Category Archives: Gail Bowen

Speak Your Mind*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Another Note…

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

 

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
 

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

 

 

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

Everyday Things*

Everyday ThingsOne of my very top crime novels** begins this way:
 

‘Crime was out there.’
 

That line makes sense, when you think about it, especially when it comes to crime fiction. Sometimes doing the most ordinary things can get a person involved in a fictional murder. One of the first things that comes to mind is, of course, the stereotype jogger or dog-walker who discovers a body. I won’t mention those examples in this post, because they’re just too easy. Besides, there are a lot of other ordinary, everyday things people do that can get them involved in a crime, whether they want to be or not.

What could be more ordinary than looking out a window when you’re on a train? People do it all the time. But it has a sinister outcome in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). Elspeth McGillicuddy takes a train to visit her friend Miss Marple. During the trip, another train on a parallel track catches up to and then passes the train. Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look out the window into the windows of the other train – a very ordinary, even mundane thing to do. But this time, she sees a man strangling a woman. Almost everyone thinks that Mrs. McGillicuddy simply drifted off to sleep and dreamt the whole thing. But Miss Marple knows her friend isn’t fanciful. She does some of her own research and determines that the body was probably pushed off the train and likely landed on the grounds of Rutherford Hall. Knowing she herself doesn’t have an ‘in’ there, she gets a friend of hers, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to take a position at Rutherford Hall. Sure enough, a woman’s body turns up. With Lucy’s help, Miss Marple figures out who the dead woman was, why she was killed and by whom. And all of this comes from one glance out of a window.

Looking out of a window gets Maura Cody involved in a dangerous case in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. Cody is a former Roman Catholic nun who’s left the convent and started again on her own. She lives a very quiet life, and certainly doesn’t look to call a lot of attention to herself. She’s not really the ‘curtain-twitching’ type, either. But when she does happen to look out of her window, she sees something that puts her in a great deal of danger. So Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney have to try to keep her safe as they look for the murderers of banker Emmet Sweetman. As it turns out, Cody is in even more danger than anyone thought. Vincent Naylor and a group that included his brother Noel planned and carried out what was supposed to be the perfect heist. It went tragically wrong, and now Naylor wants revenge. When he suspects that Cody might have seen something, he decides to get rid of his problem.

If you’re a teacher, very little is more ordinary than planning a trip with your class, especially to a local place. But in Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, a class trip turns out to be anything but mundane for fourth-grade teacher Hildegarde Withers. She and her students have spent the morning visiting the New York Aquarium, and are gathering to leave. But one of the students notices that Miss Withers’ hatpin is missing. It’s finally found at the bottom of a flight of steps. But then, Miss Withers discovers that one of her students is not with the rest of the group. A search leads to the penguin pool, where the child is found watching the animals. Just then, a man’s body slides into the pool. That’s how Miss Withers gets involved in what turns out to be a case of murder.

Getting on a bus is another everyday sort of thing people do. How often have you ridden a bus without even thinking about it? But it’s not so ordinary in Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. One day, Emma Curtis is taking a bus home from work, as she always does. It’s another regular day for her. Also on the bus is Luke Murray. At one stop, a group of young people get on the bus and begin to bully Murray. Finally, fellow rider Jason Barnes intervenes, telling the group to leave Murray alone. For a time, things quiet down. Murray gets off the bus. So do the young people who’ve been harassing him. So does Barnes. The fight starts up again and in fact escalates. It continues all the way to Barnes’ front yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Emma now finds herself involved in what has turned out to be a case of murder, and all because she took a certain bus on a certain day.

Kate Atkinson makes use of this strategy in One Good Turn. A group of people that includes mystery writer Martin Canning is waiting to purchase tickets for an afternoon comic radio show. It’s the most ordinary thing, if you think about it – waiting to buy tickets. But it’s hardly mundane this time. As the group watches, a silver Peugeot driven by Paul Bradley is hit by a Blue Toyota. Both drivers get out of their cars and start arguing. The argument gets worse; finally, the Toyota driver brandishes a baseball bat and starts to attack Bradley. Almost instinctually, Canning, who’s never done a truly brave thing in his life, hurls his computer case at the Toyota driver, stopping him and saving Bradley’s life. Canning feels a responsibility to make sure that Bradley gets the medical help he needs, so he goes with the man to a local hospital. Before he knows it, he’s drawn into a case of fraud and multiple murder. And it all started with a simple, everyday wait for tickets.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, involvement in a murder case begins with a simple trip to a dumpster. Academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets an early-morning call from her daughter Mieka, who’s just opened a catering business. Mieka was taking some trash to the dumpster when she discovered the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin. Bernice was one of Mieka’s employees, so she feels a particular sense of responsibility. At first, the murder looks like one of a series of killings that the police have dubbed ‘the Little Flower Murders.’ But as Kilbourn and her daughter ask questions, it turns out that this murder is different…

So do be careful if you wash dishes, walk the dog, look out a bus or train window, or wait for tickets at the cinema. You never know where it all might lead…

 

 
 

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

** Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. If you haven’t read it yet, I heartily recommend it.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Gene Kerrigan, Kate Atkinson, Stuart Palmer

We’re On Safari to Stay*

School HolidaysIt’s almost time for school holidays, whether summer or winter, and the schoolchildren will soon be on break. On the one hand, it can be a lot of fun to have the kids home on holiday. There are lots of opportunities to do family things. And teachers can definitely use the opportunity to ‘recharge the batteries.’ Trust me.

But school holidays can also be frustrating and chaotic. And they do disrupt everyone’s routine. They can be good premises for a crime novel, though, since they allow for all sorts of possibilities. Here are just a few to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington, Alexander Eastley is spending the Christmas school holidays at Rutherford Hall, the home of his mother’s family, the Crackenthorpes. With him is his school friend James Stoddart-West. The boys are happy to have a break from school, and they’re old enough to want some adventure. They get more than their fill of it when a body is discovered on the property. The Crackenthorpes have hired a temporary professional housekeeper, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to help over the holidays. She does her job well, but she has another mission. Miss Marple has asked her to help investigate a possible murder that a friend saw through the window of a train. Lucy’s happy to oblige, and when she discovers the body, Alexander and James are eager to pitch in and look for clues. It’s not spoiling the novel to say that neither boy is responsible for the murder, but it’s interesting to see how they get involved in the hunt for the killer. There’s also a fun thread of wit as Alexander tries to play ‘matchmaker’ with his widowed father Bryan and Lucy.

Minette Walter’s The Breaker begins when two brothers, Daniel and Paul Spender, decide to go exploring near Chapman’s Pool, Dorset. They’re on summer holidays with their parents, and have gotten a bit bored. So they take their father’s expensive binoculars, planning to quietly return them before he notices. To their shock, they discover the body of an unknown woman on the beach. They give the alarm, and PC Nick Ingram begins the investigation. It turns out that the dead woman is Kate Sumner, whose toddler daughter Hannah has just been found wandering around in the nearby town of Poole. Ingram works with WPC Sandra Griffiths, DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed the victim, and how Hannah came to be in Poole. The Spender boys end up having quite a story to tell their friends when they return to school after their holidays…

In Gail Bowen’s The Last Good Day, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets a rare opportunity. A friend, Kevin Hynde, has invited the Kilbourn family to spend some time at his summer cottage on Lawyer’s Bay, about an hour from Regina. It’s an exclusive community, so an invitation is a prized thing. At first, all goes well. Kilbourn’s ten-year-old daughter Taylor has,
 

‘…discovered to her delight that the only other children staying at Lawyer’s Bay were two girls a year older than her, and after five minutes of squealed exclamations over shared passions, the trio had bonded as effortlessly as puppies and gone off in search of food to inhale and boys to taunt.’
 

Everything changes when one of the lawyers who is staying at Lawyer’s Bay dies of what looks like suicide. Since Kilbourn was the last to speak with the victim, she gets drawn into the investigation.

Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle and John Ceepak know all too well what it’s like when young people are on school holidays. They are police officers in Sea Haven, New Jersey, a magnet for families with,
 

‘…hyper kids who’d never let mom and dad sleep in on a Saturday…The ones who fling their forks at each other and topple sippy cups and steal their sister’s crayons so they can color in the maze on the Kidz Menu…’
 

Boyle starts out as a temporary (summer) cop, whose main job is to help direct traffic and otherwise help manage the large crowds. But murder comes to Sea Haven too, and Boyle gets drawn into some nasty cases.

James W. Fuerst’s Huge takes place during the school summer holidays in small-town 1980’s New Jersey. Twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls is just as well pleased to be done with school, as he isn’t much of a social success. He is highly intelligent though, and wants more than anything to be a detective, like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother offers him ten dollars to find out who defaced the sign at the senior facility where she lives. Huge agrees, and starts looking for answers. As he tracks down clues, Huge also learns a great deal about himself. Throughout the novel, we see what summer holidays were like at that time. We also see the challenges they posed for working parents (Huge lives with his sister and single mother, who works full-time). In fact, school holidays are still a big challenge for parents who have full-time jobs. They don’t always overlap with parents’ time off work.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988 Wanaka, where everyone is celebrating the start of school summer holidays with a school picnic at the lake. There’s plenty of food and drink, the weather is perfect, and everyone’s having a wonderful time. Then, every parent’s worst nightmare happens. The Anderson family is packing up to leave when they notice that four-year-old Gemma is missing. At first, her mother Minna simply thinks the child has wandered off somewhere, and sends her fourteen-year-old daughter Stephanie to go look for her sister. When Gemma can’t be found, everyone gets concerned. Concern turns to dread when a massive hunt turns up nothing – not even a body. Gemma is never found, and her loss haunts the Andersons. Seventeen years later, Stephanie has nearly finished her preparation to be a psychiatrist. Now she lives and works in Dunedin, and has tried to put her life together as best she can. Then she gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, who tells of the terrible disappearance of her own sister Gracie years earlier. Her story is eerily similar to the Andersons’ story, so Stephanie decides, against her better judgement, to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out what happened to both missing girls. Her journey takes her back to Wanaka, and helps her make sense of what happened to her own family.

There’s also Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. In 1978, Angela Buchanan gets her parents’ very reluctant permission to spend part of her summer holidays with her aunt and uncle, Doug and Barbara Griffin and their children Michael ‘Mick’ and Jane. In some ways, it’s a typical summer, where the kids get bored and look for things to do. For Angela, Mick and some of Mick’s friends, the solution is going to a nearby drugstore to play pinball and spend time together. Jane wants to be accepted in this group, but she’s two years younger, a bit awkward, and of course, Mick’s younger ‘tagalong’ sister. Still, she does go with the group a few times. Then one terrible day, Angela disappears and is later found strangled, with a scarf around her head. At first, there’s a question of whether Mick or one of his friends might be guilty. But there are no clear leads in that direction. Then, a few months later, another young girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, is also found strangled. Now the press is full of stories of ‘the Sydney Strangler.’ The killer is never caught. Years later, journalist Erin Fury decides to do a documentary on the effect of murder on families left behind. She interviews the members of the Griffin family, as well as Jane’s husband Ron. As she does, we find out the real truth about Angela.

Lots of young people look forward to their school holidays (did you ever count down the days yourself?). But they aren’t always peaceful or fun-filled…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Surfin’ USA, with lyrics from Brian Wilson set to the music of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Gail Bowen, Minette Walters, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

I’ll Be Watching You*

FollowingIt’s very scary to feel that you’re being followed. In a way, it’s even scarier if the person you think is following you hasn’t done anything obviously threatening. In that case, at least you could let the authorities know. That sense that someone might be after you, if I may be that melodramatic, sometimes seems to heighten your senses. It also can add a very effective layer of suspense to a story.

I’m not talking here of what most of us think of as stalking. Telephone calls, verbal threats, etc. can at least be reported to the police. But simply following? That’s harder to pin down as dangerous, and that’s what makes it all the more tense.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Crooked Man, for instance, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the murder of Colonel James Barclay. The evidence suggests strongly that the victim’s wife Nancy is responsible. The couple had a violent quarrel shortly before he was murdered, and no-one else really seems to have a motive. But the Barclays were a very happy couple up until that quarrel, and Holmes becomes convinced that the police have got the wrong suspect. Then he gets a clue from a friend of Nancy’s. The two had gone out the evening of the murder and, for a time, were being followed by a man who limped and had a crooked back. He did nothing threatening, but it was still eerie. He turned out to be someone from Nancy’s past, and their chance meeting changed everything.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her new husband Simon. The trip is only really marred by one thing: Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort seems to be following them. Wherever they go, there she is. Linnet is deeply upset by this, in part because she has a sense of guilt about it. Simon was Jackie’s fiancé before he met Linnet, and Jackie blames her former friend for the breakup with Simon. The whole thing is so unnerving for Linnet that when she finds out Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, she asks him to stop Jackie. Poirot makes the point that authorities often do in cases like this: there’ve been no clear threats, and Jackie is free to go where she wishes, especially in public places. So there’s nothing he can do. This upsets Linnet even more. Poirot finally agrees to talk to Jackie, but he won’t work in Linnet’s pay. When he follows through on this, Jackie refuses to listen. So when Linnet is shot, Jackie becomes a prime suspect, until it’s shown she couldn’t have committed the crime. Now Poirot has to look elsewhere for the murderer. We may not think of Linnet as a particularly sympathetic character, but it’s easy to understand how much being followed has shaken her.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart, who move with their two children to the quiet community of Stepford, Connecticut. All seems well at first, and everyone settles in. Then, Joanna makes friends with Bobbie Markowe. Little by little, Bobbie begins to suspect that something strange and scary is going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t believe her. But it’s not very long before she herself notices some unsettling things. In one scene, for instance, Walter invites some friends over for drinks. One of those friends, Dale Coba, seems to be following Joanna, and it unnerves her. Still, he doesn’t directly threaten her, so there’s nothing much she can do. The same sort of thing happens one night when she’s trying to take some night ‘photos (she is a photographer by background). Again, there’s nothing specific she can identify, so she can’t do anything about what’s happening. In fact, she begins to wonder if she’s the one who’s crazy. It turns out though, that she’s very sane indeed.

In Gail Bowen’s A Colder Kind of Death, political scientist/academic Joanne Kilbourn has to relive the murder of her husband Ian. He was killed one night when he stopped to help Kevin Tarpley and Maureen Gault, a young couple whose car had broken down. Tarpley killed Ian when he refused to give the young people his car. Tarpley has been in prison since he committed the crime. One day, he’s out exercising in the prison yard when he is shot. After his funeral, Maureen shows up unexpectedly at the Kilbourn home. This is unnerving of course, but Maureen doesn’t do anything that’s clearly a threat. Then she shows up at Joanne Kilbourn’s office. Again, she is unpleasant, but not outright threatening. So there’s not much that can be done. Then, she too is murdered. At first, Joanne is the logical suspect. In part to clear her name, she works to find out who killed both young people, and in the end, she finds out the truth about her husband’s murder.

We get a different perspective on following someone around in Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. Fabien Delorme has just learned that his wife Sylvie was killed in a car crash. As if that’s not enough, he also learns that she was not alone. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who was also killed. Delorme is almost more upset that Sylvie was unfaithful than he is at her death, since their marriage hadn’t been strong for quite some time. Still, he feels a sense of loss. He also becomes curious about Arnoult’s widow Martine. He decides to follow her and find out more about her. He does nothing threatening; at first he simply spends a lot of time in a café near her home. Then he follows her to a ticket office where she and her friend Madeleine pick up tickets for a holiday in Majorca. Delorme gets tickets himself and follows the two there. Martine isn’t upset about Delorme; in fact, she begins a relationship with him. And that’s when things begin to spin out of control for both of them…

The real action in Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder begins when Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel, return to their home on the Swedish island of Fårö. They’ve been away for a couple of months, and have sub-let their home to earn some extra money. When they arrive, they see that the tenants have made a huge mess. They’re especially unnerved to find that some of their family photographs have been deliberately disfigured. Although it certainly seems to be a case of horrible tenants, the couple call the police as a precaution. Fredrik Bronan and his team take the case. They promise to look into matters, mostly to get the damage repaired. Still, the ruined ‘photos bother Malin in particular. She tries to put the matter out of her mind, until one day, she drops her children off at their schools, only to see a strange woman watching her. It’s not someone she knows; it’s not even one of the other parents she’s seen before. Still, she’s concerned she might be imagining things, and doesn’t do much about it. Besides, what can she do? The woman has the right to be on the street. Not long afterwards, Malin is in local supermarket when she gets the sense that she’s being followed. No-one’s there, but she thinks she’s heard someone. The employees can’t do much to help, and by the time Malin gets outside, whoever it was (if it was anyone) is gone. Then, other, more menacing, things happen. Now it’s clear that someone is after the Andersson/Kjellander family. Bronan and his team have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, if they can, before real harm comes to anyone. To do that, they have to uncover some deeply-hidden, very dark secrets.

It really is eerie to think that someone is following you. Even if it’s not true, it can prickle the skin. And if it is, especially if that person isn’t doing anything specifically threatening, it can be completely unnerving. Little wonder it can also be so effective in crime novels.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Police’s Every Breath You Take.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Håkan Östlundh, Ira Levin, Pascal Garnier