Category Archives: Kate Grenville

You Showed Me*

Group dynamics are fascinating (or perhaps it’s just me). I’m not talking here about mobs, really (although they’re an example of how groups impact individuals). Mobs aside, I’m really talking of the way we sometimes look to other people in a group to decide how we’ll behave.

For instance, the ‘photo you see was taken at a rock concert I attended (no, not Billy Joel this time – I do occasionally listen to other artists… 😉 ). The way people act at concerts is often affected by the way other people at the same concert act. Do some people get up and dance? Others are likely to do the same. Does everyone stay seated? Then it’s less likely you’ll be the one to get up and dance.

Think about what happens when you’re in a group, and you’ll see that that tendency to behave as the group does is common in a lot of settings. And we certainly see it in crime fiction. In fact, that phenomenon can add a really interesting dimension to a story.

For example, in Marjorie Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, a group of people is staying at the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. The house party includes Dr. George Abbershaw, who’s chiefly there because he’s found out that Margaret ‘Maggie’ Oliphant will be there, and he’s infatuated with her. After dinner on the first night, the guests move to the drawing room, where their host tells them the story behind a dagger displayed above the fireplace. Originally, the legend was that the dagger would glow red if it was touched by anyone who’d committed a murder. Later, the legend gave way to a sort of game, in which the lights are turned out, and the dagger is passed around among the guests. The object is to avoid being caught with the dagger when the lights go back on. One of the guests suggests playing the game, and a few others agree. That reaction is echoed by the others, and before Petrie knows what’s happening, he’s persuaded to go along with the group. Later that night, Petrie’s uncle, and the former owner of the house, Colonel Gordon Coombe, is murdered, and the entire house party is drawn into the murder investigation. Interestingly, although Allingham’s protagonist, Albert Campion makes an appearance here, the story is really told from Abbershaw’s point of view.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we are introduced to Miss Emily Arundell. She’s got a large fortune to leave, and several relatives who are desperate for their shares. When she has a dangerous fall down some stairs, she begins to believe that someone’s trying to kill her. So, she writes to Hercule Poirot to ask his help. By the time he and Captain Hastings get the letter, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. When it’s established that she died of poison, Poirot has a whole list of likely suspects. One of them is the victim’s niece, Theresa Arundell. Poirot visits her under the guise of helping her get a share of her aunt’s fortune. He claims that if he’s to help her, he’s going to have to ask her some questions, and she agrees to answer them:
 

‘‘Do you drug?’
‘No, never.’
‘Drink?’
‘Quite heavily – but not for the love of it. My crowd drinks and I drink with them, but I could give it up tomorrow.’’
 

It’s an interesting example of how things people choose to do are impacted by the group they’re with, even if there’s no overt peer pressure.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is the story of the Thornhill family. In 1806, William Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to the colony of Sydney for the crime of stealing a load of wood. He, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long journey, and do their best to prepare for a new life. When they arrive, William gets work making boat deliveries, and Sal opens a makeshift pub. Then, William gets a steadier job delivering goods for a man named Thomas Blackwell. His main route is the Hawkesbury River, where he one day discovers the perfect piece of land for a home. Of course, there’ve been people in the area for many thousands of years, so it’s no surprise that conflicts arise between the two groups. Some terrible crimes are committed, and William wants no part of that ugly bloodshed. But he also learns that if he’s going to hold on to his piece of land, he may have to behave as his fellow newer arrivals do.

In Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, we meet Police Constable (PC) Fiona Griffiths of the Cardiff Police. When she was a teenager, Griffiths had a bout with severe mental illness. She got the help she needed, and she’s (mostly) functional. But she struggles with things that a lot of us take for granted (e.g. meeting new people, interacting appropriately, and emotional responses). She knows that she doesn’t react as others do at times, and she would like to be a little closer to what she calls Planet Normal. So, she does pay attention and try to behave in ways that are closer to the ways others behave. Her efforts to feel more human, and fit in, form an interesting story arc.

And then there’s Dwayne Alexander Smith’s Forty Acres. Attorney Martin Grey is befriended by highly successful lawyer Damon Darrell. Both men and black, and, before long, Darrell introduces his new friend to an elite group of wealthy black men and their wives, something that could further Grey’s career. When Grey is invited to join the group for a weekend of whitewater rafting, he’s a bit reluctant. He’s not the outdoors type, and he knows nothing about rafting. But, he doesn’t feel that he can turn down the invitation. So, he agrees to go, and does his best to behave the way the rest of the group members do.  Then, everyone arrives at the destination, Grey learns what’s really going on. The group is almost cult-like, run by the very enigmatic Dr. Kasim, who wants to avenge the terrible cruelties done to blacks during slavery. When Grey learns of Kasim’s plan for revenge, he faces some wrenching moral decisions. And, he learns that he’ll be expected to behave the way the rest of the group does. Soon enough, Grey discovers that his very life may depend on that.

Many people pay attention to other people in a group to see how they behave, and how they react. And they take their cues from what they observe. It can be a very useful strategy for fitting in, and it can serve an author’s purpose well.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dwayne Alexander Smith, Harry Bingham, Kate Grenville, Margery Allingham

Stranded on an Island Alone*

As this is posted, it’s 299 years since the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Among other things, this novel explores the relationship between humans and nature as Crusoe works to find shelter, food, and so on after he is stranded. It’s also, of course, his personal reflection.

And being stranded can be very scary, even if you have some survival skills. After all, lots of different things can happen, and plenty of them are not good. That’s part of why that plot point can add a lot to a crime story. There’s an extra layer of tension that can be very powerful. And the physical setting can add interest to the story, too. There are lots of novels that include that element of being stranded, or close to it. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of others.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story of ten people who accept invitations to visit Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They all arrive and settle in, and at first, all seems well enough. Then, that night, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon, a storm comes up that cuts off access to the island, so these people are stranded. And, now that it’s clear that one of them is a killer, no-one feels safe trusting anyone else. These characters don’t really have to make shelter or forage outside for food. But they are trapped, and they don’t trust each other enough to work well together. Against that backdrop, the survivors are going to have to find out who the killer is if they’re going to stay alive.

Dick Francis’ Second Wind features BBC meteorologist Perry Stuart. In one plot thread, he crashes in the Caribbean after flying a plane through the eye of a hurricane. He thinks he’s about to drown, but instead, washes up on an uninhabited island. He manages to survive, and uses the resources he can find for shelter, food, and so on. Then, he is found by four visitors to the island. At first, it seems that they want to kill him for intruding. Instead, they return him to Grand Cayman. He’s blindfolded, so he doesn’t know where the island he discovered is. But apparently, someone thinks he knows too much for safety. Once he returns to England, Stuart becomes the target of some dangerous people whose plot he slowly uncovers.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is the story of London-born William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children. In 1806, Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of wood. He and his family arrive in Sydney and have to start all over. On the one hand, they are not stranded in the sense of there being no-one else there. On the other, they have to make do as best they can for a lot of things. Still, they slowly start to build a life. Thornhill finds work with a man named Alexander King, who wants him to transport casks of liquor to nearby coves, where they won’t be seen by customs inspectors. Sal puts together a makeshift pub. It’s all rudimentary, but it’s a start. Then, Thornhill gets a job delivering goods on the Hawkesbury River. That’s where he discovers the perfect piece of land that he’s been wanting. But, of course, there have been people in this area for many thousands of years. So, there are bound to be clashes between them and the newcomers. And soon enough, that’s exactly what happens. Thornhill wants no part of the bloodshed and crimes that ensue. He soon learns, though, that if he wants to hold on to his land, he’ll have to get his hands dirty. As the Thornhills get settled on their land, we see how they have to learn to use creatively the things they find there.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that, in more than one novel, Longmire ends up more or less stranded in the mountains. He’s the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, and that means his jurisdiction includes some very rough terrain. He knows the land, and he knows how to make do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for him to stay warm, find food, and take shelter. It’s a good reminder not to take the elements for granted.

And that’s a lesson that Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte knows very well. He’s a Queensland Police Inspector, who is also half white/half Aborigine. He is thoroughly familiar with, as he calls it, the Book of the Bush. And that helps him to survive when he’s out in the ‘back of beyond.’ He knows what’s safe to eat and what isn’t, what sorts of places will offer safe shelter, how to find potable water, and how to spot an oncoming storm.

All of those skills are useful, especially if one ends up as Robinson Crusoe did. That plot line – where characters who are isolated have to make what they can from what’s available – can add suspense to a novel. And it’s interesting to explore the dynamic between people and their surroundings in those situations. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Junior Senior.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Dick Francis, Kate Grenville

Let Me Ride Through the Wide Open Country That I Love*

There’s something about frontiers. I’m not talking here of actual borders between countries. Some of those are urban areas with strong infrastructures. Rather, I’m talking of another meaning of the word: the limits of settlement beyond which is wilderness. Those outposts really do have a different sort of culture. There’s usually not much infrastructure, so people have to make do. And they often have to depend on each other if they’re going to survive.

Living on a frontier takes an awful lot of hard work. At the same time, though, there are often fewer social conformities expected. So, it can seem as though there are limitless possibilities for what a person can do. And, with more traditional law enforcement often at a great distance, crime and the handling of it can be very different to what it is in more settled areas. People feel they have to handle things in their own way.

All of this, plus the physical dangers, can make for a very effective context for a crime novel. So, it’s little wonder that unsettled frontiers play such a role in the genre. They’re certainly not places for ‘drawing room’ murders, but they have their own kind of appeal.

Part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet takes place in the American west, in what is now Utah. It’s 1847, and John Ferrier and a small child named Lucy are the only survivors of a group of pioneers heading west. They’re on the point of dying of dehydration and exposure when they are rescued by a group of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). The group takes them in on condition that they adopt the LDS faith, and, with little choice, Ferrier agrees. For several years afterwards, all goes well enough. Everything changes when Lucy grows up. It all leads to a tragedy, and, ultimately, to two murders. Joseph Stangerson and Enoch Drebber have gone to London, and are staying at a boarding-house there. When Drebber is killed, Stangerson is suspected. But then, he himself is killed. Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregson asks for Sherlock Holmes’ interpretation of some of the clues, and Holmes finds out who killed both men, and how it connects with John Ferrier and with Lucy.

Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series also takes place in the American west, beginning in 1864. There are twelve books in this series, each of them more novella-length than novel-length. The follow Sister Thomas Josephine as she travels from her convent in St. Louis to a new life in Sacramento. At the time, the journey is full of dangers, only some of which come from geography, weather or wildlife. These stories do contain crimes, but they are as much adventure stories as they are anything else. And they show how difficult it could be to make such a journey at a time when there is little infrastructure or security.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of crime fiction that takes place in the American west, but that’s hardly been the only frontier. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, for instance, takes place mostly in the area surrounding today’s Sydney, during its early days. London bargeman William Thornhill is arrested for stealing a load of wood. He’s due to be executed, but the authorities are persuaded to sentence him to transportation instead. So, in 1806, Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children board a boat for Sydney. When they arrive, they find there’s very little settlement there. Still, they do their best to start their lives. Thornhill finds work making deliveries up and down the nearby rivers, and Sal opens a makeshift pub. Life is a hard scrabble for them, but they begin to settle in. Soon enough, Thornhill learns of some of the brutal ugliness that’s gone on between the settlers and the Aboriginal people who’ve been there for many thousands of years. He wants no part of that violence. But then, he discovers the perfect piece of land on which he wants to build a home. And he learns that, if he’s going to hold on to that land, he’ll have to get his hands dirty, too. This novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, although there are certainly crimes in it. But it provides a look at life in that part of Australia when Sydney was a frontier town.

There’s also Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making, which takes place in 1868 and 1869. Chad Hobbes has recently completed his degree in Jurisprudence from Oxford, and wants to travel for a while before settling down. So, armed with a letter of introduction, he travels to the then-frontier town of Vancouver. The introduction to the Governor is enough to get him a job as a constable, which mostly means he has guard duty, helps settles drunken quarrels, and occasionally helps remove the local prostitutes. Then, a group of Tsimshian Indians, who’ve been in the area to sell their homemade goods, brings terrible news to the town. They’ve discovered the mutilated body of Richard McCrory. At first, it looks like a clear-cut case. The dead man had been involved with a Tsimshian woman named Lukswaas. Her partner, Wiladzap, is one of the leaders of the Tsimshians, and it’s believed he killed McCrory. But, he denies committing the crime, and the local law enforcement has to show that they’re actually investigating. So, Hobbes is assigned to ask a few perfunctory questions. He soon learns, though, that Wiladzap is by no means the only person with a motive. As he gets closer to the truth, we learn about what life was like in that part of Canada during its ‘frontier’ days.

Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries take place during China’s Tang Dynasty (618-806 CE). At that time, the district of Lan-Fang, on China’s northwestern border, is a frontier area. As Magistrate, Judge Dee represents Chinese authority. But he often has to make decisions for himself, since communication with the central government takes a long time. There are shops, homes and so on in Lan-Fang, but it’s hardly an urbane, sophisticated place. And it’s always at risk from outside invaders. What’s more, the people are accustomed to rule by local tyrants and thugs. It takes some time for Judge Dee to establish the rule of law there.

There’ve been frontiers in a lot of places in the world. And you could argue that there still places that are ‘frontierish,’ where there’s little settlement and lots of wilderness. Frontiers do offer lots of opportunities to those who take the risk. But they’re also dangerous. Little wonder there’s crime fiction that takes place in that setting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher’s Don’t Fence Me In.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Kate Grenville, Robert Van Gulik, Seán Haldane, Stark Holborn

They Fight Over Turf, They Fight Over Land*

Land is a very valuable commodity in a lot of places. That’s especially true if the land has special significance, or if there is a valuable resource on it (e.g. oil or minerals). So, it’s little wonder that there are sometimes disputes over who actually owns a piece of land, or has the right to use it.

Some of those land disputes are relatively minor (e.g. is that tree on my property, or does it belong to the people next door?). In those cases, the dispute can often be settled peacefully, if not amicably. But other land disputes are more far-reaching, and have more consequences. They can cause serious conflict in real life, and they can add tension and plot lines to a novel. For a whodunit crime novel, a land dispute can even add a motive for murder.

There’s an interesting take on land use in Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. In that novel, a group of people gather at a New England property called Cabrioun, the home of Frank and Irene Ogden. The Ogdens own a specialty wood production business with a family friend, Luke Latham. The business depends on a certain sort of wood that’s now no longer available on the Ogden land. The only solution is a piece of land called Onawa, which does have the proper wood. Irene Ogden says that she inherited Onawa from her first husband, Grimaud Désanat, with the proviso that it not be logged for twenty years. With the business in danger, Latham and the Ogdens have decided to hold a séance to contact Désanat and get his consent to log on Onawa. It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem, as far as these people are concerned. Irene is a self-styled medium, and both her husband and Latham believe in the power of the séance. So, all is arranged, and the séance begins. It’s an eerie experience, and frightens several of the people there. Then, later that night, Irene is killed. Now everyone is thoroughly afraid, and the group works to find out who the killer is.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of the Thornhill family. In 1806, London bargeman William Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of wood. He, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long journey, and end up in Sydney. William finds work making deliveries along the nearby waterways; Sal opens a makeshift pub. There’s tension between the new arrivals and the Aborigines, who’ve always been there. But things are more or less calm. Then, Thornhill begins to work for a man named Thomas Blackwell, delivering goods up and down the Hawkesbury River. That’s when he discovers what he sees as the perfect piece of land for him and his family. He’s determined to have that land, and of course, that leads to direct conflict with the Aborigines, who have a completely different view of land use. And Thornhill’s not the only one. As settlement in the Sydney area continues, there’s more and more such conflict, and some ugly things are done. Thornhill wants no part of the real ugliness, but he learns that, if he’s to hold on to the land he loves, he’ll have to get his hands bloody, too.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary takes place mostly in Brisbane. The novel begins with a court case that the Corrowa people have brought. They claim that Merston Park belongs to the Corrowa; local developers and city officials dispute this. Justice Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa, saying that they cannot prove their uninterrupted occupation of Merston Park. Soon after the ruling, the judge is murdered. Then, others involved in the case against the claim are also killed, and a red feather placed near each body. Police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins investigate the deaths. For Matthews, this is especially difficult, since he is Aboriginal, and has been trying to succeed in a very white world. Still, he is a police officer, and determined to find out who’s responsible. Along the way, he meets Miranda Eversley, the attorney who argued the Corrowa’s case. She has her own issues to deal with, not least of which is that she’s now questioning her competence as a lawyer. Each in a different way, the two get to the truth about the killings.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Prairie Grass Murders, Willie Grisseljon visits his family’s old home in Illinois. While he’s there, he discovers the half-buried body of a man on the property. As if that’s not enough, he’s soon locked up himself on charges of vagrancy. He contacts his sister, Florida judge Sylvia Thorn, and she immediately travels to Illinois to see what she can do to help. With her intercession, Willie is freed, and the two prepare to leave. But Willie insists on returning to the place where he found the body. When they get there, though, there is no sign of a body, and the land has been plowed over. It’s soon clear that there’s a cover-up, and Sylvia and Willie get involved in a case of corruption, greed, and land dispute.

In James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues, we meet former blues artist Dixie Lee Pugh. Drugs, alcohol, and a prison sentence ended his music career, and now he works as a leaseman. In that capacity, he travels to Montana’s Blackfoot Reservation, where a lease is being prepared that will allow oil drilling on some of the land. One night, Pugh happens to overhear two men discussing two murders they’ve committed. He doesn’t want to get involved, because of his history, so he asks his old friend, New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux, for help. At first, Robicheaux’s reluctant to look into the matter, but he finally starts asking questions. When he does, he discovers that the murders really did happen. This turns out to be a case of greed and corruption that are tainting the drilling and land dispute.

And then there’s R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper. Meg Harris has recently moved to Outaouai, in Western Québec, where she’s living in a house she inherited from her Great Aunt Agatha. Like her great-aunt, Meg wants to develop a good rapport with the local Migiskan people, and so far, has succeeded. So, Migiskan Band Chief Eric Odjik feels comfortable asking for her help in a difficult land matter. There’s a good chance that there may be gold on Whisper Island, which is very near Meg’s new home. A company called CanacGold wants to mine the island, but many Migiskan people object. The only way to resolve the dispute is to determine who, if anyone, actually owns the island. It’s quite possible that Meg herself is the owner, since the island may be part of her great-aunt’s property. But she’ll have to find the paperwork to prove it. As she’s working to do that, the conflict between CanacGold and some of the Migiskin gets more and more heated. And here’s conflict among the Migiskin, too, as some believe that mining will be good for the local economy, and will mean more jobs. Then, there is a disappearance. And then a murder. They may or may not be related to the land dispute, but they certainly impact the area. Meg gets involved in the search for the truth, since the land may be hers, and the woman who’s gone missing is a friend and employee.

Land disputes almost always lead to tension and conflict, sometimes end up in court, and can even end in violence. It’s little wonder, since land and what’s on it can be so valuable. So, it makes sense that we see this plot thread in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The King Blues’ The Future’s Not What it Used to Be.

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Filed under Hake Talbot, James Lee Burke, Kate Grenville, Nicole Watson, Patricia Stoltey, R.J. Harlick

Too Much Information Running Through My Brain*

Part of the reason that people enjoy historical fiction is that it can give really interesting information about a particular time and place. That’s part of why, for many readers, it’s important that their historical fiction be accurate. They want to learn from it, which is hard to do if it’s not realistic.

But that presents a challenge. Even if you don’t read much historical fiction, you probably know that many periods of history haven’t been exactly pleasant. Wars, disease, high infant mortality, lack of hygiene, and plenty of other factors could make life miserable. That’s especially true for those who were poor or otherwise disenfranchised. At the same time as readers of historical fiction want realistic depictions, they may very well not want unrelenting misery. So, what’s the balance? How can an author depict a particular historical period honestly, yet in an engaging way? Everyone has a different idea of what ‘counts’ as the right amount of realism. But here are a few examples of books and series that strike that balance.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. The novel takes place beginning in 1828, when two farmers, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. The three suspects are found guilty, and are sentenced to death. It’s decided that, rather than spend the money to keep Agnes housed in a prison, she will be sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. There, so it’s believed, she will benefit from living with a ‘good Christian family’ for her last months. And the government won’t be responsible for feeding and housing her. The family will benefit, too, from her work. As the story goes on, we slowly get to know Agnes, and we learn about her past, her relationship with the other two convicted of the crime, and their reasons. Throughout the novel, Kent is clear about what life was like at that time, and in that place, especially if you were a woman and a convict. There’s no glossing over. At the same time, the attention is on the story, rather than on every gritty detail.

One could say much the same thing about C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake is a lawyer who lives and works in London during the reign of King Henry VIII. It’s a very uncertain time, with religious upheaval, political intrigue, and strained international relations. Life’s not easy for the average person; in fact, it can be quite bleak. And even those with means are not immune from disease, persecution, and more. Against this backdrop, Shardlake has to move very carefully. He knows he works at the pleasure of the king and his advisors. If he does anything to displease them, he risks everything. Sansom doesn’t make light of the grim realities of life at that time. That said, though, the focus is on the mysteries and the plot threads relating to them.

It is in Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman’s Adelia Aguilar series, too. These novels take place in the 12h Century, during the rule of King Henry II. Aguilar is a doctor, originally from the University at Salerno, who is summoned by the king to investigate a murder. Life at this time is grueling, especially for women and other disenfranchised people. In fact, for her own safety, Aguilar has to work ‘behind the scenes’ and pretend that the medical work is done by Simon Menahm – Simon of Naples – who came with her to England. It’s too dangerous for a woman to be involved in medical science. Superstition plays a major role in people’s lives, and that, too, makes life difficult. That’s not to mention the other hardships that people faced at the time. But the focus of these novels is on the cases at hand. It’s not that Franklin/Norman plays down the realities of the times. Rather, the emphasis is on the stories, instead of on the ‘gory details.’

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill and his family, who move from London to Sydney 1806, when Thornill is sentenced to transportation for stealing a load of wood. The family makes a new start, with Thornhill earning a living by making deliveries up and down the local river. His wife, Sal, sets up a makeshift pub. Little by little, they settle in. But as they do, they come into increasing conflict with the people who were always there.  That conflict ends in some brutal atrocities. Although Thornhill wants no part of this sort of bloodshed, he soon sees that he’ll have to get his hands dirty if he’s to build a life on the piece of land he dreams of owning. Grenville is realistic about what it was like to be poor in London at that time, and later, what it was like to live in a penal colony. It’s dirty, exhausting, and sometimes very ugly. Lifespans are not long, and disease kills very quickly. That said, though, there isn’t exhaustive detail about the grimness of live. Rather, Grenville’s focus is on the story of how the Thornhill family makes a new life in Australia.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu novels are set in 1920’s India, mostly in Madras (today’s Chennai). Life’s not really easy, even for the British, who are firmly in charge. It’s much more difficult for anyone else, especially the poor who happen to be Indian. Although there have been some medical advances, there’s still a high mortality rate. As is mentioned in The Pallampur Predicament,
 

‘If there was a scourge left for the British in India, it was illness in many forms.’
 

That said, though, Stoddart’s focus is the mystery at hand in each novel. There’s no glossing over some of the difficulties of life; at the same time, the novels don’t dwell on them.

That’s also arguably true of the work of other authors, such as Sulari Gentill, Gordon Ferris, and Felicity Young. It’s not an easy balance to strike. On the one hand, readers want realistic portrayals. On the other, most readers don’t want unrelenting bleakness. What’s your personal balance? If you’re a writer of historical crime fiction, how do you acknowledge the difficulties of life in other times without letting them overpower your plots?
 

ps. The ‘photo is from Abba Eban’s Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, and was reprinted there from the Bettmann Archives. It shows a tenement in New York’s Lower East Side not long after the turn of the 20th Century.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Police’s Too Much Information.

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Filed under Ariana Franklin, Brian Stoddart, C.J. Sansom, Diana Norman, Felicity Young, Gordon Ferris, Hannah Kent, Kate Grenville, Sulari Gentill