Category Archives: Elizabeth George

I Drank a Cup of Herbal Brew*

Many people prefer natural remedies when they’re ill, and natural solutions for well-being. So, they go to herbalists and herbal shops, rather than to regular pharmacies. In fact, those sorts of health care products are so popular that lots of pharmacies stock them as alternatives to other sorts of medicines.

Herbalism has a long history, too. For millennia, people relied on herbalists, because there weren’t antibiotics and other modern medicines. And even now that there are, people still use herbal remedies. So, it’s not surprising that herbalism and herbalists have found their way into crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, we are introduced to Meredith Blake. As the older of two brothers, he inherited his family’s home and property. He had a real passion for herbs and herbalism, even dedicating a room to his special interest. He’d collected all sorts of information on the topic, too; and, although he wasn’t sought out for cures, he had a lot of background. Then, disaster struck. A long-time friend of the family, famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon. And it turned out that the poison came from Meredith’s own supplies. He himself wasn’t accused of the murder, but has felt responsible since then. In fact, he shut up his room and stopped working with herbs and other plants. Crale’s wife, Caroline, was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and died in prison a year later. There was plenty of evidence against her, and everyone assumed she was guilty.  Now, sixteen years later, the Crale case is being re-opened. Crale’s daughter, Carla, believes her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. To find out the truth, he interviews the five people (including Blake) who were on the scene at the time of the murder. From those interviews, and from written accounts that each person writes, Poirot finds out who really killed Amyas Crale, and why.

Fans of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael can tell you how important his skills as an herbalist are. He’s a 12th Century Benedictine monk who lives in the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. A former soldier, he’s seen his fair share of life, and has traded it in, as they say, for the cowl. His specialty is herbs and other medicines, and he’s in charge of the abbey’s infirmary. In his line of work, he’s come to know a great deal about many different sorts of plants, and what they do. He uses them for healing, and he’s familiar with the effects of those that are poisonous. That background helps him in many of the mysteries he encounters.

Much of Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph takes place in the small town of Winslough. Deborah and Simon St. James plan a trip there after Deborah meets the town’s vicar, Robin Sage, and is deeply impressed with him. By the time the couple get to the town, though, it’s too late. Sage has been killed. It seems that local herbalist Juliet Spence had invited Sage for a meal, and prepared a salad with water hemlock that she thought was wild parsnip. Since the food that she gave Sage was the last thing he was known to eat or drink, Spence is the most likely suspect. Simon St. James isn’t so sure it’s that simple, though, and asks his friend, Inspector Thomas Lynley, to investigate. One of the interesting things about this novel is the way that Juliet Spence is perceived because she is an herbalist. Not everyone is enthused about her interest…

Herbal and other natural approaches to healing and health are an important part of many African cultures. And plenty of people swear by the power of such medicines. For example, Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson series takes place in contemporary Ghana. Especially in urban areas such as Accra, people are familiar with, and make use of hospitals, modern antibiotics, and so on. But even those people also visit herbalists and makers of traditional remedies. In fact, Dawson’s own mother-in-law is a believer in herbalism, and takes her grandson (and Dawson’s son) to a traditional healer for a heart problem he has. And, as we learn in Wife of the Gods, this doesn’t exactly please Dawson, who is hoping to be able to afford the operation the boy needs. It’s an interesting look at the different perspectives on herbalism.

S.J.Rozan’s Lydia Chin is a Chinese-American PI who works in New York City’s Chinatown. On the one hand, she’s a 21st Century American, who lives a contemporary life. On the other, her family is traditionally Chinese, and her mother would like nothing better than for her to settle down, find a ‘proper’ Chinese husband and get married. That’s not the life that Chin wants, though. Still, she does respect her mother, and there are times when the traditional Chinese approach to healing is quite helpful. For instance, in China Trade, the first in this series, Chin is investigating a theft from a local art gallery. She knows that Mr. Gao, who owns the local apothecary, is ‘tuned in’ to all of the local gossip and knows everyone. His shop is popular, and he knows all of the traditional remedies, so he’s also quite well respected. And Chin finds that he’s a useful source of information. At one point in the novel, she’s injured (not life-threatening), and Mr. Gao sends over some herbal medicines. They work very well, and it’s an interesting look at how herbalists do their jobs.

