Category Archives: Kalpana Swaminathan

Take All My Preconceptions*

We arguably have a more global society now than ever before. This means that most countries have a diverse population – some more diverse than others. And that means we often encounter people from lots of different backgrounds.

So far, so good. I’d guess most of us believe, at least in principle, that we should be able to work with all sorts of different people. The problem is, it doesn’t always work out that way in day-to-day encounters. Part of the reason for that is that we often have preconceptions of people that we don’t even know we have. They may be unconscious, but they can be no less hurtful for that. In fact, they can end up creating a group of ‘second class’ citizens. To see what I mean in real life, you really should read this excellent post from Marina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write. G’head, read it now. I’ll wait.

Back now? Thanks. The same thing can happen in crime fiction, even when the characters involved aren’t consciously xenophobic, or even consciously bigoted. It’s simply a set of assumptions that frames those characters’ reactions to others.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates when Celia Austin, a resident of a student hostel, is murdered. Her death turns out to be connected to a number of other strange and unsettling events at the hostel, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out the truth. That involves interviewing the other people who live at the hostel. Here’s what Sharpe says to Poirot about it:
 

‘‘You met some of them the other night and I wonder if you could give me any useful dope – on the foreigners, anyway.’
‘You think I am a good judge of foreigners? But, mon cher, there were no Belgians among them.’
‘No Belg – oh, I see what you mean. You mean that as you’re a Belgian, all the other nationalities are as foreign to you as they are to me. But that’s not quite true, is it? I mean you probably know more about the Continental types than I do – though not the Indians and the West Africans and that lot.’’
 

It’s not spoiling the story to say that Sharpe doesn’t assume the killer has to be someone who’s not English. He doesn’t use cruel slurs, and so on. But his assumptions are there nonetheless.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives follows the fortunes of the Eberhart family when they move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. What seems to be the right move to an idyllic town turns into a nightmare as Joanna Eberhart and her new friend, Bobbie Markowe, discover some very dark secrets that the town is hiding. At one point, Joanna has a conversation with one of the residents of the town, who tells her:
 

‘‘A black family is moving in on Gwendolyn Lane. But I think it’s good, don’t you?’’
 

Admittedly, this novel was first published in 1972. Still, it’s interesting to see how those assumptions come through.

Sometimes, people’s assumptions are clear, or seem clear, even without words. For instance, in one plot thread of Elizabeth George’s With No One as Witness, there’s a series of three murders, all of young boys. The police haven’t ignored the case, but they haven’t made a lot of progress, either. And the media hasn’t paid a whole lot of attention. Then, there’s another murder. Unlike the other victims, this boy is white. Now, the media starts to devote a lot more time and energy to the murders. And there’s a lot of talk that the police are only ramping up their efforts because this newest victim is white. Whether that’s true of each individual journalist and police officer, it seems to show a general assumption that some deaths are more meaningful than others. And that isn’t lost on the police, who return to the older cases and try to put the puzzle together.

Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club takes place in 1950’s Auckland. The real action in the story begins when a ship from England docks. One of the passengers is Istvan Zieglar, a refugee from Hungary who wants to start a new life in New Zealand. He’s heard about jobs at Auckland Harbour, and has come to help build the new bridge there. He soon gets involved in a dark mystery surrounding a local children’s home called Brodie House, and its connection to some terrible tragedies. Along the way, Zieglar has to get used to life in his new home. For one thing, he isn’t fluent in English, although he can get by. But, because he sometimes doesn’t understand what people say, his workmates assume that he,
 

‘‘…understands nothing…thick as a brick…’’
 

In fact, the assumption that he can’t do the work costs him the job. The foreman on the job has some other assumptions, too:
 

‘‘…a team of Italians are due here to assist with girders D, E, and F. Not sure what a bunch of Dago tunnellers know about steel girders, but the bosses hired them in their wisdom and we’ll just have to make the most of them.’’
 

Here, it’s very clear that certain assumptions are made about New Zealand workers vs workers from other places.

There’s also Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, which features her sleuth, retired Mumbai police detective Lalli. In the novel, a small slum known as Kandewadi is the focus when several children who live there disappear and are later found dead. The media and the police don’t do very much about it. That, in itself, reveals assumptions about the lives of the people who live in Kandewadi. Finally, after several such deaths, the media pick the story up, and Inspector Savio, who regularly consults with Lalli, takes up the investigation. And it’s interesting to see how assumptions about life in slums plays a role in the story.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. In it, newly-minted psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark, who is dealing with the long-ago abduction of her sister, Gracie. Elisabeth’s story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own. Seventeen years earlier, her sister, Gemma, was also abducted. Now, Stephanie decides to lay her ghosts to rest, and find the person who wrought so much havoc. So, she travels from Dunedin, where she lives and works, to her hometown of Wanaka. Along the way, she meets a hunting guide, Dan, who offers to take her out into the bush. Reluctantly, Stephanie agrees. It’s soon clear that she has preconceptions about Dan:
 

‘‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Central Otago?’
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’’

 

It’s an interesting example of the way we can have preconceptions without even being conscious of it.

And that’s the thing about such assumptions and frameworks for thinking. They shape our thoughts and, therefore, our interactions, even when we’re not aware of it.

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, please, do go check out Finding Time to Write. Excellent reviews, thoughtful commentary, and fine poetry await you.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Orianthi Panagaris’ Courage.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ira Levin, Jen Shieff, Kalpana Swaminathan, Paddy Richardson

No Compassion*

Early in life, most of us develop the capacity to take another’s viewpoint, and have sympathy – even empathy – for others. All of the religions and spiritual traditions I know about make a point about the importance of compassion. And even if you don’t believe in any religion or religious tradition, you’ve probably been taught the importance of sympathy for others. It’s part of the glue, if you will, that holds society together.

But not everyone has that sense of sympathy and compassion for others. Psychologists don’t agree on why a person might not have that capacity. And, in any case, there are any number of possible causes. Whatever the reason, the end result – a person who doesn’t have sympathy for others – can bring sorrow and tragedy. And in crime fiction, such a character can be truly chilling.

Agatha Christie included several such characters in her stories. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to approach her husband, Lord Edgware, regarding a divorce. She tells Poirot that she wants a divorce, but that her husband won’t agree to it; she wants Poirot to get Edgware to change his mind. This isn’t Poirot’s usual sort of case, but he agrees to at least speak to the man. When Edgware says he has no objection to the divorce, Poirot thinks the matter is done. That night, though, Edgware is murdered in his study. The most likely suspect is his wife, and there’s evidence against her. But she claims to have been at a dinner party in another part of London at the time. And twelve other people are ready to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. They find that this killer has no conscience, really, and no sense of sympathy for others. Here’s a tiny snippet of a letter that the killer sends to Poirot:
 

‘I feel, too, that I should like everyone to know just exactly how I did it all. I still think it was all very well planned…I should like to be remembered. And I do think I am really a unique person.’
 

And that matters more to this killer than does any consideration for anyone else.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ lives with her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian in the family home just outside a small New England town. We soon learn that the Blackwoods are a very isolated family. No-one in the village wants anything to do with them, and the feeling is mutual. Gradually, we learn of a tragedy that took place six years earlier, in which three other members of the Blackwood family died. Almost everyone in town thinks that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible, which is why the local people shun the family. Still, life goes on, more or less. Then one day, a cousin, Charles Blackwood, unexpectedly comes for a visit. His visit touches off a series of events that ends up in more tragedy. Throughout this novel, the lack of conscience and real sympathy for others plays an important role in what happens. And it adds to the tension and suspense.

In Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake, we are introduced to John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife, Rosie, own a fishing lodge in the northern part of Saskatchewan, but live in the small town of Crooked Lake, further south in the province. It’s not the sort of place where a lot of violent things happen as a rule. But then one day, Harvey Kristoff is murdered. The weapon seems to be a golf club, and his body is discovered on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is Nick Taylor, who was recently fired from his position as Head Greenskeeper, and who blames Kristoff for his termination. But he claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart, who’s a good friend, to clear his name. Bart doesn’t want to think his friend is a murderer, so he agrees to look into the matter. And he soon learns that there were plenty of other suspects. Then, there’s another murder. Bart finds out who the killer is and in the end, we find that the murderer,
 

‘…took the lives of two men as if they were nothing more than annoyances.’
 

