Category Archives: Kate Atkinson

I Heard it on My Radio*

RadioAn interesting post on podcasting from crime writer Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about broadcasting. Her excellent writing blog inspires me; it’s a must-visit for writers and anyone interested in the process of writing. Podcasts are a very new form of broadcasting, but radio has been around for a very long time. In fact, it was arguably the first real-time medium of mass communication. And even with the advent of television and the internet, radio is still a popular and powerful tool. It’s not surprising then that radio plays a role in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of dozens more than I can.

In Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are on a holiday in Cornwall. There they meet Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley, who has a house there. Poirot soon comes to suspect that someone is trying to kill Nick, although she herself doesn’t believe him at first. Then, she has a few ‘near misses.’ Poirot doesn’t want her staying in the house by herself, so Nick invites her cousin Maggie for a few weeks. Tragically, Maggie is killed during her visit. She was wearing one of her cousin’s shawls at the time of the murder; and this obvious case of mistaken identity convinces Poirot that Nick is in imminent danger. He arranges for her to be safely cared for at a hospital, where she’s told to eat nothing from ‘outside.’ When the murderer tries to strike again, Poirot has to act quickly. In this case, a radio broadcast is key to what the killer chooses to do.

The police have their own radio frequencies; and police radio plays a role in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. One Christmas night, LAPD cop Harry Bosch is ‘on call,’ and has his police scanner running in the background. That’s how he hears that a body has been discovered at a seedy hotel in his district. To him, it’s surprising that no-one called him to let him know, since he’s on duty. He goes to the scene only to find that the dead man is Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow police officer. The death bears all the hallmarks of suicide, but a few things don’t add up for Bosch. The official explanation is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty’ and was involved in drug smuggling. In order to protect the department’s reputation, Bosch is told to leave the case alone and accept it as a suicide (in fact, that’s why he wasn’t called). Bosch fans will know that leaving things alone is not his style, so he keeps asking questions. In the end, and after a trip to the US/Mexico border area, he finds out the complex truth behind this death.

Even with the popularity of television and the Internet, there are still plenty of successful and well-known radio celebrities. Some of them are quite controversial, too. We see an example of the rise of the ‘shock jock’ in Robert B. Parker’s High Profile. In that novel, we meet celebrity radio personality Walton Weeks. His politically-charged broadcasts have made him a host of fanatic followers and enemies; his private life has been just as full of drama. So when he is found shot and hung, Paradise, Massachusetts Police Chief Jesse Stone has his pick of suspects. For one thing, Weeks’ broadcasts had inspired strong passion on both sides, so to speak. For another, his ex-wives and his current wife all had good reason to want him out of the way. Stone is working on this case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is Weeks’ pregnant mistress. Stone finds that there were a lot of secrets in Weeks’ life, and that those secrets turned out to be fatal.

In one plot thread of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to comic Richard Mott. He’s been invited to headline a lunchtime radio comedy show, and arranges for his housemate, crime writer Martin Canning, to get tickets. On the day of the show, Canning and several other characters in the novel are waiting for the doors to open when they witness a car accident. A blue Honda hits the back of a silver Peugot driven by Paul Bradley. Both men get out of their cars and are soon arguing bitterly. Then the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. Mostly by instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. A sense of obligation drives Canning to ensure that Bradley gets safely to the nearest hospital; before he knows it, he’s far more involved than he wants to be in a case of multiple murders, fraud and theft.

Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces readers to Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. He and his common-law wife Katherine Torn are both successful, and have an upscale lifestyle which includes a home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Everything changes one morning when Torn is found dead in one of the bathtubs. Brace is quickly arrested, and indicates that he wants to be represented by Nancy Parish. Acting for the Crown will be Albert Fernandez. While the attorneys prepare for the legal aspects of this case, Police Detective Ari Green and his team investigate the crime. One possible explanation for the seemingly airtight case against Brace is that he was framed. If that’s the case, then one likely suspect is Donald Dundas, another radio personality who stands to become a broadcasting star with Brace out of the way. And Dundas might have had his own reasons for wanting Torn dead. As the police and attorneys fallow this trail, we learn some interesting things about the modern big-city radio business.

Domingo Villar’s Leo Caldas is a detective with the Vigo police. He also has a radio call-in show. The goal of the show is closer ties between the police and the community, so callers get to ask their questions (or lodge their complaints) in direct conversations with Caldas. The show is so popular that when people are introduced to Caldas, they invariably say something like, ‘Oh, from Patrolling the Waves?’ He’s actually better known for the radio broadcast than he is for anything else.

