Category Archives: Donna Morrissey

I Wanted Just a Minor Part*

I think it’s safe to say that we all prefer novels where the characters are more than just ‘cookie cutter’ placeholders. Not every character need be thoroughly developed, but we want a sense that the characters are realistic, and that means some development.

Sometimes, very minor characters play a role in a story. They can even be memorable, not so much because they’re the focus of a plot, but because they’re interesting in and of themselves. It can be tricky to create such characters without making them too eccentric. But when they’re done well, those minor characters can add to a story.

Agatha Christie used interesting minor characters in several of her stories. In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She had threatened his life, and it was known that she wanted a divorce from him, so that she could marry someone else. She says that she was at a dinner party in another part of London, though, and twelve other people are prepared to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. Then, there’s another death. Carlotta Adams, who’s been doing a very successful one-woman show, is found dead in her room, apparently of a drug overdose. Poirot isn’t sure this death is an accident, though, and he wants to learn more about her. He discovers that she wrote a letter to her sister, Lucie, and posted it just before her death. Poirot contacts Lucie and asks her for the letter. We never meet Lucie Adams in person, so to speak. But her character is interesting, and she sheds light on her sister.

There are plenty of minor characters in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  That’s the fictional re-telling of the murders of Herb and Bonnie Clutter and two of their children. The novel follows both the Clutter family and their murderers, Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith, in the lead-up to the killings as well as the events that happened later. Readers follow along as Hickock and Smith make their plans, commit the crimes, and then go on the run. Readers also follow along as Detective Alvin Dewey and his team investigate. The police talk to a number of people, as you can imagine. One of them is the landlady at a cheap Las Vegas rooming house where Smith stays at one point. She may not run an upmarket establishment, but she’s shrewd and smart, and her personality is clear. She doesn’t play a central role in the story, nor does she solve the case for Dewey, but she does provide helpful information.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Bev Morriss and her team investigate when fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found dead. She was a sex worker, so the police look for leads among the other local sex workers, their clients, and their pimps. One likely suspect is Michelle’s pimp, Charlie Hawes. Another possibility is that one of the clients is guilty. And then there are some local residents who are very much opposed to having sex workers in the area and might go as far as murder. As a part of the investigation, Morriss gets to know some of the other sex workers, including one named Jules. Jules isn’t a major character; she’s only ‘on stage’ briefly. But she is an interesting character, and she sheds light on the business:

‘‘My sister, Mand. She’s eighteen. She works in an ‘airdressers five days a week. Brings home fifty-five quid. I make twice that in an hour – and I ain’t on me feet all day.’’

That perspective helps in understanding how the world of sex work operates.

Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness begins when attorney Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari, gets a visitor. She is Abajaje Deheba, an immigrant from Egypt, and she’s there on behalf of her partner, a Senegalese man named Abdou Thiam. It seems that Thiam has been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam admits that he knew the boy, but he claims that he is innocent. There’s evidence against him, though, and he can’t conclusively prove his alibi. It doesn’t help matters that he is a ‘non-European.’ Deheba wants Guerrieri to represent Thiam. She has a compelling way about her, and Guerrieri agrees to at least meet with Thiam. Besides, if the man is innocent, he shouldn’t be imprisoned. Little by little, attorney and client get to know each other, and Guerrieri slowly finds out the truth of the matter. Deheba only plays a small role in the novel, but she has a presence, if I can put it like that, that adds to the story.

There are several interesting minor characters in Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother, which takes place in a small Newfoundland community. In that novel, Sylvanus and Addie Now and their son, Kyle, are coping with the death of their older son, Chris. He died three years earlier in an Alberta oil rig accident, and the family was devastated. They’re all slowly trying to get on with life when a local bully, Clar Gillard, is murdered. He was an abusive husband, and most people in town have been his victims at one point or another, so no-one will miss him. Little pieces of evidence suggest that the killer might be a member of the Now family. So, the police look carefully at each one of them, and that suspicion takes its toll on the family. Slowly, the police sift through the evidence and learn the truth about Gillard’s murder; and, just as slowly, the Now family begin the painful process of healing. Throughout the novel, there are various minor characters that give readers insight into the local culture and into the Now family. In one scene, for instance, Kyle goes to a nearby bar. He’s having a drink when several of his friends come in. There’s banter, conversation, and more. Those friends don’t play major roles in the story. But their personalities are interesting, and the interactions among them add to the story.

And that’s the thing about useful minor characters. When they’re well-drawn, they add insight and perspective. They can be interesting in their own right, too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore’s Blue Flower.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Morrissey, Gianrico Carofiglio, Maureen Carter, Truman Capote

You Got a Different Point of View*

Many crime stories are told, for he most part, from the point of view of the sleuth. Sometimes they’re told from the point of one of a pair of sleuths (I’m thinking, for instance, of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes stories). That makes sense, since the sleuth is often the story’s protagonist.

