Category Archives: Christopher Fowler

But Who Would Believe It?*

Weird EventsDid you ever have one of those ‘you couldn’t make this up’ experiences? They do happen, which is why there’s arguably something to the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. Let me give you a real example. I promise, this happened to me. The other afternoon, I was walking my dogs in one of the grassy areas we haunt. I looked up and across a nearby parking area and saw someone standing by a car (back to me) dressed in nothing but what nature provided. Now, there are places (such as certain beaches and so on) and some cultures where that’s not so unusual. But in the culture where I live, it’s odd indeed. You couldn’t make it up. And in this case, I didn’t.

The whole thing got me thinking about how those sorts of unusual events and things are woven into crime fiction. Yes, I was thinking about crime fiction at a time like that. I am beyond redemption. Here’s the challenge that the crime fiction author faces. On the one hand, those weird things do happen. They really do. On the other, stretching the limits of credibility too far in a novel is enough to pull a reader firmly out of the story. Even in ‘screwball’ novels, most readers don’t want to suspend all of their disbelief. So weaving in those weird incidents takes thought and care. But when it’s done well, those strange things can keep readers’ interest and add to a story.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissioner Peterson has one of those odd experiences. He breaks up a scuffle between some thugs and the man they’re harassing, and everyone involved runs off. Not so unusual. The would-be victim has dropped in his haste a hat and a goose. Again, not so strange. But when Peterson’s wife starts to prepare the goose for cooking, she finds a large jewel in its craw. That is, of course, one of those odd things that just simply doesn’t happen – but it does. Peterson brings the case to Sherlock Holmes, who works with Dr. Watson to trace the jewel back to its origin. When it’s all outlined, it’s not as unbelievable as it seems, but my guess is that Mrs. Peterson would likely have told that story to people for a very long time.

In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, we learn about the first case investigated by London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). In 1940, a pavement chestnut vendor leaves his stall to obey the call of nature. When he comes back, he finds that there is a pair of feet among his chestnuts. That’s definitely not the sort of thing that happens every day, and the vendor is of course shaken up by it. Arthur Bryant and John May of the PCU take the case, and find out that the person originally connected to those feet was a dancer preparing for an upcoming Palace Theatre production of Orpheus. It turns out that her murder, and other murders that occur, are linked to each other and to a modern-day explosion that occurs at the PCU offices. In this instance, there is an explanation for those feet turning up in the vendor’s cart. But it’s definitely one of those stories that would be hard to believe if you didn’t know it was true.

Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom introduces readers to Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. In this novel, she’s relatively new to the business, so she can’t really be choosy about her clients. That’s why she accepts the case of Christine Arvisais. As Arvisais tells the story, she was engaged to marry Gordon Hanes, but Hanes broke it off. Then, just a few months later, on the date they were going to wed, Hanes was shot. The police weren’t able to find the killer, but a lot of people think that Arvisais is responsible. She wants Jackson to find out who the real murderer is, so that her name will be cleared. Jackson investigates and finds that Arvisais is by no means the only one with a motive for murder. And as she gets closer to the truth about Hanes’ death, she also finds herself in some danger. At one point, she’s even shot at. That’s not so odd in a crime novel. What’s a lot more unusual is that she is saved by the underwire in her bra. It’s not such an improbable thing that readers wouldn’t stay in the story, but it’s certainly a very odd thing to happen.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that those novels often include unusual things that would be very hard to believe if the characters didn’t actually experience them. For example, in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg gets a visit from Valentine Vendermot, who’s come from Ordebec to see him about her daughter Lina. Her story is intriguing enough that Adamsberg travels to Ordebec to investigate more deeply. Among the many odd events and people in this novel is Mme. Vendermot’s son Hippolyte ‘Hippo.’ He’s a bit eccentric to begin with, and what makes him even more unusual is that he talks backwards when it suits him. Not something you’d be inclined to believe – until it happened.

There are also plenty of crime stories that make use of strange sorts of coincidences that you wouldn’t be likely to believe – except that they do happen. If you’ve ever experienced a crazy coincidence, you know what I mean. Of course, it’s important to handle those things very, very carefully in writing; readers are easily put off by contrived coincidences. Still, those things do take place, both in real life and in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Arthur Hastings pays a visit to his friend John Cavendish, who lives near the village of Styles St. Mary. Not so odd, really. But what is unusual is that on his way out of the local post office one day, Hastings bumps into an old friend he hasn’t seen in years – Hercule Poirot. Neither man knew the other was in the area, so it’s a happy surprise for both. They’re both there for believable reasons, too. Poirot is living with a group of Belgians who were displaced by World War I. Hastings is visiting a friend. And yet it seems on the surface of it very odd. And it turns out to be very fortunate when Hastings’ hostess Emily Inglethorp is murdered.

But those strange things happen. Don’t believe me? Here’s another true story. Mr. COAMN and I were on our honeymoon in the Bahamas, far away from home. One day, we happened to wander into a liquor shop. We were browsing there when we heard a very familiar voice. A good friend of ours from university was in the same store with his new bride, whom we also knew. You couldn’t make that up. And I didn’t. Have you had one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ moments? Does it pull you out of the story when they occur in novels?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from ZZ Top’s Made Into a Movie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Fowler, Fred Vargas, Jill Edmondson

There Are Places I Remember*

RemeniscencesAn interesting post at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about a plot point that’s become more common in crime fiction in the last years. The genre is arguably featuring more older people as central characters (the reasons for that are, I think, the stuff of another conversation). Their reminiscences and ‘looking back’ on older crimes can be an effective way to tie those crimes in with newer ones.

That premise – that an older person looks back and tells the story of an older crime – isn’t of course brand-new. For instance, a few of the short stories in Anna Katherine Green’s 1915 collection The Golden Slipper and Other Stories have that plot point. Green’s sleuth is New York heiress and socialite Violet Strange, who has a secret career as a private investigator. More than once she finds that modern cases are connected with older ones, and that the key is an older person’s reminiscences.

We see that same plot point in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, and in that novel, it’s the older person who takes on a central role. As the story opens, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates the case, which seems to make little sense at first. Burke had no family and wasn’t known to have anything really valuable that would be worth stealing. He had no known local enemies either. And yet, Alberg doesn’t think this was a freak, random killing. Since Wilcox reported the murder and claims to have discovered the body, Alberg becomes convinced that he knows more than he’s saying; and of course, Alberg’s right. As the novel goes on, we learn about the history between Wilcox and Burke, and what was behind the murder. That part of the story relies on Wilcox’s reminiscences and memories.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House is the first in the Arthur Bryant/John May series. Bryant and May been a part of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) for several decades, but everything changes when a bomb goes off in the PCU offices. In order to solve this case, May needs to return to the team’s first (1940) case, which had at its heart London’s Palace Theatre and its doomed production of Orpheus. That story, which included more than one murder and a disappearance, is told from May’s now-older perspective. And as it turns out, his memories of what happened, and the outcome of the Palace case, have everything to do with solving the modern-day case.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind takes an innovative approach to the ‘older person looking back’ plot point. Dr. Jennifer White is a retired Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who left her position after being diagnosed with early dementia. Now she lives with a caregiver, Magdalena, but as the story begins, she’s still quite high-functioning. She becomes involved in a case of murder when her neighbour, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole, is killed. Detective Luton is assigned to the investigation and is soon interested in White as a suspect. White knew the victim well for thirty years, and the body was mutilated in a professional way that suggests a doctor or other medical professional is the culprit. But that evidence doesn’t conclusively prove White is the murderer. What’s more, White’s dementia is progressing, which makes it increasingly difficult for Luton to find out from her exactly what happened on the night of the murder. This story is told from White’s point of view, so readers learn the story of her relationship with the O’Tooles through her memories. Bit by bit, the truth of the crime comes out through those reminiscences.

And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Amateur divers seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go out to explore Lake Vittangijärvi. The ruins of a World War II plane that went down there have never been recovered, and the young people want to see what they can find. They locate the plane, but are trapped under the ice by a murderer and killed. Wilma’s body surfaces in the spring, and Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate. With help from attorney Rebecka Martinsson, they discover that this case has everything to do with the area’s past. And some of the vital information they get comes from the memories of older residents; through those memories we learn about an older event that triggered a lot of what’s gone on in the area since then.

And I don’t think a post about the ‘older person looking back’ motif in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. That’s the story of Sheldon Horowitz, an octogenarian from New York, who’s gone to live in Norway to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Lars. One thread of this story follows Horowitz as he rescues a small boy from the thugs who murdered his mother, who lives upstairs from Rhea and Lars. Horowitz hides the boy and then goes on the run with him. Another thread of the story tells Horowitz’ own personal history, including his stint in service during the Korean War, and the death of his son Saul in Vietnam. Those memories play a role in the way Horowitz reacts to the modern-day events. What’s interesting here is that Horowitz is slowly slipping away from being grounded in the modern day because dementia is starting to take a bit of a toll. But as readers familiar with this novel will know, he’s still smart, capable and resourceful.

Sometimes, older people don’t remember very recent things. But they often remember details from many years earlier, and those can be crucial in solving modern-day cases. These are just a few examples (I’m sorry, fans of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Johan Theorin). Which ones do you remember?

Now, may I suggest that the next stop on your blog round be FictionFan’s Book Reviews. There you’ll find excellent and thoughtful reviews, plenty of wit, and great ‘photos. And porpentines.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles In My Life.

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Filed under Alice LaPlante, Anna Katherine Green, Åsa Larsson, Christopher Fowler, Derek B. Miller, Johan Theorin, L.R. Wright, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Take Out the Papers and the Trash*

clutterMost of us have been taught (well, I have, anyway) that it’s important to be tidy and keep things where they belong. And there is logic to that. If your things are tidy and in their proper places, you’re less likely to lose them. And for a lot of people, there is something reassuring, even restful, about an uncluttered room.

But the reality of keeping things tidy isn’t always fun. And sometimes it’s not logical if you think about it. After all, why put something away if you know you’re going to be using it again very soon? So there are plenty of people, both real and fictional, who don’t exactly keep their things neat and uncluttered. And that can add an interesting layer of character depth in a novel.

For instance, consider Mr. Clancy, the detective story novelist we meet in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). He’s on a flight from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Unfortunately for Mr. Clancy, he’s been doing research on similar kinds of poisons, so Chief Inspector Japp takes a particular interest in him. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find out who killed the victim and why. Since the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, Poirot pays Mr. Clancy a visit:
 

‘The room…was in a state of chaos. There were papers strewn about, cardboard files, bananas, bottles of beer, open books, sofa cushions, a trombone, miscellaneous china, etchings, and a bewildering assortment of fountain pens.’
 

Those familiar with Poirot’s own habit of neatness can probably imagine his reaction…

In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, we meet Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who gets involved in a murder case when one of her clients Dr. Felix McClure is murdered. At first, his former scout Ted Brooks is suspected of the killing, since McClure had found out he was dealing drugs on campus, and was about to reveal it. But then Brooks disappears and is later found dead. So now Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have two murders to investigate. Ellie Smith is definitely a ‘person of interest’ as the saying goes, so Morse interviews her. He also finds himself attracted to her, and the feeling is mutual. Each is keenly aware that she’s a suspect in a murder case that he’s investigating, and that makes things awkward. Here’s a bit of what Dexter has to say about Ellie’s rooms:
 

‘The young woman turned back the grubby top-sheet on the narrow bed, kicked a pair of knickers out of sight behind the shabby settee, poured out two glasses of red wine…and was sitting on the bed, swallowing the last mouthful of a Mars bar, when the first knock sounded softly on the door.’
 

There’s a lot to like about Ellie as a character, but tidiness is not one of her personality traits.

In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, PC Nick Ingram investigates when the body of Kate Sumner is found on the beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset. At the same time, her almost-three-year-old daughter Hannah is found wandering around in the nearby town of Poole, and WPC Sandra Griffiths works to find out where the child’s family is and why she’s wandering around all alone. Ingram and Griffiths work with DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to put the pieces of the puzzle together. They narrow down the list of suspects to three people: the victim’s husband William Sumner; schoolteacher Tony Bridges; and Bridges’ roommate Stephen Harding. At one point the police visit the home that Bridges and Harding share:
 

‘The house gave the impression of multiple occupancy with a couple of bicycles leaning against the wall at the end of the corridor, and assorted clothes lying in heaps about the furniture and floor. Dozens of empty lager cans had been tossed into an old beer crate in a corner – left over…from a long-dead party – and overflowing ashtrays reeked into the atmosphere.’
 

The untidiness isn’t the reason for the murder, but it’s an interesting look at these two characters.

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel introduces readers to artist Sally Love. She is a former frined of Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. So when the news comes that some of Love’s work will be exhibited at the Mendel Gallery, Kilbourn decides to see the show and perhaps even renew her friendship with the artist if that’s possible. At one point, Kilbourn visits the house/studio where Love is living:
 

‘There were canvases stacked against the wall and a trestle table with brushes and boxes of pencils and rags and lengths of wood and steel that looked like rulers but were unmarked. In the corner farthest from the window were a hot plate, a couple of open suitcases and a sleeping bag.’
 

Kilbourn gets involved in a murder investigation when the gallery’s owner is murdered and Sally becomes a suspect.

Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) series featuring Arthur Bryant and John May begins with Full Dark House. In that novel, the PCU is devastated when a bomb blast goes off, destroying its office. Shortly before the blast, Bryant was working on his memoirs, including a discussion of the PCU’s first case. May suspects that the blast may have something to do with that first case, so he decides to take another look at it. In the process, he reminisces about his first meeting with Bryant in 1940. At the time, he was new on the job, just transferred to the PCU. Bryant had already been working there. May’s first impression of Bryant’s office is one of chaos, and Bryant himself is a bit eccentric:
 

Peculiar Crimes Unit, isn’t it frightful?’ I think their perception of the word ‘peculiar’ and mine differ somewhat. I’ve got some bumph here you can read through.’ He rooted around among his papers, sending several overstuffed folders to the floor, but failed to locate anything specific.’
 

Bryant may not be an orderly, tidy, conventional thinker. But as fans of this series know, he’s brilliant and he and May make a good team.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust. An excavation at the Westmann Islands reveals a set of bodies in the basement of one of the houses. The bodies were buried there during a devastating volcano eruption in 1973 and hadn’t been disturbed since then. At the time of the eruption, Markús Magnússon was living in that house. He was only a teenager, but it is possible he might know something about the murders. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir agrees to represent him, and tries to find anything that might exonerate him. At first Markús says his childhood sweetheart Alda Thorgeirsdóttir can corroborate his story that he knew nothing about the killings. But soon after the bodies are discovered, she herself dies. The police call her death a suicide, but whether or not it is, this means that Thóra will have look into the case more closely to find out what really happened on the day of the eruption. She and her secretary Bella travel to the Westmann Islands to talk to people who were there at the time. One of them is Kjartan Helgason, the harbourmaster for the island where the explosion occurred. Thóra and Bella visit him at his office to see what he recalls from that day:
 

‘It seemed to Thóra from the piles and scraps of paper covering the room that the man’s accomplishments were scarcely exemplary, despite his view of the sea. ‘I live by the sea, too, and I know the feeling,’ she said, lifting a strange-looking device from the nearest chair. ‘Can I put this somewhere else?’ she asked, looking around to find a secure place…’
‘Just throw it on the floor,’ replied Kjarten as he took his own seat.’
 

Kjarten may know a great deal about the eruption, and Thóra wants to learn as much as she can. But his surroundings certainly don’t bode very well for her search for the truth.

Untidiness doesn’t always reflect a cluttered mind. And lots of very interesting characters don’t exactly dust every day. And sometimes that clutter can tell a lot about a person, whether real or fictional. Which ‘cluttery characters’ have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Yakety Yak.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Colin Dexter, Gail Bowen, Minette Walters, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

There Were Incidents and Accidents*

So-Called AccidentsSome deaths are quite obviously murders. In those cases, at least in crime fiction, the killer doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was murder. Rather, the murderer may work hard at an alibi, or may work hard to prove there was no motive. But really, it’s much easier to disguise the murder as an accident if it’s possible. And sometimes, that makes it awfully difficult to prove that a death was murder.

Examples of murders made to look like accidents run all through crime fiction, possibly because it’s really credible that someone would want to cover up a murder that way. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of examples – many more than I could list in one post. But here are a few.

Agatha Christie uses the so-called accident in several of her stories. To take just one example, in Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The enigmatic Mr. Shaitana gathers four sleuths (including Poirot) and four people that he hints have gotten away with murder. After the meal, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the evening, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were in the room at the time – the very four people Shaitana more or less accused of murder. Now the four sleuths are faced with the task of figuring out which of these equally-plausible suspects is guilty. One of them is Anne Meredith. At one point, she’d served as companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning by hat paint. Apparently, she confused the hat paint with her medicine, a very plausible accident. Or was it?

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), a young boy Isaiah Christiansen tragically dies after a fall from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had befriended fellow Greenlander Smilla Jasperson, and she is upset at his death. She’s drawn to the scene of the accident, and when she gets there, she sees signs in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. She begins to ask questions and soon discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. She persists though, and her search for answers takes her back to her homeland, where she finds the connection between Isaiah’s death and some secrets hidden in Greenland.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). The novel actually tells two stories, one of which is a recounting of the PCU’s first case. In 1940, the Palace Theatre is set to do a production of Orpheus. Then one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania dies in what some say is a freak accident. The police are investigating that death when Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed by a piece of scenery. Again it’s regarded as a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Still, it’s beginning to look very much as though someone is determined to stop the production. When another death occurs, and then a disappearance, Bryant and May and their team come under intense pressure to solve the case before there are any more tragedies.

Louise Penny’s Still Life is our introduction to the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of its residents Jane Neal is killed during the Thanksgiving holiday in what looks like a hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to the scene, and he soon finds that this death was actually a murder. The question though is who would have had a motive. The victim was a beloved former teacher whom everyone seemed to respect. Gamache and the team get to know the town, though, and some of its history. And it’s in the past that they find the motive and therefore, the killer.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone thinks he’s found a great new way to make money. He’s a marine biologist (well, in name at least) who’s hired by agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut’s company has been accused of pouring toxic waste into Florida’s Everglades, and Hammernut needs proof that his company doesn’t pollute. Perrone offers that in the form of a way he’s developed to fake the results of water testing so the water looks clean. The two begin to do business and all goes well enough at first. Then, Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, and threatens to report it. Now he needs to get rid of her, so he tells her they’re going on an anniversary cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the trip, he pushes Joey overboard, thinking that’s the end of his problems. At first everyone, including the police, thinks it’s a terrible accident and there’s much sympathy for Perrone. What he doesn’t know though is that Joey didn’t drown, and she’s made her own plans for revenge…

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man. In the late 18th-Century Lady Drusilla Davenish lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. The family is excited about Lucie’s upcoming wedding to Giles Saxborough. Everything changes though, when Giles’ father (and Lady Drusilla’s godfather) Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a tragic riding accident. But things don’t quite add up for Lady Drusilla. Her godfather was an expert horseman. It’s highly unlikely that he’d have died in that way. So she starts to ask questions. Not long afterwards, Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed in what’s put down as a horrible yachting accident. But Lady Drusilla is convinced that it’s more than that. And there’s more than one possible explanation. It might be connected to a smuggling operation she’s recently discovered. Or it might be someone with a vendetta against the Saxborough family. Or it might be something else…

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report suggests it might have been suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t think so. It could also have very well been an accident. Whatever the cause, Delbeck wants to know the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney takes the case and travels to Pattaya. As a part of her investigations, she decides to learn more about at New Life, going undercover as a volunteer. As she gets closer to the truth about Maryanne’s life and death, she finds out that some people do not want their secrets revealed…

At least in fiction, murders designed to look like accidents can serve a lot of purposes. They can give murderers effective ways to hide their crimes. They can also give the author a way to build suspense and interest. And they can allow the author the chance to lead the reader up the proverbial garden path. After all, sometimes an accident is just an accident. There are so many other examples of this plot point in crime fiction – many more than I could name. So…what gaps have I left?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Fowler, Dawn Harris, Louise Penny, Peter Høeg

You Lift Up My Spirits*

SDaliIt’s said that everyone has a talent. And there’s nothing quite like a job where one gets to use one’s natural ability. But there are some people who are truly gifted at something. It may be music, dancing, sport, acting, art or something else. Whatever it is, those are the people with a ‘once in a lifetime’ gift. They can’t always explain exactly how they do what they do, but their skill is extraordinary. They’re out there in real life of course, and we certainly see them in crime fiction. Their gifts make them very special and sometimes, very vulnerable.

Agatha Christie mentions this kind of rare gift in a few of her stories. One, for instance, is Appointment With Death. In that novel, the Boynton family is taking a holiday in the Middle East, including a sightseeing trip to Petra. While they’re at Petra, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. That’s logical, given her age and bad health. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied, and he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and begins the investigation. It turns out that Carbury’s suspicions were all too correct: Mrs. Boynton died of digitalis poisoning. She was, as Poirot puts it, a ‘mental sadist’ who kept her family cowed, so there is no lack of suspects. In the end, Poirot finds out who really poisoned Mrs. Boynton and why. One of Mrs. Boynton’s children is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny,’ who is already mentally and emotionally fragile. But, she turns out to have a rare gift for the stage. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that when that gift is discovered, we see what a great actress Ginny is. I know, I know, fans of Henrietta Savernake in The Hollow… 

Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory introduces us to the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies has a rare gift for the violin, and is now world-class. He’s expressed himself musically since he was a child, and can’t imagine life without his music. Then one frightening day, he finds that he can’t play a note. He immediately seeks psychological help to find out what’s blocking his playing. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night by what seems at first to be an accidental hit-and-run incident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers find, there’s nothing at all accidental about it. The deeper they look into the case, the more they learn about how dysfunctional the Davies family is. They also learn about the tragic death by drowning of Gideon’s younger sister twenty years earlier. It turns out, as you can imagine, that that incident is related both to Eugenie Davies’ death and to her son’s struggle with his music.

In James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce, we meet gifted musician Tee Bobby Hulin. Here’s what Burke says about his talent:

 

‘…Tee Bobby possessed another, more serious gift, one he seemed totally undeserving of, as though the finger of God had pointed at him arbitrarily one day and bestowed on him a musical talent that was like none since the sad, lyrical beauty in the recordings of Guitar Slim.’

 

Hulin may be extraordinarily gifted, but that doesn’t prevent him being suspected in two vicious rape/murder cases. New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux doesn’t care much for Hulin as a person, but that doesn’t mean he thinks the man’s guilty of horrible crimes. And there are other suspects in these crimes. Robicheaux finds that in order to discover who the killer in this novel is, he will have to face some demons from his own past.

In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, we learn of the first case investigated by Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). In that case, the Palace Theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus was sabotaged by several tragedies. One was the murder of gifted dancer Tanya Capistrania, who was to have had a solo part. In fact, she was leaving a rehearsal session when she was killed. She was so talented that one possible motive for her death was professional jealousy. The PCU found out who was responsible for the tragedies, including this murder, but there was one major thing left undone. Now, years later, it comes back to haunt John May when a bomb explodes in the PCU offices.  As May works to find out the truth about that bombing, he finds out that it’s directly related to that long-ago case.

The main protagonist in Gail Bowen’s series is political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. The series follows her home life as much as it does the mysteries she investigates, so over the course of the novels, readers get to know her family. One member is her adopted daughter Taylor. Taylor is a truly gifted artist, who is trying to come to terms with some difficult issues in her life. At the same time, she is learning what it means to have her kind of talent. In The Gifted, we learn that two of Taylor’s pieces of art will be included in a benefit art auction. Her parents are deeply concerned about how this might affect Taylor. She is, after all, only fourteen, and they want her to have as safe and ‘normal’ (whatever that means) a childhood as possible. On the other hand, Taylor’s talent is undeniable, and she is passionate about her art. To deny her the opportunity to evolve as an artist would be like removing a limb. So despite some misgivings, Taylor’s permitted to contribute to the auction. One of her pieces has unintended and tragic consequences, and throughout the novel, we see how much a part of Taylor’s life her art really is.

And that’s the thing about people who have rare talents. Those gifts are integral and essential. Perhaps those with special gifts can’t explain exactly how they do what they do. But they couldn’t imagine not using them. Which gifted characters have made an impression on you?

 

On Another Note…

grammys-paul-mccartney-gi

This post is dedicated to one of the world’s truly gifted musical artists Paul McCartney. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!

 

ps  The ‘photo above is by Salvador Dalí, who also had rare and special talent.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Follow Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke