Category Archives: Helene Tursten

Just Picture a Great Big Steak*

One of the things I love about crime fiction is the way it shows how we’ve changed over time. As society changes, so do social attitudes and customs. One of the many kinds of changes we’ve seen is in our diets and the way people eat.

I got to thinking about this after an interesting comment exchange with Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog. By the way, if you like to read crime fiction, especially classic and Golden Age crime fiction, you don’t want to miss Brad’s richly detailed and informative blog. I learn every time I visit. Every time.

Brad and I were mentioning Fritz Brenner, who, as Rex Stout fans know, is Nero Wolfe’s chef. He is world-class, and always creates gourmet eating experiences for his boss. But, by today’s standards, we’d probably say that his cooking is far too rich and too full of calories, fat, and so on. Our views about what people should be eating have certainly changed since Stout was writing. Today’s top chefs know that there are healthful ways to cook that are also unforgettably delicious and beautifully presented. And many restaurants now offer vegetarian/vegan options, smaller servings, and low-fat/low-calorie dishes.

Choices such as low-calorie foods or vegetarianism haven’t always been seen as mainstream as they are now. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing when one of its prominent residents, wealthy Emily Arundell, unexpectedly dies. At first, her death is put down to liver failure, but soon enough, it turns out that she was poisoned. And that wasn’t the first attempt on her life. Not many months before, she had a fall down a staircase that was deliberately engineered. There are several suspects in this case, since Miss Arundell’s relatives are all in need of money. And there’s the fact that her companion, Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson, has inherited most of her fortune. Two of the witnesses that Poirot talks to are Isabel and Julia Tripp, who are friends of Minnie Lawson, and who were there on the night Miss Arundell died. These are eccentric ladies, to put it mildly. They have many non-conformist beliefs and are avid spiritualists. To add to this, they are vegetarians. While that fact isn’t the reason for Miss Arundell’s murder, it offers a glimpse of how such a diet might have been viewed at the time. Certainly, Poirot, who is a gourmand, is not exactly excited about the prospect of having dinner with the Tripp sisters…

Just because our views of what ‘counts’ as an appropriate diet have changed, doesn’t mean that all fictional sleuths eat healthfully. For instance, Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel isn’t particularly concerned with keeping to a healthy diet. He’s not stupid; he knows that it’s a good idea to limit fat, salt, and so on. But he likes his pub grub and has no intention of cutting things like bacon out of his diet. The same goes for Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. It’s not that they don’t know what they ought to be eating. Fans of Dexter’s series, for instance, know that Morse’s doctors have told him often enough. But that’s not the way they live their lives. What’s interesting about these sleuths’ attitudes is that they go against the proverbial tide. It’s now considered perfectly normal – even healthy – to eat less meat, less salt and fat, fewer fried foods, and so on.

We see another interesting example of that change in attitude in Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series. Quant is a Saskatoon-based PI who does enjoy the occasional ‘not-good-for-you-but-delicious’ meal at his ‘watering hole,’ Colourful Mary’s. Still, he tries to watch what and how much he eats. That becomes difficult when his mother, Kay, comes for a visit in Flight of Aquavit. She is a farm wife, who’s spent her life making heavy-duty meals for hard-working farm people. So, her idea of what ‘counts’ as breakfast, for instance, are quite different to her son’s. It’s not that Quant doesn’t enjoy her cooking; he does. It’s delicious. But he also knows it’s got many times more calories, fat, salt, and so on than he should be having. This difference in views isn’t the main plot of the novel, but it does show how our attitudes about diet have changed. It also shows (but this is perhaps the topic for another time), how lifestyle, culture, and other factors influence diet.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is a Göteborg police detective, whose squad investigates murder and other violent crimes. In Night Rounds, we learn that Huss’ daughter, Jenny, has decided to become vegan. In fact, in one sub-plot, Jenny goes out one night with a militant vegan group to do what she thinks will simply be putting up vegan posters. It turns into something far more than that, and things quickly turn ugly. Fortunately for Jenny, Huss has suspected there might be trouble, and is able to get Jenny out of harm’s way. Jenny’s choice to become vegan does set up a conflict with her father, Krister, who is a well-regarded chef. But neither veganism nor a more conventional diet is portrayed as ‘right.’ It makes for an interesting discussion of what we think of when we think of ‘good’ food.

Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura is a half-Japanese/half-American antiques dealer who’s originally based in Tokyo (although her adventures do take her to several other places). She likes and respects some of the Japanese traditions she’s learned, but in many ways, she has a very modern outlook. And that includes her choice to be a vegetarian. What’s really interesting about that is that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow as a rule. It’s simply accepted. And that shows something, at least to me, about the way our views about diet have changed.

That makes sense, too, since society is always changing. Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration. Now, folks, if you’ll be kind enough to go visit Brad’s blog, I’ll excuse myself. It’s time for lunch!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Food, Glorious Food.

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Colin Dexter, Helene Tursten, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout, Sue Grafton, Sujata Massey

Learned Karate and Kung Fu*

Despite what’s portrayed in many action films, martial arts involve a lot more than just smacking and kicking someone. In fact, the whole point of skill at martial arts is careful self-control (rather than simply lunging at someone) and mind/body connection. Because of that, traditional martial arts are holistic; they involve meditation, breath control, and coordinated movements, among other things.

Most traditional martial arts take years to learn properly, and even longer to perfect, and people have been doing just that for many centuries.  So, it’s little wonder that we see martial arts and those who know them in crime fiction. When it’s done well (i.e. credibly), some skill at martial arts can add a layer to a character.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he’s got an eclectic set of skills and knowledge. One of them is bartitsu (Conan Doyle called it ‘baritsu’), which is a mix of martial arts styles, including jiu jitsu and other techniques. Interestingly, bartitsu was developed in the UK at the end of the 19th Century and gained in popularity during the Edwardian Era. As Holmes fans know, he uses bartitsu to defend himself during the climactic fight with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. That, so he tells Watson in The Adventure of the Empty House, is how he managed to stay alive.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is a member of the Violent Crimes Division of the Göteborg police. She is also a former Swedish national judo champion. While she no longer competes, she is a regular at the local dojo. She knows that keeping mind and body healthy and connected is important, and she uses her judo sessions to keep in shape and to cope with the stress of being a police detective with a busy family life. She passes along her interest in martial arts to her daughter, Katarina, who studies for several years herself. Later, Katarina becomes more interested in dance than in judo but her years of study have taught her valuable skills.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao is a detective for the Shanghai police. As a young person, he studied tai chi, as many people do, and tried his best to learn. But tai chi didn’t come easily to him (as I say, martial arts is complex). As we learn in A Loyal Character Dancer, he didn’t continue his martial arts study, but he did happen to find an old English textbook in the park where he was practicing one day and found both an interest and an ability with language. Chen hasn’t continued studying tai chi, but he respects those who have mastered it. Here’s a bit of his thinking (also from A Loyal Character Dancer) as he sees a man doing tai chi in a park one day:
 

‘Chief Inspector Chen wondered what he might have become had he persisted in practicing. Perhaps he would now be like that tai chi devotee, wearing a white silk martial arts costume, loose-sleeved, red-silk buttoned, with a peaceful expression on his face. Chen knew him. An accountant in an almost-bankrupt state company, yet at that moment, a master moving in perfect harmony with the qi of the universe.’
 

That harmony and self-control is an important aspect of traditional martial arts.

Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is following ‘money trails’ to locate funds that people have tried to hide. She works for a Hong Kong-based company that serves people who’ve been cheated out of money and are desperate to get it back. For those clients, the financial loss is devastating on several levels; and for various reasons, they may not be able to (or wish to) go through the usual channels. So, by word of mouth, they learn of and contact Lee’s employer. The people who have stolen that money generally don’t want to be caught, so they can be very dangerous. Lee’s prepared, though. She is an expert at bak mei, a special form of martial arts that makes particular use of the hands. More than once in the series, she makes use of her skill at bak mei and other martial arts.

And then there’s Zoë Sharp’s novels featuring Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. She’s a former member of Her Majesty’s Special Forces, where she learned martial arts. She left the military, but she still makes use of her knowledge. For one thing, she teaches what she knows to others, especially women. The idea is to help them develop not just the ability to defend themselves, but also the confidence that goes with it. Here’s what she has to say about it:
 

‘I view self-defence like wearing an expensive watch. You don’t keep flashing it about trying to impress people. Instead, you keep it up your sleeve, but in the back of your mind you have the confidence of knowing you have the exact time whenever you need it.’ 
 

And Fox has certainly had need of her skills. She’s a PI who sometimes gets into very dangerous situations. Like most of those who are skilled at martial arts, especially traditional martial arts, she begins by trying to defuse the situation. The goal is not to have to use her skills if it can be avoided. But she knows what to do if it can’t.

And that’s the thing about traditional martial arts, especially if they are taught, learned, and used effectively. The whole point is not to have to use them in the first place. But there are times when they come in very handy…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Handsome Devil’s Samurai.

25 Comments

Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Helene Tursten, Ian Hamilton, Qiu Xiaolong, Zoë Sharp

I’ve Always Listened to Your Point of View*

Humans are, by nature, social animals. That makes sense, too, when you consider how we depend on each other for so much – sometimes even for survival. Because people depend on one another, there’s often pressure for group consensus. That’s part of why, for instance, we ask for others’ opinions about things (e.g. ‘Which outfit should I wear,’ or ‘What do you think? A Honda or a Nissan?’). For many people, it’s important to have group approval, so looking for a consensus is logical.

We see that effort to get consensus in a lot of fiction, including crime fiction. And that shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s such a human quality. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode. She owns and heads Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. She and her business partner and colleague, Miss Chadwick, have built the place into one of the most sought-after schools in England. Everything changes, though, when the new Games Mistress, Grace Springer, is shot one night. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another death. Now the school is at real risk of having to close. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, knows of Hercule Poirot through her mother, and visits him to ask his help. And, in the end, he finds out the truth behind the events at the school. In one sub-plot, Miss Bulstrode is considering whether it’s time to retire and name a successor. She has a few possibilities in mind, and wants to get input on her decision. So, she asks various people what they think She’s an independent, strong-minded person, but she still wants some sort of consensus on the school’s future.

John D. MacDonald’s short story, The Case of the Homicidal Hiccup takes place in the small town of Baker City, where Johnny Howard and his gang run everything. Nothing happens without their consent, and every business pays for ‘protection.’ Then, Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. He wants to run a ‘clean’ business, so he refuses to have anything to do with Howard or his associates. At first, no-one really believes that Maybree will be able to stand up to Howard, but he does. Soon, other business owners feel the proverbial wind shifting, and join Maybree in refusing to work with Howard. Soon, the consensus against the crime boss builds. Now, Howard is afraid that he’ll lose respect and support in the underworld if he doesn’t do something about Maybree. So, he and his girlfriend, Bonny Gerlacher, devise a plan to kill Maybree. Everything is set up, and Gerlacher goes to the drugstore to carry out her part of the plan. But things don’t go quite the way they were intended…

Many times, when police teams are working on cases, they try to achieve consensus on what probably happened, and on the direction their investigations should take. We see that, for instance, in Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss stories. We also see it in Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, the first of her Anna Travis novels. In the story, Travis, who’s recently been promoted to Detective Sergeant (DS), joins the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. The team is facing a baffling case, too. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been found, and in several ways, her murder fits the profile of a group of six other women who’ve also been killed in exactly the same manner. But there’s one major difference: the other victims were older prostitutes. Melissa was young and not a prostitute. Now, the team has to establish whether Melissa’s murder was the work of the same killer, or there’s a different, perhaps ‘copycat’ killer. Among many other plot threads in the novel, this one includes the thread of establishing what the police really think happened. And that requires trying to find out what everyone thinks, and establish a consensus and a plan for moving forward.

One plot thread of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels concerns four children growing up in a small Welsh town in the early 1960s. These four children, Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards, have very little in common. But it’s a small town, so the children tend to spend a lot of time together, especially in the summer, when there’s no school. This particular summer, the children learn about some dark secrets that some people in the town are keeping. And they stumble on some truths that people would much rather keep hidden. Because they’re so different, the young people don’t always agree. But, they only really have each other. So, there are several scenes where they try to sift out all of the opinions and get some sort of agreement.

In collectivist cultures, group consensus, and having one’s opinion supported by the group, are very important. We see that, for instance, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, are taking some time off at Krabi. They’re both very much upset when they learn of the death of Chanida Manakit, also known as Miss Pla. The victim actually led a tour that Keeney and Patel took, so they have a special interest in finding out what happened to her. The official police report is that she drowned, but Keeney doesn’t think that’s likely, since Miss Pla was an expert swimmer. And, as it turns out, she’s right. As they work through the case, Keeney and Patel learn that Miss Pla worked with an environmental group. Her task was to attend village meetings with a development company called Apex Enterprises, and articulate the villagers’ concerns about Apex’s development plans. The company has determined that getting support and positive opinions from the villages was the best way to go ahead with their plans. What’s more, Thai law requires the consent of villages for development. So, Miss Pla was involved in helping to build, or at least assess, consensus. And that played a role in her death.

Most people want the support of others for what they do and think; some need it more than others. And it’s interesting to see how that process and human need work in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Blue Morning, Blue Day.

13 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Helene Tursten, John D. MacDonald

Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.

32 Comments

Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French

Like a Tree, Ability Will Bloom and Grow*

I’ll bet you’ve had the experience. You enjoy skiing, and you’ve tackled some challenging runs. Then, you don’t get the chance to ski for a while. When you finally do again, it’s back to the bunny slopes, because your skills have gotten a bit rusty. Or, perhaps you’re a card player who takes a break from it for a while. Then, when you get into a poker game, you find yourself making ‘beginner mistakes.’

Whether it’s music, running, poker, or cooking, your skills get and stay sharper if you use them regularly. The same is true for writing. That’s why writers are so often urged to write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences.

If you ask Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, he’ll tell you that detection skills need to be sharpened regularly, too. In The A.B.C. Murders, he works with Chief Inspector Japp and other police detectives to solve a baffling series of murders. It’s a challenging case, and certainly puts Poirot on his mettle. But that actually suits Poirot. At the beginning of the novel, before the first murder actually occurs, he has a conversation with Captain Hastings, who’s returned from Argentina for a stay in London. Hastings makes a comment about Poirot’s being retired; here’s Poirot’s answer:
 

‘‘And I will admit it, my friend, the retirement, I care for it not at all. If the little grey cells are not exercised, they grow the rust.’’
 

Research bears him out. Studies show that the more we use our thinking skills, the longer in life we have them.

And it’s not just thinking and detecting, although there are several examples of those in crime fiction. We see plenty of other examples of characters who know the value of regular discipline to keep skills strong. That side of a character can add an interesting dimension; it’s realistic, too.

For example, fans of Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss can tell you that she is a police detective with the Violent Crimes Unit of the Göteborg Police. She is also a former Swedish national judo champion, and former European champion. Her job and family life keep her very busy, but that doesn’t mean she wants to give up martial arts. So, she goes to the dojo sometimes to work out and to keep her skills strong. Her judo sessions are also very useful for keeping her in good physical condition. And sometimes, when she’s on the job, her skill at judo turns out to be very useful.

One of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s series features Beatrice Coleman, a former Atlanta folk art curator who’s retired to the small town of Dappled Hills, North Carolina. As we learn in Quilt or Innocence, the first of this series, she originally moved to Dappled Hills to be nearer to her daughter, Piper. But she’s soon drawn into life in her new home. And that includes the Village Quilters, one of several local quilting guilds. When she first gets to know the members of the guild, Beatrice doesn’t know much about how to quilt.  It doesn’t help, either, that some of the members have been quilting for decades, and make it all look very easy (which it’s not, really). Part of the reason for this is that the guild members mees regularly, both to keep their skills sharp and to keep their social network strong. Little by little, Beatrice learns some quilting skills, and is better able to contribute to the group’s work. Among other things, this series shows how something like quilting really has to be done regularly to hone skills.

So does playing baseball. Like any athletes, baseball players have regular workout sessions, even during the off-season. Skills such as pitching, catching, running, and communicating with teammates, have to be kept sharp if a team is going to win. And that doesn’t happen if players spend too much time off the field. There’s a dose of this in Alison Gordon’s Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry series. Henry is a sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Her specialty is baseball, as was her creator’s. So, she travels with the (American League) Toronto Titans, and, of course, attends their home games. Readers follow along as the team members sharpen their skills during spring training (in Night Game), and work out before games during the baseball season (e.g. in The Dead Pull Hitter). The series gives readers an ‘inside look’ at the way professional athletes keep their skills from getting rusty.

But it’s not just athletic or other physical skills that need to be honed. Just ask John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep. He’s a member of the Royal Thai Police, based in Bangkok. He is also a devout Buddhist. As you’ll know, Buddhism entails the mental discipline of regular meditation and focus. And it doesn’t come easily. It requires patience, lots of repetition and training, and regular mental exercise. And all of that takes time. Still, Jitpleecheep has found that study and meditation help him keep his focus and develop his spiritual and cognitive side.

You might say a similar thing about Tony Hillerman’s Sergeant Jim Chee. As fans can tell you, he is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Chee has kept many of the Navajo traditions, too. In fact, at the beginning of the series, he is studying to be a yata’ali, a Navajo singer/healer. To be a skilled yata’ali takes a great deal of training and time. Each ritual has its own complexities, and Chee aims to learn to do each one exactly correctly. So, he hones his skills regularly, by going through the steps of each ritual. And, at least in the first novels of the series, he doesn’t let a lot of time go by between sessions. He knows the importance of not allowing his skills to rust.

And that’s the thing about skills, whether they are mental or physical. They need to be used, on a regular basis, or they do get rusty. Little wonder we see characters keeping their skills sharp in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman’s Scales and Arpeggios.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Helene Tursten, John Burdett, Tony Hillerman