And then there’s Miriam Kaplan, who goes by the name Meroe. She’s one of the regular characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Meroe is Wiccan, and also has a thorough knowledge of herbs and natural remedies. She has a way, too, of responding calmly in an emergency, and that, too, is helpful when someone is ill. In more than one of the Corinna Chapman mysteries, Meroe shows her knowledge of herbs, and it proves very helpful.

Herbs and herbalists have been around for a very long time, and their expertise is valuable. There’s certainly an important place for modern antibiotics, surgery, and so on. But many people also believe in the healing power of herbs.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Spirit Voices.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ellis Peters, Kerry Greenwood, Kwei Quartey, S.J. Rozan

Sing Out, Louise!*

An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what I’ll call ‘stage parents.’ These are parents who push their children to excel, far beyond the usual rules about getting schoolwork done, or the usual supports, such as going to games or paying for music lessons. Some parents do this because they honestly believe it’s a good way of ensuring that their child succeeds. They see it as their way of providing for their child. Others arguably do it because it allows them to succeed vicariously. There are other reasons, too.

You see such parents at sporting events, recitals and music competitions, and beauty pageants. They’re also in crime fiction. That makes sense, too, if you think about it. That sort of pressure adds a dimension of conflict and tension to a fictional relationship. It can also make an effective motive for murder.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to Gideon Davies. He’s got rare musical talent, and at twenty-eight, has become a world-class violinist. One day, he discovers to his horror that he can’t play. Desperate to find out what’s blocking his playing, he visits a psychotherapist. In the meantime, Davies’ mother, Eugenie, goes out to dinner one night. She leaves the restaurant and is struck in what looks like a tragic hit-and-run accident. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate, and find that this was no accident. Both this death and Davies’ struggles are related to a twenty-year-old tragedy. And woven through the story is Davies’ own history as a child who was raised by ‘stage parents,’ who saw his musical talent and pushed him.

James Ellroy’s historical novel, L.A. Confidential, introduces readers to Preston Exley, who is a revered member of the LAPD. His fondest dream is for his son Edmund ‘Ed’ to rise to the top of the ranks, and he pushes, prods, and does whatever he can to make sure that Ed moves on in his career. This pressure is very difficult for Ed, as you can imagine. Still, he wants to please his father. On Christmas Day, 1951, seven civilians are brutally attacked by members of the police force. At first, nothing’s done about it. Then, a groundswell of protests forces the department to do an internal investigation. Ed Exley is caught up in that event, and in another event two years later. This time, it’s a shooting at an all-night diner called the Nite Owl. The two incidents are related, and we gradually learn what links them as the investigation plays out. Throughout the novel, we see how profoundly Ed Exley has been affected by his father’s ‘stage parenting.’

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide introduces readers to Tristan Pembroke. She’s a wealthy and successful beauty pageant coach and judge who’s helped more than one young girl to win. When she’s murdered at a charity art auction, there are several possible suspects, since she’s made quite a number of enemies. One of those suspects is Sara Taylor, a local artist. Sara’s mother-in-law, restaurant owner Lulu Taylor, knows that Sara’s innocent, and decides to clear her name. As the novel goes on, we learn some things about the beauty pageant circuit, what it takes to win, and how many beauty pageant ‘stage mothers’ there are.  Here’s what one of them, Colleen Bannister, says about pageants:

 

‘‘…you know that Pansy [Colleen’s daughter] and I are not competing for fun, we’re competing to win. Nothing makes that girl happier than having one of those ten-story crowns on her head, all glitzy and shiny, and everyone standing up and cheering themselves hoarse.’’

 

It’s very interesting to see how quick Colleen is to say that the pageant circuit is what Pansy wants. The reality is, of course, that Colleen wants it at least as much.

Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me takes readers into the world of competitive gymnastics. Katie and Erick Knox are the proud parents of fifteen-year-old Devon, a truly gifted gymnast. When Coach Teddy Belfour sees her in action, he makes her parents an offer:

 

‘‘Bring her to BelStars [a program he’s started up] and she’ll find the extent of her power.’’

 

He means it, too, and Devon’s parents are more than willing to do that. Before long, Devon’s well on the way to national, even Olympic, fame. Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (or was it an accident?) changes everything. Besides the mystery surrounding the death, Abbott also takes a close look at the families behind competitive athletes. It’s a stark case of ‘stage parents’ who will do whatever it takes to make sure their children are winners.

Of course, not all parents of gifted children are ‘stage parents.’ Take Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, for instance. She’s a retired academic and political scientist. She and her attorney husband, Zack, are also the parents of Taylor, a gifted artist. The Shreves have always known about Taylor’s very special and unusual talent. But they’re determined that she’ll have as normal a childhood as possible. In several story arcs that run through this series (and, actually, in a major plot thread of The Gifted), they’re careful about what they allow her to do. For them, it’s a question of balancing support for her talent with support for the rest of her development.

But not all parents do that. And when parents push their children too hard, the result can be tragedy. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Folks, may I suggest your next blog stop be Clothes in Books? You’ll find it a rich resource of fine reviews and discussion about clothes, popular culture, fiction, and what it all means about us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jule Shyne and Stephen Sondheim’s May We Entertain You?

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Filed under Elizabeth George, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, James Ellroy, Megan Abbott, Riley Adams

Take All My Preconceptions*

We arguably have a more global society now than ever before. This means that most countries have a diverse population – some more diverse than others. And that means we often encounter people from lots of different backgrounds.

So far, so good. I’d guess most of us believe, at least in principle, that we should be able to work with all sorts of different people. The problem is, it doesn’t always work out that way in day-to-day encounters. Part of the reason for that is that we often have preconceptions of people that we don’t even know we have. They may be unconscious, but they can be no less hurtful for that. In fact, they can end up creating a group of ‘second class’ citizens. To see what I mean in real life, you really should read this excellent post from Marina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write. G’head, read it now. I’ll wait.

Back now? Thanks. The same thing can happen in crime fiction, even when the characters involved aren’t consciously xenophobic, or even consciously bigoted. It’s simply a set of assumptions that frames those characters’ reactions to others.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates when Celia Austin, a resident of a student hostel, is murdered. Her death turns out to be connected to a number of other strange and unsettling events at the hostel, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out the truth. That involves interviewing the other people who live at the hostel. Here’s what Sharpe says to Poirot about it:
 

‘‘You met some of them the other night and I wonder if you could give me any useful dope – on the foreigners, anyway.’
‘You think I am a good judge of foreigners? But, mon cher, there were no Belgians among them.’
‘No Belg – oh, I see what you mean. You mean that as you’re a Belgian, all the other nationalities are as foreign to you as they are to me. But that’s not quite true, is it? I mean you probably know more about the Continental types than I do – though not the Indians and the West Africans and that lot.’’
 

It’s not spoiling the story to say that Sharpe doesn’t assume the killer has to be someone who’s not English. He doesn’t use cruel slurs, and so on. But his assumptions are there nonetheless.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives follows the fortunes of the Eberhart family when they move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. What seems to be the right move to an idyllic town turns into a nightmare as Joanna Eberhart and her new friend, Bobbie Markowe, discover some very dark secrets that the town is hiding. At one point, Joanna has a conversation with one of the residents of the town, who tells her:
 

‘‘A black family is moving in on Gwendolyn Lane. But I think it’s good, don’t you?’’
 

Admittedly, this novel was first published in 1972. Still, it’s interesting to see how those assumptions come through.

Sometimes, people’s assumptions are clear, or seem clear, even without words. For instance, in one plot thread of Elizabeth George’s With No One as Witness, there’s a series of three murders, all of young boys. The police haven’t ignored the case, but they haven’t made a lot of progress, either. And the media hasn’t paid a whole lot of attention. Then, there’s another murder. Unlike the other victims, this boy is white. Now, the media starts to devote a lot more time and energy to the murders. And there’s a lot of talk that the police are only ramping up their efforts because this newest victim is white. Whether that’s true of each individual journalist and police officer, it seems to show a general assumption that some deaths are more meaningful than others. And that isn’t lost on the police, who return to the older cases and try to put the puzzle together.

Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club takes place in 1950’s Auckland. The real action in the story begins when a ship from England docks. One of the passengers is Istvan Zieglar, a refugee from Hungary who wants to start a new life in New Zealand. He’s heard about jobs at Auckland Harbour, and has come to help build the new bridge there. He soon gets involved in a dark mystery surrounding a local children’s home called Brodie House, and its connection to some terrible tragedies. Along the way, Zieglar has to get used to life in his new home. For one thing, he isn’t fluent in English, although he can get by. But, because he sometimes doesn’t understand what people say, his workmates assume that he,
 

‘‘…understands nothing…thick as a brick…’’
 

In fact, the assumption that he can’t do the work costs him the job. The foreman on the job has some other assumptions, too:
 

‘‘…a team of Italians are due here to assist with girders D, E, and F. Not sure what a bunch of Dago tunnellers know about steel girders, but the bosses hired them in their wisdom and we’ll just have to make the most of them.’’
 

Here, it’s very clear that certain assumptions are made about New Zealand workers vs workers from other places.

There’s also Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, which features her sleuth, retired Mumbai police detective Lalli. In the novel, a small slum known as Kandewadi is the focus when several children who live there disappear and are later found dead. The media and the police don’t do very much about it. That, in itself, reveals assumptions about the lives of the people who live in Kandewadi. Finally, after several such deaths, the media pick the story up, and Inspector Savio, who regularly consults with Lalli, takes up the investigation. And it’s interesting to see how assumptions about life in slums plays a role in the story.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. In it, newly-minted psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark, who is dealing with the long-ago abduction of her sister, Gracie. Elisabeth’s story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own. Seventeen years earlier, her sister, Gemma, was also abducted. Now, Stephanie decides to lay her ghosts to rest, and find the person who wrought so much havoc. So, she travels from Dunedin, where she lives and works, to her hometown of Wanaka. Along the way, she meets a hunting guide, Dan, who offers to take her out into the bush. Reluctantly, Stephanie agrees. It’s soon clear that she has preconceptions about Dan:
 

‘‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Central Otago?’
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’’

 

It’s an interesting example of the way we can have preconceptions without even being conscious of it.

And that’s the thing about such assumptions and frameworks for thinking. They shape our thoughts and, therefore, our interactions, even when we’re not aware of it.

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, please, do go check out Finding Time to Write. Excellent reviews, thoughtful commentary, and fine poetry await you.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Orianthi Panagaris’ Courage.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ira Levin, Jen Shieff, Kalpana Swaminathan, Paddy Richardson

Someday You’ll Thank Me For This Advice*

for-your-own-good‘It’s for your own good!’ ‘Someday you’ll thank me.’ I’ll bet you’ve heard this sort of thing before. Very often, the person who says something like that is well-meaning, or at the very least not deliberately malicious. And yet, what someone else thinks is for our own good isn’t always. And the way that plays out in crime fiction can be very interesting.

I got to thinking about what is(n’t) for someone’s own good when I read an excellent review of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper from Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. Admittedly, I’ve not (yet) read the story myself. But it’s got a plot point that includes that question of what is really best for someone. But don’t take my word for it. Please go check out Cleo’s review yourself. Her blog is an excellent resource for all sorts of terrific reviews, so you’ll want it on your blog roll if it’s not there already.

