Category Archives: James Lee Burke

I’ve Come to Look For America*

FireworksWhen you travel in the US, you see one thing very clearly: America is composed of a lot of very different communities. Of course, many other countries are quite diverse, and have all sorts of different smaller communities within them. Those smaller communities add depth, texture and complexity to the fabric of the country and (in my opinion) make it richer. And fortunately, there’s plenty of good crime fiction that gives readers a look at those communities. There’s not nearly enough space here to mention all of the smaller communities that make up America. Here are just a few that have added to the national tapestry.

The Native Americans were here first, and several crime fiction series and novels offer insight into their experiences. You’ll probably already likely know about the work of Tony Hillerman, whose Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels focus on life in the Navajo Nation. These novels give a fascinating perspective on the Southwest US, among other things. But Hillerman is hardly the only writer who explores the Native American experience. So does Stan Jones, whose Nathan Active novels take place in Alaska. Active is an Alaska State Trooper, and a member of the Inupiaq Nation. Although he was raised in Anchorage, Active now lives and works in the small town of Chukchi. This series does feature crime and its investigation. But it’s also a look at life among the Native Americans who live in Alaska. There’s also Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Father John O’Malley series. Those novels take place mostly on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, among the Arapaho people. Holden is a member of that community; she’s also an attorney. As she and Fr. O’Malley investigate, readers learn a lot about life among the Arapaho. There are plenty of other crime novels and series that take place among, or that feature, Native Americans (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series). To understand the United States, it’s important to have at least some understanding of the people who were here first.

Another fascinating community of the modern US is the Cajun community of (mostly) Louisiana. You’ll know from your history that they’re the descendants of Acadians, who migrated to what was then French territory after being expelled from what are today Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Cajun music, food, lifestyle and language have had a powerful impact on Louisiana. And that influence has spread as people have discovered that rich resource. James Lee Burke has shown millions of readers life among the Cajuns through his Dave Robicheaux novels. As fans will know, Robicheaux is a cop with the New Iberia (Louisiana) Police. He himself is a Cajun; and he certainly interacts with many other Cajuns in the course of his work. So readers get a really interesting perspective on that community.

I don’t think it’s possible to accurately discuss the American experience without discussing the Black experience. Perhaps the most important, and basic, thing about that experience is that it’s been fundamentally different to the White experience. Understanding that fact, and gaining a perspective on Black America, is important (at least I think it is) to understanding the modern USA. Walter Mosely has written a few series that explore the Black experience. His Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels take place in Los Angeles in the years just after World War II, and leading up to and through the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. In those novels, we follow Rawlins, who starts out as an informal PI, but later gets his license. Another of his series features Leonid McGill, a modern-day New York PI. What’s interesting is that a comparison of this series shows that the Black experience is not identical across the country. What’s more, it’s not identical over time. You could say the same thing about Attica Locke’s work. Her novels explore both the Houston area and Louisiana, both in the present day and the recent (and not at all recent) past. Throughout those stories, we see the complexity as well as the evolution of the Black community.

No less rich and complex is the US Latino community. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that there really isn’t one Latino community. Still, for the sake of space, there are crime writers who’ve explored the Latino experience in America. One is Manuel Ramos. His Denver-based attorney Luis Móntez was at one time involved in the Chicano activist movement. When we meet him in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, he has to return to that past when he learns that several other former activists – members of El Movimiento – are dying. The key seems to be their history and their possible involvement years ago in the death of one of their own, Rocky Ruiz. Steven Torres’ Precinct Puerto Rico series features Luis Gonzalo, a small-town Puerto Rico Sherriff. There are plenty of other novels, too, that depict different Latino communities.

Just about every major American city has a Chinatown of one sort or another. The Chinese community in the US has become a unique blend of traditional Chinese culture, language and lifestyle with elements of the surrounding culture. And the list of ways in which that Chinese culture has influenced the US would go on for far too long. Both S.J. Rozan and Henry Chang explore life in New York’s Chinatown. And Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons takes a look at life in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

There are plenty of other smaller communities in the US, too. For instance, Linda Castillo explores the Amish community in her Kate Burkholder novels. And Mette Ivie Harrison depicts life in the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) community in The Bishop’s Wife. All of these communities are unique and distinctive.

