Category Archives: Elizabeth George

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

Let’s Try Again*

trying-an-author-againI’m sure you’ve this sort of experience. You excitedly begin to read a novel by one of your very top-of-the-list authors, and you’re expecting to be drawn into the story. Unfortunately, just the opposite happens, and that book you’ve been eagerly looking forward to ends up in the DNF pile. Or, perhaps you finish the book, but only out of a sense of duty or loyalty to the author.

The fact is, no author is perfect all of the time, not even the best. And there’s the issue of personal taste. You may enjoy, say, a trilogy by an author, but be really disappointed in a standalone that the author has written. That’s especially the case if an author tries something new.

That disappointment can happen to anyone. The question becomes: what do you do when the author’s next book is released? Are you ready to forgive, or do you give up on that author’s work? Perhaps it depends on the situation.

Agatha Christie, for instance, wrote different kinds of books. Her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series are, with few exceptions, whodunits in the traditional style (with some whydunit in there, too). But she also wrote adventure/thrillers, too, such as The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad, and Passenger to Frankfurt. Plenty of people aren’t as impressed with her international-intrigue stories as they are with her whodunits. But she must have been forgiven, since And Then There Were None, which was by no means her first novel, is her best-selling effort. For those of you who’ve read Christie’s work, I’d be interested in whether you read more of it after being disappointed (if you were).

Many people were badly upset at the outcome of one of the plot threads of Elizabeth George’s With No One as Witness. In that novel, there’s a series of deaths of young boys. The police haven’t been able to make much headway on the case. Then there’s another death. This time there’s a difference: the other victims have been non-white, but this victim was white. Now the police are under a great deal of pressure to show that they’re not biased in their investigations. There’s a terrible tragedy in the novel that put a lot of readers off the series, at least for a time.

The same sort of thing happened with Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast. Oslo police detective Harry Hole and his partner Ellen Gjelten have learned that a new kind of rifle is being smuggled into Norway. It’s the sort of weapon that’s most likely being used by terrorists, so it’s imperative to find out who has the guns and why. So one plot thread of the novel involves the search for the people who have this new gun, and the attempts to link the trafficking with a neo-Nazi group. But there’s a tragic event that also occurs in the novel, and plenty of people weren’t happy with that at all. Some readers decided, because of that occurrence, not to read any more about Harry Hole.

And it’s not just tragic events, either. Sometimes people part company with an author if something too improbable happens in a novel. For example, in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast, a young boy discovers a very large disused gun hidden in the woods near the small Québec town of Three Pines. At first, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache isn’t ready to believe the boy, but the story turns out to be true. Then, in one plot line of the novel, the boy who discovered the gun is killed. An excellent point about this plot was raised by Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. How would the residents of a small town like Three Pines not know anything about a large gun having been built and hidden in a forest not very far from town? Even if not everyone knew the story behind the gun, there’d certainly be word of it passed around in one form or another. Does that sort of credibility stretch put you off reading the author again? Or are you willing to try that person’s next novel?

And then there are series such as Camilla Läckberg’s Erica Falck/Patrik Hedström novels, that many people argue change over time. The Ice Princess, which is the first novel in the series, has as its focus the murder of Alexandra “Alex” Wijkner, a former friend of Erica’s. The emphasis is on the investigation and on the history that led to the murder. As the series has evolved, there’s arguably been a shift in focus away from the actual crimes, and more towards the home life of Falck and Hedström. That sort of change can put off readers who prefer not to have a lot of emphasis on sleuths’ home lives and domestic situations.

There are many other things, too, that can get a reader quite upset about a book. If it’s an author whose work you love, you may come back again for another try. Or you may decide to give up. What do you usually do? Have your say and vote in the poll below. I’ll give it a few days, and we’ll talk about it in a week or so.
 

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Isham Jones and Charles Newman. There are several recordings of it, including the one I like by the Drifters.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Elizabeth George, Jo Nesbø, Louise Penny

He’s In a Quiet Vibration Land*

DeafnessFor many decades now, we’ve continued to better understand deafness, and the needs of those who have it. As a matter of fact, in many countries, there is a distinct Deaf culture, with its own norms for social interaction and its own cultural taboos. Members of that culture don’t see themselves as disabled. Rather, they simply have a different culture and language. Those signed languages vary by country (i.e., for instance, American Sign Language (ASL) is different to Australian Sign Language (Auslan)). But they are all distinct from the spoken languages used in those countries.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that characters with deafness have also made their way into crime fiction. It’s interesting, too, to see how they navigate a largely hearing world. Space only permits a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.