And that just goes to show that radio still has an important impact. People do listen to audio broadcasts. These are just some instances. You’re now on the air to offer more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Radio Ga Ga.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, Robert Rotenberg

No Border Fence Can Separate Us, No*

BorderlandsI live less than an hour’s drive (depending on the traffic) from the U.S./Mexican border. What’s interesting about a borderland area like this is the distinctive culture that’s developed. There are certainly influences on both sides of the border of both the U.S. dominant culture and the Mexican dominant culture. But really, life here is a blend of those cultures, and that makes it unique – neither one nor the other, if I can put it that way.

There are ‘border cultures’ all over the world, whether the border is between two very friendly allies or two enemies. And if you think about it, borderlands are very effective settings for crime novels. For one thing, there is, as I say, a unique culture. For another, even between the friendliest of allies, there are often big and little tensions that can add to a novel’s suspense. Put that together with the mystery that’s the main focus of the novel, and you can have a very absorbing read.

Borderlands figure into a few of Agatha Christie’s stories. For example, in both The Murder on the Links and The Mystery of the Blue Train, Hercule Poirot, who lives in London, investigates murders that take place in France. Several of the characters in those novels cross between the two countries more than once, and do business in both places. That ‘border culture’ of cosmopolitan travel is distinctive – neither French nor English really – and it’s interesting to see how it plays out in these stories. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

Philippe Georget’s Summertime and All the Cats are Bored takes place in the Perpignan region of France, near the French/Spanish border. Two Perpignan police officers, Gilles Sebag and Jacques Molina are dealing with the usual life of a long, hot summer. Sebag’s concerned that his wife Claire may be having an affair, and Molina has his own concerns. Everything’s put aside though when the body of Josetta Braun, a Dutch tourist, is discovered. Then Anneke Verbrucke, who is also Dutch, is abducted. It looks very much as though there’s a serial killer at work, and the media wastes no time making much of that. Now Sebag and Molina have to try to outwit the killer before there are any more murders. In this story, we get a look at the culture of this border area – neither thoroughly French nor thoroughly Spanish, but distinctive.

The Austria/Italy borderland is the setting for Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, which introduces her Scotland Yard sleuth Henry Tibbett. He and his wife Emmy take a skiing trip to Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’re staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, which caters to skiers. Then late one afternoon, one of the other guests is murdered. Austrian-born businessman Fritz Hauser is shot and his body discovered on the downward-facing ski-lift. Tibbett doesn’t have jurisdiction, but once the investigating officer Capitano Spezzi finds out Tibbetts is with the Yard, he slowly starts to trust him and Tibbetts gets to work. Santa Chiara is in Italy; however, there’s a strong Austrian influence in the area, not least because this borderland has changed hands more than once. There are important cultural differences between the Italians and the Austrians; there’s even a bit of tension. But really, the local culture is Alpine – neither distinctly Italian nor distinctly Austrian.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice takes place partly in the borderland between the US and Mexico. It begins in Los Angeles, when Harry Bosch gets word on his police scanner that the body of a suicide victim has been discovered. The dead man is identified as Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow cop. The first theory is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty.’ But certain things don’t add up for Bosch, and he starts to investigate. His search leads him to the ‘twin cities’ of Calexico (in California) and Mexicali (in Mexico), and to a connection with Moore’s past. This area is a blend both of languages (English, Spanish and Spanglish are spoken on both sides of the border) and of cultures. There’s some tension there, but people who live in this borderland have developed their own distinctive culture and ways of living.

The U.S./Canada border is one of the friendlier borders in the world (not that there’s never any tension or strong disagreement). Because it’s such a long border (it’s the world’s longest international border), there isn’t what you’d call one ‘borderland’ culture. There are several. One such culture is the Great Lakes culture in the borderland between the U.S. state of Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario. Steve Hamilton explores the rural part of that culture in his Alex McKnight series. McKnight is a former Detroit police officer who’s left the force and now makes a living renting cabins near Sault Ste. Marie (Soo) Michigan/Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. There are of course formalities when McKnight crosses the border, but the area isn’t really completely Canadian or completely U.S. Instead, it’s a unique rural hunting/fishing/sport tourist area.

The capital of Botswana, Gabarone, is in the borderland area between that country and South Africa. So Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe, whose detective agency is in Gabarone, visits South Africa in more than one of her cases. And in both that series and the Michael Stanley writing duo’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, we see several examples of people who live on one side of the border but work on the other. It’s a culturally and linguistically unique place, and you can see that in the language patterns. English is the official language of Botswana, but most of the people also speak Setswana. Setswana is also spoken just across the border in South Africa. It’s an interesting case of cultural and linguistic borders being different to geopolitical borders.

Fans of Brian McGilloway’s Garda Ben Devlin series will know that it takes place mostly in the borderlands between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. And fans of Kate Atkinson and Val McDermid will know that several of their novels take place in the Scottish Border area. In both of those cases, we see a distinctive way of life that blends both sides of the border. Dialect, daily life, and so on are all unique to those areas. And that’s really what a borderland is. It’s not one side’s culture or the other. Instead, it’s a unique culture that has elements of both. Which bordlerlands novels and series stand out for you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boom Shaka’s Unite.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian McGilloway, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Patricia Moyes, Phillipe Georget, Steve Hamilton, Val McDermid

You’re A Sad Sight, Honey, But You Look So Cute*

RidiculousWe usually think of fictional sleuths as brave, and very often they are. But well-drawn sleuths are also quite human. And that means that they have moments, as we all do, of feeling, well, not at all confident. For some people, speaking in public brings on that ‘I’m a complete idiot’ feeling. For others, it’s dressing in a certain way when they’re accustomed to dressing another way. There are other things too of course that make people feel that kind of anxiety. It happens to all of us, and it’s no different for sleuths.

As Agatha Christie fans will know, her Captain Arthur Hastings is not one to call a lot of attention to himself. He’s got a strong sense of what counts as ‘the proper thing to do’ and doesn’t like behaving in any other way. But every once in a while, his work with Hercule Poirot means that he has to do things that completely go against the grain for him. And that makes him feel ridiculous. For example, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Poirot and Hastings investigate the suspicious death of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. She has several family members who are desperate for their share of her fortune. To add to that, she changed her will shortly before her death so as to leave practically everything to her companion Wilhelmina Lawson. So there is no shortage of suspects in this case. At one point, Poirot and Hastings visit the victim’s niece Theresa Arundell, who has more than one motive for murder. Poirot is sure that Theresa and her brother are not telling everything they know, so after he and Hastings leave, Poirot wants to sneak back and eavesdrop. Hastings of course is horrified at the thought, but has no choice except to go along. He certainly feels idiotic and embarrassed about it though.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to mystery novelist Martin Canning. His literary agent has persuaded him to participate in an author panel during the Edinburgh Arts Festival, so he’s in town for that event. During his trip, he witnesses an accident between a Honda and a Toyota. The two drivers get into a serious argument that ends with Toyota driver Paul Bradley coming close to being killed. Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver just in time to prevent that happening, and ends up getting drawn into a case of multiple murder for his trouble. Canning is by nature a shy, introverted sort of person as many writers are. He’s not comfortable in public and certainly not when he feels ‘on display.’ His saving Paul Bradley happens almost by instinct; so at first, he doesn’t think much about it. Far worse in his mind is the upcoming literary event at which he’ll actually have to interact with readers face to face. If you’re that sort of author – the introverted sort – you’ll know how idiotic that makes Canning feel.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a journalist who’s not afraid of talking to people. In fact, he’s quite good at putting people at their ease. He’s by no means cowardly by nature. But in The Cat Who Went Into the Closet, he faces a very difficult challenge: serving as Santa Claus in the town Christmas parade. In ways, it’s even harder for him than solving two murders. In one plot thread of this novel, local department store owner Larry Lanspeak is slated to play that role; but when an injury sidelines him, someone else has to step in. At first, Qwill outright refuses. But he’s finally talked into it, and reluctantly takes part in the parade. When it’s over, he finds out he’s also scheduled for a stint with the local children, so they can pose for pictures and tell ‘Santa’ what they want for Christmas. It’s not one of his more confident days…

