Category Archives: Dorothy Fowler

So Similar and Estranged*

Estrangement in families can happen for any number of reasons, really. Sometimes they happen for specific reasons, and sometimes it’s more a matter of drifting apart. Sometimes, the people involved simply go on to live very separate lives, with no real rancor.

But when circumstances bring together estranged family members, all of the emotion can also come up to the surface. And that can add tension to a reunion. It can add quite a bit of tension to a crime novel, too. And it raises the question: is blood thicker, as the saying goes? Can people who’ve been estranged work together? It makes for an interesting and sometimes suspenseful sub-plot or thread through a story.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday For Murder) bring together the various members of the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee has always been both malicious and tyrannical, but he is also very wealthy. And, when he decides to gather his family at the family home for Christmas, no-one dares refuse the invitation. So, his sons, David and George, together with their wives, Hilda and Magdalene, make the trip. Another son, Alfred, already lives at the family home with his wife, Lydia. And Lee’s son Harry, who’s been estranged from the family for years, is also invited. There’ve been several estrangements in the family, actually. For one, David has always blamed his father for his mother’s poor health and eventual death. For another, Alfred sees Harry as a selfish cadger who’s never taken his share of responsibility for the family business. Harry sees Alfred as a ‘stick in the mud’ who’s far too quick to toady to their father. All of this bad feeling comes to the fore when the various family members get together. And, when Simeon Lee is murdered on Christmas Eve, matters get even worse. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he works to find out who killed the victim. As he gets to know the various family members, we see how this estrangement plays its role in the way the different family members interact.

John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler introduces readers to Classics professor Arnold Wechsler, who works at a small Massachusetts school, Hewes College. The novel was published in 1971, a time of great change and, sometimes, student unrest, at many US colleges and universities. Hewes College is no different in that respect. Wechsler is aware of what’s going on, but he tries his best to stay out of it all, and simply do the best he can. That all changes when he is summoned to a meeting with Winthrop Dohrn, the college’s president. Dohrn is concerned because of Wechsler’s younger brother, David. It seems that David was a Hewes student until he dropped out of sight after joining a radical movement. Now he’s returned to campus, and Dohrn wants to know whether David is or will be involved in subversive activities. Wechsler is loath to spy on his brother. For one thing, they’re quite different, and they’ve been estranged for some time. They really don’t have much to say to each other. For another thing, Weschler really does want to stay out of politics. But he can’t really refuse the college president. So, reluctantly, he contacts his brother. The two are very awkward with each other, and that estrangement makes for quite a lot of tension. It’s ramped up when there’s a bombing, a kidnapping, and a theft. Is David involved? If he’s not, can his brother trust him to help find out who is?

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Father is the first novel to feature his PI sleuth, Matthew Scudder. At this point, Scudder isn’t a formally licensed PI. Rather, he informally looks into things when friends and acquaintances need his help. One day, he gets a visit from successful executive Cale Hanniford, who has an unusual sort of request. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter, Wendy, has recently been murdered. The police have arrested her twenty-one-year-old roommate, Richard Vanderpoel, for the crime, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. What’s interesting is that Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the murder. He believes that Vanderpoel is the killer. Rather, he wants Scudder to find out what sort of person Wendy had become, and what led to her death. It turns out that he’d been estranged from his daughter for years. It’s too late now for a reconcilement, but he’s hoping to at least learn more about her. Scudder’s not sure how much help he can be, but he agrees to at least ask some questions. He arranges to interview Vanderpoel in prison, but the young man is too dazed, or drugged, to be very informative. Then, not long afterwards, Vanderpoel commits suicide. Now it’s clear that this case is more complicated than Scudder thought, and he’s no longer sure the police got their man in the first place.

Former journalist Robert Dell, whom we meet in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, has a wife and two children whom he loves, and a life that seems to be going well. It all changes one terrible day when he and his family are taking a drive just outside of Cape Town. His car is ambushed and goes over an embankment, and Dell is the only survivor. As if that’s not devastating enough, the police soon accuse him of engineering the accident, and he’s thrown into prison for murder. In fact, it’s very likely he’ll be executed after a ‘kangaroo court’ hearing. It’s clear that he’s being framed, but he doesn’t know why or by whom. Unbeknownst to Dell, his father, Bobby Goodbread, has found out what’s going on. He and his son have been estranged for a long time, mostly because of their diametrically opposed viewpoints on apartheid. It hasn’t helped matters that Dell married a woman who wasn’t white, and that Goodbread has been linked with several reactionary pro-apartheid groups. Nonetheless, Goodbread engineers his son’s escape from prison, and the two go into hiding. For different reasons, they’re each going after the man who killed Dell’s family. The rift between them makes for a lot of tension and awkwardness, but they manage to work together as they head towards the village where the killer lives.

And then there’s Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind. In that novel, archaeologist Chloe Davis, her business partner, Bill, and some of their archaeology students travel to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They’ve been contracted to excavate the remains of religious community that was burned down in the mid-1880s. The excavation is required before the land can be sold for development, so there’s a lot of pressure for the team to do their work quickly. For Davis, there’s a great deal of other pressure, too. For one thing, her cousin Shane is a member of the development consortium, and wants to move as quickly as possible to get the new construction done. For another, her sister Phaedra, from whom she’s been estranged for many years, has title to a house and piece of land that’s critical to the consortium’s plan. And she’s not willing to move. So, as the dig team is uncovering the truth about the religious group, Davis is also having to deal with the tense and difficult reunion with her sister and cousin, as well as with the rift between the branches of her family. And it turns out that what happened to the religious community has repercussions even now.

Estrangements can happen in just about any family. They aren’t always violent, but they’re often very difficult. And they can add a great deal of suspense, to say nothing of character development, to a novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eastmountainsouth’s Father. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Fowler, John Alexander Graham, Lawrence Block, Roger Smith

In The Spotlight: Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crime novels that feature archaeologists allow the author tell the story of a dig, and the mystery that may be going on there. At the same time, they allow the author to tell a story from the past. As the archaeology team uncovers different finds, the reader can learn about the people who lived in that place, while at the same time following the present-day events. That’s the sort of dual story that Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel.

In the present time, contract archaeologist Chloe Davis, her business partner, Bill, and a group of their archaeology students travel to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They’re there to excavate the remains of a religious community that burnt down in the 1880s. For Chloe, it’s a homecoming, since she grew up in the area, and her family has farmed the land for many years. But it’s not destined to be a pleasant reunion with family and friends.

For one thing, the local community is not pleased about the excavation. That includes Chloe’s cousin Shane, who belongs to the River Haven Consortium. That’s a development group that wants to subdivide the land into lifestyle blocks. There’s a stipulation, though, that the mission must be properly excavated before the plans can go ahead. Chloe, Bill, and the team have just a short (and grudgingly granted) time to do their jobs before the land gets developed. And there are people who don’t want them to even get started. In fact, more than once, there’s sabotage to the dig site, and a few scuffles.

For another thing, the weather doesn’t help. A spate of rain slows everything down, making it harder for the dig team to get done the work within the time they agreed. This shortens tempers on both sides. Still, the team perseveres.

As the excavation continues, Chloe and the team discover more buried at the site than a burned-out shell of a building. And as they slowly unravel the truth about what really happened to the members of the religious community, they also find that there are some unexpected connections to the present day. And someone doesn’t want them to find out what those connections are.

Because the book tells two stories in two timelines, readers follow along both in the present day and in the late 1880s. Readers who prefer to follow only one timeline will notice this. The present-day timeline is told in narrative form, in the present tense, for the most part. The 1880s timeline is told through a series of journal entries. Very slowly, readers learn what the link is between the two timelines, so that the two stories do link up.

And the pacing is an important element in this novel. There are moments of action, and real danger. But this isn’t a fast-paced thriller. Readers who prefer a more leisurely pace to a novel will appreciate that the story unfolds little by little. And, as a side note, the violence in the novel is not brutal or extended.

The story plays out in small-town New Zealand, both in the past and in the present, and Fowler places the reader there. This is the sort of community where everyone knows everyone, and where family roots are deep. And, as the stories play out, we see how the network of relationships impacts the characters. That network can’t help drawing Chloe into the mystery, even if her archaeological interest didn’t.

The present-day story is told from Chloe’s point of view (first person), so we get to know her character. She is a skilled archaeologist, happily married to a police officer, and the mother of two girls. It’s hard for her to be away from her family, but she keeps in touch with them by telephone, and does visit home during one weekend. There is some wit in the novel, including one sub-plot in which one of her daughters goes through some of the extremes (in this case, Goth to evangelical Christian) that teens often experience. Chloe’s husband, Jim, is a good and loving father, but he has his own job to do, so her absence is hard on him, too. Still, it’s not spoiling the story to say that he’s there when she needs him.

This isn’t to say, though, that Chloe is the stereotypical ‘damsel in distress.’ Readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate the fact that Chloe is smart and resourceful. She gets into difficult situations, but she finds a way through them. She makes mistakes and is vulnerable, as we all are, but she’s also not afraid to get her jeans thoroughly muddied and do what it takes to keep her students safe.

The story from the late 1880s is told (in first person) by a young girl named Charity, whose mother brings her to a religious community run by a man named Brother Jack. As the journal entries go on, we learn what brought them there, what has kept them there, and what it’s like to live in such a place. Life is hard, especially in a spartan religious enclave, and what little there is, is divided up among all of the members. Everyone does a share of work (crafts for sale, farm products, keeping house, doing maintenance, etc.), and there are communal places for eating and sleeping. It’s an interesting look at what a religious community might have been like at that time.

But this is not an ordinary group of people who’ve decided to give worldly goods. There are secrets at the community, and they have their impact many, many years later. As the journal goes on, and we learn what those secrets are, the dig team gets closer to the truth in the present day. And we learn what links the two timelines.

What Remains Behind tells two stories about the same small New Zealand community. It features two protagonists who are linked in ways they don’t know, and shows how, as Chloe puts it,

‘Everything leaves a trace. Nothing disappears.’

But what’s your view? Have you read What Remains Behind? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 30 January/Tuesday, 31 January – Murder in Bollywood – Shadaab Amjad Khan

Monday, 6 February/Tuesday 7 February – In the Woods – Tana French

Monday, 13 February/Tuesday, 14 February – The Hidden Man – Robin Blake


Filed under Dorothy Fowler, What Remains Behind