Category Archives: Daphne du Maurier

That’s When the Fog Rolls In*

FoggyHave you ever seen a thick fog roll in? Or waked to find that the fog had already settled in? There’s just something about fog that can make anything seem a little eerier. Things don’t show up clearly, so it’s easy to imagine things that aren’t there, or misunderstand things that you do see.

Fog can be dangerous, too. People get lost, drivers can get into accidents, and so on. With all of that eeriness and danger, it’s little wonder there’s so much fog in crime fiction. Space permits only a few examples here, but I know you’ll think of a lot more of them than I could, anyway.

One of the classic examples of crime-fictional fog adding to the atmosphere is in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The story has always gone that the Baskerville family is haunted by a curse brought on them by long-ago ancestor Hugo Baskerville. The story is that he sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was badly smitten. Ever since then, the curse has taken the form of a phantom hound that haunts the family. The most recent victim is Sir Charles Baskerville, and now, the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, may be at risk. At least that’s what family friend Dr. Mortimer tells Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is busy with another case, and sends Watson to the family home, Baskerville Hall, in Dartmoor. Later, Holmes joins him. Here’s a bit of one of their experiences out on the moor:
 

‘So as the fog-bank flowed onward, we fell back before it until we were half a mile from the house, and still that dense, white sea, with the moon silvering its upper edge, swept slowly and inexorably on.’
 

The fog certainly makes it hard for Holmes and Watson to really see well. But in the end, they discover the truth about the Baskerville curse and the death of Sir Charles.

Dartmoor fog also plays its role in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Mary Yellan keeps a deathbed promise to her mother and goes to stay with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience at their property, Jamaica Inn. From the first, it’s an eerie and unpleasant place, and Mary soon finds that it hides some awful secrets, including murder. Without spoiling the story, I can say that at one point, Mary finds herself in grave danger, and a thick fog just makes things worse.
 

‘And then, in front…barring…progress, rolled a great bank of fog out of the night, a white wall that stifled every scent and sound.’
 

If you’ve ever been out in that sort of fog, you know that it can make moving around nearly impossible.

London fogs are, of course, legendary. And Marie Belloc Lowndes used the fog to great atmospheric advantage in The Lodger. In that novel, we meet Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have recently retired from domestic service. They’ve opened their home to lodgers as a way to add to their income, but haven’t had much luck. Then one day, a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth comes to the house asking about a room. He’s willing to pay well, and he seems to be a man of quiet habits, so the Buntings take him in quickly. He’s eccentric, but all goes well enough at first. Besides, everyone’s attention is caught up with a series of awful murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger. Then, first subconsciously, then with more awareness, Ellen Bunting begins to wonder if there is something truly wrong about her new lodger. He goes out in all kinds of weather, including the worst fogs, and behaves strangely in other ways, too. Gradually, she begins to suspect that he may be The Avenger that everyone is seeking. There are mentions of fog in several places in this story. It makes it hard for witnesses to see the killer as he leaves crime scenes. It makes it difficult, too, for anyone to pursue him. And in a literary sense, it adds a great deal to the atmosphere of the story.

Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez stories take place in Shetland, where fog can make travel to, from or among the islands impossible. That’s what happens, for instance, in White Nights. In that novel, Perez and his new girlfriend Fran Hunter are attending an art exhibition at which some of her work is being displayed. Unexpectedly, one of the other attendees breaks into tears and claims he doesn’t know who he is. Perez does his best to help the man, but the next day, he’s found dead in a beachside storage shed, apparently a suicide. But Perez begins to suspect that this man was murdered. Then, there’s another murder, and Perez has to re-think everything. And he has to do his share of it alone, too. The fog is so thick that at first, the Inverness police can’t send anyone to support him. In the end, though, Perez finds out the truth about the deaths and about the secrets that several people are keeping.

And then there’s John Meany’s In The Fog. An elderly couple, Frank and Dora Parker, are fishing one morning near their Oregon home. Then a thick fog rolls in, obscuring almost everything. Through it, Frank sees what looks like a young woman coming out of the fog with a knife.  She starts to clean it, and Frank thinks she looks as though she needs help. But she doesn’t answer when he calls to her. Next, he sees a young man come out of the nearby woods dragging a body. Soon, Frank is convinced he’s seeing the immediate aftermath of a murder. But the trouble is, Dora hasn’t seen anything. All she sees is fog and shoreline. It doesn’t help matters that Frank has dementia. It hasn’t completely incapacitated him, but how much can one rely on what he says he sees? If Frank is going to prove he’s not crazy, he’s going to have to find out the truth about what he thinks he saw.

But that’s the thing about fog. It can make you think you’re seeing things that you’re not. Or are you? Little wonder it rolls in on all sorts of crime novels.
 

ps. The two ‘photos you see were taken on the same day, of exactly the same scenery. See what a difference fog makes??
 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Train’s When the Fog Rolls In.

44 Comments

Filed under Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier, John Meany, Marie Belloc Lowndes

The Atmosphere is Electric*

AtmospheresAn interesting guest post on crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta’s site has got me thinking about atmosphere. In part, the post’s focus is on character development, and that’s important of course. But the post also mentioned the larger context – the atmosphere.

Writers, of course, can use context for a number of purposes, far too numerous to discuss here. So I’m going to just mention a couple of ways in which crime writers use atmosphere.

Sometimes, crime writers use atmosphere to serve as a stark contrast to the murder(s) that are the main plot threads of their story. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure: the peaceful, lovely small town that hides secrets.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories are like that. For instance, Hallowe’en Party takes place in the village of Woodleigh Common, a small, outwardly peaceful place. One afternoon, several residents are visiting Apple Trees, the home of town social leader Rowena Drake. They’re helping her to get ready for a Hallowe’en party planned for later that evening. Also among the group is detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During the preparations, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder once. Everyone immediately hushes her up, and the assumption is made that she said what she said to call attention to herself, especially as Mrs. Oliver was there. But later, at the party, Joyce is murdered. Now everyone has to face the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and help find out what happened, and he agrees. When the two of them visit Apple Trees to talk to Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Oliver says,
 

‘‘It doesn’t look the sort of house there’d be a murder in, does it?’’
 

And it doesn’t. It’s a neatly-kept, pleasant house in a small, peaceful community. Nothing creepy about it. And that contrasts with what happens at the house, and with what is later revealed about some events in the town.

Ira Levin uses a similar strategy in The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to find low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes smoothly. The town is beautiful, the residents are pleasant, and everyone settles in. But then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her seriously. But then, some things happen that show just how right Bobbie was. Levin fans will know that he takes quite a different approach in Rosemary’s Baby, where the apartment building that features so heavily in the novel is depicted as rather eerie right from the start.

Nelson Brunanski’s novels featuring John ‘Bart’ Bartowski often feature the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. It’s a quiet town where everyone knows everyone, and where life is mostly peaceful. That lovely small-town backdrop contrasts with the main murder plots of the stories. For example, in Crooked Lake, the first of the series, the body of Harvey Kristoff is found on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is former head greenskeeper Nick Taylor, whom Kristoff recently had fired. But Taylor claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart to help clear his name. In Frost Bite, Bart gets involved in the murder of Lionel Morrison, a CEO with quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge owned by Bart and his wife Rosie. Later, Bart discovers Morrison’s body under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. Crooked Lake’s peaceful, ‘down home’ sort of atmosphere serves as a really interesting contrast to the murders that happen there.

Of course, some crime writers use a story’s overall atmosphere to add to the suspense. That, too, can be quite effective. For example, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. When her mother dies, Mary obeys her mother’s last request and goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who own Jamaica Inn. The inn is in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. Before Mary even arrives, she’s warned about Jamaica Inn, but she chooses to continue the journey. And when she arrives, she finds that it’s every bit as dreary and unpleasant as she’d heard. The place is isolated, run-down and creepy. Her uncle is unpleasant and abusive, and her aunt so downtrodden that she does nothing about it. This atmosphere serves as the backdrop for a case of murder, and for some very dark secrets that Mary discovers.

Several novels in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make mention of the old Hadley house. Fans of this series will know that it has a dark history, and that adds to its eerie atmosphere. Even Gamache, who is not a fanciful person, doesn’t like going there. In The Cruelest Month, a murder takes place there. A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance during her stay. The first attempt doesn’t go well, but another is scheduled during the Easter break, and is to be held at the Hadley place. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s said that she was frightened to death. But soon, it’s discovered that she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. In this case, the house’s creepy history and atmosphere add to the suspense and tension.

