Category Archives: Fred Vargas

If You Know Your History*

HistoriansAn interesting comment exchange with Prashant at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema has got me thinking about historians. When you consider it, understanding our history is absolutely essential to understanding who we are now, and why we are the way we are. So the work historians do is important, even if we aren’t always conscious of it.

Historians, both professional and amateur, play roles in crime fiction, too. Well, academics in general figure into the genre quite a lot, but there’s only so much room in one post. Still, even if we only focus on one discipline – history – we see a lot of examples.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a newspaper columnist who lives and works in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The area has a long and rich history that includes mining, railroads and more. And that history is often related to the present-day crimes that Qwill investigates. He himself may not be thoroughly informed on the area’s history, but he has a rich resource in Homer Tibbitt. Tibbitt is a nonagenarian expert on local history, and spends a great deal of time at the public library reading up on his topic. His expertise is very helpful too. For instance, in The Cat Who Blew the Whistle, Tibbitt is writing a paper on Moose County mining. It turns out that he’s very familiar with one of the original mining families in the area, the Trevelyans. And that history is of particular interest to Qwill, who’s investigating the disappearance of a modern-day member of the family – along with a million dollars – and that case’s connection to a murder. Tibbitt’s background knowledge proves to be extremely useful in solving the puzzle.

In Deborah Crombie’s A Finer End, Met Superintendent Duncan Kincaid gets a strange request from his cousin Jack Montfort, who lives in Glastonbury. Montfort’s aware of the legends about Glastonbury, its Druid past and the myth that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are buried there. But he’s never really taken a serious interest in those matters. Still, he does find history fascinating. That’s how he comes across a thousand-year-old chronicle that tells of an ancient terrible crime. He’s troubled enough on several levels to ask his cousin’s help, and Kincaid agrees. After all, a nice, peaceful getaway from London is a welcome change. But for Kincaid and his partner Gemma James, it turns out to be anything but peaceful. When a local tiler Garnet Todd is murdered, the solution seems somehow to be connected to her interest in the pagan history of the area and to Goddess worship. So James turns for guidance to historian Erika Rosenthal, who’s made a career of studying that aspect of Glastonbury’s past. Rosenthal’s insights don’t solve the murder, but they do provide very helpful information.

There are, of course, plenty of fictional sleuths who are historians. For example, one of the protagonists in Martin Edwards’ Lake District series is Oxford historian Daniel Kind. His work earned him celebrity status, but he got burned out, as the saying goes, on TV and personal appearances. So he’s taken a home in the Lake District, where he’s trying to focus on his work. That’s how he meets up again with DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, and who was also his father Ben’s police protégée. Scarlett and her team investigate cases that have their roots in the past – sometimes in the distant past. So she finds Kind’s expertise and historical perspective very useful.

One of Fred Vargas’ series features three historians: Marc Vandoosier, Lucien Devernois and Matthias Delamarre. They live together with Vandoosier’s uncle, a disgraced former police officer. They first get drawn into crime in The Three Evangelists when Sophia Siméonidis, the opera singer who lives next door, notices the sudden appearance of a beech tree in her yard. She asks the Vandoosiers, Devernois and Delamarre to help her make sense of why a tree would suddenly appear. Then, she disappears and is later found dead, and the Three Evangelists set out to find out the truth about her murder.

There’s also Sarah R. Shaber’s Professor Simon Shaw. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian whose specialty is the history of the American South. Although he could have his pick of academic positions, Shaw has chosen North Carolina’s small, but competitive and reputable, Kenan College. As the series begins (with Simon Said), he’s recovering from a divorce, and hoping to pick up a quiet, academic life again. Instead, he gets drawn into the 1926 murder of Anne Bloodworth. Throughout the series, he uses his knowledge of history and his research-oriented approach to investigation to help solve mysteries. And it sometimes gets him into danger.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to what awaits historian Augustin Renaud in Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead. In one plot thread of that novel, Renaud has been researching the history of Samuel de Champlain. When he is murdered at Québec City’s Literary and Historical Society, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (who’s there for a respite and to enjoy the Winter Carnival) gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that Renaud’s murder is directly related to his determined search for Champlain’s remains.

You’ll notice that I’ve not mentioned the many fictional sleuths whose professions are history-related (e.g. anthropology and archaeology) – too easy. And that’s to say nothing of the many crime writers who are historians. They’re all examples of the way history finds its way into crime fiction. I know I’ve only mentioned a sampling here. Over to you.

Thanks, Prashant, for the inspiration. Folks, you won’t want to miss Prashant’s excellent blog. Fine reviews of film, books, and much more await you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier.

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Filed under Deborah Crombie, Fred Vargas, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Sarah R. Shaber

Scotland Yard Was Trying Hard*

National Police ForcesMany countries have a national police force or other law-enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the entire country. There are also sometimes local, province/state/department-level, or regional police as well.

National police forces and agencies are often the subject of crime fiction novels, for obvious reasons. And it’s fascinating (at least to me) to look at how they’re treated. Of course, a lot of that depends on the protagonist of a given novel or series, and it’s interesting to look at the different lenses through which those agencies are viewed.

The Met (formerly Scotland Yard), for instance, gets some very different treatments depending on the perspective of a given book or series. You’ll probably already know that the Met is not a national police force per se. But the agency does include expert special branches and services that other regional police forces tap. And in series such as Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan novels, Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers novels, or James Craig’s John Carlyle novels, Met police are treated sympathetically. In all of those cases, we have a protagonist who’s a member of that police force, so that makes sense. It’s not that there are no unpleasant Met characters in those novels. But the agency itself is viewed as competent and, overall, a positive force. Not so, though, if one reads, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Fans of those novels will know that Holmes has little patience with Scotland Yard. There are other novels too where there’s friction between Met branches and regional police.

We see a similar sort of disparity when it comes to the way the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s national police force, is treated. In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect for instance, we meet RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, who investigates the murder of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. It’s a very puzzling case; soon enough, Alberg begins to suspect eighty-year-old George Wilcox, but he can’t find a motive. Readers know from the beginning of the novel that Wilcox is, indeed, guilty. The suspense in the story really comes from the slow reveal of the motive and from Alberg’s dogged pursuit of the truth about the case. In this novel, the RCMP is not portrayed as perfect in the least. But it’s presented as an overall solid agency with competent law enforcers. Scott Young’s novels featuring Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak are also more sympathetic than unsympathetic towards Matteesie’s employer, the RCMP. But we get a very different picture through reading the work of Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill, Giles Blunt or Robert Rotenberg. Those series feature police protagonists who are in local or provincial police forces, and their perceptions of RCMP involvement are not exactly positive. At best, RCMP involvement is irritating. At worst, RCMP ‘players’ are slow, incompetent and counterproductive.

There’s an interesting ‘inside’ look at the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in Kel Robertson’s novels featuring Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. As a member of the AFP, Chen participates in investigations that have federal (and sometimes international) implications. He works with competent and dependable team members, too. They aren’t always perfect, and they like a night off work as much as the next person. But they do their jobs well and they are committed to their work. What’s more, they form an important support network for Chen. They’re as much his mates as they are his colleagues.

There’s a less positive portrayal of the AFP in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, which introduces her Bangkok-based PI sleuth Jayne Keeney. In this novel, Keeney travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. When his partner Nou is murdered, Didi is devastated. The police visit him, supposedly because he was considered a suspect. During their visit he’s shot, and the police report is that he was in fact guilty, and tried to resist arrest. The report alleges that he represented an immediate threat to the arresting officers. But Keeney is sure that her friend was innocent, and works to clear his name. In the process of looking into the case, she crosses paths with AFP agent Mark D’Angelo. He’s in Thailand on special assignment with a group that’s looking into human trafficking and the child sex trade. D’Angelo is not portrayed as stupid, incompetent or corrupt. But Keeney does find him unwilling to really consider all the implications of what he’s doing. And without spoiling the story, I can say that for Keeney, it’s very difficult to reconcile herself to the perceptions he and his task force represent.

Talking of Bangkok, the Royal Thai Police have jurisdiction in Thailand. There are several novels (Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom is one of them) in which this agency is depicted as corrupt and greedy at best. But other novels (including Savage’s work) show things differently. Savage’s Jayne Keeney knows that doing her job successfully depends on a rapport with the police. So she’s worked to get to know them. She finds some of the Royal Thai Police to be just as venal as their reputation suggests. But most do their jobs the best they can. And the hard-working police Keeney knows have encountered at least as many problems caused by farangs (foreigners) as those caused by the police. We also see a generally positive portrayal of the Royal Thai Police in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series. Sonchai is a member of the police force and a very observant Buddhist. As he investigates cases, readers get an ‘inside look’ at some of the challenges the police face and some of the ways in which they make a very positive impact. That’s not to say of course that there are no corrupt or even dangerous police in those novels. And even the ‘good guys’ have their faults. But we do see a more or less sympathetic depiction of this national police force, and one that shows readers what goes on ‘behind the scenes.’

Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is a member of the Police Nationale, one of France’s two national police forces. The Police Nationale have jurisdiction in large cities, and Vargas’ novels portray at least Adamsberg’s team as competent, if eccentric (to say the very least). They do their jobs and they care about their work in their way. The Gendarmerie has jurisdiction in smaller towns, rural areas and borderlands. This group gets a less positive treatment from Vargas, although she doesn’t portray each member in a terribly negative way. Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series isn’t very flattering to the Gendarmerie either. In fact. Bruno, who is Chief of Police of the village of St. Denis, very often finds himself at odds with Captain Duroc of the local gendarmerie. In fact, he works better with the Police Nationale. As an aside, you’ll probably know that the Police Nationale used to be known as the Sûreté. Fans of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links will know that her Hercule Poirot is no big fan of that group…

You’ll notice that until now, I’ve not mentioned the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That’s because there are dozens and dozens of crime novels and series that mention that agency, either in a positive or negative light. P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson is an FBI agent, and as you can imagine, the agency is portrayed more or less positively in those novels. There are many others too that depict the FBI in a sympathetic way. But if you read Tony Hillerman’s work or some of James Lee Burke’s novels, you soon see that it’s not at all that simple. There are dozens of novels and series in which the FBI is portrayed as officious, heavy-handed, and sometimes corrupt.

So what can we say about national police agencies (or those that provide national-level services)? They’re large, sometimes complicated, and therefore, complex. As with many groups, the answer depends on whom you ask.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth George, Fred Vargas, Giles Blunt, Inger Ash Wolfe, James Craig, James Lee Burke, Jane Casey, John Burdett, Kel Robertson, L.R. Wright, Martin Walker, Michael Redhill, P.D. Martin, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Young, Tony Hillerman

Meet the New Boss*

BossesUnless you’re self-employed, chances are you’ve got a boss. If you’re fortunate, you have a supportive boss who looks out for you and helps you to develop and use your skills. That makes sense when you think about it. After all, if you look good, your boss looks good. Of course, you may be unlucky enough to have a boss who’s not supportive at all, and that can make your work life horrible. Either way, bosses play an important role in the way we feel about our work.

Bosses also play important roles in crime fiction. Some crime fictional sleuths are independent PIs; except for laws and policies that govern what they’re allowed to do, they don’t have bosses in the usual sense of the word. But a lot of fictional detectives have bosses (some are also bosses themselves). Here are just a few examples.

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is sometimes unorthodox in his approach to solving cases. Just as one example, the alternate title of The Bushman Who Came Back is Bony Buys a Woman. No, it’s not exactly the way it sounds; it’s more complicated than that. And no, Bony isn’t a human trafficker. But he does have different ways of going about things. In that particular novel, he has a rather unusual way of helping one of the other characters as he solves the mysterious shooting of a housekeeper. Sometimes his approach gets him into trouble with the ‘higher ups’ in the Queensland Police. But Bony is fortunate enough to have a boss who understands both his value to the police and his not-always-by-the-book ways. So although they do ‘butt heads’ from time to time, Bony knows that his supervisor supports him and wants him to use his skills.

On the surface of it, you might not think that Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel would make a particularly good boss. After all, as fans will know, he’s demanding, sometimes quite rude, and certainly not one to care much about the finer sensibilities of his staff. And as the saying goes, he does not suffer fools gladly. But he is in many ways a very supportive boss. He’s not at all one to gush, but he is well aware that he’s got a good team of people working for him. And he looks after them, too. For example, in Child’s Play, the team is investigating the case of a man who’s found murdered not long after claiming to be the son (and only heir) of a wealthy woman who’s recently died. In the meantime, Sgt. Wield faces a difficult personal matter. He’s gotten involved in a relationship with a young drifter who has his own agenda. Now Wieldy has to decide what to do about coming out as gay. When internal police politics threaten Wieldy’s career, Dalziel finds a very clever way to protect his sergeant. He takes care of the rest of his team too, even when it doesn’t seem so.

Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg supervises a very unusual team of detectives. At first glance, it seems as though they’d be any boss’ nightmare. One’s a narcoleptic, one has an uncomfortably close relationship with the bottle, and one works better with animals than with people. But Adamsberg is a supportive boss. For one thing, he knows he’s not perfect either. For another, he knows that he has a team of skilled detectives who are good at their jobs. So he looks out for them and listens to them. They may be misfits in a lot of people’s estimation, but Adamsberg gets the best out of them.

The same is true of the team at Andrea Camilleri’s fictional Vigàta constabulary. Inspector Salvo Montalbano can be short-tempered and brusque with people, including those he supervises. And anyone who works for him knows better than to interrupt him when he’s eating. But they also know they can count on him. For one thing, he’s a fine detective. For another, he’s loyal to them and cares about them. As an example, in one plot thread of Dance of the Seagull, one of Montalbano’s team members, Giuseppe Fazio, goes missing. Montalbano immediately puts together a plan to find him. At the time of his disappearance, Fazio was following up some leads on a dangerous smuggling ring, and pursuing that case seems to be the best chance to find him. So Montalbano and the team do exactly that. They find Fazio too, wounded but alive. Throughout the novel, we see how Montalbano’s leadership and his loyalty to his team play roles in what happens.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has to learn leadership skills as she takes over and heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. At first it’s seen as a demotion – a punishment for a case that went wrong. But Scarlett is determined to do the best job she can. And she loves her work. So she buckles down and develops the skills she needs to get the best from her team members. Along the way, she has to deal with some very complicated relationships and with the inevitable performance evaluations and other paperwork involved in being a boss. In this series, we get a look at what it’s like to learn how to be a supervisor and lead a team.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman may not head up a large team, but she cares about the people who work for her. Chapman is a Melbourne baker with two shop assistants, Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge. She also has an apprentice baker, Jason Wallace. All three employees are young, and sometimes need some adult guidance. For example, Kylie and Goss have a potentially very dangerous encounter with some weight-loss tea in Devil’s Food. When Chapman learns what’s happened, she does what’s needed to help take care of them and ensure that they’ll be all right. For his part, Jason is learning to live on his own, without the use of drugs. He makes his share of mistakes, but Chapman supports him as he starts to grow up. In turn, all three of the young people are just as loyal to their boss. They step in when needed, they work to make sure that customers are happy, and they are trustworthy.

Those relationships are possibly the best thing about being (or having) a good boss. If you are a good boss, you get your subordinates’ loyalty and best work. If you have a good boss, you get the chance to develop your skills, and you grow professionally. You also forge really positive relationships. Of course, not all of us are lucky enough to have a good boss; that’s the stuff of another post…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again.

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Upfield, Fred Vargas, Kerry Greenwood, Martin Edwards, Reginald Hill

But Who Would Believe It?*

Weird EventsDid you ever have one of those ‘you couldn’t make this up’ experiences? They do happen, which is why there’s arguably something to the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. Let me give you a real example. I promise, this happened to me. The other afternoon, I was walking my dogs in one of the grassy areas we haunt. I looked up and across a nearby parking area and saw someone standing by a car (back to me) dressed in nothing but what nature provided. Now, there are places (such as certain beaches and so on) and some cultures where that’s not so unusual. But in the culture where I live, it’s odd indeed. You couldn’t make it up. And in this case, I didn’t.

The whole thing got me thinking about how those sorts of unusual events and things are woven into crime fiction. Yes, I was thinking about crime fiction at a time like that. I am beyond redemption. Here’s the challenge that the crime fiction author faces. On the one hand, those weird things do happen. They really do. On the other, stretching the limits of credibility too far in a novel is enough to pull a reader firmly out of the story. Even in ‘screwball’ novels, most readers don’t want to suspend all of their disbelief. So weaving in those weird incidents takes thought and care. But when it’s done well, those strange things can keep readers’ interest and add to a story.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissioner Peterson has one of those odd experiences. He breaks up a scuffle between some thugs and the man they’re harassing, and everyone involved runs off. Not so unusual. The would-be victim has dropped in his haste a hat and a goose. Again, not so strange. But when Peterson’s wife starts to prepare the goose for cooking, she finds a large jewel in its craw. That is, of course, one of those odd things that just simply doesn’t happen – but it does. Peterson brings the case to Sherlock Holmes, who works with Dr. Watson to trace the jewel back to its origin. When it’s all outlined, it’s not as unbelievable as it seems, but my guess is that Mrs. Peterson would likely have told that story to people for a very long time.

In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, we learn about the first case investigated by London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). In 1940, a pavement chestnut vendor leaves his stall to obey the call of nature. When he comes back, he finds that there is a pair of feet among his chestnuts. That’s definitely not the sort of thing that happens every day, and the vendor is of course shaken up by it. Arthur Bryant and John May of the PCU take the case, and find out that the person originally connected to those feet was a dancer preparing for an upcoming Palace Theatre production of Orpheus. It turns out that her murder, and other murders that occur, are linked to each other and to a modern-day explosion that occurs at the PCU offices. In this instance, there is an explanation for those feet turning up in the vendor’s cart. But it’s definitely one of those stories that would be hard to believe if you didn’t know it was true.

Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom introduces readers to Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. In this novel, she’s relatively new to the business, so she can’t really be choosy about her clients. That’s why she accepts the case of Christine Arvisais. As Arvisais tells the story, she was engaged to marry Gordon Hanes, but Hanes broke it off. Then, just a few months later, on the date they were going to wed, Hanes was shot. The police weren’t able to find the killer, but a lot of people think that Arvisais is responsible. She wants Jackson to find out who the real murderer is, so that her name will be cleared. Jackson investigates and finds that Arvisais is by no means the only one with a motive for murder. And as she gets closer to the truth about Hanes’ death, she also finds herself in some danger. At one point, she’s even shot at. That’s not so odd in a crime novel. What’s a lot more unusual is that she is saved by the underwire in her bra. It’s not such an improbable thing that readers wouldn’t stay in the story, but it’s certainly a very odd thing to happen.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that those novels often include unusual things that would be very hard to believe if the characters didn’t actually experience them. For example, in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg gets a visit from Valentine Vendermot, who’s come from Ordebec to see him about her daughter Lina. Her story is intriguing enough that Adamsberg travels to Ordebec to investigate more deeply. Among the many odd events and people in this novel is Mme. Vendermot’s son Hippolyte ‘Hippo.’ He’s a bit eccentric to begin with, and what makes him even more unusual is that he talks backwards when it suits him. Not something you’d be inclined to believe – until it happened.

There are also plenty of crime stories that make use of strange sorts of coincidences that you wouldn’t be likely to believe – except that they do happen. If you’ve ever experienced a crazy coincidence, you know what I mean. Of course, it’s important to handle those things very, very carefully in writing; readers are easily put off by contrived coincidences. Still, those things do take place, both in real life and in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Arthur Hastings pays a visit to his friend John Cavendish, who lives near the village of Styles St. Mary. Not so odd, really. But what is unusual is that on his way out of the local post office one day, Hastings bumps into an old friend he hasn’t seen in years – Hercule Poirot. Neither man knew the other was in the area, so it’s a happy surprise for both. They’re both there for believable reasons, too. Poirot is living with a group of Belgians who were displaced by World War I. Hastings is visiting a friend. And yet it seems on the surface of it very odd. And it turns out to be very fortunate when Hastings’ hostess Emily Inglethorp is murdered.

But those strange things happen. Don’t believe me? Here’s another true story. Mr. COAMN and I were on our honeymoon in the Bahamas, far away from home. One day, we happened to wander into a liquor shop. We were browsing there when we heard a very familiar voice. A good friend of ours from university was in the same store with his new bride, whom we also knew. You couldn’t make that up. And I didn’t. Have you had one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ moments? Does it pull you out of the story when they occur in novels?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from ZZ Top’s Made Into a Movie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Fowler, Fred Vargas, Jill Edmondson

No One Cares For You a Smidge When You’re In An Orphanage*

OrphanagesMost children are cared for by at least one of their parents. When that’s not possible, they’re sometimes cared for by grandparents or other relations. And in some cultures, it would be unthinkable for any other kind of arrangement to be made. But there are also plenty of situations where there really isn’t anyone who can care for a child, especially when both parents have died and there are no near relations. That’s one reason for which orphanages were established.

If you’ve read Charles Dickens or Charlotte Brontë, you may think of orphanages as horrible places of abuse and neglect. And some of the literary (and real) ones have been just that. But like most places, orphanages aren’t all alike, and they’re not all portrayed in the same way in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It turns out that she was murdered, and that the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, looks into each one’s background to find the killer. The victim was a well-known moneylender (she did business as Madame Giselle) who used secrets about her clients as collateral, so there are several possibilities. One is Jane Grey, a London hairstylist’s assistant who, as it turns out, was raised in an orphanage. Here’s what she has to say about it:
 

‘I don’t mean that we were the type of charity orphans who go about in scarlet bonnets and cloaks. It was quite fun, really.’
 

The mystery of who killed the victim doesn’t hinge on the fact that Jane was brought up in an orphanage. But it’s interesting to see that her experiences weren’t the melodramatic horror stories that sometimes come from such places.

There’s a very different portrait of an orphanage presented in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. In that novel, child psychologist Alex Delaware is asked to assist in the investigation of the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez. The lone witness to the murder is seven-year-old Melody Quinn, and her account is neither complete nor coherent. Milo Sturgis of the LAPD is hoping that his friend Delaware will be able to get Melody to open up and tell everything that she knows. In the process of trying to work with Melody, Delaware finds himself getting more and more drawn into the case. And one part of the trail leads to La Casa de los Niños, an orphanage/residential facility for children with special needs and behaviour issues. As it turns out, the murders, as well as other events in the story, have everything to do with past history. And one part of the truth lies in what’s going on at the orphanage.

One of the ‘regulars’ in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is Mma. Silvia Potokwane. She’s a good friend to Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs the titular agency, and she plays an important role in the local community. Mma. Potokwane runs an orphanage to which she devotes all of her energy. She is a tireless advocate for ‘her’ children, and is always looking for ways to make their lives better. She depends on Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to keep the orphanage’s machinery and appliances running, often long after they really should have given out. She also sponsors several events in aid of the orphanage. But her dedication goes beyond those administrative matters. She knows that the ideal situation for each child is a loving home, so whenever possible, that’s what she tries to arrange for each of the children in her care. In fact, she persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take in two orphans, Motholeli and her brother Puso. So when Mma. Ramotswe marries him, she actually gets a sort of ready-made family. For the children who can’t so easily find homes, Mma. Potokwane works hard to create the most loving atmosphere she can, given a limited budget and the realities of caring for a large group of children. In this series, the orphanage is presented in a very positive way, and it’s largely because of Mma. Potokwane’s efforts.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour. In that novel, the villagers of Ventebrune and Pierrefort, in the French Alps, are unsettled when nine sheep are found with their throats slashed. Everyone thinks at first that it’s a pack of rogue wolves. But then, a sheep breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found dead in one of her sheep pens, murdered in the same way as the sheep. It’s unlikely that this would be the work of a wolf, and some locals say a werewolf is responsible for the killings. What’s more, they think they know who’s responsible: a loner named Auguste Massart, who seems to have disappeared. Three locals decide to go after Massart and see if they can find out what exactly happened to the sheep and to Suzanne Rosselin. But they’re not particularly good at tracking and they end up contacting Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Adamsberg travels to the French Alps to find out the truth about the mysterious events in the area, and discovers that the cause isn’t a werewolf at all. The motive goes back into the past, and what’s interesting is that as Adamsberg puts the pieces together, he discovers that one of the characters spent time in an orphanage. Here’s a bit of the conversation about it between Adamsberg and another commissaire:
 

He was in a home, a sort of state orphanage.’ [Adamsberg]
‘Iron discipline?’
‘No, it seems to have been a reasonable place…’
 

I think I can say without spoiling the story that in this case, the orphanage was a better choice than home life would have been.

That belief – that certain children have a better chance at an orphanage than they would elsewhere – also motivates Frank Harding, whom we meet in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Harding runs the New Life Children’s Centre, located in Pattaya, Thailand. One of New Life’s goals is to match the babies and young children who live there with adoptive families. Once they are matched, volunteers prepare the little ones for their new homes by speaking English (or whatever the child’s new language will be), interacting with them and so on. When one of those volunteers, Maryanne Delbeck, suddenly dies, her father Jim wants to know why. According to the police report, she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck is convinced that his daughter didn’t kill herself. So he hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened. Keeney agrees and goes undercover at New Life to see whether there might be a connection between the victim’s volunteer work and her death. As Keeney learns more about New Life, readers learn about the process of matching children in a orphanage with prospective adoptive parents. We also learn about the intricacies of foreign adoptions.

Orphanages may not be the ideal situation for a child. And some of them are unspeakable. But as crime fiction shows us, they’re as varied as the people who run them and live there are. Which fictional orphanages have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Chamin’s Hard Knock Life.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Fred Vargas, Jonathan Kellerman