Category Archives: H.R.F. Keating

So Hoist Up the John B. Sails*

voyagesOne of literature’s very interesting plots is what Christopher Booker has called the voyage and return. Booker’s work has its critics, but it is interesting to see how journeys (whether figurative or literal) can change people. We certainly see this sort of structure in crime fiction, and that makes sense when you consider all of the things that can happen on a voyage, no matter how you conceive of that term.

For example, there’s quite a literal voyage and return in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. After ten years of service as a paid companion, Katherine Grey inherits a fortune when her employer dies. She decides to use some of the money to travel, and chooses Nice as her destination (she has distant relatives who live there). As she’s taking the famous Blue Train through France, she meets wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who has her own reasons for taking the train. During the trip, Ruth is murdered, and Katherine is drawn in to the case. Hercule Poirot is taking the same train, and he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why. Katherine returns to her village of St. Mary Mead, and takes up another position, but she’s not the same person as when she left. As Poirot points out, she’s no longer an onlooker to life; she takes an active part in it.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, and is quite accustomed to a certain routine in his life. One day, he discovers that the dog belonging to the people next door is dead. Its owners think he’s responsible, but Christopher knows he isn’t. So, he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. The trail leads him to several unexpected places, and when he returns, he’s not the same person he was. He still has autism, but he has discovered several important things about himself.

H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case serves as a prequel to his series featuring Mumbai police detective Ganesh Ghote. In this novel, Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. His supervisor asks him to travel to Mahableshwar and look into a case of suicide on behalf of a friend. It seems Robert Dawkins’ wife Iris killed herself, and he (Dawkins) wants to know why. Since Dawkins is a friend of Ghote’s boss, Ghote feels he has no choice but to look into the matter, although his wife, Protima, is about to give birth to their first child. So, he goes to Mahableshwar and begins to ask questions. He finds that there are reasons for which Iris Dawkins might have wanted to take her own life. Still, the clues don’t add up, and Ghote slowly begins to believe that she was murdered. Now, he has to work out who is responsible. He discovers the truth, and gains some confidence in himself along the way. When he returns to Mumbai, we see that he’s done some maturing, and has a different relationship with his boss than he did at the beginning.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue is the first of her novels to feature Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan. In that novel, Morgan travels from Vancouver, where she teaches at the university, to Nice. There, she’ll attend a symposium and deliver a paper on behalf of a colleague who’s had an accident and can’t travel. One afternoon, she’s at an outdoor café when she has a chance encounter with Alistair Townsend, a former employer. Among other things, he persuades her (mostly against her will) to attend a birthday party he’s hosting for his wife, Tamsin. During the course of the party, Townsend suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. The French police investigate, and Morgan finds herself one of the suspects. Mostly to clear her own name and be free to return to Vancouver, Morgan begins to ask questions. Each in a different way, Morgan and the police work to find out who killed Townsend, and they have several suspects. In the end, Morgan discovers the truth and goes back to Vancouver. But she’s not the same person she was at the beginning of the novel. And we see that this experience will change her life in more ways than she thought.

Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide is the story of Samantha ‘Sam’ Bretton. Her father Allan ‘Tug’ is the owner of a Brisbane-based fishing trawler called Sea Mistress, and the Brettons depend on the income that comes from good catches. Tug is suspected of murdering Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. He claims he’s not guilty and Sam believes him. But he’s under a cloud of suspicion. What’s more, he broke his leg in the incident surrounding McKay’s death. So, he can’t take Sea Mistress out. After some effort, Sam convinces her father to let her skipper the trawler in his place. Meanwhile, Brisbane cop Chayse Jarrett has been assigned to find out the truth about the McKay murder. He goes undercover and gets a job as deck hand on Sea Mistress, hoping to find out whether Tug Bretton is guilty of murder, and whether he might be connected to the drugs smuggling trade. The trawler goes out, with both Sam and Chayse looking to catch a killer. And the experience changes both of them. It turns out that McKay’s murder is connected with a much bigger case than it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Newly-minted psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. At first, they don’t make any progress together. But very slowly, Elisabeth starts to talk about herself. And Stephanie finds that her client’s story is hauntingly similar to her own. It seems that years ago, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Gracie, was abducted. No trace of her was ever found, and the experience scarred the whole family. Stephanie lost her own sister, Gemma, seventeen years earlier in a similar way. When she hears Elisabeth’s story, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest. She travels from Dunedin to her home town of Wanaka to try to find out who wreaked so much havoc on her family and on the Clark family. Stephanie does find the answers she’s seeking. She also goes through some real personal changes.

