Category Archives: Herman Koch

We’ve Got a Falling Barometer and Rising Seas*

If you read enough crime fiction, you soon learn to expect that something bad – perhaps very bad – is going to happen. After all, most crime fiction is about bad things happening. Much of the time, the terrible thing that happens is murder.

Even though crime writers know that their readers expect something awful to happen, they still want to draw those readers in. Sometimes, they do this by building the tension right from the beginning. It’s a bit like storm clouds gathering and building up the suspense that happens just before a major downpour. Authors have different ways of doing this, but no matter what way the author chooses, it can build suspense and get the reader turning and swiping pages.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, begins as a group of ten people travel to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They’ve all been invited to spend time there, and, for different reasons, each has accepted. As the various guests arrive, we follow their thoughts, and tension begins to build. It builds even more when it becomes clear that the host is not there. It’s all a bit odd, but everyone settles in. After dinner that evening, each person is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Later, one of the guests suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Then, there’s another death. Now the survivors begin to see that someone has deliberately lured them to the island and is trying to kill them. They’ll have to find out who that person is if they’re to stay alive. We may not know from the start who the killer is; right away, though, as the people gather, we know that something very, very bad is going to happen.

There’s a similar sense of the tension building at the beginning of Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski. In that novel, Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, are on their way to a skiing holiday at Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, and they soon find that several other people on the trip are staying there, too. As the group arrives at the hotel, there are already undercurrents of unease, and it’s easy to sense that something awful is about to happen. And it soon does. One of the guests, an Austrian businessman named Fritz Hauser, is shot, and his body found on a ski lift. Capitano Spezzi and his team arrive and begin to investigate. When it comes out that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, Spezzi grudgingly, and then more willingly, works with him. In the end, and after another death, they find that Hauser brought his fate on himself, in a manner of speaking.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye starts as a teacher named Janek Mitter slowly wakes up after having had far, far too much to drink. He was so drunk that, at first, he doesn’t remember who he is or where he is. That sense of disorientation starts to build the suspense right away. Slowly, Mitter remembers who he is, and that he’s at home. Just as he’s beginning to get his bearings, he discovers the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in their bathtub. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate, and it seems at first that all of the evidence points to Mitter as the killer. But he insists that he is innocent, and it’s not long before Van Veeteren starts to believe him. Mitter is still convicted, though, and remanded to a mental hospital until his memory recovers enough to assist the police. Not long afterwards, he himself is brutally murdered. Now, Van Veeteren knows that MItter was telling the truth, and works backwards to find out who would have wanted to kill both Mitter and his wife.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she’s understandably very interested when he starts to date former Hollywood seamstress’ assistant Alice Steele. From the moment Alice makes her appearance, there’s a sense that something isn’t quite right. And that feeling gets even stronger as Bill and Alice continue to date, fall in love, and decide to marry. At first, Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law for Bill’s sake. The more she finds out about Alice’s life, though, the more repelled she is by it. And the more questions she has about Alice. At the same time, she is drawn to that life, so she has conflicting feelings when there’s a death, and Alice seems to be mixed up in it. Telling herself that it’s to protect her brother, Lora starts to ask some questions. But long before the death, in fact, from the beginning of the story, we know that something bad will happen.

We know that about Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, too. Science fiction novelist Zack Walker decides that he and his family should move from the city that he considers too dangerous to the suburbs. The Walkers choose Valley Forest Estates as their new development, and move in. But right from the beginning, we know there’s going to be trouble. First, Walker notices some problems with the house that need to be fixed. Then, he witnesses an argument between a Valley Forest executive and a local environmentalist. Later, he finds that environmentalist dead near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker’s involved in a web of conspiracy and murder. But we know right from the beginning that this move is going to present real problems…

And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. This book follows the structure of a meal, with sections that have titles such as ‘Appetizer,’ ‘Main Course,’ and ‘Dessert.’ Within each section are the various chapters. At the beginning of the book, two couples meet for dinner at a very exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. In some ways, there’s little indication of what’s to come. But very soon, there’s a sense of uneasiness, especially as we learn about Paul’s relationship with his brother. Little by little, we learn the real reason the two couples have met. Their fifteen-year-old sons have committed a horrible crime. Now, the four adults have to decide what they will do. As the novel goes on, we learn about what happened, and we learn about the histories of these dysfunctional people. And that sense that something is wrong starts early in the book.

