Category Archives: Gail Bowen

Everywhere You Look Now There’s Murder Incorporated*

Changing Bad GuysWell-written crime fiction shows us ourselves – who we are as people. We can learn a lot about what we wish for, fear, and more as we read in the genre. For instance, if you consider the ‘bad guys’ in certain crime novels, you see that they reflect sociopolitical events, societal fears and sometimes prejudices. You also see how those have changed as the world has changed.

For example, if you look at early crime fiction, or historical crime fiction that takes place during the late Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era, you see that the ‘bad guys’ were frequently members or leaders of shadowy syndicates and crime rings. The best known example that I can think of is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Fans will know that he is a highly intelligent master-criminal who gives Sherlock Holmes quite a run for the money, as the saying goes. But he’s not the only criminal of that type. You see that influence also in Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry. In that novel, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn go up against Sebastian Nightwine, a dangerous opponent whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. When Nightwine returns to London, Barker is sure that trouble is going to follow, and he’s right. Barker ends up accused of murder and on the run, with all of his assets frozen. Then there’s another murder. He and Llewelyn will have to work hard to clear his name and take down Nightwine’s.  A few of Agatha Christie’s novels (The Big Four being one of them) also set up shadowy syndicates as ‘the enemy).

More modern novels, such as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano stories, have a more contemporary take on the crime syndicate. Sometimes, as in Camilleri’s work and that of authors such as Michael Dibdin and Tonino Benacquista, the syndicate takes the form of what we call the Mafia (sometimes in the US, it’s called the Mob). There are also modern takes on crime syndicates from other places, too, such as the Glasgow underworld that we see in William McIlvanney’s and Malcolm Mackay’s work.

World War I and World War II had profound influences on people’s conceptions of ‘bad guys.’ Several of Agatha Christie’s stories (N or M? and Postern of Fate, for instance) set up first the Triple Alliance, then the Axis powers (specifically the Nazis) as ‘the bad guys.’

And by no means is Christie the only author who’s used Nazis, their associates, and their modern-day incarnations as antagonists. You see that in a lot of crime fiction and thrillers, actually. Just to take a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, and Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders.

In fact, the Nazis-as-enemies have had a profound influence even in modern crime fiction that simply touches on the World War II years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, and Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). In those novels (and many more), we see how modern relationships, interactions, and even crime has its roots in the war, in Nazi occupation and in loyalties of that time.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that theme as time goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people whose parents/grandparents/great-grandparents lived through World War II.

In the post-World War II era, one of the most important geopolitical realities was the Cold War between the UK, US and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies. This arguably set up the KGB and other Soviet-bloc spy agencies as very effective ‘bad guys.’ Read the work of authors such as John le Carré, Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum, and you’ll see that in a lot of those novels, the enemy is usually the KGB or other such agency in some form or another. Sometimes it’s one person who’s a member of such a group, but that person often represents the Soviet Union and its policies. You can even see such sentiments in books that aren’t exactly what you would call spy thrillers. For example, there’s Martin Cruz Smith’s work featuring Arkady Renko. And Walter Mosley’s The Red Death has his sleuth Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins being asked to take down a suspected Communist. As I think about the Cold War era, I often wonder what impression I’d get if I could read Russian well enough to read some of the novels of those years that are written in that language.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the world changed, and so did crime fiction. There are arguably two kinds of ‘bad guys’ that have populated crime fiction since that time. One is the Eastern European crime gang that we see in novels such as Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. Another, very closely related, outgrowth is arguably the Eastern European/Russian human trafficking gang (check out Tess Gerritson’s Vanish as an example). The other sort of ‘bad guy’ is the Russian oligarch/shady businessman. With official Communism at an end, these businessmen came to the fore in terms of their power and ruthlessness. Several of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels mention them (especially Exit Music). There are also some thrillers (such as Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules) that touch on such people as ‘the bad guys.’

Another recent development in terms of ‘bad guys’ is the terrorist group, particularly the Middle Eastern terrorist group. Novels such as le Carré’s 1983 The Little Drummer Girl are earlier examples of such crime fiction, but by no means the only ones. Lindy Cameron’s Redback includes such terrorists as ‘bad guys.’ So do many other novels. In the wake of more recent terrorist events, we’ve seen a lot more such ‘bad guys,’ even in novels that aren’t billed as ‘thrillers.’

There’s also been another development in the sort of ‘bad guy’ authors choose: big corporations and their leaders.  I’m sure you’ve read as many novels as I have in which big developers are depicted as antagonists. Some novels (I’m thinking of Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope) present a more complex picture of development. But many depict big companies and developers quite negatively. For instance, there’s Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, several of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, and more.

Not all crime novels feature this sort of plot. Many are more personal plots, if I can put it that way. They feature crimes where one person (or a group of people) commit murder for reasons such as revenge, fear, or personal greed. That said though, if we look at crime plots over time, we really do see, I think, how they often use certain antagonists to reflect the kind of fears and prejudices that we have. I wonder which group will be next to be depicted in this way…


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Larsson, C.J. Box, Camilla Läckberg, Daniel Pembrey, Daniel Silva, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Lindy Cameron, Malcolm Mackay, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Philip Kerr, Robert Gott, Robert Ludlum, Tess Gerritsen, Tonino Benacquista, Walter Mosley, Will Thomas, William McIlvanney

Hanging Tough, Staying Hungry*

EntrepreneursIt takes a lot of courage and bold planning to start up one’s own business. The odds are against success, and even if a person does launch a successful company, there’s a heavy cost in terms of time and personal life. But people open their own businesses all the time, trusting that they’ll do well and their companies will flourish.

Crime fiction is full of PIs who’ve take the risk to set up shop for themselves. Mentioning them on this post would be too easy. But there are plenty of other entrepreneurs in genre. Sometimes they do well, and sometimes…not well at all. Either way, people who start their own businesses can make for very interesting characters.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) we meet Susan Banks. She has dreams of opening up her own beauty salon, and the business acumen and bold planning that are needed to start one’s own company. But she and her husband Greg don’t have the money to stake such a venture. We learn as the story goes on that she approached her wealthy uncle Richard Abernethie, but he refused to help. When Abernethie dies, apparently of natural causes, his family gathers for the funeral. At the gathering, his youngest sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first no-one takes her seriously. But when she herself is killed the next day, everyone begins to believe that she might have been right. The family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. Susan immediately becomes ‘a person of interest’ because of her determination to have her own business – and because she has now inherited the money she needs to open her salon. It doesn’t help her case that she can’t really prove her whereabouts on either occasion. But as Poirot and Mr. Entwhistle find out, there are several suspects in this case…

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve discovers the same entrepreneurial spirit in her daughter Mieka. Like many parents, Joanne wants to see her daughter go to university and get a good education. And at first, that’s what Mieka does. But by the end of the first year, she’s made other plans. She decides to open her own catering business. In one story arc in this series, we see how Mieka has to convince her mother that the business can be successful. She does what new business owners have to do: study the market, look for an opening, decide on one’s talents and interests, and put together a business plan. It takes some time for Joanne to get used to the idea, but Mieka makes a go of it. Later, she uses the same initiative to develop a playground, UpSlideDown. Mieka has faults, as we all do, but she doesn’t lack in courage or bold planning.

There are several ‘regulars’ in Lilian Jackson Braun’s series featuring features journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Throughout most of the series, he lives and works in a small town, where readers get to know many of the other people who live there. One of those people is Lori Bamba. She starts out as Qwill’s part-time secretary, who also happens to be quite gifted with cats. So he depends a lot on her as he gets used to having his own two Siamese. As the series goes on, Lori and her husband Nick get involved in several new business ventures. One, for instance, is the Domino Inn, which we learn about in The Cat Who Came to Breakfast. It’s located on Breakfast Island/AKA Pear Island, Grand Island, and Providence Island, a holiday/fishing community with a certain tourist appeal. Lori and Nick are concerned about some strange incidents that look like sabotage, so Qwill arranges a stay at the Domino to look into the matter. What he finds goes much deeper and is much more dangerous that someone playing nasty pranks. The Bambas don’t always succeed in their ventures, but they have energy and resilience – and creative ideas.

In Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, we meet another entrepreneur, Rose. Originally from a small village in the country, she ended up in Bangkok, where she became a bar girl. She’s no longer in that business any more, and has started up a new apartment-cleaning company of her own. There’s plenty of competition, and Rose isn’t exactly wealthy. But she has a lot of courage. And what’s interesting about her company is that all of her employees are former bar girls who’ve had enough of that life and want to get out of it.

Walter Mosley’s Fear of the Dark is in great part the story of Paris Minton. A year before the events in the story, he opened the Florence Avenue Used Bookshop, hoping to run a peaceful business. He’s not at all what you’d call bold or a person of initiative. But he does love books, and just wanted a place where he could make a living and indulge his passtion. And for a year, he’s done all right for himself. Then his cousin Ulysses S. Grant IV ‘Useless’ pays him a visit. At first, Minton doesn’t even want to let his cousin in; Useless has been nothing but trouble, sometimes very bad trouble, all his life. But eventually Minton yields. Useless asks him for a place to stay, but Minton refuses. At first, Minton doesn’t think much of it – until Useless disappears and Minton’s aunt asks him to track Useless down. For that, Minton turns to his friend Fearless Jones, who’s the kind of person you want on your side in a fight. Jones and Minton go looking for Useless, and find instead a complicated blackmail scheme and some very dangerous people who are also looking for Useless…

And then there’s Carl Hiaasen’s Nature Girl. In one plot thread of that novel, we meet Sammy Tigertail, who was born Chad McQueen. He is half White/half Seminole, and not sure where he fits in with either community. He sets up his own new business offering airboat rides through the Florida Everglades. When his first client dies of a heart attack during the trip, Sammy decides that this business is not going to be successful, especially if enough tourists hear that his client died. So he heads deep into the wilderness and ends up in Dismal Key. That happens to be the place where Honey Santana is leading Boyd Shreave on a kayak trip that could turn out to be disastrous for him. She’s getting back at Boyd for verbal abuse during a telemarketing call he made. There are other characters in pursuit of both of them, so Sammy hardly gets the peace and quiet he feels he needs after his venture failed. This is a Hiaasen novel, so as you can imagine, all of the characters’ lives intersect in some unusual ways.

Not all business ventures are quite that adventurous. But all new businesses need courage, a lot of time, a lot of faith, and some luck. Money doesn’t hurt, either. Which fictional ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Gail Bowen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley

This is a Showdown*

Confrontations and ShowdownsIn many (certainly not all!) crime novels, there’s an element of suspense that comes from that final confrontation between the sleuth and the criminal. It can be a very cathartic moment; after all, the sleuth has probably worked long and hard to catch the criminal. It can also add tension to the story (i.e. Is the criminal going to admit everything?). And there can be a real poignancy to this confrontation, especially if the sleuth has a sort of sympathy for the killer.

These confrontations vary of course, depending on the characters and the style of the story. And they need to be done thoughtfully, or there’s a risk of melodrama. But when they are done well, they can add much to a story.

Some confrontations are quiet and even moving. That’s what we see at the end of G.K. Chesterton’s The Invisible Man. In that story, Father Brown and his friend Hercule Flambeau investigate the mysterious murder of Isidore Smythe. One strange thing about this case is that the murderer seems to have got into Smythe’s home and killed him without anyone seeing a person go in or out. After Father Brown works out how and by whom the crime was committed, he has a confrontation – well, an interaction – with the killer:

‘But Father Brown walked these snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.’

When we know the truth behind the murder, it’s logical that Father Brown wouldn’t force a loud, public sort of confrontation. And he’s not that sort of person, anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has had his moments of very public, even dramatic, unmasking of murderers (there’s one, for instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead). And even he will admit that he likes being the focus of everyone’s attention as he points out the guilty person. But he also has some quieter, poignant confrontations with killers. Everyone’s different, but for my money, the interaction between Poirot and the killer in Death on the Nile is a good example of this. Poirot is taking what’s supposed to be a relaxing cruise of the Nile when he gets drawn into the shooting death of fellow passenger Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also on the cruise, investigate, and Poirot discovers who’s behind that murder and two others. At one point, after revealing the killer’s identity, Poirot has a quiet conversation with that person:

‘‘Don’t mind so much, Monsieur Poirot! About me, I mean. You do mind, don’t you?’
‘But it wouldn’t have occurred to you to let me off?’
Hercule Poirot said quietly, ‘No.’’

In this case, Poirot admits that he has sympathy for the murderer, and that comes through in this conversation.

We know from the beginning of L.R. Wright’s The Suspect that eighty-year-old George Wilcox kills eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. When the murder is reported, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg takes the case. There is more than one possible explanation for the killing, so Alberg doesn’t immediately focus on Wilcox. But it’s not long before he does. As the story goes on, he has some interesting confrontations with Wilcox. Little by little, we learn the history behind the murder and the motive for it. It adds to the suspense of the story to follow the two men’s interactions as the novel goes on.

Sometimes, there are more dramatic confrontations between sleuths and criminals. When they’re done well, they can certainly add to the story. For instance, in Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon has been assigned to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. One day, she discovers the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. At first, all signs point to a mountain lion as the killer. Pigeon is hoping this isn’t true, because she’s afraid that there will be a wholesale slaughter of these endangered animals if word gets out that a lion killed Drury. There are little signs, too, that suggest that this death is the work of a human. So Pigeon starts to ask some questions. The more she digs into the matter, the more possibilities she finds. She also discovers that someone wants very much to keep her from finding out the truth. Eventually, though, Pigeon learns who killed Sheila Drury and why. When she does, there is a dramatic confrontation between her and the murderer.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in investigating the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. It turns out that more than one person could have wanted him dead, and the investigation isn’t easy. But after some time (and another death), Kilbourn finds out who the murderer is. After she’s made it clear who the person is, she has a very suspenseful confrontation with that person during an elevator ride. It’s a tense scene in part because Kilbourn is in danger. But it’s also tense because of the history behind the deaths.

There’s another interesting, and more dramatic, confrontation between Inspector Salvo Montalbano and a very highly-placed criminal in Dance of the Seagull. In that novel, Montalbano’s teammate Giuseppe Fazio is investigating a dangerous smuggling ring when he goes missing. Montalbano and the rest of the team know that the longer it takes them to find Fazio, the more danger there will be for him. So they follow the trail that Fazio has left, hoping it will help them find him. They’re up against a particularly ruthless group of people, so Montalbano knows that he and his team have to work quickly. In the end, and after the murder of their primary witness, they do catch the criminal. And there’s a very public (and for the culprit, a very embarrassing) scene when Montalbano faces this enemy.

There are, of course, plenty of crime novels in which there really is no confrontation between sleuth and criminal (that’s the stuff of another post). But confrontations that are done well can add layers of suspense and tension to a story. Which confrontations have you thought particularly well done? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this aspect of your crime stories?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, G.K. Chesterton, Gail Bowen, L.R. Wright, Nevada Barr

Speak Your Mind*

Political DissentEven the best-intentioned people don’t always agree on the choices their countries should make. There are a lot of issues, too, that don’t have easy solutions. That’s part of the reason for which there is political dissent. That dissent takes different forms, depending on the kind of government that’s in power, and the issue. But whatever form it takes, political dissent and debate can move a society forward when it’s productive.  That aspect of it is essential. And of course, political dissent can make for a very effective context for crime fiction; after all, there’s plenty of conflict and tension to be had in political debates and dissent.

In Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Sir Derek O’Callaghan has written an Anarchy Bill, specifically directed against leftist revolutionaries and their activities. It’s not a settled matter whether the Bill will be accepted, and it’s interesting to consider the question of whether such legislation squelches freedom of expression or keeps society safer. One day during a speech in the House, Sir Derek collapses due to a ruptured appendix and is rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime physician Sir John Phillips. He survives the surgery, but dies later of what turns out to be an overdose of hyoscine. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate and soon determine that this death was not accidental. As they sift through the evidence and consider all the possibilities, they certainly can’t ignore the fact that the victim had written a controversial bill…

Agatha Christie’s short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister begins when Hercule Poirot gets a visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Prime Minister David MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make an important speech when he was apparently abducted. At this time, World War II is imminent, and there’s a real question as to what Britain’s stance out to be. You’ll know from your history that there was a debate between those who wanted to avoid war, even if it meant appeasement, and those who wanted to oppose Hitler, although it would mean war. MacAdam’s speech is crucial in this debate. He intends a ‘rally the troops’ speech in the hope of cementing support for his anti-Hitler stance. But plenty of his political opponents want to move the country in the other direction. Poirot and Captain Hastings get to work right away; in the end, they find out exactly what happened to MacAdam.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Millions of people are out of work, and times are desperate. The question of what to do is not an easy one, and there’s a lot of debate. There’s also a lot of interest in political factions that promise solutions. Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred are members of a wealthy ‘blueblood’ New South Wales family, so they haven’t personally suffered as a result of the Depression. But they’re certainly aware of it. When their uncle is murdered, Rowly gets involved in the political dissent about what Australia’s future should be. He comes to suspect that an ultra-Right group called The New Guard might be responsible for his uncle’s death. This group, led by Colonel Eric Campbell, believes that Australia will do best with a government run by ‘right thinking men’ who maintain traditional ways of life and the current class order. Rowly infiltrates this group, hoping to find out who, exactly, committed the murder. This puts him in real danger from the Left (among which group he has friends), who will consider him a traitor if they find out he’s joined the New Guard. At the same time as he’s trying to find out who killed his uncle, Rowly also has to negotiate the various political factions who want to further their causes.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and, before retiring, an academician. So she’s no stranger to political debate, and steps into the political fray more than once in the series. She’s frequently involved in Saskatchewan (and national) politics. In fact, in one story arc in this series, she becomes a panelist on a NationTV show called Canada Today. The show features debate on current issues, and includes commentators from across the political spectrum. It figures in a few novels in this series.

Alan Orloff’s Deadly Campaign has as its backdrop Edward Wong’s campaign for a seat in the U.S. Congress. His opponent in the upcoming election will be the incumbent, Sanford Korbell. One evening, a group of thugs disrupts a celebration event at a restaurant owned by one of Wong’s uncles, Thomas Lee. Rather than call in the police, Lee asks his friend Channing Hayes, co-owner of a nearby comedy club, to ask a few questions and find out if anyone local is responsible. When other members of Wong’s family find out about this, they warn Hayes to leave the matter alone. But Lee is determined to find out what happened, and Hayes feels he has little choice to go along. One distinct possibility is that Korbell arranged the attack at the celebration, so Hayes visits Korbell’s headquarters as a part of his search for the truth, and we learn a bit about his political positions as opposed to Wong’s. I can say without spoiling the story that the answer to what is right for Northern Virginia (which is where the novel takes place) isn’t the reason for the attack, or for the murders that take place later in the novel. But it does form an interesting thread of tension in the novel.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible, which takes place during the debate leading up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Rebus fans will know that he’s not at all a political animal. In fact, in one funny scene, he turns off his car radio during a broadcast about the Yes/No debate, preferring to listen to a CD of the band Spooky Tooth. But the debate is woven throughout the story. In one plot thread, for instance, Justice Minister Patrick McCusky, ‘the face of the Yes movement,’ faces embarrassment as his son may have been responsible for a car crash from which he later fled. Matters get worse when the Justice Minister is found dead, apparently as the result of a housebreaking gone wrong. The ‘No’ campaign is facing its own problems. Prominent business leader and ‘No’ advocate Stefan Gilmour could very well have been involved in obstructing a murder investigation against Billy Saunders. That case is more than thirty years old, but it could still come back to haunt Gilmour. It will if internal affairs copper Malcolm Fox has his way. He wants to re-open that case, and he won’t lose any sleep if Rebus, who was a young constable at the time, gets caught in the net. The debate about independence certainly isn’t Rebus’ focus, but it forms a fascinating backdrop to the novel.

Political debate and dissent aren’t always pleasant. In fact, they can be polemical. But that clash of ideas can be the basis from which we move forward.


On Another Note…

I’d like to wish a Happy Canada Day to all Canadians. Erm – sorry if there’s extra noise from down here. We’re gearing up for a major election next year, and the rhetoric/polemic/name-calling/mudslinging debate has already started…



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


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Gail Bowen, Ngaio Marsh, Sulari Gentill

I Don’t Know What You’re Expecting of Me*

Stress On Young PeopleA few days ago I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who has young children. We were talking about the many stresses there are on today’s young people, and how that may impact them. And there is certainly a lot of pressure out there. To begin with, growing up isn’t easy. If you add to that the major societal changes of the last decades, the influence of the Internet and other social media, and the lightning-quick pace of life, it’s easy to see why so many young people are so stressed.

But the truth is, there’s always been pressure of one kind or another on children. A certain amount of it is more or less inevitable. And there’s a strong argument that it’s important to learn to take responsibility, cope with a certain amount of stress, and even experience failure sometimes. All of those things help us to be capable, confident adults. But there is definitely such a thing as too much pressure, and it can have damaging effects. We’ve all read such stories from real-life news; it’s there in crime fiction as well.

For instance, in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to twenty-eight-year old Gideon Davies. All his life, he’s had a rare musical gift, and has become a world-class violin virtuoso. One terrible night, he finds that he can’t play. Desperate to discover the source of that block, he starts to visit a psychologist. In one plot thread of this novel, he explores his past, which includes the tragic drowning death of his younger sister when she was a toddler. As he does, we see what the impact has been of the pressure put on him to make the most of his gift. It has profoundly influenced his thinking and his self-image.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features the Garrow family. Hannah Garrow is a healthy, psychologically normal (whatever that even means!) teen. Her parents Angus and Jodie love her and care about her. They’ve sent her to the ‘right’ school and are doing what they can set her up for success. But Hannah faces quite a lot of pressure. For one thing, there’s the matter of fitting in with her peers. She doesn’t identify with the socially popular students, and has little interest in ‘social climbing.’ And there’s the fact that her father is being spoken of as the next mayor of Arding (New South Wales). In order to be considered for that position, his family life has to bear up under scrutiny, so Hannah feels considerable pressure to be a successful politician’s daughter. Then one day, Hannah is involved in an accident that sends her to a Sydney hospital. As it turns out, it’s the same hospital where, years earlier, her mother Jodie gave birth to another daughter – one no-one’s ever known about before. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks into that, she finds no formal record of adoption. Now gossip begins to spread about Jodie. Where is the child? If she died, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie becomes a social pariah, it all has a terrible impact on Hannah. As parts of the story are told from her perspective, we see how all of this pressure affects her.

There’s plenty of pressure on young people in Ross Mcdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. Seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman has been sent to Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled young people. When he disappears one day, Dr. Sponti, who runs the school, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. They’re in Sponti’s office discussing the case when Tom’s father Ralph arrives. He says that Tom’s been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding ransom. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to help locate the boy before anything happens to him. Soon enough, he begins to notice some strange things. To begin with, Ralph Hillman and his wife Elaine don’t seem to have the frantic, panicked reaction to their son’s disappearance as you’d think. There are hints, too, that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who took him from the school. Then, there’s a murder. Then, there’s another murder, this time of one of the people with Tom. As Archer gets closer to the truth about what happened to Tom, and about the killings, we see that the pressure on young people doesn’t get any easier when parents and others are in denial about it.

Serena Freeman faces different sorts of pressure in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. At fifteen, she’s got a great deal of academic promise, and her teacher Ilsa Klein has real hopes for her. But it’s not easy for Serena. She comes from ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ and her home life has been difficult. It doesn’t help matters that her mother has the reputation of being somewhat promiscuous. Still, Serena works hard and dreams of a better life. Then, she begins to lose interest in school. She stops attending regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate in class. Now Ilsa is worried about Serena, and alerts the school counseling staff. That doesn’t do much good, as Serena’s mother isn’t co-operative. One day, Serena disappears. For three weeks, not much is done to find her. But when her older sister Lynette ‘Lynnie’ finds out her sister is missing, she is determined to learn what happened. She travels from Wellington, where she lives, to the family’s home in Alexandria to find Serena. Her search leads her in directions she couldn’t have imagined.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions shows, among other things, the intense pressure on young people during the middle school years. Yūko Moriguchi is a middle school teacher who has suffered the worst loss any parent can imagine: the death of her four-year-old daughter Manami. What’s worse, Manami was murdered, and Yūko knows who was responsible: two of her students. She announces her resignation in a speech to her class, making it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She’s well aware that the juvenile justice system can’t be trusted to dispense an appropriate punishment, because the offenders are juveniles. So she has developed her own plan. While she doesn’t spell out her scheme in so many words, her students quickly pick up on her intentions. After her resignation, Yoshiteru Terada takes over as teacher, and superficially, life goes on. But things soon begin to spin out of control, especially for three of the students. As we follow their stories, we learn what happened to Manami and what the plan for retribution really was. More to the point of this post, we get a look at the intense pressure for high grades, the bullying, and the other stresses that many of today’s young people have to face.

It’s never been easy to grow up. And there isn’t enough space in this one post to add in some of the other factors that only make things worse. For instance, there are many, many places where young people don’t get a chance to go to school (or to go for long) because they must get jobs as soon as possible. And there are places where those jobs get young people involved in the commercial sex trade and other extremely stressful work. It is important to learn to handle some pressure, to take responsibility for one’s own actions, and so on. It’s not very healthy to be overprotected. At the same time, research shows that excess pressure and stress can be toxic.

Finding a balance is the tricky part. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. As well as the normal pressures of growing up, all four of her children have had to cope with the stress of losing a parent. And her youngest daughter Taylor faces the added pressure of being a gifted artist whose work is already getting her a lot of attention. Helping these young people bear their burdens without coddling them or taking over is one of the ‘family’ threads woven throughout this series.

Which novels and series have brought this theme home to you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Linkin Park’s Numb.




Filed under Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Ross Macdonald, Wendy James