Category Archives: Håkan Nesser

It’s Just Apartment House Rules*

Apartment BuildingsFlats, apartments, whatever you call them, can be an attractive alternative to home ownership, especially if you don’t have a whole lot of money. Even if you are doing well financially, living in an apartment often means you don’t have chores such as house painting, grass cutting and the like. And, depending on where you live, you’re not responsible for most repairs, either.

Of course, the experience of living in an apartment can be miserable if your landlord/lady or the management company isn’t professional and responsible. And you live at close quarters with other people, not all of whom may be pleasant.

But apartment buildings can be very effective contexts for crime fiction. People get to know things about each other when they live in the same building. And some apartment communities are more transient, which makes for all sorts of possibilities for hidden pasts and other secrets. It’s little wonder, then, that we see apartment buildings going up all over the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick, a young woman who shares a London flat with Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. One day, she visits Hercule Poirot, telling him that she may have committed a murder. However, she leaves before she even gives him her name, since she says he’s ‘too old’ to be of help. Poirot finds out that his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver, knows the young woman; and, armed with her name, Poirot tries to find her to learn more about this possible murder. So does Mrs. Oliver. But before they can find out the truth about it, Norma disappears. Neither of her flat-mates knows where she is, and her family isn’t any more helpful. Eventually, though, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver learn the truth about the murder and Norma’s part in it. And it turns out that the apartment building in which she lives holds important clues.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, who lives in a Copenhagen apartment building. As the novel begins, she is attending the funeral of ten-year-old Isaac Christiansen, who, so the police say, tragically fell from the building’s roof. Like Smilla, Isaac was a Greenlander, so she felt a sort of bond with him, and is drawn to the roof where he fell. As she looks at the patterns in the snow, Smilla begins to wonder just how accidental the fall really was. So she starts to ask questions. Her search for the truth leads Smilla back to Greenland, and to something much bigger than just the death of one young boy.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlings owns three Los Angeles apartment buildings, including the Magnolia Street Apartments. Even though he’s the actual owner, he does the maintenance work in the building, and keeps a very low profile, letting someone else collect the rent. That way, he can have time for his other work, which we learn in A Red Death is
 

‘…the business of favors.’
 

He doesn’t have an official PI license, but he does have a good reputation for being able to solve problems and find people who don’t want to be found. And he knows everyone in the building, too. Most people there think of him as the handyman, and that’s how he likes it.

At the beginning of Val McDermid’s A Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar and fledgling academic Jane Gresham is living in a London council flat – not a luxurious place to be. It’s what she can afford, though, and she’s doing her best to move on in her academic career. She’s made a sort of friend in thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole, who lives in the same building. That’s what living at close quarters can do. Tenille is extremely bright, and Jane sees in her true potential in literature and writing. But Tenille has a terrible home situation. The first part of this novel has a strong focus on life in council flats. Then, Jane hears that a body has surfaced in a bog in her native Lake District. It is possible that the body may be that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. If it is, then it’s possible that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island as has always been believed. And if that’s true, he may have told his story to his good friend Wordsworth, which could mean there’s an unpublished manuscript out there somewhere. If it exists, that manuscript could be exactly what Jane needs to get her career going, so she goes to stay with her parents in their Lake District home to look into the matter. Meanwhile, one night after a tragic incident, Tenille leaves her home, too, and ends up in the Lake District. Her presence there plays an important role as Jane gets involved in a web of murder and false leads to try to find the manuscript she is convinced must exist.

There’s an interesting use of an apartment building in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. Waldemar Leverkuhn finds out that a lottery ticket he went in on with friends has come out the big winner. So he goes out with those friends to celebrate. Late that night, he is murdered in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate. Of course, the victim’s wife Marie-Louise comes in for her share of suspicion, but she claims she wasn’t home the night of the murder. The team members also speak to the other people who live in the same apartment building as the Leverkuhns, and it’s interesting to learn how much they know about each other. People know who’s been in and out, who does what, and so on. Despite that, though, the investigating team doesn’t get very far at first. Eventually, though, they link Leverkuhn’s death to the events that led to it.

Of course, no discussion of apartment buildings in crime fiction would really be complete without a mention of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Chapman is a baker, who lives and has her shop in a large Melbourne apartment building called Insula. As the series goes on, we get to know the other people who live in the building. They each contribute to the atmosphere of the place, and they all care about each other. They may not be related to the other residents, but the people of Insula have formed a sort of family of their own.

Apartment buildings can have that sort of effect. Of course, they can also be eerie places. That’s why we see so many of them in crime fiction – much more than I can show in one post (I know, I know, fans of Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall). After all, do you really know what the person living next door, above you, or below you is really like?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Høeg, Robert Rotenberg, Val McDermid, Walter Mosley

Or Have You Moved Away?*

Mobile CommunitiesI live in the sort of community where people tend to come and go. Many families don’t stay for more than a few years, if even for that long. In such communities, you don’t often get to know the other people who live there very well. In fact, you may not even be aware that a couple or a family has moved in – until you see them moving out.

That kind of community can be difficult when it comes to investigating a crime. That’s partly because the residents don’t really know one another, and partly because people can be long gone before a crime is even discovered – if it is. But with today’s mobile society, such communities are becoming more and more common.

They’re certainly not new, though. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick. The daughter of successful businessman Andrew Restarick, she lives in London in a flat that she shares with Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. It’s the kind of place where people stay for a short while, but then leave, either to buy homes, or for a job in another place. As one character puts it,
 

‘‘We cater very largely for people who come and go.’’
 

That’s one reason why, when Norma disappears, no-one takes much note of it. But Hercule Poirot does. Norma visited him shortly before she went missing, and told him she thought she might have committed a murder. With help from detective story writer Ariadne Oliver, Poirot finds out the truth about what happened to Norma Restarick, and the truth about her claim that she might have killed someone.

The fictional town of Sea Haven, New Jersey, is another place where people tend to come and go. Just ask Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle. He and his boss, John Ceepak, are police officers for Sea Haven, and they’ve seen their share of people who come, stay for a week or two (sometimes longer), and then leave. In fact, when we first meet Boyle in Tilt a Whirl, he’s a temporary cop, hired to help deal with the summer crowds. Here’s what he says about the transient nature of Sea Haven in that novel:
 

‘Saturday is changeover day. People who rented last week are leaving; people renting this week will show up later, after the maid brigades have vacuumed the sandy floors and tossed out the abandoned seashell collections.’
 

In an environment like that, it’s often difficult to follow up on leads. And it’s part of the challenge Boyle and Ceepak face when they investigate the murder of successful businessman Reginald Hart. Was the killer a transient homeless person? Someone who was in town for a week or two and now gone? It turns out to be much more complicated than the two detectives think at first.

People also tend to move in and move out in places with second/summer/holiday homes. A lot of people who have such places don’t really get to know each other, and there’s all sorts of opportunity for crime to go on. That’s what happens in Bill Crider’s Death on the Move. Sheriff Dan Rhodes of Blacklin County, Texas is faced with a difficult case when his friend Clyde Ballinger, who owns the local funeral home, is accused of theft. Ballinger’s innocent, but the case leads Rhodes to a disturbing problem: several of the summer homes around Clearview Lake have been completely stripped of anything valuable. What’s more, one of the local residents says she’s seen a suspicious rental van driving around the area. Matters get even worse when a body is discovered in one of the homes. It’s not the owner, and there’s no identification. So at first, it’s really difficult to tell who the victim is. It’s complicated by the fact that this is the sort of place where people come and go, so that nobody really knows anybody else as well as one might think. There’s a similar sort of premise, too, in Jørn Lier Horst’s Closed for Winter.

Very often, when people move, they tend to more or less disappear, at least from the point of view of other people who live nearby. If you think about it, you’re not likely to know where the people who used to live near you have gone. The van comes, their things are packed, and they go. You might have a vague idea (‘We’re moving to ___ because I got a new job’), but you don’t necessarily keep track. We see that in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery.  Elderly Waldemar Leverkuhn and some friends have gone in together on a lottery ticket. When they turn out to be the winners, they decide to go out and celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is killed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate, beginning with the people who live in the same building. Nobody is really close with anyone else, so no-one can really say why Leverkuhn was killed, much less by whom. The victim’s friends aren’t very helpful, either. The team also looks into Leverkuhn’s past, including talking to people the Leverkuhn family used to know years earlier. And it’s not until the team visits that place, where people know each other better, that they start to get some hints about the real truth.

There’s also often a lot of coming and going in migrant communities. People arrive, work for a while, and then either return to their own countries or find other places to settle in more permanently. People may know each other slightly, but they don’t usually keep track of one another. We see that in Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. In that novel, DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira investigate when the body of an unknown man is discovered in the remains of a shed fire. After a short time, the man is identified as an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov. Now the detectives are faced with the thankless task of tracing the victim’s last days and weeks. It’s difficult partly because people in that community are not interested in talking to the police. But just as difficult is finding anyone who really knew the victim. People move in and out to the extent that nobody really knows anyone well.

And that’s the thing about certain communities. They may not be exactly transient, but they certainly don’t have a stable group of people who’ve lived there a while and know each other well. These are just a few examples of such places in crime fiction. Over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Smiths’ Back to the Old House.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Crider, Chris Grabenstein, Eva Dolan, Håkan Nesser, Jørn Lier Horst

Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

FireplacesBeing able to make and control a fire has been an essential part of human survival. Fires have protected people from predators, cooked their food, and kept them warm for practically as long as there’ve been humans. So it makes sense that people are drawn to fireplaces and, in the outdoors, to campfires. When it’s cold outside, there’s nothing like a comfortable chair near the fireplace, with the fire lit, your beverage of choice poured, and a novel in your hand. Or a group of friends sitting near the fireplace, laughing and telling stories. Out in the open, a campfire means fresh-roasted food and coffee, warmth, and the kind of psychological intimacy that sharing that warmth brings.

It’s such an important part of life for so many people that it’s not surprising we see fireplaces and campfires so often in crime fiction. All sorts of conversations happen there, and sometimes, fireplaces provide clues, too.

Agatha Christie used fireplaces in several of her mysteries. I won’t mention particular titles or circumstances, as that would be giving away spoilers. But there are several Christie stories in which important information and clues are hidden on mantelpieces, squirreled away in and near hearths, and so on. There are a few, too (Taken at the Flood and Ordeal by Innocence come to my mind), where pokers, edges of hearths and the like turn out to be deadly.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, who is found dead in her bathtub. Her husband, Janek Mitter, is the most likely suspect. He was on the scene at the time of the killing, but was so drunk that he remembers little about that night. He claims that he loved his wife and did not kill her; but there is circumstantial evidence against him. So he is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Since he remembers so little about the night of the murder, he’s remanded to a mental hospital instead of a regular jail, with the hope being he’ll start to recover his memory. Van Veeteren isn’t convinced that Mitter is guilty. And when Mitter himself is brutally murdered, it seems clear that he was innocent. So Van Veeteren and his team look into the matter more deeply. One ‘person of interest’ is Andreas Berger, Eva Ringmar’s first husband. Berger has since married again and has a family, and he invites Van Veeteren to dinner at his home. Afterwards, they have a drink in front of a warm, inviting fire. Against this backdrop, Van Veeteren feels guilty about asking the difficult questions he has to ask (Berger is, after all, a suspect). The contrast between the friendly, homey scene and the ugly reality of interrogation make the process difficult for him. But he asks his questions, and Berger gives him some interesting background information.

In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, Trafalgar, British Columbia Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith investigates the deaths of Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and Ewan Williams. These two young men were part of a group of six young people who were taking a skiing holiday in Trafalgar. One snowy night, the group’s rental SUV skids on an icy patch of road and goes into the Upper Kootenay River. Forensics tests show that Jason, who was driving, died as a result of the accident and exposure in the river. But Ewan had already been dead for several hours before the accident. So Smith and her boss, Sergeant John Winters, trace his last days and hours to find out what happened to him. One possibility – and the evidence suggests this might be the case – is that Ewan was killed at the B&B where the group was staying. There’s a chance he was hit with a fireplace poker, and the evidence includes traces of what could be fireplace ash. And, since Smith has been to the B&B, she knows it has a fireplace. Armed with this knowledge, Smith urges her boss to go to the B&B with a search team. Winters agrees, based on what Smith has told him. The only problem is, the fireplace at the B&B is gas-powered. Needless to say, the team leave with proverbial egg on their faces, and Smith has a lot of explaining to do.

There’s a very tense scene in front of a fireplace in Peter May’s The Blackhouse. Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis. One of the island’s residents, Angel Macritchie, has been murdered in a way that’s very similar to a murder that MacLeod is already investigating. It’s hoped that his working with the Lewis police will help to solve both cases. MacLeod grew up on Lewis, so he knows most of the people who live there, including a former friend Artair Macinnes. One night, he has dinner with Artair and his wife Marsaili. The situation is awkward, since Marsaili is MacLeod’s old love. Nonetheless, everyone behaves more or less politely. Then, Marsaili leaves to make up the spare room so that MacLeod can spend the night. The two men sit by the fire with a drink. At first it’s peaceful enough. But then, Artair, who’s had more than his share, stuns MacLeod with an attack of vitriol. At the end, he says something that shocks his guest and changes everything. The conversation is a real contrast to what’s supposed to be a friendly, warm setting.

Of course, not all ‘hearth’ scenes have to be indoors. In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, for instance, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest investigates the murder of geologist and former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. The official police theory is that he was murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest isn’t sure that’s what really happened. Her questions and insistence on investigating get her into serious trouble with her boss, Bruce Cockburn. More than that, they put her in serious danger. In fact, she is brutally attacked. Not very long afterwards, she travels with her lover, JoJo Kelly, to his bush shack. She’s still suffering from what happened to her, but feels much better when she and JoJo arrive at the shack. There, she sees that her best friend, Hazel Flinders, has come to visit and lit a bluebush campfire. The company of people close to her and the warmth of the fire do much to help Emily start the healing process. It’s a very human, intimate scene that shows, among other things, the way a fire can draw people close.

There are a lot of other ‘hearth’ scenes in mysteries (I’m thinking, for instance, of Arthur Conant Doyle’s novels, Arthur Upfield’s novels, and Louise Penny’s novels). That context can provide a very effective background for the exchange of confidences, contrast with tension, and clues, too. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right on Time.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Håkan Nesser, Louise Penny, Peter May, Vicki Delany

Take Me Down to My Boat on the River*

HouseboatsThere’s something about living on a boat that has a lot of appeal for some people. Living on a houseboat means a certain amount of mobility and flexibility. And although it’s far from free, living on a houseboat means you don’t pay property taxes, municipal water/sewage fees and so on, because you don’t own land. If your boat’s paid for, it can be a lot less expensive to live on a houseboat than to live in a conventional ‘nice area.’ Depending on your finances and priorities, you can have a very nice boat, too.

There are houseboat communities all over the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see a lot of houseboats in crime fiction, too. Houseboat communities are interesting contexts, and living on a houseboat can give the sleuth an interesting character dimension.

Perhaps the most famous crime-fictional example of a houseboat dweller is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He’s a ‘salvage consultant’ who lives on a boat he calls The Busted Flush (he won the boat in a poker game). McGee helps clients who’ve been robbed to get their property back; he charges half the value of the property, which keeps him in boat paint and canned goods. The Busted Flush is moored in Lauderdale, Florida, but McGee also travels on his boat at times. Life on the boat suits McGee, as he doesn’t want to be overly encumbered with things.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux will know that when we first meet him in The Neon Rain, he’s living on a houseboat in Lake Ponchartrain, and working for the New Orleans Police Department. He’s an avid fisherman, and that’s what draws him into this particular case. He’s fishing on Bayou Lafourche when he discovers the body of a young woman who turns out to have been a prostitute. He starts investigating only to find that a very powerful drugs gang does not want him to stick his nose in, as the saying goes. And he finds out soon enough that the New Orleans Police Department seems no more eager than the criminals for Robicheaux to learn who the woman was and why she was killed. Certainly Robicheaux doesn’t find the serenity he thought he would find when he got the houseboat.

Daniel Pembrey’s Henk van der Pol is an Amsterdam police detective who features in Pembrey’s Harbour Master trilogy. As van der Pol puts it,
 

‘We Dutch remain at heart a seafaring people: a small but proud collective who once traded with the farthest reaches of the globe…’
 

He carries on that history in his way. He and his wife Pernilla live on a houseboat, and he has a morning ritual of looking out over Amsterdam Harbour before he starts his day. That’s why he’s on the scene when a dog walker notices something one morning and gives the alert. It turns out to be the body of a young woman. There is no identification on her except for a tattoo on her ankle, which van der Pol discovers is the insignia of a dangerous Hungarian gang. The ‘higher-ups’ among the police force want this case to go away; and in fact, van der Pol is removed from it. But that doesn’t mean he’s willing to give up. There’s a scene in this story in which we are reminded that houseboats are not always safe places.

There’s also Betty Webb’s Teddy Bentley. She works at the Gunn Zoo in Northern California, and lives on the Merilee, which is moored at Gunn Landing Harbor. She loves her boat, but one of the running conflicts in this series is that her mother would like nothing better than for her to give it up and find a ‘real’ place to live. In the first novel, The Anteater of Death (OK, can we pause for a moment and appreciate that title?), the body of Grayson Harrill is found in the anteater enclosure at the zoo. At first, Lucy the Anteater is blamed. But when it’s discovered that Harrill was shot, it’s clear to Bentley that Lucy was not responsible. Then there’s another murder. Now Bentley has to find out who is using the zoo as a murder site.

But it’s not just sleuths who live in houseboats. In Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case), Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and some of his friends went in together on a lottery ticket, and have just found out that they won. So they go out to celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is murdered. Of course the police look close to home (Leverkuhn has left behind a wife and some children). They also talk to the people who live in the same apartment building. But there isn’t much in the way of useful information. When they learn about the lottery ticket, they think they may have found the motive. So they interview the other people who in were with Leverkuhn on the lottery ticket. One of them, Bonger, hasn’t been seen since the night of the murder, so naturally the police are particularly interested in him. He lives on a houseboat, so the Münster and his team interview some of the other members of that houseboat community. They are quirky and interesting, but really can’t shed much light on Bonger’s whereabouts. This aspect of the plot sheds an interesting light on some of the people who choose to live in houseboats.

And then there’s Barry Maitland’s The Raven’s Eye. There are plenty of people who live in houseboats moored in London’s canal system; one of them is Vicky Hawke. One day, one of the other houseboaters finds Vicky dead in her bed, apparently of carbon monoxide poisoning. The first, and most likely, explanation is that the boat’s heating system wasn’t properly ventilated, and the victim succumbed while she was sleeping. But Kolla has her doubts, and begins to ask some questions. That’s when she finds that ‘Vicky Hawke’ wasn’t the victim’s real name. That discovery opens up all sorts of possibilities for killer and motive. It all goes to show that houseboats can be dangerous.

But they do have an appeal, especially for people who want to get away from conventional apartments or houses. Just…don’t think of them as peaceful…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Boat on the River.

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Filed under Barry Maitland, Betty Webb, Daniel Pembray, Håkan Nesser, James Lee Burke, John D. MacDonald

Pushing the Town Away*

Ordinary TownsMany crime fiction fans will tell you that a sense of place is important in a story. Some themes and larger issues may be universal, but most of us want to also see something distinctive in a story that speaks of a particular place or region. And that’s straightforward (if not easy!) in a place that’s got something to sell, if I may put it that way. For instance, some places are tourist destinations. Others are exotic to most readers. A place may have breathtaking scenery or be the kind of faded, dusty small town where you can just imagine nasty things happening. And that can add to the suspense.

It can take some creativity to make a setting interesting if it isn’t a major capital, a physically lovely setting, or a deliciously creepy one (I’m looking at you, Jamaica Inn!). But there are authors who make it work. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates two deaths. One of them is the sudden death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. When his family gathers for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and she herself tells the others to pay no attention to what she’s said. But privately, people do wonder whether she might be right. And when she becomes the second death the next day, everyone is certain she was. The family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and together, they look into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this case is Abernethie’s brother Timothy, who was very unhappy with the terms of his brother’s will. So Entwhistle pays him a visit in the Yorkshire town where he lives. It’s not an eerie sort of place, but it’s certainly not a ‘delightful English village’ either. World War II has left its mark on the economy, so the place isn’t exactly prospering. Yet, it’s also not a ‘ghost town.’ And it’s very interesting to see how Christie gives readers a sense of the place.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in the small Western Pennsylvania mining town of Rocksburg. Balzic is the chief of police there, and as the series evolves, we get to know what the town of Rocksburg is like. It’s a working-class sort of place, and not particularly pretentious. It’s been hit by the economy and by the slow change over time from mining to service and other industries. But it’s not eerie or dilapidated. It’s got schools, churches, banks and so on – in short, a normal sort of town, if you can say that any town is normal. There is lovely mountain scenery in that part of Pennsylvania – trust me – but Constantine doesn’t focus on it as a rule. Rather, the town comes alive through the ways in which Constantine depicts the people who live there. We get a strong sense of place not because Rocksburg is a tourist destination, or because it’s in view of a particular geographic landmark. We get that sense of place from the day-to-living that happens there.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Her dream is to become a detective, and she’s already started her own company, Falcon Investigations. She’s targeted the new local mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, as a place where crime is likely to occur, so she spends a lot of time there. Kate lives in a rather dispirited Midlands town, but she actually finds it quite interesting. She’s content with her detection company, too. But her grandmother Ivy believes the girl would be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams for the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but is finally persuaded by her friend Adrian Palmer. She and Palmer take the bus to the school, but only Palmer comes back. A massive search is undertaken for Kate, but she is never found. Years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa is working one of the stores in the mall. One night, she has an unexpected encounter with Kurt, a security guard at the mall. They strike up an awkward kind of friendship, and, each in a different way, they go back to the past and we find out what really happened to Kate. The town where the novel takes place is hardly a tourist destination. It’s an everyday town with everyday people. O’Flynn depicts it as lackluster, but not really desperately poor or creepy. And it’s just that ‘blah’ sort of dreariness that sets off Kate’s incandescent personality.

Several of Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels take place in Maardam, a fictional Northern European city. It’s never said so, but a lot of people think of it as a Swedish town. Like other cities in that part of the world, Maardam has long, cold winters and shorter summers. But it’s not really remarkable. It doesn’t have the rugged natural beauty that you find in the far north of Sweden and Norway. It’s not an exciting tourist stop. And there isn’t a major ‘draw,’ such as a famous university. The town isn’t crumbling, but at the same time, it’s not a wealthy place, either. In short, it’s a rather unremarkable place. Yet Neser makes the place real through the interactions among the characters. These novels gain their sense of setting from the lifestyles of the people in the stories more than from Maardam itself, if I may put it that way.

And then there’s Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally worked up the courage to leave his abusive father, Joe. He knows that staying where he isn’t an option. But he’s been kept so locked away that he doesn’t really know how to function in the larger world. As he’s leaving the house, he meets Billy Benson, who’s stopped by. Billy takes Adam under his wing, as the saying goes, and the two leave together. As the next week goes by, they learn a great deal about each other, and we learn some uncomfortable truths about both of them. We also learn how each is connected to the disappearance ten years earlier of a boy named Nathan Fisher. The week also brings Adam and Billy plenty of danger as they get mixed up in real trouble. The novel is distinctly Australian. But the town itself, in suburban New South Wales, isn’t exotic or famous. It’s neither run-down nor glittering with wealth. It’s got the sort of places you’d expect, with nothing really extra-special. And that rather ordinary sort of setting shows how the sorts of things that happen in the novel could happen in any ‘regular’ town. And that makes them all the more psychologically powerful.

Setting really does matter in a novel. But the setting doesn’t have to be a famous place, or a wealthy one. It doesn’t have to be an especially creepy place, either. The key is in the way the author uses the setting.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Håkan Nesser, Honey Brown, K.C. Constantine