Sometimes, especially if you’re a crime fiction fan, you know right away that things will turn awful. Little nuances, the atmosphere, and other clues can give the sense that trouble is on the way. And that can draw the reader in.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Herman Koch, Linwood Barclay, Megan Abbott, Patricia Moyes

‘To See Oursels as Ithers See Us’

Robert Burns’ To a Louse (on Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet, at Church) includes one of his most famous lines:
 

‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

 

Burns has a point. There’s often a difference between the way we see ourselves, and the way others see us. Sometimes, that difference isn’t such a big problem (do people really have to see every single flaw we magnify when we think of ourselves?). But sometimes, the difference is quite striking. And that can make for all sorts of conflict. So, it’s little wonder this plot point/character trait comes up in crime fiction.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Mrs. Boynton. She is tyrannical and malicious – even cruel. In fact, her family members are so cowed that no-one dares to defy her. During a trip to the Middle East, she and her family meet Sarah King, who’s recently qualified as a doctor. Sarah soon finds herself interested in Mrs. Boynton’s stepson, Raymond, and the feeling is mutual. She also finds that she likes Raymond’s sister, Carol. But Mrs. Boynton’s mental sadism stands squarely in the way of either a budding romance or a friendship. At one point, Sarah is so frustrated with Mrs. Boynton that she speaks her mind:

 

‘‘You like to make yourself out a kind of ogre, but really, you know, you’re just pathetic and rather ludicrous.’’

 

Confronted with this outside view of herself, Mrs. Boynton is infuriated. Her reaction has real consequences, too. A few days later, she and her family take a trip to Petra. Sarah had already planned to do, so she continues follow the fate of the family. On the second day at Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and Colonel Carbury asks him to investigate. Poirot finds that this death has a lot to do with Mrs. Boynton’s personality.

In Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, we are introduced to a banker, Horace Croyden. He prides himself on a quiet, well-ordered life that is completely free of scandal. In fact, the very idea of a scandal horrifies him, and he’s very careful about the people he hires on that score. His passion is working ciphers, and he’s devoted to it. In short, his life is safe, respectable, and exactly the way he wants it. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin, Althea. They begin to date, and eventually marry. And that’s when the trouble begins. Althea is much more vivacious than her husband thought. Worse, she replaces some of the furniture with bright, modern furniture that’s not at all to his taste. The tipping point comes when she burns some of his beloved ciphers, because she thought they were trash. Croyden takes his own kind of action. The story is told from his point of view, which justifies everything he does, from the very beginning. And it’s very interesting to see how different his view of himself and his actions is from the view that others have.

Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat begins as Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at the University of Drummondale, in rural Australia, prepare for a distinguished guest. Oxford Professor Belville-Smith is doing a tour of the country, and one of his stops will be Drummondale. Everyone’s hoping the visit will go well, but from the beginning, it doesn’t. Professor Belville-Smith is condescending at best, and contemptuous at worst. He has an exalted sense of his own importance and assumes that everyone thinks he is as scintillating as he thinks he is. He’s not. He’s rude, and his lectures are both dry and incoherent. At one point, he even mixes up two lectures, beginning with one and ending with the other. No-one has a good impression of him, and some go even further than that. Two days into the visit, he is murdered. Inspector Bert Royle, who’s never investigated a murder before, has to solve the case, and he has plenty of suspects. Among other things, it’s interesting to see the difference between Belville-Smith’s view of himself and that of his hosts.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, financial planner Dennis Brinkman dies in what looks like a horrible accident. His friend, Benny Frayle, is convinced he was murdered, though, and wants the police to investigate. At first, Inspector Tom Barnaby is disinclined to open the matter again. The police who came to the scene did their jobs competently, and he sees no reason to go back over the same ground. But then, a self-styled medium named Ava Garrett gives a séance in which she recounts details of Brinkman’s death, an event she didn’t witness. These details indicate that he was murdered. Not long afterwards, she is poisoned. Now it’s clear that there’s more going on here than an accident, and Barnaby and his team look into both deaths. They find some interesting differences between what others thought of Ava, and what she thought of herself. She’d bought into the public perception of what a medium ‘should be,’ but the truth was different.