But here’s the thing. They are also all American. So although every community’s experience is different, there’s also a shared history. Stitching all of this together to form a national identity is an extremely complicated, sometimes horribly messy, and always fascinating process. After 239 years, it’s still a work in progress. It’ll be exciting and interesting to see where the journey takes us next. Happy Independence Day/Fourth of July to those who celebrate it!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s America.

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Filed under Attica Locke, Craig Johnson, Henry Chang, James Lee Burke, Linda Castillo, Manuel Ramos, Margaret Coel, Mette Ivie Harrison, Michael Connelly, S.J. Rozan, Stan Jones, Steven Torres, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

Scotland Yard Was Trying Hard*

National Police ForcesMany countries have a national police force or other law-enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the entire country. There are also sometimes local, province/state/department-level, or regional police as well.

National police forces and agencies are often the subject of crime fiction novels, for obvious reasons. And it’s fascinating (at least to me) to look at how they’re treated. Of course, a lot of that depends on the protagonist of a given novel or series, and it’s interesting to look at the different lenses through which those agencies are viewed.

The Met (formerly Scotland Yard), for instance, gets some very different treatments depending on the perspective of a given book or series. You’ll probably already know that the Met is not a national police force per se. But the agency does include expert special branches and services that other regional police forces tap. And in series such as Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan novels, Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers novels, or James Craig’s John Carlyle novels, Met police are treated sympathetically. In all of those cases, we have a protagonist who’s a member of that police force, so that makes sense. It’s not that there are no unpleasant Met characters in those novels. But the agency itself is viewed as competent and, overall, a positive force. Not so, though, if one reads, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Fans of those novels will know that Holmes has little patience with Scotland Yard. There are other novels too where there’s friction between Met branches and regional police.

We see a similar sort of disparity when it comes to the way the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s national police force, is treated. In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect for instance, we meet RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, who investigates the murder of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. It’s a very puzzling case; soon enough, Alberg begins to suspect eighty-year-old George Wilcox, but he can’t find a motive. Readers know from the beginning of the novel that Wilcox is, indeed, guilty. The suspense in the story really comes from the slow reveal of the motive and from Alberg’s dogged pursuit of the truth about the case. In this novel, the RCMP is not portrayed as perfect in the least. But it’s presented as an overall solid agency with competent law enforcers. Scott Young’s novels featuring Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak are also more sympathetic than unsympathetic towards Matteesie’s employer, the RCMP. But we get a very different picture through reading the work of Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill, Giles Blunt or Robert Rotenberg. Those series feature police protagonists who are in local or provincial police forces, and their perceptions of RCMP involvement are not exactly positive. At best, RCMP involvement is irritating. At worst, RCMP ‘players’ are slow, incompetent and counterproductive.

There’s an interesting ‘inside’ look at the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in Kel Robertson’s novels featuring Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. As a member of the AFP, Chen participates in investigations that have federal (and sometimes international) implications. He works with competent and dependable team members, too. They aren’t always perfect, and they like a night off work as much as the next person. But they do their jobs well and they are committed to their work. What’s more, they form an important support network for Chen. They’re as much his mates as they are his colleagues.

There’s a less positive portrayal of the AFP in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, which introduces her Bangkok-based PI sleuth Jayne Keeney. In this novel, Keeney travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. When his partner Nou is murdered, Didi is devastated. The police visit him, supposedly because he was considered a suspect. During their visit he’s shot, and the police report is that he was in fact guilty, and tried to resist arrest. The report alleges that he represented an immediate threat to the arresting officers. But Keeney is sure that her friend was innocent, and works to clear his name. In the process of looking into the case, she crosses paths with AFP agent Mark D’Angelo. He’s in Thailand on special assignment with a group that’s looking into human trafficking and the child sex trade. D’Angelo is not portrayed as stupid, incompetent or corrupt. But Keeney does find him unwilling to really consider all the implications of what he’s doing. And without spoiling the story, I can say that for Keeney, it’s very difficult to reconcile herself to the perceptions he and his task force represent.

