Category Archives: Gail Bowen

You Ought to be in Pictures*

TV and Film AdaptationsIt’s not surprising that a lot of crime fiction fans also watch film and TV adaptations of series and novels they like. Film allows for all sorts of visual impact that’s harder to communicate in print. Even something as simple as a facial expression can mean a great deal, and it can be very powerful to communicate that meaning through the visual media.

But books often have background information, psychological details and so on that aren’t so easily portrayed on screen. And print and film are simply different media for communicating stories. So those who adapt novels and stories for the screen often have to make some changes.

And there, as the Shakespeare quote goes, is the rub. Film makers (whether for the big or small screen) have a few options. For instance, they can be completely faithful to the printed story in all ways. But that may mean a film that moves too slowly in some parts, or in other ways is a bit clumsy (because of the differences in media). They can make some changes, so as to make the story a better fit for film. That, of course, means that the adaptation is no longer as true to the book. A third option is that film makers can create an entirely new story, but using the original characters. This frees them from the confines of the original story, but can upset dedicated fans of the novel or series. Or, they can make some big changes, but keep some elements of the original story. For instance, one big difference between Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series and the television adaptation of it is its location. The book series takes place in Saskatchewan, but the TV films take place in Ontario. What’s more, in the book series, Kilbourn is a political scientist and academician. In the TV series, she’s a former cop. All of these options have both negative and positive consequences.

Speaking as a card-carrying, cranky, fussy purist dedicated reader, my preference is for adaptations that stay more or less true to the original story. That’s why, for instance, I very much liked Granada Television’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, with Jeremy Brett in the lead role. Some details of those stories were changed for film, but the basic plots, characters and so on reflect the original adventures. And to me, at least, Brett was Holmes.

There’ve been many, many adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work; some are more faithful than others to the original. And it’s interesting to think about the kinds of changes that have been made. For instance, Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (Albert Finney takes the role of Hercule Poirot here) was well-received. Even Christie herself, who in general didn’t care much for adaptations of her work, gave her rather reluctant appreciation for this one. And yet, there are some (to me, anyway) important differences between this film and the novel. To give just a few examples, in the novel, one of the passengers on this fabled train ride is a rather frumpy, middle-aged American matron named Mrs. Hubbard. In the film, her character (Lauren Bacall had this role) is much more sophisticated and stylish; other elements of her backstory are changed as well. And some of the other characters’ names and even elements of their personalities have been changed from the original story. As fellow passenger Mary Debenham, for instance, Vanessa Redgrave is more flirtatious and less aloof than the character is in the novel. And the murder victim’s valet (played in the film by Sir John Gielgud) is called Masterman in the novel, but Beddoes in the film. Did those changes make the film better than it would have been if it were exactly faithful to the novel? That’s a matter of taste, of course.

W.S. Van Dyke’s 1934 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, which features PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora, is in some ways quite true to the original novel. A lot of the elements of the plot are the same, and most of the characters as well. But the film has a much lighter touch than the novel does. And interestingly enough, the film was so well-received that several more Thin Man films followed, although Hammett himself only wrote one novel about Nick and Nora Charles. Many people feel that the comedic elements in the film were positive changes; certainly they were popular with filmgoers.

One possible reason for which the Thin Man franchise has been so well-liked is that Hammett himself played a key role in the films’ production. I don’t have research data to support myself here, but I think there’s an argument that film and TV adaptations of novels benefit greatly from the original author’s input. When the original author is heavily involved in decisions such as screenplay, cast choices, and the like, the adaptation is more likely to reflect that author’s intent. So even if there are some differences between the screen version of a story and the print version, the soul of the story is there.

For instance, Kerry Greenwood insisted on being deeply involved in the production of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a series based on her Phryne Fisher novels. Here’s what she says:

 

‘So when I was asked to SELL her [Phryne Fisher] to the film people, I was firm. I had to choose the Phryne, I had to vet all the scripts, otherwise, no deal.’

 

That decision has proved to be a wise one. The television series, with Essie Davis in the title role, has been very successful (a third series is about to start soon!).

Fans of Colin Dexter’s work will know that he was very much involved in the adaptation of his Inspector Morse series for television. In fact, he based one of his novels (The Jewel That Was Ours) on an episode of the series, rather than the other way round, as is more usual. And Dexter has it written into his will that no actor other than the late John Thaw will be permitted to take the role of Morse. The only reason he’s consented to having Shaun Evans as Morse in the Endeavor series is that that character doesn’t compete with Morse as he (Dexter) wrote the character – older and (hopefully) more mature. Take it if you will as just my opinion, but that’s part of the reason that the Inspector Morse series was so well-made. John Thaw really was Inspector Morse, at least to me.