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters introduces DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. The two are paired up to investigate what looks at first like a suicide. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters in a house in London’s Jerusalem Lane. When a large development company wants to buy out the lane for a new project, several residents sell. But Meredith and her sisters refuse. Shortly after that she is found dead. It looks very much like a suicide, but Kolla isn’t sure. So with the ‘green light’ from Brock, she begins to ask questions. At one point, she and Brock have a serious falling-out. Brock knows that although Kolla’s not perfect, their dispute is mostly his fault. So he decides to make amends. He stops by her home with some ‘peace offerings’ and an apology, but at first she’s not having any of it. He certainly feels less than confident standing outside her door with gifts, trying to convince her to open the door and let him in. It’s a very human moment.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche, successful businessman Harold Chavell hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find his missing fiancé Tom Osborn. The two had planned to marry and then take a honeymoon trip to France, but Osborn disappeared, taking his copy of their itinerary with him. Quant takes the case and ends up going to France, following the itinerary himself, and trying to find out where Osborn is. Then he gets a note indicating that Osborn doesn’t want to be found. That’s when Chavell asks Quant to return to Saskatchewan. Not long afterwards, Osborn’s body is discovered in a lake near a home he and Chavell owned. Chavell of course becomes a suspect in the murder, and asks Quant to keep working for him to clear his name. At one point, Quant and a friend attend a party hosted by Quant’s friend and mentor Anthony Gatt and his partner Jared Lowe. Quant’s fond of both men, but there’s one problem with this party: his outfit. Gatt (who is in the upmarket men’s clothing business) has sent Quant a very trendy, very different sort of outfit, and Quant feels ridiculous wearing it. But, having little choice, he wears it anyway. And as it turns out, he gets some important information at that party.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to investigate the death of his daughter Maryanne. The official police report is that she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck is sure his daughter wasn’t suicidal. Keeney travels to Pattaya to look into the case. There, she goes under cover at New Life Children’s Centre, where Maryanne volunteered, to find out as much as she can. And it turns out that there’s more going on at the orphanage than it seems. In the meantime, Keeney is getting accustomed to having a new business partner, Rajiv Patel. He is also her love interest, and that too takes getting used to, as the saying goes. They have their difficult moments, but they do care about each other. Towards the end of the novel, Patel does something very surprising that must have made him feel a little ridiculous. Still, speaking strictly for myself, I think the scene is beautifully done.

So the next time you’re asked to speak in public, or are talked into wearing that outfit to a party, or are picked to wear a silly costume for a parade, remember: you’re not alone. Lots of the best fictional sleuths have been there…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this song is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Barry Maitland, Kate Atkinson, Lilian Jackson Braun

I Am an Innocent Man*

Web - InnocentsAll sorts of people are affected when there’s a crime, especially a crime like murder. And sometimes the people caught up in the investigation are completely innocent. Perhaps they were at a certain place at a certain time. Or perhaps they had the bad fortune to be friends with/married to/doing business with a murder victim or a suspect. In those kinds of cases, even people who are innocent may be drawn into a case of murder. They may be questioned by the police, have their things searched or worse. That can happen in real life, and if it’s done believably, it can add an interesting thread of suspense and tension to a crime story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt, a respectable ‘country squire’ type who’s very concerned about his wife Elsie. Elsie is originally from Chicago, where she made some very dubious associations. But as she tells her husband, she has nothing of which she need be personally ashamed. Now it seems as though one of those associates has found her. She’s been receiving cryptic messages and won’t tell her husband what they mean. Whatever else they mean, they seem to present danger to her, and Cubitt wants to help his wife if he can. Then one night there’s a tragedy. Cubitt is murdered and his wife left badly wounded. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate and discover the connection between that night and the cryptic clues. Throughout this adventure readers can sense that Cubitt is an innocent person caught up in something dangerous. That fact adds suspense to the story.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) is a hostel for students. It’s managed by Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Hercule Poirot’s super-efficient secretary Felicity Lemon. Lately Mrs. Hubbard has been concerned about some odd events that have taken place at the hostel, including some strange petty thefts. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and goes to the hostel for dinner and to get the proverbial lay of the land. While he’s there, one of the residents Celia Austin admits to being responsible for several of the thefts. The matter then seems to be settled until two nights later when Celia is murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe do a thorough investigation to find out who wanted to kill Celia and why. They discover  the truth, but not before there are two other murders. Throughout this novel, we learn that some of the residents are hiding things. Others though are perfectly innocent and are shocked at what’s happening. That sense of being innocently drawn into something horrible adds real tension to this story.

We also see this in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Martin Canning is a mystery novelist who’s always led a more or less safe life. Even his novels avoid gore and a lot of violence. His literary agent convinces him to participate in an upcoming Arts Festival in Edinburgh and Canning makes preparations. He’s waiting to buy tickets to an afternoon show when he witnesses a car accident. A blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The Honda driver gets out of his vehicle and he and Bradley quarrel. Then the Honda driver brandishes a bat. Now Bradley’s life is in danger and without thinking about it, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver. The case knocks the driver down and saves Bradley’s life. Canning insists on accompanying Bradley to a local hospital to be sure he’s all right and that’s when the real trouble begins. It turns out Canning has innocently gotten himself mixed up in a case of fraud, theft and multiple murders. Part of the suspense in this novel comes as we see how Canning gets ever more deeply drawn into a case he had little to do with at first.

That’s also what happens in Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You. Features writer Tom Krone is assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne Lucks, who has just won US$14 million. Her plan is to use her winnings to buy a piece of Florida land and keep it as a reserve – safe from the hands of some greedy developers who’ve had their eyes on it. It’s a terrific human interest story and it’s supposed to be a straightforward one too. But everything changes when a group of neo-Nazis steals JoLayne’s winning ticket. Their plan is to use the money to fund an armed militia. Krone just wants to get his story, but he’s soon drawn into JoLayne’s plot to get the ticket back. And then there are the developers who are also very much interested in the fate of that ticket. It’s an example to show that you never know where a story will lead.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure is the story of the murder of Suzanne Crawford. Paramedics Carly Martens and Aidan Simpson are called to the Crawford home in a case of what seems to be domestic violence. Suzanne doesn’t want to press charges against her husband Connor though, and she insists that she’s going to be fine. The paramedics can’t really compel her to take any other action so they leave. The next day Suzanne is murdered. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard are assigned to the case. As you would imagine, they want to talk to Connor Crawford, but he’s gone missing. One possibility for getting information is a local volunteer organisation called Streetlights. This group works with at-risk young people, helping them to find work, set goals and stay out of trouble. A few of the young people involved in Streetlights worked in the nursery that the Crawfords owned. So Marconi and Orchard hope that one of those young people will be able to give them some information about the couple. One of these young people is Emil Page. Just as the cops start to focus on him though, Emil disappears too. As it turns out, Emil has been more or less innocently drawn into this case of murder, He may not be exactly ‘the boy next door,’ but he’s gotten involved in this case unwittingly.

And then there’s Stewart Macintosh, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s  The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s at a club called Heavenly one night when he meets an attractive young woman Zara Cope. She came to the club with her partner Lewis Winter. As the evening goes on, Winter gets more and more drunk and Stewart and Zara get more and more friendly. He sees no reason to object when Zara invites him back to her house ‘for drinks,’ and helps her steer Winter into a cab, into the house and upstairs to bed. Then he and Zara get on with their own plans for the night. That’s when the door bursts open and two professional hit men burst in. One goes upstairs and shoots Winter; the other guards Stewart and Zara. When they’re done their work they leave. Now panicked, Stewart sees that he’s gotten himself into something very much more than he’d imagined. But he’s attracted to Zara and when she asks him to keep something for her for a short while, he finds it impossible to refuse her. That’s how he gets drawn into a case of gangland ‘patch wars,’ drug dealing and murder-for-hire. He may not be exactly a ‘choir boy,’ but Stewart is a basically innocent guy who’s gotten himself into a serious mess.

And that’s how it often happens. A basically innocent person meets someone at a club, or works with someone, or sees something and before you know it, is drawn into a deadly situation. It’s hard to write such characters credibly. There has to be an authentic reason for the character to be pulled into the case. But when it’s done well it can add a really interesting layer of suspense to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Kate Atkinson, Katherine Howell, Malcolm Mackay

You Know Everything’s Coming Together Now*

Story PiecesSome crime novels don’t follow a strictly linear plot. Rather, the reader is given various pieces of a story and as the story goes on, sees how those pieces fit together. That sort of plot takes a deft hand, because it’s important that the story not seem chaotic. But when the plot makes sense overall, and when the reader is willing to ‘let go’ and let the pieces fall together, this kind of story can make an interesting alternative to the traditional, more linear plot.