And that’s the thing about some voyages. They can take people to places they hadn’t imagined. And they almost always change the voyager.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the traditional Bahamas folk song, The John B Sails. You might be familiar with the Kingston Trio’s recording of it, or that of the Beach Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, H.R.F. Keating, Mark Haddon, Paddy Richardson, Sandy Curtis

Anyone For Tennis*

TennisAh, tennis! For many years it was one of those genteel sports, where players and coaches were supposed to behave politely. But if you’ve ever played tennis, you know that it can be extremely competitive. And for those with real talent, the international tennis circuit can be lucrative, so there’s a lot at stake.

With all of that competitiveness and money (not to mention the fame) on the line, it shouldn’t be surprising that tennis features in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage, we are introduced to Frank Dorrance and his fiancée, Brenda White. Frank has made it clear that his main purpose in marrying Brenda is access to the money she will inherit if they marry. But Frank has a rival, Hugh Rowlands, an impoverished solicitor who’s genuinely in love with Brenda. One day, Frank and Brenda attend a tennis party, where Frank manages to alienate just about everyone there. When it’s over, they leave the court. After the party, Brenda finds her fiancé murdered on the same court. The only footprints on the wet, sandy court belong to Frank, so there’s very little evidence to suggest how and by whom he might have been killed. But there’s no lack of suspects, as the victim was arrogant and obnoxious, and had made many enemies. Dr. Gideon Fell gets involved in the case, and finds that he has to clear both Hugh and Brenda, since both had motives.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories involve tennis. In Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Jennifer Sutcliffe, who is an avid tennis player. She’s a new student at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school, and soon makes friends with another new student, Julia Upjohn, and both enjoy their shared interest in tennis. Late one night, the school’s games mistress, Grace Springer, is shot in the new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Julia’s mother happens to be friends with Maureen Summerhayes, an acquaintance of Hercule Poirot’s, whom fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead will remember. When she finds an important clue to the murder, Julia uses that connection to visit Poirot. He returns with her to Meadowbank, and investigates the events there.  You’re absolutely right, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train, and of Evil Under the Sun.

In Harlan Coben’s Drop Shot, sports agent Myron Bolitar and his friend, Win Lockwood, are attending a U.S. Open tennis event, where Bolitar’s client, Duane Richwood, is competing. Richwood is an up-and-coming tennis star from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, ready to take the tennis world by storm, as the saying goes. During the game, Bolitar and Lockwood head to the food court outside the stadium, where they discover the body of former tennis great Valerie Simpson. For a number of reasons, Bolitar has an interest in finding out who killed the victim. First, it’s possible that his client might have known her. If there is a connection between the two, then Richwood could be a suspect. Second, Bolitar himself had been getting calls from Simpson, who wanted to resurrect her career. And it turns out that Lockwood referred her to him. With all of these connections hitting close to home, Bolitar decides to find out the truth behind the murder.

There’s a tennis angle in Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, too. Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara met in a Michigan prison, where both were serving time for stealing cars. They’ve become friends, and have decided to join forces to plan a potentially very lucrative crime. They’re going to kidnap Margaret ‘Mickey’ Dawson, wife of wealthy Detroit developer Frank Dawson. He’s in a position to pay a large ransom, and Robbie and Gara don’t think they’ll have any trouble from Mickey. She’s a devoted wife, and dedicated ‘tennis mum’ to thirteen-year-old Bo, who’s shown real talent on the court. But this plan soon goes wrong. First, Dawson has little interest in paying ransom. He’s got a girlfriend in the Bahamas, and was planning to divorce his wife, anyway.  There are other complications, too (no spoilers here!). As the novel goes on, we see that Mickey comes into her own, showing herself to be far from the ‘meek little housewife’ she seems to be at first. Among other things, this novel gives readers a peek at the perspective of the ‘sports parent.’

Many people know H.R.F. Keating best from his Inspector Ganesh Ghote novels. But he wrote several other novels too, including a series featuring Detective Superintendent Harriet Martens of the Greater Birchester Police. In one plot thread of A Detective in Love, the second in that series, Martens is seconded to the Leven Vales Police when U.K. tennis star Bubbles Xingara is stabbed to death during a morning training run. The victim was top-seeded at Wimbledon, so there’s more than just possible personal angle to this murder. What’s more, her fame and her reputation as a ‘media darling’ means that this case is going to get international exposure. So Martens will have to do everything right.

