Category Archives: Ilsa Evans

Oh, Let’s Go Back to the Start*

In a recent post, crime writer and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig made an interesting point about taking a story full circle. She suggested that one way to do this is to end a story by going back to the beginning. For instance, her Pretty is as Pretty Dies begins one morning at the home of Myrtle Clover. She’s a retired teacher who isn’t ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet. So, when she discovers the body of real estate developer Parke Stoddard in a local church, she can’t resist getting involved in the investigation, much to the chagrin of her son, who happens to be the local chief of police. As Myrtle starts to ask questions, she finds that there are plenty of people who had a good reason to want the victim dead. She was, to say the least, malicious and vindictive, and had alienated just about everyone in town. Myrtle discovers who the killer is, and in the final scene, is back at her home. In that sense, the story goes full circle, beginning and ending at Myrtle Clover’s home. But a lot of things have happened in the interim, and we see that as the final scene plays out.

And that’s one way in which that ‘full circle’ approach to storytelling can be useful. It allows the author to show character changes, but at the same time bring the story to some closure. And there are plenty of examples of how this works in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

In one of the very first scenes in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, sculptor Henrietta Savernake is in her studio, creating a piece for an upcoming show. We soon learn that she is one of several guests invited to spend a weekend at the home of some cousins, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Two of the other guests are to be Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda; and for Henrietta, this makes the visit all the more special, since she is Christow’s mistress. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch, and arrives just after the murder. He and Inspector Grange work to find out who murdered Christow. At the very end of the novel, there’s another scene, again in Henrietta’s studio. It brings the story round to the beginning again, and shows some of what’s happened to Henrietta as a result of the events in the novel.

Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead more or less begins at the London home of forensic anthropologist David Hunter. He’s recovering from the physical and mental trauma he suffered as a result of events in Written in Bone, and now he’s preparing to leave for a trip to Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, often called The Body Farm. For Hunter, this is a welcome trip, as he wants to get out of London for a time. He’s looking forward to doing some research as well as to renewing his acquaintance with his mentor, Tom Liebermann. Hunter arrives in Tennessee just in time to hear the news of the discovery of a decomposed body in a cabin not far from the laboratory. Hunter gets involved in the investigation, and it turns out to be a wrenching case. At the end of the novel, he returns to his London apartment. There’s a final scene in which he has a short conversation with the woman who lives in the flat above his. That conversation, and his return, really only take up a few sentences. But they bring the story back to the beginning to give some closure to it. And the scene shows some of what’s happened to Hunter in the course of the novel.

Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings is the first of her series featuring Victoria journalist Nell Forrest. As the story opens, she’s at the home she shares with two of her five daughters (the other three are adults who have their own homes). She gets a visit from the police, who inform her that there’s been a fire at her mother’s house, not far away. Nell’s mother, Lillian ‘Yen’ is safe, but the fire has done considerable damage. And the body of a man has been found in the garage. It turns out that this man is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen. And it turns out that he was murdered before the fire started. Now, Yen is a suspect in a murder investigation. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is guilty. And there’s no lack of other suspects. So, she starts looking into the matter, and ends up getting into real danger. At the very end, there’s a scene where Nell is back at her home. She’s having a glass of wine with DS Ashley Armistead, who’s the official investigator on the case. In a way, the scene takes us back to the beginning of the novel. But it’s not the same Nell Forrest at the end, if I can put it that way. She’s learned a few things about herself, and sees the world a little differently.

And then there’s Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale. This story begins in 1758 in the British colony of North Carolina. Plantation owner Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. His work mostly involves breaking up drunken quarrels, levying fines on people who don’t attend church services, and catching petty thieves. Everything changes when Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are discovered brutally murdered at their home. Only their infant survived. On the surface, it looks like it might be the work of Indians. And, considering that this novel takes place during the Severn Years/French and Indian War, that wouldn’t be out of the question. But there are hints that that might not be what happened. A broach found at the murder scene provides a clue, and Woodyard decides to follow up on it. He believes that if he can find its owner, he can find the killer. So, he starts to follow the trail. In fact, it leads on a four-month journey all the way into Canada. In the end, though, Harry finds that the truth is closer to home than he would have imagined. The last scene in the novel has him back in Craven County, getting ready to resume his duties. He’s gone through some changes, though, and Smith makes that clear.

And that’s one of the advantages of using this sort of plot structure. Going back to the beginning can help the reader see how a character has grown or changed. It also allows the author to ‘tie up’ the novel and give some closure to it. Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s The Scientist.

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Donald Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ilsa Evans, Simon Beckett

In the End, Only Kindness Matters*

OnlyKindnessMattersThere’s been a lot of bad news from all over the world lately. At times like this, I think it’s helpful to remember that people are also capable of great kindness (and OK, the cute ‘roo in the ‘photo is an extra bonus 😉 ). I’d bet you’ve experienced kindness in your own life, and shared it with others. It’s all over crime fiction, too.

It’s not easy to write a ‘kind’ scene in a crime novel. After all, those stories are about things that people do to one another, and crime fiction fans don’t want their books too ‘sugary.’ But there are ways to weave such scenes into a crime novel. And, when done well, they can add a welcome bit of light into an otherwise sad novel. For the writer, they can move the plot along, too, and add character development.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), we are introduced to Heather Badcock. She lives with her husband, Arthur, in a brand-new council housing development in St. Mary Mead. Heather’s far from perfect, but she has what’s sometimes called a big heart. So one day, when she sees an elderly lady stumble and twist her ankle, she’s only too happy to help. That lady turns out to be Miss Marple, who is quite grateful for the kindness of a stranger. That’s partly why she gets involved in the case when Heather later dies of what turns out to be poison. Miss Marple is not at all blind to Heather’s faults and weaknesses, but she also sees her good qualities. It’s an interesting case of a character whose positive qualities turn out to have a negative side, if I can put it that way.

In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte travels to the small town of Merino to investigate the death of itinerant stockman George Kendall. In order to get as much information as possible, he goes undercover as ‘just another swagman.’ With the help of Sergeant Marshall of the local police, he arranges to be jailed for ten days for vagrancy, loitering, lying to the police, and interfering with the police. He’s in his jail cell when he meets eight-year-old Florence Marshall (who usually goes by Rose Marie), the sergeant’s daughter.  Florence brings the ‘prisoner’ tea, and strikes up a friendship with him, and Bony is grateful for her kindness. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t condescend to her, which endears him to her. Later in the novel, Bony’s able to repay her kindness.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in Haystack begins as Buenos Aires police officer Venancio ‘Perro’ Lascano and his team raid a brothel. They have to be careful about, too. On the one hand, the ruling far-right junta (the novel takes place in the late 1970s) wants to put on a show of being tough on such crimes. And it’s as much as a death sentence to go against them. On the other, several important community leaders are patrons of the brothel. Still, the police carry out their duty. As Lascano is making one last pass through the establishment, he discovers a young woman hiding there. She’s not one of the brothel workers; rather, she’s using the place as a refuge. Lascano escorts her to safety, where he finds out that her name is Eva. He gives Eva temporary shelter in his home; and at first, she assumes he’s going to want something in return. But he asks neither for information nor sexual attention. In fact, as the novel goes on, he continues to treat her with kindness with no apparent ulterior motive. In the end, that kindness saves her life. This isn’t the main plot of the novel, really. But it does show how a kind gesture can add a ‘lift’ even to a noir story such as this one, where people generally can’t trust one another.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief includes a sub-plot regarding a young boy named François. When his mother, Karima, disappears (her reasons are a part of the main plot), he’s left more or less alone in the world. Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano has compassion for the boy and takes him in temporarily. That’s mostly at the behest of Montalbano’s longtime lover, Livia, who’s visiting at the time. Livia and François, especially, form a bond that benefits both of them. In the end, that kindness allows François to build a new life.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is the story of Stephanie Anderson. When she’s fourteen, her younger sister Gemma goes missing during a school picnic/barbecue. Despite a massive search, no trace of Gemma is ever found. Seventeen years later, Stephanie is just finishing her training in psychiatry in Dunedin. She gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, who tells her a story that’s eerily similar to Stephanie’s own. Elisabeth’s sister Gracie also disappeared, also with no trace. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest, and goes in search of the person who caused so much hurt to both her family and the Clarks. So she travels back to her home town of Wanaka. Along the way, she stays for a short time with Elisabeth’s father, Andy. Although she’s a stranger to Andy, really, he makes her welcome at the Guest House he owns, and treats her with kindness. So do other people she meets along the way. That kindness doesn’t catch the person responsible for the disappearances, but it shores Stephanie up during her journey. And it helps her do some healing.

And then there’s Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings, which introduces Victoria newspaper columnist Nell Forrest. One night, Nell gets a visit from the police, who tell her that there’s been a fire at the home of her mother, Lillian ‘Yen.’ What’s more, a man’s body was found in the ruins of the garage, where the fire started. He is Dustin Craig, who lived next door. At first, the police think that he died in a terrible accident (although there is some question about what he was doing at the next-door house late at night). But soon, it’s proven that he was murdered. Now, Yen herself comes under suspicion, and there’s good reason for that. Nell starts to ask some questions, and discovers that several other people have strong motives for murder. In the course of her search for the truth, Nell herself gets into grave danger. Despite that, though, she finds a way to be kind to another character who’s also in danger. That kindness doesn’t exactly cement a friendship. But it does show that even when things look terrible, people can be kind.

And that’s the thing about kindness. It doesn’t have to be ‘sugary sweet’ (Nell’s isn’t, for instance). And in a crime novel, most readers wouldn’t want such saccharine anyway. But kindness can add a touch of relief to a novel. And in real life, those little kindnesses can make a difference. It doesn’t take much to reach out. And it can be an antidote to everything going on in the world…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jewel Kilcher’s Hands.

48 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Upfield, Ernesto Mallo, Ilsa Evans, Paddy Richardson

In The Spotlight: Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings

>In The Spotlight: Walter Mosley's A Red DeathHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the challenges of creating an amateur sleuth is creating credible circumstances in which that person gets involved in investigating a crime. After all, amateur sleuths have no authority, and depending on their professional backgrounds, they don’t have experience at investigating. Still, there are plenty of credible amateur sleuths out there. Let’s take a look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings, the first of her Nell Forrest novels.

Forrest is a newspaper columnist who lives with the two youngest of her five daughters in the small town of Majic, Victoria (even she makes fun of the town name, and there’s a story behind it). One day, she gets a visit from two police constables, who inform her that there’s been a fire at her mother’s home not far away. Forrest’s mother Lillian ‘Yen’ was rescued and will be fine, but there’s been damage to the house. What’s more, the body of a man was found in the garage.

Soon enough, the victim is identified as Dustin Craig, who lived next door. At first, his death looks like some sort of terrible accident. But it doesn’t take long to establish that he was murdered – dead before the fire was started. Now, the police begin to investigate the death thoroughly.

Yen can’t stay in her own home until the repairs to it are complete. So it’s agreed that she’ll stay with Nell and her at-home daughters, Lucy and Quinn. Against this somewhat chaotic background, Nell starts to try to find out the truth about Craig’s murder. There’s even a whiteboard in her living room where she, her sister Petra, and the other family members start to jot down their ideas for suspects.

And there are plenty of suspects. For one thing, Craig was abusive to his much younger wife, Beth, and to their daughters. He had also had his share of altercations with other people on the street. Unfortunately for Nell Forrest, that group includes her mother. In fact, Craig and Yen had had a loud argument on the very evening of his death, so that makes her quite a viable suspect. In fact, Yen herself insists that her name be added to the whiteboard, although she claims to be innocent. And, after all, why would she kill someone, leave the body in her own garage, and then start a fire? Nobody in the family wants to believe that Yen’s a killer, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Still, Nell isn’t convinced, so she wants to clear her mother’s name.

Little by little, and each in a different way, Nell and the police start to put the pieces of the puzzle together. To do this, they have to untangle a complicated series of relationships among the people who live on the same road as Yen. And in the end, that network has a lot to do with the murder.

Because Nell is an amateur sleuth, she doesn’t have the force of law behind her. But she does know a lot of the people involved. In some cases, she’s known them for years. So the various witnesses and suspects don’t find it unusual or inappropriate that she’s talking to them about the investigation. Besides, they all know that it’s her mother whose house has been damaged. So it makes sense to the other people involved that she would ask questions. That said, though, readers who prefer police or PIs as sleuths will note that Nell is neither.

One of the important elements in the novel is the set of interactions among the people who live on and near Small Dairy Lane, where the crime occurred. It’s one of those cases where people know each other. It’s not quite as insular as some very small communities are, but Majic, and in particular Small Dairy Road, is the sort of place where people do know each other’s business. Readers who enjoy ‘murder in a small community’ stories will appreciate this.

Another important element in the novel is the character of Nell Forrest, and the interactions she has with her family members. She’s recently divorced from her daughters’ father, and is just now getting ready to start life again. Although she has very mixed feelings, both about the divorce and about her ex, she doesn’t wallow. She’s far too busy for that. Nell’s entered middle age, and is getting more and more comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes. She’s hardly perfect – just ask her children. But she’s bright, quick-thinking, and observant.

Nell also has solid relationships with her daughters. Readers who are tired of badly dysfunctional families will appreciate that aspect of the novel. They argue, forget things, are sometimes inconsiderate, bait each other, and so on. But there is a strong bond among them. There’s also a strong bond between Nell and her sister Petra. Both of them get quite exasperated with their mother, who in turn gets her fill of them. But again, there’s an underlying closeness among them.

There is wit in the novel. For instance, in one scene, Nell is preparing a meal. She and her daughter Lucy are in the kitchen, having a conversation about Lucy’s decision to leave university and work, instead of finishing her degree:
 

‘I was just taking time out, working out what I wanted to do. Trying to fi –’
I held up my hand to stop her, which worked because it was also the hand holding the knife. ‘If you say ‘find yourself,’ I swear to god I’m going to blindfold you, drop you in the middle of the desert, and then see how you really go about finding yourself.’’
 

There are other funny scenes, too.

That said though, this is not really what you’d call a light, cosy sort of mystery. The story behind the murders is an unhappy one. Knowing the truth doesn’t make that go away. And there are other ways, too, in which the novel takes an edgier tone than many cosies do. Readers who prefer ‘G-rated’ cosies will want to be aware that this isn’t one of them.

Nefarious Doings is the story of a murder and its impact on the people who live on a quiet street in a quiet town. It features a network of relationships among those people, and introduces a distinctly Australian sleuth who has a unique, sometimes witty, way of looking at life. But what’s your view? Have you read Nefarious Doings? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 9 May/Tuesday 10 May – Three Little Pigs – Apostolos Doxiadis

Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Terror in Taffeta – Marla Cooper

Monday 23 May/Tuesday 24 May – Burial of the Dead – Michael Hogan

27 Comments

Filed under Ilsa Evans, Nefarious Doings