Category Archives: Angela Savage

‘Cause One Can Teach the Other One*

writing-across-cultural-barriersIn a recent, very interesting post, crime writer and fellow blogger Angela Savage made some important points about writing across cultural boundaries – that is, writing about a culture of which one is not a member. In that post (which you should read), Savage addresses the question of whether it’s appropriate to do that.

It’s not really an easy question, actually. On the one hand, there’s the argument that writers should write whatever they want, using whichever characters and so on they want. To argue otherwise is to argue for censorship. And there is merit to that argument – a lot of merit.

But (and this is a very important ‘but’), with every right comes a responsibility. Think of every right you have, whether it’s voting, self-expression, or something else. You’ll see that there’s a corresponding responsibility. So what’s the responsibility in the case of writing cross-culturally? As Savage argues (and she’s right), writers are responsible for understanding that other culture, and listening to (and incorporating) the narratives of its members. That is, the writer needs to acknowledge being a non-member and, thus, being responsible for gaining an understanding of that culture before making assumptions and writing about those assumptions.

We see all sorts of examples of that understanding, too, in crime fiction. For instance, Savage’s own series takes place in Thailand, and involves many Thai characters. Savage herself is Australian, as is her sleuth, Jayne Keeney. However, she lived in Southeast Asia (including Thailand) for some time. What’s more, she actively seeks out and listens to input from Thai friends and colleagues as she writes, and integrates their linguistic and cultural narratives into her work.

And she’s by no means alone in that sense of responsibility. John Burdett’s Bangkok series features Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who is, among other things, a devout Buddhist. Burdett is British-born, but lives in Thailand for part of each year. Before writing his series, he became thoroughly familiar with the Bangkok culture, Thai beliefs and traditions, and of course, the language. The narratives of the Thai people are woven into this series because Burdett has taken the time to understand them.

As fans can tell you, Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series takes place mostly on the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest US. Both of his protagonists are members of the Navajo Nation; in fact, both belong to the Navajo Tribal Police. And if you’ve read this series, you’ll know that many of the characters who people the Hillerman series are Navajo (some are members of other Native American Nations as well). Hillerman himself wasn’t Navajo. However, he lived for years in that part of the country. What’s more, he spent a great deal of time among the Navajo people. In fact, he was granted the status of Special Friend of the Dineh (Navajo people). And he always had a sense of responsibility about the people who inspired his novels. Several authors’ notes he wrote include caveats about the limits of his understanding. I know what you’re probably thinking, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. In fact, Hillerman felt the same way and, more than once, acknowledged his debt to Upfield.

Paddy Richardson is a native of New Zealand. Her books mostly take place in that country, but she’s also experimented with characters from different cultures. In Swimming in the Dark, for instance, we are introduced to Ilse Klein and her mother Greta. They are from Leipzig, in what was once East Germany, and emigrated to New Zealand to escape the Stasi, the dreaded secret police. In one plot thread, we learn about their lives in Germany, and their adjustment to life in a completely different culture, with a different language. Later, Ilse becomes a secondary school teacher, which is how she meets fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. At first, Serena is one of her most promising students. Then, she suddenly seems to lose interest in school, and Ilse becomes concerned. Then, she disappears, and Ilse and Greta are caught up in the mystery. Before writing this novel, Richardson spent time in Leipzig. She understands the culture, and ensured that her story was culturally accurate.

Stan Jones’ series features Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. Active is Inupiat, as are many of the other characters in the novels. Jones isn’t, although he’s lived in Alaska most of his life. Jones’ time in Alaska allowed him to get to know many of the Native people who live in the far north, and he’s used that cultural understanding to create his characters. His author’s notes include really helpful information, and reflect his sense of responsibility to present the culture in authentic ways.

There are many other writers, too – I’m sure you could think of more than I could – who are members of one culture, but write about members of another culture. Do they have a right to do that? They do if you believe in the right to self-expression. But at the same time, there is a very strong argument that they also have a responsibility to do so in a way that reflects respect for and a thorough understanding of that other culture. It’s not an easy issue, but the underlying right-and-responsibility dynamic plays an important role.

What do you think about all of this? If you’re a writer, do you write about members of different cultures? How do you inform yourself?

Thanks, Angela, for the inspiration. Folks, do go have a look at her excellent post. And if you haven’t tried them, I recommend her Jayne Keeney novels very highly.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from No Doubt’s Different People.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, John Burdett, Paddy Richardson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

It’s a Bedside Mystery*

Crime Fictional Crime Fiction FansYou probably already know this, but there are a lot of crime fiction fans out there. What’s interesting, too, is that there are plenty of fictional crime fiction fans, too. That makes sense if you think about it, because the most talented crime writers are also avid readers. And many of them read crime fiction. So it’s only logical that their interest in the genre would find its way into their writing.

In Edumnd Crispin’s The Case of the Golden Fly, for instance, we are introduced to Oxford academic Dr. Gervase Fen. In that novel, journalist Nigel Blake returns to Oxford to do a story on Robert Warner’s new play Metromaina. He’s also there because, quite frankly, he’s an admirer of Helen Haskell, who has a part in the play. While he’s at Oxford, Blake visits his former mentor Fen. So he’s on hand when Yseut Haskell (Helen’s half-sister and a star in her own right) is shot. The case is a difficult one, since she was alone at the time, and no-one was seen leaving or entering her room. But Fen works out how the murder was done. Here’s what he says as he works out the answer:
 

‘Lord, Lord what a fool I’ve been! ‘And yes – it fits – absolutely characteristic. Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it.’’
 

That’s, of course, a reference to John Dickson Carr’s sleuth, Dr. Gideon Fell. It’s an interesting example of how crime-fictional detectives work their way into other crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, noted American archaeologist Eric Leidner hires a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to help look after his wife, Louise. Louise has been having difficulty with anxiety, and Nurse Leatheran is hoping to help ease her nerves. She soon discovers that her patient has been seeing faces at windows, and hearing hands tapping. It may be just a symptom, so to speak, but Louise is convinced that someone is trying to kill her. What’s more, she knows who: her first husband, Frederick Bosner, who was thought to be dead for many years. Nurse Leatheran isn’t convinced that’s the case, until one afternoon when Louise is murdered in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate the murder. On the afternoon of the killing, Nurse Leatheran is in her own room, resting:
 

‘I was reading Death in a Nursing Home – really a most exciting story… When I put the book down at last (it was the red-headed parlourmaid, and I’d never suspected her once!) and looked at my watch I was quite surprised to find it was twenty minutes to three!’
 

Fans of both Christie and Ngaio Marsh will know that this snippet is a veiled reference to Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder. And no, Christie doesn’t give away the real killer in that novel.

Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn is a retired Florida judge. She’s also a crime fiction reader. In The Prairie Grass Murders, her brother, Willie Grisseljon, is visiting their home town in Illinois. While he’s there, he discovers the body of an unknown man on the property the Grisslejon family used to own. When Willie reports the murder, he’s locked up as a vagrant and ordered to have a psychiatric evaluation. He calls his sister, and Sylvia travels to Illinois to arrange for his release. But when they go to the site where he found the body, there’s no sign that the body was ever there. Now, Willie is determined to prove he’s not crazy, that there was a murder. He and Sylvia get to the truth about the case, and Sylvia returns to Florida. But her troubles aren’t over…  At one point, she’s looking forward to taking a break from the events of this mystery:
 
‘…I could spend a few more hours on the balcony with my book and a glass of wine. If I finished the [Sue] Grafton paperback, I’d start right in on the latest Park Ranger adventures of [Nevada Barr’s] Anna Pigeon. Escapist reading at its best.’
 

Even a fictional sleuth enjoys spending time with…a fictional sleuth.

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney also enjoys crime fiction. In Behind the Night Bazaar, she travels from Bangkok, where she’s based, to Chiang Mai, to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. Both are bibliophiles, but they have different tastes. So some of their time is spent trying to ‘convert’ each other with different sorts of crime fiction. Everything changes, though, when Didi’s partner Nou is killed. When Didi himself is killed (allegedly while he was resisting arrest for Nou’s murder), Keeney decides to clear his name. And in The Half Child, we learn that Keeney’s love of crime fiction leads her to a particular bookshop – and to Rajiv Patel, who is helping his uncle run the shop. Patel becomes her partner in business and in life. See where a love of crime fiction can take you?

And then there’s Rodeo Grace Garnet, whom we meet in C.B. McKenzie’s Bad Country. He’s a former rodeo star who now does occasional PI work. That’s how he meets Katherine Rocha, who wants him to find out the truth about the death of her teenage grandson, Samuel. According to the police reports, he was possibly shot, and knocked off a bridge; and his grandmother wants to know who’s responsible. So Garnet starts asking questions. At one point, he’s planning a bit of a ‘road trip.’ Here’s part of what he packs:
 
‘…his camera, eavesdropping and recording gear, binoculars, pepper spray, a sap, a Tony Hillerman…’
 

That choice seems particularly appropriate, since this novel takes place in the same Southwest region of the US that features in many of Hillerman’s novels.

There are plenty of other examples of fictional sleuths who read about fictional sleuths (am I right, fans of James W. Fuerst’s Huge?). It’s not surprising, considering the popularity of the genre, and considering that crime writers often read the work of other crime writers. Which fictional crime fiction fans have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tavares’ Whodunit.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, C.B. McKenzie, Edmund Crispin, James W. Fuerst, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Stoltey

You’re In the Care of a Spin Doctor*

PR and Spin DoctorsIt’s a competitive world out there. So, for a lot of people and businesses, image is everything. They have to inspire confidence and build loyalty. That’s where public relations and ‘spin doctors’ come in. They’re the ones who work to ensure that the public sees the company in the best possible light. They also do ‘damage control’ when there’s a problem.

PR people certainly play roles in real life. They help build brand image and the good ones articulate the company’s (or person’s) message. They can be interesting characters in crime fiction, too. And including a PR angle (or even conflict) can add a solid plot point or layer of character development to a story.

Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is the story of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., a very respectable advertising agency. One day, copywriter Victor Dean has a tragic fall down a staircase at Pym’s, and dies. At first it looks as though it could have been just a terrible accident. But Dean left behind an unfinished note that calls that conclusion into question. The note says that he’d discovered one of Pym’s employees was using the company’s advertising for illegal purposes. For Pym’s, this is a PR disaster, so they don’t want to call in the police. Instead, they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover as Dean’s replacement and find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he starts looking into the matter. It turns out that Dean was right: someone was using the company’s advertising to arrange meetings between drugs gangs and local drugs dealers. When Dean found out who it was, he blackmailed that person and paid the price for it. It’s an interesting case of a PR firm that needs a PR boost of its own.

In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, Queen is temporarily working for Hollywood’s Magna Studios. The project is a film biography of famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The two had a very stormy romance and public breakup, and the gossip about them has been popular for a long time. Each married someone else and now has a grown child; and at first, the studio people think they’ll refuse to do the film. But to everyone’s shock, they agree. More than that, they rekindle their romance and decide to get married. For publicity man Sam Vix, this is a nightmare. He’d depended on the couple’s feud to sell the film. Then, Vix and the publicity team decide to make the best of the situation. They arrange with Stuart and Royle to give their wedding the ‘Hollywood treatment,’ and have it take place on an airstrip. From thence, the couple and their children will leave for a honeymoon trip. All goes off as planned; but by the time the plane lands, Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. Queen works to find out who the killer is and how the killer managed to poison the newlyweds.

As Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips wrote a series of mysteries featuring Pierre Chambrun, manager of New York’s very upmarket Hotel Beaumont. A hotel’s image is extremely important, so one of Chambrun’s valued employees is his PR chief, Mark Haskell. In fact, this series is written in first person, from Haskell’s point of view. As the series goes on, it’s interesting to see how Haskell handles press announcements and other public image events. It’s also interesting to see how the hotel deals with PR challenges such as police searches and arrests.

Carole Nelson Douglas’ Temple Barr is a freelance PR expert. As such, she’s hired by hotel/casinos (she’s based in Las Vegas), corporations and so on help create or restore the images they want. Companies consult with her to choose TV advertising campaigns, push new logos or spokespeople, and otherwise keep their names before the public. Among other things, this cosy series offers an interesting look at what PR people do.

Public relations is important to the plot of Robin Cook’s medical thriller Contagion. In that novel, medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery are faced with a mysterious set of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. They seem to be caused by a particularly virulent strain of influenza, and there’s a great deal of concern. But, as Stapleton discovers, the concern is as much for the hospital’s image as it is for anything else. For that reason, the hospital’s administrators want there to be as little obvious investigation as possible. From Stapleton’s point of view, this puts patients at risk, so he frequently butts heads with those in charge. He and Montgomery learn that Manhattan General is affiliated with insurance giant AmeriCare. That company’s major rival is National Health. As the story goes on, we learn how the competition between those companies impacts what’s going on at the hospital. We also see how important public image is in the medical field.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, are taking a holiday at Krabi. There, they meet a guide, Chanida Manakit, who goes by the name of Miss Pla. When her body is found washed up in a cave, Keeney and Patel feel a personal sense of loss, and decide to extend their stay for a bit and ask some questions. It’s difficult to say exactly how the victim died, but Keeney doesn’t believe the police theory that it was an accident. Miss Pla was far too good a swimmer for that. So Keeney and Patel trace Pla’s last days and weeks. They learn that she was working with an environmental group. Her task was to attend meetings between local villages and Nukun, the public relations officer for Apex Enterprises, a development company. While at those meetings, Pla was to ensure that villagers’ concerns were articulated. For the company, these meetings are important for public relations. Apex wants to cultivate the image of being sensitive to the local culture and its needs, and the people who run these meetings have to keep that image at the forefront. And Miss Pla’s role in the company’s PR plan plays its part in what happens to her.

PR people and ‘spin doctors’ have important and sometimes difficult tasks to do. That’s especially the case when a company or politician gets into trouble or does something illegal or unethical. There are all sorts of interesting possibilities when that happens, and crime fiction certainly shows that.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from TV Smith’s For Every Hit There’s a Miss.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Carole Nelson Douglas, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips, Robin Cook

Preschool Days*

Day CareOne of the major changes that we’ve seen in Western society in the last decades has been the growth of preschool and day care facilities. There are, of course, good reasons for this. For one thing, there’s an increasing number of both dual-income households and households headed by single adults. For another thing, there are fewer extended families living in the same area than there used to be. This means fewer grandparents and others who can help take care of little children while parents work (besides; many of today’s grandparents have full-time jobs themselves). What’s more, many Western cultures (certainly not all!) tend to be individualistic. So the care of small children isn’t necessarily seen as a family group responsibility in the same way as it is in more collectivist cultures.

All of this has arguably led to the day care/preschool solution. These facilities vary greatly, depending on income, location and the like. But in whatever form they take, they’ve become a fixture in many cultures, and many families depend on them.

Child care facilities/preschools show up in crime fiction as well. And it’s interesting to see how they’re portrayed. Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House begins with a prologue that takes place in 1968, when day care was just beginning to be a ‘respectable’ option and many people still thought less of parents who took advantage of it. An incident takes place at a preschool in the Swedish town of Katrineholm (and no, it’s not the stereotypical abducted child scenario). That incident has repercussions years later, when Stockholm real estate sales professional Hans Vannerberg disappears after telling his wife, Pia, that he’s going to look at a house for a client. When his body is later discovered in a different house, Stockholm DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team investigate. They’re just getting started when there’s another murder. And another. Sjöberg and his team will have to go back to the past, as it were, to find out the truth behind these killings.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal introduces readers to Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. Together with their six-year-old son Axel, they seem to be living the idyllic suburban life. And that’s the way Eva is determined to keep it. Her world is shattered, though, when she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. When Eva learns who the other woman is, she is devastated. And in one plot thread of this novel, she begins to plot her revenge. That plan turns out to have devastating consequences for several of the characters. And without spoiling the story, I can say that Axel’s day care/preschool plays a role in what happens.

Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder has as its focus Malin Andersson, her husband Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel. They return to their home on Fårö after a two-month absence, only to find that everything is in a serious mess. At first, they blame the state of their house on the tenants who stayed there during their absence. But then Malin finds a carefully mutilated family photograph – not something a careless or even spiteful tenant would likely do. She calls in the police, and Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin to look into the matter. It could be a tenant with a personal grudge. It could also be someone else who knows the family and broke into the house. There are other possibilities, too. Then there’s another scare. Malin drops Axel off at his preschool/day care, hoping to get him back into the family’s normal routine. As she’s leaving the facility, she notices a woman watching her. It’s not one of the teachers; nor is it another parent – at least not one she knows. On the surface of it, it’s just a woman on the same street. But Malin has the eerie sense that this woman is specifically watching her for some reason. And thing brings up all sorts of fears for Axel’s safety. It’s little wonder that most modern preschools and other child care places have strict policies about who is allowed on the premises, when, and so on.

Gail Bowen’s series features Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, a now-retired academician and political scientist. In Kaleidoscope, her adult daughter Mieka opens a new facility in Regina’s economically struggling North Central district. Called UpslideDown, it’s a combination playground/meeting place. Parents can let their children play safely, learn from other parents, and support one another as they also take advantage of UpslideDown’s parenting information. UpslideDown acknowledges the reality that many parents don’t have family support, and cannot afford safe, high-quality child care and parenting answers. UpslideDown seeks in part to fill that gap.

Child care is address in two of Angela Savage’s stories. In The Half Child, Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to investigate the death of his daughter, Maryanne. She was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre when she was pushed (or fell, or jumped) from the roof of the building where she lived. The police claim this is a case of suicide. But Delbeck doesn’t believe it, and wants the truth. Keeney takes the case and travels to Pattaya, where Maryanne died. As a part of looking into the matter, Keeney goes undercover at New Life to find out what goes on there. It’s not a day care/preschool in the sense that most Westerners think of such places. Rather, it’s a combination orphanage and child care facility. Some of the babies there have been abandoned, and are simply staying there until they can be matched with adoptive parents. Others, though, are ‘boarders.’ They are the children of young women, mostly single, who cannot care for them, and who no longer live in their home villages, where relatives could look after their babies. The ‘boarders’ live at New Life, but their mothers visit them. The idea is that these babies will return to their homes when their mothers have saved up enough money, and are in a good position to take care of them. It’s an interesting look at child care in a culture where extended families have traditionally provided that support. Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos also involves child care. A young woman is released from prison, where she’s served a sentence for murder. She and her pit bull Sully are provided a place to live not far from a local day care provider. One day, one of the mothers lodges a complaint about Sully, and Sully’s human companion is given no choice but to get rid of him. Devastated at this loss, the woman plots her own sort of revenge…

Whether you call such places day care, preschool, crèches, or something else, child care facilities are fast becoming a fixture in many modern cultures. They provide a service that many parents depend on, and they can add an interesting layer to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dogwood. Incidentally, they’re a punk band based only about 30k (about 21 miles) from where I live.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Carin Gerhardsen, Gail Bowen, Håkan Östlundh, Karin Alvtegen

Lighten Up While You Still Can*

Light MomentsWit is a funny thing (pun intended😉 ). The thing about it is that what’s funny to some people isn’t to others. And what ‘counts’ as a lighter moment to some people isn’t funny at all to others. So even among members of the same culture, there might not be agreement about whether something is funny or it isn’t.

Because of that, it can be difficult to add in just the right light touch to a crime novel. I’m not talking here of comic caper novels, where the author deliberately adds in absurdity and funny dialogue. Rather, I mean crime novels in which those funny moments add a welcome light touch. It’s not easy to do that and still maintain the tenor of a story. But it can add interest, keep readers engaged, and keep up a certain energy level in a novel. We see it all through crime fiction, too, so there won’t be space in this one post for all of the examples out there. Here are just a few.

The main plot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton concerns a notorious blackmailer who’s gotten hold of an indiscreet letter written by one of Sherlock Holmes’ clients. She’s hired Holmes to get the letter and stop Milverton sending it to her fiancé. Holmes meets with Milverton, who refuses to part with the letter unless he gets an outrageous sum of money. So Holmes decides to take matters into his own hands and get the letter back another way. He learns the layout of Milverton’s home, and the household’s habits. Then he and Watson actually break into the house. Holmes knows he needs ‘inside information,’ so he takes on a disguise, and starts ‘walking out with’ one of Milverton’s housemaids. There’s a very funny scene where he tells Watson that he is engaged:
 

“You’ll be interested to hear that I am engaged.’
‘My dear fellow! I congrat—
‘To Milverton’s housemaid.’
‘Good heavens, Holmes!’
‘I wanted information, Watson.’…
‘But the girl, Holmes?’
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table. However, I rejoice to say that I have a hated rival who will certainly cut me out the instant that my back is turned. What a splendid night it is!’’
 

In the end, the information Holmes gets turns out to be very useful.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, famous director Peter Alan Nelson wants to hire Los Angeles PI Elivs Cole to find his ex-wife, Karen, and son, Toby. After years of not being involved with Toby, Nelson has decided he wants to be a part of the boy’s life. Cole tries to tell him that it’s not that simple, but Nelson insists. And a fee is a fee. So Cole reluctantly starts trying to trace Karen and Toby. When he finds them, he soon learns that his troubles have really just begun. It turns out that Karen has been working for some very nasty people, and now wants to be free of them. That doesn’t sit well with her ‘business associates,’ so Cole and his partner Joe Pike find themselves in a dangerous situation. At one point, Cole and Karen are in her house. Pike has just arrived, and the first thing he does is check the house carefully to ensure the safety of its occupants. He says nothing as he does so, though, so at first, Karen thinks it’s quite odd. It’s a funny scene as she watches Pike go through his security check as Cole tries to explain his rather unusual partner. She gets used to Pike, though, and he turns out to be very useful.

The beginning of Gail Bowen’s The Gifted takes place at Hallowe’en. So political scientist/academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack are planning to go to a costume party. It’s a light, funny moment as Zack makes the scene in yellow silk pyjamas and sporting an orchid. If you’re a crime fiction fan, that should be enough to tell you which character he’s portraying. And for her part, Joanne dresses in a
 

‘slick vintage suit’
 

to complete the picture. The novel itself isn’t what you’d call a light crime novel. The main plot concerns their daughter, Taylor, who is a gifted artist. In fact, although she’s only fourteen at the time of this novel, two pieces of her art have been included in an upcoming charity auction. She shares one of her pieces with her parents. But she keeps the other hidden until the auction. When it’s revealed, it turns out to have tragic consequences. That light moment at the beginning is an effective counterpoint.

Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Several of the novels have quite a lot of sadness in them, and the stories really aren’t what you’d call light, fun novels. At the same time, they are not unrelentingly bleak. And one of the reasons for that is the set of relationships among the characters. For example, the local B&B/bistro is owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. It’s a social hub, so everyone spends at least some time there. One of the regular denizens is poet Ruth Zardo. Ruth has a very acerbic exterior, and never wastes an opportunity to make a snide remark or toss off an insult. But Olivier and Gabri know that underneath that surface, Ruth cares about them and considers them friends. And as far as insults go, they give as good as they get. Those interactions not only lighten the tone of the novels, but they also add a layer of character development.

In Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel investigate the death of Chanida Manakit, who went by the nickname of Pla. Part of the trail leads to the offices of a development company, and Keeney and Patel want to find out more about it. But they know that they won’t learn much by just walking in and introducing themselves as detectives. So they go in the guise of a wealthy investor (played by Patel) and his secretary/assistant (played by Keeney). The funny part about this scene (at least for me; your mileage may vary, as the saying goes) is that in actuality, their relationship is nothing like that. Neither is their style of dress. It lightens up what is in some places a very sad story.

And then there’s Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. In that novel, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce discovers the body of an unknown man in the cucumber patch of the family garden. She doesn’t know who the victim is, but she does know he visited the house the night before. She also knows he had an argument with her father. The police learn that, too, and before very long, Flavia’s father is arrested. She doesn’t believe he’s a killer, so she decides to find out the truth. Flavia is a budding detective, and very knowledgeable about chemistry. But she is also an eleven-year-old child with two older sisters. She decides to get back at one of them by distilling the irritant in poison ivy, and putting it on her sister’s lipstick. That in itself is rather funny; so, in its way, is the eventual outcome.

Those lighter moments and funny scenes don’t always have to do with the actual investigation in a crime novel. And they can be tricky. But when they’re handled well, they can lighten up an otherwise very sad story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Take it Easy.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Robert Crais