Category Archives: Gail Bowen

Without Compassion, There Can Be No End to Hate*

CompassionToday (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this), has been set aside as 1000 Voices For Compassion Day. The idea is to focus on the compassionate and good things that we do for one another. I think that’s a great idea. Of course, we don’t need a special day to be compassionate; it’s never out of style or out of season. That said though, it is good to be reminded of how important compassion is. It helps both the person in need of compassion and the person who offers it.

You wouldn’t think you’d see a lot of compassion in crime fiction. After all, crime stories are usually about people who kill other people – not a very compassionate thing to do. But you’d be surprised how often it shows up. I’ll just offer a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not what you’d call a particularly sentimental person. But he shows compassion at times. For instance in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Lady Eva Brackwell hires Sherlock Holmes for a very delicate case. She is being blackmailed by the notorious Sir Charles Augustus Milverton over some indiscreet letters she wrote several years earlier. Milverton has threatened to give the letters to Lady Eva’s fiancé unless she pays him a huge sum of money; and he’s the kind of blackmailer who won’t think twice about continuing to harass her until she has nothing left. Holmes takes the case and soon learns that Milverton is unyielding. So he and Dr. Watson take a novel approach to the case: they sneak into Milverton’s home one night, with the goal of finding out where the letters are hidden and taking them. They’re in the midst of carrying out their plan when they encounter another of Milverton’s victims, who has her own way of solving her problem. It’s an interesting example of the way Holmes sometimes shows that human, compassionate side of himself.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot does not, as he puts it, approve of murder. In his view, no-one ‘deserves to die.’ In that sense, he shows compassion for those who are killed. In fact, fans will know that in several stories, the death of a particular victim is upsetting to him. He also shows another kind of compassion. In some stories, he really does feel compassion for the killer. In fact, there’s even one story in which he agrees to give the police an account of a murder that lets the killer get away with the crime.

Arthur Upfield’s Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte shows compassion too. As just one example, in The Bushman Who Came Back, Bony is sent to Mount Eden, the ranch home of Mr. Wootton, when Wooton’s housekeeper Mrs. Bell is found shot. Worse, her seven-year-old daughter Linda has disappeared, presumably abducted by the killer. All signs point to a bushman nicknamed Ol’ Fren’ Yorky (usually called Yorky), and with good reason. He knows the area very well, and bootprints found at the back of the house are identified as his. What’s more, he hasn’t been seen since the killing. So although he’s popular in the area, a lot of people believe he’s responsible for Mrs. Bell’s death. Bony knows he’ll have to find Yorky as soon as he can, before anything happens to Linda. In this novel, we see how Bony shows compassion for several people as he gets to the truth about the killing. There are a lot of other classic/Golden Age novels in which we see that sort of compassion (I know, I know, fans of G.K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown).

In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, we are introduced to accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. One day she gets a visit from a teenage street child who says his name is Jase (Jason). He asks if she has any odd jobs available, and she puts Jase to work mopping the bakery floor. He’s clumsy at first, not well-rested and not well-nourished. But he does the job. Bit by bit, he starts to come by more often to do other chores, and soon he’s more or less an employee. Chapman finds out that he’s a heroin addict who’s recently stopped using, and he’s trying to get his life back together. It’s not easy, and there are moments when Chapman wonders whether she made the right choice to take Jason under her wing, as the saying goes. But he proves himself to be a real asset to the bakery, and in fact, he makes better gourmet muffins than Chapman does. This is a clear example of a case where compassion benefits everyone involved.

We also see compassion in Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders. Early one morning, her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, gets a disturbing call from her daughter Mieka. The body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin, who was one of Mieka’s part-time cleaning employees, has been found in a trash bin. Finding a body would be enough to upset and distress anyone, particularly if one knows the victim. But in this case, Mieka and her mother also have compassion for Bernice, who’d had a very unfortunate life. So both of them want this case solved, to at least give the victim some sort of dignified closure to her life. Another plot thread of this novel concerns Christy Sinclair, the former girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter. Christy’s had her share of issues, and Kilbourn was relieved when she and Peter broke up. Now she’s come back into the family’s life, and at one point even says that she and Peter are getting back together. On the one hand, this is not good news. On the other, Kilbourn does have compassion for Christy, and she treats her kindly, ‘though with eyes wide open, so to speak.

Compassion and treating others kindly is an essential aspect of many spiritual traditions, among them Buddhism. We see that connection between Buddhism and compassion in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok. We also see it in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series; Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police and an observant and dedicated Buddhist. There’s also a thread of this compassion woven into Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney novels; they too take place in Thailand.

But you don’t need to just read about compassion. The whole point of putting a focus on being compassionate is to remind us of how much good there is in the real world, and how much we can add to that good, just by showing concern and compassion for others. Simple, small gestures of humanity and compassion can make a huge difference, and they benefit everyone. Want to be a part of 100 Voices For Compassion? You can check it out here. Rather not? That’s fine too. You can be compassionate anyway.

 

On Another Note…
 
InaWordMurder
 

I’d like to take a moment and thank all of you for the support you’ve given the charity anthology In a Word: Murder. Since the anthology was released a year ago, proceeds of £250 have been donated to the Princess Alice Hospice. Your compassion is much appreciated. To those who contributed stories to this anthology, my continued humble thanks; you made the anthology possible.

Haven’t had a chance to check the anthology out yet? Now’s a good time (a-hem, for those celebrating Mothering Sunday, it’s only a few weeks away…). It’s a terrific collection of crime stories having to do with writing, publishing, editing and blogging, and it’s all in aid of Princess Alice Hospice. A group of highly talented authors contributed some memorable stories – you don’t want to miss ‘em! You can read more about the anthology on my ‘Writing’ tab, or click the picture on my side bar. Yes, that one.

This anthology is in memory of Maxine Clarke, devoted friend of the genre, who is still sorely missed.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Two Thousand Years.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, G.K. Chesterton, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, Kerry Greenwood, Timothy Hallinan

I’m Filling the Cracks That Ran Through the Door*

RenovationsHave you ever had a room or a home renovated? On the one hand, it’s exciting, and there’s the promise of a beautiful new place ahead. But of course, it involves plaster, paint, drywall, and lots of inconvenience and money. So most people don’t renovate on a whim.

Renovations are actually very useful plot devices for crime writers. For one thing, they can add an interesting sub-plot to a story. For another, renovation is a good reason for a character to stay elsewhere temporarily, and that opens up several possibilities. And there’s no telling what might be found when an older building is torn down or taken apart. So it should come as no surprise that we see painting and renovation in many different crime novels. Here are just a few.

Agatha Christie uses that theme in a few of her novels. For example, in Death on the Nile, we are introduced to beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. She’s purchased Wode Hall from its former owner, and as the novel begins, she’s in the midst of making it her own:
 

‘Ah, but Wode was hers! She had seen it, acquired it, rebuilt and redressed it, lavished money on it. It was her own possession – her kingdom.’
 

Linnet’s life changes dramatically when her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort asks her to hire Simon Doyle (Jackie’s fiancé) as land agent. She unexpectedly falls in love with Doyle and the two marry. On the second night of their honeymoon cruise of the Nile, Linnet is shot. Jackie is also on the cruise, so she is the natural first suspect. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t be the killer. So Hercule Poirot, who’s also aboard, has to look elsewhere. I know, I know, fans of After the Funeral and Dead Man’s Folly…

Renovation plays an important role in Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness. Queensberry House was originally the property of a wealthy landowner, but has also served as a military barracks and a hospital. Now it’s being completely renovated to house the new Scottish Parliament. In fact, it’s one of several major demolition/renovation projects in that area. To everyone’s shock, the renovation uncovers a long-dead body hidden behind a blocked-up fireplace. The body has been there for a few decades (i.e. the house is much older), so Inspector Rebus looks for answers in the building’s more recent history. In the meantime, there are two more deaths: an aspiring Member of Parliament and a homeless man with a surprising amount of money. It turns out that these three deaths are connected, ‘though not as you might think (this is Ian Rankin, after all).

There’s also an interesting case of renovation in Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has accepted a commission from wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane. Sloane wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as far back as possible. The trail leads to James Fairborne, who left America with his wife Eleanor and their children in 1783 with a group of Royalists. With Sloane’s support, Tayte travels to England to trace that branch of the Fairborne family. He discovers that James Fairborne married again shortly after his arrival in England. What’s more, there is no more information on Eleanor or the children. Now Tayte is curious and begins to look into the matter. In the process of looking for the truth, Tayte meets Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel was lost in a storm two years earlier. Just before he died, Gabriel had told his wife that he’d found out a secret, but he didn’t get the chance to tell her what it was. However, new construction on their home has uncovered an old hidden staircase and room. That’s where Amy finds a very old carved writing box with a love letter in it. Gradually, she and Tayte, each in a different way, connect that letter to his genealogical mystery.

Renovation doesn’t always have to be sinister of course. But it always involves a certain amount of stress and a lot of decisions. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn and her partner Zack Shreve are planning to get married. One of the things they’ll have to decide is where to live. For Zack to move into his bride’s two-story house will mean renovation, since he uses a wheelchair. And it isn’t practicable for Joanne and her daughter Taylor to move in with him. So they decide to purchase a new home. The new home and the renovations made to it aren’t really the main plot point of this novel. But they go on in the background and add a layer of interest to the novel.

Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series will know that it features James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, a journalist who moved from a large city to Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ At the beginning of Qwill’s life in Moose County, he lives in a few different places. But none of them is exactly what he’s looking for as a permanent residence. Then he hits on an ideal solution. He hires interior designer Fran Brodie to renovate an old apple barn to meet his needs. Together with building contractor Dennis Hough, she creates a custom-made home for Qwill and his two Siamese cats. In The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal, Qwill finds himself hosting an impromptu house-warming/cast party for the local repertory theatre group. The festivities are interrupted when the body of Hilary VanBrook, one of the cast members and the local high school principal, is found in his car on Qwill’s property. Not exactly an auspicious beginning to the ownership of a renovated home…

Renovations don’t always have such deadly aftermaths. But there’s no end to the havoc they can wreak. And I haven’t even mentioned the many novels that include excavations of old homes… Got any ‘war stories’ of your own??

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Fixing a Hole.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Lilian Jackson Braun, Gail Bowen, Steve Robinson

Are You Strong Enough?*

Real RelationshipsHere’s the problem with Valentine’s Day, as I see it anyway. It’s an illusion. Let me explain what I mean. If you watch or listen to the advertisements, or see the greeting cards, or watch one of the dozens of romance films and TV shows out there, you can easily get the idea that relationships are happy, even blissful, and exciting, with flowers, lovely holidays and so on. But that’s the thing. They’re not.

Of course anyone who’s been in a long relationship will tell you that flowers, holidays and all that sort of thing are a part of it. They’re terrific. They really are. But real-life relationships are not easy. And they’re not always fun. People who expect otherwise can get very disillusioned when they learn that relationships need work. Sometimes that work is painful and difficult. It involves forgiveness (Ever done something stupid and had to ask your partner to forgive you? Me, too.). Sometimes it involves giving up things you want, or forgiving your partner when you really don’t want to. Nobody in the greeting card industry tells you that part of it.

Relationships can be hard work because no-one is perfect. We all carry ‘baggage,’ and we all have faults. When you expect that a relationship with an imperfect person (when you’re not perfect either!) will be smooth sailing, you’re bound to be sadly disappointed.

But here’s the thing. Good relationships – the kind you admire in couples who’ve been together for decades and decades – are worth the work. It’s not the candy, flowers, sexy lingerie and so on that make them solid. It’s the bond between the people involved. Let me offer a few examples to show you what I mean.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and academician (now retired) who’s had her share of blows over the years. She’s come out of it all a stronger person, and in general, she doesn’t obsess about the things that have happened to her. She is married to successful attorney Zack Shreve, who has his own baggage. They’re both intelligent and strong-minded people; and although they love each other very much, they’ve had their rocky times. Bowen doesn’t gloss over the hard work involved in staying married, even when you’re in a good relationship. But at the same time, she doesn’t skip over the positive things either. Joanne and Zack enjoy each other’s company. They’re good ‘sounding boards’ for each other, and they support one another. As Joanne herself puts it,
 

‘Ours was not an easy marriage, but it was a good one.’
 

I honestly don’t know if any really good marriage is also really easy.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant knows all about the hard work involved in a long-term relationship. In some ways he’s still working that out for himself, and fans will know there are a few story arcs that involve his love life. But he has a good role model. His mentor is successful clothier Anthony Gatt, whose partner is former supermodel Jared Lowe. Those two have been together for some time, and have had their share of troubles. I won’t spoil the story arcs by detailing everything, but suffice it to say that Anthony and Jared’s lives have not been uninterrupted joyful bliss. But that’s not what keeps them together anyway. They love one another, and each has the other as a top priority, even when things go wrong between them, or when something happens to one of them. They’ve resolved to patch up whatever differences they have, and that bond is more important to them than anything else. But it hasn’t been easy. The ‘frothy’ romance films don’t tell you how difficult staying together can be…

In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, we meet Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. The main plot of this novel concerns the murder of Ruby Devine, a brothel owner and friend of Swann’s. But running in the background is Swann’s relationship with his wife Marion and his daughters. The family has been going through a very rocky time, as families sometimes do. And Whish-Wilson doesn’t make light of that. As the novel goes on, everyone has to start to put the family pieces together and learn to trust each other again. But in Zero at the Bone, the second Frank Swann novel, we see the result of that. Frank and Marion Swann are devoted to each other. It’s not the devotion of fancy flowers, fine champagne or a night in a five-star hotel. It’s that gut-level devotion where each one accepts and appreciates the other, flaws and all. And that’s because each has made the conscious choice that the marriage is more important than ‘winning.’

That’s also true of Geoffrey McGeachin’s Charlie Berlin and his wife Rebecca. When we first meet them in The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947, Charlie has recently returned to Australia after serving in WW II. He meets Rebecca during the course of an investigation into a series of robberies and a suspicious death, and the two fall in love. But it’s not a ‘greeting card’ sort of romance. Charlie’s dealing with the ghosts he’s brought back with him from the war, and Rebecca has her own issues. Nevertheless, they love each other and support each other. In Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues, we see that their marriage has to endure its share of ‘bumps in the road.’ McGeachin doesn’t indulge in ‘over the top’ events just to show that the marriage is tested; rather, the couple faces some of the things any couple could face. It’s not an easy ride, but Charlie and Rebecca take it together.

A lot of Golden Age mysteries involve couples who fall in love, usually as one or the other of the couple is suspected of murder. One couple in particular is Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his wife Harriet Vane. They first meet in Strong Poison when Harriet is charged with murdering her former lover Philip Boyes. Lord Peter attends the trial and finds himself smitten with Harriet. In fact, he determines to clear her name, and clear his own path to marrying her. But it’s not all flowers and candy. For one thing, Harriet has to deal with having been on trial for murder, and with her reluctance to trust this man she thinks she loves. And Lord Peter has things to learn too. They’re not a magical couple who all of a sudden fall in love and marry, to live happily ever after. They have to work through things, and they have their difficult times. In the end, the awareness that they’re better together than alone cements their relationship and allows them to reach out for each other.

I wish the greeting card companies and the Valentine’s Day publicity machine told people that a good relationship is not easy. It’s very hard work, and it’s not always fun. But then, if they did, they’d probably scare too many people away from getting involved with someone, and that would be a shame. Because what you get if you’re willing to do that work is a lot better than candy. Even dark chocolate almonds.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheryl Crow’s Strong Enough.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, David Whish-Wilson, Dorothy Sayers, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin

I Had a Friend Was a Big Baseball Player Back in High School*

Youth SportsIt’s fairly well documented that being physically active is good for physical and mental health. And if research on intelligence and knowing is correct, it seems that we’re all born with a certain measure of what’s sometimes called kinesthetic intelligence. That’s the sense of our bodies in space, and it’s essential to doing well in things like sport.

Put those two things together and you have some very strong arguments for including sport in the school curriculum. It helps young people develop good health habits and it teaches other skills such as teamwork. For those students with a lot of kinesthetic intelligence, it also allows them to play to their strength and have some real success. Students who are exceptionally talented can use that skill as a steppingstone to a sometimes very lucrative career, too. And for many (certainly not all) students, it’s fun.

Of course, not everything about school sport is positive. Sometimes parents and coaches put unhealthy pressure on young people. There’s also the element of bullying. And there are plenty of cases where young sport stars get away with things that their counterparts who are less skilled on the field don’t. But for better or worse, sport is woven into most young people’s school experiences.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that it’s woven into crime fiction too. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Cyril Overton, who coaches Cambridge’s rugby team. He’s concerned because his three-quarter Godfrey Staunton has gone missing. As if his personal concern for the young man’s welfare weren’t enough, the Cambridge team is scheculed for a match against Oxford the next day – a match they have no chance to win if Staunton doesn’t play. Holmes and Watson trace Staunton’s movements to the moment when he left the hotel where the team has been lodging. Then he uses other clues (including a scent-dog!) to find out what really happened to the young athlete. In this case, the solution has everything to do with a message Staunton received before he left.

Agatha Christie’s Cat Among The Pigeons is in part a look at games and sport at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. Shortly after the summer term begins, newly hired games mistress Grace Springer is shot one night at the school’s new Sports Pavilion. The police are called in and begin to investigate. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, uncovers an important clue to the events, and visits Hercule Poirot, who is a friend of one of her mother’s friends. Poirot returns to Meadowbank with Julia and works with the police and with Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode to find out the truth. Interestingly, Julia and her friend Jennifer Sutcliffe are both avid tennis players and enjoy the chance for physical activity. But not every student feels that way. It’s interesting to see the difference in attitdues among the students.

Priscilla Masters’ River Deep introduces us to Martha Gunn, coroner for Shrewsbury. Gunn is also the widowed mother of twins Sam and Sukey. In this novel, the focus of the main plot is the murder of an unidentified man whose body floats out of a house when the River Severn overflows its banks. His death turns out to be connected with a missing person case that occurred at about the same time. And no, the missing man is not the dead man. In the meantime, Gunn faces a bit of a personal dilemma. Sam is a very talented footballer; in fact, he’s the ‘Beckham of Shrewsbury School.’ One day, she gets a call to a school meeting with Paul Grant, the P.E. Master. He gives her the news that Sam has rare talent and could easily get a place at a football training school. And therein lies the problem. On the one hand, Gunn supports her son’s talent and wants him to succeed. On the other, she knows the odds of becoming a professional footballer for one of the well-paying clubs. And there’s always the risk of serious injry. The solid education he’s getting at his present school will prepare him for all kinds of careers. So at first, she isn’t sure what she and Sam will do. It’s a choice that a lot of parents of talented athletes have to face.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and academician. She is also the mother of four children, and throughout the series, her home life is woven into the plots. Kilbourn’s third child Angus is very much a ‘sporty’ sort of person. Throughout the novels he plays (Canadian rules) football, Ultimate Frisbee and other sports as well. I don’t think it spoils the series to say that Angus doesn’t end up becoming a professional player. But in several of the stories (Verdict in Blood is one example), his school sport experience plays a role in the larger plots of the novels.

Irene Huss, the creation of Helene Tursten, is a homicide inspector with the Göteborg Violent Crimes Unit. She is also a former jiujitsu champion who came to national fame at a young age. She no longer competes formally, but she still goes to the dōjō for occasional workouts. Jiujitsu helps her to focus, to stay physically fit and to reduce stress. Huss is also the mother of twin daughters Jenny and Katarina. Jenny’s interests are more musical, but Katarina shares her mother’s love of sport. For years she studies jiujitsu too, and although she doesn’t compete nationally, she enjoys it. Then in The Fire Dance, she takes an interest in dance. Huss is none too happy about her daughter not making use of all of the years of jiujitsu training she’s had, but she knows arguing about it won’t do any good. Besides, Katarina is excited about it – and about the young man who’s sparked her interest in dancing. Every parent who’s done some sort of sport and wants to pass it on can understand Huss’ feelings…

And then there’s Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. He is Chief of Police in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. In his professional capacity, Bruno is kept busy balancing the requirements of the law with the reality of the lives of the people he serves. And sometimes, that’s not easy. But he always makes time to coach the local youth football team. His belief is that if young people are encouraged to play at one or another sport, they’re less likely to become delinquent. He’d quite frankly rather coach them than arrest them. It works out rather well for everyone, since the young people know him as more than just a cop who’s out to keep them from having a good time.

Perhaps you loved swimming, tennis, football, or some other sport in school. Perhaps you dreaded P.E. Either way, it’s an important part of a lot of curricula. And there is something in staying active and fit. And school sport can lead to a really lucrative career for a lucky few, and millions in alumni donations. Not surprising then that we see it in crime fiction. Which gaps have I left?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Helene Tursten, Martin Walker, Priscilla Masters

Take Out the Papers and the Trash*

clutterMost of us have been taught (well, I have, anyway) that it’s important to be tidy and keep things where they belong. And there is logic to that. If your things are tidy and in their proper places, you’re less likely to lose them. And for a lot of people, there is something reassuring, even restful, about an uncluttered room.

But the reality of keeping things tidy isn’t always fun. And sometimes it’s not logical if you think about it. After all, why put something away if you know you’re going to be using it again very soon? So there are plenty of people, both real and fictional, who don’t exactly keep their things neat and uncluttered. And that can add an interesting layer of character depth in a novel.

For instance, consider Mr. Clancy, the detective story novelist we meet in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). He’s on a flight from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Unfortunately for Mr. Clancy, he’s been doing research on similar kinds of poisons, so Chief Inspector Japp takes a particular interest in him. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find out who killed the victim and why. Since the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, Poirot pays Mr. Clancy a visit:
 

‘The room…was in a state of chaos. There were papers strewn about, cardboard files, bananas, bottles of beer, open books, sofa cushions, a trombone, miscellaneous china, etchings, and a bewildering assortment of fountain pens.’
 

Those familiar with Poirot’s own habit of neatness can probably imagine his reaction…

In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, we meet Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who gets involved in a murder case when one of her clients Dr. Felix McClure is murdered. At first, his former scout Ted Brooks is suspected of the killing, since McClure had found out he was dealing drugs on campus, and was about to reveal it. But then Brooks disappears and is later found dead. So now Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have two murders to investigate. Ellie Smith is definitely a ‘person of interest’ as the saying goes, so Morse interviews her. He also finds himself attracted to her, and the feeling is mutual. Each is keenly aware that she’s a suspect in a murder case that he’s investigating, and that makes things awkward. Here’s a bit of what Dexter has to say about Ellie’s rooms:
 

‘The young woman turned back the grubby top-sheet on the narrow bed, kicked a pair of knickers out of sight behind the shabby settee, poured out two glasses of red wine…and was sitting on the bed, swallowing the last mouthful of a Mars bar, when the first knock sounded softly on the door.’
 

There’s a lot to like about Ellie as a character, but tidiness is not one of her personality traits.

In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, PC Nick Ingram investigates when the body of Kate Sumner is found on the beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset. At the same time, her almost-three-year-old daughter Hannah is found wandering around in the nearby town of Poole, and WPC Sandra Griffiths works to find out where the child’s family is and why she’s wandering around all alone. Ingram and Griffiths work with DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to put the pieces of the puzzle together. They narrow down the list of suspects to three people: the victim’s husband William Sumner; schoolteacher Tony Bridges; and Bridges’ roommate Stephen Harding. At one point the police visit the home that Bridges and Harding share:
 

‘The house gave the impression of multiple occupancy with a couple of bicycles leaning against the wall at the end of the corridor, and assorted clothes lying in heaps about the furniture and floor. Dozens of empty lager cans had been tossed into an old beer crate in a corner – left over…from a long-dead party – and overflowing ashtrays reeked into the atmosphere.’
 

The untidiness isn’t the reason for the murder, but it’s an interesting look at these two characters.

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel introduces readers to artist Sally Love. She is a former frined of Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. So when the news comes that some of Love’s work will be exhibited at the Mendel Gallery, Kilbourn decides to see the show and perhaps even renew her friendship with the artist if that’s possible. At one point, Kilbourn visits the house/studio where Love is living:
 

‘There were canvases stacked against the wall and a trestle table with brushes and boxes of pencils and rags and lengths of wood and steel that looked like rulers but were unmarked. In the corner farthest from the window were a hot plate, a couple of open suitcases and a sleeping bag.’
 

Kilbourn gets involved in a murder investigation when the gallery’s owner is murdered and Sally becomes a suspect.

Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) series featuring Arthur Bryant and John May begins with Full Dark House. In that novel, the PCU is devastated when a bomb blast goes off, destroying its office. Shortly before the blast, Bryant was working on his memoirs, including a discussion of the PCU’s first case. May suspects that the blast may have something to do with that first case, so he decides to take another look at it. In the process, he reminisces about his first meeting with Bryant in 1940. At the time, he was new on the job, just transferred to the PCU. Bryant had already been working there. May’s first impression of Bryant’s office is one of chaos, and Bryant himself is a bit eccentric:
 

Peculiar Crimes Unit, isn’t it frightful?’ I think their perception of the word ‘peculiar’ and mine differ somewhat. I’ve got some bumph here you can read through.’ He rooted around among his papers, sending several overstuffed folders to the floor, but failed to locate anything specific.’
 

Bryant may not be an orderly, tidy, conventional thinker. But as fans of this series know, he’s brilliant and he and May make a good team.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust. An excavation at the Westmann Islands reveals a set of bodies in the basement of one of the houses. The bodies were buried there during a devastating volcano eruption in 1973 and hadn’t been disturbed since then. At the time of the eruption, Markús Magnússon was living in that house. He was only a teenager, but it is possible he might know something about the murders. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir agrees to represent him, and tries to find anything that might exonerate him. At first Markús says his childhood sweetheart Alda Thorgeirsdóttir can corroborate his story that he knew nothing about the killings. But soon after the bodies are discovered, she herself dies. The police call her death a suicide, but whether or not it is, this means that Thóra will have look into the case more closely to find out what really happened on the day of the eruption. She and her secretary Bella travel to the Westmann Islands to talk to people who were there at the time. One of them is Kjartan Helgason, the harbourmaster for the island where the explosion occurred. Thóra and Bella visit him at his office to see what he recalls from that day:
 

‘It seemed to Thóra from the piles and scraps of paper covering the room that the man’s accomplishments were scarcely exemplary, despite his view of the sea. ‘I live by the sea, too, and I know the feeling,’ she said, lifting a strange-looking device from the nearest chair. ‘Can I put this somewhere else?’ she asked, looking around to find a secure place…’
‘Just throw it on the floor,’ replied Kjarten as he took his own seat.’
 

Kjarten may know a great deal about the eruption, and Thóra wants to learn as much as she can. But his surroundings certainly don’t bode very well for her search for the truth.

Untidiness doesn’t always reflect a cluttered mind. And lots of very interesting characters don’t exactly dust every day. And sometimes that clutter can tell a lot about a person, whether real or fictional. Which ‘cluttery characters’ have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Yakety Yak.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Colin Dexter, Gail Bowen, Minette Walters, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir