Category Archives: Helen Fitzgerald

She Can Tell You ‘Bout the Plane Crash With a Gleam in Her Eye*

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is murdered during a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Hercule Poirot is staying at the hotel, too, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is. At one point, they’re interviewing Mrs. Castle, who owns and manages the establishment. Here’s what she says about the murder:
 

‘‘But it does so reflect upon an establishment…When Ay think of the noisy gaping crowds…they will no doubt come and point from the shore.’ She shuddered.’
 

She’s got a point. In real life and in crime fiction, violent crime, especially murder, stirs up a lot of public interest. And that’s part of the odd dual nature of people’s reaction to crime. On the one hand, murder and other serious crime is horrible. If you’ve ever actually seen a violent crime, or been involved in one, you don’t need me to convince you of that. If you haven’t, then trust me. There is nothing entertaining about a serious crime.

And yet, many news sources (often, but not always, tabloids) make fortunes reporting on such stories. People want to read about crime. The more lurid the details, the better. We may want to keep serious crime at a distance, but many people still find it fascinating. It may be the same instinct that draws people to slow down and stare when they see a serious accident on the side of a road.

That duality (‘Keep it away from me! But I want all the details.’) shows up in plenty of crime fiction. There won’t be space in this one post to give more than a few examples. I know you’ll have plenty more than I could offer, anyway.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful lawyer whose name is being brought up as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. His wife, Jodie, is intelligent, attractive, and involved in the community, and his children are healthy and doing well enough in school. Everything changes when his daughter, Hannah, is rushed to a Sydney hospital after an accident. It turns out to be the same hospital in which Jodie gave birth to another child years earlier – a child she’s never told anyone about, not even Angus. A nurse there remembers Jodie, and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overcurious nurse can’t find any official records of the adoption. Now, questions start to come up, first privately, and then quite publicly. Where is the child? If the child is dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? People all over become fascinated with the case, and everyone puts in an opinion. Before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah, but she’s still obsessed, too, with media stories about her. At the same time as people are horrified by the thought that she might have killed her baby, they’re utterly drawn into the case.

In Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, police detective William Wisting and his team are faced with a disturbing case. A left foot in a training shoe has washed ashore near the Norwegian town of Stavern. That’s news enough in itself, but then another foot appears. And another. Oddly enough, though, no bodies have been discovered. There’s all sorts of speculation about what might be going on, and some of the local residents are concerned that these murders, if that’s what they are, might be the work of a serial killer. The police know that some people are worried for their safety. And, of course, they don’t want wild and inaccurate speculation to get in the way of their investigation. At the same time, taking advantage of the media interest (of which there is a great deal) might reach someone who has valuable information to share. So, the police give a few press conferences. And it’s interesting to see how the public’s fascination with a strange set of crimes is mixed with shock and horror at such crimes striking so close to home.

The focus of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry is Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson. When they travel from Scotland, where they’ve been living, to Alistair’s home in Victoria, they think that the long, miserable flight is the worst of their troubles. But during the drive from the airport at Melbourne to their destination, their worst nightmare comes true: the loss of their nine-week-old son, Noah. A massive search is launched, and there’s all sorts of ‘armchair detection’ about what might have happened to the baby. Then talk starts that perhaps the couple, especially Joanna, is involved. There’s an awful lot of public interest and speculation, which makes life miserable for Alistair and Joanna. And when the stories start circulating that they are responsible, matters get even worse. People are horrified by what’s happened, but at the same time, they are fascinated, and can’t get enough about the story.

We also see this fascination/repugnance in Peter James’s Not Dead Yet. In one plot thread, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace and his team are investigating a bizarre murder. The torso of an unknown man has been discovered in a disused chicken coop. There’s not much to go on, and the victim had no identification with him. The police want to find out who the man was, so they take advantage of the public’s interest in a lurid crime like this. Grace sends two of his team members to appear on a true-crime TV show called Crimewatch. Neither really, truly, wants to do the show. But they both understand how important it is to identify a crime victim. So, they do the show. And it’s interesting to see how TV shows like that get large audiences and, sometimes, good results.

And that’s the case in a lot of investigations. The public is fascinated by lurid crimes. At the same time, we know how horrible murder is. It’s an interesting duality, and it can add to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s Dirty Laundry.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Helen Fitzgerald, Peter James, Wendy James

Are You Interviewing Me*

A lot of professions involve speaking to the public. And often that’s done through giving interviews. I’m sure you can think of plenty of famous people such as professional athletes, film stars, and political leaders who go in front of the cameras. It’s almost a job requirement, really.

But other people are sometimes interviewed, too. Some are fairly comfortable in front of the camera; others dread it. And, of course, some people are much more accustomed to being interviewed than others. Either way, the public interview can be an interesting plot point in a crime novel. And it can show a bit about a character, too.

If you follow sport at all, you’ll know that athletes, their managers, team owners, and so on are regularly interviewed for TV and radio, as well as other media outlets. We see a great deal of that in sport-related crime fiction, too. For example, Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry is a sportswriter who works for the Toronto Planet. She has a particular interest and expertise in baseball, and follows the Toronto Titans Major League Baseball team as they go to their ‘away’ games. She attends ‘home’ games, too, and is one of the members of the press who interview players and the management staff. There’s an interesting relationship between the press and the team. Each knows full well that they need the other. So, in general, the team and management staff try to be generous about giving interviews and information. They know that builds their public appeal. At the same time, members of the press try to be respectful. They know that they won’t get that exclusive interview/story if they’re seen as too pushy, or worse, untrustworthy. It’s a delicate balance, but when it works, it’s effective. And more than once, that relationship allows Henry to get information when she gets mixed up in murder investigations.

In John Daniell’s The Fixer, we are introduced to Mark Stevens, a former member of New Zealand’s legendary All-Blacks rugby team. He’s heading towards the end of his career, and wants to shore up his financial resources for his own post-retirement security and that of his family. So, he’s playing now for a French professional team. Then, he gets word that Rachel da Silva, who works for a Brazilian magazine, wants to interview him. She’s been sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, the rugby live, and the sport’s popularity. She’s bright, attractive, and interesting, so it doesn’t take long for Stevens to be attracted to her. The feeling seems to be mutual, too, and all goes well at first. Stevens gets to promote the team and the sport to a wide audience, and da Silva gets her story and the recognition that goes with it. Then, da Silva introduces Stevens to a friend of hers named Phillip, who’s become quite wealthy through betting on rugby. Before Stevens knows it, he’s drawn into a web of supplying ‘inside information.’ He finds it hard to resist, because he wants  to ensure his and his family’s futures. It all starts to fall apart, though, when Phillip suggests that his ‘new friend’ fix matches. Now, Stevens has a choice to make. And no matter what he decides to do, it’s going to be very dangerous for him.

If you watch the news, especially crime news, you’ll know that there are sometimes interviews with convicted criminals. Sometimes they’re part of a larger story on the crime in question. At other times, the criminal wants to protest her or her innocence. And they certainly play a role in crime fiction. For instance, Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink features that sort of interview. In it, we are introduced to Johannesburg  publicity expert Lucy Khamboule. A few years earlier, she worked in journalism. At the time, she’d sent a letter to notorious convicted killer Napoleon Dingiswayo, asking for an interview. She never heard from him, and went on with her life. Then one day, she gets a telephone call from him. He wants to give her his story, and perhaps have her write a book about him. This is an opportunity Khamboule had only dreamed of; she’s always wanted to do a book, and this, she knows, will sell well. She arranges to go to the maximum-security prison where Dingiswayo is being held, and starts doing background work for the book. Soon after she begins her series of interviews, though, some violent and disturbing things begin to happen. Dingiswayo can’t be responsible, because he’s securely locked away. But if he isn’t guilty of the attacks, then who is? Before long, Khamboule begins to get too close to the story, which has its own consequences. She founds out the truth, but not without a heavy cost.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry highlights another important role that public interviews play in crime fiction. In it, Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel to Melbourne, where Robertson grew up, with their nine-week-old baby, Noah. The flight is a nightmare, but everyone arrives. Then, on the way from the airport to their destination, disaster strikes with the loss of baby Noah. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the baby is found. At first, the press and public are very sympathetic to the parents. But it’s not long before whispers start that perhaps they had something to do with Noah’s disappearance. As a part of the search for answers (and to keep their own names as clear as possible), the two go in front of the TV cameras with a plea for their son’s safe return. Gradually, we learn the truth about what happened to Noah, and we see the role that interview plays in the story.

