Category Archives: Denise Mina

Gimme Shelter*

SheltersIt’s arguably not as easy to go ‘off the grid’ as it once was, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. But if you know where to go and what to do, and you have the money and motivation, you can do it. Sometimes, though, it’s not as easy as just disappearing, even if you want (or need) to do that. For example, those dealing with domestic abuse (usually, but not always, women and children) may simply not have access to money, a car and so on. So they need to rely on shelters or on groups of ‘safe houses.’ Sometimes they’re helped by individuals too.

Shelters and other similar places have been around more or less since the 1970s; before then, someone who had to escape had very, very few choices. Even today it can be awfully difficult, but there are shelters and other places that can help to protect survivors of abuse. They’re certainly out there in real life, and they are in crime fiction too.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House features Helping Hands, a Southwark women’s shelter. One night, there’s a fire in a warehouse next door to Helping Hands, and one of its residents reports the incident. The body of an unidentified woman is found among the ashes, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid begins the investigation. At the same time, Kincaid’s partner, DI Gemma James, gets a call from the Reverend Winnie Montfort. One of Montfort’s congregants is missing, and she may be the unidentified woman. There are other possibilities though. One of them is Laura Novak, who works at Guy’s Hospital, and who is also on the Board of Directors at Helping Hands. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the shelter and the people who live and work there do figure into this mystery.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In the second novel Exile, she has a job at Place of Safety, a women’s shelter. There, she meets Ann Harris, who is one of the shelter’s residents. Then, Ann disappears. On the one hand, the residents are under no obligation to tell the staff where they go and what they do. On the other, it’s always a cause for concern when residents go missing, because it could easily mean they’ve returned to an abusive situation. So Mauri does worry about Ann’s well-being. Still, there’s nothing to indicate a problem until two weeks later, when Ann’s body is found in the Thames. Mauri immediately suspects that Ann’s husband Jimmy killed her. But Jimmy’s cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, thinks he’s innocent. So she and Mauri start to ask questions about what really happened.

When we first meet Zoë Sharp’s Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox in Killer Instinct, she’s left the armed forces for reasons she would rather not discuss. But she’s found a way to fit back into civilian life:
 

‘I’ve been holding self-defence at the Shelseley Lodge Women’s Refuge for the last couple of years.’
 

On the whole, she finds the work satisfying, and the shelter provides her a place to teach her classes in exchange for not charging its residents any tuition. One night, she goes with a friend to a karaoke night event at the newly remodeled Adelphi Club. During the evening, she gets into a fight with another patron Susie Hollins. When Susie is later found murdered, the police are naturally very interested in Charlie. If she’s going to clear her name, she’s going to have to find out who the killer is, and all of the possibilities are dangerous…

In Sara Paretsky’s Tunnel Vision, her PI sleuth V.I. Warshawski is the lone holdout against the powerful Culpepper brothers, who own the Chicago building where she has her office, and who want to sell it. To add to that stress, one night, she finds a homeless woman and her children living in the building’s basement. She’s trying to find a solution for this family when her most important client asks her to help him find a community service placement for his son, who’s been arrested for computer hacking.  Warshawski finds a place for the boy at Home Free, a homeless advocacy group. Then, Deirdre Messenger, who sits on Home Free’s Board of Directors, is murdered and her body left in Warshawski’s office. Warshawski knew the victim, since both were volunteers at Arcadia House, a women’s refuge. So even if the body hadn’t been found in her office, she’d have taken an interest. She starts asking questions and ends up uncovering some very dirty domestic abuse secrets in some very high places.

Of course, there are plenty of individuals who help those who need to escape, even if they’re not affiliated with a particular group. In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, for instance, private investigator Lena Jones works with her PI partner Jimmy Sisiwan to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from Purity, a polygamous sect. Rebecca’s father Abel has rejoined the sect after some time away, and has agreed that Rebecca will marry the group’s leader Solomon Royal. Rebecca’s mother Esther, who’s divorced from Abel, wants Rebecca to be returned to her. So Jones and Sisiwan track Rebecca down and rescue her. In the process, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and is badly wounded. Still, she thinks that since neither she nor Rebecca had anything to do with the incident, they’ll be fine. But shortly after Rebecca and Esther are re-united, Jones learns that Royal has died. Now Esther is a suspect in his murder and will very likely be extradited from Arizona to Utah to face trial. So Jones infiltrates Purity to find out who really killed the victim. As she gets to know the area, she discovers that what’s going on at Purity is much more than just teenage girls being forced to marry (as if that weren’t bad enough!). But she also learns of a few individuals who have helped some of the women and children escape. And that makes a big difference.