Sometimes, though, a story is told from the point of view of a different character. That can be tricky to do well, but when it does work, it can make for an interesting perspective. And, that different point of view can mean that readers get to see the sleuth through different eyes, as the saying goes.

Agatha Christie did that in several of her stories. For instance, Murder in Mesopotamia is the story of the murder of Louise Leidner, who accompanies her archaeologist husband, Eric, to a dig a few hours from Baghdad. Louise has reported strange noises, hands tapping on windows, and other odd occurrences, and her husband wants to ease her mind. So, he hires a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to stay at the expedition house and look after his wife’s needs. Not long afterwards, Louise is bludgeoned to death one afternoon in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to investigate. This story is told in first person (past tense) from Amy Leatheran’s point of view. That allows for a really interesting perspective on Poirot, as well as perspectives on the other people in the expedition house.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is told mostly from the point of view of the suspects in the death of Joseph Higgins. Most of the action in the novel takes place at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for military use (WW II). One day, Higgins is brought there with a broken femur. It’s not life-threatening, but surgery will be required. Tragically, Higgins dies during the operation in an incident that’s put down to a terrible accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent police is sent in to do the requisite paperwork. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that Higgins might have been murdered. For one thing, that’s what Higgins’ widow claims. For another, one of the people who was present when Higgins died has too much to drink at a party, and then blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. That night, she, too, is killed. As Cockrill gets closer and closer to the truth about these deaths, we follow the thought processes of the suspects, and we see how they view Cockrill.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to one of his sleuths, Dr. Gideon Fell. When Tad Rampole finishes his university studies in the US he decides to travel. His mentor suggests that he make plans to meet Fell, and Rampole agrees. On his way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, Rampole meets a young woman named Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten right away and wants to know more about her. When he meets Fell, he learns some of the Starberth family story. It seems that, for two generations, Starberth men were governors in the nearby Chatterham Prison, which has fallen into disuse. From those years has come a tradition that every Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his visit, each one is to open the safe in the room and follow the instructions that are written on a piece of paper kept in the safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. Tragically, he dies from what looks like a fall from the balcony attached to the room. Although it seems like an accident at first, it turns out to have been murder. Fell solves the crime, but the story isn’t really told from his perspective. It’s told from Rampole’s perspective. It’s an interesting way to see Fell’s character from the outside, so to speak.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Jennifer White, a Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who’s been diagnosed with dementia. She’s had to retire, and now lives with her caregiver, Magdalena. One night, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole is murdered. She lives next door to White, so, naturally, the police want to know if there’s any information White has. Detective Luton takes the case and wants to talk to White, but learning the truth won’t be easy. Since White has dementia, she may or may not be lucid, and she is very likely not going to be reliable. But Luton is convinced that she knows all about the murder and might even be guilty. So, she tries to find ways to get White to share her story. The novel is told from White’s point of view, so readers see Luton from that perspective. And, as the story goes on, and White’s condition deteriorates, her view of Luton changes, too.

And then there’s Donna Morrisey’s The Fortunate Brother, which features the members of the Now family. Sylvanus Now, his wife, Addie, and their son, Kyle, live in The Beaches, Newfoundland, where they’re still reeling from the death three years earlier of Kyle’s brother, Chris. His death was a tragic accident, not a murder, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the family, and they’re all suffering. Then, a local bully named Clar Gillard is killed. In one sense, there are plenty of suspects. He was mean and cruel, and no-one will miss him. But it’s not long before the police start to focus their attention on the Nows. And there’s evidence that could support any of the three of them being guilty. At the same time as they’re coping with being suspects in a murder investigation, they’re also facing a family health crisis. Having to deal with both of these crises at the same time draws the family together just a little. And, very slowly, they start to do a small bit of healing. Interestingly, we don’t ‘get into the heads’ of the police here. The story is told from the different perspectives of members of the Now family.

When a story is told from a different perspective like that, it can give readers a different view of the sleuth. It can also offer an interesting way to look at the experience of being involved in a criminal investigation. It’s not easy to write this sort of story well, but it can be effective.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Pet Shop Boys’ A Different Point of View.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, Donna Morrissey, John Dickson Carr

Do You Still Feel the Pain of the Scars That Won’t Heal*

Whenever someone dies, whether it’s murder or not, those left behind are affected permanently. That may be especially the case when the death is untimely. All sorts of raw emotions and hidden feelings come out, and such a death often alters the relationships among the loved ones left behind.

It’s only natural that this would be woven into crime fiction, especially crime fiction where there’s a murder. And it is. There are plenty of examples of what happens to family relationships after a sudden death. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of plenty of others.