It’s a disturbing look at what someone with no sympathy and no compassion is really like.

Peter Robinson introduces us to that sort of character, too, in A Dedicated Man. In that novel, archaeologist Harry Steadman retires from his position at the University of Leeds. He and his wife, Emma, then move to Yorkshire, where he plans to excavate some Roman ruins in the area. He gets the necessary permissions, and then begins the work. Then, tragically, he is murdered by blunt force trauma. DCI Alan Banks and his team investigate, and they soon discover more than one possibility. For one thing, not everyone in the area was best pleased about the excavation. For another, there’s the matter of Steadman’s former colleagues at Leeds. There are other possibilities, too. In the end, Banks and his team find that this killer has no real regrets and, really no sympathy either for Steadman or anyone else.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight. In that novel, five children from a Mumbai slum called Kandewadi go missing, one by one. And, one by one, their bodies are returned to their families. Once the media outlets get hold of the story, pressure is put on the police to solve the murders, and Inspector Savio is assigned to investigate. He is in the habit of consulting with retired detective Lalli on his cases, and this one is no exception. Savio, Lalli, his assistant Shukla, and Lalli’s niece, Sita, investigate the killings. They discover that behind these deaths is a complete lack of sympathy for others or compassion. And it’s that lack of humanity that makes the killings even more disturbing, if that’s possible.

And that’s the thing about sympathy for others, and compassion. They help most of us control what we do, even if we do get angry or resentful. Without those qualities, the result can be truly chilling.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Talking Heads.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kalpana Swaminathan, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Robinson, Shirley Jackson

Look At All the Slum Kids Around You*

Slums, tenements, housing projects, however you think of them, they’re not the sorts of places you read about in tourist brochures. The people who live there are often the working poor, or those on government assistance. Such places can be dangerous (although not all of them are), and people don’t tend to live there by choice. But they are unique communities, and they have their own cultures. Most real-life cities have such districts, and we certainly see them in crime fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has the skill of fitting in as necessary to solve cases. That includes going into some of London’s dangerous slums. For instance, in The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, for instance, Holmes disguises himself as ‘a common loafer’ and goes into one of London’s more disreputable areas to follow the trail of some missing jewels. And it’s interesting to see that there’s a way to fit in, if you will, in those places, just as there is in the ‘better’ places.

Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy series is set at the turn of the 20th Century, a time of a surge in immigration to the US. Many immigrants ended up in New York’s poorer districts. Murphy herself is fortunate enough not to be truly poverty-stricken, but she knows plenty of people who are not so lucky. As she investigates different cases (she’s a PI), readers get a look at what life was like at that time in New York’s slums and tenements. There are certainly gangs and other criminals. But there are just as many characters in these novels who are ‘poor but respectable.’ And Murphy often finds it easier to ‘fit in’ as she goes into those communities, because she’s an immigrant from Ireland. It’s also worth noting something else about the slums and tenements of this era in New York. Like those of London, they’re sometimes just a short distance away from upper-middle class, or even wealthy, areas.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell, who, when we first meet her, is a ticket-taker at a local theatre. Later, she works at a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse, and then at an outdoor market. Throughout the trilogy, O’Donnell interacts with several characters who live in Glasgow’s poorer districts. These people have their own culture and their own ways of interacting. And they have ways of supporting each other, although most of them don’t have much money. O’Donnell herself isn’t exactly wealthy, and she’s not much for pretense anyway. So, she fits right in. And she’s often more comfortable with that lifestyle. It’s not that she wouldn’t appreciate more money. Rather, she likes the down-to-earth authenticity of the friends and acquaintances she has in those poorer areas.

Glasgow also features in Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, which takes place just after World War II. Douglas Brodie has recently returned to the UK after his wartime service, and is trying to put his life back together in London. Then, he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested and convicted for the murder of a boy named Rory Hutchinson. Donovan says he’s innocent, but Brodie can’t be sure; he hasn’t seen his friend for years. Besides, there is evidence against the man. Even so, Brodie agrees to return to Glasgow and see what he can do. As he follows the trail, he naturally wants to speak to Rory’s mother, Fiona Hutchinson. As it happens, Fiona is an old love, so their reunion is charged with emotion. But the world hasn’t been kind to her. She’s a war widow who now lives in one of Glasgow’s tenements:
 

‘The street was patched and holed. The pavement ripped up and the stone doorway into the entrance was covered with scratched territory markers of the Beehive Boys. The hall stank of pish. This was no place for her.’
 

The tenement is a dilapidated, depressing place. But even so, it’s got its own life and its own culture.

We see that also in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy. These novels feature Fabio Montale, who grew up in the rough sections of Marseilles. He and his friends found all sorts of ways to get into trouble, but everything changed one night when a tragedy occurred. After that, Montale joined the military, and then returned to Marseilles. In the first novel, Total Chaos, he’s become a police officer, patrolling the same government housing projects and rough districts that he lived in as a boy. He’s gotten to know several of the people who live there, and he sees them as human beings. That’s part of what makes his job so difficult, as he can see how often they become victims of police corruption, gangs, and other forces. In fact, he quits the police force in disgust. Even after he leaves the force, though, he’s drawn into cases that bring him into contact with those who live in Marseilles’ poorest areas. As Izzo depicts them, these areas may be poor, but they have a vivid life of their own, and a unique culture.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, the sixth in her series featuring Mumbai retired police detective Lalli. In the novel, a small slum called Kandewadi becomes the focus of media hype when some of its children begin to go missing.
 

‘Our Kandewadi is a small slum sunk off the Andheri-Kurla Road, a maze of tin shacks and lean-tos, winding in and out of a sputter of small industries.’
 

The people of Kandewadi may not have much, but they do the best they can for their children:
 

‘Children dressed for school oozed out of the pores of Kandewadi…One thing set them apart from children elsewhere. They didn’t rush out. They walked with a sedate air of enjoyment, almost a sense of occasion.

They were all extremely spruce, the girls particularly, their hair ribbons in crisp bows.’
 

So, when these children begin to disappear, and are later found dead, the small community is badly shaken. The police don’t do much about the situation at first, but as one, and then two, and then three children disappear, the media pay attention. Now, the case is given to Inspector Savio, who still consults with Lalli. Together, they, and Lalli’s niece, Sita, investigate the case. Among other things, this novel shows the inner workings of a small slum community, and the social networks there. It also shows how the slum is perceived from the outside (as opposed to, say, a wealthy area).

Slums, tenements, and housing projects may not be pleasant places to live. But they have their own life and their own character. And they offer possibilities to an author for plot, level of bleakness, character development, and more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Slum Kids.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Denise Mina, Gordon Ferris, Jean-Claude Izzo, Kalpana Swaminathan, Rhys Bowen

I Didn’t Catch Your Name*

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the most basic facts we learn about people, including fictional characters, is their names. Certainly, it’s one of the first things we find out when we meet someone new. A name is an important identifier, and in a novel, it’s an important way in which authors make characters distinctive.

And yet, there plenty of crime-fictional characters, even main characters, who aren’t given names. And it’s interesting to see how authors give those characters roles in a story without naming them. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure you’ll think of others.

Fredric Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You is addressed to the reader. The unnamed narrator tells the story of a printer named Justin Dean, and a suave man named Harley.  They meet when Harley goes to the printing shop where Justin works to have some business cards made. Then, they get into a business of their own. Trouble begins when they get involved with some ruthless people, and that leads to real ugliness. The story has a lot of impact because it’s addressed to the reader, and told in the first person, much as someone might tell you about an event. And that adds power to a twist at the end of the story.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca isn’t usually thought of as a crime novel, but if you’ve read it, you know that it involves crime. As fans can tell you, the story is told in first person from the point of view of the second wife of Maxim ‘Max’ de Winter. When she and her new husband move in together at his home, Manderley, she tries to settle in and enjoy her new life. But she’s soon made to feel very unwelcome. In particular, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, resents her presence. It comes out that Mrs. Danvers was especially devoted to Max’s first wife, Rebecca. And she misses no opportunity to make it clear that the second Mrs. de Winter is a poor substitute at best. Rebecca’s presence seems to haunt everyone, and the new Mrs. de Winter isn’t even sure her husband actually loves her. As the story goes on, we learn more about what Rebecca was really like. And the truth changes everything. Interestingly, we never learn the name of the narrator. And, in a way, that fact underscores the powerful role Rebecca’s memory plays at Manderley.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we meet an art restorer, who’s visiting a monastery in the Swiss Alps. He’s interested in some frescoes in the monastery’s chapel, and considering restoring them. During his visit, he meets an old man who offers to tell him a story – ‘a good one’ – if that story can be recorded. The art restorer agrees and buys some cassettes (this part of the story takes place in the 1970s). Then, the old man tells his story. It begins with the arrival of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family to New York in the early 20th Century. Immigrants from Italy, they try to make their way in their new home, and they do well. Then, disaster happens. Franco gets into a bar fight, and ends up killing his opponent, a man named Luigi Lupo. The victim happens to be the son of underworld boss Tonio Lupo, who curses the Franco family for the loss of his son. In fact, he promises that all three of Ben Franco’s sons will die at the age of forty-two, the age Luigi was when he was murdered. The old man then goes on to tell what happened to those sons. We never learn the name of the art restorer. And for much of the novel, we don’t know who the old man is, either. This keeps the focus of the story on the Franco family, rather than the narrator or the old man.

Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders takes place mostly at the posh Mumbai home of Dr. Hilla Driver. She decides to have a special ‘foodie’ weekend at her home, both as a sort of housewarming and as a celebration for her niece’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. Hilla’s chef, Tarok Ghosh, wants to put the house on the culinary map, as the saying goes, so he plans extra-special meals, with the culminating event to be an elaborate seven-course dinner. One of the guests is Hilla’s good friend, a retired police detective named Lalli, who’s accompanied by her niece. Several members of Mumbai’s glitterati are also invited, and the weekend begins. On the night of the dinner, Ghosh makes a custom-made appetizer for each guest. It’s soon clear from those appetizers that each guest is hiding something, and that Ghosh knows their secrets. By the end of the night, he’s been murdered. Later, another murder is discovered. Together, Lalli and her niece discover who the killer is, and what the actual motive was for both murders. This novel is told from the point of view (first person) of Lalli’s niece. Interestingly enough, she is not named, although she plays an important role in the novel. The focus is really on the other guests.

And of course, I couldn’t discuss nameless crime-fictional characters without mentioning Bill Pronzini’s San Francisco PI. In fact, that series is often called the Nameless series, because for much of it, Pronzini doesn’t tell us what his sleuth’s name is. The stories are told in first person, past tense, so it’s not especially awkward.

Still, in most cases, it really can be a challenge to create a main character who doesn’t have a name. Authors can make it work by having that character narrate the story, or by keeping the focus of the story elsewhere. But it’s not easy to accomplish.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ I Will.

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Bill Pronzini, Daphne du Maurier, Frederic Brown, Kalpana Swaminathan

I Love the Old-Fashioned Things*

I spent a couple of days at a conference last week. The conference itself was interesting, with plenty of ‘food for thought.’ Just as interesting (at least to me) was the way people interacted. As you’ll know, one of the customs people have at conferences is to exchange business cards. Business cards and other, related, calling cards have been in use in some form or another for hundreds of years. And even with the less formal nature of today’s business interactions, and with today’s technology, they’re still a popular formality.

The exchange of business cards isn’t the only formal ritual custom people keep. And that’s not surprising. There’s a certain comfort and security that can be associated with them. For example, a funeral ritual can help the bereaved go through the process of letting go of a loved one, no matter how casual those left behind are in the rest of their lives. And certain ritual customs, like formal meals, engraved invitations, and exchanging business cards, add what a lot of people think of as ‘class’ to an event. So, even in today’s more casual world, where people often text or email rather than send letters, there’s something about certain formalities. We certainly see that in crime fiction. And those formalities can be effective tools for character development, cultural background, and even the setting up of context.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth about the murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. He was poisoned sixteen years earlier; and at the time, his wife Caroline was the only really viable suspect. There was plenty of evidence against her, too. She was arrested, convicted and died a year later in prison. Now, her daughter wants to clear her name if that’s possible. Poirot agrees to look into the case. One of the people who give him information is Caleb Jonathan, the Crale family lawyer. He’s retired now, but he knows the family history very well. Both he and Poirot are accustomed to certain formal traditions, so before they even meet, there’s an exchange of letters. Then Poirot receives an invitation for dinner and to spend the night. Only after dinner and an after-dinner brandy does the attorney really begin to talk to Poirot about the Crale family. And that conversation proves useful.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, for instance, will know that Chee and Leaphorn are members of the Navajo Nation, as well as members of the Navajo Tribal Police. In his personal life, Chee is more traditional than Leaphorn is, but both respect their people’s customs. For instance, one custom they observe has to do with visiting people’s homes. It’s the Navajo tradition when visiting to sound the horn and/or call out, and then to wait outside the home of someone one’s visiting until one’s host opens the door and invites one in. This is intended to allow the host to clean up, change clothes, or whatever is needed to prepare for a guest. These police officers know that they could knock on a door right away. But the formality of sounding the car horn and waiting to be invited in shows respect to the homeowner, It also puts witnesses at ease, so they’re more likely to be helpful to the police.

We also see formal courtesy, for instance, in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. In that novel, Göteborg DI Irene Huss and her team investigate the death of wealthy financier Richard von Knecht. One day, he falls from the balcony of his exclusive penthouse, and at first, it looks very much like a suicide. But small pieces of forensic evidence begin to suggest otherwise. So, Huss and the members of her team look more deeply into the matter. One of the important witnesses in this case is Fru Eva Karlsson, an elderly lady who happened to be walking her dog at the time of von Knecht’s deah. Huss wants to learn as much as she can from this witness, so she pays Fru Karlsson a visit. From Huss’ perspective, it’s an informal visit, just to get information. But she is a visitor, so Fru Karlsson insists on making a more formal event of it, complete with fresh coffee and homemade pastries. It’s much more than Huss wants to eat or drink, but putting the witness at ease is important, so she goes along with this formality.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe understands the value of a certain amount of ease and modern informality. But there are some more formal traditions that she continues, and prefers. She prefers to greet people in the traditional way, although it is a bit more formal. And she respects the custom of showing traditional respect to the elderly. When clients come to see her, she puts them at their ease by offering them traditional hospitality: a cup of bush tea and, perhaps, some cake. She knows that those formalities can help ease the awkwardness that often goes with hiring a private investigator.

In Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders, Dr. Hilla Driver decides to have a large house party, both as a sort of housewarming, and to celebrate her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. The guests are among Mumbai’s elite, and include Bollywood people, a famous dancer, a famous author, and a critic, among others. And Hilla wants this to be a very special weekend. So, at the urging of her chef, Tarok Ghosh, she decides to make it a ‘foodie’ weekend that will culminate in a formal, traditional, seven-course gourmet meal. There are to be special hors d’oeuvres, printed menu cards, and other formalities. The weekend arrives, and so do the guests. Right from the beginning, there’s conflict among some of them, but for the most part, things go smoothly enough. Then, on the night of the gourmet meal, Ghosh gives each guest a custom-made hors d’oeuvre, and uses these to show that he knows a secret about each one. That hint strikes too close to home for someone, and by the next morning, he’s dead. One of Hilla’s guests is a retired police detective, Lalli, who’s there with her niece. Together, the two find out who killed Ghosh and why.

Some formalities may seem unnecessary in today’s world. But they have their place, and a lot of people like them. What about you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s I’m Old Fashioned.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Helene Tursten, Kalpana Swaminathan, Tony Hillerman