Agatha Christie sometimes experimented with not-exactly-linear plots. For instance, Sad Cypress begins as Elinor Carlisle, on trial for murder, is asked to say whether she is guilty or not guilty of poisoning Mary Gerrard. Then, in flashback form, we learn a bit more about Elinor and about her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman. In bits and pieces, we learn about Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura too, and we see how her history relates to those of Elinor and Roddy. When Aunt Laura is taken ill, both young people go to visit her and readers follow along as they renew their acquaintance with Mary, who’s the lodgekeeper’s daughter at Aunt Laura’s home. Roddy finds himself infatuated with Mary and that’s used against Elinor when she is later arrested for poisoning Mary. Dr. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura’s doctor, wants Elinor’s name cleared, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. As Poiroit does, we very slowly see the bits and pieces of this story fall together. In the end, we learn how past relationships have led to both Aunt Laura’s death and Mary’s. The story isn’t really told chronologically, but it does make sense as the pieces are slowly fitted together.

That’s also true of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. The story’s focus is a car accident in which Paul Bradley, who’s driving a silver Peugeot, is hit from behind by the driver of a blue Honda. The two men get into a loud argument and the other driver soon wields a baseball bat with which he intends to kill Bradley. As one would expect, a crowd has gathered by now. One of the onlookers is mystery novelist Martin Canning, who’s never done a brave thing in his life. But almost by instinct he throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Watching all of this is former cop-turned-PI Jackson Brodie. With this background laid, Atkinson goes on to tell the story of how each character came to be at the scene of the accident, why the accident happened, and what happens to each person as a result. Atkinson doesn’t tell these stories in a linear way. Rather, each piece of the story is explored, and then we slowly see how all of the pieces fit together. And yet, the main plot – what led to the car crash and what resulted from it – isn’t ‘lost in the shuffle.’

Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi is concerned because he hasn’t been home for a few days, so she goes to the police. At first there’s not much cause for worry. There are many reasons why a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother. But when more time goes by, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre begin to look into the matter. One important source of information is his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. But Zipp claims that he doesn’t know where Andreas is. Sejer is fairly certain that Zipp knows more than he’s telling and Sejer’s right. As the story unfolds, we follow the events of the last day Zipp and Andreas spent together. We also follow the lives of some of the people with whom they interacted. There’s also the thread of the ongoing interaction between Zipp and Sejer as Sejer tries to find out what really happened. Fossum doesn’t tell this story in chronological order. Rather, each piece of the story slowly adds to the whole picture that we get of what happened to Andreas.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to Thea Farmer, who has left her job as a school principal and had a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Then she suffers a financial setback and has to sell her perfect home. She moves instead to the house next door which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, a new couple Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy Thea’s dream house. Right from the start Thea doesn’t like them; in fact she refers to them as ‘the invaders.’ Bit by bit though she establishes a kind of rapport with Frank. And then when  Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them, Thea forms a kind of bond with her too. It’s that bond that leads Thea to a fateful decision when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice may not be providing an appropriate home environment for Kim. This story isn’t really told in a linear way. We go back and forth and pick up bits and pieces as we learn Thea’s story. Slowly, we learn why she stopped teaching, why Kim moved in with her uncle, and what happens when Thea decides to take matters with her neighbours into her own hands. Duigan uses Thea’s responses to prompts from her writing coach to tell the story, so interspersed through the novel are also scenes from her writing class. It all comes together, but not in a linear way.

That’s also true of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. The focal point of the novel is the murder of thirteen members of the Atwal family. They’ve all been poisoned and several of them stabbed as well. What’s more, a devastating fire, presumably set to cover up the murders, has destroyed much of the home. The main suspect is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, but there are also signs that she could very well have been a victim too, but just happened to survive. The major problem is that Durga hasn’t said anything about the events of that night, and without her telling what she knows, the police can’t make any progress on the case. Social worker Simran Singh is asked to work with Durga in the hopes that she’ll be able to get the girl to discuss the murders. Bit by bit, Simran does find out what happened on the night of the murders. She also finds out some very disturbing things about the Atwal family and about the local community. The story isn’t told in chronological order, although we do follow the events logically. Rather, we learn bits and pieces as Simran does.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that those stories are also not always told in chronological, linear order. Rather, we meet characters and see some events from their perspectives. Then we follow along as the members of Adamsberg’s team get involved in cases. Bit by bit the pieces fall together and we learn how everything fits in. But the stories aren’t told in sequence.

It’s not easy to tell a coherent story that really falls together without using a fairly chronological approach. But when the author does it skillfully and without losing sight of the main plot, it can be a very interesting alternative to more typical storytelling approaches. What do you think? Do you like this approach to storytelling or do you prefer a more linear one? If you’re a writer, do you experiment with this kind of approach?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Anthem-Revelation.

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Filed under Fred Vargas, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Kishwar Desai, Virginia Duigan