Category Archives: Donna Leon

Was I So Unwise*

Unwise ChoicesI’m sure you’ve had those moments. Someone you know, who’s otherwise an intelligent person, is doing something really foolish. You may even think (or say), ‘How can you be so stupid?’

There are lots of reasons why smart people do stupid things. All sorts of factors (denial, greed, and fear being a few) play roles in what we do; intelligence is only one of them. We all have those ‘blind spots’ though. And in crime fiction, when smart people make foolish choices, the result can bring real trouble. This sort of plot thread has to be done carefully; otherwise, it takes away from a character’s credibility, and can pull a reader out of a story. Still, when it’s done well, it can make for a solid layer of suspense and character development.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, we are introduced to pawn shop owner Mr. Jabez Wilson. One day he visits Sherlock Holmes, bringing with him an unusual story. His assistant showed him a newspaper advertisement placed by the Red-Headed League, inviting red-headed men to apply for membership in the group, and for a job. Wilson went along to apply, and was chosen for the job. It turned the work was easy, too: copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The only stipulation was that he was not to leave his work during ‘office hours.’ Then one day, Wilson went to his new job only to find the building locked and a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. He wants Holmes to help him solve the mysteries behind these weird occurrences, and Holmes agrees. Wilson isn’t a particularly stupid person (although he could be accused of being a bit credulous). But he seems to have had a sort of ‘blind spot’ about this job, which turns out to be connected to a gang of robbers who wanted to use his pawn shop to tunnel into a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He is soon drawn into a case of murder, though, when retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most likely suspect is his stepson Ralph Paton. Not only had the two quarreled about money, but also, Paton went missing shortly after the murder and hasn’t been seen since. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty, and she asks Poirot to investigate. Ackroyd was a wealthy man, so there are plenty of suspects, one of whom is his widowed sister-in-law (and Flora’s mother). It turns out that each of these suspects is hiding something, and in the case of Mrs. Ackroyd, it’s a stupid decision on the part of an otherwise smart enough woman. She was eager for money, and Ackroyd wasn’t exactly a generous person. She ran up bills she couldn’t afford to pay, and became a victim of some unscrupulous moneylenders.

There’s a chilling example of smart people doing very unwise things in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. George and Jacqueline Coverdale are well off and well educated. You wouldn’t think they’d do a lot of foolish things. But when they decide to hire a housekeeper, Jacqueline does a very stupid thing indeed. She hires Eunice Parchman without doing any real checking into her background, her previous experience, or much of anything else. Still, Eunice settles in and at first, all goes well enough. But Eunice has a secret – one she will go to any lengths to keep from her employers. When that secret accidentally comes out one day, the result is tragic for everyone. And it all might have been prevented if Jacqueline had done a little background checking before making her hiring decision.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, we meet science fiction writer Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah. Walker is concerned about the family’s safety, and decides that they’d be better off moving from the city to a safer, suburban home. The cost of living is lower, the amenities are better, and so he convinces his wife to make the move. All goes well enough at the very beginning, although the children aren’t happy. But then one day, Walker goes to the main sales office of their new housing development to complain about some needed repairs to the home. During his visit, he witnesses an argument between one of the sales executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek. He calls the police, who interview him – a wise enough decision. But then, one day during a shopping trip with his wife, Walker accidentally discovers a handbag left in a supermarket cart. He thinks it belongs to his wife, and takes it, only later discovering that it doesn’t belong to her. Instead of taking it back to the supermarket or to the police, Walker keeps it, hoping to return it to the owner himself. And that gets him more and more deeply involved in a tangled case of fraud and murder. In the end, his family gets in much more danger in the suburbs than they ever did in the city.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has gotten concerned about his aunt, Zia Anita. An otherwise intelligent woman, she’s been behaving oddly lately. For one thing, she’s taken what Vianello thinks is an unhealthy interest in astrology. As if that’s not enough, she’s been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man called Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing it. But the family is worried about the choices she’s making. Vianello asks his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to look into the matter, and Brunetti agrees. He does some background checking on Gorini, and finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now he’s back in business again, promising ‘miracle’ cures that he can’t deliver. In this case, Zia Anita wants so badly to believe in Gorini that she’s made some very unwise choices.

And that’s the thing. Even the smartest of us sometimes have ‘blind spots,’ and make some very foolish choices. The consequences aren’t always drastic, although they can be embarrassing. But sometimes, they’re devastating.

ps. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the many crime novels in which otherwise intelligent people make really stupid romantic choices. Too easy.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Night Before.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Linwood Barclay, Ruth Rendell

Another Scandal Every Day*

corruptionTransparency International has released its 2015 Global Corruption Perception rankings. That’s an annual ranking of nations based on transparency of government activity, press access, independence of judiciary, and other factors. On the one hand, it’s sad, but not surprising, that no country is corruption-free. On the other, there are countries that, based on these factors, have much lower levels of corruption than others. Want to see where your country ranks? You can check it out right here.

Government corruption is a very, very common topic in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. There’s a lot of money involved, and very important people whose careers and reputations are at stake. All of that makes for suspense and for an effective context for a crime novel. In fact, there are so many such novels that I only have space to mention a very few. I know you’ll be able to think of lots more.

Many of the novels in Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö’s Martin Beck series address the topic of corruption in the Swedish government and members of the Swedish business community. And that series isn’t, of course, the only one that does so. Those who’ve read Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon novels know that they also feature plot threads where Bengtzon, who’s a journalist, investigates government corruption.

Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano novels also address high-level corruption, this time in 1970s Argentina. At that time, and in that place, the military is very much in power. Anyone perceived as a threat to that power faces imprisonment or worse. The government is not answerable to the press or to the people, so all sorts of crimes go uninvestigated and unpunished. In Needle in a Haystack, the crime is the murder of a pawnbroker named Elías Biterman. His death is made to look like an Army ‘hit,’ the same as many others at that time. And Lescano knows better than to question what the Army does. But there are some things that are different about this killing, and that piques Lescano’s interest. He begins asking questions that several powerful people, including government officials, do not want asked. Throughout the novel, we see how extensive the corruption is.

There’s a look at high-level corruption in Australia in Peter Temple’s Black Tide. Sometime-lawyer Jack Irish gets a visit from Des Connors, one of his father’s friends. Connors wants Irish to help him make out a will. In the course of that conversation, Irish learns that Connors’ son Gary has ‘gone to ground’ after borrowing (and not paying back) sixty thousand dollars. Now Connors is in real danger of losing his home, so Irish decides to help try to find Gary and get the money back. The search for Gary leads to some very high places, and a record of vicious ways of dealing with journalists or anyone else who might want to expose the wrongdoing. Irish is mostly concerned about making sure his client gets his money back and doesn’t lose his home; but in the end, he finds that that’s just the proverbial tip of a very dangerous iceberg.

Qiu Xialong’s series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao includes several plot lines involving corruption at high levels of government. For example, in Enigma of China, Chen is asked to ‘rubber stamp’ an official theory of suicide when Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, is found dead. And there is reason to support that theory. For one thing, the victim was found hung in a hotel room, with no-one seen going in or out. For another, he was in that hotel room because he was under police guard after having been arrested for corruption. It’s believed that he took his own life rather than face the charges. But Chen isn’t completely convinced that this was suicide. So, very delicately, he and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, begin to look into the matter. They soon find that there is definitely more to this death then the suicide of someone who was about to be publicly humiliated for corruption. This isn’t the only novel, either, in which Qiu addresses the way corruption can work, at least in late-1990s Shanghai.

One of the plot points in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night is the way in which corruption can link the very wealthy and powerful to police and government officials who will co-operate for a price. Social worker Simran Singh travels from Delhi, where she lives, to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. She’s there to help the police unravel the truth behind a terrible crime. Thirteen members of the wealthy and powerful Atwal family have been poisoned, and some of them stabbed. The only family member left alive is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. She hasn’t said anything, really, since the crime, so police don’t know whether she is guilty, or whether she is also a victim, but just happened to survive. It’s hoped that Singh will be able to get the girl to talk about what happened that night, so that police can complete their investigation. Singh begins to ask some questions, and in the end, uncovers much more than just a young girl who ‘snapped.’

Ian Rankin also explores the way corruption links up wealthy and powerful people with the government leaders who can get them what they want. In several of his John Rebus novels, Rankin looks at the impact that that corruption has on everyone. Here’s what he says about it in Black and Blue:
 

‘Corruption was everywhere, the players spoke millions of dollars, and the locals resented the invasion at the same time as they took the cash and available work.’
 

Rebus himself sometimes feels corrupt as he finds himself having to make deals and work with all kinds of people in order to get the job done.

There are plenty of novels that explore government corruption in the US, too. Margaret Truman’s series featuring Georgetown University law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith deals with this topic quite frequently. Murder at the Kennedy Center, for instance, is the story of the killing of Andrea Feldman, a campaign worker for Senator Ken Ewald’s bid for the US presidency. Smith knows Ewald, and in fact, supports his candidacy. So he’s willing to help when Ewald’s son Paul is suspected of the murder. Paul was having an affair with the victim, so he’s the most likely suspect, too. But it turns out that he’s by no means the only one. Smith discovers that there are several powerful people who want nothing more than for Ewald’s campaign to be de-railed, and are willing to go to great lengths to do just that.

And no post on government and high-level corruption would be complete without a mention of Donna Leon’s series featuring Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti. Many of the cases he and his team investigate involve corruption in very high places, and people who may or may not ever ‘face the music’ for what they do.

Government corruption is a continuing global problem. It’s not going to go away quickly. So it’s no surprise that so much crime fiction deals with it. Hopefully if people keep talking and reading about it, this will keep our attention on the problem…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Third World’s Corruption.

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Filed under Donna Leon, Ernesto Mallo, Ian Rankin, Kishwar Desai, Liza Marklund, Maj Sjöwall, Margaret Truman, Per Wahlöö, Peter Temple, Qiu Xiaolong

Don’t Ask Me No Questions*

Don't Ask QuestionsOne of the challenges that sleuths face, both in real life and in crime fiction, is to get answers to their questions.  That can be difficult under the best of circumstances, since a lot of people aren’t comfortable talking to the police. It’s even more of a challenge among groups where the social rule is that you don’t ask too many questions.

In those situations, even an amateur sleuth, who might otherwise be considered less of a threat, can run into a proverbial roadblock. The friction between sleuths who need answers and people who aren’t accustomed to that culture of questioning can add a layer of tension and interest to a crime novel.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who says she may have committed a murder. She doesn’t give her name, though, and leaves abruptly, before Poirot can find out anything more about her. When Poirot has a telephone conversation about it with his friend, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver, she says that the young woman sounds familiar to her. And it turns out that she has met the woman and knows her name: Norma Restarick. By the time Poirot learns who his visitor was, though, Norma has disappeared. She shares rooms with two other young women, but in that youth culture, people don’t ask a lot of questions or really check up on each other. So neither of Norma’s two roommates knows where she is. Even her boyfriend says he isn’t sure of her whereabouts. So it’s not easy to trace Norma. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver have to follow several leads before they find out the truth about her and about the murder.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere learns all too well that the art buying community has its share of people who aren’t used to asking questions. One day, Revere gets a call from his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. He’s just gotten a new painting into his shop, and thinks it may be valuable. Revere stops over at the shop to have a look at the painting and is shocked to find that it is very likely a priceless Velázquez that was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. He can’t be 100% sure, though, so he wants to do a little research. Pawlovsky isn’t willing to let the painting leave his shop, even though Revere tries to convince him that it would be safer. Finally, a very reluctant Revere goes off to find out more. When he returns a few hours later, Pawlovsky is dead. Guilt-ridden over having left his friend in a vulnerable position, Revere wants to do something to help. He reasons that if he can trace the painting from the time it was taken by the Nazis until the time it went to the pawn shop, he’ll find the killer. So he travels to Europe to follow the trail. He finds, though, that a lot of people are all too happy to acquire art without asking too many questions about where it came from originally. So it’s difficult to follow the painting’s history. Still, Revere persists, and in the end, he finds out the truth about the Velázquez and about Pawlovsky’s murder.

Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone begins with the execution-style shooting of an unknown Senegalese immigrant in an open-air Venice market. It takes Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello some time and effort even to find out where the man lives, let alone anything about him. The victim wasn’t in the country legally, and among that immigrant community, people don’t ask questions. Even those in volunteer and social service positions know better than to ask too much. So it isn’t easy to find out anything at first. But when Vianello and Brunetti find a cache of diamonds among the dead man’s possessions, they know that this is no ordinary murder (if there is such a thing). It turns out that this killing is related to arms trafficking and ‘conflict diamonds. ‘

Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home also features an immigrant community in which it’s the custom not to ask questions. DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira investigate when the body of an unknown man is found in the burned-out remains of a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. Since the dead man was very likely an immigrant, Zigic and Ferreira have two sets of leads to explore. One is the Barlows; they claim not to know who the man was, but it’s soon clear that they aren’t telling all that they know. There’s also the group of people whom the dead man knew. When he is identified as an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov, the police detectives begin to ask around to trace his last days and weeks. For that, they need to ask questions of his workmates, people who live in the same places he lived, and the people from whom he rented rooms. They quickly find that the community of immigrants and those with whom they interact are not accustomed to asking a lot of questions. Those who rent rooms don’t ask much about their boarders. Those who hire are interested only in getting enough people to do the job. And in both cases, they have their own secrets to hide from the police. The end result is that even those who might otherwise be willing to talk to the police aren’t always very helpful. They live and work in contexts where you just don’t ask questions.

The world of paid killing is also one where people don’t tend to ask a lot of questions. For instance, in Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy, we learn about the lives of Glasgow’s crime bosses and gunmen. One of them, whom we meet in The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, is Callum MacLean. Peter Jamieson and John Young hire MacLean to take care of a problem they have: a small-time dealer/criminal named Lewis Winter who’s getting too ambitious. Among other things, the novel details MacLean’s preparations, and we see that he asks only questions that are absolutely necessary to ask. And he only deals with people who do the same. It’s better for everyone if people know as little as possible about what anyone else is doing.

There are some cultures and groups where people know better than to ask too much. Those groups can be difficult to penetrate if you’re a sleuth, but the tension of trying to do so can add a layer of real interest to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Eva Dolan, Malcolm Mackay

A King Ain’t a King Without the Power Behind the Throne*

Power Behind the PowerIn any group, there are two different sorts of authority, or perhaps power would be the better term. There are those who have official authority, and those ‘behind the scenes’ who actually get things done. In real life, if you want to make a sale to a major business client, one of your most important tasks is to get that person’s assistant on your side. That’s the person who screens visitors, makes most of the day-to-day decisions, and often persuades the boss to do (or not do) something. A wise authority figure listens to, respects and depends on those ‘behind the scenes’ people without becoming too easy to manipulate (that’s another topic in and of itself!).

There are plenty such characters in crime fiction. They may have modest titles and unassuming job descriptions, but everyone knows that they are the ones whose opinions matter. They’re the ones who get things done.

One such character is Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. Goodwin is officially an employee of private investigator Nero Wolfe. But anyone who knows this series also knows that Wolfe hardly has all of the power in that relationship. In fact, it’s hard at times to say who really runs this detective agency. While Wolfe certainly directs Goodwin (and the other investigators who work for him), anyone who wants to see Wolfe generally has to go through Goodwin. And although Goodwin is supposed to do what Wolfe says (and frequently does), he’s very much his own man, and does quite a lot of work on their cases. He respects Wolfe’s brilliance, but he has no particular reverence for his boss. And he’s not above manipulating situations to get Wolfe to do what he wants. It’s actually a very interesting dynamic.

