Category Archives: Arthur Upfield

Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

FireplacesBeing able to make and control a fire has been an essential part of human survival. Fires have protected people from predators, cooked their food, and kept them warm for practically as long as there’ve been humans. So it makes sense that people are drawn to fireplaces and, in the outdoors, to campfires. When it’s cold outside, there’s nothing like a comfortable chair near the fireplace, with the fire lit, your beverage of choice poured, and a novel in your hand. Or a group of friends sitting near the fireplace, laughing and telling stories. Out in the open, a campfire means fresh-roasted food and coffee, warmth, and the kind of psychological intimacy that sharing that warmth brings.

It’s such an important part of life for so many people that it’s not surprising we see fireplaces and campfires so often in crime fiction. All sorts of conversations happen there, and sometimes, fireplaces provide clues, too.

Agatha Christie used fireplaces in several of her mysteries. I won’t mention particular titles or circumstances, as that would be giving away spoilers. But there are several Christie stories in which important information and clues are hidden on mantelpieces, squirreled away in and near hearths, and so on. There are a few, too (Taken at the Flood and Ordeal by Innocence come to my mind), where pokers, edges of hearths and the like turn out to be deadly.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, who is found dead in her bathtub. Her husband, Janek Mitter, is the most likely suspect. He was on the scene at the time of the killing, but was so drunk that he remembers little about that night. He claims that he loved his wife and did not kill her; but there is circumstantial evidence against him. So he is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Since he remembers so little about the night of the murder, he’s remanded to a mental hospital instead of a regular jail, with the hope being he’ll start to recover his memory. Van Veeteren isn’t convinced that Mitter is guilty. And when Mitter himself is brutally murdered, it seems clear that he was innocent. So Van Veeteren and his team look into the matter more deeply. One ‘person of interest’ is Andreas Berger, Eva Ringmar’s first husband. Berger has since married again and has a family, and he invites Van Veeteren to dinner at his home. Afterwards, they have a drink in front of a warm, inviting fire. Against this backdrop, Van Veeteren feels guilty about asking the difficult questions he has to ask (Berger is, after all, a suspect). The contrast between the friendly, homey scene and the ugly reality of interrogation make the process difficult for him. But he asks his questions, and Berger gives him some interesting background information.

In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, Trafalgar, British Columbia Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith investigates the deaths of Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and Ewan Williams. These two young men were part of a group of six young people who were taking a skiing holiday in Trafalgar. One snowy night, the group’s rental SUV skids on an icy patch of road and goes into the Upper Kootenay River. Forensics tests show that Jason, who was driving, died as a result of the accident and exposure in the river. But Ewan had already been dead for several hours before the accident. So Smith and her boss, Sergeant John Winters, trace his last days and hours to find out what happened to him. One possibility – and the evidence suggests this might be the case – is that Ewan was killed at the B&B where the group was staying. There’s a chance he was hit with a fireplace poker, and the evidence includes traces of what could be fireplace ash. And, since Smith has been to the B&B, she knows it has a fireplace. Armed with this knowledge, Smith urges her boss to go to the B&B with a search team. Winters agrees, based on what Smith has told him. The only problem is, the fireplace at the B&B is gas-powered. Needless to say, the team leave with proverbial egg on their faces, and Smith has a lot of explaining to do.

There’s a very tense scene in front of a fireplace in Peter May’s The Blackhouse. Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis. One of the island’s residents, Angel Macritchie, has been murdered in a way that’s very similar to a murder that MacLeod is already investigating. It’s hoped that his working with the Lewis police will help to solve both cases. MacLeod grew up on Lewis, so he knows most of the people who live there, including a former friend Artair Macinnes. One night, he has dinner with Artair and his wife Marsaili. The situation is awkward, since Marsaili is MacLeod’s old love. Nonetheless, everyone behaves more or less politely. Then, Marsaili leaves to make up the spare room so that MacLeod can spend the night. The two men sit by the fire with a drink. At first it’s peaceful enough. But then, Artair, who’s had more than his share, stuns MacLeod with an attack of vitriol. At the end, he says something that shocks his guest and changes everything. The conversation is a real contrast to what’s supposed to be a friendly, warm setting.

Of course, not all ‘hearth’ scenes have to be indoors. In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, for instance, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest investigates the murder of geologist and former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. The official police theory is that he was murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest isn’t sure that’s what really happened. Her questions and insistence on investigating get her into serious trouble with her boss, Bruce Cockburn. More than that, they put her in serious danger. In fact, she is brutally attacked. Not very long afterwards, she travels with her lover, JoJo Kelly, to his bush shack. She’s still suffering from what happened to her, but feels much better when she and JoJo arrive at the shack. There, she sees that her best friend, Hazel Flinders, has come to visit and lit a bluebush campfire. The company of people close to her and the warmth of the fire do much to help Emily start the healing process. It’s a very human, intimate scene that shows, among other things, the way a fire can draw people close.

There are a lot of other ‘hearth’ scenes in mysteries (I’m thinking, for instance, of Arthur Conant Doyle’s novels, Arthur Upfield’s novels, and Louise Penny’s novels). That context can provide a very effective background for the exchange of confidences, contrast with tension, and clues, too. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right on Time.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Håkan Nesser, Louise Penny, Peter May, Vicki Delany

The Bridge*

Bridges and LiaisonsIn Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death, Hercule Poirot agrees to investigate a series of odd occurrences and strange petty thefts at a hostel for students. When one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits that she was responsible for some of the thefts, it’s believed that the matter is settled. Everything changes, though, when she dies two days later, an apparent suicide. It’s soon proven to be murder, though, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who is guilty. At one point, Sharpe and Poirot have a conversation about the residents:
 

‘‘You met some of them the other night and I wondered if you could give me any useful dope, on the foreigners, anyway.’
‘You think I am a good judge of foreigners? But, mon cher, there were no Belgians amongst them.’
‘No Belg- Oh, I see what you mean! You mean that as you’re a Belgian, all the other nationalities are as foreign to you as they are to me. But that’s not quite true, is it? I mean you probably know more about the Continental types than I do – though not the Indians and the West Africans and that lot.’’
 

Among other things, this conversation shows the challenge police face when the cases they investigate involve people from different cultures. Even police who aren’t particularly culturally sensitive know that they’ll get more information about a case if they have a connection of some kind to the community/culture in which the crime occurred.

Another thing this exchange shows is that when that sort of cultural ‘reaching out’ is not done with some thought and insight, it simply doesn’t work very well. In this case, for instance, it doesn’t occur to Inspector Sharpe (at least at first) that you can’t group people under the ‘umbrella’ category of ‘Continental types.’ Each European culture is a little different, and has a different language and world view. So it makes little sense to expect that Poirot would be any more knowledgeable about, say, the Dutch students at the hostel than Sharpe is.

We see this kind of duality, if you will, in other crime fiction, too. On the one hand, there’s the understanding that a certain kind of ‘cultural bridge’ will help solve crimes. On the other, sometimes it’s done in a sort of ‘top down’ way, by people who don’t have a lot of understanding themselves, so that it doesn’t work the way it was intended to work.

Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that part of the reason he is so successful as a sleuth is that he has a deep understanding of the Aboriginal communities within his jurisdiction (and sometimes, outside of it). More than that, he has a deep understanding of the ‘book of the land.’ He reads nature and natural cues very well. So in that sense, the Queensland Police’s choice to have a half White/half Aboriginal police detective gives them a real edge in solving crime. Bony can be accepted by both the White and the Aboriginal communities. But at the same time, he sometimes uses very unconventional approaches to solving crime. And from the perspectives of some of his superiors, that’s not always a good thing. So he sometimes has difficulty doing the very thing he’s been hired to do, because of the people who hired him to do it.

Eva Dolan’s DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira are a part of the Peterborough Hate Crimes unit. In this case, members of the top brass know that it’s the politically ‘right thing to do’ to have a multicultural staff. And they want media and public support. At the same time, someone who’s too ‘different’ may not fit in with the department or with the public perception of the way police ‘should’ be. For this reason,
 

‘The ACC needed a foreign name to head up Hate Crimes, and he wanted it attached to a third-generation body. Someone just different enough.’ 
 

Zigic fits the bill, as third-generation English. And it’s very interesting to see how he and Ferreira negotiate the difference between the reality of life for immigrants (and of solving crimes that concern them), and the bureaucratic perception of what that process should be.

In Peter May’s Entry Island, we meet Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec, who’s based in Montréal. He gets a new assignment when James Cowell is murdered on Entry Island, one of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine/Magdalen Islands. Unlike the other islands, Entry Island is composed of English speakers, with a very different culture to the surrounding French-speaking, mostly Roman Catholic culture. Mackenzie’s family is of Scottish origin, and he’s a native speaker of English (although he speaks French quite fluently). So it’s believed he’ll be helpful as a sort of ‘bridge’ to the Entry Island people. He’s pragmatic enough to understand this; it’s one of the times when his being somewhat of an outsider is helpful. When he and the other members of the team get to the island, they begin the investigation. Almost instantly, Mackenzie feels a deep connection to the island, although he’s never been there. What’s more, when he meets the victim’s widow Kirsty, he is convinced he knows her, although they have never met. The investigation starts out as a sort of ‘rubber stamp,’ since the evidence seems to point to Kirsty as the killer. But Mackenzie becomes convinced she is innocent. As he searches for the real killer, he also has to make sense of the strong conviction he has that somehow, he is connected to this island.

It’s not just police departments that depend on these cultural liaisons. Businesses often do as well. For example, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PIs Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel are taking a few days of much-needed rest in Krabi. They’re especially impressed with their tour guide Chanida Manakit, an expert swimmer whose nickname is Pla. So they’re particularly distressed when they learn that her body has washed up in a cave. The official police report is that it was likely an accident. But both PIs know that she was far too good a swimmer for her death to have been an accident. So after some debate, they decide to stay in Krabi a bit longer to find out what happened to her. One thing they soon learn is that Miss Pla served as a kind of liaison for an environmental group. Her job was to attend meetings between a development company and local villagers, to articulate the villagers’ concerns and requests. The development company needed her help, so they could show they obey Thai law respecting new development in the area. The villagers were grateful for her presence too, because it allowed them to ‘save face’ by not appearing confrontational or ignorant. Miss Pla might have been useful, but she was also very vulnerable, since she found out some things it wasn’t safe for her to know.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of people who act as such cultural ‘bridges.’ Sometimes they work very well. Other times, they don’t work well at all. But either way, they can add interest to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Elton John song.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, Eva Dolan, Peter May

Consider Yourself One of Us*

Fittiing InCulture is very deeply ingrained into the way we look at the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we naturally feel more comfortable with people who understand our culture, at least somewhat, and can operate effectively within it. Even subtle aspects of culture, such as physical distance between speakers or the ‘right’ formulaic expressions, can make interactions go more smoothly. In fact, research shows that those pragmatic things are more important than things such as accent, pronunciation, or standard grammar when it comes to social interaction.

If you travel outside your own culture, you’ve probably already experienced that bit of camaraderie when you know how to order the kind of coffee you want, or the ‘right’ thing to do about tipping. You may not know a lot of the language, or you may have a different accent, but those little cultural things can still make you feel more welcome.

Crime fiction is full of incidents like this, which shouldn’t be surprising considering how small our world has become. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to add many more than I ever could.

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia takes place mostly at an archaeological dig site and expedition team house a few hours from Baghdad. The dig is being led by noted expert Eric Leidner. He’s brought his wife Louise along, and she’s been having a great deal of difficulty since their arrival. In fact, Leidner decides to hire a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to attend to his wife, who claims to see hands tapping at her window and has other fears. One afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to look into the case. At first, Nurse Leatheran is not inclined towards much confidence in Poirot, and at least part of her concern is that he’s not English. Her view begins to change when Poirot insists that she have tea with him and Dr. Reilly, who first introduced her to Leidner.

 

‘‘Oh, no doctor,’ I protested. ‘I couldn’t think of such a thing.’
Poirot gave me a little friendly tap on the shoulder. Quite an English tap, not a foreign one.
‘You, ma soeur, will do as you are told,’ he said.’

 

Nurse Leatheran agrees, and as she gets to know Poirot a little, she sees that even though he’s not English, he does understand the culture well enough to put her at her ease.

In Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we are introduced to ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty, who’s now living in Bangkok. Rafferty is a rough travel writer, who’s written some popular books on adventure travel in different places. He’s also gotten a reputation for being able to find people who don’t want to be found. And that’s why Clarissa Ulrich wants to hire him. She’s always been close to her Uncle Claus, who lives in Bangkok. But she hasn’t heard from him for a few months, and has gotten concerned about him. She’s heard that Rafferty is good at finding people. And even though she’s Australian and he’s American, they have more in common culturally than she feels she has with the Thai culture. Rafferty understands the local culture and speaks Thai, so he’s well-suited for the job. One lead on this case takes Rafferty to the home of a very wealthy and enigmatic older woman named Madame Wing. She agrees to give Rafferty information he wants if he’ll do a job for her. Soon, he finds that both cases are much more involved and dangerous than he thought.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, private detective Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Andrea Curtin. She is an ex-pat American who moved to Botswana when her husband took a position there. When it was time to return to the US, their son decided to stay, and joined an eco-commune there. When he died, the police reported that he was probably killed by a wild animal, but his mother has always wanted to know the real truth. She wants closure, and asks Mma. Ramotswe to find out what happened to her son. Here’s Mma. Ramotswe’s reaction to her new client:

 

‘The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma. Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.’

 

Andrea Curtin’s understanding of the local culture, even if she doesn’t speak all of the different languages, puts Mma. Ramotswe more at her ease, and helps to create a rapport between the two women.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was volunteering at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she jumped, or fell, or was pushed from the roof of the building where she was living. Delbeck has never believed the suicide explanation, and he wants Keeney to find out the truth. So she travels to Pattaya to get some answers. Part of the trail leads to a bar frequented by American military personnel, and Keeney goes there to follow up. She soon finds herself needing to make a quick escape from an overzealous contact and manages to do so, only to end up in another predicament when she blunders into a room where a group of kratoey, ‘ladyboys,’ are preparing for a pageant:

 

‘Jane had to think fast.
‘Younger sisters,’ she said with a wai, ‘my name is Jayne. There’s a tall, dark, handsome Marine chasing me and I don’t want anything to do with him. I need to hide fast. Can you help me?’

There was a moment’s stunned silence as they took in Jayne’s ability to speak Thai, her flattering form of address, and the implications of her predicament. Then the room burst into a flurry of activity.’
 
 

The beauty queens help Jayne, not least because she understands the culture well enough to behave in the ‘correct’ way within it.

There’s also Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home, which introduces DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira, of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit. They are called in to investigate when there’s a fire in a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. In the ruins of the shed is the body of a man who was very likely a foreigner. If that’s true, then this might be a hate crime; hence Zigic and Ferreira’s involvement. Zigic is third-generation English; Ferreira is originally Portuguese. Ferreira has learned the English way of doing things, and knows how to operate within the culture well enough to have gained some acceptance. Yet she still maintains some of her own culture, and her fluency in Portuguese turns out to be useful in this case. Her case is an interesting example that shows how immigrants and those with immigrant backgrounds can find more acceptance if they understand how to operate within their new culture. At the same time, this doesn’t mean at all that simply knowing some cultural nuances will automatically mark someone as ‘one of us.’

There are a lot of other examples of crime-fictional characters who’ve mastered some of the nuances of another culture (I know, I know, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte). It’s an important skill to have if you want to fit in within a culture that’s not your own. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Consider Yourself.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, Eva Dolan, Timothy Hallinan

She Talks to Angels*

Communicating With the DeadIf you’ve seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, then you’ll know that its main focus is a young boy who can hear and see those who’ve died. For a very long time, people have wanted to believe that they could communicate with loved ones who’ve passed away. That’s been the driving force behind countless séances.

Each culture is different with respect to whether we communicate with those who’ve died. In some cultures, there’s a vital important link between the dead and the living. In others, there is no such link, and the idea that the dead might communicate is not taken seriously.

Whatever one’s cultural or personal beliefs, the idea of communicating with lost friends and loved ones has had a powerful influence on people. And, given that a lot of crime fiction is about murder, it shouldn’t be surprising that this idea is woven into the genre, too.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that he had a great interest in spiritualism. It’s ironic, considering that his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, is a man of science and logic. Holmes is not one for séances and other spiritualist traditions. But his creator certainly was.

Agatha Christie touches on this theme in a few of her stories. In The Last Séance, for instance, Raoul Daubreuil pays a visit to his fiancée Simone, who is a very successful medium. She is worn out from the work, though, and wants nothing more than to be done with it forever. But she has made one last commitment – a sitting for Madame Exe, who is desperate to stay in contact with her dead daughter Amelie. At first, Simone doesn’t want to do this last séance. She is exhausted; more than that, she is afraid. She fears the consequences of working with Madame Exe any longer. But Raoul insists that she keep her commitment, and Simone finally allows herself to be persuaded. Madame Exe duly arrives, and in the end, we see the tragic consequences. Christie fans will know that she also mentions spiritualism in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Murder in Mesopotamia and the short story Blue Geranium, among others.

In one plot thread of Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich. She was a Roma girl who, according to the first reports, fell into a canal from a building where she was trying to rob an apartment. Brunetti isn’t so sure that she died accidentally, and starts asking questions. Brunetti doesn’t believe in spiritualism. But he can’t deny that Ariana haunts him:
 

‘…and the girl’s face…would return to him at odd times and more than once in his dreams.’
 

That’s part of what spurs him on to find out the truth about her death.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past is in part the story of the death of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson. One winter day, she and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go diving into Lake Vittangijärvi, hoping to explore the ruins of a WWII plane that went down there. The two are deliberately trapped and killed. A few months later, Wilma’s body re-surfaces, and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her team investigate. In the meantime, attorney Rebecka Martinsson has been having strange dreams in which a young girl appears, trying to communicate with her. Martinsson doesn’t believe in ghosts, or in the dead communicating with the living, but she knows what she’s experienced. And it’s interesting to see how her experiences are woven into the story.

In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, Jason Barnes is riding a bus one day when three young people begin harassing another passenger, Luke Murray. Jason intervenes, and for a time, the bullying abates. But then, Luke gets off the bus. So do the three bullies, and so does Jason. The harassment starts up again, and this time it escalates. The fight continues all the way into Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed, and Luke badly wounded. Both boys’ parents are understandably devastated by what’s happened. There is, of course, a police investigation into the incident, and Jason’s parents Andrew and Val do the best they can to help. Part of the plot involves the slow discovery of what really went on and what led up to it. Another part has to do with the impact that Jason’s death has on his family. In the end, though, Andrew and Val are able to begin healing; and, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s one great scene in which Andrew does have a sense of really connecting with Jason.

There are many cultures in which it is believed that those who’ve died really do communicate with the living. It’s not done in the Western sense of using the planchette or having a séance. In fact, there isn’t really a strong dividing line between the living and the dead in some cultures. We see that, for instance, in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary, some of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels, and Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. All of these touch on Australian Aboriginal people’s connections with their dead.

We also see that link in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri may be a medical professional, but that doesn’t mean he ignores the unexplainable. In fact, he actually does see the spirits of people who’ve died. Again, it’s not in the traditional Western sense, but it’s quite real for him. There are other novels and series, too, that touch on this sense that those who have died communicate with the living (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire stories). When it’s done effectively, it can add a fascinating layer to a story. It can also add some depth to characters.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Black Crowes.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Colin Cotterill, Craig Johnson, Donna Leon, Nicole Watson

But the Cowboy and the Rancher Knew His Name*

WesternsMany people find a real appeal in what I’ll call Westerns, whether books, film or television. Even if you don’t care for them yourself, you no doubt know that they have a strong following. There are arguably several reasons so many people love Westerns, just as there are a lot of reasons for which people have moved to ‘the wide open spaces.’

One of the allures of Westerns and their settings is the chance to start over in beautiful, open land. We see that, for instance, in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s 1806, and William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their children have just arrived in Sydney Cove, Sydney, to start their lives over. Thornhill is a former London bargeman who was sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing wood. He and his family have experienced real poverty in London, so even though transportation is nerve-wracking, it’s also a chance to build new lives. Before very long, Thornhill finds work delivering goods up and down the local waterways; his wife opens a makeshift pub. One day, Thornhill finds a piece of irresistibly beautiful land, and sets about to claim it. And therein lies the problem. People have been living in what is to become New South Wales for many thousands of years, and it’s not long before there are serious, even bloody and brutal, conflicts between the two groups. Grenville doesn’t make light of the crimes committed in the name of new land and new opportunities. At the same time, we see just how tempting that land can be.

Even today, people are drawn to the prospects of open land, the chance to put the past behind, and the opportunity to start all over. That’s arguably part of what makes Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series popular. It’s also, of course, highly regarded as a well-written set of novels. But as we learn about the characters, we see a pattern of people who’ve chosen to live in Absaroka County, Wyoming because it’s beautiful, because it gives them a chance to build their own kinds of lives, and because the open land appeals to them. For instance, Longmire’s deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti is originally from Philadelphia, where she served as a police officer. She’s had her share of ups and downs in life, but she’s found a certain kind of contentment if you will in Absaroka County. Philadelphia may at times offer more conveniences, but Moretti has chosen to start over in the west. I know, I know, fans of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series and of Margaret Coel’s Wind River series…

‘Going West’ offers other kinds of opportunities too. As you’ll no doubt know, many people have taken the risks involved in starting over because of the discovery of gold and other precious metals. Vicki Delany’s historical Klondike series, set during the Klondike Gold Rush, has this theme as a backdrop. These novels feature Savoy Dance Hall owner Fiona MacGillivray, who’s originally from Scotland. She’s got a past that she’d just as well leave behind, and a teenage son Angus. Together, they’ve started over in Dawson, Yukon, just as the area is feeling the full effects of the gold rush. She herself isn’t in search of gold, but she knows that there are a lot of other ways to profit from the surge of newcomers. Taverns, restaurants, food and supply purveyors, dance halls, and of course assayers are all benefiting from the search for riches.

Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn isn’t really a westerner. She’s a retired judge who lives in Florida. But in The Desert Hedge Murders, she certainly gets a taste of the Old West. She travels with her mother’s traveling club, the Florida Flippers, on a sightseeing tour to Laughlin, Nevada. The group gets caught up in a case of murder when the body of a dead man is found in the bathroom of one of hotel rooms the club is using. Then, one of the members disappears and is later found dead in an old mine now used as a tourist attraction. As Thorn helps her mother and the rest of the group, she also experiences ghost towns, information about mining and prospecting, and legends. And burros.

For some people, the appeal of Westerns also comes from the ‘good guys v bad guys’ tension. Cattle rustlers, sheriffs, posses, outlaws and so on can tap the desire a lot of us have to see the ‘good guys’ win and the ‘bad guys’ get their due. Of course, it certainly wasn’t that simple; a quick glance at history makes that clear. But for a lot of readers and viewers, there’s a real appeal to following the adventures of ‘larger than life’ characters.

And it’s that sense of adventure that also draws many people to the Western. A lot of series and novels feature the sort of cliffhangers that you might see in old-style Western serials; one of them is Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series. The protagonist in these stories is Sister Thomas Josephine, a Roman Catholic Vistitandine nun from St. Louis, Missouri. As the series begins, she is making her way to start a new life in Sacramento. Everything changes when the wagon train she’s on is attacked in Wyoming. Left stranded there, Sr. Josephine ends up being falsely accused of murder. She goes on the run and is drawn into all sorts of dangerous situations. Sr. Josephine is definitely not your ‘garden variety’ nun…  I admit I’ve not (yet) read these stories. But I’ve already gotten a solid sense of them from the terrific Col, who blogs at Col’s Criminal Library. You’ll want to check out his great blog and see for yourself why it’s one of my must-visits.

There are also plenty of readers/viewers who are interested in Westerns because they want to know more about the people who have always lived in those areas. Novels that depict the lives of Indigenous people in the West can give readers a window on a fascinating perspective on life. And they fulfil the important role of sharing information that doesn’t always make it to the textbooks. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series, for instance, will know that those novels depict life in the modern US West/Southwest, often from the point of view of members of the Navajo Nation. Those stories give an important perspective on aspects of Western life such as mining, oil prospecting, and land and water rights. They also share the culture and lifestyle of the people who’ve lived in that area for a very long time.

We also see that perspective in Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels. Those stories give readers a look at mining, ranching and prospecting in Australia. Very often they feature the point of view of Bony, who is half White/half Aboriginal. So we see several ways of looking at the same places and events. Adrian Hyland’s books feature Emily Tempest, who’s an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) in Australia’s Northern Territory. Those novels give readers a look at modern life in the ‘great wide open’ parts of Australia.

Whether it’s the myths of the Western or the actual history of settlement, there’s something about the Western in all its forms that can draw people in. Does it have that effect on you? If so, what appeals to you about the Western? If not, what puts you off?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Ballad of Billy the Kid, a song he refers to as ‘completely historically inaccurate.’ Still, for my money, it captures all of the adventure, danger and myth of the Western.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, C.J. Box, Craig Johnson, Kate Grenville, Margaret Coel, Patricia Stoltey, Stark Holborn, Tony Hillerman, Vicki Delany