Talking of Bangkok, the Royal Thai Police have jurisdiction in Thailand. There are several novels (Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom is one of them) in which this agency is depicted as corrupt and greedy at best. But other novels (including Savage’s work) show things differently. Savage’s Jayne Keeney knows that doing her job successfully depends on a rapport with the police. So she’s worked to get to know them. She finds some of the Royal Thai Police to be just as venal as their reputation suggests. But most do their jobs the best they can. And the hard-working police Keeney knows have encountered at least as many problems caused by farangs (foreigners) as those caused by the police. We also see a generally positive portrayal of the Royal Thai Police in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series. Sonchai is a member of the police force and a very observant Buddhist. As he investigates cases, readers get an ‘inside look’ at some of the challenges the police face and some of the ways in which they make a very positive impact. That’s not to say of course that there are no corrupt or even dangerous police in those novels. And even the ‘good guys’ have their faults. But we do see a more or less sympathetic depiction of this national police force, and one that shows readers what goes on ‘behind the scenes.’

Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is a member of the Police Nationale, one of France’s two national police forces. The Police Nationale have jurisdiction in large cities, and Vargas’ novels portray at least Adamsberg’s team as competent, if eccentric (to say the very least). They do their jobs and they care about their work in their way. The Gendarmerie has jurisdiction in smaller towns, rural areas and borderlands. This group gets a less positive treatment from Vargas, although she doesn’t portray each member in a terribly negative way. Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series isn’t very flattering to the Gendarmerie either. In fact. Bruno, who is Chief of Police of the village of St. Denis, very often finds himself at odds with Captain Duroc of the local gendarmerie. In fact, he works better with the Police Nationale. As an aside, you’ll probably know that the Police Nationale used to be known as the Sûreté. Fans of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links will know that her Hercule Poirot is no big fan of that group…

You’ll notice that until now, I’ve not mentioned the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That’s because there are dozens and dozens of crime novels and series that mention that agency, either in a positive or negative light. P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson is an FBI agent, and as you can imagine, the agency is portrayed more or less positively in those novels. There are many others too that depict the FBI in a sympathetic way. But if you read Tony Hillerman’s work or some of James Lee Burke’s novels, you soon see that it’s not at all that simple. There are dozens of novels and series in which the FBI is portrayed as officious, heavy-handed, and sometimes corrupt.

So what can we say about national police agencies (or those that provide national-level services)? They’re large, sometimes complicated, and therefore, complex. As with many groups, the answer depends on whom you ask.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth George, Fred Vargas, Giles Blunt, Inger Ash Wolfe, James Craig, James Lee Burke, Jane Casey, John Burdett, Kel Robertson, L.R. Wright, Martin Walker, Michael Redhill, P.D. Martin, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Young, Tony Hillerman

And Who Was Wrong? And Who Was Right? It Didn’t Matter in the Thick of the Fight*

MemorialDay2015Most people will likely say that they don’t like war. War is ugly, dirty, bloody and brutal, and no-one leaves unscathed, even if one makes it home from the war. And there’ve been conscientious objectors to armed conflict for a very long time.

But some wars give rise to especially strong controversy, and feelings run very high about them. Yet, those who serve their country in the military have to participate in those wars, whether they want to or no, whether they think their country should be involved or no.

Among the modern wars generating perhaps the most controversy has been the Vietnam War. Emotions about that war still are still strong; and at the time, conflicts between those who opposed involvement in the war and those who supported it sometimes turned deadly.

Caught in the middle, as you might say, were members of the military. Whatever their own feelings about the war, they were expected to go. And those who came back often received far from a hero’s welcome. Add this to the not-very-surprising struggles they had with the trauma of surviving a bloody conflict, and it’s not surprising that many Vietnam veterans have had serious difficulties.

The controversy over the war in Vietnam has also, not surprisingly, found its way into crime fiction. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of many, many more than I could, anyway.

Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night treats this theme. Sheldon Hororwitz is an octogenarian, originally from New York, who’s gone to live in Oslo to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Lars. One plot thread of this novel concerns Horowitz looking back on his life and, especially, on the death of his son Saul in Vietnam. Horowitz feels a great deal of guilt about Saul’s death, because as he sees it, he’s responsible. He persuaded his son to go, telling him that it was his responsibility to support his country – to show how loyal he was, to put it another way. During his first stint there, Saul experienced some horrible things that made him question everything about the war. But he went back for a second tour; this time he didn’t come home. Among many other things, this profoundly affects Horowitz’ feelings about Rhea. And it impacts what he does when he gets mixed up in a case of murder.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch comes face to face with his memories of service in Vietnam in The Black Echo. In that novel, the body of an unidentified man is found stuffed in a drainpipe. The dead man turns out to be Billy Meadows, whom Bosch knew when both served in the war in Vietnam. Both men were ‘tunnel rats,’ responsible for finding and destroying the Viet Cong’s underground bunkers and supplies. Like many veterans, Meadows struggled with heroin addiction, so at first, his death is put down to an accidental overdose. But Bosch still feels the connection from the war, and starts asking questions. It turns out that Meadows’ death is more than just a junkie who overdosed. It’s connected to a large bank heist and to wartime events. In both Bosch and Meadows, we see how people came back from Vietnam physically alive, but bearing a lot of scars from service. Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux will know that he also is a Vietnam veteran. Like Bosch, he saw more than his share of ugliness in the war, and it still haunts him.

Service in Vietnam was hard enough for those who volunteered for military service before the war began. It was even harder for those who were conscripted. Many people were so opposed to the war that they chose not to fight. Instead, they went to Canada, rather than be drafted. Vicki Delany treats this theme in In the Shadow of the Glacier. Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith is a fledgling constable for the Trafalgar, BC Police. She gets her first ‘trial by fire’ when she discovers the body of controversial developer Reginald Montgomery. Once it’s clear that Montgomery was murdered, Smith and her superior, Sergeant John Winters, investigate. In one plot thread of this novel, the town of Trafalgar is faced with a dilemma. Ex-pat American Larry O’Reilly has recently died. He came to Canada to avoid being drafted in the war in Vietnam and felt strongly that those who acted according to their consciences should be honoured. So in his will, he’s bequeathed a large sum of money to the town on condition that the money be used to create such a memorial. On the one hand, many citizens, including Smith’s mother Lucy ‘Lucky’ want to do as O’Reilly wanted and create a Peace Garden. Others (and Montgomery was among these) oppose the idea. They’re afraid that it might be too controversial (and therefore, bad for business), since many Americans viewed those who went to Canada as traitors. It’s not an easy question, and still causes a lot of hurt on both sides. And it’s a source of real tension in the story.

And then there’s George Pelecanos’ Hard Revolution, which serves as a prequel to his Derek Strange series. In this novel, Strange is a rookie cop in 1968 Washington, DC, a town on the point of revolution sparked by racial tension and controversy over the war in Vietnam. Burning, rioting and so on are convulsing the city; and it seems as though society is coming apart at the proverbial seams. Strange is a Black cop in a dangerous situation, and it gets even worse when his older brother Dennis gets drawn into a scheme to rob a local shop. Meanwhile, another person Strange knows, Dominic Martini, gets involved with a group of White thugs in the drunken murder of a young Black man and a planned bank robbery. The two events play out against the turbulent times, and Strange has to do his best to negotiate all of the high emotion as he tries to do his job. Both Dennis Strange and Dominic Martini have served tours in Vietnam, and it’s scarred both of them. Here’s what Martini has to say about his return from service:
 

‘In bars, he no longer talked about Vietnam. It didn’t help him with women and sometimes it spurred unwelcome comments from men. When he mentioned his tour of duty, it seemed to lead to no good.’
 

Many Vietnam veterans had a similar experience.

Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) the US observes Memorial Day, a time to remember those who gave their lives in service to their country. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that in any case, let alone in the case of an unpopular war. Whatever your feelings about Vietnam, I think it’s important to honour the memories of those who died there.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is from Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon.

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Filed under Derek B. Miller, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Vicki Delany

And I Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling*

Peaceful MomentsEver had one of those peaceful, calm times when life seems to be going along smoothly? It’s a fact of life that those times don’t last. In a way, that fragility makes them all the more precious, and even poignant. Here’s how Jodie Garrow puts it in Wendy James’ The Mistake:
 

‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’
 

It certainly seems to be. Jodie is married to Angus, a successful attorney. She has two healthy children and a well-off lifestyle. She’s healthy herself, and attractive. That peace is shattered when Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years before to another child. No-one –not even Angus – knows about that other child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie tells the nurse she gave the child up for adoption. But when the over-curious nurse looks for the records, she finds nothing. Now the question is whispered, and then asked quite publicly: what happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s life spins out of control as she becomes a social pariah. In the end, we learn what happened to the baby, and you can’t really say that Jodie’s life is forever ruined. But it’s never going to be the same.