So is the relationship between Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his secretary, Felicity Lemon.  Miss Lemon is frighteningly efficient and competent at her job. That, in fact, is one of the reasons for which Poirot hired her. On the one hand, she takes his business telephone calls, answers his letters and so on. In that sense, she does as he asks her to do, and usually does so immediately. On the other hand, she has considerable authority and power of her own. Poirot depends on her quite a lot, and pays attention to what she says. This is how Christie expresses it in the short story The Nemean Lion:
 

‘He trusted Miss Lemon. She was a woman without imagination, but she had an instinct. Anything that she mentioned as worth consideration usually was worth consideration.’
 

Poirot knows that although he’s the boss, he can’t do his job without an efficient secretary, and he has learned to respect Miss Lemon.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that the real power in the Venice questura doesn’t belong to Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. It belongs to his assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi. Anyone who wants to do business with the questura has to meet with her approval. And everyone who works at the questura, including Brunetti, knows that Signorina Elettra is both an indispensable ally and a formidable opponent. If she wants something to happen, it will happen. If she opposes something, it will stop happening, or won’t happen in the first place. The easiest and most efficient way to get anything done is to enlist Signorina Elettra’s cooperation right from the start.

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire may be the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, but he knows very well that that doesn’t mean he’s all-powerful. For one thing, his position is an elected one. For another, there’s Ruby, his dispatcher/secretary. Ruby has a kind heart, and genuinely cares about people. But she is plain-spoken and direct, and everyone knows better than to take her for granted or ignore what she says. The sheriff’s office is run in the way she wants it to be run; and even Longmire has learned to obey her on certain things.  He knows how dependent he is on her to keep the office running smoothly, and to make sure that he can do his job. And, since she knows everyone, he also knows how valuable she is as an important source of information. She’s not above manipulating situations, either, if she needs to do that, and she usually turns out to be right.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long. She is researcher and secretary to famous crime writer Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport. One of her jobs, for instance, is to get information on past true crimes, and provide those details to her boss. Then Davenport adapts those facts to inspire her novels. Davenport is the one with the name recognition and the best-seller income. But it’s Long who does a great deal of the ‘leg work’ and the research. She’s also often a sounding board for her boss’ ideas. Like the relationship between Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, the relationship between Davenport and Long is an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, Davenport is bright, quick-thinking and a skilled writer. She’s no figurehead, if I may put it that way. On the other, it’s Long who provides the background information, prepares everything for publication, and deals with the myriad demands on Davenport’s time. The two really do depend on each other, and each one knows it.

One of the more interesting cases of this sort of ‘power behind the throne’ is in the work of Hilary Mantel. Her three-book Wolf Hall trilogy is a fictional retelling of the story of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII. Those with an interest in history will know that Cromwell’s life shows both the power that ministers and other assistants can have, and their vulnerability. At the height of his authority, Cromwell was said to have done much to move the Reformation forward, especially behind the scenes. The king depended quite a lot on Cromwell’s ability to manipulate situations; and he certainly got and kept quite a lot of power. But as it turned out, he was also vulnerable. He was executed in 1540, after he lost the king’s good will.

Most of the time, those who get things done ‘behind the scenes’ don’t face execution. But they do have a lot more responsibility and authority than it may seem at first glance. And they can add much to a novel or series.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s It Takes Two.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Craig Johnson, Donna Leon, Hilary Mantel, Lynda Wilcox, Rex Stout

She Seems to Have an Invisible Touch*

ManipulatingHave you ever asked yourself, ‘How did I get talked into doing this?’ If you have, then you know what it’s like to be under the spell of someone who’s a good manipulator. By that I don’t mean someone who deliberately and maliciously exploits others. Rather, I mean someone who has a way of getting people to do things without threatening, blackmailing, using social status (i.e. ‘Do you know who I am?’) or ‘pulling rank.’

Such people can sometimes be so subtle about it that you’re not even aware you’ve been persuaded…until you’re actually doing something. And they don’t always need to coax or obviously persuade; they just have a way of organizing things the way they want.

There are definitely such people in real life. There are in crime fiction, too, and they can be interesting characters. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Lady Lucy Ankgatell. She and her husband, Sir Henry, invite a group of people to spend a weekend at their country home. Two of the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch, so he arrives just after the murder. At first, he’s not even sure it is a real murder, because the scene looks deliberately set up for his ‘amusement.’ But soon enough he sees that it is all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. Throughout the novel, we see Lady Lucy’s way of getting people to do things. For instance, there’s a dinner-table scene in which she persuades one of the guests to engage another in conversation without saying a word. As Sir Henry says to one of the guests,
 

‘‘She gets away with things. She always has…She’s flouted the traditions at Government House – she played merry hell with precedence at dinner parties…She’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table… I’m damned if she hasn’t got away with it.’’
 

Lady Lucy arranges everything exactly the way she wants without ever being overbearing. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the disappearance of Andreas Winther. When Andreas’ mother Runi first goes to the police about her son, Sejer doesn’t take the matter overly seriously, since the young man has only been gone for a couple of days. But as time goes on, Sejer begins to believe that something bad might have happened. So he starts to look into the matter. His first stop is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, Andreas’ best friend. At first, Zipp says as little as possible to Sejer, for several reasons (and no, lest you make the obvious inference, he didn’t kill Andreas). But slowly, Sejer finds out what has happened to Andreas and why. And as he does, we see how Andreas has been able to manipulate people around him, including Zipp, without bullying, threatening, and so on. He’s been able to get people to do what he wants through his own charisma.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when academician and criminologist Cait Morgan takes an injured colleague’s place at a conference in Nice. One afternoon, she’s relaxing at a café when an old acquaintance (and former supervisor) Alistair Townsend, happens to pass by. He sees her and, much to her chagrin, invites her to a birthday party he’s having for his wife, Tamsin. She dislikes Townsend, and certainly doesn’t want to go to the party. But she finds herself going all the same. And that’s how she ends up getting involved when he’s poisoned during the event. He doesn’t bully or blackmail her into going; it just never seems to occur to him that she won’t. It’s a sort of power of persuasion, if you think about it.

One of the ‘regulars’ in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is Mma. Silvia Potokwane, who runs a local orphanage. She is deeply devoted to the children in her charge, and goes to great effort to make sure they are well. Part of doing that involves getting other people in the area to help, and she is a master at that. In several story arcs and sub-plots, she arranges for orphanage events, gets people to donate time and money, and more. In fact, in Tears of the Giraffe, she even gets Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take in two of the orphans living there. Here is his thinking about it:
 

‘How Mma. Silvia Potokowane…had managed to persuade him to take the children was beyond him…Mma. Potokwane was like a clever lawyer engaged in the examination of a witness. Agreement would be obtained to some innocuous statement and then, before the witness knew it, he would have agreed to a quite different proposal.’
 

That’s also how she gets Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to agree to a parachute jump as a part of a fundraising event in The Full Cupboard of Life.

Several fictional sleuths have partners who have that power of persuasion. For example, Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh is married to such a person. She’s not at all what you’d call shrewish. But she has a way of making him do what she wants. Donna Leon’s Paola Falier has the same gift, although she is a different sort of character. She is often able to persuade her husband, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to go places and do things that he might not otherwise want to do. And she serves, in part, as his conscience, so that she also gets him to do the ethical thing (not that he’s unethical by nature). What’s interesting is that she’s not a nag, and he’s not a weak-willed person. She manages to get what she wants without resorting to yelling or browbeating.

And that’s the thing about some people. They have a way of getting others to do things without really seeming to be manipulative about it. And they can certainly add ‘spice’ to a novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Invisible Touch.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Cathy Ace, Donna Leon, Karin Fossum, Shamini Flint