Category Archives: Belinda Bauer

To the Backroom, the Alley, or the Trusty Woods*

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing what they would want for ‘the perfect crime.’ Poirot asks:
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‘‘If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner, what would you choose.’’
 
He and Hastings discuss the sort of crime (murder, of course!). Then, Hastings says,
 

‘‘Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere.’’ 
 

Hastings has a point. Libraries can be very atmospheric places for scenes of crime or for discovering a body. And Christie uses the library to that effect, too, right, fans of The Body in the Library? When Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, learn that the body of a young woman has been found in their library, they’re drawn into a strange case of multiple murder.

Of course, the library is by no means the only atmospheric place for a murder scene, or for leaving a body. The place the author chooses depends a lot on the story, the characters, and so on. And that place can add quite a lot of atmosphere, even creepiness, to a story.

For instance, if you’ve ever walked down a street at night, and happened to peek down an alley, you know how eerie that sort of place can be. And, in Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, that’s where the body of Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin’s ex-wife, Liz, is found. A few days before her death, she unexpectedly visits Devlin, and he hopes this means she might want to reconcile with him. That’s not her purpose, though. She says that she’s escaping her current lover, Mick Coghlin, and needs a place to stay for a few days. Devlin agrees, but the next night, she is stabbed. Devlin knows he isn’t guilty, but of course, he’s an obvious ‘person of interest.’ Along with wanting to clear his name, he wants to find out who killed Liz. So, he starts to ask questions. He finds that Liz’ life was a lot more complicated than he’d thought, and there are several possible suspects for her murder. There are plenty of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in alleys behind buildings, or between two buildings.

Woods can also be eerie, atmospheric places to find a body. For instance, in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, the body of Dora Binns is found in a wood near the village of Littlebourne. Inspector Richard Jury has to cancel his holiday plans and travel to Littlebourne to investigate. He and his friend, Melrose Plant, discover that the victim’s death is connected to a robbery, some missing jewels, and an attack on another resident of LIttlebourne. Fans of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola will know that the body of a young woman is found in wood near the town of Kingsmarkham. At first, Inspector Reg Wexford thinks it’s the body of Melanie Akande, who’s been missing for several days. It’s a different young woman, though, so now, Wexford and his team have two major cases on their hands.

Moors are also wild, often desolate places that can be very atmospheric places for murders and bodies. And Belinda Bauer makes use of that setting in Blacklands. That’s the story of twelve-year-old Steven Lamb, who lives with his working-class family in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. The family is haunted by the nineteen-year-old disappearance of Steven’s uncle, Billy Peters. It was always suspected that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for other child murders. Steven has been searching for Billy’s body on the moor, hoping that finding it will help his family. But he has no idea exactly where the body is. Then, he gets the idea of contacting Avery to find out from him where Uncle Billy’s body is. He takes the chance and writes, and he and Avery start a correspondence that turns into a very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

Minette Walters’ The Ice House makes use of another very atmospheric sort of place for a body. In the novel, Chief Inspector George Walsh is assigned an eerie case. A gardener has discovered the decomposed body of a man in the ice house of remote Streech Grange. That’s the property of Phoebe Maybury, who lives there with two friends, Anne Cattrell and Diana Goode. Ten years ago, Phoebe’s husband, David, went missing, and never returned. Walsh investigated at the time, but there were no clues as to where the man might have gone. Now, it appears Maybury’s body might have been found. But there’s a question as to whether the body is Maybury’s. If it is, then one of the three women living at Streech Grange is very possibly guilty of murdering him. If it’s not, then who is the man? And is one of the women guilty?

There are plenty of other atmospheric, even creepy, places authors use as murder scenes or as places to ‘dump’ a body. And when those places are chosen well, they can add quite a lot of tension to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Night Moves.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Martha Grimes, Martin Edwards, Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell

Do You Still Feel the Pain of the Scars That Won’t Heal*

Whenever someone dies, whether it’s murder or not, those left behind are affected permanently. That may be especially the case when the death is untimely. All sorts of raw emotions and hidden feelings come out, and such a death often alters the relationships among the loved ones left behind.

It’s only natural that this would be woven into crime fiction, especially crime fiction where there’s a murder. And it is. There are plenty of examples of what happens to family relationships after a sudden death. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of plenty of others.