Ann Cleeves is less involved with Vera, the television series that features her DCI Vera Stanhope. But she is involved with the script writers, and,

 

‘I take the production team out to all the sites in Northumberland so they can see it for themselves.’

 

She also says that she has a good relationship with Brenda Blethyn, who has the title role.

And then there’s RAI’s Montalbano, based on Andrea Camilleri’s work, and starring Luca Zingaretti in the title role. Camilleri actually worked for RAI for several years, and has writing credits for 18 of the television episodes. And in an interesting twist, in Dance of the Seagull, Montalbano and his long-time lover Livia have a disagreement about where to go for a getaway trip. Montalbano doesn’t fall in with Livia’s ideas because,

 

‘‘They film them around there, you know….And what if I find myself face to face with the actor who plays me?…What’s his name – Zingarelli.’
‘His name’s Zingaretti, stop pretending you don’t know.’’

 

Again, this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do. But I think the series benefits a lot from Camilleri’s close involvement.

Space only allows me to mention a few of these adaptations (I know, I know, fans of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton as, respectively, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin). There are a lot of others.

What do you think of all of this? Is it important to you that the series be very faithful to the original? Are you willing to ‘buy’ certain differences? If you’re a writer, which aspects of your story would you hold out for if it were filmed? Which would you be willing to give up?
 

ps. Want to read more about film and TV adaptations? Do visit Tipping My Fedora. It’s an excellent blog, and Sergio knows more than I ever possibly could about crime fiction on film. Also visit Book vs Adaptations, a regular feature at Reactions to Reading, which is one of the finest book review blogs there is. You need these blogs on your roll if they’re not there already.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dana Suesse and Edward Heyman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Arthur Conan Doyle, Andrea Camilleri, Ann Cleeves, Kerry Greenwood, Dashiell Hammett, Gail Bowen

There is a Life About to Start When Tomorrow Comes*

Political MovementsThere’s something about political movements that gets people really passionate. Some, of course, are drawn to the potential power involved. But for a lot of people, it’s the vision of what they see as a better future that drives them.

Political movements have been responsible for a lot of positive social change, such as better working conditions, universal suffrage, and anti-discrimination legislation. They’ve also done much to right long-standing wrongs (forced removal of Native American/First Nations children from their homes to attend government schools being just one example).

But political movements have their dark sides too. For one thing, we don’t all agree on what counts as ‘a better future.’ For another, even when a movement has what we might call a positive purpose (e.g. support for the working class), that doesn’t mean that everyone involved in the cause is noble, or that ugly things don’t happen.

Plenty of crime fiction includes or at least touches on political movements and struggles. They’re well-suited to the genre, I think. Space only permits me a sampling; I know you’ll think of lots more.

Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) introduces us to Howard Raikes. Young and idealistic, Raikes is involved in an activist movement to tear down existing governments and re-build the world. To him, entrenched government officials and those who support them need to be swept away in order for positive change to happen. Raikes is romantically involved with Jane Olivera, niece of powerful banker Alistair Blunt. On most things they agree, although Jane is much less violent in her views and more patient. They both get drawn into a case of murder when Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery. One theory of the murder is that someone was trying to get to Blunt, which makes Raikes a natural suspect. Hercule Poirot was also a patient of Morley’s and was at the victim’s office on the morning of the murder. So he works with Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is.

One of the characters we meet in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series is Riel Delorme, a Regina-based Métis activist. When we first encounter him in Kaleidoscope, he’s trying to put together opposition to a new development in the economically depressed North Central section of Regina. Delorme has a troubled past, and plenty of personal demons. But as the saying goes, his heart’s in the right place when it comes to wanting to improve the lot of the people who live in North Central. He and his group believe that the planned development will disenfranchise the residents, increase the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ and concentrate local wealth and power in too few hands. So he’s a very likely suspect when one the development company’s employees is murdered. Shreve and her attorney husband Zack get involved in this case on two levels. First, his law firm is representing the development company. On another level, her daughter Mieka is romantically involved with Delorme. This isn’t a simple case of ‘greedy developer vs crusading protectors of the downtrodden.’ In this novel, the developer is hardly all ‘bad,’ and the activist group isn’t exactly a chorus of angels. It’s an interesting look at how a smaller-level political movement impacts those involved.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is the fictional re-telling of the real-life case of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was convicted of the murder of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie meets and falls in love with Jack Hardy. They become secretly engaged, and Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When Maggie learns that she’s pregnant, she writes to him several times, but gets no answer. Knowing her family will reject her, Maggie moves to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie moves both of them to a home for unwed mothers. Then she learns that Jack has moved to Melbourne. She tracks him down, only to have him reject her utterly. With nowhere to go, Maggie tries to find lodging. She and the baby are turned away from six lodging houses, and that’s when the tragedy occurs. Maggie is arrested, imprisoned, and marked for execution. She finds a champion in Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. Vida is a leader in the movement for women’s suffrage and women’s rights, and that group is happy to have Maggie as a sort of ‘textbook case’ of gender inequity. There’s also an interesting look at the women’s suffrage movement in Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Murder.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders takes a look at another political movement, Australia First. On the surface of it, the movement stands for supporting Australian businesses, protecting the country from subversion by outside forces, and so on. It all sounds quite patriotic. But this novel takes place in 1943, when the country is at war with the Axis powers. There’ve been disturbing links between Australia First and Nazism, so the group died out. But when John Quinn and his son Xavier are found brutally murdered, it becomes clear that the group may be re-forming. If so, Melbourne police Inspector Titus Lambert and his second-in-command Joe Sable have a serious problem. One thread of this novel concerns the way idealism and the hope of a better future can be manipulated in appalling and horrible ways.

Glen Peters’ Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta places readers in 1960’s Calcutta/Kolkata. Joan D’Silva, a teacher at a Catholic school, gets involved in a case of murder when her son discovers the body of a former student Agnes Lal. After the inquest, two other former pupils tell Mrs. D’Silva that the victim was murdered; then they ask her help in finding the killer. Soon afterwards, one of those students is arrested in connection with the stabbing of a factory manager. He claims he’s innocent, and has been forced to confess, and D’Silva begins to look more deeply into the case. That’s when she discovers that all three former students were members of the Workers Revolutionary Movement of Bengal, which is dedicated to overthrowing the current Indian government and stripping high-ranking Anglo-Indians of their power. As Mrs. D’Silva tries to clear her former pupil’s name and solve the murder, readers see how passionate people can be about political movements and righting what they see as society’s wrongs. We also see how that idealism can be used for certain people’s purposes.

There’ve been several novels featuring the IRA and other groups who’ve championed Irish independence and self-determination. Authors such as Brian McGilloway, Bartholomew Gill and Will Thomas, among many others, have looked at the vision those groups have had of a better future for Ireland. As we know, it’s not been as simple as that, and no side of the conflicts in that part of the world has been really innocent.

And that’s the thing about wanting a better future, and agitating for it. It’s messy and complicated; and it sometimes results in conflict and a lot worse. Little wonder such movements are popular contexts for crime novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bartholomew Gill, Brian McGilloway, Felicity Young, Gail Bowen, Glen Peters, Robert Gott, Wendy James, Will Thomas

I May Be Crazy*

Self DoubtMost of us would like to think we can trust our own thinking. No-one’s perfect of course, but we like to think we can make sense of what we see and hear and so on. So it’s frightening to think that we can’t believe what we think is true – that we can’t trust our own mental processes. That feeling of ‘I’m not crazy – am I?’ is woven into a lot of crime fiction, and can make for a suspenseful plot thread or character layer.

Agatha Christie uses it in some of her work. For instance, in Sleeping Murder, Giles and Gwenda Reed are newlyweds looking for their first home. Gwenda is particularly drawn to a house in Dilmouth, and she and Giles make the purchase arrangement. Soon though, Gwenda begins to have some strange experiences. She has an odd sense of déjà vu about the place, although she doesn’t really remember being there before. To make matters worse, she sees images of a dead woman lying in the hall. Worried that she might be having some sort of mental breakdown, Gwenda takes some time away and visits her cousin Raymond West and his wife. Christie fans will know that West’s Aunt Jane (Marple) takes a great interest in human nature, and is sympathetic towards Gwenda. One night, they go to the theatre, where Gwenda has a bizarre reaction to one scene. Miss Marple is soon convinced that something really is going on in the house at Dilmouth, and that Gwenda isn’t crazy. So she begins to investigate. In the end, she finds that the house holds an important secret from the past. Christie fans will also know that Miss Marple is sure that her friend Elspeth McGillicuddy isn’t crazy when she thinks she sees a murder being committed in4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). And there’s a Christie story in which a character is manipulated by a killer into taking responsibility for murder. No spoilers – those who’ve read it will know which story I mean…

In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he meets a young woman who’s about to jump off a bridge. He convinces her to not to follow through, and takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Until recently, she’s had a good life. But everything changed when her father took a business trip to San Francisco. When a housemaid warned of a fatal plane crash, Jane almost sent a telegram to her father to take another flight back. At the last minute, she didn’t do so; yet, her father did receive a telegram and changed his plans. When he returned safely, the two of them decided to find out how the housemaid knew about the crash. The trail leads to a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, who sees himself as cursed with being able to predict the future. Harlan Reid began to visit Tompkins and made use of what he learned to make an even bigger success of himself in business. Then, Tompkins predicted the other man’s death. Now convinced he will die on a certain night at midnight, Reid has lost hope and become a shadow of his former self. With this background, Shawn decides to help Jean, and gets involved in the business. He finds that this case has a lot to do with people’s states of mind and with not trusting one’s own thinking.

So does Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder. Howard Van Horn has been having a series of troubling blackouts lately. One day he wakes up from one of them to discover he’s got blood on himself and his clothes. Convinced that he’s done something horrible, he visits his former college friend Ellery Queen and asks his advice. Queen agrees to look into the case. The trail leads to the small town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn’s father Dietrich lives with his second wife Sally. During the visit, Howard has another blackout; this time, Sally is found murdered. Howard doesn’t remember the murder, but finds it hard not to believe the evidence against him. Queen, however, is less sure. Throughout the novel, we see the growing fear as Howard increasingly doubts his own sanity.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces readers to academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. When her good friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk dies of what turns out to be poison, Kilbourn is devastated. As a way of dealing with her grief, she decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she gets material for the book, Kilbourn also gets closer to the truth about the murder. In the meantime, she begins to suffer from an odd illness. At first, it doesn’t seem like much. Then, the symptoms get strange and more severe. For a time, Kilbourn isn’t sure exactly what to believe about it, and there’s a real sense of her anxiety as she tries to puzzle out whether she’s imagining things or is really ill (and if so, what the problem is). It’s an interesting look at what it’s like to be sure that something is wrong and at the same time, wonder if it’s ‘all in the head.’

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks Shopping Center. Part of his job involves monitoring the mall’s security cameras. During one session, he sees a young girl with a backpack. The mall’s closed, so he gets concerned that she may be lost or abandoned. The image isn’t clear, but he looks into the matter. That’s when things get strange. He can’t find the girl, although he sees her during more than one of his shifts. One night, he happens to meet with Lisa Palmer, who works at Your Music, one of the stores in the mall. They strike up an awkward friendship and Kurt tells her what he’s seen. Each in a different way, they try to find out what it all means. To do so, they have to look twenty years into the past, and to the disappearance of ten-year-old Kate Meaney.

And then there’s Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone is a marine biologist (at least in name), who’s been hired by agribusiness tycoon Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Perrone’s developed a way to make water tests come out with ‘clean’ results; and that’s just what Hammernut needs to ensure that the mandatory water samples taken near his company’s Everglades property won’t get him into trouble. When Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, he decides to solve the problem by pushing her overboard during a cruise. What he doesn’t know is that she survives and is rescued by former cop Mick Stranahan. Determined to find out why her husband wanted her dead, Joey works out a plan of revenge. First, she begins to play ‘mind games’ with him. For instance, she turns on the sprinkler system in the house when he’s not home. Then, Stranahan pretends to be a blackmailer who saw what Perrone did. Together, they make a nervous wreck of Perrone. He becomes increasingly unstable, which doesn’t exactly endear him either to Hammernut or to Broward County, Florida police detective Karl Rolvaag, who’s always suspected him…

There are other stories, too, in which one of the plot threads revolves around questioning one’s own thinking. It can be very scary, so it’s little wonder that it’s an effective suspense-building tool. These are a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s You May be Right.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Catherine O'Flynn, Cornell Woolrich, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen

Make of Our Hearts One Heart*

Intercultural RelationshipsAll couples have to make adjustments; it’s what happens when two different people share their lives. That’s especially true of intercultural couples. They face the same issues as other couples, and they have to bridge sometimes vast cultural gaps. Although it’s not always easy, many such couples do build successful relationships. Other intercultural relationships don’t work out as well.

In crime fiction, an intercultural relationship can add a fascinating layer of depth to a character, even if the novel’s central focus isn’t the sleuth’s home life. It also allows the author to explore different cultures and cultural interaction in a very personal way.

Agatha Christie touches on this plot point in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Wealthy Emily Arundell suspects that one of her family members is trying to kill her. She’s even more convinced of this when she has what seems to be an accidental fall down a flight of stairs late one night. It’s no accident though, so she writes to Hercule Poirot to ask for his help. By the time Poirot receives the letter and travels to Market Basing, where Miss Arundell lives, it’s too late. She’s died of what the doctor termed ‘liver failure.’ But Poirot suspects otherwise and continues to investigate. Just about everyone in the Arundell family circle had something to gain by the victim’s death. One of the interested parties is Miss Arundell’s niece Bella, who is married to Dr. Jacob Tanios. It’s an intercultural relationship, as Tanios is Greek. And it’s interesting to see how wide that gap is perceived to be in this novel. There are actually several comments about the wisdom (or lack theoreof) of marrying someone from a different culture.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn also has an experience with an intercultural relationship. In A Colder Kind of Death, she meets Inspector Alex Kequahtooway of the Regina Police. He’s investigating the murder of Kevin Tarpley, who was killed during an exercise break in the prison yard where he’s serving time for murder. Kilbourn has a strong motive for hating Tarpley, since the murder he committed was of her husband Ian. So at first, she and the Inspector are not exactly friendly. But before long he comes to believe that she’s innocent. Later, the two become romantically involved, and that presents challenges for both. He is a member of the Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nation; she is Anglo. To the two of them, their differences don’t matter as much as their relationship does. But not everyone feels that way, and both have to deal with the ‘baggage’ of being involved with someone from a very different culture.

So do Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Mary Landon. Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and an officer in the Navajo Tribal Police. He is also studying at the time to become a yata’ali, a Navajo singer/healer. In People of Darkness, he meets Mary Landon, who teaches at Crown Point Elementary School. The two begin to date and then fall in love. At first it doesn’t matter to either that he is Navajo and she is White. As time goes by, though, they face a real obstacle. Chee loves Landon, but couldn’t really be happy living in the dominant-culture world. Landon loves Chee, too; but she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life on the Reservation. As time goes by, she finds herself more and more drawn back to her own community. At the same time, though, as she writes to him in The Ghostway,

 

‘I won’t force my Jim Chee to be a white man.’

 

In the end, those differences separate them permanently, but not without a deep sense of loss on both sides.

Does this mean that all intercultural relationships are doomed? Not in crime fiction, at any rate. Just ask Nicolas Freeling’s Amsterdam Inspector Piet Van der Valk and his wife Arlette. Van der Valk is thoroughly Dutch, with that culture’s background, values and so on. His wife Arlette is French, and her cultural identity reflects that background.  There are certainly some cultural differences between them, and adjustments to be made on both sides. But as Van der Valk puts it in Double Barrel, being married to Arlette helps him to be

 

‘…not quite so Dutch….’

 

in his thinking. It helps a lot too that Arlette is an excellent cook.

More recently, there’s Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Raffterty series. Those novels take place mostly in Bangkok, where Rafferty lives and works. He’s an ex-pat American travel writer who’s also good at finding people who don’t want to be found. Rafferty’s wife Rose is thoroughly Thai, a former bar girl who now owns her own apartment cleaning company. Together, they’re raising Miaow, a former street child they’ve adopted. Rafferty and his wife come from very different backgrounds, and they see the world differently. Sometimes this gets in the way of their communication. But each respects and is devoted to the other, and both want the best for Miaow. So they do everything they can to understand each other and resolve the differences they sometimes have.

So do Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel. Keeney is Australian, although she’s quite content to live in Bangkok. In The Half-Child, she meets Patel, who at the time helps to run his uncle’s bookshop. Patel is from India, at first only staying in Bangkok temporarily. But things change when he meets Keeney and the two strike up a friendship. They become business partners and, later, lovers as well. There are certainly cultural differences between them, even in terms of things like non-verbal communication. But as time goes on, it becomes clear to each that they respect each other and depend on each other. They are better together than they are alone.

There are of course a lot of other intercultural couples in crime fiction. Freeling, for instance, wrote another series featuring Henri Castang, who is originally French, but lives and works in Brussels. His wife Vera is Czech. And this is by no means the only example. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s One Hand, One Heart.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, Nicolas Freeling, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

Sometimes I Don’t Speak Right*

Difficult InterviewsInterviews with witnesses and suspects are critical to any investigation. Certainly those people can lie or be wrong; still, what they say and don’t say often provides important information about a case. Some witnesses (and suspects too) are particularly challenging to interview. They may have mental or emotional limitations that make it hard to reach them; and it may be difficult to make sense of what they say. Sleuths have to be especially careful in those cases, and use all of their interviewing skills to get the information they need.

In crime fiction, this challenge can add a layer of interest and suspense to a story. It’s got to be done carefully, or the witness/suspect can seem more of a ‘curiosity object’ than a real human being. But in deft hands, such a plot point can add some depth to a novel.

Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders has a few interesting examples of this sort of interview. In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate a series of killings. The only things the murders seem to have in common is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each death, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. In the course of the investigation, Poirot interviews Lady Clarke, who is the widow of the third victim, retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. She has cancer, and is kept under sedation most of the time because of the pain. This means that arranging a conversation with her requires planning, so that she can remain lucid during the interview. When Poirot speaks with her, she does ‘drift off’ at times. But she also has moments of clarity; and she says some things that turn out to be very helpful.

Interviewing children nearly always requires delicacy and care. That’s especially true in the case of seven-year-old Melody Quinn, whom we meet in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. Melody is the only witness to the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez, so LAPD detective Milo Sturgis wants to find out what she knows. But she’s not always coherent, and Sturgis is sure there’s more she could tell the police. He asks his friend, child psychologist Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware is reluctant at first; but in the end he agrees to at least speak to the child. When he does, he discovers that she’s heavily medicated with Ritalin and other drugs intended for children with ADHD. After considerable effort, Delaware convinces her mother Bonita to allow him to reduce her daughter’s medication so he can communicate with her. When he does, the child starts having nightmares and showing other symptoms of distress, so neither Bonita nor Melody’s doctor allow him any more access to her. But what she says during their short time together turns out to be significant.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn takes an interest in the murder of a colleague Reed Gallagher, who headed the School of Journalism. One of Gallagher’s students, Kellee Savage, may have important information about the murder. As she’s also in one of Kilbourn’s classes, the two talk about the death. But Kellee has psychological and emotional conditions; and it’s not easy to interact with her. So at first, Kilbourn doesn’t take seriously some of the things Kellee says. Then one night, Kellee disappears. As the investigation goes on, Kilbourn learns that Kellee had some valuable knowledge about Gallagher’s death.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Chicago surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. She’s been diagnosed with dementia, and has had to leave her profession. But as the story begins, she still has many more good days than bad days. One night, the woman next door, Amanda O’Toole, is murdered. Her body has been mutilated in a skilled way that only a surgeon would be likely to know, so police detective Luton naturally takes an interest in White. And as she investigates, Luton finds more and more reason to think White is guilty. But at the same time, the evidence doesn’t completely add up; there are enough inconsistencies that it’s also quite possible White is innocent. But she is gradually slipping away from coherent thinking, so Luton finds it very hard to interact with her at times. In the end we discover what really happened to the victim, and it’s interesting to see how Luton goes about finding out the truth.

Martin EdwardsThe Hanging Wood introduces readers to Orla Payne, a troubled young woman who is haunted by the disappearance of her brother Callum twenty years earlier. Everyone’s always thought their uncle had something to do with what happened, but Orla’s never really believed that. Still, Callum hasn’t returned and his body was never discovered. Orla wants the case re-opened, so she calls the Cumbria Constabulary to ask DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team to look into it. But she is drunk when she calls, and emotionally very fragile in any case, so Scarlett finds it difficult to talk to her. Then Orla dies, apparently a suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not having worked harder to communicate with Orla, and commits herself to finding out the truth about Callum’s disappearance.

There’s a very interesting case of a witness/suspect with limitations in T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton. The body of a mysterious young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s good reason to believe that Elton Spears is responsible for her death. For one thing, he’d already been in trouble with the law before for inappropriate contact with young girls. For another, he was known to be in that area at the time of the murder. Solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. Working with this client isn’t easy though. Spears is a mentally troubled man who isn’t always coherent. He can’t do much to defend himself; he can’t even really explain his movements on the night in question. But Harwood wants to clear Spears’ name, so he and barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court, work to prove the young man innocent.

In real life, police and attorneys (and other investigators) sometimes have to work with witnesses or suspects who can’t be coherent and don’t seem reliable. And yet, those people can sometimes have important insights and valuable clues. So part of the task of solving a case is to find ways to reach those witnesses and suspects. That plot point can add a real layer of suspense to a crime story, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from War’s Why Can’t We Be Friends?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Gail Bowen, Jonathan Kellerman, Martin Edwards, T.J. Cooke