In James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, we are introduced to Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He’s a Los Angeles police officer whose father, Preston Exley, is beloved and revered among the police. Preston had his hopes set on his son, Thomas, rising to the very top of the LAPD as a detective. Thomas, though, was killed during World War II (the novel takes place in the early-to-mid 1950s). Now that Thomas is no longer alive, Ed Exley has the dual burden of being the surviving brother, and of living up to his father’s expectations. And it’s a difficult challenge, too, as Preston Exley is determined that a son of his will rise to the proverbial top of the tree. All of this impacts Ed when, on Christmas Day of 1951, seven civilians are brutally beaten by police officers. There’s a lot of public outrage, which has consequences for the police. Then, two years later, there’s a late-night shooting at a diner called the Nite Owl. The two incidents turn out to be related, and we see how the Exley family dynamics play a role in what happens.

Anne Perry’s Face of a Stranger is the story of the murder of Joscelin Grey, a ‘blueblood’ who was bludgeoned in his own home. London police detective William Monk is put in charge of the investigation, but he is facing a real difficulty. He was involved in a terrible accident and has lost his memory. He doesn’t even know, at first, who he is or why he is in a hospital. He does know that he wants to pick up his life again, and he can’t reveal his memory difficulty if he’s going to do that. Still, bit by bit, he and his assistant, John Evan, start asking questions. And, naturally, they want to talk to Grey’s family. This is Victorian London, where the ‘better classes’ are not accustomed to having their word questioned. And they see no reason to cooperate with a ‘mere’ policeman. But, eventually, Monk and Evan start to learn about the family dynamic. The dead man was the apple of his mother’s eye, and she won’t hear anything against him. None of her other children can quite measure up. Those children, though, don’t see things that way. And they’ve all been impacted by their mother’s bias. As the story goes on, we learn more about the complicated network of relationships in the Grey family. We also learn that more than one person had a good reason to want to kill Joscelin Grey – and not all of them are family members.

Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands introduces us to the working-class Lamb family. Nettie Lamb lives with her mother, Gloria, and her children, Steven and Davey, in the small Exmoor town of Shipcott. This isn’t an ordinary family, though. Nineteen years earlier, Nettie’s brother, Billy Peters, disappeared and never returned. The belief is that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for other murders. Billy’s body was never found, though, so the family has had no real closure. Then, Steven decides to write to Avery in prison, and find out where his Uncle Billy’s body is buried. Thus begins a psychological game of cat and mouse between him and Avery, which turns very dangerous. But it also brings up real family issues. Gloria always preferred Billy over Nettie; yet, Nettie’s the one who survived. That plays its own role in the story. Among other things, it’s meant Nettie has conflicted feelings about Billy.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988, at a school picnic at Lake Wanaka, on New Zealand’s South Island. The Anderson family goes to the picnic, and the members soon scatter among the rest of the people there. When it’s time to go, Stephanie’s mother, Minna, sends her to get four-year-old Gemma, the youngest. But Stephanie can’t find her sister. And no-one’s seen the child since earlier. Now panicked, the entire family searches for Gemma, but can’t find her. The police are called in, and a thorough, official, search begins. But no trace of Gemma is ever found – not even a body. Gemma’s loss devastates her family, and I can say without spoiling the story that none of the family members are really the same again afterwards. Stephanie, especially, feels the loss. She feels responsible, in her way, and she feels a sense of guilt. Seventeen years later, she’s finishing up her psychiatry studies in Dunedin, when she starts to work with a new patient, Elisabeth Clark. At first, Elisabeth won’t work with Stephanie. But gradually, Stephanie learns that Elisabeth lost her sister, Gracie, in a way that’s eerily similar to the way Gemma disappeared. Stephanie decides to lay her family’s ghosts to rest and find out who wreaked so much havoc on these families. As she searches for the truth, we see how the loss of one sister has impacted the other, and their brothers (and that’s to say nothing of the parents).

And then there’s Donna Morrisey’s The Fortunate Brother. That novel features Sylvanus Now, his wife, Addie, and their children, Sylvie and Kyle. The family is suffering deeply from the loss of Sylvanus and Addie’s other son, Chris, who died three years earlier in a terrible oil rig accident in Alberta. They’re doing their best to go on with life, but they haven’t started to heal, and they’re all hurting in their own ways. Kyle, for instance, carries a great deal of guilt and grief, although he’s not responsible for Chris’ death. The Nows are jolted out of their own suffering when a local bully named Clar Gillard is killed. He was, to say the very least, unpopular, so no-one will miss him. This makes investigating the murder difficult for the police, since few people are interested in finding out who the killer is. But some of the evidence suggests that one of the Now family might be responsible. As they’re coping with this suspicion, they start drawing together just a little. That, plus a health scare, bring the members of the family a little closer, so that they can start to face their pain. Among other things, this novel offers a close look at how families are impacted when members die suddenly.