We see this plot point in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family travels from the US to the Middle East for a sightseeing tour. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is manipulative, malicious and tyrannical, but no-one in her family dares go against her will. That includes her seventeen-year-old daughter, Ginevra ‘Ginny.’ In more than one place in the novel, Ginny wants (or doesn’t want) to do something, and her mother insists she do the opposite. It’s almost always, according to Mrs. Boynton, because Ginny has no idea what’s best for her. But the reader soon sees just how unpleasant and controlling Mrs. Boynton really is, and how little of what she does is the best thing for her daughter. On the second afternoon of the family’s trip to the ancient city of Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area on a trip of his own, so Colonel Carbury asks him to investigate. And Ginny becomes one of the ‘people of interest’ whom he interviews.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is a world-class violinist, who’s been a musical prodigy for most of his life. But one frightening day, he finds himself unable to play at all. Terrified, he seeks the help of a psychologist to try to get to the root of his mental block. Through that plot thread, we learn that he’s been groomed (many would say, pushed) since he was a little boy. We also learn that, twenty years earlier, he lost his sister Sonia (she was a toddler at the time) to a tragic drowning accident (or was it?). All of these past issues play a role in Gideon’s life now. And we see how he’s been impacted by that attitude of ‘I know what’s best for you.’

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction novelist Zack Walker decides that his family isn’t safe in the city. He’d rather live in the far-less-dangerous suburbs. Neither of his children wants to make the move. They’re both well-established in school, and don’t see the point of moving. And Walker’s wife, Sarah, likes their present home, too. Still, she is finally persuaded to make the move. Walker thinks he knows what’s best for his family, but it certainly doesn’t turn out that way. First, there are several problems with the house. And Walker doesn’t get much help when he goes to the development’s sales office to complain. Then, during Walker’s visit to the office, he witnesses an argument between one of the executives there, and local environmental activist, Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body at a local creek. Before he knows it, he’s drawn into a complex case of murder and fraud. As it turns out, he didn’t know what was best after all…

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is the story of Kate Meaney. As the story begins (in 1984), she is a ten-year-old budding detective. In fact, she’s got her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a great deal of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, since she is sure that a mall is a magnet for criminals and suspicious activity. Kate’s very content with her life, despite the fact that she lives in a somewhat dreary town. But her grandmother, Ivy, thinks that it would be better for the girl to go away to school. Over Kate’s objections, Ivy arranges for her granddaughter to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Ivy believes she’s doing this for Kate’s own good, but things don’t turn out as planned. Kate and her friend, Adrian Palmer, take the bus to the school for the exams, but only Adrian comes back. Despite a massive search, no sign of Kate is ever found – not even a body. Twenty years later, Kurt, a security officer at Green Oaks, starts to see unusual images on the cameras he monitors. They seem to be of a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, Kurt meets Lisa (Adrian Palmer’s younger sister), who has a job at the mall. He and Lisa strike up a sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, they re-open the past. We find out what happened to Kate, and we see that ‘for your own good,’ isn’t always for the best.

We see that, too, in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence, a fictional retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan, who was arrested in Victoria in1900 for the murder of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie meets Jack Hardy in 1898. She falls in love with him, and the feeling seems to be mutual. In fact, he asks her to marry him, but says their engagement must be kept secret until he can provide for a family. Maggie agrees, and Jack goes to New South Wales to look for work. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to Jack a number of times, but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that she can’t go home to her family, she goes to Melbourne to look for work. She finds a job at a Guest House, where she stays until her baby, whom she names Jacky, is born. Then, she goes to Mrs. Cameron’s home for unwed mothers. There, the young women are taught all sorts of things, ‘for their own good,’ including ways to take care of their babies. Maggie’s instinct is that Mrs. Cameron and her ways are wrong for both mother and baby. So, when she discovers that Jack Hardy has moved to Melbourne, she goes in search of him. When she finds him, he rejects her, telling her that she’s crazy. In her grief, Maggie goes from lodging house to lodging house, looking for a place for her and the baby to stay. She’s turned away from six establishments before the tragedy with Jacky occurs. She’s arrested and imprisoned, where again, a lot of what happens is ‘for the good’ of the prisoners. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at what was expected at that time.

Many people really are well-meaning when they say they’re doing/saying something ‘for your own good.’ And sometimes it works out that way. But sometimes it doesn’t. And that can add real tension to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Save Your Life  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, Linwood Barclay, Wendy James

He Took it All Too Far*

too-much-of-a-good-thingThe old expression, ‘everything in moderation’ makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. We all know what happens when you go beyond a judicious amount of food, or exercise too much, or have too much to drink. Moderate speed gets you where you’re going. Taking that too far gets you a speeding violation, or worse.