Fans of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that one of its main characters, Steve Carella, is married to a woman with deafness. We first meet Theodora ‘Teddy’ Franklin in Cop Hater, long before she marries Carella. As the series goes on, we see that Teddy isn’t portrayed as ‘disadvantaged’ or disabled. She’s a smart, streetwise, thoughtful and loving person who happens not to hear. She and Carella have worked out their own ways of communicating, and both make adjustments. Rather than Teddy being overly dependent on Carella, avid readers can tell you that he depends on her quite a lot.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate a poisoning death. Nicholas Quinn has recently been named to Oxford’s Foreign Exam Syndicate. That group is responsible for overseeing exams that are given in countries that follow the British system of education. So being named to the group is quite an accomplishment. Quinn is the only Deaf member of the Syndicate, and the decision to select him was by no means unanimous. So there’s some bad feeling and resentment about it. When Quinn is murdered one afternoon, Morse and Lewis start with the people who knew him best. Since Quinn was not married and had no children, that turns out to be the members of the Syndicate. And the detectives soon find that there are several motives among that group. Each member is hiding something – something Quinn could have found out. I can say without spoiling the story that Quinn’s deafness plays a role in the story’s outcome.

Elizabeth George’s For the Sake of Elena has Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigating the death of Elena Weaver. Elena is a student at Cambridge, and a member of the Cambridge University Deaf Students Union. When she is killed during her morning run, Lynley and Havers look into her family and other relationships. As they do so, we learn about some of the differing attitudes towards deafness. One the one hand, there are the members of the Deaf Students Union, whose purpose is to promote Deaf solidarity, and raise awareness of deafness as simply a different culture, rather than a disability. Some members are quite strident about this, too. To these students, there’s a difference between being deaf (i.e. having no hearing) and being Deaf (i.e. a member of a particular culture). On the other hand, there are Elena’s parents, who have worked very hard to help her fit into the hearing world. She speech reads, and is integrated into the larger society. Each side, if you will, resents the other, and that plays its role in her murder.

Clarissa Draper’s Sophia Evans is an MI5 analyst, and a gifted codebreaker. So in The Sholes Key, she turns out to be very helpful when DI Theo Blackwell is faced with a bizarre case of missing single mothers. When one of the missing mothers turns up dead, with a strange code on her body, Evans slowly works out what that code means. In The Electrician’s Code, we learn that Evans has an assistant, Crystal Priestly. Priestly is a former hacker who’s been hired by MI5, and she’s a real asset to Evans. She is also Deaf. Evans has learned British Sign Language (BSL) in order to work with her, and their partnership turns out to be quite productive as Evans helps to investigate the murder of a woman she’d been assigned to monitor.

And then there’s Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay. In that novel, we are introduced to Caleb Zelic, who’s been deaf since childhood. He can speech read, and does have hearing aids, but he also uses Auslan when he can. He and his business partner, former copper Frankie Reynolds, run Trust Works, a security firm. One day, he gets an urgent text from an old friend, Senior Constable Gary ‘Gaz’ Marsden. Marsden wants Zelic to go over to his house immediately, and says that someone named Scott is after him. By the time Zelic gets there, though, it’s too late: Marsden’s been brutally murdered. And it’s not long before the police begin to suspect that Zelic himself may have had something to do with it. In order to clear his name, Zelic starts asking questions. But someone is extremely determined that he won’t get close to the truth. As Zelic and Reynolds try to find the killer, we see how a person with deafness negotiates the hearing world. We also see how the people in Zelic’s life understand his deafness as simply a part of his identity, and communicate with him without making a fuss.

One of the many interesting things about crime fiction is the way that it shows us society and different cultures. And that includes the cultures of those with deafness. These are just a few such characters; there are plenty of others.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Amazing Journey.

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Filed under Clarissa Draper, Colin Dexter, Ed McBain, Elizabeth George, Emma Viskic

I Conjure Up My Muse*

MuseAsk any writer about the writing process, and you’ll probably hear that it’s a lot easier to write when one’s inspired – when the muse is helping out. It’s awfully difficult to do it without the muse. For some people (writers included), the muse takes a human form. Spending time with that person, getting that person’s ideas, and learning from that person spark the imagination and push one to do better. If you have your own muse, you know what I mean.

There are muses in crime fiction, too. By that I don’t mean, for instance, spouses whom fictional sleuths talk to about their cases. Those are important characters (and really, worthy of a post in and of themselves). I mean muses in the more traditional sense of the word.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s short story Within a Wall, we are introduced to well-known artist Alan Everard. He first gained notice as a painter whose work showed both real skill and depth, but has since become a
 
‘….fashionable painter of portraits.’