Whenever there’s a murder or other untimely death (e.g. an accident), family dynamics are permanently changed. And all sorts of things can come to the surface that might have been hidden before. That reality can add to the suspense of a crime novel and can bring in layers of character development.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Daniel.


Filed under Anne Perry, Belinda Bauer, Donna Morrissey, James Ellroy, Paddy Richardson

In The Spotlight: Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. A death in the family – especially an unexpected death – can wreak havoc on those left behind. Even after the healing begins, things are never the same. Since many crime novels have to do with murder and sudden death, it makes sense that we would see portrayals of families coping with that loss in the genre. Let’s take a look at such a novel, and turn the spotlight on Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother, the 2017 winner of the Arthur Ellis Awards for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing, Best Novel. This is the third of Morrissey’s novels to feature Sylvanus Now.

As the novel begins, it’s been three years since the death of Sylvanus and Addie Now’s son, Chris. He died in a tragic oil rig accident in Alberta, and the family (Sylvanus, Addie, and their other children, Sylvie and Kyle) has been devastated. Sylvanus has taken to drinking; and, much as Addie loves her husband, she’s getting fed up. Kyle finds it difficult to deal with his loss and grief, and Sylvie hasn’t really been back to the family home since Chris died.

Then, a local bully named Clar Gillard is murdered. The police begin to investigate, and they find no shortage of suspects. Gillard was abusive to his wife, Bonnie, and malicious, even cruel, to plenty of other people in this small community in Newfoundland. No-one will miss him.

Soon, though, the evidence begins to suggest that one of the members of the Now family might be guilty. Sylvanus had an argument with the victim shortly before his death, and it wouldn’t be out of character for Gillard to have come back later to ‘finish matters,’ and Sylvanus to stand up for himself. Gillard attacked Kyle, too, and he could have retaliated. And then there’s Addie’s friendship with Bonnie. Could she have killed Gillard to save her friend? There are other possibilities, too.

As the Now family copes with all of this suspicion, they also face another challenge: Addie is diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s at the stage where it can be handled surgically, but even so, it’s a terrible hurdle to face. Still, it brings the members of the family back together, and forces them to face their grief, guilt, and pain over Chris’ death.

Little by little, as the truth about Gillard’s murder comes out, we also learn some other truths that have been kept hidden. And in the end, the members of the Now family find ways to reach out to each other. And that, in its turn, helps their healing process.

This is, in its way, a whodunit. So, an important element in the novel is the slow process of working out who was where, at what time, who had an alibi, and so on. And that’s not easy. This is a small community (more about that community shortly), and everyone knows everyone. There are a lot of longstanding friendships, and people don’t want to see their friends/cousins/etc. arrested. Besides, Gillard was, to say the least, not well-liked. So, there’s no great outcry for justice, if I can put it that way. Some of the characters don’t tell the police everything (or anything) they know. Still, the police are skilled, and they do get to the truth about what happened.

The story is told from Kyle Now’s point of view (third person, past tense), so we see everything through his eyes. This gives readers an intimate look at the Now family, and the way they’re coping (or not) with Chris’ loss. Kyle carries a great deal of grief and guilt, although he is not responsible for what happened to his brother. And that has a real impact on how he sees the world. He’s no longer a child, but he’s not mature yet. And there are several things he doesn’t know about some of the characters, including members of his own family. So, in a way, you might argue that there’s a hint of the unreliable narrator about him. That said, though, as the story goes on, he learns some of those truths, and does some growing.

So do the other members of the Now family. An important element in the novel is the way the family deals with Chris’ death. It’s a devastating blow for all of them, and each has coped in a different way. As the novel goes on, the family pulls together a bit, and it’s clear that each of them cares a great deal for the others. Despite the sorrow and sadness, this family is a unit. I can say without spoiling the story that everyone does some healing. Morrissey doesn’t offer an ‘everything is perfectly fine now,’ sort of ending. It isn’t fine. But by the end of the novel, the different family members can talk about what happened, and support each other.

Another very important element in the novel is its setting. The novel takes place in The Beaches, Newfoundland, and Morrissey places the reader there in several ways. The physical setting, the language patterns, the culture, and the interactions are all distinctive. And the Now family is very much a part of this context.

The Fortunate Brother is the story of a family coming to terms with a tragic loss. It’s also the story of what happens to a small community when one of its members is murdered. It takes place in a unique cultural setting, and features a young man who’s trying to make sense of the things he’s learning about himself, his family, and his home town. But what’s your view? Have you read The Fortunate Brother? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 15 January/Tuesday, 16 January – Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm – Gil North

Monday, 22 January/Tuesday, 23 January – Killer Instinct – Zoë Sharp

Monday, 29 January/Tuesday, 30 January – Sold – Blair Denholm


Filed under Donna Morrissey, The Fortunate Brother