And then there’s Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, which features DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. In that novel, two sets of remains are discovered in the Peak District on Pity Wood Farm, which used to be owned by the Sutton family. It now belongs to a Manchester attorney named Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the property after the remains were already there. So the detectives focus on the Suttons and on the people who lived in the area when they owned the farm. The nearest village is Rakedale, and Fry and Cooper are hoping to get some background from the residents. But Rakedale is a close-mouthed, creepy place. Few people are interested in speaking to the police, and even fewer in discussing the Suttons. It makes for a tense sort of atmosphere.

Whether the author chooses to use atmosphere to contrast with a murder (or murders), or add to the tension, it’s hard to deny the importance of atmosphere in adding to a story. Which atmospheres have stayed with you?

Thanks for the inspiration to Sue and her guest, David Villalva! Now, please go visit Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for crime writers, and a fascinating place to learn all kinds of interesting things.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s So Many Paths.

25 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ira Levin, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Stephen Booth

But You Just Keep Me Hanging on Again*

Building Tension Without GoreI think most of us would agree that a high-quality crime novel builds tension and suspense without resorting to a lot of gore and gratuitous violence. Everyone’s idea of what ‘counts’ as ‘too much’ or ‘gratuitous’ violence is likely to be a little different. But all of us have our limit. And there are ways to keep people turning and swiping pages without a bloodbath.

How, exactly, does a crime writer go about that, though? How can an author keep the tension strong in other ways? Here are just a few of my ideas. I’m sure you’ll have your own, too, and I’d love to learn from them.

 

Creepy Settings
 

Eerie settings can take on a life of their own, as the saying goes. When they’re depicted well, they can add quite a lot of suspense to a story. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle uses Baskerville Hall to good effect in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In that novel, Sherlock Holmes sends Dr. Watson to Baskerville Hall on Dartmoor to help investigate the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Legend has it that the Baskerville family is cursed by a phantom hound, and that’s the reason for his death. Holmes isn’t sure that’s true, though. In any case, family friend Dr. Mortimer wants to prevent a similar fate for the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville. As you can imagine, Sir Charles’ death has a much more prosaic explanation than a curse. One interesting thing about this story is that there isn’t a lot of violence in it. The tension and suspense aren’t built that way. The setting, though, is eerie. First, there’s the bleak moor, which at night is not exactly a warm, welcoming place. There’s the house itself, too, which
 

‘…was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare here and there where a window or coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil. From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenelated, and pierced with many loopholes.’
 

It’s certainly not a cheerful, bright place.

Neither is the eponymous lodging that features in Daphne’s du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Also located on Dartmoor (hmm……), it’s owned by Joss Merlyn and his wife Patience. Their niece, Mary Yellan, goes to stay with them when her mother dies. Before she even arrives, she’s warned about the place; and when she arrives, she finds that the warnings have been more than justified:
 

‘She [Mary] went out of the room and into the dark passage, bumping against the settle in the hall, and so upstairs, feeling her way with her hands, judging her whereabouts by turning round and facing the stairs again. Her uncle had told her the room over the porch, and she crept across the dark landing, which was unlit, past two doors on either side – guest rooms, she imagined, waiting for those travelers who never came nowadays, nor sought shelter beneath the roof of Jamaica Inn – and then stumbled against another door and turned the handle, and saw by the flickering flame of her candle that this was her room, for her trunk lay on the floor.
 

Not the sort of place that suggests a happy, warm story. Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, the violence is more implied than depicted in detail (although there is more of it in this story). The setting builds the tension as much as anything else does.

 

The Elements

 

Along with physical setting, authors can also use the elements to build tension without getting gory. In Nevada Barr’s Firestorm, for instance, US National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been sent to Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. She’s to serve as a medic for those fighting a wildfire – the Jackson fire – in the area. Weather predictions are for colder air and snow to move in, so the hope is that the firefighters will soon be able to leave the area. Pigeon and a small group remain behind, though, to help an injured comrade. That’s when a freak thunderstorm forms and changes everything. A firestorm is whipped up, and all of the team dives for cover in individual shelters. When the storm passes, the firefighters check on each other only to find that one of them has been murdered. Now, Pigeon has to help the other exhausted firefighters, and at the same time find out who the killer is. This novel uses the quickly-changing and dangerous elements to add suspense to the story, rather than a very high ‘body count,’ or a lot of brutal gore.

That’s also true of Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, which introduces his sleuth, Sheriff Walt Longmire. In this novel, Longmire and his deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti investigate two murders, both of young men who were involved in a previous rape. There are a number of possibilities, including that the family of the rape victim has exacted vengeance. Although the story has some dark elements, it’s not a really gory novel. And the violence that there is, is not extended. Part of what builds the tension here is a snowstorm that moves in during a trek that Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear make to try to prevent a third murder. The weather is brutal, and the two men are at serious risk. That’s what adds to the suspense, rather than a lot of violence.

 

Psychological Tension

 

Authors can also use the buildup of psychological tension to invite readers to stay engaged in a story. That’s what Agatha Christie does in And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people visit Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. They’re all there for different reasons, but as we learn early on, they’ve all been deliberately brought to the island. After dinner on the first night, each is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Shortly afterwards, one of them suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another dies. Soon enough, it’s clear that someone is trying to kill all of them. The survivors have to find out who that person is, and stay alive themselves. Admittedly, there’s a higher ‘body count’ here than there is in some of Christie’s other work. But the deaths are not described in ugly, gory detail. The real tension lies in the growing paranoia and the knowledge that someone in the same house is a killer.

Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train also uses a solid buildup of psychological tension. The real action in that novel begins when Guy Haines travels across country by train to visit his estranged wife Miriam, from whom he’s hoping to get a divorce. While he’s en route, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno. The two men get to talking, and before very long, Bruno proposes that each man commit the other man’s murder. He will kill Haines’ wife if Haines kills his father. At first, Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously. But then, Bruno actually kills Miriam, and demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain. Now Haines has a terrible dilemma. In this novel, the violence isn’t the main part of the story, really. It’s the buildup of psychological tension as we slowly see the kind of person Bruno really is, and as Haines tries desperately to get out of his situation.

There are a lot of other ways, too, to ramp up the suspense in a story without a bloodletting. Which keep your interest the most? If you’re a writer, how do you build suspense without gore?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ Hanging on a Heartbeat.

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Daphne du Maurier, Nevada Barr, Patricia Highsmith

In The Spotlight: Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s sometimes quite an overlap between what we think of as the Gothic novel, and what we think of as crime fiction. It’s not surprising, either, when you consider what makes these genres ‘tick.’ To show you what I mean, let’s turn today’s spotlight on an interesting example of crime fiction that also ‘counts,’ I think, as Gothic fiction. Let’s take a closer look at Daphne du Maurier’s historical novel Jamaica Inn.

As the novel begins, it’s 1820 in Cornwall, and twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellan is in a coach on her way from her home in Helford to Jamaica Inn, between Bodmin and Launceston. The weather is horrible, the road is lonely, and several people have already warned Mary about Jamaica Inn, but she has an important reason for going: she’s keeping a promise she made to her now-dead mother. Mary’s Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn run Jamaica Inn, and it was her mother’s last wish that she should go to them.

When Mary finally arrives at the inn, she sees right away that it’s a cold, forbidding place. From the first moment, her Uncle Joss is boorish and abusive. He treats Mary badly and Patience even worse, and he’s physically strong enough to do far worse damage than verbal insults. Patience is, as you can imagine, frightened and passive, doing everything she can to keep her husband from having an outburst.

As if the domestic situation weren’t bad enough, the inn itself is not hospitable. No-one ever stays there. Mary’s been told it’s because the inn has a bad reputation, but it’s never been made clear to her exactly why. It seems that the locals are too afraid of Joss to talk about it. For another thing, the place is old and in need of repair and refurbishing. It’s not in the least bit comfortable.

Mary is lonely and unhappy at the inn, disgusted by her uncle, and homesick for Helford. But she is also worried about Aunt Patience. She is sure that her aunt won’t survive long without her presence. So she grits her teeth and stays. It’s not long before she learns that something eerie is going on at the inn. Strange people come to the inn at night, seem to leave boxes there, and then go away again. When she asks her aunt about it, the only response she gets is fear, and the admonition to say nothing and do nothing.

With Aunt Patience unwilling or unable to help, Mary can’t resist trying to get some answers for herself. Her determination to take care of Aunt Patience as best she can, and to find out the truth, get her into very grave danger, especially when Joss discovers that she’s found out more than she should. Matters only get worse as Mary learns more and more of the Merlyn family history, and even more so when she learns what the inn is really hiding.

Then, there’s murder. Now, Mary is in peril not just because of what she knows about the inn, but because the killer may strike again. She’ll have to get to safety if she’s to stay alive.

This story has several elements of the Gothic novel in it. For one thing, there’s the crumbling and truly creepy inn. Here, for instance, is a description of Mary’ room:
 

‘The walls were rough and unpapered, and the floorboards bare. A box turned upside down served as a dressing-table, with a cracked looking-glass on top…The bed creaked when she [Mary] leaned upon it, and the two thin blankets felt damp to her hand…A noise came from the far end of the yard, a curious groaning sound like an animal in pain. It was too dark to see clearly, but she could make out a dark shape swinging gently to and fro. For one nightmare of a moment…she thought it was a gibbet and a dead man hanging. And then she realized it was the signboard of the inn, that…had become insecure upon its nails and now swung backwards, forwards, with the slightest breeze.’
 

It really isn’t a pleasant place. The terrain is inhospitable, too, with rain, chill and fog. It’s bleak and blasted.

Also present here, as in many Gothic novels, is the element of horror and fear. A few times in the novel. Mary is in very real danger, and we feel her vulnerability. There’s one scene, for instance, where some of Joss Merlyn’s compatriots come to the inn for drinks and food. When they meet Mary, they make no secret of what they’d like to do with her, and it is scary. There’s also a sense that she has nowhere very much to turn. There’s also an element of murky history in the novel, as we learn how the Merlyns came to own the inn and why everyone dislikes the family so much. And there’s real horror when Mary discovers the truth about the inn.

Mary is the central character in the novel, and her battle of wits with Joss forms an important thread of tension and suspense. But there are other characters who figure in the story. For instance, there’s Joss’ brother Jeremiah ‘Jem.’ He’s a self-admitted horse thief and opportunist who dislikes his brother almost as much as Mary does. And there’s Francis Davey, the Vicar of Altarnun. He’s an enigmatic man who has a way of being unnerving, even as he remains soft-spoken and calm. At the same time as Mary depends on his help, she also is anxious about him. There’s also Squire Bassatt, from whom the Merlyns bought the inn. He, too, has a history with the family.

As to Mary Yellan herself, she’s smart, resourceful and brave. She’s badly frightened by what happens at the inn, and sickened when she finds out the real truth about it. And, like anyone else in a similar kind of danger, she is both vulnerable and anxious. But at the same time, she is doggedly determined not to give up. She is faced with some difficult choices and situations, but she doesn’t shrink from what she has to do.

The story takes place in 1820, and was published in 1936, so as you can imagine, there are a lot of attitudes that we might find offensive today. And there’s a great deal of sexism, and even some misogyny. Mary herself is a product of the times, and sometimes behaves in ways that today’s young women would eschew. In that sense, the novel is a period piece, if you can use that term for an historical novel.

The mystery itself – what is really happening at Jamaica Inn and why – makes sense given the context, and the truth is very sad. The solution to that and the murder case is at the same time sad and quite scary. Like other Gothic novels, this one has a hint of otherworldliness about it, but it isn’t a supernatural sort of story. Rather, it’s the spooky feeling that the old, creaky inn, strange characters, layers of lies and bleak setting give to the story.

Jamaica Inn is the story of what happens when a young woman tests her limits in a truly eerie place. It features a harsh setting, a tragic case of mystery and murder, and some enigmatic characters. But what’s your view? Have you read Jamaica Inn? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 27 July/Tuesday 28 July – The Blackhouse – Peter May

Monday 3 August/Tuesday 4 August – Working Girls – Maureen Carter

Monday 10 August/Tuesday 11 August – Massacre Pond – Paul Doiron

26 Comments

Filed under Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn

And All the Sinners Saints*

Interesting CriminalsIn an interesting post at Col’s Criminal Library, Col makes the point that criminals can be interesting, even engaging, protagonists – at least as interesting as ‘good guys.’ I think he has a well-taken point. There are plenty of cases where a criminal is the protagonist, or at least a strong main character, and is appealing, even sympathetic. It takes a lot of careful work on the part of the author. Most of us aren’t primed to like people who commit crimes. But when it’s done well, having a criminal as the protagonist or a main character can add an interesting innovation to a story.

For example, in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, we meet twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellan, who’s grown up contented in Helford. When her mother dies, she fulfils a promise she made and travels to Cornwall, where her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss keep Jamaica Inn. Even during the trip, Mary’s been warned about the inn, and told she’d be better off not going. But, determined to keep her promise, Mary perseveres. From the moment she arrives, though, she learns that all of the gossip about the place seems to be true. Uncle Joss is boorish, dangerous and abusive. Aunt Patience is mentally fragile and frightened into docility. Mostly out of compassion for her aunt, Mary remains and tries to make herself useful. But it’s not long before some frightening things begin to happen. One of the main characters in this story is Joss’ brother Jeremiah ‘Jem.’ Jem is a self-admitted horse thief and opportunist who leads a far from blameless life. He’s gotten into his share of trouble. But he is portrayed as an interesting, even sympathetic character. He doesn’t make light of the things he’s done; at the same time though, there are positive aspects to his personality and choices, so that he becomes a more rounded sort of character.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank is the story of professional thief Mike Daniels and his team mates. They’ve decided to pull off a major heist – one that will set them up for life. Their target is the City Savings Deposit Bank. The problem is that the bank is of course equipped with the latest in surveillance and security. So in order to so the job, they’ll need to work with an architect. Daniels finds such a person in Stephen Booker, who’s recently been let go, and has taken a job as a night cab driver. One night, Daniels happens to be in Booker’s cab, and the two get to talking. As time goes by, they talk more and more; finally, Daniels lets Booker in on the scheme. At first, Booker is reluctant; he has stereotyped views of criminal, and certainly doesn’t want to be one. But Daniels slowly persuades him otherwise. The team now makes its final plans, and the heist proceeds. But then a sudden storm changes everything. In this novel, Daniels and the other thieves are portrayed as friendly, sympathetic characters, whose profession just happens to be illegal.

Stealing is one thing; killing is another. And yet, there are books and series where murderers are portrayed as interesting characters. For example, in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, we are introduced to eighty-year-old George Wilcox. From the beginning of the novel, we know that he has murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. When the killing is reported to the police, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg begins the investigation. It isn’t very long before Alberg begins to suspect that, at the very least, Wilcox knows more than he is saying. And soon, he is sure that Wilcox is guilty. But he can’t get the evidence he needs to link Wilcox to the crime. What’s more, he can’t find any sort of motive. As he gets to know Wilcox better, he learns more about the man, and we find that Wilcox is hardly the stereotypical hardened and unsympathetic criminal. He is a peaceful, garden-loving, (generally) law-abiding man. There’s a lot to like about his character. And yet, he has committed murder, and he knows he’ll need to outsmart Alberg if he’s going to get away with it. So he also shows himself to be a quick thinker and a shrewd one. He’s an interesting character.

So is Vuk, a Bosnian Serb who was raised in Denmark, and whom we meet in Leif Davidsen’s The Serbian Dane. In the novel, he is hired to kill Sara Santanda, an Iranian author who’s been sentenced to die by the Ayatollahs of Iran. He’s up against Per Toflund, who is a security expert with the Danish national police. Toflund and his team have been charged with protecting Santanda during her trip to Denmark, where she is scheduled to give a newspaper interview. As the novel goes on, we learn a good deal about Vuk, his experiences growing up and later, his experiences during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Vuk isn’t portrayed as a unidimensional ‘killing machine.’ Rather, he is given a solid backstory and some layers to his personality.

We also see that with several of the characters in Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy. In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Sudden Arrival of Violence, readers learn about the lives of Glasgow’s crime leaders. We also learn about the paid assassins they hire to take care of their ‘problems.’ These are not mindless brutes, although there is certainly plenty of violence inherent in what they do. They’re people of business, who map out their plans in ways that are similar to those who own legal businesses. And the people they hire to do their killing are just as professional – well, the skilled ones are. This trilogy offers a really interesting look at the lives of those involved in Glasgow’s underworld. On the one hand, they aren’t at all light ‘caper’ novels. On the other, they show these people as interesting, rounded characters.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. This story’s focus is a woman who’s recently been released from prison, where she served time for murder. She’s given housing and settles in with her companion, a Pit Bull named Sully. For a time, she and Sully do all right. But then, a woman whose child attends the nearby child care facility complains about Sully. Then the local council gets involved and forces Sully’s human companion to give him up, as he’s a restricted breed. As she plots her revenge, we get to know her and her story. And we see that there is much more to this protagonist than just the fact that she killed someone.

It can be a challenge to create a criminal, especially a murderer, who is interesting and sympathetic. But when it’s done well, such characters can add leaven to a story. Which ones stay in your mind?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.

24 Comments

Filed under Angela Savage, Daphne du Maurier, L.R. Wright, Leif Davidsen, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock