Category Archives: Angela Savage

Well, It Seems So Real*

One of the traditional maxims of writing is to ‘write what you know.’ And there’s certainly a lot to be said for that. Readers want a sense of authenticity in their stories, and that’s just as true of a story’s setting as it is anything else. So, does that mean that an author shouldn’t write about a different place or time, even a different country?

No. Many authors set their stories in places other than their own countries or in different times. And those stories are often absorbing, engaging, and authentic. There are a lot of examples of this sort of series. I’ll just mention a few.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels take place mostly in the fictional English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia, who is eleven at the time the series begins (with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), lives there with her father and two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy.’ Also very much a part of the family is her father’s factotum, Arthur Dogger. The novels have a strong sense of place and time (the 1950s). And the village itself is an important part of the series. And yet, Bradley isn’t English; he’s Canadian by birth and upbringing, although he now lives on the Isle of Man. But, as Bradley himself has said,

 

‘I grew up in a family of British expat storytellers who never tired of spinning stories about “back ’ome.” 

 

And that was at the core of Bradley’s interest in writing about England.

Sometimes, authors write about places they have lived, even if those places are not their home countries. That’s the case with Angela Savage, who writes the Jayne Keeney series. Keeney is an ex-pat Australian PI who now lives and works in Bangkok. She travels to different parts of Thailand in connection with her investigations, so readers get a chance to see different regions of the country. Savage is Australian, based in Melbourne, but she lived in Southeast Asia, including Bangkok, for six years. She’s also a skilled researcher who checks the accuracy of what she writes. And that’s important if one’s writing about a country with a very different language, culture and set of social expectations. Interestingly, Savage chose to make Keeney an Australian by birth, which adds to the authenticity of the stories as Keeney sometimes looks at the Thai culture ‘from the outside.’

>A similar thing might be said of Savage’s partner, Andrew Nette. One of his novels, Ghost Money, is set mostly in Cambodia. In it, Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan is hired to find a man named Charles Avery, who was last seen in Bangkok. Quinlan agrees to the job and begins to follow the trail, which soon leads to Phnom Penh. Later, the action moves to the northern part of Cambodia. Throughout the novel, there’s a vivid portrait of life in that country. Like his partner, Nette is Australian, based in Melbourne. But he’s lived in Asia, where he was a journalist there for seven years. That experience has arguably added to the authenticity of the story, even though Cambodia has a very different culture and language.

Fans of Deborah Crombie will know that she is American, born and raised in Texas. She got the chance to go to the UK after graduating university and fell in love with the place. She lived there for several years, until moving back to Texas. So it’s little wonder that her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novels take place in the UK, mostly in London. Both Kincaid and James work for the Met, where Kincaid is a Superintendent and James is a Detective Inspector (DI). They are partners in life, too, and the series follows their relationship and family as well as the cases they investigate. Crombie travels to the UK several times a year, and her connection adds to the authenticity of this series.

There are other authors, too, such as Timothy Hallinan and John Burdett, who spend quite a lot of time in the countries where their series are set (in these two cases, Bangkok). And that adds a lot of authenticity to what they write. But there’s more to authenticity of place than that.

There’s also research. K.B. Owen, for instance, sets her Concordia Wells series mostly in Connecticut at the very end of the 19th Century. In order to make this series ‘feel’ authentic, Owen has done quite a lot of research on life at that time. And I know you could think of many other authors, too, who write historical series that seem authentic. They do their ‘homework’ to ensure that their stories ring true.

How do you feel about this? Do you get a sense of authenticity from a story even if the author doesn’t live in the place or time where the story is set? If you’re a writer, do you write about places and times you haven’t experienced? How do you make it all authentic?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Buzzcocks’ Why Can’t I Touch It?

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Deborah Crombie, John Burdett, K.B. Owen, Timothy Hallinan

Distant Cousins From Down the Line*

When you think of the word ‘family,’ you likely think of your partner, your children, perhaps your parents and siblings. You might also think of aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. But not everyone thinks that way.

In many cultures, ‘family’ has a different meaning. Anyone who’s related by blood (distant cousins, for instance) is a member of the family. And that bond can be extremely important. One’s clan membership, if I may use that term, is a critical part of one’s identity, and one owes loyalty to that group. That social structure certainly matters in real life, and it matters in crime fiction, too. There are lots of examples in the genre; here are just a few.

Most of Tony Hillerman’s novels feature Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. Both men are members of the Navajo Nation. Both are also members of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). In the Navajo culture, kinship is very important, and goes far beyond parents and their children. That concept of family is woven throughout the series. In more than one novel, for instance, Chee introduces himself to people using the Navajo tradition of identifying both his mother’s clan and his father’s clan. And in more than one novel, kinship ties feature in the cases that Chee and Leaphorn investigate. Members of the same extended family protect each other and help each other, and both Chee and Leaphorn know this.

Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Longmire’s jurisdiction is within striking distance of the Northern Reservation, which is home to the Cheyenne Nation, among other Native Americans. One of the members of that nation is Longmire’s good friend, Henry Standing Bear. He owns a bar/restaurant/local watering hole called The Red Pony, and he knows just about everyone in the area. He also has a strong and far-reaching group of kinship ties to many people on the Northern Reservation (and in other places, too). That network of family ties makes him a sort of community ‘hub.’

We see a similar concept of kinship ties in Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series. Active is an Alaska State Trooper. He is also a member of the Inupiaq people, although he was adopted by a white couple, and raised in Anchorage. In White Sky, Black Ice, Active is assigned to Chukchi, where his biological mother, Martha, happens to live. He soon learns how important kinship ties are among his people. In fact, one of the cases he investigates is the disappearance of Aaron Stone, who is a distant kinsman of Martha Active. Stone went on a hunting trip and hasn’t come back within a reasonable amount of time. Martha asks her son to look into the matter, and he agrees. Soon enough, Active finds the missing man’s body not far from one of his hunting campsites. On the surface, it seems that he committed suicide. But Active isn’t sure that’s true, and he looks into the case a little more deeply. In the end, he finds that Aaron Stone was murdered, and that his death ties in with another case Active is investigating.

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney is an ex-pat Australian PI, based in Bangkok. In The Half-Child, she meets Rajiv Patel, who works in his uncle’s bookshop. Patel is from India, but he wants to have a chance to see more of the world. His family would have preferred him to stay nearby and settle down with a local wife. But that’s not his goal. As a way to avoid out-and-out conflict, Patel and his family reached a sort of compromise. The family agreed that Patel would spend some time in Bangkok. Patel agreed that he would live with his uncle and his family and help in the bookshop. It was assumed he’d be welcome in his uncle’s home as long as he stayed. It was also assumed he’d contribute to the family through his work at the shop. Everything changes, though, when Patel meets Keeney. Before long, the two begin dating, and they become partners in life as well as business partners. It’s very interesting to see the difference between the way Patel views family and the way that Keeney does.

One focus of Nicole Watson’s The Boundary is a legal battle between the Corrowa people and a development company. The Corrowa have filed a land title claim to Brisbane’s Meston Park. The development company wants the land for its own projects. Justice Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa and is murdered just a few hours later. Then, there are other deaths, each of a person opposing the land claim. The murders are investigated by police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins, and they’re going to have a difficult time. The Corrowa people have strong kinship ties to each other and aren’t likely to help the police.

And then there’s Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. In that novel, we are introduced to thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell (yes, same name as the author), who’s at a crossroads in his life. His marriage is over, and a car crash has left him without the use of his legs. As a way of starting over, he buys a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. He soon gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to the cottage’s former occupants, the Cotter family. In 1989, Alice Cotter disappeared and was never found. A year later, her father, James also disappeared. As Bell works to find some answers, he slowly gets to know some of the other people who live in the area. Several of them have kinship ties (cousins, second cousins, and so on), and over time, Bell gets to see how important these ties are.

And they really are. In many cultures, kinship goes far beyond parents and children. And it’s very interesting to see how those ties impact people’s lives and their motives.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Border Song.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Craig Johnson, Nicole Watson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

I Don’t Have the Power Now*

Most of us like to think we have some control over our lives. Even though we may know intellectually that we can’t always control what happens, we want to feel that we can. That’s part of why it can be so unsettling when we decide to share our lives with someone. In doing that, we give up some of the control we’ve had over our what we do.

Feeling as though you’re losing control (or no longer have it) can be scary, and in a story, it can cause tension and suspense. So, it’s no surprise that it happens as often as it does in crime fiction. It can add a lot to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), for instance, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow is comfortably married, with two children. His wife, Gerda, looks up to him and is completely devoted to him. In many ways, he likes it that way, because he likes to feel in control. But in other ways, it makes him restless. Things are different with his mistress, Henrietta Savernake. She’s a successful sculptor who has her own independent life, and is not at all under Christow’s thumb. He likes the intellectual give-and-take with her, but he doesn’t like feeling that he has little control over what she thinks. One weekend, the Christows are invited to visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. The Angkatells have also invited a group of relatives (including Henrietta, who’s a cousin). On the Sunday, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is invited for lunch that day and arrives just after the murder. At first, the case seems clear-cut. But things don’t turn out to be as simple as it seems on the surface…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity introduces readers to insurance agent Warren Huff. One day, he happens to be in Hollywoodland, not far from the home of one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. He stops by, hoping to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t hime, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff strike up a conversation, and it’s not long before Huff is smitten. Phyllis does nothing to discourage him, either, and they soon begin an affair. She tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband, and that she has a plan to profit by his death. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he goes along with her plan, even writing the double-indemnity insurance policy that Phyllis wants. The murder is duly carried out, but Huff soon becomes aware of how very little control he has over what’s happened, and what happens next. That recognition is extremely unsettling, and as things continue to spin out of control for Huff, it adds to the tension.

That sense of losing control can also happen when we feel our bodies are beginning to betray us, and it can be frightening. For instance, Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces readers to political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn. The main plot of the story is the murder of her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. As a way of coping with her grief, Joanne decides to write a biography of Andy’s life. In the process of getting the information she needs to do that, she gets closer and closer to the truth about his death. In the meantime, something troubling is happening. Joanne seems to be getting ill and losing weight for no apparent reason. As the novel goes on, things continue to get worse, and the doctors can’t tell her exactly what’s wrong. It’s not spoiling the story to say that we find out what’s going on in the end; but until we do, it’s quite unnerving.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind also explores that feeling of loss of control. Dr. Jennifer White is a successful Chicago-based orthopaedic surgeon. She is diagnosed with early-onset dementia, so she has to leave her position at the age of sixty-five. As the novel opens, she lives with a caregiver, Magdalena. She still functions well on some days, but she is slowly losing control over her mind. It’s truly scary for her, as you can imagine. On some days, she’s simply a retired surgeon. On others, she doesn’t know who that person is in her house, or who it is (her children) who visit her, and that unsettles her. Then, the woman who lives next door is murdered. The two have known each other for years, so Detective Luton, who’s investigating the murder, suspects that Jennifer may know more than she can say about the killing. There’s other evidence, too, that implicates her. But Luton isn’t going to have much time to try to get to the truth before her witness mentally slips away completely.

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney is a Bangkok-based PI. She runs her own business and is very independent. When we first meet her, in Behind the Night Bazaar, she doesn’t have a partner, as she would rather live life on her own terms and make her own decisions about the business. She likes having that control. So, when she meets Rajiv Patel, in The Half-Child, she’s fully prepared to keep him at the same distance as she’s kept other men in her life. But she finds herself getting closer to him than she’d planned. In the end, they become intimate partners as well as business partners. On the one hand, Patel is smart, and has much to contribute to the business. And the two care deeply about each other. On the other, it’s very unsettling for Keeney at times. She doesn’t get to make all of the decisions any more, and she doesn’t have control that she used to have. For her, being involved with Patel is worth the uneasiness, but that doesn’t mean she never feels it.

And that’s not surprising. Most people don’t like to feel that sense of loss of control Little wonder that it can add so much to a crime story.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, James M. Cain

Now We Are Forced to Recognize Our Inhumanity*

My guess is, if it came down to it, we would all like to think we would be touched, as Abraham Lincoln put it, by the better angels of our nature. We’d like to think we wouldn’t yield to pure selfishness, or worse. And yet, as we know all too well, that’s not the way humans always are.

And that’s one of the interesting roles that crime fiction can play. Crime fiction shows us humans who make choices we would hope we wouldn’t make. But wouldn’t we? In some crime fiction, the reader is invited to think a little more deeply (e.g. ‘I wouldn’t do that…would I?’).  Those books can sometimes make us feel a little uncomfortable, because they show us sides of ourselves we might not want to see. At the same time, that’s part of what makes them memorable. There are certainly books that aren’t crime fiction that have the same effect. But, this is a crime-fictional blog, so….

There are several novels, for instance, in which readers are invited to ponder whether they might commit a murder under the circumstances laid out in the story. In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is on the famous Orient Express train, en route to London. On the second night of the three-day journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. Poirot’s asked to find the killer, so that that person can be handed over to the authorities at the next border crossing. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same car, so Poirot has a limited pool. And, when he discovers the truth, we see that this is a murder that plenty of people might have committed in the same situation. We don’t want to think we’d kill, but there are times when we have to admit we might.

That point is also raised in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. When ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is beaten, raped, and left for dead, her family is, understandably, devastated. Her father, Carl Lee, is especially impacted. The two men who are responsible are soon caught and jailed, but Hailey is not sure he and his family will get justice. They are black, while Tonya’s attackers are white, and this is small-town Mississippi. He is also infuriated, and wants to do what he can, however little it may be, to help his daughter. So, he gets a gun and lies in ambush as the two men accused of the attack are brought to the courthouse. There, he kills them and badly wounds a deputy sheriff who’s with them. Now he’s about to stand trial for a double murder. And, even though there’s a lot of local sympathy for him, he still needs an attorney and he has still killed two people and wounded a third. So, he asks attorney Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s a tough case, though. We’d like to think we would let the law take its course, and I think we’d agree that vigilantism is wrong. But what if it were your daughter? I know, fans of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – there’s a similar sort of theme in that one, too.

It’s not just the taking of a life, either. In Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney goes to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner, Nou, is murdered. Before long, the police settle on Didi as the suspect, and go to his home. During their visit, he, too, is killed. The police say that he resisted arrest and was so violent as to be a danger to them, so they had no choice but to kill him. But Keeney doesn’t believe that account. So, she starts asking questions. The trail leads to the Thai sex-trafficking and child-trafficking businesses. Those businesses are a lot more complex than they seem on the surface, and that’s one of the points in this novel. On the one hand, we deplore the idea of child trafficking, and with good reason. But, for many families, the only other option they see is starvation. If it comes down to a choice between having your child earn money in the sex trade, or you and your family dying of starvation, the answer to, ‘What would you do?’ isn’t perhaps quite so easy.

There’s also Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. That novel takes place mostly within an ultra-exclusive housing development called Cascade Heights Country Club, about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before being admitted. The people in the Heights, as the place is called, live in a safeguarded world, with a large wall to keep ‘others’ out, the finest houses, and so on. The novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of the 2000s, a time when Argentina’s economy begins to have serious problems. And those problems finally find their way into the Heights. Eventually, that leads to real tragedy. As we get to know the people in this development, we see the casual cruelty with which they treat anyone who’s not ‘one of us.’ And we see how hard they work to keep themselves away from ‘all of that.’ On the one hand, we might deplore that lack of compassion and unwillingness to see other people as equal humans. On the other, what if you had that much money, and that much stake in a very safe home for your children, the best education money can buy, and a comfortable life? The decision to give it up might not be so straightforward.

There are plenty of other crime fiction stories where characters do things we want to think we’d never do. But some of them invite to ask ourselves whether we really – no, really – wouldn’t do them. And those stories invite us to look at ourselves in new ways. They’re not always easy or comfortable, but they stay with us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Claudia Piñeiro, John Grisham, William McIlvanney

Let’s Go Into Business Together*

Do you know who Paul Allen is? No? Well, perhaps you’ve heard of his business partner, Bill Gates. Yes, the Bill Gates. As this is posted, it’s 43 years since the founding of their joint venture, Microsoft. As you’ll know, Microsoft has become one of the most valuable brands in the world, and it all started with the ‘garage pairing’ of these two people.

It’s been a phenomenally successful partnership, and it’s not alone. In fact, one of Microsoft’s chief rivals, Apple, was also founded by business partners (in this case, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak), just a year later. There’s something about the synergy that happens when two people with complementary skills and a common dream get together.

Of course, business partnerships aren’t problem-free by any means. There are bound to be differences of opinion and more. And, if the company has real success, there’s the issue of all of that money. Business partnerships are really interesting dynamics, so it’s little wonder we see a lot of them in crime fiction. There’s plenty of possibility for character development, interesting plot points, and tension.

For instance, in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen has decided to take a house in the Hollywood Hills, so that he can get some peace and quiet to write. It’s not to be, though. When nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill finds out he’s there, she visits him, asking for his help. Her father, Leander Hill, recently died from a massive heart attack, and she believes it was deliberate. Shortly before his death, Hill had been receiving some eerie, anonymous ‘gifts,’ that Lauren believes frightened him so badly that he died. What’s more, Hill’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘packages.’ At first, Queen doesn’t want to get involved. But he is intrigued by the mystery of those parcels, so he starts to ask questions. In order to find out the truth, he has to go back to the start of the successful Hill/Priam partnership, and discover who hated both men so much as to want to kill them.

In A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, we meet successful Chicago developer Todd Gilbert. He and his friend and business partner, Dean Kovacs, have done quite well, and Todd lives in a posh Chicago home with his common-law wife, Jodi Brett. She’s a successful psychologist, so the two have a good life, materially speaking. Everything changes when Todd begins an affair with his business partner’s daughter, Natasha. In a number of ways, that’s a very foolish decision. For one thing, it sabotages his partnership with Dean. For another, Jodi is devastated. Todd’s strayed before, but this time, it’s different. Natasha becomes pregnant and wants to get married and have a family. Todd tells her (and himself) that that’s what he wants, too, so he leaves Jodi. Then, his lawyer presents her with an order of eviction from the home she’s lived in for twenty years. Then, Todd is murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking gone very wrong. But the police soon begin to suspect that someone arranged for this murder. And it turns out that there are several possibilities for who that someone might be.

Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money introduces Australian former police officer-turned PI Max Quinlan. Madeleine Avery hires Quinlan to find her brother, Charles. His last known address was a Bangkok apartment, so Quinlan starts there. When he gets to the apartment, he finds no sign of Avery. But he does find the body of Avery’s business partner, Robert Lee. He also discovers proof that Avery has gone to Cambodia. With that information, Quinlan heads for Phnom Penh, where he picks up the trail again. Very slowly, he traces Avery’s last days and weeks, and finds out what drew him to Cambodia, and why this business partnership ended in murder. It turns out that Avery was mixed up with some very dangerous deals and ruthless people, and that spelled disaster for the partnership.

Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink is the story of former Johannesburg journalist Lucy Khambule. She’s now one half of The Publicists, a publicity company that she owns with her friend, Patricia Moabelo. She hasn’t been happy with the way the business is going lately, though. For one thing, she’s been bringing in more money to the company than her partner has, but the business agreement doesn’t reflect this. For another, Patricia has been less engaged with the business lately. Lucy is not sure what she’s going to do about the business and her role in it, so she’s a bit at loose ends when she gets a telephone call from a man named Napoleon Dingiswayo, who’s in a maximum-security prison for a series of horrific murders. It seems that, when she was a journalist, Lucy had written to him asking for an interview. Now, he wants to meet with her, and have her write a book about him. A chance like this doesn’t happen very often, and Lucy is intrigued. She’s wise enough to know that this could be very dangerous, but the chance is too irresistible to pass up. So, she agrees to the meeting, and starts some notes for the book. As she gets to know her interview subject, a series of frightening and violent things starts to happen. Napoleon is in a closely-guarded prison, so he can’t be responsible. But if he’s not, then who is? And what does it mean for the other murders, and for Lucy herself?

There are also, of course, several successful PI business partnerships. For instance, Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc owns Leduc Detective with her business partner, René Friant. Their specialty is computer safety and cyber security, but Leduc often finds herself drawn into cases of murder. Betty Webb’s Lena Jones and her business partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, own Desert Investigations, an Arizona-based PI firm. They know the area, they are smart and shrewd, and they are loyal to each other. But that doesn’t mean they never have their share of danger.

And no discussion of PI business partnerships would be complete without a mention of Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her business partner Rajiv Patel (they are also partners in their private lives). They sometimes have very different outlooks on cases, but their skills are complementary. They have their conflicts, but they respect each other, too, and it’s interesting to see how that partnership has evolved.

There are many, many other business partnerships in crime fiction. For instance, I haven’t even touched on fictional legal partners, and there are plenty of those in the genre.  It’s a fascinating dynamic and can add much to a crime novel. Which partnerships have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Taylor’s Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Andrew Nette, Angela Makholwa, Angela Savage, Betty Webb, Cara Black, Ellery Queen