Category Archives: Charity Norman

To Sit Up Straight and be Well Behaved*

One of the characters we see in a lot of crime fiction is the ‘dutiful’ child (whether young or adult). That’s the one who never causes trouble, who looks after the elderly parents, takes over the family business, and so on. On the surface, that sort of character may not seem particularly interesting. But the crime novelist has all sorts of possibilities when it comes to the ‘obedient one.’ That character may seethe with resentment. Or, may be quietly plotting who-knows-what. Or may be the protagonist. Or…  Perhaps that’s the reason there are so many such characters in the genre.

Agatha Christie used ‘dutiful’ characters in a lot of her stories. For instance, in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), we are introduced to the Crackenthorpe family. Patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe lives at the family home, Rutherford Hall, with his dutiful daughter, Emma, who has never married. He also has three sons, Harold (also dutiful), Alfred (the ‘black sheep’), and Cedric (the family bohemian). Everyone gathers for Christmas, and right away there’s tension. In part that’s because Luther Crackenthorpe resents the fact that his father left the family fortune not to him, but to his children. There are other conflicts, too, and some of them stem from the fact that Emma and Harold have ‘behaved themselves,’ while the others haven’t. But they pale by comparison when the body of a woman is found on the family property. It seems that she was killed on a train, then thrown from it. The murder was witnessed by Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy, a friend of Miss Marple’s, but she couldn’t see the murderer’s face. And no-one knows who the victim is at first. Miss Marple finds out who the victim was, and is then able to work out who killed her and why. That sort of family dynamic shows up in other Christie novels, too, doesn’t it, fans of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas?

One of the main plot points in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit concerns the conflict between brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They are both products of an abusive home, but they couldn’t be more different. Mason, the ‘good son,’ has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s gotten. He ended up with a scholarship to law school and has plans for a successful career. Gates, on the other hand, has squandered his considerable natural athletic ability, and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and on money from the boys’ mother, Sadie Grace. One afternoon, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument is put ‘on hold’ for a while, but flares up again later that night, when the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. This time, the outcome is tragic when Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up what happened. But it comes back to haunt him years later. Now, he’s a prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gates has become a drug trafficker and is arrested for selling cocaine. He’s given a long sentence and asks his brother to help get him out. This time, Mason refuses. Gates then threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When Mason calls his brother’s bluff, he finds himself indicted for a murder he didn’t commit.

Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses is the story of sisters Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan. It’s 1966 South East London, and the sisters both want to experience the culture of experimentation and liberation going on. But they are very different. Bridie is a devout Catholic, obedient to her parents, and protective of her younger sister. Midge, on the other hand, is more daring, and questions her family’s religious beliefs. One Friday night, they persuade their mother to let them go to the Palais Royale to dance. Her only condition is that their cousin, Jimmy, take them and bring them back. That’s something the girls can easily accept, and the plans are made. The night starts off well but ends in tragedy that impacts Bridie and Midge for the rest of their lives. And the fact that Bridie is ‘the good sister’ plays a role in what happens.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we are introduced to the Franco family. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco brings his family from Italy to New York City, to be a part of ‘the American dream.’ He gets a job in a shoe repair shop and, within a few years, has his own repair and sales business. The family prospers, and Ben has hopes for his children. But then one night, he gets into a bar fight with a man called Luigi Lupo and kills him. He’s promptly arrested and jailed. But that’s the least of his problems. It turns out that Lupo was the son of notorious gangster Tonio Lupo, who isn’t about to let this murder go unchallenged. He visits Ben in prison, and curses his family, promising that each of Ben’s sons, Alessandro ‘Al,’ Niccola ‘Nick,’ and Leonardo ‘Leo,’ will die at the age of forty-two, the same as Luigi was when he was killed. As the story moves on, we see what becomes of the brothers, and how the curse plays out. We also see how their personalities conflict. Al is the ‘good son.’ He works hard, spends wisely, and takes over the family business as expected. Nick becomes an actor and has his own successes and abject failures. And Leo gets into quite a lot of trouble, even though Al tries to take care of him. It’s not until much later that he matures. Those differences do make for some conflicts among the brothers.

And then there’s Charity Norman’s See You in September. Cassy Howells and her boyfriend, Hamish, have just finished university, and decide to spend the summer volunteering and exploring New Zealand before settling down to ‘adult life’ in the fall.  The trip starts off well enough, but when Cassy discovers that she’s pregnant, Hamish lets her know that he doesn’t want to be a father, and that she’s on her own. Broken-hearted, alone, and vulnerable, Cassy becomes the perfect candidate to be taken in by a cult led by an enigmatic man named Justin. At first, she feels loved and accepted. But things start to change, and it becomes clear that the Last Day will be coming. Whatever that actually means, it could be tragedy for Cassy. Meanwhile, Cassy’s parents, Mike and Diana, and her younger sister, Tara, are terribly worried about her. When they discover that she’s joined the cult community and intends to stay there, Mike and Diana try to bring her home. But they may not succeed before the Last Day comes. And, even if they do, she may not be the same. One of the threads that runs through this novel is Tara’s feeling towards her sister. She loves Cassy, but she’s angry. She’s been ‘the good sister,’ trying to help keep things together at home. She’s been there to deal with her parents’ fears, her own concerns, etc., while Cassy hasn’t had to face any of it. And that impacts Tara’s perspective.

A character who’s ‘dutiful’ and ‘obedient’ may seem on the surface to be uninteresting. But things may not be that way just beneath. And that can add layers of character development and plot points to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Maxi Priest’s It Ain’t Easy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Charity Norman, Martin Clark, Steph Avery

I Want Adventure in the Great Wide Somewhere*

Many young people choose to travel before they settle down to jobs and adult responsibilities. Some do a gap year before university. Others travel after they finish university. Still others travel instead of going to university. Either way, that year or so of travel can add a real richness to one’s life, and some memorable experiences.

Of course, that sort of travel can lead to all sorts of unforeseen circumstance. Just a quick look at crime fiction is all it takes to show that gap years and other travel experiences can have very unexpected outcomes.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory, Dickory Dock, we are introduced to Sally Finch. She is from the US, but she’s studying in London under a Fulbright Scholarship, and is living in a hostel for students. All goes well until one of a pair of her evening shoes goes missing. At first, it seems like a mean, but not dangerous, prank. Then, other things go missing. Now, Sally’s worried about what’s going on in the hostel. The manager, Mrs. Hubbard, invites Hercule Poirot to do a little discreet investigation, and he agrees. On the night of his visit, another resident, Celia Austin, confesses to taking some of the things (including Sally’s shoe), and everyone thinks the matter is settled. The next night, though, Celia dies. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, and now Sally’s mixed up in it all. It’s certainly not the experience she’d planned when she came to London.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook features an American named Tad Rampole. He’s recently finished his university studies and has decided to travel a bit before he settles into adult life. His university mentor suggested that, since he’s planning to be in England, he should pay a visit to Dr. Gideon Fell. Rampole takes that advice and makes the arrangements. On his way to Fell’s home, he meets a young woman named Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten right away, and the feeling is mutual. Later, Fell tells Rampole a strange story about the Starberths, It seems that, for two generations, the Starberth men were Governors at a nearby prison, which has now fallen into disuse. There’s still a family ritual associated with the prison, and it’s now the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin, to participate. He’s concerned, because several of the Starberth men have died violent deaths. Tragically, Martin dies, too. Mostly because of his feelings for Dorothy, Rampole works with Fell to find out the truth about the murder.

Cath Staincliffe’s Half the World Away is the story of Lori Maddox, who decides to do a gap year backpacking in South East Asia. Her mother, Jo, and stepfather, Nick, support her choices, although, of course, they’re concerned, as any parents would be. Lori begins her trip and keeps in regular contact at first. She blogs about her adventures, she sends emails, and so on. Then, the contact starts to become a little more erratic. At first, there’s no reason to really worry. The gap year can be the adventure of a lifetime, so it’s natural for young people to get distracted. Then, Lori stops communicating at all. Now, Jo is really worried. She turns for support to Lori’s father, Tom, and together, the two decide they need to go and find their daughter. Lori was last known to be in Chengdu, China, where she was teaching English, so that’s where Tom and Jo travel. When they get there, they get very little help from the local authorities. Even their consul can’t be of much assistance, because it’s in the interest of the local police to preserve the area’s reputation. So, Jo and Tom will have to find out the truth on their own.

In Charity Norman’s See You in September, Cassy Howells and her boyfriend, Hamish, are planning a trip to New Zealand as a break between their university studies and taking up adult life. They’re planning to volunteer for a few weeks, and then explore the country. Cassy’s parents, Diana and Mike, are excited for her, but, of course, concerned, as you’d expect. Things go well at first. But Cassy and Hamish start arguing, as couples do. That adds tension to their relationship. Then, Cassy discovers to her shock that she’s pregnant. When Hamish makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be a father, the two break up, and Cassy’s left alone and vulnerable. She’s rescued by a group of people who live on an eco-commune. They invite her stay with them for a few days so that she can decide what to do next. Cassy gratefully accepts and joins the group. Little by little, she feels comfortable with them, and in the end, she decides to stay with them. Soon enough, it’s clear that she’s joined a cult which is led by a charismatic man named Justin. Meanwhile, her parents, particularly Diana, are quite worried about her. She’s cut off contact, and in other ways is no longer the Cassy they thought they knew. So, they decide to go and get her. By this time, though, Cassy is fully integrated into the cult; she even has a new name, Cairo. In the meantime, Justin has revealed that the Last Day is coming, and that could spell disaster for the group. Now, the question is: can Diana and Mike get Cassy/Cairo to leave before tragedy strikes?

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Darkness of the Heart, which features her sleuth, retired academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. In one plot thread of this novel, her daughter, Taylor, has just finished secondary school, and decides to take a gap year. Her reasoning makes sense, but that doesn’t mean Joanne doesn’t have any concerns. I admit I’ve not (yet) read this book; I’m a book or two behind in the series. But if you want to read more about it, visit Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, who did an excellent review.

Gap years and other travel can be exciting and fulfilling adventures for young people. They can also be quite dangerous, and you never quite know what will happen. Little wonder this plot point comes up in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken’s Belle (Reprise).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Charity Norman, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr

In The Spotlight: Charity Norman’s See You In September

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. This week, we’ll continue our special look at the finalists for the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. Let’s turn today’s spotlight on Charity Norman’s See You in September.

Cassy Howells is planning a trip to New Zealand with her boyfriend, Hamish. They’ve just finished university, and the idea is that they’ll do some volunteer work at a wildlife sanctuary, and then explore the country, before Cassy has to return to the UK to begin the adult life of work. The two young people fly from London to Auckland, and it’s not long before things go wrong.

Cassy and Hamish have started to argue, as couples sometimes do. So, there’s some tension between them. Then, Cassy discovers to her dismay that she’s pregnant. Hamish isn’t ready to be a father, and basically tells Cassy that she’s on her own as far as the baby is concerned. Alone, pregnant, and afraid, Cassy has become all of a sudden very vulnerable.

Cassy is rescued by a group of people who live in an eco-friendly, completely sustainable commune. They invite her to stay with them until she decides what her next steps will be, and she’s extremely grateful to them. They give her a warm, safe place to stay, food, and safety. And before long, she feels welcome and comfortable in the group. And she admires the sustainable way their community functions. In the end, they invite her to be one of them.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Cassy’s parents, Diana and Mike, are beginning to be concerned. Cassy hasn’t been in contact in a while, and Diana, especially, is worried. At first, Mike puts it down to unreliable Internet accessibility. And, after all, Cassy’s having the adventure of a lifetime. She’s more than likely too caught up in that to be in touch. But that doesn’t quite satisfy Diana.

For her part, Cassy decides to stay with the group she’s met. It’s led by an enigmatic man named Justin, whom everyone in the group seems to revere. And, at first, she’s glad of her decision. The members take care of each other, work together, and so on. It seems like a commune in which everyone is loved. But, little by little, we learn that things are not all as they seem. As time goes by, Cassy is drawn more and more into the commune’s life and thinking – something the members call The Way. She’s even given a new name, Cairo.

By this point, Diana, Mike, and Cassy’s younger sister, Tara, are terribly worried about Cassy. She’s been in touch a few times, but her contact is becoming less frequent.  Then, she cuts them off completely. They now believe that she’s involved with a cult that could be dangerous. Mike travels to New Zealand, but he doesn’t make any progress with Cassy, because by this time, she’s fully engaged in the commune.

Justin gradually reveals to the community that the Last Day will be coming, and that everyone needs to prepare. And it turns out that this Last Day could very well be disastrous. When Diana and Mike find out about this, they know they have to fight even harder to get Cassy back before the Last Day arrives.

This isn’t a ‘typical’ crime novel, if there is such a thing. It’s not a case of a crime being committed, strictly speaking, and investigated. But there are arguably crimes involved. As we learn about the community in which Cassy/Cairo lives, we learn some dark truths about life there. And some of them would, by most people’s definition, count as crimes.

But mostly, this is a novel about how cult communities draw people in, and how they work. Why, for instance, would a smart (and Cassy is smart), educated young person allow herself to be drawn into such a group? In part, it’s that the group finds Cassy at a very vulnerable point in her life. But it’s more than that. The process isn’t simple. It’s also worth noting that these are not evil people, out to kill others or to destroy the world. As we learn about the individuals involved, we see why Cassy/Cairo has an attachment to them. In that sense, Norman presents a complex portrait of a group of people.

Another element in the novel is the impact that belonging to the group has, both on Cassy/Cairo and on her family. As Mike and Diana get more and more worried about their daughter, it strains their marriage. So does Cassy’s/Cairo’s rejection of them as time goes on. And it hits Tara hard, too, as she goes between worry and anger at her sister for what she’s done to the family.

The story is told from several points of view, mostly Diana’s and Cassie/Cairo’s (third person, mostly past tense). Readers who prefer only one point of view will want to know this. And as one or the other character has a memory of something, the story fills in that memory. So, it doesn’t move in a strictly chronological way. Readers who prefer that their stories be told only chronologically will notice this. It’s also worth noting that each chapter begins with a rule for indoctrinating a new person into a cult community.

There isn’t much violence in the novel, although a little of it is there. The focus of the story is more psychological than it is physical. Readers who dislike gore in their novels will appreciate this. So will readers who don’t like a lot of profanity. There is some, but it isn’t a major presence in the novel.

See You in September is the story of what happens when a smart, brave young woman gets involved in a potentially dangerous cult. It features a vivid rural New Zealand setting, a fascinating, if unsettling, group of commune members, and an enigmatic leader who has his own agenda. It also features a family who desperately wants the daughter and sister they knew to return. But what’s your view? Have you read See You in September? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 1 October/Tuesday, 2 October – The Sound of Her Voice – Nathan Blackwell

Monday, 8 October/Tuesday, 9 October – The Hidden Room – Stella Duffy

Monday, 15 October/Tuesday, 16 October – A Killer Harvest – Paul Cleave

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Filed under Charity Norman, See You In September

Taking My Thoughts Back to You Across the Sea*

There’s a lot of excitement here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…. I’m privileged and humbled to announce that I’m on the judging panel for the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards – the top prize for New Zealand crime fiction.

Among lots of other things, it means that I’m reading some fantastic crime fiction from and about New Zealand, and I couldn’t be happier. The longlist for this year’s award has just been announced. Here are the contenders:

 

Marlborough Man by Alan Carter (Fremantle Press)

Baby by Annaleese Jochems (Vitoria University Press)

See You In September by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin)

The Lost Taonga by Edmund Bohan (Lucano)

The Easter Make Believers by Finn Bell

The Only Secret Left To Keep by Katherine Hayton

Tess by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press)

The Sound of Her Voice by Nathan Blackell (Mary Egan Publishing)

A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press)

The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy (Virago)

 

It’s a diverse group of writers and stories, and I’m looking forward to diving into these waters!  The shortlist will be announced in July, and the awards will be presented during the writers’ festival, WORD Christchurch, in late August.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, surf’s up and the water looks fine!!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ruru Karaitiana’s Blue Smoke.

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Filed under Alan Carter, Annaleese Jochems, Charity Norman, Edmund Bohan, Finn Bell, Katherine Hayton, Kirsten McDougall, Nathan Blackell, Paul Cleave, Stella Duffy