Category Archives: John Burdett

Are We the Things We Keep Hanging Around?*

If you have any storage space at all, my guess is that you use it. Most of us tend to accumulate all kinds of things for various reasons. You may have sentimental reasons for keeping something, or you may keep things because you think they’re beautiful. Or because they may come in handy someday and you never know. Or it may be a question of books, in which case there is no question. Books deserve good homes.

Whatever the reason, we do seem to accumulate things. Sometimes those things can reveal a lot about a person. So, it’s no surprise that, when police investigate a murder, they take a look at people’s things. If nothing else, it’s a way to get to know the victim a bit. Little wonder, then, that we see this happen in crime fiction, too. And it can reveal a lot about the victim and other characters.

It’s precisely the lack of such accumulated things that gets Hercule Poirot wondering in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds. In that novel, Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed a French moneylender who went by the name of Madame Giselle. She was poisoned on board a flight from Paris to London, so the only possible suspects are the other people in the cabin. Poirot thinks he may learn more about the motives people may have had for murder by getting to know the victim. So, he visits her Paris home. To his surprise, there are almost no personal items. No photographs, mementos, personal letters, boxes of books, or anything else that might give him information. That in itself interests Poirot, and he determines to find out why the victim seemed to want no connection of any kind with her past. The lack of accumulated things doesn’t solve the mystery, but it gives real insight into Madame Giselle’s history and character.

Things are completely different In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Went Into the Closet. Journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran and his two Siamese cats are preparing for the winter, which can get severe in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ Their home isn’t suitable for winter living, so they’re going to spend it at the former home of Euphonia Gage, who lived in a large house in the middle of town. She’s now moved to a senior living facility in Florida, so the house is available. They settle in, and Qwill can’t resist doing a little exploring in the old house. It’s full of closets that are full of accumulated things, and he and the cats find that interesting enough. Then, Euphonia Gage dies, apparently of suicide. It’s not long, though, before that’s called into question. She was in good health, very much enjoying life, and had no financial problems. Then there’s another death, which could very well be related to hers. Now, Quill suspects that something more sinister is going on, and so it is. And some of the keys to the mystery are in the junk left behind in the house.

As L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eight-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. We know from the beginning who the killer and victim are, but we are not told the motive. Wilcox leaves the scene of the crime and returns home. Later, he notifies the police, and RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates. Sechelt, British Colombia, is a small town, so it’s not long before everyone knows what’s happened, and everyone starts to speculate about who killed Burke and why. Alberg starts to put the clues together, and before very long, he suspects Wilcox. What he doesn’t know is the motive. The two men didn’t like each other much, but that’s hardly a reason to kill someone. And there’s no real evidence to connect Wilcox to the crime. Bit by bit, as Alberg tries to get the evidence and information he needs, we learn more about the history between victim and killer, and the motive is slowly revealed. And Alberg finds the evidence for it among some accumulated ‘stuff.’

In R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we are introduced to Meg Harris. She’s inherited a house and land at Three Deer Point in Outaouais, in Western Québec, from her Great-Aunt Agatha, and has settled in. Aunt Agatha had always enjoyed a good relationship with the Miskigan people of the area, and Meg has worked to do the same. So, Miskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik turns to her for help. There’s a good possibility of gold on Whisper Island, which lies near Deer Point. A company called CanacGold wants to mine the island. And there are plenty of Miskigan who don’t want the island mined, for various reasons. The simplest way to keep the company off the island is to prove that it is someone’s property, and that someone may be Meg. If it can be shown that Whisper Island belonged to Aunt Agatha, then Meg gets to decide what will happen to the island.  And she doesn’t want CanacGold to mine, so she’s only too happy to agree to help. In one plot thread of this novel, she goes through Aunt Agatha’s things to try to find any paperwork that may indicate who owns the island. Her search leads her to some surprising family truths. In the meantime, Meg’s friend and employee, Marie Whiteduck, goes missing. Later, Marie’s abusive husband, Louis, is found dead. Meg gets caught up in this investigation, and we see that it’s connected to the controversy over Whisper Island.

