed in his own home and then put in the elevator? If not, at which floor was he murdered? The answers don’t come easily, since the other residents of the apartment building have their various reasons for not telling everything they know.

An elevator also figures in Anya Lipska’s Death Can’t Take a Joke. DC Natalie Kershaw is investigating the case of a man who seems to have committed suicide by jumping off a building. As it turns out, the explanation for his death is quite different. In the meantime, Janusz Kiszka, Lipska’s other protagonist, is searching for the murderer of a friend of his, who was shot right on his own property. He and Kershaw find that the cases do have a link. At one point, Kiszka is on the trail of someone he thinks is key to the murders. In order to follow up on that lead, he attends a very posh party that takes place in an exclusive sort of apartment. When his quarry senses that Kiszka may be on to him, he and Kiszka go on the hunt for each other and there’s a very suspenseful scene involving the building’s elevator. Come to think of it, that elevator and the private key used to get into it play other roles in the story…

As an interesting side note, in Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard, we are introduced to psychologist Alice Quentin. One of her pastimes is taking long runs through London both to stay in shape and to exorcise her personal demons. When DCI Don Burns asks her to work with the police on a murder case, she agrees. The case looks a great deal like another series of murders from several years earlier, but on the surface of it, that seems unlikely. Yet Quentin sees enough similarities to keep asking questions. Her questions lead her into a great deal of danger when it turns out that there’s a new killer who seems to have learned from those older murders. For reasons having to do with her past, Quentin has a phobia about elevators:
 

‘It wasn’t the speed that got me, just the space itself. Tiny and airless, no windows to escape through.’
 

It’s an interesting perspective on something most of us take very much for granted.

But it’s not how Rex Stout ‘s Nero Wolfe feels about elevators. You didn’t think I’d do a post about elevators in crime fiction and not mention this very famous example, did you? As fans will know, Wolfe has a custom-made elevator in his brownstone that he uses to get from his bedroom to his office to the orchid room and back. He sees no reason to take the stairs when the elevator is right there. Of course, his co-sleuth Archie Goodwin sometimes wonders how long that elevator will be able to move Wolfe around…

See? You make not think about it much because we often take them for granted. But elevators really can be interesting contexts for all sorts of crime-fictional action. Which examples have I forgotten?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anya Lipska, Kate Rhodes, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

Well, I’ve Been Afraid of Changing*

Female Mid-Life CrisisIn a recent post, I mentioned that getting safely into and through middle age can be a challenge. The traditional name for that time of change is the ‘mid-life crisis.’ Of course, the mid-life crisis doesn’t drive everyone to desperation. But it can be difficult. It certainly affects men (that was the topic of my other post), but it affects women as well. It’s a time of re-assessing one’s life, and that’s not always a comfortable process. It isn’t in real life, and it isn’t in crime fiction either.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we meet Honoria Bulstrode. She is the Headmistress of Meadowbank, one of the most prestigious girls’ schools in the country. She has never married, but has always been proud of her academic and business achievements. She still is. But as the novel begins, she’s beginning to feel a sense that everything is dull. While she doesn’t really articulate the question of, ‘Is this all there is?’ she does feel a sameness and lack of challenge about her work. She’s even considering choosing a successor and then retiring. Everything changes though when the new games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the Sports Pavilion late one night. The police are called in and begin their investigation. Then there’s a disappearance. And another murder. Now there’s a real crisis at the school as parents begin to withdraw their daughters en masse. One pupil, Julia Upjohn, finds what she believes is an important clue, and she takes it to Hercule Poirot, who knows a friend of her mother’s. Poirot is concerned for Julia’s safety and intrigued by the events at the school, so he investigates. The school suffers a great deal from the crimes, but Miss Bulstrode is convinced that it can survive and even find new life. That determination gives her a new-found sense of purpose.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano will know that Montalbano has a long-running relationship with Livia Burlando. Livia has a house in Genoa, and is an accomplished professional in her own right. She loves Montalbano and she does enjoy their time together. Still, she also feels time ticking away. In The Snack Thief for instance, she has the opportunity to look after a young boy when his mother disappears and is later killed. That experience makes her think of what she might have been missing out on by not being a mother. Montalbano doesn’t really want to commit to being a father, and he’s even struggling with making a permanent (i.e. marriage) commitment to Livia. She’s hardly old-fashioned, but she would like to have some more permanence in her life – that is, until Montalbano does something to infuriate her. When that happens, she gets just as strong a feeling that she’s been wasting too much time with him. There is that feeling of restlessness in their relationship that sometimes happens during the middle years of life.

In Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger, Fabien Delorme gets the terrible news that his wife Sylvie has died in a car crash. They were married for a number of years, and their relationship had gotten stale, but he still feels a real sense of loss. What’s worse though is that he learns his wife was not alone in the car. She’d taken a lover Martial Arnoult. That wound to Delorme’s pride is deep, and he becomes determined to find out more about this man. He discovers that Arnoult left a widow Martine, and he becomes obsessed with her. That obsession leads to tragic consequences for several people. At one point, Delorme overhears a conversation between Sylvie’s friend Laure and his own friend Gilles:
 

Hey, did you know about Sylvie?’ [Gilles]
‘…No, she never mentioned anyone. I know their relationship wasn’t great any more, but there was never any question of a lover. In fact, she disapproved of that kind of thing. I used to tell her to have an affair, to give her confidence, nothing serious, but it didn’t seem to appeal to her. You think you know people, then it turns out…”
 

Through that conversation, Delorme learns that he wasn’t the only one feeling restless as the years passed…

Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark introduces Charlie Flint, a psychiatrist who’s hit a difficult crossroads in her life. Her professional life is in tatters; in fact, she’s even facing litigation. What’s more, she’s hit a personal snag as well:
 

‘Seven years she’d been with Maria…the seven-year itch. She hadn’t even known it needed scratching until Lisa glided into her life.’
 

Falling in love with Lisa Kent is causing Charlie to question everything about her life. So for her, it’s a welcome distraction at first when she receives an anonymous letter calling her attention to a recent murder: the killing of Philip Carling. Charlie soon learns that the dead man’s widow Magdalene ‘Magda’ is the same Magda she once babysat. The message about the murder has come from Magda’s mother Corinna, who was once Charlie’s mentor at Oxford. Charlie returns to Oxford to look into the matter and finds that Corinna has a disturbing reason for wanting her to investigate. It turns out that this murder ties past and present together in a frightening way.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. After the death of her beloved husband Frank, Iris Stanford has a time of real self-assessment. She had originally planned to open an antique shop with her daughter Kathryn ‘Kat.’ But on what seems like a whim, she changes her mind and moves to Little Dipperton, a small Devon village. Kat’s astounded when she finds this out, and goes to Little Dipperton to find out for herself what’s going on. When she gets there, she discovers that Iris has purchased the carriage house of Honeychurch Hall. The house is in disrepair and Iris has a broken hand from a car accident, so Kat stays on to be of whatever help she can. Not long after Kat’s arrival there’s a disappearance. And then a murder. Kat wants to protect her mother if possible, so she gets involved in the investigation that DI Shawn Cropper is conducting. Little by little, and each in a different way, Kat and Shawn get to the truth about what’s been going on at Honeychurch Hall. Kat also finds out some surprising things about her mother. As the story unfolds, we see how Kat had always viewed her mother in a certain way, and it’s interesting to see how that perception changes as she (and Iris) come to terms with Iris’ evolution.

The mid-life crisis can have terribly damaging effects. It can also lead people to a new perception of their identities that allows them to prepare to move on into older adulthood. Either way, it’s a watershed time and makes for a solid plot thread in a crime novel. These are just a few examples. Over to you.
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Hannah Dennison, Pascal Garnier, Val McDermid

Closed the Shop, Sold the House, Bought a Ticket to the West Coast*

Midlife Crisis MaleTransitions through adulthood are often challenging. Adjusting to a new phase in one’s life can be stressful and people have all sorts of different kinds of reactions to that stress. That’s arguably part of the reason people sometimes have what’s often been called mid-life crises. An interesting post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about how often we see that crisis in fiction in general and crime fiction in particular.

Marina Sofia’s post dealt with male mid-life crises, so that’s what I’ll focus on in this post. But women are by no means immune; that’ll be the topic for another post soon. For now, here are just a few examples of what can happen at that pivotal point in adulthood.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He has a thriving career, a wife Gerda who adores him, and two healthy children. By all accounts he should be completely contented with his life; most people would call him very successful. But he’s restless. His mind keeps drifting back to an affair he had fifteen years earlier with Veronica Cray, who’s since become a famous actress. He’s in this state of flux when he and Gerda are invited to spend the weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. To his shock, he is reunited with Veronica during the visit; it turns out that she’s taken a getaway cottage nearby. Because they have a history together, she becomes a suspect when he is shot on the Sunday afternoon. Hercule Poirot has also taken a cottage in the area, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed John Christow and why.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. They’ve been married fifteen years and as far as Eva’s concerned, they’ve had a contented life. But lately, Henrik has been distant and obviously unhappy. He’s restless and seems to have built a proverbial wall between them. Eva is hoping that a holiday might help them re-discover each other but then, she learns to her shock that Henrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated at this and soon becomes determined to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she plots her own kind of revenge that has consequences she couldn’t have imagined.

In Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty and F***ed, banker Martin Carter faces this kind of crisis. His marriage is ending, which would be bad enough. Then he finds out that he’s being retrenched. With all of the things that had identified him being taken away, he’s reaching out for something new anyway. So on his last day at work, he can’t resist helping himself to a million-dollar payroll. Then he makes his escape in a police-issue 4WD and takes off. His plan is to meet up with an old friend and start over, but things don’t work out that way. First, he meets Faith, a librarian who’s got her own problems. Then there’s the matter of the bike gang. And that’s just the beginning…

Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert are a successful Chicago couple whom we meet in A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. They’ve never formally married, but they’ve been together twenty years and have built a solid home. Then, everything changes. Todd’s feeling restless, and begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, a college student and the daughter of his business partner. This isn’t the first time he’s strayed, but what makes this time different is that Natasha wants it to be a permanent relationship. She becomes pregnant and tells Todd that she wants to marry and be a family. At first, Todd promises her that’s what he wants too; he even leaves Jodi and moves in with Natasha. But as time goes on, he begins to see that he doesn’t want a wife and family. He feels ‘hemmed in’ enough as it is. Besides, the realities of living with a woman so much younger have set in. Then, Todd is murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking gone wrong. But then, the police begin to suspect that someone hired the shooters. And given Todd’s business and personal decisions, there’s no lack of suspects.

Sometimes sleuths go through mid-life crises too. That’s what happens in Peter Robinson’s Watching the Dark. In that novel, DCI Alan Banks is faced with the murder of DI Bill Quinn. Quinn was a patient at St. Peter’s Police Convalescence and Treatment Center, and that’s where his body is discovered early one morning, pierced with an arrow from a crossbow. The case turns out to be very delicate, because compromising ‘photos are found in Quinn’s room that suggest he’s been having an affair with a much younger woman. Obviously the police Powers That Be don’t want to cast aspersions on the badge, so Banks will have to tread lightly. In the meantime, he’s got his own personal issues to face. His former wife Sandra has married again and started a new family. He’s no longer involved with his lover Annie Cabbot, either, although they work together professionally. His children are grown and starting their own lives, too, and although they love him, it’s a different sort of relationship. So Banks is facing the sort of restlessness that often goes along with periods of change in life. It adds another layer to his character.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series will know that he’s at a point of flux in his life. He feels himself getting older, but at the same time, he still has plenty of energy and good detective skills. He’s torn about his relationship with his long-time lover Livia, too. He does care about her, but at the same time, he’s just as well pleased that she lives in Genoa, and not in Sicily. He also sees himself changing as he gets older, and that’s not always comfortable either. Camilleri depicts that internal conflict as a series of debates between ‘Montalbano One’ and ‘Montalbano Two,’ and it’s an interesting way to show the way the mid-life crisis can feel.

The changes that middle age brings aren’t always fun. The question, ‘Is this all there is?’ can hit hard. So can the recognition of one’s own mortality. People generally make their way through the transition intact, but not always. And it certainly can add character depth and plot points to a novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be Finding Time to Write. It’s a treasure trove of book reviews, poetry and beautiful visuals too.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s My Life.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Geoffrey McGeachin, Karin Alvtegen, Peter Robinson

Come See About Me*

Character DetailsI’m very honoured and excited that Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…  has been awarded the Very Inspiring Blog Award by Moira at Clothes in Books and by Rebecca Bradley. This means a lot to me, especially since those two blogs are a rich source of inspiration for me. Do please visit them and have a look round. They are both worthy of prominent places on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

7-things

One of the things that come with this award is the request to share seven things about yourself. I’m not going to do that, as I’ve already overloaded this blog with things about me. And besides, this is a blog about crime fiction, not about me. But these generous awards have got me thinking about fictional characters, and how much we learn about them.

It’s a delicate balance for an author, deciding how much to share about the characters in a novel. On the one hand, characters who are too ‘flat’ simply aren’t interesting. They don’t ‘feel’ like real people and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, is it really important that a given character once slipped and fell in mud during a rainstorm? Depending on the story, probably not.

And that’s what’s arguably the most important factor in sharing information about characters: relevance to the story. Character information that matters to the story is important. So is information that makes a character distinctive and human. If it’s not as relevant, perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. Let me if I may give you a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie is not generally as well known for depth of character as she is for other aspects of writing. But in some of her novels, she does provide some rounded, ‘fleshed-out’ characters. Five Little Pigs is one of them. In that novel, famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned one afternoon. The most likely suspect, and for very good reason, is his wife Caroline. She is duly arrested, tried and convicted, and dies a year later in prison. Sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter Carla asks Poirot to re-investigate the case. Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. Poirot takes up the challenge and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of them. From that information he figures out who really killed Crale and why. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who was governess to Caroline Crale’s half-sister Angela Warren at the time of the murder. One fact about Miss Williams is that she is an ardent feminist. Her feminism and resentment of most men comes through in quite a lot of what she says and the way she behaves. It’s important to the story, too, as it gives her a possible motive for murder. Crale was having an affair when he was murdered, and didn’t do much to hide the fact, and Miss Williams thought that her employer was deeply wronged. Christie doesn’t tell us everything about Miss Williams. We don’t know for instance whether she has a good head for heights; it doesn’t matter to the story. But her feminism is important, so we learn about it.

We don’t know every detail about the childhood of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. We don’t know for instance which teachers he liked best and which ones he really disliked. That isn’t really important to understanding his character and motivations. But we do know that one of his school friends was Gegè Gullatto. This is important because it explains the relationship the two men have now. Gullatto is a local crime boss and drug dealer who has several ‘business operations.’ Since they’re on opposite sides of the law, you’d think that he and Montalbano would regularly come into conflict. But that’s not what happens. They have a long history, and each respects the other. Besides, co-operating from time to time is helpful to both. For Gullatto’s part, he knows that as long as he keeps his ‘enterprises’ more or less under control, the police won’t give him a hard time. And Montalbano knows that he can depend on Gullatto to make sure that his employees don’t cause real trouble, and Gullatto is often a source of helpful information about what’s happening in the underworld.

You could say a similar sort of thing about Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. We don’t know all of the details of his childhood. We don’t know which toys he liked best or who his very first girlfriend was. But we do know that his father was in the glass-blowing industry. That information helps us understand the way Brunetti goes about investigating the death of a glass-blowing factory night watchman in Through a Glass, Darkly. Giorgio Tassini dies one night while he’s on duty at the factory that employs him. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but there’s soon reason to believe that he was murdered. And that’s not far-fetched, since he’d been very vocal about toxic waste dumping on the part of the glass blowing industry. As Brunetti and his team investigate, we see how he uses what he knows about the industry, and how his memories of his father’s work play a role in his thinking.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s engagement party. The party will be a weekend-long affair, hosted by Lorraine Harris, the mother of Mieka’s fiancé Greg. Matters get complicated when Christy Sinclair, the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter, comes back in the family’s life and travels to the Harris home with the family. Christy has several issues to deal with, and Kilbourn had thought that Peter was well rid of her. But that doesn’t seem to be the case; in fact, she even says that she and Peter will be getting back together. Then one night during the party, Christy dies in a boating incident. At first the death looks like suicide. But it turns out that this was a case of murder, and that it’s connected with other recent deaths. We don’t learn every detail about Christy Sinclair. We don’t know which bands she likes best or what size shoe she wears. Those details aren’t really key to this mystery. But we do know that her home town is Blue Heron Point, and that matters a great deal. Bowen tells us the things we need to know about this character without ‘overload.’

Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas begins when wealthy heiress and business executive Charity Wiser hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who is trying to kill her. She suspects that it’s one of her family members, but she doesn’t know which one. Quant agrees to take the case and joins the family for a cruise. The idea is that he’ll ‘vet’ the various members of the family and then tell his client who’s guilty. The cruise turns out to be disastrous, with more than one death. In the end though, Quant finds out the truth about what’s been going on. As the novel goes on, we get to know several of the members of the Wiser family. We don’t know every detail about each one; that would be ‘information overload.’ But what does matter is that as Charity’s grand-daughter Flora puts it, the family is not, ‘physically adventurous.’ That’s important because it plays a role in the resentment the family feels towards Charity, who’s spent years putting together family holidays designed not to appeal to them (e.g. white-water rafting, cattle-herding at a dude ranch, and Formula One driving). The members of the family have only gone along with these plans because they’re all desperate for their share of the Wiser fortune. That piece of information about the family, and the fact that Charity takes advantage of it, matter to this plot.

And in the end, that’s arguably the key to what the author decides to share with readers. Some details about characters matter if they’re important to the plot – if they move it along or add to it. Others help make a character distinctive, and that adds to a story too. Sometimes it’s hard to choose which details serve those purposes and which don’t, but when an author gets it right, it makes for memorable characters.

 

Thanks, Moira and Rebecca.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland, made popular by the Supremes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen