Category Archives: Angela Savage

And They Sit at the Bar and Put Bread in My Jar*

Bar and Pub ScenesBars and pubs come in all shapes and sizes. There are very posh bars in resort hotels; and seedy places where only the locals go, and then only when they don’t have enough money to go anywhere else. There are very dangerous drinking places and places that are quite safe. And of course there’s an endless variety of bar/pub themes, too.

When it comes to crime fiction, bars and pubs make for near-ideal backdrops. One reason is that they are so varied. Wherever the author sets a novel, in whatever context, there’s probably some kind of licensed establishment. And all sorts of scenes can take place at a drinking place. Business deals, romantic trysts, meetings between old friends…well, you get the idea. There’s nothing like a bar or pub for interactions among characters. That’s probably why there are so many scenes in crime fiction that take place in bars and pubs. I couldn’t possibly name them all, so I’ll content myself with just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy heiress Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is murdered during a trip on the famous Blue Train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and gets involved in the investigation. One of the more likely suspects is the man the victim was going to meet, Armand de la Roche, who calls himself a Count. Another suspect is the victim’s estranged husband, Derek Kettering. At one point, the Comte de la Roche hears of evidence against Kettering and thinks he can make a profit by charging for his silence. He waits in the salon/lounge of the hotel where Kettering is staying. When he tries blackmail, Kettering lets him know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of him. It’s a taut scene that also shows some interesting character traits of both men.

Perth Superintendent Frank Swann uses pubs for quite a different purpose in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. He’s investigating the murder of a friend of his, Ruby Devine, who owned a brothel. He faces several challenges in this investigation, not the least of which is a group of corrupt police officers, called ‘the purple circle.’ They’ve marked Swann because he called for a Royal Commission hearing into their activities. And now, he’s convinced that somehow, one or more of them is behind the murder. Few people will talk openly to Swann because most fear ‘the purple circle. But he finds ways to meet up with people who have information. In one scene for instance, he goes to the Grosvenor Hotel, which,

 

‘…looked like a shaky drunk under escort.’

 

Despite its less-than-inspiring exterior, it’s an upmarket place that professionals use to discuss business they don’t want to deal with in the office. That’s where Swann goes to look for a lawyer named Cooper, who handled Ruby Devine’s business. The meeting is tense, because in this case, they’re on opposite sides, so to speak. He is, in fact, a suspect in the murder. But as Cooper says, they were both Ruby’s friends. And he figures into the story in a few places.

There’s another case of a bar being used for a business deal in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American travel writer who now lives in Bangkok. He’s got a reputation for being good at finding people who don’t want to be found, and he speaks both Thai and English. So when Clarissa Ulrich visits Bangkok to find someone who can look for her missing uncle, Rafferty is a natural choice. She leaves word at the Expat Bar, one of Rafferty’s regular stops, and he gets the message that she wants to talk to him. When they meet at the Expat, she tells him that she hasn’t heard from her uncle in a few months and is worried about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter, and is soon drawn into a case that goes far deeper than a man who simply wanted to take off for a bit.

Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney also finds bars to be good places to follow up on leads and find people. In The Half Child, for instance, Jim Delbeck hires her to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. The police report stated that she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck doesn’t believe it was suicide. Keeney looks into the case, which at one point leads her to a place called the B-52 Bar. Her skill at playing pool turns out to be very useful as she goes after the information she wants. And so, in another bar scene, are her skill at speaking Thai and her understanding of the Thai culture.

Of course, bars and pubs are also effective settings for romantic meetings. But not all of them work out well. In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, for instance, Eva Wirenström-Berg is devastated when she learns that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. One night she goes out just to get away for a bit, and ends up at a pub. That’s where she meets Jonas Hansson, a man who has his own serious issues. Their meeting ends up having disastrous consequences, and as the story goes on, things spiral out of control for both of them.

Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House introduces us to Petra Westman, junior member of an investigating team that’s looking into a strange group of murders. One night, she and a colleague Jamal Hamad go out for a friendly drink. While they’re at the bar, she meets Peter Fryhk. A conversation leads to several drinks and to flirting. The next morning, she wakes up in a house she doesn’t know. Very soon she concludes that she’s been ‘date raped.’ She manages to get home, and one of the plot threads in this story is her search for the proof she needs to have her attacker brought to justice.

And of course, I don’t think I could do a post on bar and pub scenes in crime fiction without mentioning The Red Pony. That’s a bar/restaurant/poolroom owned by Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear. It’s one of Durant, Wyoming’s few gathering places, and it’s a regular haunt of Johnson’s sleuth Sheriff Walt Longmire. It may not be upmarket, but it’s comfortable and ‘down home,’ and lots of scenes, both funny and tense, take place there.

There are of course lots of other bar and pub scenes in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus). And it’s not at all surprising. They’re perfect for all kinds of meetings that can end in all kinds of ways. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man. Oh, come on, was there ever any doubt? ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carin Gerhardsen, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Karin Alvtegen, Timothy Hallinan

In the Beginning I Misunderstood*

Strange and Misleading TitlesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about book titles. And while I’m mentioning that excellent blog, let me encourage you to pay it a visit. Moira’s blog is the source for all kinds of interesting discussion of fashion and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us. In the post, Moira shared some interesting book titles that are misleading in the sense that they don’t have much to do with the actual subject of the book. There are plenty of other titles too that are enigmatic, so that it’s hard to tell exactly what the book is about, really.

On the one hand, a title that tells the reader something important about the book can be a really useful marketing tool, especially if it’s not overlong or difficult to remember. On the other hand, sometimes, enigmatic or odd titles can generate interest too, and get the reader wondering what’s in the book. There are certainly titles like that in crime fiction; here are just a few.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) has, as fans will know, nothing to do with floods, tides or water. Rather, it’s the story of the Cloade family, and what happens when wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade marries without making a will – and then is tragically killed in a bomb blast. His young widow Rosaleen is now set to inherit his fortune, and his other family members are understandably not pleased about that. Then a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen may not have been a widow, as she claimed, at the time of her marriage to Cloade. If her first husband is still alive, her second marriage is of course null and she cannot inherit. So there’s a lot of interest in whether ‘Enoch Arden’ is telling the truth. One night he’s killed. Hercule Poirot has already heard the story of the Cloade family, and his interest is piqued in the case. There is a connection between that quote from Shakespeare that serves as the title and the novel itself. But it’s not a direct connection that would give away the premise (as opposed, say, to Christie’s The ABC Murders).

If you picked up Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, knowing nothing about it, you might assume it’s about people who make clothes. The reality is that the novel has nothing to do with the making of clothing. Rather, it’s the story of an ill-fated trip that Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter take through East Anglia. They have a car accident near Fenchurch St. Paul, and Rector Theodore Venables comes to their aid, even inviting them to stay at the Rectory until their car is fixed. They agree with gratitude and settle in. As it turns out, Lord Peter is soon able to repay the kindness. The local change-ringers are getting ready for their New Year’s Eve ringing when one of them, Will Thoday, becomes ill. Wimsey takes his place and the ringing goes on as planned. On the same day, word comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire Sir Henry, has died of the same illness. So Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. Sir Henry has died, and the gravediggers preparing for his burial have discovered to their shock that there’s another body in the Thorpe grave. Venables wants Wimsey to return to Fenchurch St. Paul and investigate. When he does so, Wimsey finds that it’s all connected to a long-ago robbery. So where does the title come in? It’s the number of times (nine) that the church bells ring when a man dies (ringing the nine tailors). It’s connected to the story, but you need to know that change-ringing term to see that link immediately.

Philip Kerr’s March Violets is the first in his historical series featuring cop-turned-PI Bernie Gunther. The story’s focus is a stolen diamond necklace. Wealthy and powerful Hermann Six hires Gunther to track down the necklace after it’s taken from the safe in his daughter’s bedroom. As he explains to Gunther, his daughter and her husband were shot that same night, but he is relying on the police to investigate those murders. His motivation for hiring Gunther to find the necklace is that he doesn’t want it to fall into the hands of the increasingly powerful Third Reich. Gunther agrees, and begins to ask questions. As he does so, he comes to the unwelcome attention of some of Berlin’s criminal class, who do not want him to find out the truth. And when Gunther finds a link between those people and the newly-emerging Nazi leadership, the Nazis too are motivated to shut him up. As you can see, this novel isn’t about horticulture. The title comes from the derogatory term used for those who supported the Nazis, but only after they had taken power in 1933. Those were people who, as the explanation went, waited to see which way the wind blew before aligning themselves.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water isn’t about water, or even about mysterious shapes. In that novel, Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. He was found in a very compromising position in a car at a notorious place called The Pasture, where prostitutes meet their clients and small-time drug deals are conducted. There seems on the surface of it no reason to believe that this is murder. Luparello seems to have died of natural causes (a heart attack) at a very inopportune time, but there’s no reason to think he was murdered. Still, Montalbano has a feeling that there’s more to this case, and he’s given two days to follow up. Sure enough, there is plenty beneath the proverbial surface, and Montalbano finds out what it is. This title refers to a story that Luparello’s widow tells Montalbano. The key point of that story is that water doesn’t have a shape; it takes the shape you give it. This case has the shape, in other words, that it’s been given.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s series featuring Flavia de Luce. Much of the series takes place in the 1950s in and around the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. The titles of these novels are (at least in my opinion) inventive. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag; and I am Half-Sick of Shadows are just three examples. They are all connected with the stories in some way. Still, these titles don’t really directly reflect the main plot.

And I hope I may be forgiven for mentioning a non-crime-fictional example. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye isn’t about grains or a position on a baseball or cricket team. As you’ll no doubt know, it’s about the coming of age of Holden Caulfield, and the experiences he has after he leaves the prestigious school he’s attending. It’s got plenty of other themes as well, of course. The title comes from a misquoting of Robert Burns’ Comin’ Through the Rye, and from Caulfield’s desire to preserve the innocence of childhood (and his own particular world view).

Those enigmatic or even misleading titles can be intriguing and they can certainly set a book apart. What do you think? Does it bother you when a title doesn’t directly tell you about the novel? If you’re a writer, do you opt for a more straightforward title, or do you choose something less obvious?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Word.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Dorothy Sayers, J.D. Salinger, Philip Kerr

And I Have My Say and I Draw Conclusions*

Conclusions and EvidenceMost of us make sense of what we see and draw conclusions from it without even being aware of what we’re doing. For instance, suppose you don’t see your car keys where you usually leave them. You look out the window and your car’s still there, so you conclude that no-one stole your car, and your keys must be in the house somewhere. Then you use evidence (e.g. what rooms you were in the last time you had your keys, which trousers you were wearing), and usually, you track them down. You may not be consciously aware that you’re drawing conclusions as you go, but you are.

Evidence and conclusions play huge roles in crime fiction for obvious reasons. Skilled sleuths pay attention to the evidence and use it as best they can to draw reasonable conclusions. Even more skilled sleuths know that evidence can be faked, so they look for more than just what’s obvious. And one of the biggest mistakes sleuths make is to draw conclusions that are too hasty, because they haven’t paid attention to the evidence.

The way sleuths draw conclusions is central to court cases too, since evidence is key to either prosecuting or defending an accused person. ‘S/he did it – I know it!’ simply isn’t enough for a conviction. And there are a lot of crime novels where original investigators didn’t do a good job with the evidence, so the case is re-opened.

Using that connection between evidence and conclusions as a plot point can be risky. A sleuth who doesn’t pay attention to the evidence or who draws all of the wrong conclusions can come off as bumbling, and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, a sleuth who never has to puzzle over what conclusions to draw can come off as not very credible.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous fictional users of evidence to draw conclusions and make deductions. Here, for instance, is his commentary on Dr. Watson when they first meet in A Study in Scarlet:
 

‘I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.’
 

In fact, Holmes and his creator had little patience for sudden flashes of intuition.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is very interested in psychology, and draws conclusions from psychological evidence as well as physical evidence. And it’s interesting to see how he draws conclusions when the physical and psychological evidence are at odds. That’s what happens, for instance in Dead Man’s Mirror. Poirot is summoned to the home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, who believes he’s being cheated by someone in his inner circle. Very shortly after Poirot arrives, Chevenix-Gore is dead, apparently by suicide (there’s even a suicide note). And at first, that’s what everyone believes, since the physical evidence (locked study door, etc.) suggest it. But to Poirot, someone as self-important as Gervase Chevenix-Gore would simply not believe that the world could get along without him. He wouldn’t commit suicide. So Poirot looks more carefully at the physical evidence and discovers that there are some pieces that don’t add up to suicide either. And that’s how he draws the conclusion that Chevenix-Gore was murdered.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest is part of a team that investigates the murder of geologist/prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. He was stabbed in his hut not very long after a drunken pub quarrel with John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge. And the obvious evidence is very strong that Wireless is the killer. So Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn draws the very reasonable conclusion that Wireless is the man they want, and is ready to wrap up the case quickly. Tempest notices other evidence though – evidence from nature – and begins to suspect that Wireless may be innocent. So she begins to ask questions. In this novel, there’s an interesting debate between the evidence that comes from things such as bloodstains, wounds and so on, and the evidence that’s more psychological and intuitive. And as it turns out, depending on just the one or the other leads to the wrong conclusions. Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that he too relies on ‘the Book of the Bush’ – evidence from nature – to draw conclusions, and that he often looks beyond the actual physical evidence that he sees.

Sometimes, it’s hard to draw solid conclusions at first, because a fictional death looks so much like a suicide or accident. For example, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking a much-needed getaway break at Krabi, on the Thai coast. During their visit, they take a tour that’s led by a guide named Pla. That personal connection is one reason why both are very upset when they learn that Pla’s body has been found washed up in a cave. They decide to take a few extra days to see if they can find out what happened to her. The police report suggests that the victim died by accident or perhaps committed suicide by drowning. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion, and there isn’t very much physical evidence to suggest otherwise. But Keeney isn’t so sure. For one thing, she knows that Pla was an expert swimmer. So although it’s not impossible, an accident is unlikely. And nothing she learns suggests that Pla was despondent enough to kill herself. So Keeney starts asking questions. In the end, she finds that the truth is very different to what it seems on the surface. But at the same time, it’s easy to see why the police would draw the conclusions they did. If you don’t pay attention to those small bits of evidence, it’s very hard to work out whether someone drowned by accident, suicide or murder.

In Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss, Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and the other members of the Violent Crimes Unit are faced with a puzzling case. Successful entrepreneur Richard von Knecht jumps from the balcony of the penthouse where he and his wife Sylvia live. At first the case looks very much like a suicide. It’s a reasonable conclusion, and anyone might have a hidden motive for that. But the police pay attention to other pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. For one thing, the victim had acrophobia. If he was going to kill himself, it seems odd that he’d have chosen that method. For another, there is some forensic evidence that points to murder. So the team has to look at this case in an entirely new way.

And that’s the thing about drawing crime-fictional conclusions. It’s natural and human to draw conclusions from what we see. That’s how we make sense of our world. And those details and pieces of evidence that sleuths see are critical to drawing conclusions. That’s not always as easy to do as it seems, but the way sleuths go from details/evidence to conclusions is an important part of an investigation.

ps. Just to see how this works, what conclusions do you draw from the evidence in the ‘photo? ;-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Helene Tursten

Without Compassion, There Can Be No End to Hate*

CompassionToday (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this), has been set aside as 1000 Voices For Compassion Day. The idea is to focus on the compassionate and good things that we do for one another. I think that’s a great idea. Of course, we don’t need a special day to be compassionate; it’s never out of style or out of season. That said though, it is good to be reminded of how important compassion is. It helps both the person in need of compassion and the person who offers it.

You wouldn’t think you’d see a lot of compassion in crime fiction. After all, crime stories are usually about people who kill other people – not a very compassionate thing to do. But you’d be surprised how often it shows up. I’ll just offer a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not what you’d call a particularly sentimental person. But he shows compassion at times. For instance in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Lady Eva Brackwell hires Sherlock Holmes for a very delicate case. She is being blackmailed by the notorious Sir Charles Augustus Milverton over some indiscreet letters she wrote several years earlier. Milverton has threatened to give the letters to Lady Eva’s fiancé unless she pays him a huge sum of money; and he’s the kind of blackmailer who won’t think twice about continuing to harass her until she has nothing left. Holmes takes the case and soon learns that Milverton is unyielding. So he and Dr. Watson take a novel approach to the case: they sneak into Milverton’s home one night, with the goal of finding out where the letters are hidden and taking them. They’re in the midst of carrying out their plan when they encounter another of Milverton’s victims, who has her own way of solving her problem. It’s an interesting example of the way Holmes sometimes shows that human, compassionate side of himself.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot does not, as he puts it, approve of murder. In his view, no-one ‘deserves to die.’ In that sense, he shows compassion for those who are killed. In fact, fans will know that in several stories, the death of a particular victim is upsetting to him. He also shows another kind of compassion. In some stories, he really does feel compassion for the killer. In fact, there’s even one story in which he agrees to give the police an account of a murder that lets the killer get away with the crime.

Arthur Upfield’s Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte shows compassion too. As just one example, in The Bushman Who Came Back, Bony is sent to Mount Eden, the ranch home of Mr. Wootton, when Wooton’s housekeeper Mrs. Bell is found shot. Worse, her seven-year-old daughter Linda has disappeared, presumably abducted by the killer. All signs point to a bushman nicknamed Ol’ Fren’ Yorky (usually called Yorky), and with good reason. He knows the area very well, and bootprints found at the back of the house are identified as his. What’s more, he hasn’t been seen since the killing. So although he’s popular in the area, a lot of people believe he’s responsible for Mrs. Bell’s death. Bony knows he’ll have to find Yorky as soon as he can, before anything happens to Linda. In this novel, we see how Bony shows compassion for several people as he gets to the truth about the killing. There are a lot of other classic/Golden Age novels in which we see that sort of compassion (I know, I know, fans of G.K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown).

In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, we are introduced to accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. One day she gets a visit from a teenage street child who says his name is Jase (Jason). He asks if she has any odd jobs available, and she puts Jase to work mopping the bakery floor. He’s clumsy at first, not well-rested and not well-nourished. But he does the job. Bit by bit, he starts to come by more often to do other chores, and soon he’s more or less an employee. Chapman finds out that he’s a heroin addict who’s recently stopped using, and he’s trying to get his life back together. It’s not easy, and there are moments when Chapman wonders whether she made the right choice to take Jason under her wing, as the saying goes. But he proves himself to be a real asset to the bakery, and in fact, he makes better gourmet muffins than Chapman does. This is a clear example of a case where compassion benefits everyone involved.

We also see compassion in Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders. Early one morning, her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, gets a disturbing call from her daughter Mieka. The body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin, who was one of Mieka’s part-time cleaning employees, has been found in a trash bin. Finding a body would be enough to upset and distress anyone, particularly if one knows the victim. But in this case, Mieka and her mother also have compassion for Bernice, who’d had a very unfortunate life. So both of them want this case solved, to at least give the victim some sort of dignified closure to her life. Another plot thread of this novel concerns Christy Sinclair, the former girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter. Christy’s had her share of issues, and Kilbourn was relieved when she and Peter broke up. Now she’s come back into the family’s life, and at one point even says that she and Peter are getting back together. On the one hand, this is not good news. On the other, Kilbourn does have compassion for Christy, and she treats her kindly, ‘though with eyes wide open, so to speak.

Compassion and treating others kindly is an essential aspect of many spiritual traditions, among them Buddhism. We see that connection between Buddhism and compassion in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok. We also see it in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series; Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police and an observant and dedicated Buddhist. There’s also a thread of this compassion woven into Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney novels; they too take place in Thailand.

But you don’t need to just read about compassion. The whole point of putting a focus on being compassionate is to remind us of how much good there is in the real world, and how much we can add to that good, just by showing concern and compassion for others. Simple, small gestures of humanity and compassion can make a huge difference, and they benefit everyone. Want to be a part of 100 Voices For Compassion? You can check it out here. Rather not? That’s fine too. You can be compassionate anyway.

 

On Another Note…
 
InaWordMurder
 

I’d like to take a moment and thank all of you for the support you’ve given the charity anthology In a Word: Murder. Since the anthology was released a year ago, proceeds of £250 have been donated to the Princess Alice Hospice. Your compassion is much appreciated. To those who contributed stories to this anthology, my continued humble thanks; you made the anthology possible.

Haven’t had a chance to check the anthology out yet? Now’s a good time (a-hem, for those celebrating Mothering Sunday, it’s only a few weeks away…). It’s a terrific collection of crime stories having to do with writing, publishing, editing and blogging, and it’s all in aid of Princess Alice Hospice. A group of highly talented authors contributed some memorable stories – you don’t want to miss ‘em! You can read more about the anthology on my ‘Writing’ tab, or click the picture on my side bar. Yes, that one.

This anthology is in memory of Maxine Clarke, devoted friend of the genre, who is still sorely missed.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Two Thousand Years.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, G.K. Chesterton, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, Kerry Greenwood, Timothy Hallinan

‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

CollectivismTo a greater or lesser extent, cultures tend to be either collectivist or individualist. In collectivist cultures, the emphasis is on group membership and group achievement. The individual gets her or his identity from the group, and in turn is responsible to that group. Collectivism also often includes a strong sense of duty to family, including extended family.

It’s more complex than that, as most concepts involving people are, and cultures and groups do vary greatly in the degree to which they are collectivist. Sound boring? It’s not, when you think of what it means on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully a few examples from crime fiction will show you what I mean.

There are several intances of the way collectivism works in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels. In The Ghostway, for instance, Chee is assigned to locate a missing sixteen-year-old Navajo teen Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s disappeared from her school. This case turns out to be related to the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s recently moved to the Big Reservation. What these cases have in common is kinship. Margaret Billy Sosi is distantly related to Albert Gorman, who at one point stays with Margaret’s grandfather. Chee uncovers this relationship, and since he is also a member of the Navajo Nation, he understands the ties that bind extended families. He tracks Margaret to the Los Angeles area where he gets important information about both investigations. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t occur to Margaret to avoid danger, stay in school, focus on her studies, and so on. She is a part of the web that links all Navajos and her family in particular. So naturally she does what she can to help. And I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the Navajo community takes responsibility for her, too, when she is in need of them.

We also see collectivism in action in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. One plot thread concerns two young girls, Preeti and Basanti, who are members of India’s Bedia group. Their families are in desperate need for money, and their one sure way out is if the girls enter the dhanda, a name for India’s sex trade. The idea is that their families will be paid money for their services. After working for a few years, they’ll return to their villages with yet more money, and be ready to settle back into community life. Instead of being seen as ‘cheap whores,’ young women who do this actually command a type of respect for fulfilling their duties to their families and helping to see that their siblings don’t starve. Preeti and Basanti are taken to Scotland, where they are separated. Basanti gets free of the people who are keeping her as soon as she can, and goes looking for her friend. She soon discovers that the key may be oceanographer Calladh ‘Cal’ McGill. With his help, she finds out what happened to Preeti.

One of Timothy Hallinan’s series features ‘rough travel’ writer Phillip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, an ex-pat American now living in Bangkok. His wife Rose is a former bar girl who has opened up her own apartment-cleaning company. Rose has much to teach Rafferty about the Thai culture in which they live, and one of those lessons has to do with her sense of collective identity and duty to friends and family. She left her home village and ended up as a bar girl so that she could make money to send back to her family. It would never occur to her to do anything else with any extra money she has. And although she’s endured more than her share as a bar girl, it would also not occur to her not to contribute to her family’s welfare. As an aside, Rose’s employees are all former bar girls she’s known who want to get out of that life. Her sense of group membership is strong enough that their welfare is her welfare. So they’re the natural choice when she is ready to hire people.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client, Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Center, a Pattaya home for adoptable babies and young children whose families can’t take care of them. She jumped, or fell, or was pushed, from the roof of the building where she lived, and Delbeck’s been trying to find out how it happened. The police theory is that she committed suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe it. So Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate. As she does, she gets to know several of the volunteers at New Life, and some of the young women whose children are ‘boarders’ there. In their lives, we see how important kinship and extended family networks are in this society. Not to have such a network is devastating to someone who’s been brought up in a collectivist culture.

We also see collectivism in Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. Tempest is half-Aboriginal, but has spent several years away from her roots at Moonlight Downs. When she returns to her home in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) she is welcomed as a family member and taken in. There isn’t much at the Moonlight Downs encampment, but Tempest is welcome to what there is. She is part of the community. For her part, Tempest feels just as responsible to that community. In Gunshot Road, for instance, she briefly takes in Danny Brambles, a fifteen-year-old who’s going through some personal difficulties. It never occurs to her to do anything else. The Brambles family is part of her group – her mob – so she has a responsibility to them.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen novels take place mostly in Shanghai. While there are many cultures in China, one dominant cultural force is the traditional Confucian belief in filial duty. And in several novels in this series, we see examples of characters (including Chen) who place a premium on caring for loved ones. Other characters send money to their families, or promote the careers of family members. Sometimes that works very well; sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s a clear example of how collectivism has become infused into the Chinese culture. We also see that in another way too. A high degree of loyalty to the state is expected of everyone, and it’s also expected that everyone will make many personal sacrifices to further the good of China. Individuals are strongly discouraged from amassing great personal wealth or calling a lot of attention to themselves. The collective is more important.

Readers of series such as Stan Jones’ Nathan Active novels, M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels or Scott Young’s Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak novels will know know that collectivism is an important part of many Arctic and Far North Native/First Nations communities. In those novels, among many groups, people do take responsibility for each other. Doors are left unlocked, food and supplies are gladly shared and so on. Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that, but there is a sense that one person’s welfare impacts everyone’s. And that makes sense in a place like the Far North, where it’s well nigh impossible to go it alone.

These are by no means the only examples of collectivism that we see in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte). But they serve to illustrate how that cultural dimension can add richness to a character or a community.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams, Robert John Lange and Michael Kaman’s All For Love.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, M.J. McGrath, Mark Douglas-Home, Qiu Xiaolong, Scott Young, Stan Jones, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman