Category Archives: Gail Bowen

See You, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard*

schoolyards-and-playgroundsWhen children are in the classroom, they’re supposed to behave themselves, and many do. What’s more, classroom activities are usually structured and choreographed by the teacher. So, they’re not always realistic, natural looks at what children are like.

But you can learn a lot about children and their families by watching them in the schoolyard or on the playground. Whether it’s before school, after school, or at recess/lunch/break, children tend to be more unguarded there. And, even when their parents or caregivers know that other people may see them, they’re sometimes unguarded, too. That can lead to all sorts of interactions.

Those can be the basis for interesting, and even suspenseful, plot points in crime fiction. There are a number of examples of these sorts of scenes. Here are just a few.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg discovers that her husband, Henrik, has been unfaithful. She’d had the illusion that she, Henrik, and their six-year-old son, Axel, had the perfect suburban life, so the news of Henrik’s affair is devastating. When Eva learns who Henrik’s mistress is, she decides to plot her own revenge. Her plan spins out of control, though, and leads to tragedy. In one plot thread of the story, she has a different sort of worry. One day, she’s driving Axel home from school when she notices he has a new toy. Then, he tells her about the man who gave it to him:
 

‘‘…he was standing outside the fence by the woods and then he called me while I was on the swing and said he was going to give me something nice.’’
 

Naturally, Eva’s frightened at the thought of what could have happened. Axel, as it turns out, is unhurt. But the man does figure into the plot, and the playground scene could frighten any parent.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red concerns the murders of Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. The only survivor that day was their daughter, Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the killings. For years, Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh, has been in prison for the murders. But now, there are little hints that he might not be guilty. And if he is innocent, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks she’s found the story to guarantee her place at the top of the list of New Zealand journalists. She starts asking questions, and takes the opportunity to meet several people, some of whom are convinced Bligh is guilty, and others who aren’t so sure. She also meets with Bligh himself, and persuades him to tell her his story. He takes her at her word, and sends her a long letter, telling her about his life. It’s not been a very happy one, either. He’s unusually intelligent, and never really fit in at school, because he was so far ahead of the other children intellectually. The letter tells of brutal play yard bullying, among other things. But then, Thorne learns that his story is different to the stories that his former schoolmates tell. The playground incidents aren’t the reason for the murders. And they don’t really get Thorne any closer to the truth about those killings. But they certainly shed light on what playground activities can be like when the adults aren’t around.

Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder tells the story of Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel. When they return to their home on the island of Fårö after two months away, they’re dismayed to see terrible messes everywhere. At first, it looks like a case of horrible tenants. But some of the family photographs have been damaged in a very deliberate way that looks much more personal. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin to look into the case, and see two possibilities. One is that one of the tenants had a personal grudge against the family. The other is that someone who knows the family found a way to get inside the house. The police aren’t sure what sort of case this is until the day that seven-year-old Ellen disappears from school. According to her friend, Matilda, Ellen was lured into a white car that stopped by the playground at the school she attends. That’s enough for the police to set a major search in motion, and certainly convinces them that this family is being targeted. Now they have to discover who’s behind everything, and what the motive is.

Some of the key action in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies takes place on the playground of Piriwee Public School, on the Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The story’s focus is three families who send their children to Kindergarten at the school. One of those children is accused of bullying by the mother of another child, and before long, this causes a major conflict. Many parents take the side of the accusing parent, because she’s one of the school’s leaders. Others, though, are not so quick to accuse, and take the side of the boy who’s been accused of bullying. The truth is, it was a playground incident, so no adult actually saw what happened. So, it’s hard to know who did what. There are other conflicts among some of the families, too, and other dynamics going on. It all simmers until Trivia Night, which is supposed to be a fundraiser for the school. The food doesn’t arrive on time, so everyone has too much to drink and not enough food to absorb the alcohol. Tempers flare and the end result is tragedy. The police investigate, and we slowly learn what really happened on the playground, and what really happened on Trivia Night.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, a retired academic and political scientist. In Kaleidoscope, her adult daughter, Mieka, opens a combination playground/meeting place she calls UpSlideDown in Regina’s struggling North Central district. Young parents in that area do not always have the support they need to help their children. So, Mieka has designed UpSlideDOown as a place where parents can meet, let their children play, get parenting advice, and find support. It’s so successful that Mieka opens UpSlideDown2. Admittedly, neither place is the scene of a murder, or an investigation. But both places play roles in the stories. And they’re both examples of the ways in which a playground can be a very positive place.

Playgrounds and schoolyards are where the action often is when it comes to young people’s interactions. And it’s where you sometimes see their parents in very unguarded moments, too. That’s part of what can make them so effective in crime novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.

    

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Filed under Gail Bowen, Håkan Östlundh, Karin Alvtegen, Liane Moriarty, Paddy Richardson

How Can I Be Sure?*

suspicion-growingAuthors use a lot of different tools for building suspense. One of them is a slowly-growing sense that someone you thought you knew well could be a murderer. If you think about it, that’s an unsettling, even frightening, feeling. Even if you don’t think you’re an intended victim, it’s still a scary thought. And you can’t bring up the topic very easily, either. You may be wrong, in which case you’ve ruptured a relationship, possibly permanently. Or, you could be right, in which case voicing your suspicions could put you in danger.

That sort of suspense can add a lot to a crime story, and there are lots of examples of it. Space only permits me a few, but I know you’ll come up with lots more. Oh, and you’ll notice that there won’t be any domestic noir titles mentioned. Too easy.

Agatha Christie used that approach to building suspense in several of her stories. For instance, in Hickory, Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory, Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s normally unflappable secretary, Felicity Lemon, asks for his help. Her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, has gotten concerned about a spate of petty thefts and other strange occurrences at the student hostel she manages. Partly as a courtesy to Miss Lemon, Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and visits the hostel. On the night he goes there, one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits to several of the thefts. At first, that seems to settle the matter. But when Celia herself dies two nights later, it’s clear that there’s more going on than just some petty thefts. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find the killer. As the novel goes on, several of the residents are made very uneasy by the idea that one of them could be a murderer, and it impacts them. Then, there’s another murder. And another. That almost-claustrophobic feeling of being trapped with someone wo’s dangerous adds tension to this story. I see you, fans of And Then There Were None.

There’s also Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, in which a group of people attend a very creepy séance. The purpose of it is to contact Grimaud Désanat, who died several years earlier. He left behind a successful wood processing business, but the land he owned has now been thoroughly logged. His widow, Irene, and his business partners, believe in spiritualism. So, they decide to use a séance to get his permission to develop a piece of land that he had said must be left unlogged for 20 years. The séance is eerie enough, but matters get far more frightening when Irene is killed later that night. If it wasn’t Désanat (and there are several people present who don’t believe in ghosts), then it had to have been someone in the group. That possibility is as frightening as a haunting, and adds to the suspense of the novel.

In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s A Window in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa faces a similar kind of growing suspicion. Three police officers are killed in quick succession. At first, it looks very much like the work of someone who’s got a vendetta against the police. But then, the mistress of one of the victims is killed. Then the mistress of another victim dies. And the third victim’s mistress goes into hiding to avoid the same fate. It’s now clear that this isn’t a case of a person who just wants to kill police officers. Something else ties these victims together, and that something could very well be corruption. Now, Espinosa and his hand-picked team have to be very careful. One or more of the cops with whom they work could be involved in the same corruption, or could be a killer. That feeling that one of their own might be a killer adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring finds her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, investigating the murder of a university colleague. The body of Reed Gallagher is found in a seedy hotel, and at first it looks as though he was killed as a result of some sort of double life he was leading. But it’s not as simple as that. As the case goes on, Kilbourn learns that there are several possible leads. Unfortunately for her, one of them is her friend and temporary office-mate, Ed Mariani. On the one hand, Kilbourn knows that just about anyone is capable of murder, given the right circumstances. She’s not so naïve as to believe that Mariani couldn’t possibly be the killer. On the other hand, he is a friend. She’s been to his home, attended meetings with him, and currently shares an office teapot with him. It’s a really awkward and unsettling situation for her, and that adds to the suspense in the story.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?  Yvonne Mulhern has recently moved with her husband, Gerry, from London to Dublin. The move represents an excellent career opportunity for Gerry, but it’s all much more difficult for Yvonne, who is a brand-new first-time mum. With no friends or family in Dublin, she soon turns to Netmammy, an online forum of other mothers. In the group, Yvonne finds the solidarity and support she’s been missing, and all goes well at first. Then, one of the group’s members goes missing. Yvonne gets concerned; although she’s never meet the woman, she considers her a friend. In the meantime, Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself a mum-to-be, is faced with a difficult case. A woman’s body has been found in an abandoned apartment. When Yvonne hears about this, she begins to wonder whether the dead woman is her missing online friend. If so, that could mean that someone in the forum is not who she seems to be. And that possibility adds quite a lot of tension to this story.

And I don’t think I could discuss this topic without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film, Shadow of Doubt. In that film, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Newton is excited to learn that her uncle, Charlie Oakley, will be coming for a visit. All goes well at first. But everything changes as Charlie slowly comes to suspect that Uncle Charlie may in fact be a murderer.

When it’s done well, that slow building up of suspicion can be very suspenseful. It’s also realistic, if you think about it. I’ve only had space for a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Gail Bowen, Hake Talbot, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Sinéad Crowley

You Don’t Know How Far I’d Go to Ease This Precious Ache*

infatuationThere’s something about being fully, completely, totally infatuated with someone. That feeling can feed on itself, especially if the other person reciprocates (or at least, seems to). And it’s intoxicating. So, it’s no wonder that there are so many songs about falling in love, about attraction (mutual or otherwise), and so on. It’s an important part of the human experience for a lot of people.

Sometimes, though, infatuation goes over the line, so to speak. I’m not talking here of the serial-killer sort of obsession (too easy!). Rather, I’m talking about the sort of attraction that leads a person to stop thinking rationally. That sort of love can get a person into trouble. And crime fiction is full of such characters. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of lots more than I could, anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (did I have any other choice, Christie fans?), we meet Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. She’s fallen deeply, madly in love with Simon Doyle, and he loves her, too. She wants very badly for them to marry, but they can’t until Simon has a regular, steady job that can support them. So, she asks her good friend Linnet Ridgeway for help. Linnet is one of the wealthiest young women in England; and, as it happens, she’s recently purchased (and is remodeling) Wode Hall. Since she’s in need of a land agent, Jackie hopes Linnet will hire Simon for the job. Linnet’s happy to oblige, and it first, it looks as though all will be well. But Linnet finds herself attracted to Simon. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and very rich, so Simon doesn’t need much encouragement. The two marry, and go on a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. Jackie follows them, much to Linnet’s chagrin, and makes life miserable for the couple. Then, on the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. At first, Jackie is the most likely suspect. But it’s soon proven that she could not be the killer. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, has to look elsewhere for the killer.

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity introduces readers to insurance sales representative Walter Huff. He’s in the Hollywood Hills area of Los Angeles one day when he finds himself close to the home of one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. On the spur of the moment, Huff decides to stop by and try to renew Nirdlinger’s insurance policy. Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis is. Huff is attracted to her right away, and Phyllis does nothing to discourage him. Before long, they’re having an affair. Huff is completely infatuated, so when Phyllis suggests a plot to kill her husband for his life insurance money, Huff goes along with it. He even puts together the double indemnity policy she wants, and commits the crime. But that’s just the beginning of his troubles. It turns out that, instead of that murder putting everything right for them, everything starts to go very, very wrong.

The focus of Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is Gilbert Hand, who works with a publishing agency. After the death of his wife, Rachel, Hand decides to sell the home they had shared, and move to a quiet, respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers an unexpected package in the davenport he’ll be using. He unwraps the package and finds a long coil of dark hair. Hand learns that the room was previously occupied by a man named Freddie Doyle, so he begins to get curious about Doyle. That curiosity leads to a kind of obsession. More, it leads Hand to Doyle’s girlfriend, Gladys Wilson. Hand becomes infatuated with her in his way, and when she disappears, he’s frantic to find her. For Hand, it’s all come down to a contest for Gladys between him and Doyle. And, as you can imagine, it doesn’t end well.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth is university professor and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She is also the mother of four children, and, of course, wants the best for them. That’s why she’s so concerned in The Wandering Soul Murders. In one plot thread of that novel, the family gets a visit from Christy Sinclair, who is Joanne’s son, Peter’s, ex-girlfriend. As far as Joanne is concerned, Peter is well rid of Christy. Peter himself has no desire to get back together with her. But Christy has other ideas. She manages to get herself invited to a family event: the engagement party for Peter’s older sister, Mieka. What’s more, she says that she and Peter are getting back together. The story takes a tragic twist when Christy dies of what seems to be suicide. But is it?

And then there’s Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. When Sylvie Delorme is killed in a car accident, the police inform her husband, Fabien. They also tell him that Sylvie was not alone in the car. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who was also killed in the crash. The Delorme’s marriage hadn’t been a very happy one, so although Fabien feels Sylvie’s loss, he’s almost more hurt that she had a lover than he is that she is dead. At least his pride is hurt. He finds out that Arnoult left a widow, Martine, and after finding out a bit about her, determines to have her. He learns that Martine and a friend are planning a trip to Majorca, and follows them there. He and Martine begin an affair, and it’s not long before he is infatuated with her. The affair spins out of control for both of them, and, as you would expect if you’re a fan of Garnier’s work, it heads right towards tragedy.

That feeling of infatuation is one of the headiest experiences in life. So, it’s little wonder people fall in love. And many times, it enriches life. But not always…

 
 
 

*NTOE: The title of this post is a line from Melissa Etheridge’s Come to My Window.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, Gail Bowen, James M. Cain, Pascal Garnier

Do You Want the Real Story*

criminal-confessionsIn many crime novels (‘though certainly not all of them), the perpetrator confesses to the crime. It’s not always a full-length story of the crime, but it’s clear that the killer admits what has happened. If you stop and think about it, though, this raises a question. Why would a killer confess? In some cases, it’s guilt. After all, most of us are not accustomed to taking a life, and the guilt can be tremendous.

But there are other reasons, too, for which a fictional killer might confess. And weaving that moment into a story can be tricky. It has to be believable (there are plenty of people who wouldn’t admit what they’d done, because the consequences of telling the truth are drastic). It also has to be done in a way that’s not melodramatic. But when it’s done right, it can be an effective way to let the reader know what really happened.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the mysterious deaths of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson. Both victims were Americans who’d come to London; in fact, Stangerson was Drebber’s secretary. The clues to the murders are strange – the word rache written in blood, and a ring, among other things – and they baffle the police. But Holmes puts the pieces of the puzzle together. The murderer is confronted, and, instead of fighting or continuing to claim innocence, admits what has happened. The reason in this case is a fatal heart condition which will end the killer’s life in a matter of weeks. Here’s what the murderer says:
 

‘…I should like to leave some account of the business behind me. I don’t want to be remembered as a common cut-throat.’
 

As fans of this story know, this killer isn’t a common thug at all.

There are killers who confess because they’re glad of what they’ve done. For instance, the victim in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder) is Simeon Lee. He’s the unpleasant, tyrannical patriarch of the Lee family, and no-one enjoys his company. But, when he decides he wants the family to gather at Gorston Hall, the family home, for Christmas, no-one dares refuse the invitation. He’s both very wealthy and very vindictive. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby, and is persuaded to work with the police to find the killer. When he does, he confronts that person with his theory of what happened. While Poirot’s view is logical and accounts for everything, he doesn’t really have the conclusive proof that courts prefer as evidence. But the killer confesses anyway, saying,
 

‘God rot his soul in Hell! I’m glad I did it!’
 

In this case, the killer may understand what the consequences for murder are. But for that person, it’s worth it. We also see a proud – if that’s the word – confession in Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies.

The main plot of Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring concerns the killing of journalism professor Reed Gallagher. For Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, Gallagher was a colleague. What’s more, she knows his widow. So, she gets drawn into the investigation of his murder. The solution to the mystery is related to another mystery concerning one of Kilbourn’s students, and it turns out to be a complicated case. In the end, Kilbourn discovers who the murderer is, and the two have an extremely tense scene in an elevator. In this case, the killer confesses in part because Kilbourn sees no choice but to keep that person talking – otherwise her own life will be in danger. So, she finds ways to manipulate the conversation so that the murderer will get caught up in it. And that’s exactly what happens. As the conversation continues, we also see that there’s a sense of wanting to justify what happened – to explain the killer’s side of the story.

There’s an interesting twist on the killer’s choice to confess in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met has been working on the investigation of a killer who tries to incinerate his victims. The press has dubbed this murderer the Burning Man, and there’s a lot of pressure on the Met to catch the criminal. Then, the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered. On the surface, it looks like the work of the Burning Man. But Kerrigan notices a few differences between this case and the other murders. It might be that the killer has changed tactics. It could also be a ‘copycat’ killer. Kerrigan very much wants to stay on the Burning Man case, but she’s assigned to focus on the Haworth case, even if this wasn’t a victim of the Burning Man, to show that the Met isn’t being lax. In the end, we learn who Haworth’s killer is. This murderer chooses to explain what happened in a letter, not to Kerrigan, nor to the police as a group, but to another character. Here’s a bit of what the letter says:
 

‘I want you to understand because I want to know you have had your eyes opened to what you really are…You thought you were the dangerous one, but you don’t know what dangerous is.’
 

It’s an interesting approach to sharing with readers what really was behind the murder.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse features an interesting final confrontation between Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod and a murderer. MacLeod has been seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help investigate the murder of Angel Macritchie. This killing resembles another case that Macleod is working, so it could be the same killer. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on Lewis. It’s awkward, though, because there are a lot of old, unresolved issues. What’s more, it’s difficult for MacLeod to interview, and consider as suspects, people he’s known all his life. Still, he goes about his job; and, in the end, he finds the killer. When he does, it becomes clear that the murderer has nothing to lose by confessing. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that the whole point of the confession is so that MacLeod will know exactly what happened and why.

There are, of course, plenty of other reasons why a murderer confesses, even knowing that it will lead to a long jail term or, possibly, execution. It might be pride, guilt, setting the record straight, or something else. And including the confession can add an interesting layer of character development and tension to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lene Marlin’s Never to Know.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Jane Casey, Peter May

And When the Morning Light Comes Streamin’ In, I’ll Get Up and Do It Again*

everydaytasksWhat do you do when you’ve been hit with a major stressor? It could be a serious illness (or worse, a death) in the family, a job loss, a move (even a positive move), or something else. After all, food still needs to be bought and cooked, the mortgage still comes due, and the kids still need to get to school. Sometimes, concentrating on those ordinary, everyday tasks like doing the dishes and walking the dog can help give structure until life starts to feel a little more settled again.

If you’ve been through a traumatic experience, you may have found that doing those everyday things can help you feel a little, well, normal. And that can help you cope. We see a lot of that cooping strategy in crime fiction, and that makes sense. The genre is full of characters who have to face the worse trauma of their lives.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), the Angkatell family faces a tragedy when a weekend houseguest is murdered. Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda, spend the weekend at the Angkatell’s country home. On the Sunday afternoon, he is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch that day, and he arrives just after the incident. He and Inspector Grange work to find out who shot the victim and why. Shortly after the police arrive, Lady Lucy Angkatell makes what seems like a heartless comment about serving lunch. But in a way, it’s not heartless at all. Here’s what another guest thinks about it:
 

‘One did remember the servants, and worry about meals. One did, even, feel hungry.’
 

And somehow, those ‘normal’ things work to keep everyone going as the police investigation continues.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly in the context of Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WWII) use. One day, postman Joseph Higgins is brought in with a fractured femur. It’s a routine operation, but not without risks. Still, nobody expects him to die. And yet, that’s exactly what happens. Higgins’ death during surgery is put down to a tragic freak incident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police investigates, presumably just to ‘rubber stamp’ the official theory of a tragic accident. But it’s not long before questions come up. For one thing, Higgins’ wife insists that he was murdered. Then one night, a nurse, Sister Marion Bates, has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that Higgins was killed, and she knows how it happened. Later that night she is murdered. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on, and Cockrill changes the nature of his investigation. The closer he gets to the truth, the more his interest starts to focus on six people in particular, all of whom are employees of the hospital. Despite the fact that there’ve been two murders, and the others are under suspicion, everyone has to go about normal duties. And there are their own daily routines. Those mundane tasks form an interesting counterpoint to the suspicion and suspense of the investigation.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, we are introduced to academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. As a widowed mother of three (in this novel), she’s been trying to put the pieces of her life back together since the murder of her husband, Ian. He was killed when he stopped to help two young people who were stranded by car trouble. When he refused to take them to a party, one of them murdered him. Just when Joanne thinks that life is moving along again, her friend and political ally Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is murdered by what turns out to be poison. It’s a bit like reliving Ian’s murder in some ways, so the Kilbourn family’s fragile stability is rocked. Still, they muddle along, and Joanne decides to write a biography of her friend as a way of coping. That choice ends up being very dangerous for her as she gets closer to the truth about Andy’s death. At one point, an old friend of the family stops by for breakfast, bringing fresh corn:
 

‘I made coffee.  Howard cooked the corn, and it was wonderful, indescribably delicate and sweet… It was an oddly comforting meal…’
 

Just the routine of making and eating a meal together helps Joanne deal with the events of the novel.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe knows that sometimes, those little ‘normal’ tasks can help people focus and cope, so that she can help them. It’s partly for that reason that, when she meets with a new client, she often settles her guest with a cup of bush tea and sometimes cake before getting down to business. Politeness is part of it, too, of course; but those everyday, ‘normal’ things do help her clients come to terms with what’s happened in their lives.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. In that novel, Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel from her native Scotland to his home in Victoria. With them is their nine-week-old son, Noah. After they land, they begin a long drive from the airport to their destination. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. A massive search gets underway, and the media outlets are very sympathetic at first. But then questions begin to arise. What really happened to Noah? Did one (or both) of his parents have something to do with his disappearance?  It’s all harrowing, especially for Joanna. She finds it hard to concentrate, and the media scrutiny doesn’t make it any easier. At one point, Alistair recommends that she take a walk to the shops, and maybe make something in the kitchen, to keep herself busy:
 

‘She Googled the jam recipe and set to: washing and boiling the berries, draining the misty pink juice through muslin, adding sugar and lemon, boiling, removing scum, waiting for it to set.’
 

The rhythm of that ‘normal’ sort of task doesn’t make Joanna feel a whole lot better. And it certainly doesn’t take away the fact that Noah is gone. But it’s the sort of mindless task that helps a person feel normal.

And that’s the thing about such everyday tasks. They can help a person connect with normal, whatever that is, during the coping process. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to take out some trash and then walk the dogs.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne’s The Pretender.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Christianna Brand, Gail Bowen, Helen Fitzgerald