I don’t think I could do a post on tennis in crime fiction without making reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. As fans of the film will know, Hitchcock turns Guy Haines from an architect (his profession in the novel) to a professional tennis player. And there’s a very famous scene in the film that takes place at a tennis match in which Haines competes. Those who know the film will know exactly which scene I mean. If you haven’t seen this adaptation, I recommend it. But then, I admit to bias, as I like Hitchcock’s work very much.

See what I mean? Tennis seems like such a civil sort of game, where everyone is well-behaved. But under the surface? Hmm…. I’m not so sure.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Elmore Leonard, H.R.F. Keating, Harlan Coben, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Highsmith

I’ve Been to Bombay*

mumbai_banner-3Mumbai is one of the largest cities in the world (population: approximately 12 million people). It’s a city of great wealth and beauty, millennia of history, and one of the world’s largest film-making and commercial hubs. It’s also a city of appalling poverty, crowds, and, sometimes, conflict. For many people, it’s an exotic place, too. And of course there are gorgeous beaches, fine restaurants, and more.

With all of these contrasts, and with its long and rich history, it’s little wonder that Mumbai has also been the setting for plenty of crime fiction. There’s not space enough in this one post for me to mention all of the novels and series set in Mumbai; here are just a few.

For the crime fiction fan, one of the classic series set in Mumbai is H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote series. Inspector Ghote is a thoughtful, almost philosophical sort of detective who carefully thinks out the implications of what he does. He sees both sides (and in some cases, more than two sides) of situations, and tries to do the best he can in sometimes morally ambiguous situations. For instance, in The Iciest Sin, Ghote is assigned to find out if Dolly Daruwala is an extortionist. To that end, he hides in her apartment to see what he can learn. That’s how he happens to be on the scene when she is murdered. As though that fact weren’t enough, Ghote knows who the murderer is. He’s reluctant to turn the killer in; at the same time, he knows that this person is a murderer. As it happens, Ghote is seen leaving the victim’s apartment. So he’s drawn further into this case when he is targeted by a blackmailer. It turns out that solving this one murder draws Ghote into a web of extortion, fraud, and plenty of moral and philosophical dilemmas.

In Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders, readers get a look at Mumbai’s upper class. Dr. Hilla Driver has recently inherited a large villa (and a considerable fortune) from an uncle. So she decides to host a house party. In part, of course, it’s to show her guests the home. It’s also to celebrate her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. Hilla wants the party to be extra-special and unforgettable. So with input from her cook, Tarok Ghosh, Hilla decides to make the event a ‘foodie weekend,’ with special meals from all over India, and a capstone event: a seven-course gourmet meal. Hilla is well connected, so the guest list includes several celebrities, as well as some of her well-off friends. It also includes retired police detective Lalli and her niece. Everyone arrives, and at first, things go smoothly enough. Then, on the night of the special seven-course meal, Ghosh makes it clear that he knows at least one secret about each of the guests. Later that night, he is killed. Then, another body is discovered. Now, Lalli and her niece work together to find out who wanted to commit the murders.

Ask a group of people what they think of when they think of Mumbai, and at least a few will mention Bollywood. That’s not surprising, considering that Mumbai is home to India’s highly successful and prolific film industry. So it’s not surprising that Bollywood features in murder mysteries, too. For example, in Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood, we are introduced to famous director Nikhil Kapoor. One night, he’s at a party where he announces that he knows someone in the group has committed murder, and will do so again. Two nights later, he dies of electric shock. His wife, famous actress Mallika Kapoor, dies of a drug overdose. At first, both deaths are put down to tragic accident. But it’s soon shown that they were murders. Now, Senior Inspector Senior Inspector Hossein Sheriyar Khan investigates, and finds that this case is much more complex than he had imagined at first.

In K.D. Calamur’s Murder in Mumbai, Inspector Vijay Gaikwad takes on a very difficult case when American-born Liz Barton is killed, and her body left in a dump. The victim was the CEO of Mohini Resources, a well-known mining company, so the case is made much of in the media. And for disgraced journalist Jay Ganesh, it could be the story to salvage his career. So, each in a different way, and for different reasons, he and Gaikwad work to find out the truth. As it turns out, there are several possibilities in this case. For one thing, there’s the victim’s cheating husband, who could have found out that she might not have been exactly faithful, herself. She’d made several business enemies, too. And there’s the fact that Mohini’s been the target of activists who’ve been protesting its methods. It’s not going to be an easy case to solve, and it’s not made better by the fact that Gaikwad will need to wade through bureaucracy and corruption to get answers.

There are plenty of novels, too, that feature travel to Mumbai. For example, in Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride), we meet Gunder Jormann, who lives a quiet life in the Norwegian town of Elvestad. Jormann is no longer young. But he’s in good health, he’s a steady worker, and he’s presentable. He believes he’d make a good husband, and decides to find himself a wife. What’s more, he decides to go to Mumbai to do it. His sister Marie and the other people in Elvestad are all surprised at this sudden decision, but Jormann doesn’t let their opinions stop him. Once he arrives in Mumbai, Jormann settles into his hotel. At a café where he eats, he meets Poona Bai, a waitress who works there. They strike up a friendship that leads to more, and within a couple of weeks, Jormann asks her to marry him. She agrees, and the arrangement is that he’ll return to Norway, and she’ll follow as soon as she finishes up the details of her life in India. Jormann goes back to Elvestad to wait. Soon enough, the day comes when his bride is to travel to Norway. But she never makes it to his home; the day after her scheduled arrival, her body is found in a field near Elevestad. Now, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, investigate to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim.

And then there’s Shamini Flint’s A Curious Indian Cadaver. In that novel, Inspector Singh, who lives and works in Singapore, has been on sick leave, but he’s getting ‘cabin fever.’ So at his wife’s request (and anyone who’s read this series will know what I mean by that), he agrees to join her on a trip to Mumbai to attend the wedding of her niece, Ashu Kaur. Things start to go very wrong when the bride disappears on the day before the wedding. Then, there’s a murder. Now, Mrs. Singh’s family falls under suspicion. She wants very much both to help her family get answers, and to clear everyone’s name if possible. So she makes it clear that her husband will have to get involved and find out who the killer is.

Mumbai is a lovely city, full of history, natural beauty, and plenty of find food and cinema. But peaceful? Not so much. Which Mumbai-based mysteries have you enjoyed?

Thanks, Maharashtra Tourism, for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bel Canto’s Bombay.

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Filed under H.R.F. Keating, K.D. Calamur, Kalpana Swaminathan, Karin Fossum, Shadaab Amjad Khan, Shamini Flint

I Keep My Visions to Myself*

cards close to the chestOne of the many balances that crime writers consider is how much to share with readers. As the sleuth gets information and forms theories, is it better to let readers in on that thought process, or is it better for the sleuth to ‘hold the cards close to the chest?’ On the one hand, most people agree it’s important to ‘play fair’ with readers and give them the information they need to make sense of the mystery. On the other hand, many readers enjoy being challenged and not always knowing what the sleuth is thinking and what her or his theories are. And readers want to remain engaged in a story; so if the author is going to reveal the sleuth’s thinking process, there need to be other aspects of the story that keep readers invested.

Different authors have taken different approaches to this question. In some cases, the sleuth is quite tight-lipped about what she or he is thinking until ‘the big reveal.’ For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. By the end of a given story, we know what the clues are that led Holmes to a given deduction. And fans will know that Holmes is a stickler for following evidence in a scientific way. But he doesn’t reveal his theory until he’s ready. In The Sign of the Four, for instance, Watson asks about Holmes’ theory about certain footprints. Holmes’ reply is:
 

‘You know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results.’
 

Watson is no mental slouch; still, he never fails to be surprised by Holmes’ deductions. Neither do we.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a bit like that too. As he himself says, he doesn’t always look for things such as cigarette ash or unusual shoe prints. But like Holmes, he tends to keep his theories to himself. He says it’s because he may be wrong, and doesn’t want to sway anyone else if he is. But in Death on the Nile, he hints at another reason for which he doesn’t reveal his theories until the last moment:
 

‘‘I like to say, ‘See how clever is Hercule Poirot!’’
 

Even die-hard Poirot fans will admit that he does like to be the admired focus of attention. Christie fans will also know that Miss Marple isn’t always exactly forthcoming about her theories either. She offers hints here and there, but seldom explains herself before the ‘big reveal.’

Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver is another sleuth who doesn’t share much about her thought process as a story goes on. She listens to her clients, makes suggestions, does her own investigation and the like. But we often don’t know exactly what her theory is until she’s ready to explain it all. There are a lot of other fictional sleuths who take a similar approach (I know, I know, fans of Ellery Queen).

Keeping one’s cards close to the chest can be effective in a story. But readers can also be drawn in when they have the opportunity to follow along as the sleuth works things out. This allows for certain plot twists and other events when the sleuth makes the occasional mistake. After all, sleuths are only human…

There are a lot of examples of this approach. One is Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series. Marconi is a detective with the New South Wales Police. As she investigates cases, she frequently talks over her ideas with her police partners Dennis Orchard and, later, Murray Shakespeare. Fans of this series will know that it also features paramedics who figure in some way or other into each plot. Howell shares their thoughts as well. But Marconi is sometimes wrong, and in any case, isn’t privy to everything. So Howell can build suspense without having Marconi keep her theories to herself.

Readers are also ‘in on’ the way Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace thinks. And so are his colleagues. As he investigates murders, he often shares ideas with his team-mates, particularly his second-in-command, Glenn Branson. The tension is built in these novels in part because the reader also knows some things that the detectives don’t know. We aren’t told everything of course, but James shares the points of view of several characters. This strategy gives the reader some omniscience and allows for suspense (i.e. ‘Is Grace going to find out that X knows about Y, and is lying about it?’). So even though we know what Grace and his teammates are thinking, there are still plot twists in the series.

One of the more interesting examples of sharing what detectives are thinking is the case of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay/Mumbai Police. Ghote is a reflective police officer who often mulls over things. For instance, at the beginning of Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg, he’s sent to a small town to investigate a fifteen-year-old murder as quietly as possible. This mission concerns an Eminent Figure of such high rank that it’s thought Ghote ought to use some sort of guise, rather than go as a police officer. The Eminent Figure instructs Ghote to go as a salesman for a new chicken-feed product. Here’s what Ghote thinks about it:
 

‘Ghote had rejected the notion of explaining to the Eminent Figure that…in the remote part of the state to which he was being sent chickens were just one more set of scavengers feeding where they could on what they could find.
After all, one did have a duty to feed one’s family. There could be no gainsaying that.
But he hoped profoundly, now that he had arrived, that the disguise the bold, orange box provided would be sufficient.’
 

Ghote ponders his cases themselves in the same way. So in that sense, he doesn’t hold the cards particularly close to his chest as far as the reader is concerned. At the same time, there are enough surprises that the reader doesn’t know everything right away.

The decision on whether to have a sleuth hold a lot back or not arguably depends on the kind of story the author is creating and the sort of suspense the author wants to build. What do you think about this strategy? Does it bother you when the sleuth holds the cards very closely? Do you like to know what the sleuth is thinking the whole time? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this matter?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, H.R.F. Keating, Katherine Howell, Patricia Wentworth, Peter James

When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down*

(FILES) West Berliners crowd in front ofThere are certain ‘watershed’ moments in time that change everything. They force a sort of paradigm shift that’s thrilling and exhilarating, but at the same time can be nerve-wracking. Everything people have known is now different, and it can be frightening to conceive of a new order, no matter how desperately the old order needed to be changed. I’m sure we could all think of examples of those major changes throughout history. I’ve only space here for a few of them; I hope they’ll suffice.

The old social order in the US for many generations was institutionalised racism. And even in places where there weren’t laws mandating it, there was often de facto segregation. Beginning in the 1940s, though, those walls started to fall. First it was Major League Baseball. Then it was the US military. And bit by bit more change happened. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought the issue to the forefront of the national conversation. The paradigm began to shift, and brought with it a whole new social order. Does this mean racism is over? Of course not. There’s still racism, and there’s still awkwardness about race, and those things make having a national conversation about it difficult. We don’t know what kind of a new social order will develop; it’s only been fifty years and we have quite a ways to go. But the end of de jure segregation in the US was a watershed moment in history. Speaking strictly for myself, the moment was captured when Barack Obama took the Oath of Office as the 44th US President. No matter what you think about him, his politics, etc.. (This isn’t really about politics anyway), it changed the rules.

We see that watershed captured in a lot of crime fiction. I’ll just share one instance. In Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a missing Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a group of hippies, so Rawlins begins his search with those people. He hears that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about them so he makes contact with her and arranges to meet her at a restaurant. While they’re there, something happens that surprises Rawlins; here’s his observation about it:

 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’

 

The paradigm shift away from the old order may not be complete yet, but Rawlins’ moment of happy surprise is obvious.

In 1947, India became independent. As you’ll know, the independence movement had been building for some time, but it culminated with the raising of the flag of India in August of that year. It was a joyful, exhilarating time. It was also a time of awkwardness and change, as all watersheds are. There was a whole new paradigm and India had a whole new course to chart, as the saying goes. That’s captured just a bit in H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. In that novel, which takes place in the early 1960s, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector with the Bombay Police and is hoping to take some much-needed time off with his pregnant wife Protima. Instead, he is sent to the town of Mahableshwar to look into the apparent suicide of Iris Dawkins, whose husband is a friend of Ghote’s boss Sir Rustom Engineer. Ghote’s job is to find out what drove the victim to kill herself. When he arrives and starts asking questions though, he discovers that this isn’t as straightforward a case as he thought. It takes time, but little by little, he finds out the truth about what happened to Iris. One of the threads in this novel is the changing dynamic between Anglo-Indians and Indians without a British background. The rules have changed, and the social order is different now. This makes for some awkwardness as Ghote investigates (after all, he’s investigating a lot of White people). India’s independence is only 67 years old as I write this. It’s hard to see what sort of country will emerge as India evolves. But those choices are India’s to make.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison on South Africa’s Robben Island. That iconic image of him leaving the prison is etched on many people’s memories. And it marked a watershed moment in history. The social order imposed by apartheid (and by common consent even before those laws) was changed. The rules everyone had lived by for a very long time no longer structured people’s lives. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series captures neatly the world of South Africa during the apartheid years. When apartheid ended in the early 1990s, this opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for the country. This paradigm shift meant that the dynamic among Afrikaners, English, Blacks, Indians and others within the country would have to change, and that hasn’t been easy. Of course, it’s only been twenty years as I write this. If you read the work of Deon Meyer, Roger Smith or Jassy Mackenzie, it’s clear that the new social order, whatever it will eventually be, is still evolving. But with that uncertainty has also been the excitement and joy for millions of people of having their futures in their own hands.

As I post this, today marks the 25th anniversary of another watershed: the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. From just after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and its allies had been engaged in a Cold War (which blew hot more than once) with the US, the UK and their allies. Millions of people had never known any other kind of social reality. There was a certain structure to life, and for most people, the concept of living in any other way was unimaginable. When the wall came down though, this event changed everything. It wasn’t a sudden moment of change; pressure had been building in Eastern Europe for democracy or at least for autonomy from the then-Soviet Union (as an example, just look at the Gdansk-based Solidarity movement of the 1980s). And even in the Soviet Union itself, pressure had been growing for personal freedom and for a move towards democracy. But that moment, when the wall was breached and then officially opened, marked a paradigm shift. And when the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the countries of Eastern Europe (to say nothing of the former Soviet states) had a whole new social order to create.

That new reality hasn’t been easy. Anya Lipska addresses that very issue in her novels featuring DC Natalie Kershaw and Janusz Kiszka. Kiszka is Polish, a veteran of the Gdansk uprising and movement towards Polish independence. The new Poland isn’t always to his liking; it’s not as uniquely Polish as he’d prefer, now that it’s so easy to interact with the world. Kiszka lives in London, where he sees even more the impact on the Polish community of integration with the rest of the world. But at the same time, he wouldn’t want the old order restored.

We also see some of the uncertainty in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector and Ian Rankin’s Exit Music. In all of those novels (and there are many others), we see for instance the rise of the Russian and Eastern European Mobs as the economies of Russia and Eastern Europe evolve. We also see how the political processes in those countries have changed as the sociopolitical paradigm has shifted. None of this has been easy.

But (and here’s the important thing), those processes and those changes are now in the hands of the people most directly affected by them. Of course the choices aren’t always pleasant, but there are choices. There are challenges and difficulties, but there are also options and opportunities that were never possible. That’s what watersheds are all about, really: challenges, but wonderful possibilities at the same time.

On this anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, my thoughts are with those who gave their lives to make those opportunities possible.

ps. I wish I had been there to see the wall actually opened. I wasn’t, but Time magazine was. Thank you, Time, for this ‘photo.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp and George Green’s Crumblin’ Down.

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Filed under Anya Lipska, Deon Meyer, H.R.F. Keating, Ian Rankin, Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn, Margaret Truman, Robin Cook, Roger Smith, Walter Mosley