Category Archives: Gail Bowen

You Know I’m Gonna be Like Him*

It’s interesting how things get passed along in families. I’m not really talking here about physical appearance, although that, of course, is passed along, too. I’m talking more about things such as mannerisms, traits, and, sometimes, special talents. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying something exactly like one of your parents, or using a mannerism that one of your parents used, you know what I mean.

We see this in crime fiction, too, and it can make for an interesting layer of character development. It can even add to a plot point. It’s realistic, too, so it can also add some credibility to family dynamics.

Agatha Christie addressed this in several of her stories. There’s even one (I’m not giving title or sleuth, so as to avoid spoilers) in which family traits prove to be a major clue to a killer. Appointment With Death, for instance, features the Boynton family, Americans who are on a tour of the Middle East. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a malicious, tyrannical person whom Hercule Poirot calls a mental sadist. She has her family so much under her control that they do whatever she says, and never risk displeasing her. The family takes a trip to the ruins of Petra, during which Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. Colonel Carbury is in charge of the case, and he’s not quite satisfied that this was a natural death. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and it soon comes out that the victim was murdered. The most likely suspects are the members of her family, each of whom had a very good motive for murder. One of those family members is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny’ Boynton. She’s become mentally quite fragile as a result of her mother’s psychological abuse, and on the surface, she doesn’t seem much like her at all. But, she has a rare acting ability. When she gets the chance to live her own life, free of her mother’s influence, we see just how talented she is – and that she has more in common with her mother than it seemed. Here’s what one character says:
 

‘‘Looking at Jinny, I saw – for the first time – the likeness. The same thing – only Jinny is in light – where She was in darkness…’’
 

It’s an interesting commentary on the way certain mannerisms and personality traits can be passed down.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we are introduced to Trevor Sharp. He’s a teenager who’s a bit at loose ends. He doesn’t fit in well at school, and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. So, as you can imagine, he’s quite drawn in by a local delinquent named Mick Webster. His father, Graham, warns him away from the boy, but Trevor doesn’t listen. That’s how he gets mixed up in several cases that Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks is investigating. For one thing, a voyeur has been spying on several of Eastvale’s women. For another, there’s been a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. And Banks wants to know what role, if any, Trevor has played in these crimes. As we get to know the Sharps, we see that on the surface, they’re different. But they really aren’t that different after all. And, in the end, we see how much Trevor has inherited, if that’s the right term, from his father.

One of the main characters in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is an LAPD officer named Edward ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of LAPD legend Preston Exley, and that fact makes his life extremely complicated. His older brother Thomas, was, in many ways, just like their father, and slated for a highly successful police career. In fact, Exley senior placed all of his hopes in Thomas. But Thomas was killed in WW II (the novel takes place in the early 1950s) shortly after his graduation from the police academy. Now, the burden of excelling on the police force falls to Ed, who’s not nearly as much like his father as his brother was. Still, as the novel goes on, we see that he has more in common with his father than it may seem on the surface.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner features the members of the Lohman family. One evening, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet up with his brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. They’re having dinner at an ultra-exclusive and extremely expensive Amsterdam restaurant. On the surface, it’s just a getting-together of two couples. But under the surface, there’s a lot more going on. Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son, and, together, their boys have committed a terrible crime. Now, the two couples have to decide what they’re going to do about it. As the novel goes on, we see that, in several ways, the boys have inherited their attitudes and beliefs from their parents. While the parents are unwilling to admit it, there’s a resemblance between them and their sons.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She is a (now-retired) academic and political scientist. She is also the mother of an adopted daughter, Taylor. Among other things, Taylor is an extraordinary artist, with rare talent. Interestingly, her biological mother, Sally, also had real artistic talent. The novels in the series don’t all focus on Taylor, Sally, or art. But throughout the series, we see how, even though they spent no real time together during Taylor’s formative years (Sally was killed when Taylor was not much more than a toddler), there are still real resemblances between the two. And sometimes, they’re very clear to Joanne, who was friends with Sally and who has raised Taylor.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of parents and children who are absolutely nothing like one another. But in a lot of cases, there are similarities, whether it’s in attitude, mannerisms, preferences, or something else. So it makes sense that we’d see those similarities in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, James Ellroy, Peter Robinson

I Want Adventure in the Great Wide Somewhere*

Many young people choose to travel before they settle down to jobs and adult responsibilities. Some do a gap year before university. Others travel after they finish university. Still others travel instead of going to university. Either way, that year or so of travel can add a real richness to one’s life, and some memorable experiences.

Of course, that sort of travel can lead to all sorts of unforeseen circumstance. Just a quick look at crime fiction is all it takes to show that gap years and other travel experiences can have very unexpected outcomes.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory, Dickory Dock, we are introduced to Sally Finch. She is from the US, but she’s studying in London under a Fulbright Scholarship, and is living in a hostel for students. All goes well until one of a pair of her evening shoes goes missing. At first, it seems like a mean, but not dangerous, prank. Then, other things go missing. Now, Sally’s worried about what’s going on in the hostel. The manager, Mrs. Hubbard, invites Hercule Poirot to do a little discreet investigation, and he agrees. On the night of his visit, another resident, Celia Austin, confesses to taking some of the things (including Sally’s shoe), and everyone thinks the matter is settled. The next night, though, Celia dies. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, and now Sally’s mixed up in it all. It’s certainly not the experience she’d planned when she came to London.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook features an American named Tad Rampole. He’s recently finished his university studies and has decided to travel a bit before he settles into adult life. His university mentor suggested that, since he’s planning to be in England, he should pay a visit to Dr. Gideon Fell. Rampole takes that advice and makes the arrangements. On his way to Fell’s home, he meets a young woman named Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten right away, and the feeling is mutual. Later, Fell tells Rampole a strange story about the Starberths, It seems that, for two generations, the Starberth men were Governors at a nearby prison, which has now fallen into disuse. There’s still a family ritual associated with the prison, and it’s now the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin, to participate. He’s concerned, because several of the Starberth men have died violent deaths. Tragically, Martin dies, too. Mostly because of his feelings for Dorothy, Rampole works with Fell to find out the truth about the murder.

Cath Staincliffe’s Half the World Away is the story of Lori Maddox, who decides to do a gap year backpacking in South East Asia. Her mother, Jo, and stepfather, Nick, support her choices, although, of course, they’re concerned, as any parents would be. Lori begins her trip and keeps in regular contact at first. She blogs about her adventures, she sends emails, and so on. Then, the contact starts to become a little more erratic. At first, there’s no reason to really worry. The gap year can be the adventure of a lifetime, so it’s natural for young people to get distracted. Then, Lori stops communicating at all. Now, Jo is really worried. She turns for support to Lori’s father, Tom, and together, the two decide they need to go and find their daughter. Lori was last known to be in Chengdu, China, where she was teaching English, so that’s where Tom and Jo travel. When they get there, they get very little help from the local authorities. Even their consul can’t be of much assistance, because it’s in the interest of the local police to preserve the area’s reputation. So, Jo and Tom will have to find out the truth on their own.

In Charity Norman’s See You in September, Cassy Howells and her boyfriend, Hamish, are planning a trip to New Zealand as a break between their university studies and taking up adult life. They’re planning to volunteer for a few weeks, and then explore the country. Cassy’s parents, Diana and Mike, are excited for her, but, of course, concerned, as you’d expect. Things go well at first. But Cassy and Hamish start arguing, as couples do. That adds tension to their relationship. Then, Cassy discovers to her shock that she’s pregnant. When Hamish makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be a father, the two break up, and Cassy’s left alone and vulnerable. She’s rescued by a group of people who live on an eco-commune. They invite her stay with them for a few days so that she can decide what to do next. Cassy gratefully accepts and joins the group. Little by little, she feels comfortable with them, and in the end, she decides to stay with them. Soon enough, it’s clear that she’s joined a cult which is led by a charismatic man named Justin. Meanwhile, her parents, particularly Diana, are quite worried about her. She’s cut off contact, and in other ways is no longer the Cassy they thought they knew. So, they decide to go and get her. By this time, though, Cassy is fully integrated into the cult; she even has a new name, Cairo. In the meantime, Justin has revealed that the Last Day is coming, and that could spell disaster for the group. Now, the question is: can Diana and Mike get Cassy/Cairo to leave before tragedy strikes?

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Darkness of the Heart, which features her sleuth, retired academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. In one plot thread of this novel, her daughter, Taylor, has just finished secondary school, and decides to take a gap year. Her reasoning makes sense, but that doesn’t mean Joanne doesn’t have any concerns. I admit I’ve not (yet) read this book; I’m a book or two behind in the series. But if you want to read more about it, visit Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, who did an excellent review.

Gap years and other travel can be exciting and fulfilling adventures for young people. They can also be quite dangerous, and you never quite know what will happen. Little wonder this plot point comes up in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken’s Belle (Reprise).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Charity Norman, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr

And I’m a Little Bit Older Now*

One of the important decisions that authors of series need to make is whether, and how quickly, their main characters will age. There are some good reasons not to have characters age. But there are also some strong arguments for letting characters age in more or less real time.

For one thing, we all age. So, we can identify with main characters who get older – it’s realistic. For another thing, as we age, different things happen in our lives (from beginning of career, through height of career, through retirement; from newlyweds, through raising children, through having grandchildren). This gives the author a number of possibilities for adding plot points, characters, and so on.

Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford age in real time, and that makes for several possibilities for plots. In The Secret Adversary and in the Partners in Crime collection, they are young, energetic, and adventurous. And that’s part of what draws them into the espionage business. In N or M? and By the Pricking of My Thumbs, they’re middle-aged. They’re more experienced, their children have grown, and they go about their cases differently. In Postern of Fate, they’ve retired. They’re older, with grandchildren, and take a different attitude towards life to what they did as a young couple. Fans of this series like the fact that they can see how the Beresfords change over time as they age. It adds appeal to their characters.

That’s arguably also true of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. When we first meet her, in Deadly Appearances, she’s middle-aged, the mother of a university-bound daughter and two younger sons. She’s moving to the top of her career as an academician and political scientist, and still coping with the death of her husband, Ian. As the series goes on, Joanne ages, as we all do, in real time. Her children grow, leave home, and make their own lives. She adopts another child, who also grows up and gets ready to leave home. She marries again, moves into retirement, and learns the joys of grandparenting. Other things happen in her home life, too, and they all fit in with what happens as people move in life and get older. That natural aging process makes Joanne an accessible, realistic character; her life reflects what happens to real people.

Tony Hillerman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn ages, too, over the course of the novels that feature him. In the early novels, such as The Blessing Way, Leaphorn is a young man. He’s active, he has stamina, and so on. And the cases he investigates fit with that sort of a detective. As the series moves on, Leaphorn ages. As he does, he rises a bit in the ranks of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). He and his wife, Emmy, approach middle age together, and later, he copes with her death. In the later novels, Leaphorn has retired from active duty, but still occasionally lends his expertise. It’s an interesting transition through the course of the novels, and it makes his character believable.

Michael Connelly has made more or less the same decision about his main character, Harry Bosch. As the series begins, he’s about forty, and a veteran with the LAPD. He’s had relationships, but he’s not married or particularly tied to one person. As the series goes on, he goes through several changes professionally. He also marries and is later divorced. He also becomes a father. In more recent novels, he sees his daughter, Maddie, grow up and begin to think about becoming a police officer like her father. Although Connelly doesn’t place a big emphasis on Bosch’s age, he does address issues such as retirement age. You’re absolutely right, fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus.

There are also authors such as Donna Leon and Ruth Rendell, whose main characters have aged over time, but perhaps not as quickly as real time. Leon’s Guido Brunetti and Rendell’s Reg Wexford are both married fathers of young-ish children at the start of their respective series (‘though Wexford’s daughters are a bit older – in their teens). As both series go on, their children get older (Wexford becomes a grandfather). They begin to face the issues that people face as they get towards middle age, too. And, although, neither author places a great deal of emphasis on this ageing process, it’s going on in the background.

On the one hand, having characters age in real time can be limiting for an author. On the other, it’s a very natural process, so readers can identify with the characters. And it allows the author to work in different sorts of characters and plots. Do you prefer to see your characters age in real time? If you’re a writer, what choices have you made about your main character’s ageing process? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s As I Come of Age.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

We’re Not Quite Sure Just What We’re Dying Of*

If you’ve ever been ill, even with something relatively minor like a cold, you know how easy it is to be preoccupied about your health. And that has advantages. It’s important to take medication, especially things like antibiotics, as directed, to rest if needed, and so on.

But, like anything else, it’s possible to take that preoccupation too far. I’m emphatically not talking here of genuine chronic illness. That’s an entirely different matter. Rather, I’m talking of cases where preoccupation becomes hypochondria. In real life, it can be annoying to spend too much time with a hypochondriac. But hypochondria can add an interesting character layer in a novel. And, if it’s a crime novel, there’s just a chance that preoccupation with one’s health is justified…

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a strange case brought to them by Mary Morstan. Years earlier, her father returned from India to London, and arranged to meet her. But he didn’t keep that appointment and hasn’t been seen since. Not long after his disappearance, Mary began receiving a set of pearls, one each year, from an anonymous person. Holmes and Watson discover that that person is Thaddeus Sholto, the son of a friend of Morstan’s. It turns out that Sholto has some important information about what happened to Morstan, and why he’s been sending the pearls. As it happens, Thaddeus Sholto is a hypochondriac, who can go on at great length about his health (and does). Even Dr. Watson finds his medical conversations tiresome.

Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) features the Abernethie family. When wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family members gather for the funeral and the reading of his will. During the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone else hushes her up, and even she tells the others not to pay attention to her. But the seed has been sown, and everyone wonders whether she might be right. When she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. One of the people concerned in this case is Abernethie’s younger brother, Timothy. He doesn’t attend the funeral because of ill health, and we soon learn that ill health is his status quo. He revels in his bottles of medicine, and is obsessed with his heart rate, his pulse, and so on. This hypochondria isn’t the reason for the two deaths, but it adds an interesting layer to the story.

Fans of Martha Grimes’ Inspector Richard Jury will know that his assistant, Sergeant Wiggins, is also obsessed with his health. He’s constantly concerned about whether he’s well, and he keeps himself updated on all of the latest articles about health, whether they’re from responsible sources or they’re faddish. Wiggins can be tiresome about health matters, and that annoys Jury. But Wiggins is also a skilled police officer who knows his job. So, Jury tries to keep Wiggins’ hypochondria in perspective. It’s not always easy, though…

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s amateur sleuth, Myrtle Clover, is a retired English teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. She originally gets involved in solving mysteries mostly to prove she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture,’ although that’s what her son, the local police chief, would like. Myrtle sometimes needs a ‘sounding board’ for her ideas, or some help putting them into action. One of the people she turns to is her friend, Miles Bradford. Like Myrtle, he’s retired. His idea of retirement, though, is quite different to Myrtle’s. He’d pictured a quiet retirement, without a lot of adventure. But that’s not what happens once he gets to know Myrtle. Miles is a germaphobe, and someone of a hypochondriac, although he’s not the whiny sort. Still, Myrtle doesn’t always have patience for his more cautious approach. He makes for an interesting contrast to Myrtle’s more adventurous nature.

Of course, there are times when it’s wise to pay close attention to, and to focus on, one’s health. For instance, Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces us to her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In the main plot of the novel, she happens to be present when her friend, up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk, suddenly collapses and dies of poison. As a way of coping with her grief, she decides to write a biography of her friend. And, as she does, she gets closer and closer to the truth about what happened to him. In another plot thread, she begins to lose weight and have other signs of illness. At first, she doesn’t pay much attention, as she’s not one to be obsessed about her health. But as time goes by and things get worse, she gets concerned and seeks medical attention. At first, there aren’t any clear answers to what’s going on, and that’s scary. It’s easy to see why, in cases like this, one would start getting very preoccupied with health.

It can be annoying to spend too much time with a hypochondriac in real life. But in fiction, hypochondria can make for an interesting layer of character. And there really are people like that, so it can be credible, too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hotspur’s Hypochondria.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Martha Grimes

His Painting’s On the Wall*

We’ve all heard of world-famous paintings such as Picasso’s Guernica. Beyond their monetary value, there’s just something about certain pieces of artwork that capture the imagination – or at least, people’s attention. If you’ve ever stood looking at a piece of artwork, drawn to it, you know what I mean.

And artwork certainly plays its role in crime fiction. And we don’t just see it in ‘heist’ stories, either. Sometimes, a particular piece of art is central to a plot; sometimes it’s not. Either way, it can add an interesting layer to a story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, Inspector Lestrade brings Sherlock Holmes an unusual case of vandalism. It seems that two busts of Napoleon, sold by the same shop, have been smashed. Then another is found smashed, and this time, there’s also a murder. Lestrade wonders whether the culprit is some sort of madman with a fanatical hatred of Napoleon, but Holmes guesses that’s not the case. He traces the smashed busts to their origin, and, in the end, finds out why someone would want to destroy them.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Within a Wall, famous artist Alan Everard and his wife, Isobel, host a tea party to unveil his latest work: a portrait of her. It’s technically flawless, but Everard knows it doesn’t have the passion of his earlier works. Then, one of the guests discovers a painting of Everard’s daughter’s godmother (and his muse) Jane Haworth. The contrast between the two paintings shows just how much influence Jane has had on his work, and that influence has had its consequences. Admittedly, this story isn’t really as much a crime story as it is a psychological study. But it shows how one painting can play an important role in a story. I see you, fans of Five Little Pigs

Aaron Elkins’ Loot begins as Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. It seems that Pawlovsky has gotten in a new painting, and he wants Revere to tell him whether it’s valuable. Revere goes to the shop, expecting that the painting won’t be worth much. To his shock, though, it appears to be a priceless Velázquez. Revere wants to do some research on the painting, but he’s concerned for Pawlovsky’s safety if the painting is left in the shop. He asks for permission to take the painting with him while he does the research, but Pawlovsky refuses. Reluctantly, Revere leaves the painting behind. By the time he returns, Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Guilty about leaving his friend in such a dangerous situation, Revere wants to know who’s responsible for the killing. He knows that he’s not a professional detective. But he reasons that, if he can trace the painting from its last known owner to the pawn shop, he might be able to find out who the killer is. And that’s what he proceeds to do. It gets him into plenty of danger, but Revere finds out the truth.

As Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square begins, Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr of the Garda Síochána is at the scene of a murder. Antiques and art dealer William Craig has been shot, and his body has been discovered behind the building that houses his home and his shop. McGarr and his assistant, O’Shaughnessy, have just gotten started on the case when it’s discovered that one of the paintings in the shop is missing. This adds a possible motive, and McGarr wants to find out more about the painting. His wife, Noreen, works at her family’s picture gallery, and has a background in art history. So, he taps her expertise. It turns out that the research she does, and the background of that painting, prove to be important clues in this case.

An argument over a painting is an important plot point in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory Smoked Homicide. Tristan Pembroke is a wealthy beauty pageant coach, who’s as malicious and mean-spirited as she is influential. She commissions a portrait from local artist Sara Taylor. Tristan isn’t happy at all with the result, as she feels that it doesn’t do her justice. So, she refuses to pay Sara. As you can imagine, that prompts a dispute between the two. When Tristan holds a charity art auction at her home, Sara includes the painting among the pieces that will be sold. After all, she reasons, who’s going to want to buy a portrait of someone else who isn’t world-famous? At the auction, the painting prompts another argument. Later, Tristan is found murdered, and Sara becomes the prime suspect. Her mother-in-law, Lulu Taylor (the sleuth in this series) knows that Sara’s innocent, and she sets out to find out who the real killer is.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s The Gifted. Political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, and her husband, Zack, are excited when their daughter, Taylor, is invited to include some of her work in an upcoming charity art auction. Taylor is a talented, passionate artist, and this is a real chance for her. She’s already shown her parents one of the two pieces that she will contribute. The other, which she’s called BlueBoy21, is a portrait of her muse and love interest, Julian Zentner. No-one sees that painting until it’s revealed on the night of the auction. And it turns out that that piece of artwork will have tragic consequences for more than one person.

Some pieces of art are like that. Beyond any monetary value, they have influence, appeal, or influence on their own. These are just a few examples of how plot point can play out in crime fiction. I know you’ll think of others.

 

The ‘photo is of a beautiful Joan Miró sculpture that’s displayed at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, in Madrid.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).  

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bartholomew Gill, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Riley Adams