Category Archives: Elzabeth Spann Craig

I’m Getting Older Too*

One of the major demographic shifts we’ve seen in many countries (certainly not all!) in the last years is the ageing of our population. The ‘baby boom’ generation is now entering into late middle/early old age, and that means a great number of changes. Socially, economically, and in other ways, we’re needing to re-think the way we do things (you’re welcome, younger people…)

I thought about this recently as I was reading The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old. The author has chosen Hendrik Groen as a pen name, too. This isn’t, admittedly, a crime novel. Rather, it’s a novel written in the form of a journal that the titular character keeps for a year. In that journal, Groen records what life is like in an Amsterdam elder care facility. It’s an unusual book with both wit and some darkness, too. And it highlights some of the issues that society faces as its population ages.

Crime fiction also highlights these issues, too, and it’s interesting to see how the genre treats them as time goes on. One thread through Groen’s story is the question of independence. Some elderly crime-fictional characters can do quite a lot (or even everything) for themselves. They may need occasional help here and there, but they’re certainly not invalids. I’m thinking, for instance, of Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s Emily Micaleff. She’s the former mayor of the small town of Port Dundas, Ontario. Her daughter, Hazel (who’s facing retirement herself) is a police inspector, and the main protagonist of this series. Emily’s health isn’t always good, and she doesn’t have the stamina of a younger person. But she’s quite independent, and wants to do things for herself, in her way. Balancing the realities of her age and health against the very normal and healthy desire to be independent isn’t easy.

It’s not easy for Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover, either. She’s a retired English teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. On the one hand, she uses a cane, and she’s not as strong as she once was (she’s in her eighties). She tires more easily than younger people do, and she does have occasional health problems. But she likes her independence, and she’s not at all ready to be ‘put out to pasture.’ It’s a difficult balance, and it’s a thread that runs through that series.

One of the points that Groen makes is that many elderly people do cherish their independence. They want to go to museums, concerts, good restaurants, and the like. In fact, a group of the fictional Groen’s friends form what they call the Old But Not Dead club. Each month, one of the members picks an activity for the group to engage in. They go golfing, to museums, out to dinner, and more. As they do, we see the challenge that society faces in making these activities available to elderly people who may need assistance, extra time, easy access to different places, and so on.

It’s not just independence, though. There’s also the issue of health. As the population ages, more people face health issues that weren’t as widespread (or at least, as well-understood) as they are now. And society will need to find a way to address those problems. One of them, for instance, is dementia in its many forms. Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, for instance features Dr. Jennifer White, who’s been diagnosed with dementia. She’s had to retire because of her illness, and now lives with a caregiver. When the woman next door is murdered, White becomes a suspect. The problem for the police, though, is that it’s difficult to find out the truth from her, because of her advancing illness. Among other things, this novel sheds a light on some of the challenges we face in treating dementia, and working with people who have it.

On the one hand (and Groen addresses this, too), dementia often progresses slowly, so that those diagnosed with it still may have quite a long period of a relatively normal life (whatever that even means). They may need some assistance, or to find a way to remind themselves of things. But they can still live full lives. We see this in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson has developed short-term memory loss, so he uses a notebook to keep track of everything he does. Then, the next day, he can go back to those notes to remind himself of what happened the day before. On the other hand, we haven’t found a cure for dementia. So, patients and their families face the challenge of how to give the person with dementia as much dignity and independence as possible, but also prepare for what is still inevitable.

Perhaps the most important point that Groen makes in the novel (at least to me; your mileage, as they say, may differ) is that elderly people are simply that – people. They want to be treated with dignity and respect, just as anyone else does. They have their own likes, dislikes, complexities, faults, and strengths. And crime fiction is, arguably, seeing that, too. There are plenty of elderly fictional sleuths, from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to the present day. And as time goes on, authors are exploring ageing in more depth. And that, to me, is a good thing. As more and more of us face getting older – perhaps very much older – the more prepared we are for it, and the more prepared society is, the better.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Landslide.

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Hendrik Groen, Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Redhill, Mike Befeler

Down to Elvis Presley Boulevard Where All the Faithful Cried*

As this is posted, it’s 40 years since the death of Elvis Presley. Whatever you think of his music, Presley was a worldwide phenomenon, and millions of people still make the pilgrimage to his home at Graceland. Oh, and by the way, you’ll want to check out Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, which takes place in Memphis, and which has plenty of mentions of (and even a big event at) Graceland.

Presley’s passing left his legions of fans grief-stricken. There are even those who swear that he’s still alive; that’s how much he meant to them. But it’s often that way when someone you’ve put on a pedestal dies. If it’s a famous person, there’s a wide outpouring of emotion. If it’s someone you’ve personally had as an idol (say, a colleague or friend or mentor), the grief may not be as public, but it’s no less there. Certainly, that’s true in real life, and it is in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife, Gerda, are among a group of people invited to spend a weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area and has been invited for lunch, arrives just after the shooting; in fact, at first, he thinks it’s an ‘amusement’ staged for his benefit. Very soon, though, he sees that it’s all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the murderer is. As he does, we see just how many people put Christow on a pedestal. And even for those who didn’t do that, we see clearly that his death has left a gaping hole, if I can put it like that.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate when eighteen-year-old Andreas Winther disappears. When Andreas’ mother, Runi, first reports him missing, Sejer isn’t overly concerned. There are, after all, plenty of reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he’s going. But when more time goes by, and he doesn’t return, Sejer begins to look more seriously into the matter. He begins with Andreas’ best friend, Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. I can say without spoiling the story that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does know a lot more than he’s saying about their last day together, and about what might have happened to Andreas. And, as the story goes on, we see that, in a way, Zipp hero-worshipped his friend, and is dealing with his own kind of grief and sense of loss.

Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) is the story of the murder of Viktor Stråndgard. His body is discovered in a Kiruna church called the Church of the Source of All Our Strength. The victim was an up-and-coming church leader who was sometimes called The Paradise Boy. He had many, many followers, so his death makes national news. In fact, that’s how Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson hears about the murder. It’s especially shocking to her because she grew up in Kiruna, and knew the Stråndgard family. Then, she gets a call from the victim’s sister, Sanna, a former friend. Sanna says that the police suspect her of the murder, and she needs Martinsson’s help. At first, Martinsson refuses; she had her own good reasons for leaving Kiruna in the first place, and has no desire to return. But Sanna finally persuades her to go. Martinsson hasn’t been there long when Sanna is actually arrested for the murder and imprisoned. Now, if she’s to clear her former friend’s name, Martinsson will have to find out who the real killer is. As she looks into the case, we see how Viktor Stråndgard’s death has impacted the church, his followers, and plenty of other people as well.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is the first in his series featuring Shanghai police detective Chief Inspector Chen Cao. One morning, the body of a woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. Very soon, she is identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. That means this investigation is going to have to be done very delicately. The victim was somewhat of a celebrity, and her death has been reported widely, leaving many people upset. What’s more, she had high political status, and moved in circles with some important people. So, it’s going to be critical that the case be handled as carefully as possible.

A similar thing might be said of William Ryan’s The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), which takes place in the then-USSR in the years just before World War II. It’s the story of the murder of Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya, a dedicated Party worker and up-and-coming actress. When she’s found dead at a filming location, it looks at first as though it might be a suicide. But there are enough questions about it that Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev is seconded to Odessa to find out the truth. And that’s going to be a problem. If the victim died by suicide that’ll be put down as a tragedy, but no more. If it’s a murder, though, the matter could turn very ugly for some important people. And, since the victim was a celebrity, albeit a minor one, there’ll be news reports, and word will get out. So, Korolev will have to tread very, very lightly as he investigates.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. The real action in this novel begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan goes missing and is later found dead, with a scarf round her head. At the time, the police concentrate heavily on her family, especially her aunt, uncle and cousins, with whom she’s staying during the summer. Then, a few months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is killed. She, too, is found with a scarf. Now, the Sydney police seem to be dealing with a mass killer that the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. No-one is ever arrested for the crimes, though, and the cases go cold. Years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on the families of murder victims. She approaches Angela’s cousin Jane Tait, who gives very reluctant permission to be interviewed. She also interviews Jane’s brother, Mick, and their parents, Barbara and Doug Griffin. As the story goes on, we learn the story of that summer, and we learn what really happened to both Angela and Kelly. Admittedly, Angela is not a film or music idol. But Jane put her up on a pedestal, in a way, and her loss struck a devastating blow from which the family still hasn’t really recovered. It’s an interesting case of a person who isn’t famous, but who is still someone’s idol.

The loss of an idol can have a profound impact on a person. And that can make for an interesting crime plot or layer of character development. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Elvis Presley Boulevard.  

30 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Karin Fossum, Qiu Xiaolong, Riley Adams, Wendy James, William Ryan

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?

20 Comments

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

‘Cause I Ain’t Quite as Dumb as I Seem*

As this is posted, it would have been Andy Griffith’s 91st birthday. In one of his more famous roles, he portrayed Atlanta attorney Benjamin ‘Ben’ Matlock. Matlock’s courtroom persona was the ‘I’m just a dumb hick lawyer’ type, and he used it to great advantage as he defended clients. If you’ve seen the show, though, you know that Matlock was much sharper than he seemed.

Griffith was well-known (at least in the US) for that sort of character, but he’s hardly the only fictional character to ‘play dumb.’ There are plenty of other fictional lawyers, for instance, who use the same strategy. There are other characters, too (right, fans of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo?).

For instance, more than once, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple pretends to be ‘just a fluttery old lady.’ But any fan can tell you that Miss Marple is much more intelligent and observant than she seems on the surface. She uses that persona to put people off their guards, but they soon learn that they underestimate Miss Marple at their peril. There are times when Christie’s Hercule Poirot does a similar thing. Poirot is not exactly modest when it comes to his opinion of his detecting ability. But he also knows that it’s sometimes expedient to ‘play dumb,’ and he can do that quite well (I see you, fans of After the Funeral).

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a bright, educated detective with the Queensland Police. He’s intelligent and shrewd, and a solid judge of character. But he knows that it doesn’t always serve his purpose to ‘show his hand’ as the saying goes. So, he sometimes adopts an ‘I’m just a dumb Aborigine – what do I know?’ persona (he’s half white/half Aborigine). He’s also been known to adopt the non-threatening persona of an itinerant stockman, a ranch hand, and more. This non-threatening exterior allows Bony to get people to talk to him in ways they might not otherwise do. And it gives him the chance to observe people when they’re not aware of it.

In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, we are introduced to Central City, Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. Most people in town think of him as a bit dull, perhaps not the brightest bulb in the proverbial chandelier. But he’s nice enough – certainly not threatening. Then, a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland, is brutally beaten. Then, there’s a murder. As the story goes on, we learn that these events are connected, and that Ford’s ‘I’m just a dumb hick cop’ is hiding something else – something he himself refers to as ‘the sickness.’ It’s an interesting case of a murderer ‘playing dumb’ – and there are plenty of those.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover may be retired (she’s a former teacher), but there’s nothing ‘over the hill’ about her thinking skills. She’s bright, shrewd, and observant. Still, she knows that it sometimes pays to be as non-threatening as possible. That’s especially true since she’s not a member of a police force, and since she lives in a small town, where everyone knows everyone. So, she sometimes deliberately cultivates the ‘I’m just a gossipy old lady with nothing better to do’ image. This tends to put people more at ease than they would be if they knew what she was actually thinking. And it gets her information that she might not otherwise get.

And then there’s Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. As the series begins, she’s eleven years old. She gets around her 1950s English village on her bicycle, Gladys. She fights with her two older sisters, and in other ways, she acts like a typical child of her age (if there is such a thing). But Flavia is not typical. She’s a brilliant chemist with a passion for poisons. And she’s curious enough to want to find out the truth about the murders that feature in this series. So, she uses her youth to her advantage. More than once, she adopts the ‘I’m just a dumb kid, don’t mind me’ persona so that she can eavesdrop, find clues, and so on.

There are many more examples of fictional characters who ‘play dumb’ so that they can get an advantage. Sometimes, they’re sleuths. Sometimes they’re killers. Other times, they’re hiding other things. Creating such a character can be tricky. There has to be a plausible reason for which other characters can’t see how bright/shrewd/well-informed the character really is. Otherwise there’s too much suspension of disbelief required of the reader. And ‘playing dumb’ too often can become tiresome. But when it’s done well, that sort of persona can add depth to a character – and interest to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Carrack’s How Long. 

23 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Upfield, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Jim Thompson

At Every Occasion I’ll be Ready For the Funeral*

funeralsAn interesting comment exchange with crime and true crime writer Vicky Blake has gotten me thinking about funerals. Now, before I go on, do pay a visit to Vicky’s excellent website, and try her work. You’ll be glad you did.

Right, funerals. It’s inevitable that, in crime fiction, there’d be plenty of crime-fictional funerals. After all, in a lot of crime novels, there’s at least one murder. Police and other sleuths can find those events quite useful, actually. Most people are killed by people they know. So, attending a funeral can give the police a good idea of how people react to the death in question. And that can give them important clues.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral. After the actual ritual, they return to the family home at Enderby, where Abernethie’s attorney, Mr. Entwhistle, prepares to read his client’s will. At that gathering, Abernethie’s youngest sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up. Even she tells everyone not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, people do begin to wonder. And when she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. Mr. Entwhistle has his own concerns, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. As it turns out, something at that funeral gathering provides an important clue. And so does something that’s said at a later gathering, where Abernethie’s family members decide which pieces of furniture and other belongings they want.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances marks the debut of her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In that novel, up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned one afternoon when he’s about to make an important speech at a community picnic. He was a good friend and political ally of Joanne’s so she is devastated by his death. As a way to deal with her grief, she decides to write a biography of her friend, and starts to gather material. As she does, she slowly finds out what really happened to him and why. At one point, she accompanies Boychuk’s widow, Eve, to his funeral. There’s quite a police presence there, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. The purpose is, of course, to see who attends and how the different people react. It’s an interesting look at the way police use information they get from funerals.

The real action in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent begins with the funeral of Carolyn Polhemus. She worked as a prosecutor for (fictional) Kindle County before she was murdered. Because of her ties with that office, it’s extremely important that the investigation into her death be handled scrupulously and transparently. So Kindle County Prosecutor Raymond Horgan assigns his best deputy prosecutor, Rožat “Rusty” Sabich, to the case. At the funeral, Sabich notes how big the police presence is, and for good reason:
 

‘Killing a prosecutor is only one step short of killing a cop, and Carolyn had many friends on the force…’
 

Attending the funeral doesn’t give Sabich (or the reader) the answer to the question of who killed Carolyn Polhemus. But it’s interesting to see how the police react to this ‘(almost) one of their own’ funeral.

In Jane Casey’s The Burning, Met DC Maeve Kerrigan. Her team is investigating the case of a killer who tries to incinerate his victims. For that reason, the press has dubbed him ‘The Burning Man,’ and there’s a lot of pressure to solve the case quickly. And Kerrigan wants to be a part of the investigation. When the body of PR professional Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it’s believed at first that she was another victim of this serial killer. But Kerrigan isn’t completely sure. There are enough differences between Haworth’s murder and the others that it could also be a case of a ‘copycat’ killing. She’s put on the Haworth case, both to prove to the public that the police aren’t neglecting other cases, and to explore that lead if this is a ‘Burning Man’ killing. As a part of looking into the murder, Kerrigan attends Haworth’s funeral. There, she meets the victim’s parents and other people close to the victim. She also witnesses something that turns out to have some significance later in the novel.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Finger Lickin’ Dead features her sleuth, Lulu Taylor, who owns and runs Aunt Pat’s, one of Memphis’ most popular eateries. She gets drawn into a case of murder when food critic Avery Cawthorn is murdered. One of the suspects is Lulu’s friend, Evelyn Wade, so she has a personal interest in finding out the truth about the murder. And there are plenty of possibilities, too, as Cawthorn had been merciless in his criticisms, and not exactly a ‘model citizen’ in his private life, either. Several of the people involved in the case attend his funeral, and it’s interesting to see how people’s reactions to it and one another provide clues.

And that’s the thing about funerals of murder victims. As harrowing as they are for family members, they can provide interesting opportunities for the police (or other sleuths) to find out information. These are only a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, Vicky, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Band of Horses’ The Funeral.

 

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Jane Casey, Riley Adams, Scott Turow, Vicky Blake