There’s a peaceful moment like that in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, too. Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her brand-new husband Simon. Linnet is both wealthy and beautiful, so with her marriage to Simon, she seems to have it all. There were a couple of nerve-wracking moments when she and Simon encountered her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But things seem to have calmed down, and Linnet is enjoying herself. She and Simon go on a sightseeing visit to a temple, where she has the chance to rest after they’ve finished the tour:
 

‘‘How lovely the sun is,” thought Linnet. ‘How warm how safe… How lovely it is to be happy… How lovely to be me me… me… Linnet. … She was half asleep, half awake, drifting in the midst of thought that was like the sand, drifting and blowing.’
 

Just a moment or two later, a boulder falls, very nearly killing Linnet. It’s frightening to think someone might have been trying to kill her. Things go from bad to worse on the cruise when she is actually murdered. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race work to find out who the killer is.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police detective Dave Robicheaux is taking some time away to heal up after an on-duty shooting that killed his partner and left him wounded. He’s enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, the chance to fish and spend time with his daughter Alafair, and the simple pleasure of sitting on his small dock. Everything changes when he gets a visit from an old acquaintance. Minos Dautrieve is now working with the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a special task force. He wants Robicheaux to help the government bring down New Orleans gangster and drugs dealer Tony Cardo. At first, Robicheaux demurs. But when Dautrieve tempts him with the chance to go after a criminal he’s been wanting to catch, Robicheaux agrees. He soon finds his life getting more and more dangerous as he begins to get close to Cardo.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when University of Vancouver criminologist and academician Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan gets an unexpected chance for a trip to Nice. A colleague who was supposed to deliver a paper at a conference there has been injured and can’t go. So Morgan is tapped to take his place. She’s promised a lovely few days in Nice, with only the paper presentation on her docket. One afternoon, she’s sipping wine at an outdoor café, relaxing and thinking that maybe agreeing to this trip wasn’t so bad. She’s enjoying that peaceful moment when an old acquaintance, Alistair Townsend, passes by and sees her. She’s never liked him, but gets talked into attending a birthday party he’s giving for his wife. When he suddenly collapses and dies at the party, Morgan finds that what was supposed to be a peaceful trip is anything but…

The main action in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing starts peacefully enough for Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. He’s just arrived at his office, and goes through his usual morning routine. It’s a pleasant, if a bit mundane, sort of a morning, fueled with deliciously seasoned Kashmiri tea. Then everything changes. Puri’s secretary Elizabeth Rani brings him the morning paper, which contains terrible news. Dr. Suresh Jha has been killed. Jha was a former client of Puri’s, so the PI certainly takes an interest. It seems that Jha was killed when the goddess Kali appeared and murdered him as punishment for being an unbeliever. Puri is a spiritual enough person, but he doesn’t believe in supernatural solutions to mysteries. So he begins to ask questions. And he finds that this incident isn’t at all what it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. That novel begins as Gurdial Singh goes on his morning rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers who live in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. It’s a peaceful time of day, and Singh enjoys the routine. He’s content with his life, too, and likes where he is, if I can put it that way. Then he gets to the home of radio celebrity Kevin Brace. Singh finds the door a bit open, which is unusual enough. But when Singh knocks at the half-open door and Brace answers it, things turn much worse. Brace says only,
 

‘I killed her, Mr. Singh.’
 

Singh goes inside and discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the condominium’s bathtubs. The police are alerted and begin their investigation. It turns out to be a more complicated case than it seems on the surface, and Singh is drawn into it as an important witness.

Those peaceful, even idyllic moments are probably all the more precious because we know they end. And they can certainly add to the texture of a novel. I’ve given a few examples. Your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Tempchin’s Peaceful, Easy Feeling.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, James Lee Burke, Robert Rotenberg, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

You Lift Up My Spirits*

SDaliIt’s said that everyone has a talent. And there’s nothing quite like a job where one gets to use one’s natural ability. But there are some people who are truly gifted at something. It may be music, dancing, sport, acting, art or something else. Whatever it is, those are the people with a ‘once in a lifetime’ gift. They can’t always explain exactly how they do what they do, but their skill is extraordinary. They’re out there in real life of course, and we certainly see them in crime fiction. Their gifts make them very special and sometimes, very vulnerable.

Agatha Christie mentions this kind of rare gift in a few of her stories. One, for instance, is Appointment With Death. In that novel, the Boynton family is taking a holiday in the Middle East, including a sightseeing trip to Petra. While they’re at Petra, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. That’s logical, given her age and bad health. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied, and he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and begins the investigation. It turns out that Carbury’s suspicions were all too correct: Mrs. Boynton died of digitalis poisoning. She was, as Poirot puts it, a ‘mental sadist’ who kept her family cowed, so there is no lack of suspects. In the end, Poirot finds out who really poisoned Mrs. Boynton and why. One of Mrs. Boynton’s children is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny,’ who is already mentally and emotionally fragile. But, she turns out to have a rare gift for the stage. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that when that gift is discovered, we see what a great actress Ginny is. I know, I know, fans of Henrietta Savernake in The Hollow… 

Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory introduces us to the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies has a rare gift for the violin, and is now world-class. He’s expressed himself musically since he was a child, and can’t imagine life without his music. Then one frightening day, he finds that he can’t play a note. He immediately seeks psychological help to find out what’s blocking his playing. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night by what seems at first to be an accidental hit-and-run incident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers find, there’s nothing at all accidental about it. The deeper they look into the case, the more they learn about how dysfunctional the Davies family is. They also learn about the tragic death by drowning of Gideon’s younger sister twenty years earlier. It turns out, as you can imagine, that that incident is related both to Eugenie Davies’ death and to her son’s struggle with his music.

In James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce, we meet gifted musician Tee Bobby Hulin. Here’s what Burke says about his talent:

 

‘…Tee Bobby possessed another, more serious gift, one he seemed totally undeserving of, as though the finger of God had pointed at him arbitrarily one day and bestowed on him a musical talent that was like none since the sad, lyrical beauty in the recordings of Guitar Slim.’

 

Hulin may be extraordinarily gifted, but that doesn’t prevent him being suspected in two vicious rape/murder cases. New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux doesn’t care much for Hulin as a person, but that doesn’t mean he thinks the man’s guilty of horrible crimes. And there are other suspects in these crimes. Robicheaux finds that in order to discover who the killer in this novel is, he will have to face some demons from his own past.

In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, we learn of the first case investigated by Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). In that case, the Palace Theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus was sabotaged by several tragedies. One was the murder of gifted dancer Tanya Capistrania, who was to have had a solo part. In fact, she was leaving a rehearsal session when she was killed. She was so talented that one possible motive for her death was professional jealousy. The PCU found out who was responsible for the tragedies, including this murder, but there was one major thing left undone. Now, years later, it comes back to haunt John May when a bomb explodes in the PCU offices.  As May works to find out the truth about that bombing, he finds out that it’s directly related to that long-ago case.

The main protagonist in Gail Bowen’s series is political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. The series follows her home life as much as it does the mysteries she investigates, so over the course of the novels, readers get to know her family. One member is her adopted daughter Taylor. Taylor is a truly gifted artist, who is trying to come to terms with some difficult issues in her life. At the same time, she is learning what it means to have her kind of talent. In The Gifted, we learn that two of Taylor’s pieces of art will be included in a benefit art auction. Her parents are deeply concerned about how this might affect Taylor. She is, after all, only fourteen, and they want her to have as safe and ‘normal’ (whatever that means) a childhood as possible. On the other hand, Taylor’s talent is undeniable, and she is passionate about her art. To deny her the opportunity to evolve as an artist would be like removing a limb. So despite some misgivings, Taylor’s permitted to contribute to the auction. One of her pieces has unintended and tragic consequences, and throughout the novel, we see how much a part of Taylor’s life her art really is.

And that’s the thing about people who have rare talents. Those gifts are integral and essential. Perhaps those with special gifts can’t explain exactly how they do what they do. But they couldn’t imagine not using them. Which gifted characters have made an impression on you?

 

On Another Note…

grammys-paul-mccartney-gi

This post is dedicated to one of the world’s truly gifted musical artists Paul McCartney. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!

 

ps  The ‘photo above is by Salvador Dalí, who also had rare and special talent.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Follow Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke