Category Archives: Elizabeth Spann Craig

People Livin’ in Competition*

A recent post from Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, has got me thinking about competitiveness. Bill’s post, which you really should read, discusses competitiveness in attorneys. His point, which is very well-taken, is that trial lawyers have to be competitive. Otherwise, they don’t keep the ‘fire’ they need to do all of the work that’s involved in preparing for a trial and seeing it through.

There are many, many legal mysteries that bear him out, too. In John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, William Deverell’s Trial of Passion, and Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, to name just three, we see examples of attorneys who take on difficult cases – and want to win. There are far too many more examples of such novels for me to mention in this one post, so I won’t.

There’s plenty of competitiveness in other crime fiction, too, and it can add a healthy dose of character development, suspense, and plot to a novel. And, since there’s competitiveness in many different professions, the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to integrating it into a story.

Competitiveness is certainly important in the world of athletics. That’s a major part of the plot in Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. Devon Knox has rare gymnastic talent, and her parents, Katie and Eric, want to nurture it. So, when gymnastics coach Teddy Balfour approaches them with a proposition, they’re happy to listen:
 

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

Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (which might not have been an accident) occurs, and changes everything. Devon is gifted, but the question becomes: how far are she and her family willing to go to get to the Olympics? After all, there are only a limited number of young people who can join the US team. So, when one person earns a place, it often means others lose.

Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry series also explores athletic competitiveness (and for the matter of that, journalistic competitiveness as well). Like her creator, Henry is a sportswriter. She works for the Toronto Planet. Henry especially follows the doings of the Toronto Titans baseball team, so she goes along with them on ‘away’ tours, attends the home games, and gets locker-room interviews with players, coaching staff and the like. When the team is in a slump, it’s devastating. When the team does well, it’s euphoric. These players work hard and train intensively to go as far as they can in the World Series competition. Gordon doesn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a mystery series, and the murder plots dominate the books. But the books also give readers a look at what it’s like to be Major League Baseball athlete. It’s not a life for those who aren’t competitive. Neither is the life of those who write and publish stories about sports.

Business can be very competitive, too. In most industries, there’s a finite pool of customers. So, companies vie to get as much of their business as possible. And sometimes, that competitiveness can be deadly. In Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Contagion, for instance, we learn about a major competition between two insurance giants: AmeriCare and National Health. That competition becomes important when a virulent strain of influenza seems to be the cause of a series of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. Medical examiners Dr. Jack Stapleton and Dr. Laurie Montgomery try to find out what’s causing the virus. The hospital’s authorities are interested in keeping the whole matter as quiet as possible, mostly to protect the institution’s image. But Stapleton in particular wants to whatever it takes, regardless of unpleasant publicity, to prevent more deaths. When it comes out that Manhattan General is affiliated with AmeriCares, the question becomes: did someone at National Health have something to do with these deaths, with the aim of discrediting the competition?

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide deals with the competitive world of the beauty pageant circuit. In it, wealthy pageant coach and judge Tristan Pembroke is murdered during a charity art auction being held at her home. The most likely suspect is local artist Sara Taylor, who had a public argument with the victim shortly before the murder. But Sara’s mother-in-law, Lulu, is sure that she’s not guilty. So, she sets out to clear Sara’s name and find out who the real killer is. There are plenty of suspects, too, as Tristan was both malicious and vindictive. And, for the contestants in the pageant, and their families, there’s an awful lot at stake. The beauty pageant life is demanding, expensive, stressful and time-consuming. You don’t stay in it long if you have no sense of competitiveness.

I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that there’s a lot of competitiveness in the academic world, too. Many academic mysteries have plots that involve competition for scholarships/bursaries, prizes, academic jobs, funding and so on. It’s a demanding life that takes a lot of time and effort. Just to give one example, Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James novels take place in the context of St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, where James heads the English Literature Department. One of the sub-plots in the first of this series, Murder is Academic, concerns funding for the program. Each department’s funding is based on its performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). There’s a lot of competition for finite funding, and James knows that she will have to ensure that all of the faculty’s scholarship (including her own) is as impressive as possible. That in itself is stressful. At the same time, she’s caught up in the investigation of the murder of her predecessor, Margaret Joplin. Admittedly, getting funding isn’t the reason for the murder. But it does add to the tension in the novel. And it’s a realistic look at one way in which competition works in academia.

Bill is right that being competitive is important if you’re going to win your case in a trial. It’s also an important personality trait in other fields, too. So it’s little wonder it figures so much in crime fiction. Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Bill’s blog. Thoughtful reviews and commentary await you there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boston’s Peace of Mind.

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Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Grisham, Megan Abbott, Riley Adams, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Cook, William Deverell

Wouldn’t You Like to Get Away*

If you think about it, most people have three major ‘places’ where they spend most of their time. That usually means three major social networks. One of them is, of course, home and family. Another is work.

It’s that third place that’s really interesting. It might be a pub or bar, or a sport club, or a religious group, or a group of people with a shared hobby or interest. Whatever it is, that ‘third place’ can help people unwind, and can put them in touch with others in a unique way. And, for the crime writer, the ‘third place’ offers all sorts of possibilities for plot threads, characters, tension, backstory, and more. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that we see a lot of ‘third places’ in the genre.

One of the classic ‘third places’ that people have is their local. Bars and pubs are often gathering places for ‘regulars.’ That makes sense, too. For plenty of people, there’s nothing like a drink and a chance to catch up with friends who go there, too. And, of course, they can be really effective places for character interactions, plot points, and more.

There are dozens of series with a bar or pub as the ‘third place.’ One of them is Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series. Irish is a sometimes-lawyer, who is also good at finding people. So, he does his share of PI work, too. Besides his work, Irish also has a ‘third place’ – the Prince of Prussia pub. His father’s ‘football friends’ all gather there, and they all know Irish. They may not help him solve mysteries, but that ‘third place’ is very important to Irish.

The focus of Ray Berard’s Inside the Black Horse is a pub on New Zealand’s North Island called the Black Horse Bar and Casino. It’s owned by Toni Bourke, a recently-widowed Māori who’s doing the best she can to support her children. She isn’t getting rich from the pub, but she makes ends meet, usually. It’s not an upmarket or famous place, but the local people gather there. Toni knows most of them, and they know her. Everything changes when a young man named Pio Morgan targets the Black Horse. He’s in debt to a ruthless local pot grower, and the only way he can think of to get money quickly is to rob the pub. Unfortunately, he picks a time when a drugs dealer, Rangi Wells, happens to be there, so that deal is interrupted, and there will be consequences for that. The robbery goes horribly wrong, and there’s a murder. Pio gets thousands, though, and flees, leaving Toni with a large debt she now owes to the betting authorities. Toni’s insurance company isn’t about to pay up without an investigation, so they send PI Brian Duncan to look into the matter. Little by little Brian and Toni get to the truth about the theft and murder, but they have to go up against two nasty gangs and an insurance company that suspects Toni of being a thief.

Another traditional ‘third place’ is the club. Club memberships are a major part of several cultures, and have been for a long time. Just ask Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. His brother, Mycroft, is a member of the Diogenes Club, and rarely goes anywhere but there or his home. Everyone there knows him and vice versa. What’s interesting, too, is that he can put together clues and make solid deductions on cases without ever leaving his club.

In Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates two murders, one of which takes place in his own club. Old General Fentimen dies while sitting in his usual chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, also dies. The question of which died first becomes extremely important, because of the terms of Lady Dormer’s will. Under those terms, if Lady Dormer dies first, her considerable fortune passes to Fentimen’s grandson. If Fentimen dies first, the money goes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin, Ann Dorland. Matters get complicated when it’s discovered that Fentimen was poisoned. Now, Lord Peter and his friend, Inspector Parker, have to discover not just which person died first, but also, who killed Fentimen. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at the club setting.

Agatha Christie used that setting in several of her novels and stories, too. For instance, in Taken at the Flood, Hercule Poirot first hears about the small town of Warmsley Vale, and the Cloade family that lives there, from a fellow club member named Major Porter. The story comes back to haunt, as it were, when a murder takes place in Warmsley Vale, and the Cloade family is involved in it.

