Category Archives: Julie Smith

The Coffee Tasted So Fine*

CoffeehousesSome places are natural magnets that invite people to ‘come in and stay a while.’ Good coffeehouses are like that. They may not have full restaurant menus (‘though many do offer small food items), but the atmosphere and the coffee or tea are enough to keep patrons sitting and sipping.

Coffeehouses have undergone a lot of changes over time. But the good ones are still places where you can enjoy a coffee or tea, perhaps listen to some music or poetry, or just catch up with a friend or a date. They’re also, incidentally, terrific places for writing inspiration. Just sit in any coffee house for twenty minutes with your choice of hot beverage and watch the interactions, and you’ll see what I mean. As you can imagine, the coffeehouse is woven throughout crime fiction, too, and that makes sense given the possibilities the setting offers.

In centuries gone by, coffeehouses used to be an important place for people to meet to discuss business, catch up on the local news and sometimes, to be seen. There’s an element of that in Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man, part of his historical Fideles and Cragg series. Titus Cragg is an attorney and also coroner of Preston. Luke Fideles is the local doctor. They’re friends as well as professional allies, and in this novel, they put their skills together to solve the murder of pawnbroker/would-be banker Philip Pimbo. More than once in the novel, Cragg and Fideles meet at the Turk’s Head coffeehouse, where they exchange notes and follow leads. One interesting thing about coffeehouses of this era: they also sell wine and meals. In that sense they’re more like today’s pubs than modern coffeehouses tend to be. They also serve as places where someone might stop in often enough to arrange to receive letters and other messages there. It’s a very different perspective on this sort of gathering place.

Coffeehouses have also been known for a long time as places to hear live music, poetry, and book readings. They can be terrific for authors who want to set up signings and readings, too. Trust me. And trust Talba Wallis, the New Orleans PI who features in one of Julie Smith’s series. When she’s not ‘on the job,’ Wallis is a poet who goes by the name of ‘Baroness Pontalba.’ She’s fortunate to be living in a city with a very vibrant cultural life, so she goes regularly to poetry readings at coffeehouses and at the place where she had her first public reading, Reggie and Chaz. Coffeehouse audiences can be very receptive to different kinds of poetry and music, so coffeehouses can be very good places to begin if one’s not an established artist.

Even when they don’t feature events or performances, today’s coffeehouses are often popular local places. There are also, of course, large ‘chain’ coffeehouses. In Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, for instance, Toronto police officer Daniel Kennicott is helping to investigate the murder of Katherine Thorn. Her common-law husband, star radio personality Kevin Brace, is the most likely suspect, and has even said that he killed her. But there are other possibilities too. One of those is another radio personality, Donald Dundas, who might have committed the murder for more than one reason. Kennicott wants to track Dundas down and ask him some questions, so he goes to some coffee shops near the station’s building:

‘He couldn’t see Dundas going to Starbucks. The man was always doing nostalgic pieces about things like small-town general stores. He liked championing the ‘little people.’ On the south side of the building, there was a friendly-looking coffee shop with a collection of antique teapots in the window. That’s it, Kennicott thought.’

And he’s right. Dundas is indeed in that shop, ready to read his Globe and Mail when Kennicott sees him. Oh, and I can’t resist mentioning the terrific nickname given to that small coffeeshop’s big competitor in this novel:

‘Kennicott noticed a lot of the company employees trooping out this door and heading zombielike for their doses of caffeine. ‘Time for some four-bucks,’ he overheard one of them say.’

A nice touch, in my opinion.

Many times, coffeehouses serve as good places to meet up for a mix of business and friendship. That’s what we see in Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent, the first of her novels featuring pathologist/forensic physician Anya Crichton her friend, DS Kate Farrer. In one scene in this novel, Crichton happens to run into Farrer at the local courthouse. They decide to catch up, as they haven’t seen each other lately, and head for a nearby coffeehouse/café. That’s where Farrer tells Crichton about a strange case of suicide (or is it?) she’s working. She asks for Crichton’s input, and the two are soon drawn into a bizarre case of multiple murder.

There are also mystery series that take place in coffeehouses. One, for instance, is the Coffeehouse Mysteries, authored by husband-and-wife team Mark Cerasini and Alice Alfonsi, who use the pen name Cleo Coyle. When you consider the different kinds of people who go to coffeehouses, the different sorts of events that can take place, and the conflicts that can arise, the setting makes a lot of sense as a mystery context.

Coffeehouses are also of course effective places to look at the way society has changed over time. And, speaking on a personal level, I appreciate the fact that coffeehouses are often welcoming to people who don’t have international ‘brand names’ as writers, or perhaps write and play music that hasn’t (yet) drawn a stadium crowd. I salute them all!

If you go to coffeehouses, have you noticed how they reflect the times? Writers and performers, do you have ‘coffeehouse stories’ to share?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray Smith and Tony Colton’s The Coffee Song, recorded by Cream.


Filed under Alice Alfonsi, Cleo Coyle, Julie Smith, Kathryn Fox, Mark Cerasini, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Blake

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Mushrooms

MushrooomsMmmm… the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has made quite a lot of progress on our treacherous trek through the letters. My thanks as ever to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for such a well-oganised and enjoyable (if dangerous…) trip. Today we’re stopping at M & Co., the world-famous restaurant. Our table isn’t ready yet, so while we’re waiting, I’ll share my contribution for this stop: mushrooms.

Mushrooms can be delicious additions to a lot of different dishes, but as most people know, some varieties are deadly, And that of course makes mushrooms a very effective murder weapon. After all, you can’t easily prove that such a killing was deliberate; the various kinds of mushrooms can be difficult to sort out. And it doesn’t take a lot of technical knowledge, strength or skill to use deadly mushrooms. No wonder they show up all the time in crime fiction.

For instance, in 4:50 From Paddington, Elspeth McGillicuddy is on a train on her way to visit her friend Miss Marple. When another train passes in the same direction, Mrs. McGillicuddy glances through the other train’s window just in time to witness a woman being strangled. At first no-one believes her because a body isn’t discovered on the train. But Miss Marple does, and deduces that the body must be on the property of Rutherford Hall, which is owned by Luther Crackenthorpe and his family. So Miss Marple fixes it up so that her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow gets a position there as housekeeper, with the understanding that Lucy will search for the body. When she does find the body the police are called in and begin to investigate. Shortly afterwards, everyone gets sick at lunch one day and the mushrooms that Lucy included in the meal are blamed. Then, one of the family members dies. Now it’s clear that someone wants to wreak havoc on the Crackenthorpe family. With help from Lucy’s observant eyes and ears, Miss Marple figures out who the killer is and how that death is related to the death of the unknown woman on the train.

In Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s The Cosy Knave, murder and poisoning come to the small town of Knavesborough. Small-town-boy-made-good Mark Baldwin, who now calls himself Marco Bellini, returns to Knavesborough after having lived abroad for many years. He throws a housewarming party at which Rose Walnut-Whip becomes ill. Not long afterwards she is found stabbed. Constable Archibald ‘Archie’ Penrose ends up investigating the murder and he and his fiancée Rhapsody Gershwin look into the case. They soon find that more than one person wanted to murder the victim. They’re working on the investigation when another villager Jack Warburton is murdered. His body is discovered by avid mushroom collector Arnold Kickinbottom. Kickinbottom also had a motive for murdering Rose Walnut-Whip and he is most definitely a suspect in this second death too, having (perhaps too conveniently) found the body. Then Kickinbottom himself is poisoned by mushrooms. Perhaps the poisoning was a clever way to throw suspicion from himself, or perhaps there’s a serial killer loose in Knavesborough…

Ariana Franklin’s The Serpent’s Tale is the story of the murder of Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry II. When someone feeds Rosamund poisoned mushrooms, the case threatens to cause a major upheaval for the country, especially since there is talk that Queen Eleanor may have been responsible. If she is guilty, the result could be a civil war. The king summons Adelia Aguilar, a doctor and ‘mistress of the art of death’ to find out what really happened to his mistress. She will have to tread very lightly though, since this murder has so many important political ramifications.

Mushrooms also wreak havoc in Julie Smith’s short story Project Mushroom. Katherine is a botanist who’s hired to work on a public-relations project to promote California’s mushroom industry. Project head Martin Larson is infuriating enough that everyone on the project wants to kill him. The longer Katherine works with the team the more she sees how he drives everyone else mad. One night there’s to be a banquet to celebrate the group’s work and call attention to the project. All of the dishes at the banquet contain different varieties of mushrooms. That’s where Larson learns what happens when you aren’t good to the people who work with you. The next morning, the headlines are full of the news of his death, and with all of the mushrooms served at the dinner, the police believe that he must have died from accidental mushroom poisoning. But Katherine knows better…

Dance troupe manager Victor Owens finds out a similar thing in Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Scone Cold Dead. Owens is the leader of a Scottish dancing troupe that has decided to go on tour. Former member Liss Macrimmon find out about the tour and invites the group to make a stop in her adopted town of Moosetookalook, Maine, to which she retired after an injury. One night she throws a party for the dance troupe at which different Scottish foods will be featured. Shortly after the party, Owens dies of anaphylaxis brought on by eating a scone filled with mushrooms, to which Owens was violently allergic. Liss soon comes under suspicion since she threw the party and since she was no friend of Owens. But Owens was an obnoxious person who alienated just about everyone and who sexually harassed more than one person. So as Liss tries to clear her own name, she finds plenty of possible ‘replacement suspects.’

See what I mean? Mushrooms can be nasty things if they’re not carefully chosen and properly handled and cooked. But when done right, they really are delicious, don’t you think? Oh, I’ve just been told that our table is ready. Care to join us??? 😉


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ariana Franklin, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Julie Smith, Kaitlyn Dunnett

We Are Detective, Come to Collect*

PIsOne of the ways in which crime fiction has evolved in the last sixty or seventy years has arguably been the increasing variety of PI sleuths. And perhaps this is just my opinion (so do feel free to differ with me if you do) but I think it’s a good thing. In real life, private investigators take all kinds of cases, from spouses who suspect their partners of cheating to pre-hiring background checks to investigators who work with attorneys on their cases. And it hardly need be said that today’s PIs come from all kinds of backgrounds.

‘Gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes paved the way for the modern PI novel, which today ranges from the light (e.g. Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe series) to the noir (e.g.  Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series). One post is hardly enough to do the modern PI novel justice, but let’s just take a quick look at the sub-genre.

Authors such as Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Mickey Spillane were at the forefront of the ‘hard boiled’ PI novel. In Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool for instance, Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter to her husband James. The letter alleges that Maude’s been having an affair, and she is afraid that if James finds out, the marriage will end in divorce. Archer takes the case and begins his investigation. Right from the beginning he learns of the dysfunction in the Slocum family. James’ mother Olivia is quite wealthy and uses her financial power to manipulate the family. Maude and her mother-in-law have never been exactly friends, and Maude resents the fact that James is somewhat of a ‘mother’s boy.’ So when Olivia is found dead one day in her swimming pool, there’s every chance one of the family could be responsible. But then again, oil magnate Walter Kilbourne wanted to drill on the Slocum estate and Olivia was firmly set against the idea. So the murder could be the work of Kilbourne or one of his paid ‘associates.’ As Archer investigates, we get to see the seamier side of the way the wealthy live.

Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant also sometimes sees the not-so-very-nice side of ‘the beautiful life.’ In Tapas on the Ramblas for instance, wealthy business executive Charity Wiser believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She hires Quant to find out who it is and invites him on a family cruise to get to know the other members of the Wiser clan so he can ‘scope them out.’ As he does so, he discovers that just about everyone in the family had a motive for murder. It’s not just a matter of greed, either. There’s a lot of dysfunction in this family and the better Quant gets to know the family members, the more he uncovers about the undercurrents of resentment. Then, there are two attempts at murder and later, a death. In the end, Quant puts the pieces of the puzzle together but not before he comes close to being a victim himself.

We get an interesting look ‘behind the scenes’ of a PI firm in Julie Smith’s Talba Wallis series. Wallis lives and works in New Orleans, where she’s employed by E.V. Anthony Investigations. The firm does background checks on potential employees and at the beginning of Louisiana Bigshot, we learn that Wallis also investigates cheating spouses. In fact that’s what her friend Clayton Robineau (who goes by the name Babalu Maya) hires her to do. Babalu thinks that her fiancé Jason Wheelock has been unfaithful and wants Wallis to find out whether it’s true. At first Wallis doesn’t want to take the case; she would rather Babalu simply break up with Wheelock than learn all of the sordid details of any affair he’s having. But Babalu insists, so Wallis begins to investigate. She finds out that her friend was right and breaks the bad news. Shortly after that, Babalu is found dead, apparently a successful suicide. Wallis doesn’t think it was a suicide though, and neither does Jason Wheelock. So Wallis starts to look into the case more closely. She finds that Babalu’s family history and someone’s desperate need to protect a reputation are the keys to the murder.

Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson doesn’t work for a firm; she’s set up in business for herself. And one of the very effective elements in this series is that we get to see what it’s like to try to build up one’s client base, take care of the bills and so on. And in Dead Light District we get an interesting perspective on why some people hire private detectives instead of going to the police. Candace Curtis owns a brothel which she staffs with only the best employees. The client list is carefully vetted too. It’s an illegal business though, so when one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria goes missing, she can’t call the police about it. So she hires Jackson to find out what happened to Mary Carmen. Jackson is uncomfortable about the case. For one thing, she’s not comfortable with the thought of young women who, as she sees it, are being exploited. For another, Mary Carmen could simply not want to be found. If so, why shouldn’t she be left in peace? But Curtis is persuasive and a fee is a fee, so Jackson begins her investigation. But this turns out to be much more than a missing person case. First an alleged pimp is stabbed to death in a hotel and then there’s another murder. Then Curtis becomes a target. Jackson finds that what started out being a case of a prostitute who’s disappeared has led her to the underside of Toronto’s sex trade.

Some PIs don’t really think of themselves as PIs – at least not at first. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins doesn’t. In the first few novels, before he gets his PI license, he thinks of it as ‘doing favours.’ So does Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. In fact in The Sins of the Fathers, he says,


‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’


And yet in both of these cases the sleuths learn that the PI business can be, if not exactly lucrative, at least a source of income.

Today’s PIs are a very diverse group. There’s the wisecracking ‘world’s greatest detective’ Elvis Cole (courtesy of Robert Crais), the not-domestically-inclined Kinsey Millhone (courtesy of Sue Grafton) and lots of others too. And that variety has added to the sub-genre.

Now, you may be wondering why I’ve not mentioned one of the best known PI sleuths, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. I was saving this mention because today is (or yesterday was, depending on when you read this) Sara Paretsky’s birthday. So this post is in honour of what Ms. Paretsky has contributed to the crime fiction genre. V.I. Warshawski is one of the most popular PI sleuths in crime fiction. She’s a unique character with a strong commitment to social justice, a deep love of her home town (Chicago) and a true-blue sense of loyalty to her friends. She was one of the groundbreaking fictional female PIs and the novels featuring her have gained Ms. Paretsky a worldwide audience.

Happy Birthday Sara Paretsky and many more.



*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ We Are Detective.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jill Edmondson, Julie Smith, Lawrence Block, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Walter Mosley

In The Spotlight: Julie Smith’s Louisiana Bigshot

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, a strong sense of place can add a great deal to a novel or series. In fact, most readers I know want their stories to ‘place’ them in a particular setting; it gives the story a sense of authenticity. To show you what I mean, let’s take a closer look at Julie Smith’s Talba Wallis series, which takes place in New Orleans. Let’s turn the spotlight on Louisiana Bigshot, the second in the series.

Talba Wallis is a private investigator and poet who divides her time between her work, her poetry and her boyfriend Darryl Boucree. She works for Eddie Valentino, who owns E.V. Anthony Investigations. One day Wallis gets a visit from her friend and fellow poet Clayton Robineau, a bodyworker/therapist who goes by the name of Babalu Maya. Babalu wants to hire Wallis to find out whether her fiancé Jason Wheelock is cheating on her. Wallis doesn’t want to break her friend’s heart if Wheelock is cheating, and she’s learned that sometimes knowing the truth is devastating. She would rather Babalu simply break up with her fiancé then have to deal with ‘the dirty details.’ But she agrees to take the job and before long, she finds out that Babalu’s suspicions are justified.

Shortly after Wallis breaks the bad news to her friend, Babalu dies of what looks like a self-induced heroin overdose. The police want to close the case as a suicide but Wallis doesn’t think that’s true. Babalu had a somewhat self-destructive past, but she’d gotten her life together and was positive about the future. Wallis doubts very much that someone who was getting stronger and was optimistic would have committed suicide. Then she gets a visit from Jason Wheelock. Wheelock says that everyone blames him for his fiancée’s death. He doesn’t believe Babalu killed herself either and he hires Wallis to find out the truth about her death. In part he wants to clear his name and in part he wants answers.

Soon enough, Wallis finds that this case is more complex than she thought. For one thing, no-one in the victim’s family wants to talk to her. At first she thinks it’s because it was she who found out the information about Wheelock’s infidelity. But it’s not long before she learns that she’s being ‘frozen out’ for quite different reasons. She does learn though that a tragic event in Babalu’s past may be the key to everything. But very few people connected with what happened will speak to Wallis. And she’s fairly certain that those who are willing to talk are not telling everything they know. The calculated silence convinces Wallis that she’s dealing with a murder and she’s proven right. Babalu’s death turns out to be related to her past and to people who are desperate to protect a reputation.

In the meantime, Wallis has learned a shocking fact about her own past. On the one hand, she knows that she needs to follow up on it and learn more about her own history. On the other, she’s afraid, if I can put it this way, of what she might find, and not exactly eager to confront the truth. But as the novel goes on, she searches for answers. In the end, and with help from Boucree, her work-mates at E.V. Anthony and some friends, Wallis finds out the truth about Babalu’s death and her own past.

As I mentioned, this story has a strong sense of place. In part that sense of place comes from physical descriptions:


‘Jason lived in the area of town referred to as the Lower Garden District, not to be even slightly confused with the Garden District proper, which was very proper indeed. The lower version was hip, upwardly mobile, mixed in just about every way, and a little dicey – actually a by-the-numbers neighborhood for an unemployed actor. It offered good deals if you didn’t mind watching your back.’


Smith also places the reader in New Orleans in other ways. The dialogue, the customs, the religion, the manners and so on all reflect the city’s culture. In fact, when we learn the motive for the murder we see that it too fits in with the area’s culture.

Another element that is clear in this novel is the character of Talba Wallis. She’s


‘…not merely African-American but black. Good and black, thank you very much.’


Her race plays an important role in Wallis’ outlook on life. She doesn’t automatically hate or even resent all White people. She has White friends, a White boss and mixes with Whites without automatically assuming the worst. But racism is a part of life in parts of New Orleans and she’s felt it too often. Her feelings about it come through in her poetry, which is another essential part of her character. There are several examples of her poetry in the novel and they tell a lot about how she views life.

Racism and classism (and not just among Whites) are critical elements in this novel. It turns out that Babalu is from one of the ‘better’ families in New Orleans and Wallis is already at a real disadvantage in speaking with them when she learns that they live in Clayton, in an area where only wealthy Whites live. In fact at one point she’s in Clayton waiting in her car to speak with an old friend of Babalu when she’s arrested on trumped-up charges but mostly because she’s Black. The charge is sometimes referred to DWB (Driving While Black) and it’s a sad reality of life in some places. But Wallis uses the racism if you will to her own advantage. When she discovers that none of the White people in Babalu’s family will speak to her, she decides to concentrate on the household staff and their friends, all of whom are Black. As she suspects, the wealthy Whites talk openly in front of their staff as though they were invisible, so Wallis learns a lot. She learns a lot too from Babalu’s old high school friends, some of whom are also Black.

This is a PI novel, so another important element in it is a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the way private investigators go about their work. Wallis spends her share of time waiting in cars, taking ‘photos, doing background checks and so on. The life of a PI is not painted as action-packed or glamourous, although I think I can say without spoiling the story that there’s a car chase in it. Instead, Smith gives a more day-to-day look at what private investigation companies do, who hires them and how they get answers.

In some ways, this is a sad novel. Wallis finds out the truth about Babalu’s murder and her own past, but that doesn’t ‘set the world right again.’ And the racism and classism that we see in the story don’t go away. They’re there and those affected are quite open about the injustice. But it’s not an entirely bleak novel. There are moments of optimism in the story and there’s also a sarcastic sense of humour. Here for instance is what Wallis tells Babalu about part of the process of hiring E.V. Anthony Investigations:


‘We have this instrument of torture Eddie invented to scare away customers, called the intake interview. If you can survive it, you might as well marry the guy [Jason Wheelock], because that proves you can handle anything.’


The dashes of humour are part of what keep the story moving.

The story is told partly from Wallis’ point of view and partly from Eddie’s so readers who prefer only one perspective will be disappointed. But it’s clear who’s doing, thinking and saying what; Smith doesn’t leave the reader (at least not this one) confused.  Ant on another note, fans of Julie Smith’s sleuth Skip Langdon (who has her own series) will be pleased to know that she makes an appearance here.

Louisiana Bigshot is a believable PI mystery with a thread of humour and a unique sleuth who fits into the New Orleans setting and context. The characters, the plot and the solution are all reflections of life in The Big Easy. But what’s your view? Have you read Louisiana Bigshot? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 11 February/Tuesday 12 February – The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill

Monday 18 February/Tuesday 19 February – Unexpected Night – Elizabeth Daly

Monday 25 February/Tuesday 26 February – Full Dark House – Christopher Fowler


Filed under Julie Smith, Louisiana Bigshot

My Eyes Can Dimly See the Pattern of My Life*

PatternsDid you ever catch yourself in a pattern you hadn’t even been aware you had? We often have a patterned reaction to life because it’s easy, or it’s comfortable and familiar, or perhaps because it’s served an important purpose. And we get so accustomed to our patterns that we often aren’t even conscious that we have them. But sometimes our comfortable patterns don’t work any more. When that happens we have to learn to deal with life in new ways. And that can help us grow. It can also add some interest to fictional characters as they see that the same way they’ve always dealt with life doesn’t always work.

Sometimes of course, patterns of dealing with life can be dangerous. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia we meet Louise Leidner. She’s the wife of prominent archaeologist Eric Leidner and she’s accompanied him on an important dig a few hours from Baghdad. The team hasn’t been at the site long when Louise begins to have what many people call irrational fears. She says that she hears hands tapping on windows and sees grotesque faces looking in at her. Her husband hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to look after his wife and she learns that Louise fears for her life. She’s been receiving threatening letters that seem to come from her first husband, who she thought was dead. Then one afternoon Louise is bludgeoned to death. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to investigate. He’s soon faced with several questions about the murder. Was the victim really killed by her former husband? If not, were the letters a blind? Did she write them herself in order to create drama? As Poirot sorts the case out we learn that there were several patterns to Louise Leidner’s life. Her interactions with people followed those particular patterns and in part that’s what led to her death.

Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone has had his share of damage in his life. And one of the patterns he’s used to cope with it is that he stays at least somewhat withdrawn in relationships. In some ways that’s been a successful strategy for him. His way of distancing himself makes it easier to do the hard things that cops have to do. For instance, in Night Passage, the first in Parker’s Jesse Stone series, Stone is hired as the new police chief in Paradise, Massachusetts. He thinks it will be a good chance to start life over. Having lost both his job with the L.A.P.D. and his marriage, Stone is looking for a new beginning. But he soon finds that being a cop in Paradise is anything but an easy job. It turns out that Stone was hired because the town’s leaders thought he’d be easy to manipulate. When Stone uncovers what’s going on, he needs his ability to ‘step back’ and not trust anyone as he finds out the truth. On the other hand, that pattern isn’t so useful in his personal life. It’s part of the reason for the breakup of his marriage and as the series goes on, we see how more than once, Stone’s pattern of withdrawal gets in the way of really sustaining a strong relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman has a negative relationship with her parents for several good reasons. While she’s not obsessive about it, she also has no interest whatsoever in any contact with them. As she sees it, she has a good life (she has her own bakery, a good relationship with her lover Daniel Cohen, and a good circle of friends). But it’s all no thanks to her parents. Then, in Devil’s Food, Chapman’s mother suddenly shows up in her life. Chapman’s father has disappeared and her mother wants Chapman’s help finding him. Chapman’s first reaction is to follow the pattern that has so far served her well: avoidance. But she soon learns that avoidance isn’t going to work this time as her mother intends to stay in the area until her father is found. What’s more, one of the other residents of the building where Chapman lives and works offers to take her mother in for the time being. With few other options Chapman grudgingly begins to help in the search for her father. Bit by bit she develops a sort of détente with her mother. She also learns what’s happened to her father. At the end of the story, Chapman isn’t exactly ‘best buddies’ with her mother but she’s been able to re-think the pattern of simply avoiding any contact at all cost.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, beginning psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson has to re-think several patterns in her life. When she was fourteen, her younger sister Gemma was abducted. No trace of the child was ever found despite a massive hunt. Gemma’s loss devastated the family and is partly responsible for Anderson’s pattern of withdrawing from people – of not allowing herself to get close to them. In a lot of ways she’s aware of that pattern but for her it’s been a useful coping technique. She’s able to work with her patients because she doesn’t allow herself to get close. She can’t really face her own pain and sense of loss at Gemma’s disappearance so withdrawing helps her get through life without hurting too much or drowning herself in alcohol. For Anderson it’s not a bad pattern although it has cost her at least one serious relationship. Then she begins to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark. Clark is still suffering the trauma of losing her own younger sister Gracie, who was, like Anderson’s sister, abducted. When Anderson hears Clark’s story she decides to lay her old ghosts to rest and find out who was responsible for both abductions. To do that she has to take several emotional risks and face the difficulty of getting close to some of the members of her family again as well as getting closer to Clark than professional ethics would normally dictate. But Anderson has found that her pattern of staying removed from people simply won’t work any more. As she slowly finds out the truth about what happened to her sister, she also learns some new ways of dealing with life.

Håkan Nesser’s Intendant Münster has a pattern of relying on his boss Inspector Van Veeteren. That pattern makes sense for a lot of reasons. After all, Van Veeteren is the boss. Besides, he has real intuition for detection and an awful lot of skill. Münster is neither stupid nor lacking in insight. But he’s fallen into a pattern of discussing cases with his boss, getting Van Veeteren’s views, insights and so on and going from there. But then Münster has to re-think his patterns, at least to some extent. Van Veeteren leaves the police force and becomes an owner of a bookshop, which is something he’s wanted to do for a long time. So in The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Fall/ Münster’s Case), Münster has to take on the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn himself. He certainly works with a team, and as I say, he’s no mental slouch. But it’s obvious that he has gotten used to depending on Van Veeteren. And what’s interesting is that Van Veeteren has gotten used to it and to detection too. A few times during this novel he and Münster discuss the case, and he gives Münster some valuable perspective.

And then there’s Julie Smith’s Louisiana Bighot which features New Orleans PI Talba Wallis. Wallis works for E.V. Anthony Investigations when she’s not writing poetry and doing readings. When Wallis is hired to find out whether her friend Babalu Maya’s fiancé Jason is cheating, Wallis has no idea that this case is going to lead to murder, corruption and more. When Wallis doesn’t want to deal with something difficult, even she admits that she ‘turtles,’ or goes into her proverbial shell. She avoids unpleasant confrontations if she can and drags her feet as the saying goes. And she tends to freeze up emotionally when she can’t avoid a confrontation. We see that for instance when she has to tell Babalu that Jason has been unfaithful. We see it again when Babalu is murdered and Jason is accused of the crime. It’s a lot more complicated though than a case of an angry fiancé who kills the woman he’s supposedly going to marry. Throughout the novel, as Wallis deals with the various threads of this case, she has to force herself not to rely on ‘turtling’ to get her through. But as we learn a little about her backstory, we also see why she has that pattern. It’s not an irrational way to deal with life, but it doesn’t work in this case.

And that’s the thing about a lot of the patterns we develop. It’s not that they’re necessarily bad or wrong. They may in fact be very useful. But sometimes, our comfortable familiar patterns don’t serve our purpose. And that’s when we find out what we’re capable of learning.




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



Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Julie Smith, Kerry Greenwood, Paddy Richardson, Robert B. Parker