In James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, we are introduced to Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He’s a Los Angeles police officer whose father, Preston Exley, is beloved and revered among the police. Preston had his hopes set on his son, Thomas, rising to the very top of the LAPD as a detective. Thomas, though, was killed during World War II (the novel takes place in the early-to-mid 1950s). Now that Thomas is no longer alive, Ed Exley has the dual burden of being the surviving brother, and of living up to his father’s expectations. And it’s a difficult challenge, too, as Preston Exley is determined that a son of his will rise to the proverbial top of the tree. All of this impacts Ed when, on Christmas Day of 1951, seven civilians are brutally beaten by police officers. There’s a lot of public outrage, which has consequences for the police. Then, two years later, there’s a late-night shooting at a diner called the Nite Owl. The two incidents turn out to be related, and we see how the Exley family dynamics play a role in what happens.

Anne Perry’s Face of a Stranger is the story of the murder of Joscelin Grey, a ‘blueblood’ who was bludgeoned in his own home. London police detective William Monk is put in charge of the investigation, but he is facing a real difficulty. He was involved in a terrible accident and has lost his memory. He doesn’t even know, at first, who he is or why he is in a hospital. He does know that he wants to pick up his life again, and he can’t reveal his memory difficulty if he’s going to do that. Still, bit by bit, he and his assistant, John Evan, start asking questions. And, naturally, they want to talk to Grey’s family. This is Victorian London, where the ‘better classes’ are not accustomed to having their word questioned. And they see no reason to cooperate with a ‘mere’ policeman. But, eventually, Monk and Evan start to learn about the family dynamic. The dead man was the apple of his mother’s eye, and she won’t hear anything against him. None of her other children can quite measure up. Those children, though, don’t see things that way. And they’ve all been impacted by their mother’s bias. As the story goes on, we learn more about the complicated network of relationships in the Grey family. We also learn that more than one person had a good reason to want to kill Joscelin Grey – and not all of them are family members.

Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands introduces us to the working-class Lamb family. Nettie Lamb lives with her mother, Gloria, and her children, Steven and Davey, in the small Exmoor town of Shipcott. This isn’t an ordinary family, though. Nineteen years earlier, Nettie’s brother, Billy Peters, disappeared and never returned. The belief is that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for other murders. Billy’s body was never found, though, so the family has had no real closure. Then, Steven decides to write to Avery in prison, and find out where his Uncle Billy’s body is buried. Thus begins a psychological game of cat and mouse between him and Avery, which turns very dangerous. But it also brings up real family issues. Gloria always preferred Billy over Nettie; yet, Nettie’s the one who survived. That plays its own role in the story. Among other things, it’s meant Nettie has conflicted feelings about Billy.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988, at a school picnic at Lake Wanaka, on New Zealand’s South Island. The Anderson family goes to the picnic, and the members soon scatter among the rest of the people there. When it’s time to go, Stephanie’s mother, Minna, sends her to get four-year-old Gemma, the youngest. But Stephanie can’t find her sister. And no-one’s seen the child since earlier. Now panicked, the entire family searches for Gemma, but can’t find her. The police are called in, and a thorough, official, search begins. But no trace of Gemma is ever found – not even a body. Gemma’s loss devastates her family, and I can say without spoiling the story that none of the family members are really the same again afterwards. Stephanie, especially, feels the loss. She feels responsible, in her way, and she feels a sense of guilt. Seventeen years later, she’s finishing up her psychiatry studies in Dunedin, when she starts to work with a new patient, Elisabeth Clark. At first, Elisabeth won’t work with Stephanie. But gradually, Stephanie learns that Elisabeth lost her sister, Gracie, in a way that’s eerily similar to the way Gemma disappeared. Stephanie decides to lay her family’s ghosts to rest and find out who wreaked so much havoc on these families. As she searches for the truth, we see how the loss of one sister has impacted the other, and their brothers (and that’s to say nothing of the parents).

And then there’s Donna Morrisey’s The Fortunate Brother. That novel features Sylvanus Now, his wife, Addie, and their children, Sylvie and Kyle. The family is suffering deeply from the loss of Sylvanus and Addie’s other son, Chris, who died three years earlier in a terrible oil rig accident in Alberta. They’re doing their best to go on with life, but they haven’t started to heal, and they’re all hurting in their own ways. Kyle, for instance, carries a great deal of guilt and grief, although he’s not responsible for Chris’ death. The Nows are jolted out of their own suffering when a local bully named Clar Gillard is killed. He was, to say the very least, unpopular, so no-one will miss him. This makes investigating the murder difficult for the police, since few people are interested in finding out who the killer is. But some of the evidence suggests that one of the Now family might be responsible. As they’re coping with this suspicion, they start drawing together just a little. That, plus a health scare, bring the members of the family a little closer, so that they can start to face their pain. Among other things, this novel offers a close look at how families are impacted when members die suddenly.

Whenever there’s a murder or other untimely death (e.g. an accident), family dynamics are permanently changed. And all sorts of things can come to the surface that might have been hidden before. That reality can add to the suspense of a crime novel and can bring in layers of character development.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Anne Perry, Belinda Bauer, Donna Morrissey, James Ellroy, Paddy Richardson

I Want to Protect You*

Most of us have private things in our histories – even secrets – that we don’t necessarily want to share with others. And when those ‘others’ are our children, it may be especially important to us to keep those things to ourselves. There are all sorts of reasons for which parents don’t always tell their children all the details of their histories. Sometimes it’s because those details are embarrassing. Sometimes it’s because knowing the truth could be hurtful. And sometimes, it’s because parents want their children to have a certain image of them, and that image would be damaged if the truth came out.

Whatever the reason, there are plenty of examples in crime fiction of parents who want to keep things from their children. And there are examples of children who are just as determined to find those things out. It makes sense, too. Not only is that realistic, but it’s also a solid source of interest and conflict in a novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s novella Dead Man’s Mirror, Hercule Poirot is summoned to the country home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. It seems that Chevenix-Gore believes that someone is stealing from him, and he wants Poirot to find out the truth. At first, Poirot doesn’t want to look into this matter, as he’s not pleased about Chevenix-Gore’s highhandedness. But he agrees to go. Shortly after his arrival, though, Chevenix-Gore is shot. In the beginning, it looks very much like a suicide. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise, so Poirot starts to ask questions. He soon learns that more than one person might have wanted to kill the victim. One of the people involved is Chevenix-Gore’s adopted daughter, Ruth. In the course of the story, we learn something about her past – something that no-one has told her. And it plays a part in the story.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar introduces readers to the Hillman family. Ralph and Elaine Hillman have sent their son, Tom, to Laguna Perdida, a residential school for ‘troubled youth.’ When Tom goes missing, the school’s owner/director, Dr. Sponti, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. As they’re discussing the case, Ralph Hillman comes to the office, and says that Tom’s been abducted, and he’s had a ransom demand. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to see what he can do to help. Soon enough, though, he learns that this is not a case of a wealthy family being extorted for money. There’s something more (and darker) going on here. And when it comes out that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who have him, it’s even clearer that this is a different sort of case. Archer perseveres, despite the hurdles he faces, and finds out the truth. It turns out that one important factor here is a set of secrets that Tom’s parents have kept from him.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Bangkok-based member of the Royal Thai Police. His mother, Nong, is a former bar girl who’s now embarked on a new career. Sonchai and his mother are close, and he treats her with respect. She loves him, too, and cares very much about him. But there’s one thing that she won’t tell him: the name of his father. Sonchai is half farang (foreigner), so he knows that his father is not Thai. But he doesn’t know the man’s name or background, and his mother won’t share that information with him, at least at the beginning of the series. It’s one of the few real sources of tension between them.

In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, we meet twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his grandmother, Gloria. They’re not well off (‘though they’re not desperate), and on the surface, you’d think it was a normal, working-class family. But it’s not. Nineteen years earlier, Lettie’s brother (and Steven’s uncle), Billy Peters, disappeared and never returned. Despite a thorough search, Billy was never found – not even a body. Lettie’s and Gloria’s way of coping with the devastation has been silence. They don’t discuss Billy or the events of that time. Steven knows a few things about what happened, and about his uncle, but not much. The adults in his life have tried, in their way, to protect him, but you could almost say that it’s had the opposite effect. Steven is almost obsessed with wanting to know what happened to his Uncle Billy. He’s learned that a man named Arnold Avery most likely abducted and killed Uncle Billy. He’s hoping he can get Avery to tell him where his uncle’s body is. So, he decides to contact Avery, who’s in prison for other child murders. The two begin a suspenseful exchange of letters, which Steven does his best to hide from his family. In the end, that exchange opens up some very old wounds, and opens up some of the silences in the family.

And then there’s Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass. In that novel, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland. With her, she brings her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ While Yossi and Roi are eager to start over again in Auckland, Claire’s been very reluctant. She doesn’t want her family’s past dug up, and she wants to protect Roi, in particular, from her own past. Soon enough, we see why Claire’s so concerned, In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips went missing and never returned. Claire’s father, Patrick, was accused of abduction and murder. He was even tried and convicted. But there was never enough evidence to sustain the conviction on appeal. So, he was released. Still, plenty of people think he’s guilty. When a hospital case thrusts Claire into the media spotlight, the old case comes up again, and now Claire wants desperately to hide it all from Roi. In the meantime, Roi wants to know more about her own background. Claire’s told her that her birth father was a Māori man with whom Claire had a brief affair, but nothing more than that. Now, Roi would like to find out more, and get to know her Māori family. And she’s as determined to get her answers as Claire is to protect her from them.

There are plenty of reasons parents might not want to share everything with their children. Sometimes, keeping things quiet is the right choice. Other times, it’s not. Either way, it makes for an interesting layer of character or source of tension in a crime novel.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, John Burdett, Ross Macdonald, Sue Younger

In The Spotlight: Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crimes don’t impact just the victim and the perpetrator. They also impact the victim’s family, and that effect can last for a very long time. To see how this works, let’s turn the spotlight today on Belinda Bauer’s debut novel, Blacklands.

As the story begins, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his Nan, Gloria, in a small, working-class house in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. But this isn’t a typical working-class family. Nineteen years ago, Steven’s uncle (and Gloria’s son), Billy Peters, went missing and never returned. It’s always been believed that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s now in prison for other child murders. But Billy’s body was never found, and the family has been left bereft and without answers.

Steven feels the family’s pain; it plays out in many different ways. And he wants his family to be whole. So, he decides to dig on the moor and see if he can find Billy’s body. At least then, he thinks, he’ll get some recognition, and be able to put his family together. He doesn’t have any luck, but then he gets another, more daring idea. He decides to write to Arnold Avery in prison, and try to find out from him where Uncle Billy is buried.

Thus begins a correspondence between Steven and Avery. As time goes on, it becomes almost a sort of ‘cat and mouse’ game, with each of them trying to stake out a position of power. Steven doesn’t tell anyone in his family about what’s going on, thinking that he can manage it on his own, and that he doesn’t want to hurt, especially, his grandmother any more than has already happened. As the story moves on, the stakes get higher and higher. And in the end, we see that Steven’s choice to try to find out the truth about his uncle’s death will have a real impact on everyone.

The two main characters in this novel are Steven Lamb and Arnold Avery. So, the story is told from their perspectives (third person, past tense). We see how each one reacts to the exchange of letters, and we learn about what life is like for each.

Steven never met his uncle, but Billy Peters’ death has had a profound effect on his life. His family is fractured; and, although his mother does try to take care of him and Davey, she’s got her own issues. And his Nan is still grieving her son’s loss. That loss has affected Lettie, too. She’s felt ‘second best,’ since all the attention was on her brother. And, perhaps without being aware of it, that plays out in her relationships with her own children, as she prefers Davey over Steven. There’s certainly not a lot of joy in the house, and little affection. And, with both Gloria and Lettie preoccupied with their own grief, the two young boys don’t get a much loving attention.

The family also faces harsh economic realities. There’s not much money, and very few treats. The house is adequate, but not particularly nice; and there’s little left over for new things. Steven doesn’t get a lot of support at home, and has few things that the other boys at school would envy. So it’s not hard to imagine how he’s become the target of bullies. That, too, makes his life miserable. Steven is a brave boy, and his ability to stay tough becomes important. But he is still just a boy who would very much like a loving mum.

For his part, Arnold Avery has become accustomed to prison life. Through his eyes, we see what daily life is like in a contemporary men’s prison. It’s not a pleasant place, and Avery has an especially difficult time of it, because he’s in for raping and killing children. In the world of prison, nothing is lower than that; in fact, he’s assigned guards to escort him to meals and so on so that he won’t be attacked or killed. Still, he’s working on being a model prisoner, because he has plans for after he gets out – plans that he has no intention of sharing with his psychiatrist. Avery has contempt for just about everyone else, seeing them all as his intellectual inferiors. He is not in the least bit sympathetic, but he does have a way of getting people to talk to him and believe him, and it’s possible to see how he could get his victims to relax around him.

The story takes place in Dartmoor and Exmoor, and that moor setting is an important element in this novel. Moors can be beautiful. But they can also be bleak, lonely, and subject to very unstable weather patterns. There are bogs and sometimes very dense fogs that can completely disorient even someone who lives nearby. That context adds to the atmosphere of the novel.

There isn’t a lot of ‘onscreen’ brutal violence in the novel. But readers who do not like stories in which children come to harm will want to know that they have in this novel. Bauer doesn’t give detailed descriptions, but she doesn’t gloss over what’s happened, either.

Blacklands is the story of a family struggling to cope, even years after the tragedy that devastated them. It offers a look at the crime from the perspective of a brave young boy who wishes he were a lot older and more mature than he is, and who just wants to have a real family. And it takes place in some of the UK’s more beautiful, and more dangerous, natural settings. But what’s your view? Have you read Blacklands? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 20 November/Tuesday, 21 November – Dead Lemons – Finn Bell

Monday, 27 November/Tuesday, 28 November – Days Are Like Grass – Sue Younger

Monday, 4 December/Tuesday, 5 December – The Student Body – Simon Wyatt

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Filed under Belinda Bauer, Blacklands

I’d Rather be Anything but Ordinary Please*

Outside the BoxOne of the things that can make a fictional sleuth or protagonist interesting and memorable is an unusual way of thinking. I’m not talking here about simple creativity of thinking although of course that can be an appealing trait. I’m really talking about a mindset that sees the world in a different way. Like anything else in a crime fiction novel, an unusual way of thinking can be overdone and so pull the reader out of the story. When that happens the sleuth is less believable. But when it’s done well, having a sleuth or other protagonist who looks at the world in a very unusual way can add richness to a story and can make for a very memorable character.

For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Queensland police inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is half Aborigine/half White. His way of looking at the world and his cases is unusual in part because of his cultural background. On the one hand, Bony is well aware of the European way of looking at life. He is a police detective, so he knows police procedure and he understands that way of thinking. At the same time, he is well versed in ‘the book of the bush.’ He thinks in terms of what the signs of the bush and nature tell him, and often gets very useful information from what he sees in nature when he investigates.  For instance, in The Bone is Pointed, Bony investigates the five-month old disappearance of Jeff Anderson, who was working Karwir Station, a ranch near Green Swamp Well, when he disappeared. One morning, Anderson went out to ride the fences on the ranch; only his horse returned. At first, everyone thought the horse (who was known for being difficult) threw him, but there is no sign of his body. No-one misses Anderson very much as he’s both sadistic and mean-tempered. But Sergeant Blake, who investigated the disappearance, now believes that Anderson either was murdered or deliberately went into hiding. Bony is assigned to investigate the man’s disappearance and begins to look into the case. He uses a very unusual but effective combination of his knowledge of the bush and the people who live there and his knowledge of police procedure and working with European-Australians to find out what really happened to Jeff Anderson.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla Jaspersen also has a very unusual way of thinking about the world. She is half-Inuit/half-White and was brought up on Greenland. So by the standards of most people in Copenhagen where she now lives, she doesn’t look at the world in the usual way. She is also a scientist who has learned to think about the world like a scientist does. And in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), she uses her unusual way of thinking to solve the mystery of the death of Isaiah Christiansen. Isaiah is a young boy, also a Greenlander by birth, who lives in the same building where Jaspersen does. When he dies after a fall from the snow-covered roof of the building, everyone puts it down to a tragic accident. But Jaspersen thinks otherwise. First, Isaiah was extremely at home in the snow and wouldn’t have made the kinds of mistakes that can end up in a tragic fall. What’s more, certain aspects of the snow and the marks in it suggest to Jespersen that the boy’s death was more than just a fall. So she begins to investigate. The answers lead Jaspersen back to Greenland and an excavation there where Isaiah’s father died. Throughout this novel, we see Jaspersen’s unusual way of thinking, at the same time both scientific and informed by her cultural background. She understands snow, ice and glaciers in a very traditional, culturally-contextual and deep way; she has a real feeling for them. At the same time she understands them from a scientific point of view and those two ways of thinking give her a very unusual perspective. They also point her in the right direction in solving this mystery.

We see a very unusual way of thinking in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. He’s high-enough functioning to communicate and to do quite a lot for himself. But he doesn’t think like ‘the rest of us’ do. When he discovers that his neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and find out who was responsible. The novel is written from Christopher’s point of view and that gives us a glimpse into how a person with his form and level of autism might see the world. It’s an interesting perspective and although Christopher is not skilled socially, we see that he is highly accurate at remembering details. His unique skills are part of what leads him to the answers he’s looking for – and to a truth about himself that he never knew.

There’s also the unique perspective of Dr. Jennifer White, whom we meet in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. White is a skilled Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in hand reconstruction. She has also been diagnosed with dementia. As the novel begins, White is still able to function fairly well although she has had to retire from active work. Her daughter Fiona and son Mark have arranged for her to have a live-in caregiver Magdalena. One night, White’s neighbour Amanda O’Toole is murdered and Detective Luton is assigned to the case. Forensic tests show that O’Toole was mutilated in a way that points to a murderer with highly developed medical skill, so Luton begins to wonder whether White might be guilty. But the evidence isn’t completely convincing, so Luton isn’t sure White is the murderer. White’s advancing dementia means she has progressively fewer lucid times and even if she did think the way ‘the rest of us do,’ Luton knows she wouldn’t be likely to admit to the murder if she is guilty. So Luton has to use all of her abilities to get to the truth about Amanda O’Toole’s murder. It turns out that the O’Toole and White families have a long history together and that this murder has everything to do with their pasts. Since this novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, we get to see the case unfold through the eyes of someone who thinks in a very unusual way.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost introduces us to ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who has a unique way of looking at the world. As the novel begins, Kate dreams of being a detective, and has already started her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. Her partner is Mickey the Monkey, a stuffed monkey who travels everywhere in Kate’s backpack. Kate’s favourite occupation is looking for suspicious characters and activity and there are few better places to do that than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center. Kate doesn’t have a lot of friends, and she doesn’t think the way other people do, but that doesn’t bother her. She’s perfectly content to live the way she’s living. But her grandmother Ivy, who is her caregiver, thinks Kate would be better served by going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate is finally persuaded to go when her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer agrees to go with her to the school. The two board the bus together but Kate never returns. No trace of her is found, and everyone blames Palmer for her disappearance. In fact, his life is made so difficult that he leaves town. Twenty years later his sister Lisa is the assistant manager at Your Music, a store in Green Oaks. Her job is to put it mildly uninspiring and she’s in a dead-end relationship. But life changes for her when she meets Kurt, a security guard at the mall. Kurt’s been seeing strange things on his security cameras: a vision of a young girl with backpack that has a monkey sticking out of it. Lisa is reminded of Kate, whom she met a few times, and each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt explore the past as we learn what really happened to Kate. Throughout this novel we see that Kate thinks in a way that’s unlike just about anyone else. That aspect of her personality makes her perhaps the most alive person in the novel, even twenty years after she’s disappeared.

More recently, Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker introduces us to Patrick Fort, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Fort’s father was struck by a car and killed when Fort was young and it’s partly for that reason that Fort is fascinated by what makes people die. He enrols at university in Cardiff to study anatomy mostly because of his fascination with the causes of death. Part of this novel is told from Fort’s perspective as he and his peers study a cadaver. Patrick notices some things about the cadaver that don’t tally with the official reports and that makes him curious about this death. Bit by bit we learn through Patrick’s very unusual way of looking at the world what happened to the dead man. Another thread of this story which is later tied in with Patrick’s experience is told from the perspective of Sam Galen, who’s in a coma in a neurological unit but hasn’t lost his ability to think. As he slowly re-unites with the world, we learn what happened to him and what life is like in that unit.  We get another perspective on the same unit from Tracy Evans, who is a nurse there. I confess I haven’t yet read this novel, but it was such a good example of a protagonist (in this case Patrick Fort) with a unique way of looking at the world that I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

Sarah Ward at Crimepieces has done a terrific review of Rubbernecker. Her review is what got me thinking about protagonists who don’t think like ‘the rest of the world’ so thanks, Sarah, for the inspiration. Folks, Sarah’s excellent blog is well worth a spot on your blog roll if you’re not already following it.

Characters with unique ways of thinking have to be drawn deftly or the story risks contrivance and melodrama, to say nothing of the risks to believability. But when such a character is done well, having an unusual way of looking at the world can add depth to a novel and set it apart from others.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s Anything but Ordinary.

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Filed under Alice LaPlante, Arthur Upfield, Belinda Bauer, Catherine O'Flynn, Mark Haddon, Peter Høeg