Fans of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone will know that that novel, too, features a missing child. In this case, it’s four-year-old Amanda McCready. Dorchester, Massachusetts PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are hired to find the girl, and reluctantly accept the job. They’re not sure what they can do that the police can’t, but they agree to at least try. At one point, there’s a scene in which Amanda’s mother, Helene McCready, is giving an interview to the press. That’s not so unusual in itself; it’s the expected plea for the child. But Helene’s reaction to seeing herself on television is unsettling. As she’s watching the recorded interview during a news broadcast, she points out ‘the best part,’ and talks about who’s present at the interview. It’s difficult for both PIs to deal with her, and it adds to the suspense in the story.

There are, of course, many, many examples of interviews with fictional police officers, too. Sometimes, they provide valuable information, or prompt people to contact the police. Other times, they’re nothing but trouble. Either way, they’re an important part of the genre.

On Another Note…

Talking of interviews….I’m privileged and excited to have been invited to be a part of writer, blogger, and podcaster Claire Duffy’s series, Writers Chat Writing! It’s a long interview (sorry for going on so, Claire!) (31 minutes), but if you’re interested in what we had to say about writing and the writing process, you’re welcome to check it out right here. Claire’s a fabulous interviewer! Thank you, Claire!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon and Don Was’ Interview.

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Filed under Alison Gordon, Angela Makholwa, Dennis Lehane, Helen Fitzgerald, John Daniell

It’s Not Supposed to Be This Hard*

Have you ever noticed that there are some myths out there about life? Bear with me and I’ll explain. All of the advertisements and popular-culture outlets present life in certain ways that just aren’t realistic. And because of that people believe that’s how things ‘should’ be. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s not true.

Many people buy into those myths, only to discover later that things don’t work out that way. And that can lead to tension, depression, and more. That’s certainly true in real life. You may even have had the experience of thinking, ‘Why am I struggling so hard with this? It ought to be a lot easier!’ We see it in crime fiction, too. Although it can be damaging in real life, it can also add to the tension and suspense of a novel.

For example, one of the most pervasive myths there is, is that parents of newborns immediately bond with their children in such a fierce way that the challenges of child rearing simply don’t matter. But that’s not true. Caring for a baby is very hard work. We see that, for instance, in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me. That novel is the story of Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern, who move from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, Róisín. They’ve made the move so that Gerry can take a new job that’s a real step up for him. This means that he’s gone a lot, so Yvonne does most of the child care. And it turns out to be nothing like the myths of newborns and their mothers. She loves her daughter, but she finds many things a challenge. And it doesn’t help that she really doesn’t know anyone in Dublin. So, she turns to an online forum called Netmammy, where she finds solace and good advice from other new mothers. Then, one of the members of the group drops off the proverbial grid. Yvonne gets concerned, but there’s not much she can do about it. Then, the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Is it the missing member of Netmammy? If so, this has a lot of serious implications for the group. DS Claire Boyle and her team investigate, and find that the two cases are related, but not in the way you might think.

We also see this myth of the parent/child bond in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, make the move from Scotland to Alistair’s home town in Victoria, with their nine-week-old son, Noah. The first scenes in the novel take place during the flight. And we soon see just how challenging it is to travel with an infant, and how much harder those myths make it. The baby cries – a lot – and the parents are just as exhausted as any new parents are. Add to that the stress of travel, and it’s little wonder the flight is a nightmare. But there’s this myth that newborns are easy to care for, and that all new parents delight in the myriad tasks that are a part of raising children. And those myths don’t go away as children get older. Most parents do love their children very, very much, but that bond is a lot more complex than the myth would suggest.

So is the bond between partners. A permanent bond between two people requires hard work and commitment. That’s not to say there’s no fun and joy in it. There is. But it’s not easy. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband, Zack. As of the most recent novel in this series, Joanne is a retired academic, political scientist, and mother/grandmother. Zack is the current mayor of Regina. The two of them have faced a number of challenges, and are both strong-willed. They love each other and are committed to each other. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for them all the time. But then, neither was really expecting that the myth of the blissful, uncomplicated marriage could be real.

On the other hand, that’s exactly what Eva Wirenström-Berg, whom we meet in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, was hoping to have. She and her husband Henrik have been married for fifteen years, and have a six-year-old son, Axel. From the beginning, Eva believed in the myth of the perfect, blissful marriage and the ‘white picket fence’ sort of home. But lately, things between her and Henrik have been strained. It isn’t supposed to be this hard, and Eva is hoping that it’s just work stress. But then, she discovers to her dismay that Henrik has been unfaithful. And, in one plot thread of this story, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she finds out, she makes plans of her own, but things spiral far out of her control…

Another of those myths is the ‘golden life in a new place.’ After all, that’s the reason so many millions of immigrants have made the move from their homes to a new country. But, for many immigrants, no matter which country they choose, it’s rarely as easy is it seems that it ought to be. There’s the language, there’s finding work, there’s educating children, and more. In some cases, such as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, immigrants end up being highly successful; and in real life, that does happen.

But there are also cases where settling in to a new country and lifestyle is a lot harder than the myths say. For instance, in Robin Cook’s Vector, we are introduced to a taxi driver named Yuri Davydov. In the former Soviet Union, he was a technician working for the Soviet biological weapons program. After the breakup of the USSR, he emigrated to the US, lured (as he sees it) by promises of wealth and great success. But that hasn’t happened. He hasn’t found any sort of job in his area of expertise, so he’s had to take a job driving a cab. He’s completely disaffected, and so, is easy prey for an equally-disaffected group of skinheads who want to carry out a plan of ‘revenge’ – the release of anthrax in New York City. When medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Lori Montgomery become aware of the plot they have to work to find out who’s behind it, and stop the conspirators if they can.

There are many other crime novels that feature immigrants who find that life in their new home is a lot harder than they’d thought. Eva Dolan, Ruth Rendell, and Ausma Zehanat Khan, among others, have all written about this topic. And they’re far from the only ones.

Those myths of how easy it’s ‘supposed to be’ to have a child, sustain a marriage, become a professional lawyer (or doctor, or professor, etc.) are woven into many cultures. And those dreams can be motivating. But the reality is seldom much like the myth. And that can add tension, a plot thread, or a layer of character development to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Spinfire’s Prove Me Wrong.

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Filed under Ausma Zehanat Khan, Eva Dolan, Gail Bowen, Helen Fitzgerald, Karin Alvtegen, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, Ruth Rendell, Sinéad Crowley

The Name on Everybody’s Lips is Gonna be…*

high-publicity-casesAs this is posted, it’s 70 years since Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. This still-unsolved murder case got a great deal of public attention at the time, and it’s not hard to see why. A young, attractive woman, found brutally murdered, would be sure to attract interest, especially when the killer was not found. It was a sensational killing, and the press dubbed Short ‘The Black Dahlia.’ Since the murder, there’ve been any number of theories about the killing, and dozens of people have confessed, or have pointed the police towards someone. No leads have held up to scrutiny, though.

There’ve been other murders that have gotten that sort of hype, both in real life and in crime fiction. Sometimes it’s because it’s a particularly gruesome killing. Other times it’s because the victim is famous, or wealthy, or particularly appealing.

We see this, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall travels to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Accompanying her are her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter, Linda. Not long after the family’s arrival, Arlena engages in a not-too-carefully hidden affair with another (married) guest, Patrick Redfern. It’s the talk of the hotel, and when Arlena is found strangled one day, the killing becomes a public sensation. At first, the police suspect Marshall of killing his wife. But it’s soon shown that he couldn’t have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the real killer is. Even though he’s been cleared of suspicion, Marshall is still subject to a lot of scrutiny, and it’s very hard for him. I see you, fans of The ABC Murders.

Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town takes Queen to the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s arranged to stay in a guest house on the property of wealthy social leaders John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen gets drawn into the family’s private affairs when Jim Haight, former fiancé of the Wrights’ youngest daughter, Nora, comes back to town after leaving three years earlier. Against all advice, Nora rekindles her romance with Jim, and the two marry. Then, some letters emerge that suggest that Jim is planning to kill Nora. Nora doesn’t believe it, and the two settle in together. Matters get even more complicated when Jim’s unpleasant sister, Rosemary, comes for an extended visit.  On New Year’s Eve, Rosemary drinks a cocktail that turns out to be poisoned. The police investigate and immediately, the case becomes a public sensation. It involves the most important family in town and it’s a lurid murder case. So, naturally, everyone has something to say about it. When Jim is arrested for the murder (the theory is that the cocktail was intended for Nora), almost no-one believes his claims of innocence. Queen does, though, and it’s interesting to see how his investigation is impacted by the publicity surrounding the murder.

Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces readers to Met PC Maeve Kerrigan. She’s been working with a team investigating a series of murders where the killer tries to incinerate his victims. The press has dubbed the murderer the Burning Man, and the murders have gotten quite a lot of media and public attention. In part, that’s because there’s a series of killings. In part, it’s because of the fires. In any case, the Met is getting an awful lot of pressure to catch the killer, and that doesn’t make anyone’s job easy. Then comes the murder of Rebecca Haworth. At first, her death looks like another Burning Man killing. But certain aspects of the murder are different enough that Kerrigan isn’t sure it’s the same killer. She wants to stay on the team investigating the Burning Man killings, but her boss has other ideas. If Haworth’s murder is a Burning Man killing, then any progress in solving it is progress towards solving the other murders. If it’s a ‘copycat’ killer, then the Met will come under heavy criticism for neglecting it if leads aren’t pursued. So, Kerrigan is assigned to follow up on the Haworth murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at how a case’s level of publicity can impact police decision-making.

In Tarrquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we learn of Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission, and that of the institute he founded, is to debunk fake spiritualists – people he calls ‘the godmen.’ One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. During the meeting, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. As you can imagine, the press and public make much of this, and many people say that Jha was killed because he was leading people towards becoming infidels. News commentators everywhere have their say, and the incident leads to an upsurge in attendance at shrines, and other worship. Delhi PI, whose client Jha once was, is not convinced this death has a supernatural explanation. He takes an interest in the case, and decides to investigate. As he and his team look into the matter, it’s very interesting to see the role that the case’s publicity plays.

Nelson Brunanski’s Frost Bite is the second of his novels to feature John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. Bart and his wife, Rosie, life in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. They own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fly-fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Most of the time, life for the Bartowskis doesn’t involve a lot of press or publicity. But that changes when Bart finds the body of Lionel Morrison under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. For one thing, Morrison was a well-known, well-connected agribusiness CEO; as a ‘heavy hitter,’ his death would naturally get attention. And this is no ordinary death. So, there’s soon a media ‘feeding frenzy’ and the case gets a lot of public attention. Bart’s already connected to the case, since he found the body. And the victim had recently spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge. So, even though Bart’s really not one to covet media attention, he gets drawn into this investigation.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. When Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam, were murdered, the most likely suspect was Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh. In fact, he’s been in prison for years for the murders. But now, little hints have suggested that he might be innocent. If so, this could be the case to solidify Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne’s place at the top of her field. So, she starts to look into the matter. And, as she does, she finds herself getting closer than is safe to it. Among other things, it’s a really clear look at how publicity affects those involved in a murder.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of fictional cases that get a lot of public attention (you’re right, fans of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry). And it’s interesting to consider which sorts of cases do get that sort of publicity, and which don’t. I wonder what that says about us…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Roxie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Helen Fitzgerald, Jane Casey, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall

Hold No Grand Illusions*

no-illusionsIn yesterday’s post, I brought up the topic of fictional characters who deceive themselves. We all do a little of that, of course, but in some people, it can be taken too far. And that can lead to a great deal of trouble.

But there are also a lot of characters (just as there are a lot of people in real life) who are under no illusions about themselves (or at least, very few). They’re very clear-eyed about their skills, about the way others perceive them, and so on. In a sense, that can be quite liberating, as these characters are very often more comfortable in their own skins than they might be if they weren’t honest with themselves. At the same time, that sort of clear-eyed self-awareness doesn’t always make for an awful lot of optimism. Still, many people feel that it’s better not to lie to oneself.

One of the central figures in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, is famous painter Amyas Crale. Sixteen years before the events in the novel, he was poisoned. At the time, everyone assumed that the killer was his wife, Caroline. She had good motive, too, as he was having an affair. What’s more, the poison used to kill the victim was among her things. Based in part on that evidence, she was convicted, and died in prison a year later. Now, the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant, is about to get married. Before she does, she wants to clear her mother’s name. So, she hires Hercule Poirot to look into the matter again. Poirot agrees, and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time. Through those interviews, and each witness’ written account, Poirot finds out what happened to Amyas Crale. As the novel goes on, we learn quite a lot about the victim. Among other things, Crale was honest with himself about both his talents and his failings. He was well aware that he couldn’t leave other women alone, that he couldn’t always be trusted, and so on, and made neither false promises nor excuses. In some ways, you could argue that that quality added to his character.

Peter Temple’s Melbourne PI Jack Irish is like that, too. When we first meet him, in Bad Debts, he’s just coming back to life, so to speak, after the murder of his wife, Isabel. Before her death, he was an attorney, and still keeps his license and does occasional legal work. But he’s very clear-eyed about the sort of person he is. He has no great ambition to climb to the top of the legal profession, and no illusions that he would be easily able to do that, anyway. He does PI work, but he doesn’t see himself as ‘the great detective,’ either. He doesn’t lie to himself about his faults and weaknesses. At the same time, he doesn’t wallow in self-pity. He’s straightforward with his clients, and (most of the time) quite honest with himself. It makes his character all the more down-to-earth and realistic.

Alexander McCall Smith’s PI Mma Precious Ramotswe is optimistic, and she’s aware that she’s intelligent. In that sense, she has confidence in her ability to solve the cases that come her way. But that doesn’t mean that she is under any real illusions about herself. For example, she is what’s called ‘traditionally built.’ She doesn’t try to hide her figure, and she doesn’t try to pretend she’s a sylph. In Blue Shoes and Happiness, she does start to go on a diet. But she isn’t a petite person, and all the dieting in the world won’t make her look like a stereotypical fashion model. It’s not long before she’s reminded of this, and returns to her custom of being really honest with herself about who she is and what makes her comfortable. She doesn’t have illusions about her skill as a detective, either. She promises her clients to do her best, and that’s what they get. But she is also aware that she can’t solve everything and find every answer. She tells clients that, too.

In Helen Fizgerald’s The Cry, we are introduced to Alexandra Donohue. She had to start life over again as a single mother after catching her husband, Alistair, with another woman, Joanna Lindsay. Now, she’s moved back to Melbourne from Scotland, and is raising her teenage daughter, Chloe, there. Alexandra has certainly had her problems coping with everything, but she also doesn’t cling to any illusions about Alistair or their life together. Things change dramatically when Alistair and Joanna come to the Melbourne area with their own nine-week-old baby, Noah. One of Alistair’s goals is to get custody of Chloe, and Alexandra has quite a bit of anxiety about that, particularly since she’s honest enough to admit that she wouldn’t qualify as a perfect parent. But when Noah goes missing, Alistair and Joanna are suddenly thrust into every caring parent’s worst nightmare. There’s a massive search, and even Chloe gets involved. Little by little, we find out the truth about what happened to Noah. As the story goes on, Alexandra becomes more and more clear-eyed and honest with herself and others. She even has an enlightening conversation with Joanna, in which we see how she’s developed. It all makes for some interesting layers of character development.

And then there’s Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. In that novel, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the death of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. When the team members discover that the victim was a commercial sex worker, they start to look among the people she interacted with, including her clients and her pimp, Charlie Hawes. Morriss suspects Hawes had something to do with the murder, even if he wasn’t directly responsible. But she finds it difficult to find anyone who’s willing to talk to her about him. One angle she takes is to talk to the other sex workers in the area. She discovers that most of them are quite realistic about what they do. On the one hand, they have no illusions that it’s a high-status occupation or that they’ll rise to the top of the most elite call girls. But on the other hand, most of them aren’t at all ashamed of what they do. And what’s really interesting is the equally honest perspective they have on their clients, many of whom are highly-placed. In fact, the sex workers likely have a more candid and accurate perspective on the men they meet than those men have on themselves.

Characters who don’t deceive themselves can sometimes seem cynical or pessimistic. But the fact is, many of them are simply realistic about themselves. And they can add real authenticity to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenader.    

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Helen Fitzgerald, Maureen Carter, Peter Temple