Category Archives: Babs Horton

With Ev’ry Kind o’ Comfort Ev’ry House is All Complete*

One of the major changes in society within the last hundred or so years has been the number of what we call modern conveniences. They were meant to save time and effort, and there are several that I’ll bet you couldn’t imagine living without at this point. Dishwashers, laundry machines, and so on have become integrated into modern homes. But of course, it wasn’t always that way. And it’s interesting to see how they’ve changed the way we do things. There are plenty of examples of these changes in crime fiction, too, and they give us a ‘window’ on a different way of life.

For example, many people today, especially in developed nations, have indoor bathrooms. Some people don’t think of them as ‘conveniences,’ but as essentials. But there are still plenty of places where outdoor toilets are common. And they were in regular use, even in cosmopolitan places, for a long time. One timeline of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels, for instance, begins in late 1962, in a small Welsh village. In this plot thread, we meet four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. One of the other residents of the village, a man named Dai Full Pelt, is a malicious bully. When he does something especially terrible, the children decide to get their revenge. They watch him closely, noting the places he goes and the times. They decide that he’ll be most vulnerable while he’s in his outdoor toilet, so that’s where they strike. Their plan works, and it is quite the case of ‘just deserts.’ But it’s not the sort of thing that one could pull off in a modern indoor bathroom.

Refrigerators are also modern conveniences that plenty of people take for granted now, but are relatively recent developments. For example, Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery was published in 1931. In it, Prudence Whitsby and her niece, Betsey, are spending the summer in at their cottage on Cape Cod. The cabin next door has been taken by a famous writer, Dale Sanborn. One night, he’s murdered. It turns out that there are several suspects, but one of the most likely is Bill Porter, who’s a friend of the Whitsby family. Local sheriff Slough Sullivan soon settles on Porter as the guilty man and arrests him. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work,’ Asey Mayo, doesn’t think his employer is guilty. So, he starts to ask questions. Between them, he and Prudence Whitsby find out who the real killer is. The story is told from Whitsby’s point of view, and here’s what she has to say about the summer cottage:
 

‘That refrigerator had been another added attraction to the cottage. Until this summer, we had carried our ice like the rest of the summer people from freight cars at the station whenever a load of ice happened to come in. Now we stood by and watched with an evil gleam of joy in our eyes as people raced cars home with their hunks of ice dismally dripping from a running board.’
 

It certainly makes one appreciate the modern refrigerator.

Sarah Waters touches on this, too, in The Paying Guests. In that novel, which takes place in 1922, Emily Wray and her daughter, Frances, have been left in a precarious financial situation. They decide that their only choice is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism they use. After a short time, Leonard and Lilian Barber respond to their discreet advertisement. Terms are arranged, and the Barbers move in. It’s awkward, as you might expect. But everything goes reasonably well at first. Then, things slowly spiral out of control until there’s a tragedy. This novel takes place in the days before modern refrigeration. So, the Wrays use a meat-safe to store their perishables. You can read about what a meat-safe is, and how it works, right here. Meat-safes couldn’t keep things fresh for long, but they worked in a society where people bought meat, vegetables and the like every day.

There’s an interesting look at modern conveniences in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In it, Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, solve the murder of Heather Badcock, who lived with her husband, Arthur, in the then-new council housing in the village. It’s not a major part of the plot, but there’s a discussion at the beginning of the novel about the way the village of St. Mary Mead has changed. And one of those changes is in the form of modern conveniences:
 

‘There were new people in most of the other old houses…the people who had bought them had done so because they liked what the house agent called “old world charm.” They just added another bathroom, and spent a good deal of money on plumbing, electric cookers, and dishwashers.’
 

In this case, ‘old world charm’ is only attractive to a point. Now that electric kitchen appliances and updated bathrooms are available, people want them.

Lots of homes now have air conditioning, whether it’s central air conditioning, or takes the form of room units. Before that, people who could afford to do so would go to a summer place in the mountains, by the sea, or somewhere else that was cooler. Those who couldn’t afford to travel opened their homes as much as they could so that breezes could cool things off, at least a little. But that wasn’t always enough when there was a heat wave. And that’s what we see in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the first of his 87th Precinct series. In it, a serious heat wave has struck Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City). Everyone’s miserable, including Steve Carella and the other people who work at the precinct. The main plot line concerns the murders of two police officers. But, in a small ‘aside’ plot line, we see how far the heat can drive people when there’s no relief. Among other things, the police are expected to attend lineups for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with local criminals. One of these cases concerns Virginia Pritchett, who’s charged with murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Instead, she tries to explain what she’s done:
 

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
 

And that, she says, is what led to the murder.

We may take modern conveniences for granted. But they haven’t always been around, and it’s interesting to see what a difference they make in people’s lives. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Kansas City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Ed McBain, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Sarah Waters

Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid*

An interesting quote, attributed to Dennis Lehane, goes this way:
 

‘Maybe there are some things we were put on this earth not to know.’
 

And it’s got me thinking about whether there really are some things that people are better off not knowing. On the one hand, if someone finds out the truth later, this can wreak all sorts of havoc, to say nothing of the breach of trust. On the other hand, there may very well be some things that are best left alone. And it’s not always an easy call to make. Just a quick look at crime fiction is enough to show that.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, Hercule Poirot gets involved in a murder investigation when he is invited for lunch at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. He arrives just in time to see that Dr. John Christow, another guest, has been shot. The apparent shooter is standing near the body, holding the weapon. But soon enough, Poirot is left unsure of whether he has really seen what he thinks he saw. He and Inspector Grange investigate, and find that there are several possible suspects. At one point, Christow’s widow, Gerda, says this about their son, Terry:
 

‘‘Terry always has to know.’’
 

She’d rather keep Terry and his sister, Zena, as far away from the investigation as possible, but Terry isn’t that sort of child. And even Poirot hints, later in the story, that Terry will want to know the truth. And there’s a real question about whether children should be told the truth about a parent’s death.

Similar sorts of questions are addressed in Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels. In one plot thread of that novel, we are introduced to four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards.  They’re growing up in a small, isolated Welsh village in 1962. As their part of the story goes on, we slowly learn about some secrets that people in the village are keeping. Little by little, the children learn what some of them are. What’s more, they find that they’re woven into the web of some of those secrets in ways they didn’t know. And that causes its own trouble. In fact, it’s an interesting question whether it would have been better for them not to know. To say more would spoil the story, but Horton address the question in some interesting ways.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger introduces us to Fabien Delorme. As the story begins, the police inform Delorme that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car crash. What’s more, they tell him that Sylvie was not alone in the car. It seems that she had a lover, and the news takes Delorme by surprise. He can’t resist trying to find out the other man’s name, and he soon does: Martial Arnoult. Delorme also learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine. Now he feels the need to know more about her; and before long, he’s stalking her. He even follows her and a friend as they take a holiday trip to Majorca, where he begins an affair with her. That relationship spins quickly out of control, and it’s not long before tragedy results. And you could argue that it all might have been prevented if Delorme hadn’t known the truth about his wife’s affair.

In Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais, we are introduced to Paris PI Aimée Leduc. Soli Hecht hires her on behalf of Temple Emmanuel to do some decoding, and deliver the results to one of the temple members, Lili Stein. By the time Leduc gets there, though, it’s too late: Lili Stein has been murdered, and a swastika marked on her forehead. Leduc is a ‘person of interest,’ since she was on the scene, but it’s soon clear that she’s not the murderer. She gets interested in the case, though, and investigates. The answers lie in the past, during and just after the Nazi occupation of France; and those events have repercussions in modern Paris. Leduc finds out what really happened, and we learn the truth. The question is, though, how much she will tell the victim’s son, Abraham:
 

‘‘Aimée,’ Réne[Leduc’s business partner] asked slowly, ‘Will you tell Abraham?’
‘If he asks. Otherwise, I’ll let the ghosts alone. All of them.’’  
 

In the end, it’s an interesting question whether Abraham Stein has the right to know everything about his mother’s death.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, the sixth in her series featuring retired Mumbai police inspector Lalli. In this novel, parents living in the small slum of Kandewadi become terrified when some children begin to disappear from the slum and are later found dead. At first, the media and police don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on. But after several children have been killed, Inspector Savio is assigned to the case, and he consults with Lalli. Finding out the truth is a slow, painful process, some of that truth is truly brutal and ugly. So Lalli doesn’t tell everyone everything. There are some things she keeps private, even from her niece, Sita, who is part of the team that helps her. In this case, Lalli believes that more harm than good would come from saying too many things to people who don’t need to know them. I can’t say more without spoiling the story, but it’s interesting to see how that question of how much people need to know is addressed.

And it is a good question. Is Lehane right? Are there things we’re better off knowing?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Daryl Hall and John Oates.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Cara Black, Kalpana Swaminathan, Pascal Garnier

I Thank the Lord I’m Welsh*

Wales is a beautiful country with a unique language, culture, and history. And, in the last few decades, there’s been a concerted effort to maintain that culture and teach that language. As you’ll know if you’ve lived there, or even been there, it’s a bilingual country (it’s been officially so since 1998).

But, if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that Wales isn’t exactly a peaceful, crime-free place. And it’s interesting to see how the country and its people are portrayed in the genre. Space doesn’t permit more than a quick peek at a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to add others.

One of Rhys Bowen’s series takes place mostly in the fictional Welsh town of Llanfair, in Snowdonia. These novels (there are ten) feature Constable Evan Evans, who was originally from Llanfair, but moved to Swansea as a child. When he gets fed up with life in the city, he decides to move ‘back home,’ where he’s now sometimes known as ‘Evans the Law,’ to distinguish him from others with the same surname. He re-acquaints himself with life in the small town in Evans Above, the first novel in the series. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly as idyllic a life as he had imagined it would. This is a small-town series, but it’s not a ‘frothy,’ light series. Among other things, it shows how social changes such as immigration, culture clash, family structure changes, and so on don’t affect just the larger cities. They even find their way into small villages.

In The Earth Hums in B-Flat, Mari Strachan introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan. She lives in a small Welsh village in the 1950s, and is just on the cusp of coming of age. Gwenni’s a creative thinker; some people call her a dreamer. She’s certainly not obsessed with clothes, boys, or an active social life. Everything in Gwenni’s life changes when one of the town’s residents, Ifan Evans, goes missing, and is later found dead. For various reasons, Gwenni wants to find out the truth about his death, so she starts to ask questions. As she searches out the truth, she also makes some life-changing discoveries about her own family. Strachan’s second novel, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, also takes place in a small Welsh town, just after World War I.

Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels has two timelines. One begins in 1962, in an isolated Welsh village, and is the story of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan; Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith; Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter; and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. These children don’t have much in common, but there aren’t a lot of other children in town. So, they spend their share of time together. During one eventful summer, they slowly begin to learn some of the town’s secrets, including some things that several people would much rather no-one find out. The other timeline begins some forty years later, when retired detective Will Sloane decides to return to his native Wales. He knows he doesn’t have a lot longer to live, and he wants to spend his last days in his own country. More than that, he finds a clue that’s related to mystery he was never able to solve. A child went missing, and was never found. Sloane was on the team that investigated, and everyone made efforts to find the child, but they had no success. Now, with this new clue, Sloane is hoping he can finally get some answers. As the children’s story moves forward, and Sloane’s backwards, we slowly learn how these children are connected to the secrets people are keeping. We also learn how all of that is related to Sloane’s investigation.

There’s also Cathy Ace’s WISE Enquiry Agency series. This series, in the traditional whodunit style, features four women (one Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish, and one English) who set up an investigation agency. The stories mostly take place in the Welsh town of Anwen by Wye.

One of Elizabeth J. Duncan’s series features Penny Brannigan, who emigrated from Nova Scotia to the small Welsh town of Llanelen, where she lives now. She’s the owner of the Happy Hands Nail Care shop, and as such, gets to hear a lot of what’s going on in town. And, because it’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, she knows most of the town’s residents. This is a lighter, cosy, series, but it’s not ‘frothy.’

Just in case you were wondering whether all Welsh crime fiction takes place in small towns and villages, think again. Stephen Puleston, for instance, has two crime fiction series. One of them features Inspector Ian Drake, and takes place in North Wales. The other is set in Cardiff. This series features DI John Marco of the Queen Street Police. These novels are sometimes-gritty, fast-paced thrillers, rather than the more traditional-style whodunits.

And I couldn’t do a post about crime fiction set in Wales without mentioning Hinterland (AKA Y Gwyll). This noir television drama takes place in Aberystwyth, and stars Richard Harrington as DI Tom Matthias. One of the interesting things about this particular show is that it’s actually filmed twice: once in English, and once in Welsh. And even in the English version, there are occasional (subtitled) Welsh words and comments.

There are, of course, lots of other mentions of Wales and of Welsh characters in crime fiction. For instance, Ellis Peters’ most famous sleuth, Brother Cadfael, is Welsh. In fact, his Welsh identity plays a role in more than one of the novels in this series. And Cathy Ace’s other sleuth, Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan is also Welsh, although she now lives in Canada.

Wales may not be a large country. But it’s got a rich, long history, and a language and culture of which its people are proud. And it certainly features in crime fiction. Which crime novels set in Wales have you enjoyed?

ps. Thank you, wales.com, for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Catatonia’s International Velvet.

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Filed under Babs Horton, Cathy Ace, Elizabeth J. Duncan, Ellis Peters, Mari Strachan, Rhys Bowen, Stephen Puleston

In The Spotlight: Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Dual timelines in a story can be challenging. The author has to make both stories interesting. What’s more, the timelines have to fit together, so that there’s continuity in the story. But there are ways to use a dual timeline to tell a larger story. Let’s take a look at such a novel today, and turn the spotlight on Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels.

One of the timelines begins in late 1962 in a small, isolated Welsh village. That timeline is the story of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. In many ways, they haven’t got much in common (more about their backgrounds shortly). But it’s a small town, so these children tend to spend a lot of time together. They know a lot about each other, too. As a group, they explore, play, sit and talk, and so on.

As this timeline moves on, we gradually learn, through the children’s eyes, of some carefully kept secrets that some people in the town are keeping. And, little by little, we learn about some truths that many people would rather keep hidden. But, since few people pay a lot of attention to the children, most aren’t even really aware of what they uncover. Even the children aren’t really sure of what they know.

The other timeline begins some forty years later. Retired police detective Will Sloane knows that he doesn’t have a lot longer to live. He’s resigned to that, and chosen to live out the time he has in a small town in Spain. But one day, he sees something in a curio shop that makes him think of an old case. Suddenly unaccountably homesick for his native Wales, he decides to return. He’s hoping that, unlikely as it seems, he’ll be able to solve a mystery that he wasn’t able to solve years earlier.

It seems that, forty years earlier, a child went missing. There was a thorough search, interviews were conducted with the child’s friends, and so on. But no trace of the child – not even a body – was ever found. Now Sloane has seen something that makes him think of the case, and he decides to return to Wales and see if he can find the answers.

As the children’s story moves a bit forward, we slowly learn more about them. And we see that they’re all connected, in some way, to some of the secrets that the town has been keeping. And, as Sloane re-acquaints himself with the town and its inhabitants, we learn what happened to the children. The stories come together in the end, if I can put it that way.

Most of the story takes place in a small Welsh town, and Horton places the reader there distinctly. The lifestyle, the culture, and, in a few cases, the language, are uniquely Welsh. As a side note, there is some use of Welsh words, but readers who don’t speak that language will want to know that there’s a glossary at the end (at least in my edition) that explains those words. And most of them can be understood from context. We see the town both as it was in 1962/3 and in more modern times, so readers also see how village life has change in the intervening decades.

This particular small town has its share of oddball characters. One or two are oddball in a funny way. Some, though, are not funny at all. Without spoiling the story, I can say that a few are the type that children go out of their way to avoid, and sometimes, with reason.

A good part of the story is told from the perspectives of the four children. So, we get to know them. Fatty is the group’s leader. He’s got a terrible home situation, so he’s very much used to taking care of himself. He’s extremely bright, and sometimes gets a bit too close to trouble for comfort. Iffy admires Fatty very much. She’s not quite as brave as he is, but she’s no ‘shrinking violet.’ Iffy is an orphan who lives with her grandparents. They love her, but don’t have the energy to go chasing after her. Billy has had a tragedy in his family. For that reason, he doesn’t speak. He’s bright, though, and has his own way of communicating. Bessie is the only one of the four whose family has money. She’s the best-dressed, and is somewhat prissy. She’s also the first to shrink back from things that are scary or messy.

And there are some creepy moments in the novel. This isn’t a light ‘frolic.’ It’s the sometimes-dark story of a small town with a lot of secrets, some of which are ugly. The story is tinged with some darkness, and the town has its share of real sadness and sorrow. This is not a lovely, warm, nostalgic look at a candy-box village. Readers who don’t care for profanity or for mention of bodily functions will want to know that both appear in the novel. That said, though, the focus isn’t on these things; it’s on the story.

The truths about some of the people in town are shared through the children’s perspectives, and it’s interesting to see how they sometimes misinterpret what they are hearing. To say more would be too close to giving away spoilers for my taste. But it’s interesting to learn what the children think, as opposed to what’s really going on. And some of those misinterpretations add welcome light moments to the book. So do the children’s opinions of some of the people in town.

A Jarful of Angels is the story of a small Welsh town in the days before malls, the Internet, or cable television. It features four children who are more woven into the drama of their village’s history than they think. It also features a former copper who can’t forget those children, or the case that concerned them. But what’s your view? Have you read A Jarful of Angels? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 24 April/Tuesday, 25 April – Wife of the Gods – Kwei Quartey

Monday, 1 May/Tuesday, 2 May – Can Anybody Help Me? – Sinéad Crowley

Monday, 8 May/Tuesday, 9 May – Lonesome Point – Ian Vasquez

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Filed under A Jarful of Angels, Babs Horton