Category Archives: Attica Locke

Poison is the Wind That Blows*

As this is posted, it’s 55 years since the first publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It was a very influential indictment of the pesticide industry, and of those who accepted that industry’s claims without researching them. Carson also laid out the consequences for the environment of using pesticides and other toxins indiscriminately.

Since that time, many governments have made an effort to reduce or eliminate dangerous chemicals and other toxins that threaten the environment. And Carson is by no means the only one to have called attention to this very real risk. She wrote non-fiction, but there are also plenty of fiction writers who’ve addressed this issue.

In many ways, it’s harder for fiction writers to write about threats to the environment. Most readers don’t want ‘preaching’ in their fiction. Nor do they want to be made to feel guilty as they read. They want good stories that engage them, and well-drawn characters. That said, though, there are authors who’ve balanced telling stories with making a point about the environment.

In one of Robin Cook’s early efforts, Fever, Dr. Charles Martel is working on a very promising cancer study at the Weinberger Institute. The company authorities, though, want him to work on a new product, Canceran. Martel isn’t convinced that Canceran is effective, but the company needs government approval of the drug to put it on solid financial footing. So, Martel is pulled from his own research, and told to work on Canceran studies. He agrees, but in secret, continues his own research. Then, his daughter, Michelle, is diagnosed with acute myeloblastic leukemia. Now, Martel works desperately on his own studies, to try to find a treatment that will help Michelle. He also searches for any information he can find about this particular form of leukemia. That’s when he discovers that a powerful company has been dumping toxic chemicals into a nearby river. Martel tries to bring the company’s activities out into the open and stop them. But he’s up against wealthy and well-connected people. And he’s running out of time if he’s to save his daughter.

Fans of Donna Leon’s work will know that her sleuth, Venice police detective Guido Brunetti, often finds himself up against companies that allow toxic chemicals into public water, soil, and so on. For example, in Through a Glass, Darkly, he investigates the death of Giorgio Tassini, who was night watchman at one of Venice’s glass blowing factories. At first, the death looks like a terrible accident. But Brunetti soon suspects otherwise. It comes out that he accused his employer and other such factories of dumping toxic waste into the local water. In fact, he cited that dumping as the cause of his daughter’s array of special needs. Now, Brunetti and his team look more closely at the industry, and try to find if Tassini was telling the truth. If he was, it’s very likely that someone in the industry was responsible for his death.

Carl Hiaasen takes an interesting (and funny – it is Hiaasen) perspective on illegal and dangerous chemical dumping in Skinny Dip. In the novel, we are introduced to Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone. He is, by background, a marine biologist, who’s hired by agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Perrone’s task will be to show that Hammernut’s business does not pollute the environment or change the quality of the local water. Hammernut’s not looking to be a good global citizen; he just wants the ‘rubber stamp’ he needs to continue doing business as he is, and keep government authorities and environmentalists away. And Perrone is the perfect person to do the job. He has no professional integrity, and is willing to do whatever his new boss wants, because the price is right. And he’s invented a way to make water studies look ‘clean,’ even if they aren’t. Then, Perrone’s wife, Joey, finds out what her husband’s doing. She threatens to go to the authorities, and Perrone knows he has to act fast. So, he invites her on a romantic, ‘just the two of us’ cruise of the Everglades, to celebrate their anniversary. While they’re on the cruise, Perrone pushes his wife overboard. He believes he’s killed Joey, but he’s forgotten that she’s a champion swimmer. Joey doesn’t die, but is rescued by former copper Mick Stranahan. Together they concoct a plan to rattle Perrone and make him admit that he tried to kill his wife. The more he tries to cover everything up, the more Broward County police detective Karl Rolvaag suspects that he’s guilty.

In both Black Water Rising and Pleasantville, Attica Locke tells the story of Houston-area lawyer Jay Porter. In both novels, he gets involved in murder investigations that lead to the very top of the local corporate ladders. As he does, he finds that, in both cases, the companies involved are linked to some very corrupt activity that has a real impact on the environment. It wasn’t what Porter intended to do with his life, but he finds himself tangling with some well-connected enemies in these novels.

And then there’s Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. In that novel, legendary environmentalist Jay Duggan has been working with a Los Angeles-based watchdog group called the Millbrook Foundation. They’re concerned about the forthcoming release of a new, genetically-modified, seed coating. Its manufacturer, a company called Vestco, claims that it will do much to end world hunger. But Millbrook has grave doubts about the company’s claims. They’re not successful in preventing Vestco from planning the release, though, and Duggan decides to take this opportunity to retire and return to his native New Zealand. He invites two work friends, Science Director Dr. Catherine ‘Cat’ Taylor, and IT director Matthew Liddell, to join him there for a short visit before they get back to work. The three have already left Los Angeles when word comes that a Vestco employee named Henry Beck has been murdered. Duggan, Taylor and Liddell are being framed for the murder, so when they arrive in Auckland, they’re considered international fugitives. Now, they’re in a race against time (and several forces, both police and otherwise) to stop the seed coating from actually being released, clear their names, and find out the truth about Beck’s death.

Rachel Carson was well known for speaking out against the use and misuse of toxic chemicals and other pollutants. But she’s not the only one who’s done so. There are plenty of real-life and fictional characters who’ve also addressed that problem. When it’s handled so that it doesn’t come across as preaching, it can make for a compelling context for a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).

21 Comments

Filed under Attica Locke, Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Geoffrey Robert, Rachel Carson, Robin Cook

Que Bonita es Barcelona*

Writers are like everyone else: we are products of our times, and we live through events as the rest of the world does. And those events sometimes have a real impact on us. Well, they do on me, at any rate.

And therein lies the issue. Like millions of others, I am heartbroken about the loss of life and the devastation in Barcelona. I’ve been there. I’ve walked down its streets and explored its history (did you know that Barcelona is home to Europe’s oldest synagogue?). So, there’s a really personal sense of loss. I felt the same way about what happened in London before that. And in Charlottesville. And in Manchester, although I admit I’ve not been there. And in other places, too. This has been, so far, a terrible year in terms of the awful things people can do to each other.

The thing is, I’m a writer. Writers are, in general, observers. That’s part of what we do. And we can’t help seeing what goes on around us (am I right, fellow writers?). The question is, what do we do with it? How do writers cope with some of the awfulness of life that we can’t help seeing?

Some writers speak out about it. That’s what Margaret Atwood has done in The Handmaid’s Tale. She herself has said that everything that happens in that novel has happened, or is happening, in real life. She’s used those things as inspiration, and brought a lot of things to our notice. Perhaps this novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, but crimes are certainly committed in it.

They are in George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, too. Like Atwood, Orwell spoke out about what he observed, and used what he saw to inspire his writing. And there’ve been many crime writers who’ve done the same. Attica Locke, Kishwar Desai, Antti Tuomainen and Sara Paretsky are only a few examples of authors who’ve been deeply affected by major issues like poverty, racism, and climate change, and have discussed them in their writing. I know you’ll think of many more.

Other writers have made other choices. For instance, Agatha Christie lived through two world wars. She was tragically familiar with wartime shortages, the loss of people she knew, and so on. In fact, she safeguarded both Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which were written during World War II, in case she didn’t survive it.

And yet, if you read Christie’s work, you see comparatively little discussion of the real costs of war. She certainly mentions war and its losses in books such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Taken at the Flood and some other work, too. But her stories really focus on the mysteries at hand, the characters involved, and so on. And in some books, such as Five Little Pigs, there’s no mention of the war at all, although that particular novel was published in 1942.

Christie isn’t the only author who didn’t really write about what she was living through at the time. The ‘Queen Team’ also wrote during World War II. Calamity Town, for instance was published in 1942. And yet, you don’t see a lot of discussion of war losses, shortages and so on. In fact, Calamity Town doesn’t really mention World War II at all.

Every writer is different, of course. Some deal with their sense of grief and loss and heartbreak through their writing. Others prefer to escape those sorrows and write other sorts of stories. Still others are motivated in different ways. I don’t think there is a ‘right’ way to cope, to be honest.

What do you folks think? If you’re a reader, are you comfortable with books in which the author explores the raw grief, anger and heartbreak that go with war, terrorism, loss, and sorrow? Or does that keep you too close to it all? If you’re a writer, do you deal with your sense of anger and grief at these horrible events by writing? Or do you use your writing to go (and take the reader) elsewhere?

As for me, I can’t answer that question right now – at least about the terrorism we’ve seen lately. It’s too recent. But just because I’m not writing about the heartbreak doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Manuel Moreno. In English (my translation) the title means: How beautiful Barcelona is.

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Attica Locke, Ellery Queen, George Orwell, Kishwar Desai, Margaret Atwood, Sara Paretsky

It is the Music of a People Who Will Not be Slaves Again*

As this is posted, it’s Bastille Day. Among other things, the day commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison, and the start of the French Revolution. The revolution itself was complex and multi-faceted. But one of the major issues at hand was social class and social inequities.

Class differences and class struggles feature in a lot of fiction, including crime fiction. There are far, far too many examples for me to discuss in one post. And that makes sense. For one thing, social class differences, and the resentment around them, are very real; this is something that resonates with readers. For another, the context lends itself well to the sort of conflict and tension that can add much to a story. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of lots more.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, a group of passengers boards a boat for a cruise of the Nile. Among them is a young man, Mr. Ferguson, who claims to be on the cruise to ‘study conditions.’ He’s an outspoken critic of the wealthy and privileged classes, and there’s talk that he’s a communist. He believes strongly in the overthrow of society as it is, and expresses nothing but contempt for those who don’t work with their hands. On the second night of the cruise, another passenger, Linnet Doyle, is shot. The most obvious suspect is her former friend, Jaqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But soon enough, it’s proven that she couldn’t have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the cruise as well, has to look elsewhere for the killer. And Mr. Ferguson’s feelings about the upper classes are not lost on him. Here, for instance, is a comment Ferguson makes about the victim:
 

‘‘Hundreds and thousands of wretched workers slaving for a mere pittance to keep her in silk stockings and useless luxuries. One of the richest women in England, so someone told me – and never done a hand’s turn in her life.’’
 

It turns out that this murder isn’t at all what it seems to be on the surface. And it’s interesting to note how class resentment and the desire for revolution is woven into the story in Ferguson’s character. I see you, fans of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.

In Glen Peter’s 1960’s-era Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta, we are introduced to Joan D’Silva, who teaches at a Catholic school in Kolkata/Calcutta. One day, her son discovers the body of a former student, Agnes Lal. After the inquest, two other former students visit Mrs. D’Silva, to tell her that Agnes was murdered, and ask for her help in finding the killer. Then, one of those students is arrested for stabbing a factory manager. He says he’s innocent, and that the confession the police produce was forced. Mrs. D’Silva looks into the case more deeply, and finds that all three former students were members of the Workers’ Revolutionary Movement of Bengal. This group is dedicated to overthrowing the current government and stripping Anglo-Indians of their power. As Mrs. D’Silva works to clear her former student’s name, she learns how people’s passion for a better world, and even for revolution, can be used to manipulate them. And it turns out that these murders are more than just a case of young people who are determined to tear down ‘the system’ and build a new one.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising takes place in 1981 Houston, where Jay Porter is a low-rent lawyer who’s trying to make his name. In one plot thread of the novel, Porter’s father-in-law asks for his help. The Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL) which is a black union, wants pay and other parity with their white counterparts who belong to the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILU). Both groups want higher living standards, better wages, and better benefits. One of the BoL members has been beaten up by thugs from the ILU; and, unless those thugs are caught, both groups will be at a huge disadvantage during an upcoming strike. Porter happens to know Houston Mayor Cynthia Maddox, and his father-in-law wants him to ask Maddox to use her influence to get justice for the young man who was attacked. Porter has a history, both with Maddox and with the police. He was associated with the student unrest and Black Power movement of the late 1960s, and understands all too well why some people still feel that revolution is needed. At the same time, he has no desire to be on the wrong side of the law again. So, he has to walk a very fine line, as the saying goes, to try to help get a more equal living standard for the longshoremen without risking trouble with the law.

Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope introduces readers to Riel Delorme. He’s a Regina-based Métis activist and a leader of a group called the Warriors. This group is dead-set against any development in the city, claiming that it will only benefit the wealthy. And the Warriors aren’t afraid to get violent if needs be. They believe that if that’s what it takes to protect the disenfranchised people of the city, then it’s worth it. So, when one of the employees of the development company is killed, Delorme is definitely, ‘a person of interest.’ Things get complicated for Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourne Shreve, because her husband, Zack, is an attorney who represents the company. Her daughter, Mieka, becomes romantically involved with Delorme. And she’s caught in the middle. Among other things, while she has sympathy for Delorme’s point of view, she can’t condone violence, and she certainly isn’t sure she wants her daughter in a relationship with Delorme.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in India during the 1920s – the last decades of the British Raj. At the time, there was quite a lot of agitation for home rule, and that agitation was sometimes violent. There were plenty of people who wanted a full-scale revolution against the British. And Stoddart uses that plot point in A Madras Miasma. In one thread of that novel, there’s a demonstration against the entrenched British establishment. Le Fanu is, of course, part of the police force. He’s sworn to uphold the law, and he doesn’t want trouble. On the other hand, he thinks the revolutionaries have well-taken points, and he can see the advantage of power-sharing. Plenty of those in powerful positions don’t want to give up their privilege, though, and aren’t willing to work with the protestors. The planned demonstration goes forward, and things get very ugly. Twenty-three demonstrators are killed, and eighty-five are injured. And someone uses this unrest to commit a very deliberate killing.

Class has been a bone of contention for a very long time, and it certainly played an important role in the French Revolution. Little wonder that we see it come up in crime fiction, too. These are just a few instances. Over to you.

 

ps  The ‘photo is, of course, of a print of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. I know, not exactly the same revolution. But it fits…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?

 

19 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, Brian Stoddart, Gail Bowen, Glen Peters

But Lately There Ain’t Been Much Work On Account of the Economy*

One of the biggest issues that many people are concerned about is the economy. And for a lot of people, it’s not really the larger economic issues. It’s basic issues such as jobs/working conditions, education, and so on. How often, for instance, have you seen politicians and candidates go on about all of the jobs they’ll create (or have created)? And plenty of people vote based on those records (or those promises).

Basic economic issues play a role in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. After all, most people are concerned at some level about getting (or keeping) a job, retiring with some dignity, and prospects for their (grand)children. It’s not really a matter of greed (although I’d suspect a lot of us would like to have more wealth than we do). It’s a matter of economic security. That elemental concern for safety and security can form an interesting background feeling of tension in a story or series.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), for instance, takes place just after the end of World War II. The British economy is recovering from the war, and even people with money are feeling the proverbial pinch. Against this backdrop, we meet the Cloade family, who live in the village of Warmsley Vale. Wealthy Gordon Cloade has always taken good financial care of his family, and has told them that they need never worry about money. Then, unexpectedly, Cloade marries a young woman named Rosaleen Underhay. Not long after that, he is killed in a bomb blast. Now, his widow is set to inherit a great deal of money, and his relations are likely to be left with nothing. The economic uncertainly this brings, combined with the poor state of the general economy, is enough to make the family uneasy and very anxious. That adds an important layer of tension to the novel. And it adds to the mystery surrounding the death of an enigmatic visitor to Warmsley Vale – a man who calls himself Enoch Arden. It turns out he may very well be connected with the Cloades’ financial situation.

Reginald Hill’s Underworld and On Beulah Height both take place against a backdrop of economic tension. In the former, the world of miners and mining is the context for a search for the truth about the abduction and murder of a young girl. The man everyone suspected committed suicide. But when new evidence comes out that he was not guilty, everything changes. Then a miner dies of a fall (was it accidental?) into a mine shaft. Was he guilty? The latter book takes a look at an entire town that disappeared when it was cleared and flooded to create a reservoir. But the people of the town haven’t disappeared. Neither have their secrets. In these novels, the murders aren’t, per se, committed because of economic fears. But that anxiety is there, and plays a role in the stories’ backgrounds.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series begins in 1931 in Berlin. Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. When she discovers that her brother, Ernst, has been killed, she decides to look into the matter. She can’t involve the police, because she and Ernst allowed two Jewish friends to borrow their identity cards, so they could leave the country. Without proper identification, Vogel risks a lot if she’s stopped by any authority figures. So, she will have to move very quietly. This novel is set during the Weimar Republic and the larger Great Depression. The economy is suffering badly, and it’s gotten so desperate that people can’t always buy even basics such as food. Some women turn to prostitution so they can eat. Other people sell whatever anyone will buy for the same purpose. It’s a frightening time, and that adds to the tension in the novel.

One plot thread of Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising concerns an upcoming strike that’s been planned by the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA). They are looking for better wages and working conditions, and they know that they have to present a united front if they’re to get what they want. The story takes place in 1981, before the integration of the (white) ILA with the (black) Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL). The BoL wants parity with the ILA, but many in the latter union fear that if that happens, they’ll lose out on jobs, wages and so on. For them, it’s a matter of economic survival. It is for the members of the BoL, too, though, so there’s an inevitable clash. In fact, some ILA thugs attack a member of the BoL named Darren Hayworth. Unless Hayworth’s attackers are found and punished, the ILA is going to have a much more difficult time in the upcoming strike. So will the BoL. So, the BoL wants the case investigated. For that, they turn to a young lawyer, Jay Porter. He’s black, so he’ll be more likely to be trusted by the BoL. And, he knows Houston’s mayor, Cynthia Maddox. It’s hoped he can use his influence to get justice for Hayworth. This plot thread shows just how much economic issues matter, and it adds tension to the larger story, which also concerns a shooting murder and its connections to corporate greed and powerful people who won’t stop at killing to preserve their privilege.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage takes place in 2008, just after the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ Irish economy. In one plot thread, Dublin DS Bob Tidey, and Garda Rose Cheney investigate the shooting murder of a dubious banker named Emmet Sweetman. During the ‘boom’ years, Sweetman took advantage of the easy money that was available, and didn’t think much about the source of his newfound wealth. But, when the economy went bad, Sweetman found he could no longer pay on his debts. He got more and more desperate, and took more and more risks. And, in the end, his risk-taking caught up with him when some very dangerous people decided they didn’t want to wait any longer for their money.

There’s an interesting look at the impact that economic issues have in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. That novel concerns the residents of an ultra-exclusive community called Cascade Heights – or, more familiarly, ‘The Heights’ – located about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in. It’s a community full of money and privilege, and gated from the outside world. But even that security doesn’t spare the residents from the severe economic problems of late-1990s Argentina. In fact, the economic difficulties hit home, as the saying goes, among even the most privileged characters, and, ultimately, leads to a terrible tragedy.

And that’s the thing about the economy. We might not think a lot about the stock market, the larger economic forces operating in a country, etc… But, when it comes to basic economics such as jobs, affordable housing, and so on, people do care. A lot. It’s a basic safety and security issue, and it can form an interesting backdrop to a crime story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s The River.  

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, Claudia Piñeiro, Gene Kerrigan, Rebecca Cantrell, Reginald Hill

It Was the Third of June, Another Sleepy, Dusty Delta Day*

Some Sothern Crime FictionAs you’ll no doubt know, there are a lot of important regional differences in the US. You can hear it in the way people speak, and you can see it clearly in the way people live their lives. One of the very distinctive regions in the US is the American South. Of course, there are differences even among various parts of the South. That said, though, there are certain things that the different areas of the South seem to have in common. There’s plenty of crime fiction set in different places in the American South, and those novels reflect the various aspects of Southern culture.

One important element that we see in crime novels that take place in the South is a focus on the local (rather than, say, on the regional or national). For instance, in novels such as John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob, there’s a real emphasis on local judges, local authorities and so on. In A Time to Kill (which takes place in Mississippi), local attorney Jake Brigance takes the case of Carl Lee Hailey, who’s been arrested for murdering the two men responsible for beating and raping his ten-year-old daughter. The case gets a lot of state and even national media attention. There’s talk, too, about ‘importing’ attorneys on both sides of the case. What’s interesting is that almost no-one in town wants outsiders involved. There’s plenty of feeling on both sides of the case, but one thing everyone seems to have in common is that it’s a local matter that should be handled that way. It’s a clearly-articulated bias.

That focus on the local is also clear in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. In one plot thread of that novel (which takes place twenty years after the events of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird), there’s a discussion of the NAACP. Even those characters who aren’t fanatically racist are concerned about national-level groups and authorities getting involved in local affairs. There’s a sense that people who don’t know anything about life in that area are trying to dictate what will happen there.

Lee’s novels also reflect a very clear social structure. Blacks and whites live in completely different worlds, and their experiences are quite distinct. So do wealthy whites and those whites who live in poverty. We see that also in Attica Locke’s novels Black Water Rising and Pleasantville. Both of these novels feature Houston-area attorney Jay Porter, who is black. In one plot thread of Black Water Rising, for instance, Porter works with his father-in-law on a case involving local longshoremen. One union, the Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL) represents black longshoreman. The other, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) is white. The BoL wants pay and other parity with its counterparts in the ILA, and the matter has escalated into violence. If this issue isn’t resolved soon, then both groups will be at a serious disadvantage in an upcoming strike that’s being planned. Somehow, Porter has to find a way to get the groups to cooperate.

In this novel (which takes place in 1981), and in Lee’s work, we see how the South is trying to face its history of racism. It’s a slow, painful, sometimes ugly process. We see that legacy and that difficult process in Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic. In that novel, which takes place just after World War II, Regina Robichard travels from New York, where she works for the Legal Defense Fund, to Revere, Mississippi. She’s drawn there by a letter from a reclusive author who’s asked for someone to investigate the murder of a black veteran, Joe Howard Wilson. As she looks for the truth, Robichard learns that racism is complex, and that it’s not just a ‘Southern problem.’ She also learns that people are multidimensional, too, and not ‘all good’ or ‘all bad.’

Barbara Neely’s Blanche White novels also reflect a clear social structure. Blanche is a black professional housekeeper; most of her employers are white. As she works in different households, we can see that she and her employers move in different worlds. Blanche has social connections among other blacks in the area, and has created her own supportive network, independent of her white employers. What’s important to note here, too, is that it’s not just race that divides people; it’s also socioeconomic status. Wealthy whites move in very different circles to those who are not.

In several of the novels I’ve mentioned, churches are shown as critical parts of social life in the South. And they’re not just places of worship (although they are that, of course). In both A Time to Kill and Black Water Rising, they are also sources of support, places of political and social activism, and more. In fact, when a family is in need, it’s often members of the local church who help out, whether it’s bringing food, helping to rebuild a burned-out home, or consoling people after a bereavement.

Along with the focus on the local, and the social connections, many crime novels set in the American South reflect the smaller-town tradition of everyone knowing everyone. Of course, that doesn’t apply in large cities such as Atlanta. In many novels, though, it’s very clear that there’s a focus on people’s relationships with each other. Julia Keller’s Bell Elkins series, for instance, takes place in the small West Virginia town of Acker’s Gap. People shop at stores owned by acquaintances, friends and relatives. The person who sells you your car might be your best friend’s brother-in-law, and so on. Those connections are an important part of life, and nearly everyone is woven into the social fabric. You see that, also, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s series featuring retired English teacher Myrtle Clover, and in her series featuring art expert Beatrice Coleman.

Sometimes those connections go back a very long way, too, so it’s not surprising that many crime novels set in the South focus on past/present links. That’s certainly true of Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw novels. Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who’s chosen to teach at Kenan College, a small school in North Carolina. The mysteries he investigates link past events and relationships to the present. And we see how, in some places, the past, even from over a century ago, is never very far away.

We also see that mix of past/present connections and local social networks in Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. In that novel, an event from twenty-five years ago still impacts local opinion in the small town of Chabot, Mississippi. Silas Jones grew up there, but left years ago. Now he’s back as the town’s constable, and is drawn into the case of a young woman who’s disappeared. The most likely suspect is Larry Ott, whom many people blame for another disappearance that took place twenty-five years ago. The past plays a key role in the way people feel about Ott, and in the way they feel about Jones, too.

There are many other crime novels set in the South (I know, fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series – sorry!). I’ll bet you could list more of them than I ever could. It’s a unique place, with a lot of history, and it’s been the setting for a lot of fine crime fiction.

 

 
 

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

38 Comments

Filed under Attica Locke, Barbara Neely, Deborah Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Elmore Leonard, Harper Lee, James Lee Burke, John Grisham, Julia Keller, Sarah R. Shaber, Tom Franklin