Category Archives: Elizabeth George

No Smoke Without Fire*

I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, ‘There’s no smoke without fire.’ That belief – that a story doesn’t generally start unless there’s a kernel of truth to it – is part of the reason so many people believe gossip. It’s also why, if someone is a ‘person of interest’ in a criminal investigation, it can be so hard to get rid of that stigma, even after someone else is shown to be guilty.

It may not be the most appealing quality we humans have, but that old saying can make for a very interesting layer of character development, tension, and even plot points in crime fiction. There are many examples in the genre, of course. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of lots more.

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins at the Palace of Seringaptam in 1799. During the storming of the palace, Colonel John Herncastle takes a valuable yellow diamond called the Moonstone. The story has always been that anyone who steals the diamond is cursed, and so is anyone who comes into possession of it. And plenty of people believe that story, including Herncastle. When he dies, he bequeaths the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. Herncastle and his sister (and Rachel’s mother), Lady Julia Verinder, were on very bad terms, and the gossip is that the stone was given to that family as a curse. And sure enough, bad things begin to happen to the Verinder family. First, the stone itself is stolen on the evening it’s given to Rachel. Then, one of the household maids disappears and later commits suicide. People’s willingness to believe the gossip about the curse is a helpful disguise for what’s really going on. In fact, it takes Sergeant Cuff two years to trace the diamond and solve the mystery. In the end, he’s successful, and it turns out this mystery has nothing to do with a curse.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot gets a new client, Carla Lemarchant. She’s become engaged to John Rattery, and on the surface, it seems that she’s got everything. She’s wealthy, intelligent, attractive, and in love. But Carla doesn’t feel she and her fiancé can marry until the mystery of her father’s death is solved. Sixteen years earlier, famous painter Amyas Crale (Carla’s father) was poisoned. At the time, his wife Caroline was believed guilty, and there was evidence against her. In fact, she was arrested, tried, and convicted. A year later, she died in prison. Carla believes that her mother was innocent and wants her named cleared. But it’s not just because she thinks someone else is the murder. It’s also because she doesn’t want the gossip about her mother’s guilt to get in the way of her marriage. Poirot agrees to look into the case and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each one. And, in the end, he finds out who the killer is, and what the motive was. You’re absolutely right, fans of Crooked House.

Very often, the power of anonymous letters is partly that people think there must be some truth to them. That’s what we see, for instance, in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. Amsterdam police detective Piet Van Der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen to help with a strange case. Several people in town have been getting anonymous letters insinuating all sorts of things. It’s the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so the letters have a real impact. In fact, they’ve led to two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t made much headway. After all, if you admit you’ve had a letter, then you may be admitting that what’s in the letter is true. So, it’s hoped that Van Der Valk will be able to get some answers. He and his wife, Arlette, travel to Zwinderen, where the get to know the locals. And in the end, he finds out who’s been sending the letters and why.

In Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, Robin Sage, Vicar of Winslough, has dinner one evening with Juliet Spence and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Maggie.  Shortly afterwards, he dies of what turns out to have been water hemlock poisoning. At first, Sage’s death is put down to a tragic accident. But Juliet is an herbalist, and it doesn’t make sense that she would have mistakenly served water hemlock to her guest. Simon St. James is staying in the area with his wife, Deborah. When he learns what happened, he begins to have some suspicions, so he asks his friend, Inspector Thomas Lynley, to look into the case. Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers learn that there are several people in Winslough who might have wanted to kill Sage. That’s not enough, though, for those who believe Juliet Spence is guilty. That ‘no smoke without fire’ attitude makes life extremely difficult for both her and Maggie.

And then there’s Jonothan Cullinane’s Red Herring. It’s 1951 in Auckland, and the dock workers – the wharfies – are preparing to go on strike. It’s in the government’s interest to prevent that strike, and some people are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop the wharfies. For their part, the wharfies are not about to back off from their demands, so the situation is ugly. Against this backdrop, PI Johnny Molloy is hired to find Francis ‘Frank’ O’Phelan, AKA Frank O’Flynn, who is believed to have committed insurance fraud. It’s soon clear that some dangerous people do not want him to find O’Flynn; they even give Molloy a very unpleasant ‘suggestion’ to drop the case. He and reporter Caitlin O’Carolan persist, though, and they get to the truth. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the anti-communist hysteria of the times. In fact, that’s used against Molloy and O’Carolan to try to stop them from finding out the truth. At that time, if there was even a hint that someone might be a leftist, that was enough to sabotage a career or worse.

And that’s the thing about that belief that there’s no smoke without fire. In real life, it can sometimes have serious consequences. In fiction, though, it can add layers of interest to a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by James Hunter.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Jonothan Cullinane, Nicolas Freeling, Wilkie Collins

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