Not everyone accumulates a lot, though. Take John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitplecheep. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, who lives and works in Bangkok. He’s also a devout Buddhist and tries to be attached as little as possible to possessions. He lives in one room, which doesn’t have a television. And, although he has the clothes he needs and some other things, he hasn’t accumulated much of anything. He has a very different perspective on the value of owning things.

For a lot of us, though, it’s amazing how many things we tend to accumulate without even being aware of it. That is, until we get ready to move house…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alice BrightSky’s Box of Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, John Burdett, L.R. Wright, Lilian Jackson Braun, R.J. Harlick

I Grieve For You*

Everyone has a different way of coping with grief and loss. And there are dozens of things that affect the way we cope. Culture is one factor. So is the sort of loss it is. So is our individual nature. There are other factors, too.

Realistic crime fiction acknowledges that a murder has devastating effects on the people left behind and shows that. So, there are many, many examples of the different ways people cope with their grief. Here are just a few. I know you’ll think of many other powerful examples – more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work with Chief Inspector Japp to find a multiple murderer. The victims don’t seem to have much in common, but there are a few similarities. Before each murder, Poirot gets a cryptic warning letter. And an ABC rail guide is found near each body. One of the victims is twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Barnard, whose body is found one morning on the beach at Bexhill. Poirot pays a visit to her family to find out about her, and meets her parents and her older sister, Megan. Here’s Megan’s reaction when she first sees Hastings.
 

‘‘I don’t think I’ve got anything to say to you. My sister was a nice, bright girl with no men friends. Good morning.’’
 

She thinks Hastings is a reporter, and she has no desire to air her private grief in the newspapers, or to ‘speak ill of the dead,’ as the saying goes. And her initial response is an interesting example of people’s tendency to deal with loss in that way. It’s not long before Poirot convinces Megan that she’s better off being honest about her sister. And the information Megan provides helps Poirot get a sense of this victim – and in the end, fit her in with the others. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Hollow.

Some people react to grief and loss with anger, even with a need for vengeance. And it’s understandable, regardless of how we may feel about vigilantism. For example, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing after a night at a disco. Her father reports the matter to the Glasgow police, in the form of Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Laidlaw. At first, Laidlaw doesn’t share Lawson’s concern; after all, it’s only a few hours since the girl was supposed to be home, and there are plenty of places she could safely be. Then, news comes that the body of a young woman who was raped and then killed has been found in Kelsingrove Park. When the body is identified as Jennifer’s, her father is not just devastated, he’s enraged. And he wants vengeance. In one plot thread of the novel, he goes to John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the body was found. Lawton wants Rhodes’ help in tracking down the killer. Rhodes knows very well what Lawton intends to do if he finds the killer, but he has sympathy for the man. And his willingness to help Lawton makes it all the more of a challenge for Laidlaw, who’s trying to catch the killer in a more legitimate way.

As John Grisham’s A Time to Kill begins, two men, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, rape ten-year-old Tonya Hailey and leave her for dead. She survives, and her family, including her father, Carl Lee, finds out what happens. Cobb and Willard are soon caught, and there’s a great deal of local sympathy for Hailey. Still, he’s not sure that the courts will get justice for him. He and his family are black, and the two defendants are white, and this is small-town Mississippi. Besides, he’s enraged at what’s happened to his daughter. So, his grief fuels a plan, and he ambushes Cobb and Willard, killing them and wounding a deputy. Now, he himself is arrested for murder. On the one hand, he did kill two people. On the other, plenty of other folks, including his lawyer, Jake Brigance, admit they might have done the same. This isn’t going to be an easy trial for Brigance, as there are a lot of challenging issues. But he agrees to defend Hailey, and soon finds himself and his client in the middle of a trial in which a lot of powerful, and dangerous, people have a stake.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances opens as up-and-coming Saskatchewan politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk prepares to give a speech at a community picnic. Soon after he begins, he collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is at the speech, and watches in horror as Boychuk dies. He was a personal friend as well as a political ally, so she is in deep grief. As a way of coping with that loss, she decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she gets started, she soon finds that what she’s learning leads her closer and closer to the truth about Boychuk’s death. She also finds a great deal of danger for herself.