 

One evening, he hosts a tea at which one of his guests discovers a painting of Jane Haworth, godmother to his daughter Winnie. As it turns out, Jane is also Everard’s inspiration – his muse. Although she’s eager to please and to praise his work, Everard can always tell by her reaction whether something he’s done is truly excellent or not. She irritates him no end, but pushes him to achieve. Everard is also married; his wife Isobel is ‘well born’ and wealthy, and wants her husband to have financial success. And therein lies the dilemma. As the story goes on, we see Everard pulled between the muse who drives him to do his most outstanding work, and his wife, who wants him to do society portraits and other work that will earn him a lot of money. Admittedly, this story isn’t a traditional crime story in the sense that a lot of Christie’s other work is. Still, it depicts very clearly the relationship between muse and creator. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs.

Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory features gifted violinist Gideon Davies, who’s become a world class talent. In one plot thread of this novel, when he finds himself unable to play, he’s upset enough about it to go for psychological counseling. He hopes that by doing so, he can get to the root of his musical ‘block.’ In the course of his counseling sessions, Davies discusses the people who are important to him in his life; one of them is his mentor and muse, Raphael Robson. Robson has been his violin coach for years, and as Davies discusses him with the counselor, we learn the slowly-unfolding story of his family. That includes the twenty-year-old tragic death of his sister Sonia. It turns out that that event is related to his current struggle. It’s also related to another plot thread of this novel, in which Davies’ mother Eugenie is killed by what looks like a hit-and-run accident. Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and his team investigate whether it really was an accident, what’s behind it, and how it is connected to Gideon Davies’ predicament.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost introduces readers to a different sort of muse, ten-year-old Kate Meaney. As the story opens in 1984, Kate is a budding detective who’s just opened her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a good deal of her time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she suspects there’ll be a lot of crime for her to solve. Kate is content enough with her life, but her grandmother Ivy, with whom she lives, believes that she’d be better off going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate is finally persuaded to go when her friend Adrian Palmer agrees to go with her for moral support. On the day of the exam, Kate and Adrian travel to the school, but only Adrian returns. A massive search turns up nothing – not even a body. A lot of people are convinced that Adrian is responsible – so many, in fact, that he leaves town, swearing not to return. Twenty years later, his younger sister Lisa is working at the mall. One night, she happens to meet Kurt, a security guard there. They form an awkward sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, go back to the past to find out what really happened to Kate. As we learn, Kate’s disappearance has left a gaping hole in several people’s lives. She served as an inspiration and a muse for more than one of the characters, in ways they weren’t even aware of until she disappeared.

Sulari Gentill’s historical series features Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, an artist from a well-to-do New South Wales family. He’s talented and motivated; but, like all artists, he benefits from inspiration. And he gets his share of it from his good friend Edna Higgins. She a sculptor in her own right, as well as a model and sometimes-actress. She is also Rowly’s muse. Not only is she his love interest, but she is also intelligent, well-read, and not afraid to speak her mind. She helps to spark his talent, and she’s an interesting character in her own right.

The focus of Gail Bowen’s series is Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, political scientist and now-retired academic. She and her lawyer husband Zack are parents to Taylor, who is a gifted artist. In The Gifted, Taylor, who is fourteen at the time, is invited to submit two of her pieces for inclusion in a charity art auction in aid of the Racette-Hunter Centre. Taylor has shown her parents one of the pieces that she is submitting. The other one, though, is to be kept secret until the auction. That piece, BlueBoy21, is a portrait of Taylor’s muse, Julian Zentner. He is also her first love interest, so naturally, her parents have been concerned about the amount of time she spends with him. But this painting will have consequences that go far beyond a first love. One of the elements that runs through this novel is the way Taylor is inspired by her relationship with Julian.

Muses serve as inspiration for all sorts of creativity. But they can also be very interesting, sometimes even complicated, in their own rights. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, Sulari Gentill

Hope There’s Someone Who’ll Take Care of Me*

In Home CarersOne of the most difficult decision adults have to make is arranging for the care of elderly parents when those parents are no longer in a position to care for themselves. It’s hard enough when parents lose their physical health; it’s even harder when dementia and other cognitive losses are involved.

Different people find different solutions. A lot depends, too, on individual factors such as income, local living options, size of one’s house and space available, and so on. There are cultural factors too (more on those shortly). No solution is entirely perfect, but many families opt to have in-home carers. This offers some benefits too. For one thing, it allows elderly parents to stay in their homes, and that’s what many of them would rather do. For another, it eases the caregiving burden on the adult son or daughter.

On the other hand, even a thorough ‘vetting’ doesn’t guarantee that an in-home carer will be the dedicated individual one would hope. And there’s the issue of having someone who’s not family live in one’s home. In-home care can be very expensive, too. Still, many people take that option, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out in crime fiction.

It’s  not surprising that it does. There is a rising population of adults who need such care, so it’s realistic and timely. And the context allows for lots of conflict, suspense and more.

In the years before there were well-established care homes, having an in-home carer was the only option available to those who could afford one. And in earlier centuries, those people often had no special preparation for that role. Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man, for instance, takes place in 1742. Attorney and Coroner Titus Cragg goes to visit local pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo. When he arrives, it’s discovered that Pimbo has been shot. On the surface, it looks like a suicide, but Cragg’s friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, isn’t sure. There is pressure to simply let the case go, but Cragg respects Fidelis, and starts to ask a few questions. One important question is: who would want to kill Pimbo? In part to get some background, Cragg visits the Pimbo home. There he discovers that Pimbo’s mother lives with her son. She is cared for by the family housekeeper, Ruth Peel, who does her best. She tries to make sure her charge is comfortable and well cared-for, but she has no medical background, and of course, in 1742, not much was known about dementia. So she certainly has her hands full, as the saying goes. It’s an interesting, if not exactly happy, look at the care customs of that time.

Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death introduces readers to the Boynton family. They are on a sightseeing tour through the Middle East when they decide to spend a few days in Petra. On the second afternoon, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks at first like a heart attack. That wouldn’t be surprising, since she is elderly and not in good health. But Colonel Carbury isn’t quite satisfied, and asks Hercule Poirot, who is in the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the matter. In this case, there are plenty of suspects. Mrs. Boynton was an unpleasant tyrant who delighted in keeping her cowed. And one of those people is her live-in nurse (and daughter-in-law) Nadine Boynton. Nadine met her husband when she came to live in with the family and look after Mrs. Boynton, and she’s had her share of abuse. But Nadine is the only person in the household who wasn’t really intimidated. She’s actually a very interesting character.

Fans of Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series will know that Sgt. Barbara Havers faces the difficult challenge of finding the best care situation for her mother. As her mother slowly begins to suffer more dementia, Havers knows that she cannot live independently. Her mother has moved in with her, but even that’s not really enough. So Mrs. Gustafson, who lives next door, helps out, and looks after Havers’ mother while Havers is on duty. But the arrangement isn’t particularly successful. Mrs. Gustafson has no medical background, and more than once Havers worries about what might happen to her mother. In For the Sake of Elena, matters come to a head when Havers’ mother leaves the house alone without anyone knowing. This situation isn’t the main plot of the novel, but it does reflect the real difficulty many adult children have in trying to make the best arrangements possible for their parents. It’s a process filled with challenges.

The main character in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is former Chicago surgeon Jennifer White. At sixty-five, she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and can no longer live on her own. But as the novel begins, she still has many more lucid days than bad days. Still, her grown children have arranged a live-in carer for her, Magdalena. Magdalena is very helpful at ‘anchoring’ White on her bad days, and all goes well enough. Then one day, Amanda O’Toole, who’s lived next door to the Whites for many years, is murdered. Detective Luton is assigned the case and begins the investigation. She makes the disturbing discovery that the body was mutilated in a way that suggests the work of a surgeon, or at least someone familiar with surgical tools. And, since the Whites and O’Tooles have a long (and not entirely happy) history together, Luton is naturally interested in White as a suspect. But White’s dementia is slowly taking hold, and Luton may not be able to get the real truth from her. Throughout this novel, it’s fascinating to see Magdalena’s role as a ‘memory bank’ when White forgets things. She has her own past, too, which makes her an interesting character.

In many cultures, it would be unthinkable to hire a carer for an elderly parent. In those cultures it’s seen as the family’s responsibility to look after elderly members. For instance, in one plot thread of Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee gets a difficult case. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi has gone missing from the residential school she attends. Chee traces her to the outlying areas of Los Angeles, where she has a distant relative, Bentwoman. In the traditional Navajo culture, family members are responsible for taking care of elderly relatives, and that’s what happens in this case. Bentwoman is a very old woman, and doesn’t always speak coherently. She cannot live on her own. So her daughter lives with her and looks after her, doing everything that’s needed.

Sometimes that arrangement can work. But very often, when an elderly parent cannot be left alone, a live-in carer has to be found. That has its own benefits and challenges, but it is an option many people choose.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Antony and the Johnson’s Hope There’s Someone.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Elizabeth George, Robin Blake, Tony Hillerman