For many people, their local church or other house of worship is that ‘third place.’ It’s not just a matter of religion. It’s also about social interaction. We see that, for instance, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies. In that novel, retired teacher Myrtle Clover is ‘volunteered’ by her son to volunteer at her church. She’s not happy about that, but she goes to the church. Then, she discovers the body of real estate developer Parke Stoddard in the church. Myrtle’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet, and she decides to prove that by finding out who the murderer is.

A Toronto-area mosque serves as a ‘third place’ for the transplanted Bosnian Muslim community in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead. In that novel, Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government investigate the death of Christopher Drayton. It comes out that he may have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. So Khattak and Getty have to consider those who might have known him in that capacity. They make contacts within the mosque, and get to know some of its members. But at the same time, they don’t overlook the victim’s family members. There are other possibilities, too, and this case becomes more complicated than either thought it would be.

Some ‘third places’ are sport or hobby groups. Just ask the surfers we meet in Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol. This group of San Diego surfers meets just about every morning for a pre-work surf session. And it’s much more than just fun for them. They are passionate and very knowledgeable about the water, about surfing, and about weather conditions, too. They have their differences, but surfing is part of the glue that holds them together. For former cop-turned-PI Boone Daniels, the Dawn Patrol is very much his ‘third place.’ In fact, he’d probably say that it’s more important than his work. That’s the impression we get when he’s hired to find a missing stripper named Tamera Roddick. Then, her best friend, who goes by the name of Angel Heart, is murdered. Daniels and his friends get drawn into the case, and Daniels is forced to face his own past.

Almost all of us have a ‘third place.’ Certainly, fictional characters do. What’s yours?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo’s Where Everybody Knows Your Name.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Don Winslow, Dorothy L. Sayers, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Peter Temple, Ray Berard

The City Council is Very Alarmed*

A national government can only do so much, especially in a country with a large, or a scattered, population. So, many of the day-to-day decision making is done by smaller groups like city or town councils. There are also housing communities and club governing boards that have their own councils to run things within those communities. And they can wield quite a lot of control over what people do.

Those small groups determine where you may park your car, what sort of trees you can plant on your property, how and when your trash can be put out for collection, and much more. And governing boards determine who can join a group, what members are allowed and not allowed to do, and more. Such groups have a lot of influence in real life, so it’s not surprising that they show up in crime fiction, too.

For instance, it’s the town council of Paradise, Massachusetts, that hires Jesse Stone as chief of police in Robert B Parker’s Night Passage. The council, led by selectman Hastings ‘Hasty’ Hathaway, wants to hire a police chief who can be manipulated easily, and Stone seems to be the right choice. He left the LAPD in disgrace because of drinking (which is still a major problem for him), and the town council thinks he’ll be a useful ‘puppet.’ But things turn out quite differently. Stone isn’t as gullible or as weak-willed as it may seem, and it’s not long before he begins to show more initiative than anyone on the council really wants. He begins to unearth some ugly things the town is hiding, which is problematic enough. Then, there’s a murder that’s connected to those secrets. Little by little, Stone finds out the truth, and the town council learns that he is no patsy.

M.J. McGrath’s White Heat takes place mostly on Ellesmere Island, where Edie Kiglatuk is
 

‘…the best damned hunting guide in the High Arctic.’ 
 

Tragedy mars one of her expeditions, though. Kiglatuk takes Felix Wagner and Andy Taylor on a hunting trip, and finds that neither of them is a particularly good shot. They’re not very pleasant people, either. Still, they’ve paid plenty of money for the trip, and it’s her job to ensure their safety and provide them with a good experience. Tragically, Wagner is shot. Taylor claims he’s not responsible, and the evidence supports him. So, at first, the death looks like a tragic accident. But that in itself is a major problem for Kiglatuk. Wagner was killed on her watch, and the council of Elders may rescind her guide license because of it. There are some council members who don’t like the idea of a woman hunting guide as it is, and who would gladly use this as an excuse to remove her. And one of them, Simeonie Inukpuk, resents her privately because of her breakup with his brother, Sammy. The council decides not to revoke Kiglatuk’s license, but that plot thread shows just how much authority the members have.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies takes place in the fictional small town of Bradley, North Carolina. In the novel, retired English teacher Myrtle Clover finds the body of real estate developer Parke Stoddard in a local church. She may be in her eighties, but Myrtle is not ready to be ‘put out to pasture.’ So, she decides to investigate. And she soon learns that there are plenty of suspects. One of them is City Councilman Benton Chambers. It turns out that he is not at all the ‘family man’ and ‘man of the people’ that he wants his constituents to believe he is. The victim knew that, and was blackmailing Chambers. So, one very good possible motive for this murder is political.