Many of our views about grief and loss are impacted by our culture. We see that in John Burdett’s Bangkok 8. Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his police partner, Pichai Apiradee, of the Royal Thai Police, have been on a surveillance operation, tailing a Mercedes. The car eludes them briefly, and by the time they find it again, the driver, William Bradley, is dead. A first look shows that the victim was trapped in the car with poisonous snakes, and likely died of their bites. So it’s fairly clear that this was a murder. Pichai manages to open one of the doors, but when he does, he, too, is bitten and soon dies. On the one hand, Sonchai wants justice for his dead friend. On the other, here is what he says about death:
 

‘We do not look on death the way you do, farang [foreigner]. My closest colleagues grasp my arm and one or two embrace me. No one says sorry. Would you be sorry about a sunset?
 

He’s a devout Buddhist who sees death as just another part of existence.

There are as many different ways to grieve as there are people who grieve. And when those different ways are woven into a story, the characters can seem more authentic, especially if it’s not done in too heavy-handed a way. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s I Grieve. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, John Grisham, William McIlvanney

I Want to Protect You*

Most of us have private things in our histories – even secrets – that we don’t necessarily want to share with others. And when those ‘others’ are our children, it may be especially important to us to keep those things to ourselves. There are all sorts of reasons for which parents don’t always tell their children all the details of their histories. Sometimes it’s because those details are embarrassing. Sometimes it’s because knowing the truth could be hurtful. And sometimes, it’s because parents want their children to have a certain image of them, and that image would be damaged if the truth came out.

Whatever the reason, there are plenty of examples in crime fiction of parents who want to keep things from their children. And there are examples of children who are just as determined to find those things out. It makes sense, too. Not only is that realistic, but it’s also a solid source of interest and conflict in a novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s novella Dead Man’s Mirror, Hercule Poirot is summoned to the country home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. It seems that Chevenix-Gore believes that someone is stealing from him, and he wants Poirot to find out the truth. At first, Poirot doesn’t want to look into this matter, as he’s not pleased about Chevenix-Gore’s highhandedness. But he agrees to go. Shortly after his arrival, though, Chevenix-Gore is shot. In the beginning, it looks very much like a suicide. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise, so Poirot starts to ask questions. He soon learns that more than one person might have wanted to kill the victim. One of the people involved is Chevenix-Gore’s adopted daughter, Ruth. In the course of the story, we learn something about her past – something that no-one has told her. And it plays a part in the story.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar introduces readers to the Hillman family. Ralph and Elaine Hillman have sent their son, Tom, to Laguna Perdida, a residential school for ‘troubled youth.’ When Tom goes missing, the school’s owner/director, Dr. Sponti, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. As they’re discussing the case, Ralph Hillman comes to the office, and says that Tom’s been abducted, and he’s had a ransom demand. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to see what he can do to help. Soon enough, though, he learns that this is not a case of a wealthy family being extorted for money. There’s something more (and darker) going on here. And when it comes out that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who have him, it’s even clearer that this is a different sort of case. Archer perseveres, despite the hurdles he faces, and finds out the truth. It turns out that one important factor here is a set of secrets that Tom’s parents have kept from him.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Bangkok-based member of the Royal Thai Police. His mother, Nong, is a former bar girl who’s now embarked on a new career. Sonchai and his mother are close, and he treats her with respect. She loves him, too, and cares very much about him. But there’s one thing that she won’t tell him: the name of his father. Sonchai is half farang (foreigner), so he knows that his father is not Thai. But he doesn’t know the man’s name or background, and his mother won’t share that information with him, at least at the beginning of the series. It’s one of the few real sources of tension between them.

In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, we meet twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his grandmother, Gloria. They’re not well off (‘though they’re not desperate), and on the surface, you’d think it was a normal, working-class family. But it’s not. Nineteen years earlier, Lettie’s brother (and Steven’s uncle), Billy Peters, disappeared and never returned. Despite a thorough search, Billy was never found – not even a body. Lettie’s and Gloria’s way of coping with the devastation has been silence. They don’t discuss Billy or the events of that time. Steven knows a few things about what happened, and about his uncle, but not much. The adults in his life have tried, in their way, to protect him, but you could almost say that it’s had the opposite effect. Steven is almost obsessed with wanting to know what happened to his Uncle Billy. He’s learned that a man named Arnold Avery most likely abducted and killed Uncle Billy. He’s hoping he can get Avery to tell him where his uncle’s body is. So, he decides to contact Avery, who’s in prison for other child murders. The two begin a suspenseful exchange of letters, which Steven does his best to hide from his family. In the end, that exchange opens up some very old wounds, and opens up some of the silences in the family.

And then there’s Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass. In that novel, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland. With her, she brings her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ While Yossi and Roi are eager to start over again in Auckland, Claire’s been very reluctant. She doesn’t want her family’s past dug up, and she wants to protect Roi, in particular, from her own past. Soon enough, we see why Claire’s so concerned, In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips went missing and never returned. Claire’s father, Patrick, was accused of abduction and murder. He was even tried and convicted. But there was never enough evidence to sustain the conviction on appeal. So, he was released. Still, plenty of people think he’s guilty. When a hospital case thrusts Claire into the media spotlight, the old case comes up again, and now Claire wants desperately to hide it all from Roi. In the meantime, Roi wants to know more about her own background. Claire’s told her that her birth father was a Māori man with whom Claire had a brief affair, but nothing more than that. Now, Roi would like to find out more, and get to know her Māori family. And she’s as determined to get her answers as Claire is to protect her from them.

There are plenty of reasons parents might not want to share everything with their children. Sometimes, keeping things quiet is the right choice. Other times, it’s not. Either way, it makes for an interesting layer of character or source of tension in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Eels song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, John Burdett, Ross Macdonald, Sue Younger

I’m Shackled and Sentenced to the Ball and Chain*

There’s a good reason most people don’t want to go to prison. A prison record damages one’s job prospects (as well as other life prospects). And prison is not a pleasant place, even if it’s got decent living conditions, food, and so on. In fact, some prisons can be downright eerie.

Whatever you think of prisons and prison systems in real life, fictional prisons can be effective settings for novels, or for scenes in novels. For one thing, it’s realistic that a crime novel would have prison scenes. After all, crime and prison go together, if I may put it that way. For another, prison scenes allow for tension and suspense, as well as interesting interactions among characters.

Prison scenes play a major role in John Grisham’s The Chamber. The State of Mississippi is about to execute Sam Cayhall for the 1968 murder of Marvin Kramer. His case is taken pro bono by a Chicago law firm that sends one of their attorneys, Adam Hall, to handle the matter. Hall is actually Cayhall’s grandson, and he works as hard as he can to get a stay of execution. For him, Cayhall is a living link to the family history that Hall doesn’t know. As Hall visits his grandfather in prison, we get a look at what life on death row is like. And we also learn, bit by bit, the Cayhall family history.

There are some very eerie prison scenes in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a noted, gifted psychiatrist who is also a dangerous serial killer. He’s imprisoned in Baltimore’s State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is a prison in its own way. When another killer, whom the FBI has dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ starts claiming victims, trainee agent Clarice Starling is sent to the hospital to interview Lecter. It turns out that ‘Buffalo Bill’ was once a patient of Lecter’s so it’s believed that he might be able to shed some light on this killer. There are some very eerie scenes as Starling goes into the prison and starts to talk to Lecter. He agrees to help in the search for this murderer, but he imposes a condition. For everything he tells Starling, she will have to share a personal secret. It becomes a dangerous psychological game, and adds to the stress of hunting for ‘Buffalo Bill.’

In Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink, we are introduced to Lucy Khambule, a Johannesburg publicist. She’s at a sort of crossroads in her job, and is trying to decide what her next steps will be when she gets a call from Napoleon Dingiswayo. He’s in a maximum-security prison after being convicted of a series of horrific murders. At first, Lucy is surprised to get this call. But then, she is reminded that she had written to Napoleon when he was first imprisoned (at the time, she was in journalism and wanted a story). Now, Napoleon wants to meet her, and asks her to consider writing a book about him. The opportunity to do a book proves irresistible, and Lucy agrees to the meeting. Things don’t go as planned, though, First, it’s soon clear that Napoleon is falling for her, which makes Lucy extremely uncomfortable, although she can see how he would be attractive to women. Then, soon after they start working together, some horrible, violent things start to happen. Napoleon is behind bars in a maximum-security facility, so there’s no way he could be responsible for what’s happening. But if he’s not, then who is? And what might he know that he’s not telling? There are several prison scenes as Lucy slowly starts to get to the truth. And some of them are eerie.

In Alison Joseph’s Line of Sight, Sister Agnes Bourdillon has been seconded to Silworth, a London women’s prison, where she’ll work in its Roman Catholic chaplaincy. She’s gotten settled in, and is getting to know several of the inmates and work with them. Then, one of her charges, Cally Fisher, gets the news that her father, Cliff, has been shot. The most likely suspect is her boyfriend, Mel, and there’s evidence against him. But Cally believes that he’s innocent, and asks Sister Agnes to help her clear his name. Sister Agnes agrees, and starts to ask some questions. She soon learns that there are several people who might have had a good reason to want to kill the victim. Throughout the novel, readers get a look at what a modern UK women’s prison is like. There’s the inevitable paperwork and bureaucracy, including the process for gaining access to the prison as a visitor. There are alliances and conflicts (some of them serious) among the women, and so on. It’s not a nice place to be, and Joseph makes that clear.

There’s also John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, the first of his Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and a devout Buddhist. In the main plot thread of the novel, he and FBI agent Kimberly Jones search for the killer of a former US Marine named William Bradley. It all starts when Sonchai and his police partner, Pichai Apiradee, tail a Mercedes. When they catch up to it, Bradley is already dead, most likely from the bite of poisonous snakes locked in the car with him. When one of the snakes also kills Pinchai, Sonchai is determined to find Bradley’s (and his friend’s) killer. At one point, Sonchai goes to visit the man who comes closest to a father figure to him. This man, Fritz von Staffen, is in Bang Kwan prison, which is,
 

‘A fortress with a watchtower and guards armed with machine guns, surrounded by double perimeter walls, the stench of rotten sewage as we passed through the first gate, and the spiritual stench of violence, sadism, and rotten souls as we passed into the inhabited part of the prison.’
 

And the prisoners, including Fritz, are deeply impacted by the environment.

David Whish-Wilson has experience teaching in prisons, and that comes through in Line of Sight. In that novel, Perth Superintendent Frank Swann searches for the murderer of an old friend, Ruby Devine. He finds the job difficult, though, because he’s called a Royal Commission hearing into corruption on the police force. So, he’s a ‘dead man walking’ as far as the police are concerned. And plenty of civilians don’t want to help, either. Still, bit by bit, Swann gets answers. At one point, he pays a visit to a prisoner named Ray Hergenhan, who he hopes will give him some ‘inside information. The prison Ray’s in is a very grim, hopeless sort of place. But Ray’s survived so far. He provides some useful information to Swann, too.

Prisons can be eerie and grim, but they are a part of the justice system. So, it makes sense that they would be a part of crime fiction, too. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Dropkick Murphys’ Prisoner’s Song.

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Filed under Alison Joseph, Angela Makholwa, David Whish-Wilson, John Burdett, John Grisham, Thomas Harris

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.

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