Category Archives: Donna Leon

Go Where You Wanna Go*

ItinerantMost of us have a fixed place to live. It may not be where we grew up, or where we think of as ‘home,’ but it’s the place we return to when the work day is done. When we fill out forms, we have an address to include. But that’s not true of everyone. There are many people who have, as the saying goes, no fixed abode. They travel from place to place, never staying anywhere very long. They’re often on the fringes of society, too.

Groups like this can be insular, since they don’t often make a lot of connections with people not in the group. What’s more, ‘outsiders’ often don’t trust them, and the feeling is usually mutual. So when they’re involved in cases of murder, it can be especially difficult for the police to investigate. It doesn’t help matters that the police are often (‘though certainly not always) biased against itinerants. The whole dynamic can make for a very effective crime novel, given the realities of not having one particular place to live, and the feelings that others have about that.

One such group of people is the group of migrant farm workers. At least in the US, they move from place to place, working a few weeks or months on one farm or in one area, and then moving on. They follow harvests, and when their services are no longer needed, they’re expected to leave.

We see this lifestyle in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That’s the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who’ve been forced to leave their last place of employment and move on to the next. Lennie, who is of limited intelligence, was wrongly accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress. He says that he just enjoyed stroking it because it was soft, but that’s not how the young woman saw it. When George and Lennie get to their new jobs, they are checked in, given places to sleep, and introduced to the boss’ son, Curly. He’s arrogant, spiteful and rude – not a person you want to cross. As they settle in and try to do a good job, we see how migrant workers have traditionally been treated. And when tragedy befalls the farm, we see how their migrant status affects both men.

The Roma people, too, have a tradition of moving around and staying nowhere for very long. Stef Penney explores life among these people in The Invisible Ones. In that novel, Leon Janko hires PI Ray Lovell to find his daughter Rose, who’s been missing for seven years. At first Lovell demurs, saying that missing person cases aren’t his area of expertise. But Janko insists, and then explains that he wants Lovell because Lovell is half Roma.
 

‘You’re always who you are, even sitting here in your office, behind your fancy desk. You’re one of us.’
 

Janko says that Lovell will be able to talk to people in ways that gorijos (non-Roma) will not. Finally Lovell is persuaded to look into the matter. He’s soon dismayed by the resistance he gets from the Jankos, especially considering that it was Leon Janko who hired him. It’s soon clear that they’re hiding something that may very well relate to Rose’s disappearance. As Lovell investigates further, readers get a real sense of what life is like for people who never live anywhere for very long.

In Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich, a Roma girl who allegedly fell into a canal from a Venice roof after robbing an apartment in the building. Brunetti begins to wonder just how accidental the girl’s death was, though, and investigates. His search for the truth leads him to the Roma encampment near the city. As he tries to work with the victim’s people, we see what their lives are like, and why they have very little reason to trust Brunetti, at least at first.

You might not think of it right away, but circus workers are also often itinerant. They may stay for a couple of months in one place, but they spend much of their time ‘on the road.’ That’s what we see, for instance, in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is happy that they’ve been given permission to stay on the Blackcraig Estate for the winter. As compensation, they’ve agreed to do a few shows for the wealthy Wilson family, who own the place. There are some concerns about having ‘those kinds of people’ around for the winter, but Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver’s two sons couldn’t be happier; they want to see the circus. Then, some nasty events begin to happen in the circus, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. She asks Dandy to investigate. Things go from bad to worse when Anastasia ‘Ana,’ the bareback horse rider, falls from her mount and is killed. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but it’s not long before Dandy begins to believe it was murder.

A circus also plays a role in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He stops her just in time, and takes her to a nearby all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Her mother died when she was two years old; otherwise, her life had been a more or less happy one until recently. In a very strange series of events, Harlan Reid met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he himself puts it, is cursed with being able to predict the future. Despite warnings, and against his daughter’s wishes, Reid began to visit Tompkins more and more often, whenever he was faced with an important decision. Now Tompkins has predicted that Reid will die on a certain night at midnight. Reid firmly believes that it will happen, and Jean can no longer tolerate the stress. Shawn decides to help her if he can, and takes her to his boss, McManus, to see what the police can do. After all, since Reid is a wealthy man, this could simply be a scam to get his money. That part of the investigation leads to an itinerant circus and another murder investigation. In the meantime, Shawn tries to protect the Reids as well as he can, in case the threat to the family is real. Among other things, this novel offers a glimpse of what it means to travel in a circus, and how ‘circus people’ are viewed from the outside.

Of course, there are some fictional sleuths, too, who don’t really have a ‘regular’ home. Yes, I mean you, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Eleanor Kuhn’s Will Rees is another example of a sleuth who’s a bit of an itinerant. He’s a late-18th Century weaver who goes from place to place on commission. He’s recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker sect. As the series goes on, it’ll be interesting to see how his roving life changes.

Itinerant people often live outside the realm of what we think of as ‘normal.’ They usually have relatively few possessions or connections, and they have a unique culture based on moving around. Perhaps that’s part of what makes them such interesting characters in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by John Phillips, made famous by The Mamas and the Papas. See whether you like that version or the recording done by The Fifth Dimension better.

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Filed under Catriona McPherson, Cornell Woolrich, Donna Leon, Eleanor Kuhns, John Steinbeck, Lee Child, Stef Penney

I Went Down to the Chelsea Drugstore*

PharmaciesYou probably visit them without even thinking about it. Perhaps you have a cold, or need a headache remedy. If you’ve been to see a doctor, you may have a prescription. Yes, I’m talking about pharmacies. Today’s larger pharmacy chains, such as Boots, Walgreen’s, PharmaChoice and Amcal, offer a lot more than medicine, too. You can get just about anything from lotions to cereal to small appliances. At the pharmacy nearest where I live, you can even get your passport ‘photo taken.

Of course, the concept of what a pharmacy is and does is different across cultures. And those ideas have changed considerably over time. But in whatever form, pharmacies play important roles in our lives – and in our crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she had a background in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. So it’s little wonder that she makes use more than once of the chemist’s and the hospital dispensary. For instance, in After the Funeral, Hercule Poirot looks into the untimely, if not unexpected, death of Richard Abernethie. When the members of Abernethie’s family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; even she asks the family to ignore what she said. But privately, all of her relatives begin to wonder whether she’s right. The wondering turns to certainty when Cora herself is murdered the next day. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this mystery is Gregory Banks, nephew-by-marriage to both Abernethie and his sister. Banks is a chemist’s assistant who, it turns out, has a questionable history. It is said that he once offered to sell a customer poison to kill her husband. And when Poirot meets Banks, he learns that the man is psychologically very fragile. Now Poirot has to decide whether that means Banks is the killer. I know, I know, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client) and of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In Michael Collins’ short story Who?, we learn about Boyd Conners, a young man whose job is making deliveries from a local drugstore. One day, he suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. He was in very good health, and not a drug user, so his mother is convinced that there’s something more to his death. She visits PI Dan Fortune to ask him to investigate. As Fortune begins to look into the case, he learns that there are a few possibilities. For one thing, there’s the victim’s romantic rival Roger Tatum. There’s also a local group of hoodlums who might have wanted him dead. As it turns out though, the actual killer is someone who isn’t even a suspect.

In the US, drugstores used to be more than just places to purchase aspirin. They used to be social gathering places. We see that, for instance, in John D. MacDonald’s short story The Homicidal Hiccup. Walter Maybree has purchased the local drugstore, and wants to keep it a safe ‘clean’ place for young people to meet, and for families to do their pharmacy shopping. Like many drugstores of the day, it’s got a counter where customers can get milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and other treats. The only problem for Maybree is local crime boss Johnny Howard. Howard and his gang run the town and extort ‘protection money’ from all of the businesses. As if the extortion weren’t enough, the gang wants to make Maybree’s drugstore a place for selling pornography. This Maybree refuses to do. Much to Howard’s surprise, other business owners in the area, who are fed up with the crime gang, stand by Maybree and help him protect his store. Desperate to keep his respect, Howard and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan. She’ll go to the drugstore disguised as a teen. As she’s sitting at the counter, she’ll use a straw to shoot poison at Maybree, killing him and getting him out of Howard’s way. Things don’t go as expected, though, when a natural human response takes over. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories will know that drugstores make several appearances in that series. They’re used as places to make telephone calls, have a meal, meet people and get an ice cream soda.

Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues introduces us to Phryne Fisher. Originally from Australia, she’s been living in London. One evening, an acquaintance, Colonel Harper, asks Phryne to visit his daughter Lydia, who now lives in Melbourne, and see whether she’s all right. It seems from her letters that she’s not in good health, and that her husband may be responsible for that. Phryne agrees and travels to Melbourne. In the course of finding out the truth about Lydia, she unearths a cocaine ring operating in the area. It’s not long before she discovers that the nexus of the ring is a pharmacy in a seedy part of town. So one night, she and her friend Bert Johnson visit the pharmacy to find out for themselves what’s going on there. She knows that she won’t learn anything from just going in well-dressed, and asking questions in an educated accent. So, she pretends to be a very different sort of woman:
 

‘Those pink powders for pale people,’ she finished, and held out her ten shilling note. The man nodded, and exchanged her note for a slip of pink paper, embossed with the title ‘Peterson’s pink powders for pale people’ and containing a small quantity of the requisite stuff. Phryne nodded woozily to him and found her way back to Bert.’
 

It turns out that that visit to the pharmacy provides an important clue.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has discovered that a local hospital has been in collusion with three pharmacists. Pharmacists sometimes receive a courtesy fee when they schedule their customers for appointments with specialists. Vianello has learned that three pharmacists have been scheduling ‘phantom patients’ in exchange for extra money. Vianello and his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, are looking into the matter when there’s a break-in at a pharmacy that adds a whole new dimension to the case.

You might not think about it much, unless you’re not feeling well or you run out of tissues. But pharmacies are an integral part of our lives, even with today’s online ordering. And they can add interesting layers to a crime story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, John D. MacDonald, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Collins, Rex Stout

I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You*

I'd  Be Good For YouPeople who live in the limelight often get a lot of scrutiny. The same thing happens when someone is in a high-stakes career (e.g. trying to become a law partner). Every move that person makes may be noticed, and that includes choice of partner. Whether it’s fair or not, people do judge others by the way their partners act, sometimes even by what they wear.  So the right partner can do an awful lot to advance one’s career or social status.

Traditionally (‘though certainly not always!) women have been expected to join the ‘right’ clubs, wear the ‘right’ clothes, visit the ‘right’ people (and avoid certain others) to advance their husbands’ fortunes. It’s not the hard-and-fast rule now that it was, but it’s still there, and in some social circles, it’s still very much culturally expected. It can work the other way too.

We see some interesting cases of this sort of couple in crime fiction, which makes sense when you consider all of the possibilities there are for conflict and other layers of tension. Sometimes such a union turns out very well. Sometimes, it doesn’t…

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia, who’s so concerned that his problem be kept quiet that he comes in disguise. He is soon to marry a rich and powerful princess, and the expectation is that the marriage will advance both of their fortunes. In order for this to happen though, the king is expected to have led a more or less blameless life, with no scandal to embarrass his fiancée or her family. And therein lies his problem. The king had a past relationship with an actress, Irene Adler, and there’s a compromising ‘photo to prove it. He wants Holmes to retrieve that ‘photo so that his indiscretion will stay hidden. Holmes agrees and ends up pitted against a much more worthy opponent than he imagined…

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is the story of beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. She has no real plans to marry until she meets Simon Doyle, fiancé to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. Not long after she hires Simon as her land agent, the papers and pubs are full of gossip about their sudden marriage. The newlyweds take a honeymoon cruise of the Nile, which is what Linnet had wanted. For his part, Simon plays the role of properly adoring husband. He wears the ‘right’ clothes, takes Linnet where she wants to go, and in other ways advances her high social status as a very wealthy young bride. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The first suspect is Jackie, who has an obvious motive and who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have committed the murder. So Hercule Poirot, who’s also aboard, has to look elsewhere for the killer.

Until the last few forty years or so, men traditionally got the high-status jobs in academia, and their wives played important roles in getting them there. In that community, it was very important to attend the ‘right’ teas, luncheons and charity events; be pleasant to the ‘right’ highly placed people; and in every way support one’s husband’s chances at tenure, an endowed chair, or deanship. That’s what’s at stake in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. Sir Clixby Bream is planning to retire from his position as Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, and is getting ready to choose his successor. The two top candidates are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. They’re equally qualified and their wives have done their jobs at behaving ‘properly’ and making their husbands look as good as possible. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens does some digging around and discovers that someone is hiding a dubious past. When he’s shot, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have to dig into several people’s histories to find out what the truth is about these outwardly respectable lives.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s got what seems to be the perfect upwardly-mobile life. Her husband Angus is a successful attorney, and a lot of people think he’ll be the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. Jodie is no ‘clinging vine,’ but she does try to advance his career. She wears the ‘right clothes,’ sends their children to the ‘right’ schools, and so on. In every way, Angus looks poised for a fine future, and Jodie’s played her part in that. Then, everything changes. After an accident, their daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. Not even Angus knows about this. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption, but when the nurse does some research, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked. Where is the child? If she’s alive, can she be found? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s social capital plummets, and the notoriety of the whole thing also threatens Angus’ career. Along with the truth about the baby, we also learn what happens when a person loses the social capital that comes with a spouse who does all the ‘right’ things.

In Donna Leon’s About Face, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola Falier are invited to dinner with her parents. Her father, Conte Orazio Falier, has an ulterior motive. He’s invited another couple, Maurizio Cataldo and his wife, Franca Marinello, to the dinner as well. He’s considering doing business with Cataldo, and he wants Brunetti to meet the couple and do a little discreet searching into Cataldo’s background. Brunetti agrees and in one plot thread, he starts learning about the Cataldo/Marinello family. Franca is a loyal wife who does everything she can to advance her husband’s career and make him look as good as possible. She dresses well, is an interesting conversationalist, and even pays a visit to Brunetti at his office try to help her husband. It’s a fascinating look at the way even today, what one spouse says and does can reflect on the other.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which one spouse behaves or dresses in certain ways, or is nice to certain people, to advance the other’s career. You might even call it part of the bargain the couple strike when they marry.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Wendy James

Money, It’s a Crime*

Banking and MoneyThey may not get a lot of media hype and glory, but in real life, people who can follow money trails are responsible for catching a lot of criminals. It’s very hard to do any kind of business without leaving some sort of financial trail, however faint. People who can trace those financial transactions can often turn up useful evidence. Their results can bear on all sorts of crimes, from embezzling to drugs, to human trafficking, murder and other crimes, too.

They also play an important role in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples. It all certainly shows that money and banking experts aren’t just pencil-pushing nerds…

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary Felicity Lemon asks him to consult with her sister Mrs. Hubbard. It seems that the student hostel that Mrs. Hubbard manages has been subject to some strange thefts and other odd goings-on, and she would like the matter resolved without bringing in the police. Poirot agrees and pays a visit to the hostel. During his visit, Celia Austin, who is one of the residents, admits to most of the thefts, and it’s believed the situation is over. But two nights later, Celia dies in what seems to be a successful suicide attempt. It’s soon shown to be murder, though, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who the killer is. As they look into the matter, they find that several hostel residents have been hiding some very dangerous secrets, and that Celia found out more than was safe for her to know. One of those secrets is found out through a careful following of a ‘money trail.’

Sloan Guaranty Trust Vice President John Putham Thatcher knows all about following the money, as the saying goes. The creation of the ‘Emma Lathen’ writing duo, he gets drawn into all sorts of crime as he and his team uncover banking irregularities. In Murder to Go, he uncovers the network of complicated financial transactions that take place when companies merge. In Going For the Gold, it’s counterfeiting that leads to theft and murder. Thatcher may not be the kind of sleuth who gets a lot of media attention, but his knowledge of banking, finance and ways to hide money give him an important edge in catching criminals.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman was an accountant before she followed her dream of becoming a baker. Although she’s no longer in the money business, she still has that knowledge, and she still knows people in accountancy, finance and banking. In Heavenly Pleasures, for instance, Chapman is concerned about a new resident in Insula, the Melbourne building where she lives and works. He’s quite enigmatic, and seems to have attracted some very unwanted attention. Chapman discovers that he is a former highly-placed accountant at a major firm. So when her friend Janet Warren comes to visit, Chapman wants her input. Warren is in the accounting business (that’s how she and Chapman became friends), and has some interesting ‘inside information.’ It turns out that Insula’s new resident may have been involved in, or at least know about, some very dubious high-level financial dealings. Without spoiling the story, I can say that following the money trail provides important information in this case.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that very often, finances are linked to the crimes he investigates. In About Face, for instance, Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of a truck driver, Stefano Ranzato, whose death may be linked to the illegal disposal of toxic waste. In the meantime, Brunetti’s father-in-law, Conte Orazio Falier, has asked him for some personal help. Falier is considering doing business with Maurizio Cataldo, and wants to know everything possible about Cataldo’s background and financial dealings. Brunetti agrees to find out what he can, and asks his boss’ assistant Signoria Elettra Zorzi to work her ‘computer magic’ and do a discreet background check. In this case (as in many in this series), it’s the quiet payments and ‘financial arrangements’ that tell more about the case than anything else.

Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is tracing money and recovering it for people who’ve been swindled. Her home is Toronto, but she works for Chow Tung, a Hong Kong-based former triad leader whom she calls ‘Uncle.’ Chow has set up a financial recovery business, and Lee is his protégée and ‘star employee.’ This company is a last resort for people who can’t find recourse anywhere else and are desperate to get their money back.  In this series, we see how money can change hands many times, be stored in offshore bank accounts in places that don’t ask questions, and remain hidden from regular accounting checks. Lee is a master at making financial connections, and follows money trails wherever they lead. Her travels have taken her to Hong Kong, Bangkok, the Caribbean, and a lot of other places.

Following money trails is also a specialty for Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. In part because of her familiarity with banking, and in part because of her skill with computers, Salander is often able to track down financial information. And as those who’ve read the Millennium trilogy know, this also allows her to manipulate money as well.

Not all financial wizards are as well-traveled as Ava Lee, or as non-conformist as Lisbeth Salander. And they don’t all have ‘thriller like’ adventures. But it’s very often the work of people who understand money and finances that leads to catching some very big criminal fish.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Money.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Emma Lathen, Ian Hamilton, Kerry Greenwood, Stieg Larsson

Teach Your Parents Well*

DigitalNatives and ImmigrantsOne of the interesting effects of changing technology is arguably a generational divide. Quite often (certainly not always!) younger generations are comfortable with new technology, adapt to it easily and use it skillfully. Their parents and grandparents don’t always adapt as well (again this obviously isn’t always the case). In fact, some people call the newer generations ‘digital natives,’ and us not-so-new generations ‘digital immigrants.’ That’s not a bad description really.

We see this divide between using more traditional ways and using new ways woven all through crime fiction. That difference can lead to an interesting bit of tension in a plot, as well as a layer of character depth. And if the research is correct on who uses technology and how, it also reflects reality.

That difference has been around a long time, too. In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot is persuaded to look into a baffling series of petty thefts and other strange occurrences at a hostel for students. When hostel resident Celia Austin confesses to some of the thefts, it seems the matter is settled. But when she dies two nights later, apparently a successful suicide, everything changes. And when that death is proved to be murder, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe have a difficult case on their hands. At one point, Poirot has a conversation with hostel resident Colin McNabb about crime, punishment and detection. Here’s a tiny bit of it:

 

“You’ve given us an amusing talk tonight,” he said indulgently. ‘And I’ll not deny that you’re a man who’s had a varied and lengthy experience, but if you’ll excuse me for saying so, your methods and your ideas are both equally antiquated.’…
‘You take the narrow view of the Law – and what’s more of the Law at its most old fashioned. Nowadays, even the Law has to keep itself cognizant of the newest and most up to date theories of what causes crime. It is the causes that are important, Mr. Poirot.’
‘But there,’ cried Poirot, ‘to speak in your new fashioned phrase, I could not agree with you more!’…
Poirot said meekly, ‘My ideas are doubtless old fashioned, but I am perfectly prepared to listen to you, Mr. McNabb.’
Colin looked agreeably surprised.
‘That’s very fairly said, Mr. Poirot. Now I’ll try to make this matter clear to you, using very simple terms.’’
 

It’s interesting to see both the way in which McNabb condescends to Poirot, and the way Poirot reacts to it, knowing what crime fiction fans know about Poirot’s abilities.

In Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, there’s an interesting ‘digital divide.’ Diamond, who, as the title suggests, considers himself a true detective, relies on observation, evidence, witness/suspect reactions, and good old-fashioned detection. On the other hand, some of the members of Diamond’s team swear by computer-generated data, DNA and other modern forensic evidence and general data analysis. When the team investigates the murder of former TV star Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman, both traditional sleuthing skills and more modern digital data turn out to be important in solving the case.

There’s a small bit of this generational difference in technology use in Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In one plot thread of that novel, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti helps his assistant Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello with a family problem. Vianello’s aunt has lately fallen (so he thinks) prey to a horoscope scam (or perhaps more than one of them). Brunetti does know how to use computers, and is comfortable enough going online, but he’s still in many ways a ‘digital immigrant.’ He’s using the computer one day at lunchtime when he has a conversation with a younger team member about another use of the computer: online learning:

‘‘She’s [the instructor/facilitator] got a course we can take, ten lessons that we can take, my wife and me together.’
‘In Torino?’ [Brunetti]
‘Oh, no, sir,’ Riverre said with a gentle laugh. ‘We’re in the modern age now, me and my wife. We’re on line now, so all we have to do is sign up, and the class comes to our computer…’
 

Riverre’s information doesn’t solve the case, but it does show how the different generations sometimes think about learning.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus will know that he is neither stupid nor ignorant, so he knows that computers and modern technology can be very useful tools. But he is most definitely a ‘digital immigrant.’ He often relies on his assistant Sergeant Siobhan Clarke when computer expertise is required; she’s more comfortable and adept with modern technology than he is. Rankin doesn’t make this difference a ‘stock joke,’ but that difference comes through in various places in the series.

We also see some of those differences in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Television star Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford had been planning to leave the TV business and open up an antique store with her mother Iris. But those plans change completely when Iris calls to say she’s changed her mind. It turns out that Iris has taken the former carriage house on the property of Honeychurch Hall at Little Dipperton, Devon. Shocked at the news, Kat rushes to Devon, only to find the house in sad need of repair and her mother recovering from a broken hand. Among other things, Kat takes over as scribe for a project her mother’s been doing. Here’s a bit of their conversation about it:
 

‘‘How will I print out the pages?’ I said. ‘Is there somewhere in Dartmouth? A printing place I can use?’
‘I have no idea,’ Mum yawned. ‘Now you know why I don’t have a computer. With a typewriter, you just type, pull out the paper, and it’s done.’
There was little point in arguing.’
 

The difference in thinking fades to the background when the housekeeper at Honeychurch Hall goes missing, and is later found dead. Stanford takes an interest in the case both the protect herself and her mother from suspicion, and to answer some questions of her own.

To be fair, the generational divide isn’t always a yawning gulf. For instance, there’s Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, which takes place in the not-very-distant future (2019) and in a slightly altered reality. So as you can imagine, there’s some interesting technology available. In this story, Albany, New York police detective Hannah McCabe and her police partner Mike Baxter investigate two deaths of young women who were murdered by injections of phenol. Then, a third body is discovered. This time, the victim is Broadway star Vivian Jessup, who’s in town to work with a local theatre group. Now McCabe and Baxter have to determine whether the same person killed all three women, or whether there is more than one murderer at work. Throughout the novel, McCabe gets quite a lot of help from her father Angus, a retired journalist. He’s as adept as his daughter at using modern technology and has access to sources she doesn’t. So the information he provides is quite useful.

That said though, in many cases, there is often a generational difference in the way we think about and use technology. Have you noticed it? Do you use technology differently to the way your younger friends and loved ones do? If you’re a writer, does that divide play a role in your stories?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Frankie Y. Bailey, Hannah Dennison, Ian Rankin, Peter Lovesey