A local council features in Angela Savage’s short story, The Teardrop Tattoos. In it, we are introduced to a woman (the narrator of the story) who’s recently been released from prison, where she was serving time for murder. She’s given housing not far from a local child care facility, and settles in there with her only compassion, a Pit Bull called Sully. All goes well enough until one of the parents associated with the child care facility lodges a complaint about the dog. Before long, the narrator gets a letter from the council, informing her that she’ll have to get rid of Sully, because he’s a restricted breed. This is devastating, and the woman decides to take her own sort of revenge.

And then there’s Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. That novel takes place in the late 1990s, mostly at the Cascade Heights Country Club, an ultra-exclusive gated community about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Usually known as The Heights, it’s the sort of place where only the very, very rich can afford to live. And even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in. The community isn’t really subject to local laws. Instead, it’s governed by a Commission, composed of certain residents. It’s believed that disputes and other such matters are best handled ‘in house,’ rather than involving other authorities. Members of the Commission decide who will move in, who must leave, and so on. They make decisions, too, about what the houses will be like, which activities and events are acceptable, and more. All is well in this luxurious, protected community until the economic problems of 1990s Argentina find their way in. Little by little, that safe, secure stronghold weakens for some of the residents, and it all ultimately leads to tragedy.  

In Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake, it’s the Board of Directors of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course who turn out to be important. They’re the ones who determine what happens in the park, who’s allowed to work there, and what improvements, changes and events will happen in the park. When Nick Taylor, Head Greenskeeper, is fired, he blames Board member Harvey Kristoff, who’s never liked him and who would like nothing better than to see him gone. So, when Kristoff’s bludgeoned body is discovered on the golf course, Taylor becomes a very likely suspect. He says he’s innocent, though, and asks his friend, John ‘Bart’ Bartowski to help him. Bart isn’t sure what he can do. He’s not a police officer (he actually owns a fishing lodge), and he’s not an attorney. But he is a longtime resident of Crooked Lake, and he knows everyone. So, he agrees to find out what he can. And it turns out that plenty of other people might have wanted Kristoff dead.

There are lots of other examples of novels where local councils, governing boards, and so on. They wield a lot more authority than it might seem on the surface, and people elected to such groups are much more powerful than you might think.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Hornsby’s Talk of the Town.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Claudia Piñeiro, Elizabeth Spann Craig, M.J. McGrath, Nelson Brunanski, Robert B. Parker

Like a Tree, Ability Will Bloom and Grow*

I’ll bet you’ve had the experience. You enjoy skiing, and you’ve tackled some challenging runs. Then, you don’t get the chance to ski for a while. When you finally do again, it’s back to the bunny slopes, because your skills have gotten a bit rusty. Or, perhaps you’re a card player who takes a break from it for a while. Then, when you get into a poker game, you find yourself making ‘beginner mistakes.’

Whether it’s music, running, poker, or cooking, your skills get and stay sharper if you use them regularly. The same is true for writing. That’s why writers are so often urged to write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences.

If you ask Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, he’ll tell you that detection skills need to be sharpened regularly, too. In The A.B.C. Murders, he works with Chief Inspector Japp and other police detectives to solve a baffling series of murders. It’s a challenging case, and certainly puts Poirot on his mettle. But that actually suits Poirot. At the beginning of the novel, before the first murder actually occurs, he has a conversation with Captain Hastings, who’s returned from Argentina for a stay in London. Hastings makes a comment about Poirot’s being retired; here’s Poirot’s answer:
 

‘‘And I will admit it, my friend, the retirement, I care for it not at all. If the little grey cells are not exercised, they grow the rust.’’
 

Research bears him out. Studies show that the more we use our thinking skills, the longer in life we have them.

And it’s not just thinking and detecting, although there are several examples of those in crime fiction. We see plenty of other examples of characters who know the value of regular discipline to keep skills strong. That side of a character can add an interesting dimension; it’s realistic, too.

For example, fans of Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss can tell you that she is a police detective with the Violent Crimes Unit of the Göteborg Police. She is also a former Swedish national judo champion, and former European champion. Her job and family life keep her very busy, but that doesn’t mean she wants to give up martial arts. So, she goes to the dojo sometimes to work out and to keep her skills strong. Her judo sessions are also very useful for keeping her in good physical condition. And sometimes, when she’s on the job, her skill at judo turns out to be very useful.

One of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s series features Beatrice Coleman, a former Atlanta folk art curator who’s retired to the small town of Dappled Hills, North Carolina. As we learn in Quilt or Innocence, the first of this series, she originally moved to Dappled Hills to be nearer to her daughter, Piper. But she’s soon drawn into life in her new home. And that includes the Village Quilters, one of several local quilting guilds. When she first gets to know the members of the guild, Beatrice doesn’t know much about how to quilt.  It doesn’t help, either, that some of the members have been quilting for decades, and make it all look very easy (which it’s not, really). Part of the reason for this is that the guild members mees regularly, both to keep their skills sharp and to keep their social network strong. Little by little, Beatrice learns some quilting skills, and is better able to contribute to the group’s work. Among other things, this series shows how something like quilting really has to be done regularly to hone skills.

So does playing baseball. Like any athletes, baseball players have regular workout sessions, even during the off-season. Skills such as pitching, catching, running, and communicating with teammates, have to be kept sharp if a team is going to win. And that doesn’t happen if players spend too much time off the field. There’s a dose of this in Alison Gordon’s Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry series. Henry is a sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Her specialty is baseball, as was her creator’s. So, she travels with the (American League) Toronto Titans, and, of course, attends their home games. Readers follow along as the team members sharpen their skills during spring training (in Night Game), and work out before games during the baseball season (e.g. in The Dead Pull Hitter). The series gives readers an ‘inside look’ at the way professional athletes keep their skills from getting rusty.

But it’s not just athletic or other physical skills that need to be honed. Just ask John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep. He’s a member of the Royal Thai Police, based in Bangkok. He is also a devout Buddhist. As you’ll know, Buddhism entails the mental discipline of regular meditation and focus. And it doesn’t come easily. It requires patience, lots of repetition and training, and regular mental exercise. And all of that takes time. Still, Jitpleecheep has found that study and meditation help him keep his focus and develop his spiritual and cognitive side.

You might say a similar thing about Tony Hillerman’s Sergeant Jim Chee. As fans can tell you, he is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Chee has kept many of the Navajo traditions, too. In fact, at the beginning of the series, he is studying to be a yata’ali, a Navajo singer/healer. To be a skilled yata’ali takes a great deal of training and time. Each ritual has its own complexities, and Chee aims to learn to do each one exactly correctly. So, he hones his skills regularly, by going through the steps of each ritual. And, at least in the first novels of the series, he doesn’t let a lot of time go by between sessions. He knows the importance of not allowing his skills to rust.

And that’s the thing about skills, whether they are mental or physical. They need to be used, on a regular basis, or they do get rusty. Little wonder we see characters keeping their skills sharp in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman’s Scales and Arpeggios.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Helene Tursten, John Burdett, Tony Hillerman

Oh, Let’s Go Back to the Start*

In a recent post, crime writer and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig made an interesting point about taking a story full circle. She suggested that one way to do this is to end a story by going back to the beginning. For instance, her Pretty is as Pretty Dies begins one morning at the home of Myrtle Clover. She’s a retired teacher who isn’t ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet. So, when she discovers the body of real estate developer Parke Stoddard in a local church, she can’t resist getting involved in the investigation, much to the chagrin of her son, who happens to be the local chief of police. As Myrtle starts to ask questions, she finds that there are plenty of people who had a good reason to want the victim dead. She was, to say the least, malicious and vindictive, and had alienated just about everyone in town. Myrtle discovers who the killer is, and in the final scene, is back at her home. In that sense, the story goes full circle, beginning and ending at Myrtle Clover’s home. But a lot of things have happened in the interim, and we see that as the final scene plays out.

And that’s one way in which that ‘full circle’ approach to storytelling can be useful. It allows the author to show character changes, but at the same time bring the story to some closure. And there are plenty of examples of how this works in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

In one of the very first scenes in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, sculptor Henrietta Savernake is in her studio, creating a piece for an upcoming show. We soon learn that she is one of several guests invited to spend a weekend at the home of some cousins, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Two of the other guests are to be Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda; and for Henrietta, this makes the visit all the more special, since she is Christow’s mistress. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch, and arrives just after the murder. He and Inspector Grange work to find out who murdered Christow. At the very end of the novel, there’s another scene, again in Henrietta’s studio. It brings the story round to the beginning again, and shows some of what’s happened to Henrietta as a result of the events in the novel.

Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead more or less begins at the London home of forensic anthropologist David Hunter. He’s recovering from the physical and mental trauma he suffered as a result of events in Written in Bone, and now he’s preparing to leave for a trip to Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, often called The Body Farm. For Hunter, this is a welcome trip, as he wants to get out of London for a time. He’s looking forward to doing some research as well as to renewing his acquaintance with his mentor, Tom Liebermann. Hunter arrives in Tennessee just in time to hear the news of the discovery of a decomposed body in a cabin not far from the laboratory. Hunter gets involved in the investigation, and it turns out to be a wrenching case. At the end of the novel, he returns to his London apartment. There’s a final scene in which he has a short conversation with the woman who lives in the flat above his. That conversation, and his return, really only take up a few sentences. But they bring the story back to the beginning to give some closure to it. And the scene shows some of what’s happened to Hunter in the course of the novel.

Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings is the first of her series featuring Victoria journalist Nell Forrest. As the story opens, she’s at the home she shares with two of her five daughters (the other three are adults who have their own homes). She gets a visit from the police, who inform her that there’s been a fire at her mother’s house, not far away. Nell’s mother, Lillian ‘Yen’ is safe, but the fire has done considerable damage. And the body of a man has been found in the garage. It turns out that this man is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen. And it turns out that he was murdered before the fire started. Now, Yen is a suspect in a murder investigation. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is guilty. And there’s no lack of other suspects. So, she starts looking into the matter, and ends up getting into real danger. At the very end, there’s a scene where Nell is back at her home. She’s having a glass of wine with DS Ashley Armistead, who’s the official investigator on the case. In a way, the scene takes us back to the beginning of the novel. But it’s not the same Nell Forrest at the end, if I can put it that way. She’s learned a few things about herself, and sees the world a little differently.

And then there’s Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale. This story begins in 1758 in the British colony of North Carolina. Plantation owner Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. His work mostly involves breaking up drunken quarrels, levying fines on people who don’t attend church services, and catching petty thieves. Everything changes when Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are discovered brutally murdered at their home. Only their infant survived. On the surface, it looks like it might be the work of Indians. And, considering that this novel takes place during the Severn Years/French and Indian War, that wouldn’t be out of the question. But there are hints that that might not be what happened. A broach found at the murder scene provides a clue, and Woodyard decides to follow up on it. He believes that if he can find its owner, he can find the killer. So, he starts to follow the trail. In fact, it leads on a four-month journey all the way into Canada. In the end, though, Harry finds that the truth is closer to home than he would have imagined. The last scene in the novel has him back in Craven County, getting ready to resume his duties. He’s gone through some changes, though, and Smith makes that clear.

And that’s one of the advantages of using this sort of plot structure. Going back to the beginning can help the reader see how a character has grown or changed. It also allows the author to ‘tie up’ the novel and give some closure to it. Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s The Scientist.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donald Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ilsa Evans, Simon Beckett