Domestic abuse shelters and refuges are important ‘safety nets’ for those trapped in abusive situations. So it’s little wonder they show up in crime fiction, too. And in real life, they can use all the help they can get. Just as an example, if you’re looking for a new home for books you no longer want to keep, why not consider such a shelter? A good book can provide a badly needed balm when someone’s in such a situation. Your time, your donations and your advocacy when funding’s being debated are also good ways to help.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Rolling Stones song.

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Filed under Betty Webb, Deborah Crombie, Denise Mina, Sara Paretsky, Zoë Sharp

Happy Ever After in the Market Place*

OutdoorMarketsHave you ever been to an outdoor market or bazaar? They can be great places to find all sorts of things from clothes to music to art, and a lot more besides. There are often food stalls, too (OK, perhaps not the most nutritious food, but still…). If you’ve been to this kind of market than you know that they can be a lot of fun, and sometimes there are some real finds.

Bazaars and outdoor markets also can make very effective backdrops for scenes in crime novels. They’re full of activity and because they’re open-air, a lot of different things can happen in them and still seem credible. They also offer really interesting ways for the author to introduce local culture, local food and so on. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Jane in Search of a Job, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, a young woman who thinks she’s found the answer to her financial troubles when she responds to an unusual employment advertisement. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ Jane is hired as a ‘double’ for Her Highness, the Grand Duchess Pauline of Ostrova. The duchess is afraid that revolutionaries from her home country will try to kidnap her, so it’s been agreed that the best thing to do is to hire an impersonator for a few weeks to take her place at certain public events. The arrangement works out well enough at first. Then comes the bazaar at Orion House, which is in aid of Ostrovan refugees. The duchess must appear there herself, since its sponsor knows her personally. But the team looking out for her safety concocts a plan to keep her as well-protected as possible. It’s successful enough at first, but then Jane finds herself in quite a lot more danger than she imagined…

