Category Archives: Brian Stoddart

And Your Loyalties Are Divided*

One very effective way that authors add tension to their stories is to create divided loyalties for their characters. It’s a little harder if the protagonist is a police officer or a judge. For those characters, there are official policies about being involved in cases where one has a personal interest. But it can be done. It can also be done if the sleuth is a PI or an amateur sleuth. And when it’s done well, that plot point can add suspense to a novel. It can also add a layer of character development.

For example, I was recently privileged to read Brian Stoddart’s A Greater God, the fourth in his Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series. It’s just come out, by the way. This novel takes place in India during the 1920s, the last years of the British Raj. In one plot line, Le Fanu returns to his ‘home base’ in Madras (today’s Chennai) to face several severe challenges. One of them is that there is increased bigotry and worse against Muslims. And the Inspector General of the Madras Police, Arthur Jepson, isn’t making things any easier. He’s hardline racist and determined to keep the British firmly in control. All of this creates a major problem for Le Fanu’s colleague, Mohammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. Habi is a dedicated member of the police force who does his job very well. He is also a friend to Le Fanu. But Habi is Muslim, and it’s his people who are paying a terrible price right now. His loyalties are divided, and several people on the force are not sure he can be trusted. It all makes for real tension in this novel.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France at the request of Paul Renauld. He writes that his life is in danger and begs Poirot to come to his aid. By the time Poirot and Hastings get there, though, it’s too late; Renauld has been murdered. Poirot works with the police to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. In the meantime, Hastings has a personal situation of his own. He’s met a young woman who calls herself Cinderella, and he finds himself quite attracted to her, although he doesn’t acknowledge it at first. That creates a problem for him when he discovers that she may not be telling him everything about herself. In fact, she may even know more about Renauld’s murder than she’s letting on. It all creates tension between Hastings and Poirot as Poirot gets closer to the truth about what really happened.

The ‘Nicci French’ writing team’s Blue Monday introduces London psychologist Frieda Klein. In one plot thread, she is working with a new client, a man named Alan Dekker. Among other things, he’s been having troubling dreams that focus on having his own son – a boy who looks just like him. In real life, Dekker and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. He and Klein start the difficult work of ‘unpacking’ his views about having children, and of making connections with things from Dekker’s past. Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Malcolm Karlsson and his team investigate, but there are no good clues. The only case that bears any resemblance to this one is twenty-two years old, and it may not be related at all. But on the chance it is, Karlsson and his team do look back at it. When Klein learns of Matthew’s disappearance, she is faced with a real ‘divided loyalties’ problem. On the one hand, she is dedicated to her profession, and that means respecting her client’s confidentiality. On the other hand, she believes that what she knows about Dekker may help to find Matthew Faraday, or at least find out what happened to him. She finally opts to contact Karlsson, and, each in a different way, the two find answers. But her decision is not taken at all lightly.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary begins as Justice Bruce Brosnan is hearing the case of the Corowa people, who have claimed the right to Brisbane’s Merston Park. A development company wants the land, but the Corrowa say that the land is theirs. Brosnan rules against them, and just a few hours later, is killed. Then, there are other deaths, all of people involved in the case. Police officer Jason Matthews is one of the investigating officers, and this puts him in a real situation of divided loyalties. On the one hand, he is a police officer, sworn to uphold the law, and dedicated to doing so. But he is Aboriginal. So, he has strong feelings about the Corrowa people’s claim. He finds it very difficult to investigate people he feels have been greatly wronged – his own people. He does his job, but it’s not without difficulty.

And then there’s Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room. Laurie and Martha have a successful marriage and have raised three children. Everything seems to be going well until Laurie’s past comes back to haunt her. She was raised in a cult in the US, not leaving it permanently until she was a young adult. So, she is still impacted by her experience. Still, she and Martha have built a good life together. Then, Laurie and Martha begin to be concerned about their oldest child, Hope. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, so they expected there’d be a rough patch. But Hope has become obsessed with dance. She’s not eating properly, she’s not getting enough sleep, and she’s dancing and doing other exercise more than is good for her. As if that’s not enough, someone from Laurie’s past has found her. And that’s when she feels, even after all this time, a bit of divided loyalty. She loves her family deeply and will do anything to protect them. But she still feels the ‘pull’ of her old life, and that comes back, in a way.

And that’s the thing about divided loyalties. They impact one’s perspective, and they can make for very difficult decisions. But, in fiction, they can also make for interesting plot points and layers of character development.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ The Cassingle Revival.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Nicci French, Nicole Watson, Stella Duffy

He’s Gonna Save My Reputation*

People’s reputations sometimes matter a great deal. After all, most people don’t want others gossiping about them. And, of course, reputation has a lot to do with how one’s perceived at work. The wrong reputation can get a person fired, not promoted, or not hired in the first place. It stands to reason, then, that people do a lot to protect their reputations.

Sometimes, people do a lot to protect another person’s reputation too, especially if that someone else is a friend or loved one. And that’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. For instance, there are plenty of crime novels in which a character doesn’t provide an alibi for a crime, because that alibi might compromise someone else. Protecting someone’s reputation can add motive, character development, and even a plot point to a crime novel. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of plenty of others.

We see that sort of gallantry in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that novel, Captain Hastings visits an old friend, John Cavendish, who lives at his family’s home, Styles Court, with his wife, Mary, his brother, Lawrence, his stepmother, Emily Inglethorp, her husband, Alfred, and her ward, Cynthia Murdoch. Cynthia becomes a ‘person of interest’ when Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. She was present at the time, she worked in a dispensary (and so, had the requisite knowledge), and she’d been told that she would be provided for in the victim’s will. The family doesn’t want a scandal, so they’re reluctant to have any sort of investigation. But Hastings learns that his friend, Hercule Poirot, is in the area. He persuades the family to engage Poirot’s services, and the investigation begins. When Cynthia learns that there is no financial provision for her, she isn’t sure what she’ll do. At that time, and in that place, a respectable young lady doesn’t live on her own. And Cynthia doesn’t feel she can stay on at Styles Court. What’s more, she’s been mixed up in a murder investigation – enough to tarnish any young lady’s reputation. Hastings decides to try to protect her by proposing marriage. It’s not spoiling the story to say that things don’t work out that way, but it’s an interesting example of wanting to protect someone’s reputation. You’re right, fans of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, that’s a similar sort of situation.

In Stuart Kaminsky’s Bullet For a Star, we are introduced to Los Angeles PI Toby Peters. He is a former security guard at Warner Brothers Studio, so he knows the Hollywood industry. That’s in part why producer Sid Adelman wants his help with a case of blackmail. It seems that famous star Errol Flynn (the book takes place in 1940) was photographed with a very young girl, and someone is threatening to release that photograph to the press and public. That, of course, will ruin Flynn’s reputation, and his bankability. Adelman wants to protect both, so he’d decided to pay the blackmailer. He wants Peters to deliver the money and collect the photograph and the negative. Peters agrees and goes to the appointed meeting place. But while he’s there, someone kills the blackmailer, steals Peters’ gun, and takes the print and the negative. Now, Peters has to get the photograph and negative back. He also has to clear his name, since his gun was used in the murder.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are introduces readers to TV presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s doing well at his job, he has a solid marriage, and a good relationship with his eight-year-old daughter. But he’s reached a sort of crossroads in his life, and he doesn’t feel settled. What’s more, he’s dealing with the death of his predecessor, friend, and mentor, Phil Smedway, who was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was out jogging. Allcroft’s restlessness draws him to the scene of Smedway’s death, and he notices some things. The road is straight and wide – plenty of room for even an impaired driver to swerve and avoid a pedestrian. The death happened during daylight, too, so it would have been easy to see Smedway. Now, Allcroft gets curious about what really happened, and starts to ask questions. And he finds that wanting to preserve a reputation plays a role in the story.

Zoë Ferraris’ Finding Nouf takes a different perspective on preserving someone’s reputation. In the novel, Palestinian-born Nayir ash-Sharqui works as a desert guide in the Jeddah area of Saudi Arabia. He gets drawn into a murder investigation when his friend, Othman ash-Shrawi, asks him to find out what happened to his sixteen-year-old sister, Nouf. It seems that Nouf went missing and was later found dead in a wadi. Othman wants to know what happened to her, and Nayir agrees to look into things. In the process of seeking answers, he meets Othman’s fiancée, Katya Hijazi, who is a medical examiner. As the two work to find out the truth, we learn how important reputation is in this culture, especially for women. For instance, women do not go out without a male family member or ‘official’ male escort. And they’re expected to dress and act in accordance with the very traditional Islamic culture of the area. Any whispers that they are doing otherwise can have all sorts of consequences. So, Katya has to be very careful about where she goes, whom she speaks to, and so on. She is less conventional in her thinking than Nayir is, but she understands what the risks are. At one point in the novel, the two of them are walking when they are approached by a man:
 

‘‘In the name of Allah, and Allah’s peace be upon you, Sir, pardon me, but your wife is not properly veiled.’’
 

Nayir has to think quickly in order to protect Kaya’s reputation. Here’s his response:
 

‘Nayir frowned, ‘Are you looking at my wife?’ he asked. The man opened his mouth, but Nayir interrupted. ‘She’s my wife,’ he shouted. ‘You’d better have a good excuse for staring at her!’
The man took a step back. ‘Apologies, brother, but you understand it’s a matter of decency.’
‘That’s no excuse.’ Nayir moved closer with a menacing squint. ‘Don’t you have your own wife to worry about?”
 

The ruse works, and Katya is spared any humiliation.

Brian Stoddart’s Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu is a police superintendent in Madras (today’s Chennai) during the 1920s – the last years of the British Raj. As the series begins, he is separated from his wife, who lives in England, He shares his home with his housekeeper, an Anglo-Indian named Roisin McPhedren. He’s in love with Roisin, and she with him. But in that place, and at that time, a public relationship is out of the question. If word of it gets out, she won’t be able to find any sort of respectable work. And his career is at risk. One story arc in this series is the way each of them protects the other’s reputation.

The way other people see us, and the reputations we have, do matter. So it’s little wonder we care about those perceptions. And it’s little wonder that we work to protect the reputations of those who matter to us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer’s My Boyfriend’s Back.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Catherine O'Flynn, Dorothy L. Sayers, Stuart Kaminsky, Zoë Ferraris

While the Millionaires Hide in Beekman Place*

Have you ever noticed those truly elegant, super-expensive homes? The kind that ‘the rest of us’ could never even imagine owning? The kind you see in magazines or television shows? Yeah, those homes. One of the interesting things about them is that they tend to be set apart. Sometimes they’re in gated, even guarded, communities. Sometimes the properties themselves are gated and/or guarded. Either way, just looking at the houses is a reminder that the very wealthy often live lives that are far removed from the rest of us. And very often (certainly not always!)  that’s by design.

When it’s handled well, that physical gulf between the very rich and other people can add some interesting tension to a novel. Little wonder it’s been a part of literature for a very long time (I’m thinking, for instance, of Émile Zola’s Germinal). And it’s woven into crime fiction, too.

For example, in Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, we are introduced to the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Drs. Jack and Patricia Wyatt-Yarmouth are both very wealthy, influential people. Their children, Jason and Wendy, have been raised with every privilege, too. It’s that sort of family. One Christmas, Jason and Wendy take a ski trip to the small British Columbia town of Trafalgar. With them, they bring four of their wealthy friends, and stay in a local B&B. On Christmas Eve, Jason and his friend, Ewan Williams, are in the group’s rented SUV when it skids on ice and plunges into the Upper Kootenay River. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith goes to the scene and begins the investigation. Soon, though, she and her boss, Sergeant John Winters, discover that, while Jason was killed by the accident, Ewan had already been dead for some time before the incident. Now the investigation becomes a murder investigation. When they hear of their son’s death, the Wyatt-Yarmouth parents travel to Trafalgar. It’s immediately obvious that they are not accustomed to mixing with ‘regular folks.’ Their attitude causes no end of difficulty and conflict as Smith and Winters try to solve the mystery.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in late 1970s Buenos Aires. It’s a very dangerous time to be in the city, what with the military in firm control of the government. Anyone who is even suspected of disagreeing with the government, or of ‘causing trouble’ is likely to be killed, or worse. No-one is really trustworthy, and even a whisper of dissidence could easily be passed along. Against this backdrop, police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano investigates the murder of Elías Biterman, a successful pawnbroker and moneylender. The death looks at first like a standard army ‘hit,’ so it’s obvious that those in authority want the case left alone. But that’s not the kind of detective Lescano is. So, he begins to ask a few questions. The trail leads to some very high places, too, as people from even the highest socioeconomic levels made use of Biterman’s services. And one of the important elements in this novel is the divide between the very rich and everyone else. The wealthy separate themselves, and do everything they can to jealously guard their privilege. And the desire to penetrate that ‘wall’ factors into the story.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows also takes place in the Buenos Aires area (about 30 miles away), this time, at the end of the 1990s. Most of the action takes place in an ultra-exclusive residential community called Cascade Heights Country Club. Only the very wealthiest people can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before being allowed to purchase a home in ‘the Heights.’ Every effort is made to keep these very rich people from having to interact with ‘regular people,’ too. There’s a wall, a guard, and a procedure for showing identification before being allowed on the property. Disputes aren’t handled by the regular police, either, but by a special Commission set up by the residents. Many of those who live in the Heights feel a real sense of security living in a community that’s removed from the rest of the area. That ‘safety net’ is torn, though, when the financial problems of the late 1990s/early 2000s find their way into the Heights. Little by little the security is eroded, until tragedy strikes.

Kalpana Swaminatham’s Greenlight is the sixth in her series featuring retired Mumbai police detective Lalli. In it, a series of ugly child abductions and murders has struck a local slum called Kandewadi. At first, the incidents don’t get very much press or police attention. But finally, there’s enough pressure on the police to step up the investigation, and Inspector Savio is assigned to the case, He consults regularly with Lalli, so she, too, gets involved in the case. Throughout the novel, there’s a strong sense of the gulf between the very rich and everyone else. The rich separate themselves, and it’s clear that they want to stay far removed from, especially, the poor. And there’s a lot of resentment about that fact that plays a role in the story.

There are, of course, other series where we see the way the wealthy live quite far removed from everyone else. For instance, there’s Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series, which takes place in Madras (today’s Chennai) in the 1920s, in the last years of the British Raj. India is still in the hands of the wealthy and titled English, and they want to retain control. Most of the English in India live in separate communities. The really wealthy ones belong to exclusive clubs, where only the ‘right’ people belong. In other ways, too, many of the wealthy English choose to remain at a distance from any of the ‘regular’ people.

And there’s Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair series. Those novels take place in the early 1930s, mostly in New South Wales. At the time, the Great Depression has taken firm hold, and many people are desperate. There is a small group, including the Sinclair family, who have money, power and privilege. And many want to keep it that way. So, the very wealthy separate themselves, and work to keep that physical divide between themselves and ‘everyone else.’ Rowly himself isn’t nearly so conservative, and has friends from different socioeconomic strata, much to the dismay of his older brother and head of the family, Wilfred.  

And Wilfred’s not alone. There are plenty of fictional wealthy people and communities that try to stay as far removed as possible from the rest of us. That can add some interesting tension to a novel.

Ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a ‘photo of Billy Joel’s Florida home. Yes, I took several shots of it during a recent trip. What?! 😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Close to the Borderline.

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Filed under Brian Stoddart, Claudia Piñeiro, Ernesto Mallo, Kalpana Swaminathan, Sulari Gentill, Vicki Delany

Too Much Information Running Through My Brain*

Part of the reason that people enjoy historical fiction is that it can give really interesting information about a particular time and place. That’s part of why, for many readers, it’s important that their historical fiction be accurate. They want to learn from it, which is hard to do if it’s not realistic.

But that presents a challenge. Even if you don’t read much historical fiction, you probably know that many periods of history haven’t been exactly pleasant. Wars, disease, high infant mortality, lack of hygiene, and plenty of other factors could make life miserable. That’s especially true for those who were poor or otherwise disenfranchised. At the same time as readers of historical fiction want realistic depictions, they may very well not want unrelenting misery. So, what’s the balance? How can an author depict a particular historical period honestly, yet in an engaging way? Everyone has a different idea of what ‘counts’ as the right amount of realism. But here are a few examples of books and series that strike that balance.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. The novel takes place beginning in 1828, when two farmers, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. The three suspects are found guilty, and are sentenced to death. It’s decided that, rather than spend the money to keep Agnes housed in a prison, she will be sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. There, so it’s believed, she will benefit from living with a ‘good Christian family’ for her last months. And the government won’t be responsible for feeding and housing her. The family will benefit, too, from her work. As the story goes on, we slowly get to know Agnes, and we learn about her past, her relationship with the other two convicted of the crime, and their reasons. Throughout the novel, Kent is clear about what life was like at that time, and in that place, especially if you were a woman and a convict. There’s no glossing over. At the same time, the attention is on the story, rather than on every gritty detail.

One could say much the same thing about C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake is a lawyer who lives and works in London during the reign of King Henry VIII. It’s a very uncertain time, with religious upheaval, political intrigue, and strained international relations. Life’s not easy for the average person; in fact, it can be quite bleak. And even those with means are not immune from disease, persecution, and more. Against this backdrop, Shardlake has to move very carefully. He knows he works at the pleasure of the king and his advisors. If he does anything to displease them, he risks everything. Sansom doesn’t make light of the grim realities of life at that time. That said, though, the focus is on the mysteries and the plot threads relating to them.

It is in Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman’s Adelia Aguilar series, too. These novels take place in the 12h Century, during the rule of King Henry II. Aguilar is a doctor, originally from the University at Salerno, who is summoned by the king to investigate a murder. Life at this time is grueling, especially for women and other disenfranchised people. In fact, for her own safety, Aguilar has to work ‘behind the scenes’ and pretend that the medical work is done by Simon Menahm – Simon of Naples – who came with her to England. It’s too dangerous for a woman to be involved in medical science. Superstition plays a major role in people’s lives, and that, too, makes life difficult. That’s not to mention the other hardships that people faced at the time. But the focus of these novels is on the cases at hand. It’s not that Franklin/Norman plays down the realities of the times. Rather, the emphasis is on the stories, instead of on the ‘gory details.’

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill and his family, who move from London to Sydney 1806, when Thornill is sentenced to transportation for stealing a load of wood. The family makes a new start, with Thornhill earning a living by making deliveries up and down the local river. His wife, Sal, sets up a makeshift pub. Little by little, they settle in. But as they do, they come into increasing conflict with the people who were always there.  That conflict ends in some brutal atrocities. Although Thornhill wants no part of this sort of bloodshed, he soon sees that he’ll have to get his hands dirty if he’s to build a life on the piece of land he dreams of owning. Grenville is realistic about what it was like to be poor in London at that time, and later, what it was like to live in a penal colony. It’s dirty, exhausting, and sometimes very ugly. Lifespans are not long, and disease kills very quickly. That said, though, there isn’t exhaustive detail about the grimness of live. Rather, Grenville’s focus is on the story of how the Thornhill family makes a new life in Australia.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu novels are set in 1920’s India, mostly in Madras (today’s Chennai). Life’s not really easy, even for the British, who are firmly in charge. It’s much more difficult for anyone else, especially the poor who happen to be Indian. Although there have been some medical advances, there’s still a high mortality rate. As is mentioned in The Pallampur Predicament,
 

‘If there was a scourge left for the British in India, it was illness in many forms.’
 

That said, though, Stoddart’s focus is the mystery at hand in each novel. There’s no glossing over some of the difficulties of life; at the same time, the novels don’t dwell on them.

That’s also arguably true of the work of other authors, such as Sulari Gentill, Gordon Ferris, and Felicity Young. It’s not an easy balance to strike. On the one hand, readers want realistic portrayals. On the other, most readers don’t want unrelenting bleakness. What’s your personal balance? If you’re a writer of historical crime fiction, how do you acknowledge the difficulties of life in other times without letting them overpower your plots?
 

ps. The ‘photo is from Abba Eban’s Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, and was reprinted there from the Bettmann Archives. It shows a tenement in New York’s Lower East Side not long after the turn of the 20th Century.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Police’s Too Much Information.

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Filed under Ariana Franklin, Brian Stoddart, C.J. Sansom, Diana Norman, Felicity Young, Gordon Ferris, Hannah Kent, Kate Grenville, Sulari Gentill

I Feel Like I’m On the Cusp*

Recently, Sarah, who blogs at The Old Shelter, did a very interesting review of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. That novel was first published in 1920, at the cusp of some major social, political, and other changes. And Christie captures that ‘borderline’ time quite effectively. On the one hand, clothes are still conservative, especially for women, and so are social expectations. The ‘Jazz Age’ we often think of when we think of the 1920s (you know – bobbed hair, short skirts, rolled-down stockings, late-night crazy parties, and women smoking) is still a few years off. On the other, things are changing – quickly. Some women are actually wearing trousers, and they’re getting (or have recently gotten) the right to vote (I know, Kiwi and Aussie friends; it happened a bit earlier in your countries). Political movements such as socialism are gaining strength, too. And there are other major changes.

If you’ve watched the ITV production of The Mysterious Affair at Styles on Agatha Christie’s Poirot, you see that cusp even more clearly. To give just one example, there are horse-drawn carriages and automobiles. It’s as if the world is drawing a breath as one era ends and a whole new social order begins. Sarah’s done a fine review, by the way, and you’ll want to stop by her blog and read it.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Hercule Poirot is introduced, concerns the poisoning murder of his benefactor, Emily Inglethorp. He’s drawn into the case because he happens to encounter Captain Hastings, who’s a friend of the victim’s stepson, John Cavendish. Hastings is staying at the Inglethorp/Cavendish household for a visit, and it’s he who recommends that the family consult Poirot. It’s an interesting story in its own right, but it’s by no means the only novel that depicts that cusp between the last years of the 19th Century/early 20th Century, and what we think of as the more modern age.

For instance, Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness takes place just a few years after the end of WW I, mostly in and near the small village of Highfield. Scotland Yard, in the forms of Inspector John Madden and Detective Constable (DC) Billy Styles, has been called in to assist with a particularly brutal murder. Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes, have all been killed. Only four-year-old Sophy Fletcher has survived, and that’s because she hid under a bed during the attack. But she’s had a severe shock, and can’t help much. At first, the murders look like a robbery gone horribly wrong. But it soon becomes clear that this family was targeted. Now, Madden and Styles have to find out why and by whom. It’s a very difficult case, but, with the help of the local GP, Dr. Helen Blackwell, the team finds out the truth. In this novel, we see a society on the brink of the modern age. Blackwell, for instance, is an independent professional. She has modern views of psychology, of women’s roles, and so on. There are some modern conveniences, too, such as cars, motorcycles, and some telephones. At the same time, the local mores are still very conventional, and the Jazz Age hasn’t come to the country, if I can put it that way.

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests takes place at about the same time. In it, we are introduced to Frances Wray and her mother, Emily. The war has meant hard times for the Wrays, and they’ve decided they’ll have to open their home to lodgers, who are euphemistically called ‘paying guests.’  Len and Lilian Barber soon respond to the Wrays’ discreet advertisement, and move in. It’s all awkward, especially at first, but it goes well enough. Then, things slowly begin to spin out of control. The end result is a tragedy that changes everything. Throughout the novel, we see a society caught between two worlds, if I may put it that way. On the one hand, Emily Wray has very clear ideas about how ‘ladies’ are ‘supposed to’ behave. The family still has an outhouse, and the kitchen isn’t really modern. On the other, there’s definitely movement afoot. Some ‘regular people’ are getting telephones (although plenty go to a local shop to make calls). And one of Frances’ friends is a busy professional woman who drinks, smokes, and goes out when and where she pleases. That tug-of-war between the old century and the modern world plays its role in the tragedies that happen in the novel, too.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in the early 1920s in India, mostly in and near what is now Chennai. The British Raj is in its last decades, and there’s a real push among many people for some sort of Home Rule. Women, especially English and other European women, are more independent, and don’t always go directly home, shall we say, after a party. There are some modern conveniences, and so on. But at the same time, there are still very strict rules about who may belong to which clubs. The white English are still very much in charge, and the races simply do not mix socially. There are plenty of people, too, who want to keep it that way, and don’t want any talk of Home Rule. Women may be getting more independent, but they are still expected to make it a major priority to find themselves husbands, preferably husbands who are in at least a respectable social class, and who earn a respectable salary. This series is, among other things, a look at a society that’s just on the cusp of the modern, post-colonial, age.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Through the Lonesome Dark. This one’s not, strictly speaking, a crime novel, although there are crimes in it. Rather, it’s the story of three children: Pansy Williams, Clem Bright, and Otto Brader, who grow up in the small New Zealand town of Blackball, just before WW I. It’s a working-class (mostly mining) community, with a rising tide of socialist sentiment. Still, in many ways it’s a very traditional place. Pansy, for example, learns the hard way that, if you’re a girl, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’ll get the chance to prepare for university. Getting ahead, so to speak, will not be an option for her. And the boys are expected to follow their fathers and grandfathers into the mines, whatever their own ambitions might have been. The three children are all best friends, though, and determined to stay together always. Then, everything changes when the war comes. Lives are upended, and the three friends are wrenched apart. In the end, and after several tragedies, the characters have to start all over again. And now, the world is metamorphosing. So, as the characters put their lives back together, they will also have to move from the traditional world they knew to something different.

And that’s the thing that Sarah’s post reminded me of – and I’m glad. The early 1920’s were ‘cusp’ years. You might say they were neither here nor there, neither traditional nor thoroughly modern. Little wonder there was so much anxiety at the time. Thanks for the inspiration, Sarah!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Goldspot’s Cusp.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Paddy Richardson, Rennie Airth, Sarah Waters