In Herman Koch’s The Dinner, we are introduced to Paul Lohman, his wife, Claire, his brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. They meet for dinner one night at one of Amsterdam’s exclusive restaurants – the kind where you have to call months ahead for a table. Each part of the novel takes place during a different part of the meal (starters, main course, etc.). As the story goes on, we learn something about these people. On the surface, they seem to be successful people with good families. But underneath, things are darker. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s fifteen-year-old son, Rick, are guilty of committing a horrible crime. The real reason for this dinner is for the two couples to work out what they will do. The story is told from Paul Lohman’s point of view; and, through his eyes, we learn the backstories of these people. As he tells the story, Paul shows his own view of himself, but he also includes things that other people say. And it’s interesting to see the difference between the way he sees himself and the way others do.

See what I mean? Burns certainly had a point. Happy Burns Night!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Herman Koch, Robert Barnard, Robert Burns, Talmage Powell

And Always You’ll See That You Reflect on Me*

You know the feeling, I’ll bet. A child misbehaves in public, and one of your first thoughts might be, ‘What is that mother/father thinking?’ Or, you cringe when your child’s teacher asks to speak to you, and brings up something that may be going on at school. In many societies, what children do is often seen as a reflection on their parents. When children are ‘well-behaved,’ get high grades, and so on, the parents must be doing something right. When they aren’t, or don’t, that’s largely seen as ‘the parents’ fault.’

We all know, of course, that it’s not as simple as that. Children have their own identities, priorities, and thoughts. And their dreams may very well be different to their parents’. That’s not to mention that even loving, involved parents don’t always know everything their children do. In society’s eyes, that doesn’t always matter, though, and it’s interesting to see how this plays out in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, we are introduced to the Tucker family. They’re a working-class family that stays out of trouble. And the parents are happy that their older children are settled and have ‘respectable’ lives of their own. Then, tragedy strikes. Fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is murdered during a fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is at the event, since she designed one of the activities. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. He works with Inspector Bland to find out who would want to kill Marlene. Poirot interviews her parents, and gets very little help from them. They saw their daughter as ‘a good girl,’ if not exactly brilliant. And that respectability is important to them. But, as Poirot learns from Marlene’s younger sister Marylin,
 

‘‘Mum don’t know everything.’’
 

And he learns that Marlene had a habit of finding out people’s secrets – something her parents would not have approved of her doing. And that put her squarely in the sights of a killer.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and (now retired) academician. She is also a mother. And, as is the case with most parents, she wants the very best for her children. She doesn’t expect them to be exactly like her, but they do, in their way, reflect on her. So, when her oldest child, Mieka, decides to withdraw from university and open her own business, it’s hard for Joanne to accept. Part of it is that Mieka’s choice is a very risky one. But part of it is that children’s choices are seen as reflecting on their parents. In the end, entrepreneurship turns out to be right for Mieka, and Joanne is justly proud of her daughter’s success. But it’s not always easy to accept that Mieka will go her own way.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit introduces us to Mason Hunt, commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. He is also the widowed father of fifteen-year-old Grace. The main plot of the novel has to do with a long-ago murder committed by Mason’s brother, Gates. At the time of the murder, Mason helped his brother cover it up out of a sense of loyalty. But that comes back to haunt him later. In the meantime, Grace has problems of her own. She becomes pregnant, and it’s very clear that the father will not be a part of the baby’s life. That’s not at all what Mason had envisioned for his daughter, and in the small town where they live, he has reason to believe Grace’s choices may reflect on him. But, he loves his daughter, and he knows that she has never needed him more than she needs him now. So, he stands by her, and when the baby is born, helps to take care of the child.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner has as its context a full-course dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants – the kind where you have to call months in advance to even have a hope of getting a reservation. The two couples at this particular dinner are Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. As the dinner moves on through the courses, we learn that this isn’t an ordinary dinner where brothers and their wives get together to catch up. Little by little, we learn that Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are responsible for a terrible crime. The police are looking into the case, and before they get too far, the two couples have to decide what to do. No matter what happens, what the boys did reflects badly on their parents. And both sets of parents are particularly interested in preserving their veneer of respectability. That’s an important thread woven through the story.

We see this issue from the other side, as it were, in Natsuo Kirino’s Real Life. This novel’s focus is four Tokyo teenagers: Toshiko Yamanaka, Kazuko Terauchi, Kiyomi ‘Yuzan’ Kaibara, and Kirari Higashiyama. One day, the mother of the family who lives next door to Toshiko is murdered. And, as it turns out, her son, Ryo, is suspected of the crime. He acts quite guilty, too, stealing Toshiko’s bicycle and telephone and going on the run. Toshiko and her friends each come into contact with Ryo, and each has a different reaction. But they all decide not to inform the police or their parents about what they know. As the events of the next few days play out, things start to spin out of control for everyone, and it all leads to tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see how clearly these young people understand that they are seen as reflecting on their parents. That sense of responsibility is an important part of the way they think.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The story features families who send their children to Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. Three families in particular are the focus of the novel; all of them have at least one child in Kindergarten. When one child is accused of bullying another, the parents begin to divide into two ‘camps.’ That resentment is enough of a problem, but there are other resentments, too. Everything boils over one night at a fundraiser, and it ends up in a tragedy. In this story, we see how important it is to some of these families that their children be perceived as ‘good,’ as ‘bright,’ as ‘well-behaved.’ In a small community like this one, the way children behave really is seen as, at least in part, a reflection on their parents.

And that’s the thing about parents and children. We know intellectually that children are not the same as parents, and that the children of excellent parents can still make serious mistakes. But that’s not always how it plays out…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthias Meissner, Thomas Schwarz-Janen, Frank Peterson and Andrea Silveira’s The Second Element

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Natsuo Kirino

You’re Kidding Yourself*

self-deceptionIt’s said that the biggest lies, and the most difficult to get past, are the ones we tell ourselves. To an extent, we all do a bit a self-deception (e.g. ‘It’s just one piece of cake, after all;’ ‘It’s not my fault! ____ made a complete mess of this project;’ ‘Why are all these people such bad drivers?’). And just a little self-deception is usually harmless enough (it is, after all, just the one piece of cake, right?). But the less honest we are with ourselves, the more trouble we can find.

Don’t believe me? There are plenty of examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean. Crime-fictional characters who deceive themselves can add a solid source of tension to a novel. What’s more, they can be interesting reflections of our human nature.

For instance, in Megan Abbott’s 1950’s-era historical novel Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She has a close relationship with her brother, Bill, who’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office. Lora’s life may not be overly exciting, but she’s content. Then, Bill meets and falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. From the very beginning, Lora doesn’t think much of Alice, and she’s very uncomfortable with what she sees as Alice’s dubious past. But, for Bill’s sake, she tries to make her relationship with Alice work. That gets more difficult, though, when Bill and Alice marry. The more Lora learns about Alice, the more questions she has about her new sister-in-law, and that doesn’t help matters, either. At the same time as Lora is repelled by Alice’s life, though, she is also drawn to it. And it’s interesting to see how she doesn’t really admit that to herself. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be involved in it. In what she tells herself is an attempt to protect Bill, Lora begins to ask questions about the murder. But what, really, are her motives? And what does she really want from her life?

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice features former school principal Thea Farmer. When she left her position, her plan had been to have a house built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But a combination of bad luck and poor financial judgement changed everything. Now, Thea’s had to settle for the house next door – a home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ What’s worse, the home she still thinks of as hers has been purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington – a couple she refers to as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s niece, Kim, comes to live with him and Ellice. To her surprise, Thea finds herself developing an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. She sees real writing promise in Kim, and even takes the girl to the writing class she’s been attending. When Thea comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, she learns that the police are unlikely to do anything about it as things are. So, Thea decides to take matters into her own hands. Thea is a strong, intelligent character. But it’s interesting to see how she is also able to deceive herself. Her story is told through a series of journal entries that she makes for her writing class; and in those entries, we see how she views people and events in her life. But what is the real truth about the reason she left the school where she was principal? And what about the circumstances that led to her financial difficulties? There are solid hints here that Thea isn’t entirely honest with herself.

That’s also true of Gates Hunt, whom we meet in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. He and his brother, Mason, were raised in poverty, in an abusive home. But each had the means to get out. Mason has taken advantage of scholarships and other opportunities, and now has a ‘free ride’ to law school. Gates has a great deal of natural athletic ability, and has been told he could go far with that. But he’s chosen to squander his talent, and has ended up living on money he gets from his mother, and on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. One, night, the Hunt brothers are driving home after a night out when they encounter Gates’ romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. An argument they had earlier in the day flares up again, and before anyone really knows it, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason helps his brother cover up the crime, and life goes on for the Hunt brothers. Years later, Mason has become the commonwealth (of Virginia) prosecutor for Patrick County. Gates has gotten involved in drug dealing. When he’s arrested and handed a very long sentence, he begs his brother to get him out. This time, Mason refuses to help. Gates retaliates by implicating Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder, and now Mason may stand trial for the killing. Throughout this novel, we see how Gates deceives himself. He blames others for his bad choices, and he doesn’t consider his own role in what’s happened to his life.

There’s a lot of self-deception in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. One night, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, have dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant with Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. As the story goes on, and each different course is brought, we slowly get to know these characters. And we learn that these couples have a very dark secret. Their fifteen-year-old sons went in together in a terrible crime. The real purpose of the meal was to work out what they’re going to do about it. And in their conversations, we see how much these people are deceiving themselves about their children, their own roles in the crime, and more.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we are introduced to Niccolo ‘Nick’ Franco. His family came to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, all went well enough, and the family began to prosper. But then, Nick’s father ended up killing Luigi Lupo in a bar fight. Unfortunately for the family, the victim turned out to be the son of notorious mobster Tonio Lupo. The bereaved father has cursed the family, promising that all three Franco sons (including Nick) will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi was at his death. As we follow Nick’s story, we learn that he gets ‘the Hollywood bug’ and tries to make a name for himself in the silent films. He does well enough at first. But he has grandiose ideas about his future, and he’s not honest with himself about his mediocre acting. It doesn’t help matters that he’s fond of drugs, drink, and women. Nick’s refusal to see his own limitations end up costing him dearly.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which tells the story of Piriwee Public School, near Sydney, and the families that send their children there. The story’s focus is three families in particular. Trouble starts when the son of one of those three mothers is accused of bullying. He claims he’s innocent, but the accuser’s mother is adamant. Matters get worse as other families choose sides. One night, everything comes to a boil, as the saying goes, and there’s a tragedy. As the families cope with what’s happened, we see just what lies people tell themselves – especially when it comes to their own families and children.

See what I mean? Some of the ways we deceive ourselves aren’t so bad. But some can lead to disaster. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on my new novel. It’s only going to take me a couple of weeks, and I know it’s Nobel-worthy – way better than anything else out there.  What?! It is!  😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Megan Abbott, Virginia Duigan

It Don’t Take Long*

condensed-storiesIn real life, murder investigations take time. And that makes sense, when you consider all of the factors that go into solving a crime. But that doesn’t always work well in a novel. Many readers prefer a faster pace and more engagement in their stories. And it’s interesting to see how different crime writers have approached that balance between telling a story in a realistic way, and keeping the story’s pace in mind.

Some writers have even managed to tell an absorbing story that takes place over just a few days, or even less. It’s not easy to pull that off, and still make the story credible. But when it works, that approach can add tension and a solid pace to a story.

Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley is one of those novels. In it, Dr. George Abbershaw is among several guests invited for a house party at Black Dudley, the family of home of academician Wyatt Petrie. The only permanent residents of Black Dudley are Petrie and his uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe. This weekend, though, there are several other people there, including Albert Campion, who would become Allingham’s sleuth. On the first night, Petrie tells the guests about an old family legend concerning a large dagger that’s hanging over the fireplace in the drawing room. Everyone decides to go through the ritual associated with that legend. During the night, Colonel Coombs is killed. Abbershaw is asked to sign a death certificate that identifies the cause as heart failure. But he has his doubts, and very quickly deduces that the victim was stabbed with the dagger. What’s more, one of the other guests turns out to be associated with a criminal gang that claims to be missing ‘something important,’ and demands its return. The gang refuses to let anyone leave until that property, which turns out to be a set of papers, is returned. With this pressure, Abbershaw and, to an extent, Campion, have to work quickly to find out the truth about Coomb’s death and the papers.

There’s a similar sort of short time span in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. A group of people, including Hercule Poirot, board the famous Orient Express for a three-day journey across Europe. On the second night, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his bunk. Poirot is asked to investigate and, hopefully, find out the who the killer is before the train reaches the next frontier, so that the murderer can be handed over to the police. Poirot agrees, and begins by interviewing each of the passengers. A search is also made of their luggage. That information, plus certain clues and pieces of information, leads Poirot to the truth. The truth about the murder stems from an event several years earlier. But the action in the story takes place mostly over just two days.

The context for Kalpana Swaminatham’s The Page 3 Murders is a weekend ‘foodie party’ hosted by Dr. Hilla Driver. In part, the party is a sort of ‘housewarming,’ as she’s just inherited a beautiful upscale home. It’s also intended as a celebration of her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. Hilla is very well-connected, so her guests represent Mumbai’s elite, including a food critic, a well-known writer, a dancer, a model, and a socialite and her husband. Also invited is a retired police detective, Lalli, and her niece (who narrates the story). Right away, it’s clear that there are conflicts among some of the guests, and hidden animosity. But everyone settles in and looks forward to what’s supposed to be the culminating event: a seven-course gourmet meal prepared by Hilla’s chef, Tarok Ghosh. The meal begins with custom-designed starters/appetizers, and it’s soon clear that Tarok planned them as his way of hinting at secrets that each guest is keeping. It’s clear now that he knows more than it’s safe to know. When his body is discovered late the next morning, Lalli is not shocked, given what he revealed. But she is dismayed, of course, and wants to find the killer as soon as possible. Then another death is discovered. Now there’s even more time pressure, and Lalli and her niece work quickly to find out who’s responsible. Again, some of the secrets we learn in this story go back some years. But the action in it takes place over only a few days.

There’s also Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. Kazuki Mekari, of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department is given a difficult and unusual assignment. He and a specially-chosen group of officers are to travel to Fukuoka and bring back Kunihide Kiyomaru to face justice in Tokyo. Kiyomaru is responsible for the rape and murder of a young girl, and escaped to Fukuoka. This trip isn’t going to be easy, though. The girl’s very wealthy grandfather has publicly offered a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru. So Mekari and his team will have to protect their prisoner from potentially thousands of people. What’s more, they’ll have to keep their own greed in check. The longer the trip takes, the more likely it is that someone will get to Kiyomaru. So, the team has to move as quickly as possible. The distance between Fukuoka and Tokyo is about 1100 km/685 mi, and on a ‘bullet train,’ that would normally take about six hours. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly that simple. The bulk of the action in this novel takes place as Mekari and his team travel with their prisoner. But a lot can happen even in the space of less than two days…

As the name suggests, Herman Koch’s The Dinner takes place over the course of one upmarket gourmet meal. Paul and Claire Lohman meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, for dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants. As the dinner progresses, we slowly learn the backstories of these characters, and we learn about a dark secret both families are keeping. Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are guilty of a terrible crime. As we find out what happened, we also find out that this dinner had a very specific purpose: trying to decide what to do about that crime. It’s a fascinating story structure: it takes place during one meal, but it has to do with the characters’ entire lives.

There are, of course, plenty of other stories where the action is ‘telescoped’ into a short period of time. It can be tricky to do that effectively but the result can be a solid layer of suspense and an interesting plot structure. Which stories like that have stayed with you?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Herman Koch, Kalpana Swaminathan, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Margery Allingham