Charlotte Jay’s Arms For Adonis is the story of Sarah Lane, a young English woman who’s living in a village near Beirut with her French lover Marcel. She decides to leave him and packs her things. Then she goes into Beirut where she visits an outdoor market. She’s enjoying looking through the stalls when a bomb goes off. This changes everything for Sarah. Before she really knows what’s happened, she’s rescued – or is it abducted? – and is whisked away to a house she doesn’t know. Her plan had originally been to return to London, but little by little, she finds herself enmeshed in a web of intrigue, revolution and murder.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from a friend Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop. Pawlovsky’s just gotten hold of a painting he suspects might be valuable, and he wants Revere’s opinion of it. Revere agrees and goes to the pawn shop. There he discovers to his shock that the painting is very likely a genuine Velázquez. He wants to do a little more background reading on the painting, and he’s worried about Pawlovsky keeping such a valuable piece of art in his shop. But Pawlovsky insists it’ll be safe there for the few hours it will take for Revere to do his research. Reluctantly, Revere agrees and goes to the library to read up on the painting. It turns out that this particular painting was one of a group that was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis and then disappeared. This adds a layer of real historical interest to the painting too. Excited about the possibilities, Revere returns to the pawn shop only to find that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Feeling guilty for abandoning his friend and putting him in that much danger, Revere wants to find out who is responsible. He believes that if he can track the painting’s journey from its last known place among Nazi ‘borrowed’ art to the pawn shop, he can find out who the murderer is. The trail leads Revere to Budapest where it seems that a crime boss named Szarvas has claimed ownership of the painting. Szarvas is, to say the least, not a pleasant or generous person, and there’s a very suspenseful scene in an outdoor market during which Revere tracks Szarvas down and tries to ask him about the painting – and then risks Szarvas’ displeasure.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place mostly in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Bruno is Chief of Police there, and has gotten to know the people he serves very well. One thing he knows (and values!) about them is their love of good food and good cooking. And like the other local residents, he enjoys St. Denis’ weekly market. Unfortunately for the townspeople, health inspectors from the EU Ministry of Health in Brussels have also taken an interest in the market. The people of the Périgord are no more eager to spread contamination than anyone else is, but they’ve had their own ways of preserving food safety for generations. They have no interest in ‘outsiders’ coming in and telling them how they must prepare, cook, serve and store food. Secretly, Bruno agrees with the locals, but as a police officer, he also has to do his job. As we find out in Bruno, Chief of Police, he has a creative way of striking that very delicate balance. While the ‘market raids’ of the EU inspectors aren’t really the main plot of this novel, they do give readers a look at the outdoor market culture of that area.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. To put it mildly, O’Donnell hasn’t had an easy time of it. She comes from a severely dysfunctional family and has her share of scars from that experience. She’s also had to deal with other ‘bad breaks’ and in some ways, she’s emotionally quite fragile. But she’s a strong character who’s working out who she’ll be and where she’ll fit in. In Resolution, the third novel in this series, O’Donnell works at a market stall, where she and a friend sell cleaning products. One day, Ella McGee, who sells bootlegged music at another stall, is viciously attacked. O’Donnell is facing her own troubles as she prepares to testify against the person who murdered her former lover. Her family problems haven’t gone away either. But she is willing to pitch in when McGee asks her for help in filling out a complaint form after the attack. To O’Donnell’s surprise, the alleged attacker is McGee’s own son. Soon O’Donnell finds herself getting involved in that case at the same time as she’s trying to work out the rest of her life.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Pranav Gupta hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out the truth about the murder of his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ Neil was on a visit to the Middle East, where he was giving guest lectures on antique carpets, and also choosing some valuable samples for the University of Saskatoon’s permanent display. He’d been visiting various homes, markets and so on to find what he wanted. According to the police, he and some friends were in an open-air market in Dubai having an impromptu party when some local thugs attacked and killed him. But his father doesn’t think it was a random murder. He believes that Neil was killed in a hate crime incident because he was gay. Quant isn’t sure that he’ll be able to find out anything that the police couldn’t, but he travels to Dubai to learn what he can. He soon discovers that Neil’s murder wasn’t in the least bit random. Oh, and fans will know that Quant is also involved in a case of open-air-market danger in Tapas on the Ramblas.

Bazaars and open-air markets really can be exciting, and you can find some terrific bargains and unexpected treasures. But as you can see from these few examples (I know, I know, fans of Timothy Hallinan’s and Angela Savage’s work), they can also be dangerous. So do be careful if you find yourself in one of them…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Charlotte Jay, Denise Mina, Martin Walker, Timothy Hallinan

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.

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

Give it All to Charity*

CharitiesThis is the time of year when all sorts of charitable groups and causes make major appeals for donations. And that makes an awful lot of sense, as giving to others is (supposed to be, anyway) a part of the seasonal ethos. And we all have our particular favourite causes and charities that we support. Charitable groups are so much a part of our lives that it makes sense that we’d see them in crime fiction. After all, people in fictional worlds need a helping hand too sometimes…

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we meet Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. She’s recently returned to England from India, and one day, visits a local dentist Henry Morley. That’s where she encounters Hercule Poirot, who’s having his teeth cleaned. Poirot doesn’t think too much more about their encounter until Chief Inspector Japp informs him that Morley’s been shot. As a matter of course, all of the patients who came to the office that day need to be interviewed and Miss Sainsbury Seale is no exception. In talking with her and looking into her background, Japp and Poirot find that she’s an actress who works with Zenana Mission in India. Everything about her seems above board as the saying goes, until she disappears.  At almost the same time, they find that another patient has died of an overdose of anaesthetic. Now they’ve got two suspicious deaths and a disappearance to solve. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the Zenana Mission isn’t the reason for Morley’s death. But it adds an interesting layer to Miss Sainsbury Seale’s character.

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometime-attorney Jack Irish investigates when a former client Danny McKillop is murdered. The trail leads to a man named Ronnie Bishop, who may know more about this case than he says. But the only problem is that Ronnie disappears. So Irish tries to find him. It turns out that Ronny once worked for the Safe Hands Foundation, a charity group that supports homeless children. In fact, he called the foundation’s head Father Gorman. So Irish goes to Safe Hands to try to track Ronnie down. Safe Hands isn’t the reason Danny McKillop was killed, but it turns out to play a role in the novel, and Irish finds out some useful information about Ronnie there. It’s a good example too of the way a charity group operates.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Mareen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell, who lives and works in Glasgow. In Exile, the second novel in the trilogy, Mauri works at Place of Safety, a shelter for battered women. While she’s there, she meets Ann Harris, one of the shelter’s residents. Soon enough, Ann disappears. That in itself isn’t that strange, as residents are not obliged to tell anyone where they go. But it does make the staff uncomfortable as it often means women are returning to abusive situations. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Ann though. But when she turns up dead in London two weeks later, it’s clear that something went horribly wrong. Everyone thinks that Ann’s husband Jimmy murdered her, but his cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, thinks he’s innocent. So she and Mauri start to ask questions. This novel is interesting in that many of the scenes take place at the shelter, so we get to go behind the scenes of a charitable organisation.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a volunteer for a Melbourne charity called the Soup Run. Its purpose is to deliver food, non-alcoholic drinks, medicine and clothes/blankets to Melbourne’s street people. Chapman is a baker, so she contributes to the Soup Run in two ways. She donates extra loaves of bread, rolls and other baked goods to the Soup Run’s collection. She also takes her turn riding with the Soup Run and helping to distribute the donations. The Soup Run may not be quite as formally organised as some other charities are, but it does a lot of good. There are other Melbourne charities too that we learn about in this series. In Devil’s Food, for instance, Chapman gets an unexpected visit from her mother, a back-to-nature hippie who goes by the name of Starshine. Starshine is worried because Chapman’s father, who goes by the name of Sunlight, has disappeared. Chapman agrees to see what she can do to find her father. She knows her father isn’t familiar with the city and doesn’t have money to get a hotel room. That leaves Melbourne’s various charities and missions including the Sunshine Sisterhood, Mission to the Miserable – the Sunnies. When Chapman goes there looking for her father, we see how a charity group works. Chapman encounters other charity groups too in the course of this novel, and it’s interesting to see how each operates.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Wings of the Sphinx, Vigatà Inspector Salvo Montalbano is called to a local landfill, where the body of an unknown young woman has just been discovered. She has no identification other than a tattoo on one of her shoulders, so Montalbano has to start there. With help from his friend television journalist Nicolò Zito, Montalbano discovers that the victim was one of a group of Eastern European girls who came to Sicily hoping to find jobs. All of them had been helped by a charity called Benevolence, founded and now run by Monsignor Pisicchio. On the surface of it, the charity does a lot of good, and it’s supported by some important people. But Montalbano comes to suspect that it’s not as benevolent as the name would suggest…

And then there’s the New Life Children’s Centre, which we encounter in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney gets an inside look at this charity when Jim Delbeck hires her to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the apartment building where she lived. Keeney travels to Pattaya, where the charity is based, to do some investigating and goes undercover as a volunteer there. She learns that this charity, run by Frank Harding, prepares Thai babies for international adoption. It’s a charity, so it’s partly supported by donations. But it’s also supported by the Thai government. So any hint of irregularity in the organisation could be most embarrassing and politically very difficult. Keeney will have to be very careful as she investigates, especially since it’s possible that Maryanne might have found out something about New Life that could create problems for the organisation.  Among other things, this story shows the sometimes very complex relationship between charity groups and governments.

Charity groups do an awful lot of good. I’ll bet you have your own particular favourites that you support. That’s a good thing; there’s too much need out there for any one of us to fill it alone.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s (Love is) What I Got.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Denise Mina, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Temple

I Write About What’s Real to Me*

Authentic Writing Phil Northern DEOne of the many things to love about reading is the sense of place one gets in a well-written novel. Some books give us a new perspective on places we know well; others show us places we’ve never been. But either way, a solid and authentic sense of place and therefore culture adds much to a story. Some would say it’s an essential ingredient.

Giving readers a sense of place and culture is partly a matter of scenery, locations and so on. But it’s more than that. It’s also giving readers a sense of the way the people who live in that place speak, act and interact. Subtle nuances such as eating customs, idioms and so on can give a novel a real richness. They can also add real authenticity to a novel and have readers thinking, ‘I felt like I was there.’

What’s interesting about that authenticity is that we may not pay close attention to it unless it’s not there. That’s when many readers get cranky.  For instance, I read a blog review recently of a novel that takes place in the US, but where the characters didn’t ‘feel American.’ I understand the point. However one defines ‘being American,’ or ‘being Australian,’ or ‘being English, ‘ or ‘being Russian,’ (or any other culture for the matter of that), one wants fictional characters to seem authentic.

As with most things in writing though, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. On the one hand, people do notice a lack of authenticity and sense of place. And they often get ill-tempered about it. On the other hand, if the characters aren’t interesting in and of themselves (apart from their cultures), then what the author intends as authenticity can come off as stereotyped. If the plot isn’t interesting, then the setting can’t always save a story. And there is such a thing as ‘dumping’ information about a culture or setting. That makes readers cranky too. Nonetheless, a skilled author shows what a place is like in all sorts of obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

Some authors (I’m thinking for instance of Deon Meyer, Nelson Brunanski, Denise Mina and Domingo Villar) are members of the cultures depicted in their stories. They write authentically because they know from growing up in those cultures what they’re like. I’m sure you have your own list of favourite authors like that – authors who are skilled at sharing their own ‘home’ settings, cultures, speech patterns and the like. It takes a special ability to balance writing about one’s own culture while at the same time including and welcoming readers who may not know about it. And a word of praise is due too I think to those who translate these authors’ stories. It takes a great deal of skill to capture that authenticity in another language. Trust me. So kudos to people such as Stephen Sartarelli, Anne Trager, Marlaine Delargy and Martin Schifino.

Other authors write truly authentic novels because they’ve lived in an area for a long time and really gotten to know the culture. That’s true for instance of Peter Temple. Born in South Africa, he moved to Australia in 1980 and he’s set his novels there. His stories and characters are distinctly Australian. In fact, his novel Truth won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award, which is given to a novel

 

‘…which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.’

 

You can’t get much more Australian than that.

The same sort of thing might be said of Tony Hillerman. Born in Oklahoma, he moved to the American Southwest and became thoroughly familiar with the Navajo Nation. Hillerman fans know that his Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series portrays life among the Dineh (the Navajo) in a respectful and authentic way. In fact it’s easy to forget (or perhaps it’s just me) that Hillerman was not a member of the Navajo Nation. He spent years among the Navajos and got to know the culture, the language and the subtle nuances of life and interaction before he really wrote about them. And he did so in such an authentic way that the Navajo Nation gave him their Special Friend of the Dineh Award – a mark of true respect.

As an interesting (well, I hope so) side note, Hillerman is said to have been much inspired by the work of Arthur Upfield, Upfield was originally from the UK, but moved to Australia in 1910. Most of his novels are about half-Aboriginal police detective Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. Upfield was neither born in Australia nor a member of any of Australia’s Aboriginal cultures. And yet his depictions of the land and the people ring very true.

Authors can also do a lot careful research to make sure their stories are authentic in terms of characters, language, interactions, setting and the like. Of course, it’s a good idea for any author to ‘do the homework’ as a part of writing a story. Otherwise the story is not only inauthentic, it’s inaccurate. And that’s another thing that can make readers quite grouchy. And authors such as Shona (S.G.) MacLean and William Ryan have to rely quite a bit on that careful work because they write historical series. So they have the added challenge of giving readers a realistic sense of a different time with different technology, assumptions, lifestyles, and lots more.

What about you? Do you find yourself irritated if the characters and setting you’re reading about don’t feel authentic to you? Or are you more plot-driven, so if the story is a good one, that’s what matters? If you’re a writer, what do you tap to make the story authentic? Your own experience? Research? Something else?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of winter in Southeastern Pennsylvania/Northern Delaware. I write about that area in part because it’s my home. I know the place.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hands Like Houses’ Weight.

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Filed under Anne Trager, Arthur Upfield, Denise Mina, Deon Meyer, Domingo Villar, Marlaine Delargy, Martin Schifino, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Temple, Shona MacLean, Stephen Sartarelli, Tony Hillerman, William Ryan