Category Archives: Caroline Graham

It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

Living in a New World*

Global Small BusinessThe world, and people’s thinking, has arguably gotten a lot more global in the last years, especially with the advent of the Internet. We’ve seen it in innumerable ways, across society. One post could never really do justice to the increasingly global nature of the way we think. So for today, I thought (I hope!) it might be interesting to look at a bit of the way this process has affected business, and how it plays out in crime fiction.

As the world has gotten smaller, many businesses that were previously local or regional have become international. One of them is Starbucks. It started as a local Seattle company but it’s hardly local now. You may say that part of Starbucks’ growth is smart marketing. But the company has also had a global perspective. And as you know, Starbucks is just about everywhere. There are dozens of crime-fictional references to the company, too. One I like very much is in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, which concerns the murder of popular radio personality Kevin Brace. At one point, the police take an interest in one of Brace’s colleagues Donald Dundas. On hearing that he often starts his day in a local coffee shop, the police try to guess which one. They hear some of Dundas’ colleagues talk of a trip to ‘Four Bucks’ to get coffee, but it turns out Dundas has chosen a smaller, independent shop.

It’s not just Starbucks either, of course. McDonald’s has also become a global contender, and of course, it features in a lot of different crime novels. For instance, there’s a reference to the company in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts. In one plot thread of that novel, sometime-attorney Jack Irish and some of his friends/colleagues are on their way to a horse race in which they’ve got some money invested. Along the way they stop at a ‘Maccas.’ As I say, that’s just one of many, many references to the company that pop up worldwide.

Tesco is another company that’s ‘gone global.’ Based in the UK, it has branches in several different countries now. There’s an interesting Tesco scene in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. In one plot thread of that novel, self-styled medium Ava Garrett has suddenly died of what turns out to be poison. DCI Tom Barnaby and his team connect this death to the earlier death of financial advisor Dennis Brinkley. Ava’s daughter Karen is temporarily being looked after by nineteen-year-old Roy Priest, who lodges with the Garretts. Roy is a product of the government’s child welfare system, and wants more than anything to spare Karen his fate. So he looks after her as well as a misfit nineteen-year-old can. At one point, he sees that she needs new clothes and other things. So he takes her on a shopping trip to Tesco. Karen is awestruck by everything that’s sold there, and delighted to have some new things all her own.

As you’ll know, not all global ventures have been successful for companies. Thanks to an interesting comment exchange with Australian author Geoffrey McGeachin, I learned that Starbucks pulled out of Australia. Tesco’s attempt to gain a foothold in the US market was also unsuccessful.

So, does this global expansion of companies and their culture mean that the small independent local or personal business is doomed? People don’t agree on this question, but I don’t think so. The advent of the Internet and global reach has meant that small businesses and individuals can market themselves to an international audience. Erm – you’re visiting my blog, aren’t you? And if you don’t live near me, this is just one example…

We certainly see that in crime fiction too. In Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder, for instance, we are introduced to Malin Andersson, whose living comes from a very successful and lucrative blog called Malin’s Table. Its focus is sustainable food, recipes and the like. She and her husband Henrik Kjellander also have another source of income. They plan to be away from their home on the Swedish island of Fårö for two months, and have arranged to sub-let their home. For this purpose, they use a company that matches available homes with people who’d like to have a temporary tenancy in them. The company itself is a small business, but because of the Internet, it has a global reach. If you’ve ever booked a B&B online, you know the kind of reach I mean. When the family returns from their trip, they find their home in terrible condition. At first they think it’s a case of slipshod, inconsiderate tenants. But then, other things happen that make it clear that someone has targeted the family. Fredrik Bronan and his police team investigate, and they’ll have to act as quickly as they can to find out who would want to hurt the family and why, before something tragic happens.

Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski may not be the most technologically savvy character in fiction. But he certainly understands the value of promoting a small business globally. He and his wife Rosie own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They do spend time at the lodge, but their home is in the small town of Crooked Lake, south of the lodge. Stuart Lake Lodge does get some local trade. But a great deal of the company’s business comes from international visitors. Bart has arrangements with travel agents in several places, and, of course, a toll-free number, so that the lodge’s reach is much larger than you might think.

Smaller, independent businesses also rely on simply doing things better, if I may put it that way. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne-based baker who prides herself on making ‘real’ breads, rolls and other baked goods. She uses fresh ingredients and markets locally. When a large competitor opens one of its franchises on the same street where Chapman has her bakery, she faces stiff competition. Her employee and apprentice baker Jason Wallace does some reconnaissance at the new bakery and reports that the bread’s not made nearly as well. Still, the new place does attract a lot of trade – until ergot is found in some local breads, and poisons some customers. Now Chapman faces the closure of her own bakery unless the source of the ergot is found.

So, can small, independent businesses compete against the behemoths? They’re certainly not doomed to failure. Of course, a lot depends on the particular business and market; and each industry is different. But the Internet has made it possible for even one-person businesses to ‘go global.’

ps. The ‘photo is an example of a small business with a global reach. This is a case of very nice wine from Peju, in California’s Napa region. It’s not by any means a huge winery, but no matter where you live, you can connect with Peju and see what you think of their wine.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Machines (or, ‘Back to Humans’).


Filed under Caroline Graham, Geoffrey McGeachin, Håkan Östlundh, Kerry Greenwood, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Temple, Robert Rotenberg

Look at This Stuff, Isn’t it Neat?*

CollectionsDo you have a collecting hobby? Whether it’s T-shirts, antique hurricane lamps, books with skeletons in the cover art, or something else, collecting can be really enjoyable. It can be fun to hunt for additions to your collection, and it puts you in contact with others who share your interest. And it provides those who love you with no-fail ideas for birthday gifts.

Collecting can, of course, be expensive (depends on your particular interest). And sometimes collections are really valuable, which makes them tempting targets. There are also people who are so obsessed with their collections that they become dangerous. There are other risks, too, when you’re a collector. Little wonder collections come up so often in crime fiction. Here are just a few items; there are a lot more.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police forces to solve a disturbing series of crimes. The murders have in common that Poiroit receives a cryptic warning note before each one, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. One of the victims is retired throat specialist Carmichael Clarke. He always had a passion for Chinese pottery and porcelain; and, when he inherited a fortune, he was able to devote much more time and money to that passion. Clarke’s love of collecting isn’t the reason he is murdered. But it is an interesting aspect to his character. I know, I know, fans of Cards on the Table

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil also includes a character with a collection. In that novel, Queen has taken a house in the Hollywood Hills as a writing retreat. His plans change, though, when he gets a visit from nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. She’s recently lost her father Leander to a heart attack which she’s convinced was deliberately caused. Queen is reluctant to get involved in the case at first. But he’s persuaded to look into the matter when Laurel tells him that her father’s death was preceded by a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ Her claim is that someone wanted him dead, and probably wants his business partner Roger Priam dead too, since Priam also has received ‘gifts.’ Priam doesn’t want Queen to get involved, but Laurel insists. As Queen looks into the matter, he learns more about Priam. The man’s not particularly educated, and not interested at all in literature or reading. But he does have a collection of ‘great books’ in expensive bindings. He owns the books more because rich men are supposed to have a library of fine books than because of any interest on his part. Still, the books do play a role in solving this mystery. I know, I know, fans of The Adventure of the One-Penny Black.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to financial consultant Dennis Brinkley. He has a very unusual collecting hobby: antique war machines. In fact, he’s got a special room set aside for his acquisitions. One night, he’s killed by one of his devices. The police theory is that this was a tragic accident, but Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle doesn’t think so. She tries to persuade DCI Tom Barnaby to look into the matter, and he agrees to review the case file. He sees nothing untoward in it though. The police did a thorough and careful job, and there’s no reason to believe they were wrong. But then, self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poisoning not long after a séance in which she revealed some details about Brinkley’s death. Now Barnaby and his team have two suspicious deaths to investigate.

Art collecting is very popular, especially among people with means. Art can be intrinsically quite valuable, so some people collect it as an investment. But others do so because of their passion for art or for the work of one particular artist. Crime fiction fans will know that there are many novels that feature art collections, art theft and forgery and so on. One of them is Aaron Elkins’ Loot. This story features Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. Experts such as Revere provide extremely useful services when a museum or a private collector wants to establish whether a piece of art is authentic. So when pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky gets a painting he thinks is valuable, he calls Revere. When Revere gets a look at the painting, he immediately suspects it might be a priceless Velázquez that disappeared after it was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. Revere wants to take the painting with him while he researches it, because he’s concerned about Pawlovsky keeping an item like that in his pawn shop. But Pawlovsky refuses and Revere reluctantly leaves the painting there. When he returns a few hours later, Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels responsible, so he wants to find out who killed his friend. His view is that if he can trace the painting from the time the Nazis took it, he can find out who the culprit is. As he investigates, we learn how some of that art got into the hands of private collectors and museums after World War II. And in the end, we learn how the painting ended up at the pawn shop.

S.J. Rozan’s China Trade introduces Chinese American PI Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by Lydia Chin. In this story, she is hired by the Chinatown Pride (CP) Museum to find a collection of stolen Chinese porcelain. The porcelains were donated by the widow of wealthy private collector Hamilton Blair, and if they’re not found, the museum’s reputation will suffer. So Chin is urged to trace them as quickly and discreetly as she can. Chin and her PI partner Bill Smith look into the case and soon settle on a few possibilities. One is that a local gang, the Golden Dragons, took the porcelains because the museum wouldn’t pay protection money. Another gang, the Main Street Boys, might also be responsible. They ‘rented’ space from the Golden Dragons, and could have had access to the loot. Still another possibility is that one of the staff took the porcelains. As Chin and Smith get closer to the truth, the case turns from theft to multiple murders. And they’ll have to get answers quickly before one of them becomes the next target.

I admit I’ve not (yet) read Donald Westlake’s (as Richard Stark) Firebreak. But I couldn’t resist mentioning it here. This story sees Stark’s anti-hero Parker with a new job. His mission is to get his hands on a collection of priceless stolen artwork that dot-com millionaire Paxton Marino has secured at his Montana hunting lodge. Parker’s got enough to deal with before he even tries to get to the art. And things don’t get any easier once the heist is put in motion. Want to know more about Westlake’s Stark novels? Check out this interesting reference to them from Col at Col’s Criminal LibraryAnd as you’ll be there anyway, check out that great blog.

Collecting can be fulfilling, fun and sometimes lucrative. But it can also be very, very risky. Which novels with this theme have you enjoyed?


On Another Note…

Margot's Bookshelves

Talking of collecting, today’s your chance to see some of my collection…of books. Patti Abbott has kindly welcomed me to her excellent blog Pattinase to share what’s on my bookshelves. Do come pay me a visit there. And since you’ll be there anyway, have a look round the blog. Book reviews, music, great ‘photos, and of course, Friday’s Forgotten Books await you there!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Part of Your World.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Donald Westlake, Ellery Queen, Richard Stark, S.J. Rozan

They Just Found Your Father in the Swimming Pool*

DiscoveryofBodyNot long ago, I did a post on joggers and runners in crime fiction. One of the interesting ideas I got from you folks as a response to that post is that there are a lot of joggers and runners (and dog walkers) who discover fictional bodies. The whole conversation got me to wondering just who does discover fictional murder victims. So I decided to do a bit of research.

I chose 200 fictional murders committed in books that I’ve read. My choices weren’t confined to just one era or sub-genre. For each of these murders, I made a note of who finds the body. Here’s what I found:




I was actually really surprised to find that 55 murder victims (27% of the total) were discovered by people in the course of their work. Just to give one example, in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, a maid brings morning tea to the victim’s room, only to find him dead. There are a lot of examples too of milkmen finding bodies on their rounds, cops on the beat finding bodies, commercial fishermen who find bodies in lakes, or renovators and builders who unearth bodies, that sort of thing.

The next most common way in which a body is discovered (in my data set anyway) is that people are witnesses to a murder. Among these fictional murders, 35 (17%) of the bodies don’t really have to be discovered, because there’s at least one witness to the killing. An example of this is in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), in which a group of passengers is present when one of their fellow passengers is poisoned. Interestingly enough, only the killer notices that it’s happened until it’s too late…

Some authors use the strategy of having a passer-by find a body. In my data set, that happens in the case of 32 murders (16% of the total). For instance, in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, police detective Mike Reardon is shot. A passer-by sees the body and alerts police.

Family members discover bodies in 20 (10%) of the fictional murders I considered. In the case of James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, for instance, Agatha Mills is killed late one night in her Russell Square home. The next morning, her husband Henry discovers her body. Naturally the police suspect him, but it turns out that he’s as innocent as he says he is…

Among the fictional killings I looked at, 16 (8%) are discovered by visitors to the victim’s home or workplace. For instance, in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Benny Frayle pays a visit to her friend Dennis Brinkley, only to discover his body. At first it looks like a tragic accident, but in the end, it turns out to anything but.

Fifteen of the fictional murders I looked at (7%) are discovered after someone doesn’t come home, and a search is made. That’s what happens, for example, in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, when a search for twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande seems to lead to a body found in a forest. When it turns out not to be Melanie’s body, Inspector Wexford and his team have a very puzzling mystery on their hands.

The biggest surprise to me was that of all of the fictional murders I included here, only 5 bodies were discovered by runners/joggers and dog walkers! This is probably an artifact of the data as much as anything else, since I know there are more mysteries out there that include that plot point.

As with all of the data I share here, this set of data is limited by the fact that it only includes books I’ve personally read. There are of course many thousands of books I’ve not read. That said though, it’s interesting how often simply doing your job can put you right in the path of a dead body…

What do you think of all of this? Have you noticed who finds the body in the books you read? Who is it, usually?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Captain Jack.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Catriona McPherson, Ed McBain, James Craig, Ruth Rendell

How on Earth Did I Get so Jaded*

HurriedChildhoodDuring the 1980’s, Tufts University Professor David Elkind wrote a groundbreaking book The Hurried Child. In it, he made the powerful argument that many of today’s children are put under an untenable amount of pressure to grow up too quickly. One example of this pressure (and we’ve all seen this I think) is media hype that presents children as ‘little adults’ and sometimes even sexualises them. Another is the tendency (although this certainly isn’t the case all the time) for parents, especially single parents, to treat their children more as confidants than as children. All of this, Elkind argues, can do real damage to children, and serves to rob them of those crucial years of childhood development. The book’s been through several editions and is still widely read, which suggests among other things that these problems haven’t gone away.

It’s not always easy to clearly define the boundary between responsibility that helps a child develop important skills, and responsibility and pressure that isn’t appropriate for children. I think we’d all agree that it’s beneficial for young people to learn to, say, be responsible for their schoolwork or their spending money. But, Elkind argues, pre-teens aren’t ready for adult pressure such as sexual attention, and they’re not served well by the enormous pressure that’s sometimes put on them to ‘be the best,’ such as you sometimes see at sport events. There are plenty of children too who are expected to help provide family income and this, Elkind argues, also hurries children.

This issue crosses socioeconomic lines too. Whether or not you agree with each of Elkind’s arguments (and I do recommend the book), it really does seem that many children in all social classes are pressured to grow up quickly. It’s true in real life, and we see that plot thread in crime fiction too.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies on a group of such children: the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they’re a group of street children who help him with his investigations. They know London very, very well, and can often observe and get information without calling attention to themselves, so they’re quite useful to Holmes. Conan Doyle doesn’t portray them as living very unhappy lives, but it’s interesting to see how even in this more ‘clean scrubbed’ picture of pressured childhood, the boys respond very positively to Holmes’ leadership and interest in them.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of London bargeman William Thornhill. In 1806, when he’s caught stealing a load of wood, he, his wife Sal and their children are transported to Australia. There, they do their best to make lives for themselves. Thornhill comes to love the land he’s moved to, and therein lies the problem. Other people of course have been living on that land for millennia, and there are real cultural and other conflicts between the new arrivals and the people who’ve always been there. Thornhill would like to resolve matters peacefully, but that view is by no means uninanimous, so some terrible crimes are committed. The first part of this novel tells of Thornhill’s early life in London. Born to a very poor family, he soon learns that the family will not survive if the children don’t do as much as they can, as early as they can, to earn money. In that society, it’s taken in a matter-of-fact way, and allowing children to actually be children is a luxury that the poor simply cannot afford.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the murder of financial advisor Dennis Brinkman. At first Brinkman’s death was thought to be a terrible accident, as his body was found under one of the ancient machines he collected. But his friend Benny Frayle is sure that he was killed, and won’t rest until his death is investigated. At first Barnaby and Troy aren’t convinced that this is a murder, but then there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poison after a séance in which she saiid things about Brinkman’s murder that only the killer would be likely to know. Now Barnaby and Troy are faced with two murder cases. In one of the sub-plots of this story, we meet Ava Garrett’s pre-teen daughter Karen, who has had to grow up far too fast. They live in a not-too-well-kept council house along with Ava’s lodger Roy Priest, who’s also seen too much for his nineteen years. Ava is not a physically abusive parent, but she is self-absorbed and irresponsible. So it’s left to Karen and, when he can help out, Roy, to do the ‘adult work’ of managing the household. That’s not the reason for the murders, but it’s a clear example of a hurried child.

We also see one in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies has always had a rare musical ability and has become a world class violinist. One terrifying day though, he finds that he can’t play note. So he begins to work with a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of his musical block. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers soon learn, this was no accident. As the novel goes on, we see how that death is related to Gideon’s inability to play, and how both are related to a long-ago family tragedy. Part of the novel shows what the Davies family has been like, and how Gideon was pressured from a very early age to grow up because of his musical ability. And that pressure has a lot to do with the kind of person Gideon is now.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok, features American ex-pat Rafferty, a travel writer who is also fairly good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s married to Rose, a former bar girl, now the owner of an aparment cleaning company, who herself had to grow up too fast. He’s also in the process of adopting Miaow, a former street child who’s seen more during her childhood than anyone should have to see in a lifetime. Being forced to grow up too fast has had a profound effect on Rose and on Miaow and through them, on Rafferty. Although he does his best to provide a good life for both, there’s a hardness to them, especially Miaow, that comes from not having had the chance to be a child.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She is academically gifted, and her dreams go far beyond the limits of her home in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. Her teacher, Ilsa Klein, has high hopes for her as well, and considers her a very promising student. Then everything begins to fall apart. Serena stops coming to class regularly, and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. It’s clear that something is wrong, and Ilsa wants to help, so she alerts the social welfare authorities. That turns out to be a mistake, as Serena’s mother is deeply resentful of that ‘interference.’ Then Serena disappears. Her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington, where she lives, back to Alexandria to help in the search. To her it’s shocking that three weeks have gone by and nothing has been done to find Serena. As the story moves along, we see that Serena has had to grow up too fast, and so have her siblings. In part it’s because of the family’s dysfunction; in part it’s because of the family’s socioeconomic situation. There are other factors too. And they play a role in the events that happen in the novel.

There are a lot of other crime novels in which we meet children who are forced to grow up before they’re ready. It’s very hard on them, and certainly doesn’t aid in helping them to become fulfilled, productive adults. There’s an eloquent commentary on it in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, which takes place in Glasgow. In this scene, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is visiting her friend Leslie. Here’s what Leslie has to say about a neighbour’s child:

‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’


Which novels with hurried children have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Denise Mina, Elizabeth George, Kate Grenville, Paddy Richardson, Timothy Hallinan