It’s the same way with personality traits, really. And that’s what can make a fictional character really interesting. The same trait that can be appealing in moderate doses can create all sorts of problems if it’s taken too far. That fact can add nuance to fictional characters, and a layer of suspense to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, for example, we are introduced to Elinor Carlisle. She’s engaged to Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, and has every expectation of a comfortable future. Then, she gets an anonymous note that suggests that someone is trying to win over her wealthy Aunt Laura, from whom she is set to inherit a fortune. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she is accustomed to having money. So, she and Roddy decide to visit Aunt Laura at the family home, Hunterbury. There, they have a reunion with Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. They soon learn that Aunt Laura has become very fond of Mary, and that Mary may be the person referred to in the letter. Along with that, Roddy is immediately infatuated with Mary, and Elinor has to face the fact that her engagement may very well be over. What Elinor hasn’t told anyone is that her feelings for Roddy are a lot stronger than she’s let on. Although she tells her Aunt Laura that she loves Roddy ‘enough, but not too much,’ that’s not really the case. So, when Mary dies of what turns out to be poison, Elinor has two motives. Dr. Peter Lord, the local GP, is in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees to look into the case, and finds out that more than one person could have wanted Mary dead. I won’t mention titles, for fear of spoilers, but there’s another Agatha Christie novel where devotion to a loved one is taken very much too far, and leads to more than one murder.

It’s not just that sort of devotion that can be taken too far. Most of us would say that it’s a sign of good parenting to support one’s children and nurture their gifts. But that, too, can become problematic. We’ve all seen or heard of ‘football parents,’ or ‘stage parents.’ There’s a real sense of that in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory.  Gideon Davies has had rare musical talent from a very early age. And, at twenty-eight, he’s a world-class violinist. Then one day, he’s terrified to discover that he can no longer play. He decides to get psychiatric help to find out what is blocking him. As he’s going through therapy, we learn that, years earlier, his two-year-old sister Sonia drowned. That terrible day had consequences for many people, and it has played its role in Gideon’s mental state. So has the fact that Gideon’s been under a great deal of family pressure for a long time because of his talent. He hasn’t really had a chance to live what most of us would call a normal life. There are a lot of other examples, too of this kind of parenting. For instance, Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory Smoked Homicide gives readers a look ‘behind the scenes’ at beauty pageants and the parents who go to great lengths to be sure their children win.

Sometimes, the same traits that can spell success in a profession can also be taken too far. For instance, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, we are introduced to Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s been doing well as the co-host of Saturday Night, and is well on her way to the top, as the saying goes. But she’s looking for that one story that will make her career. She thinks she finds it in the person of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. There are now some hints that Bligh could be innocent. If he is, then this could be exactly the story Thorne needs. Thorne is determined, persistent, and eager to get the story right – all good qualities in a journalist. But she finds herself getting closer to the story than is prudent, and we see how all of those good qualities also have their downsides.

In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. He takes probationer Lucy Howard with him, and the two approach the house. Tragically, White is murdered. Howard didn’t see the killing; she was at the front of the house, and White was at the rear. But it’s common belief that the killer is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the justice system for some time. As the police investigate, we see what an important role loyalty plays among the police. It’s a valuable trait if you’re a police officer. Your fellow coppers need to know that they can trust you, and that you’re loyal to them. But we’ve all read enough crime fiction to know that sometimes, police loyalty goes too far.

Fans of medical thrillers such as Michael Palmer’s and Robin Cook’s will know that many of them feature doctors or other medical professionals who are fanatically dedicated to the research they’re doing. Research is essential to moving us along as a society. However, unrestrained research that doesn’t take into account the human side, if I may put it that way, is a different matter.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of characters who have what many of us would consider positive traits, but who take them too far. This can add real tension to a crime novel, and can serve as an interesting layer of character development.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Paddy Richardson, Y.A. Erskine