Category Archives: 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

Don’t Ask Too Many Questions*

Las Vegas is the sort of place where it’s very easy to be whatever you want, so to speak. People don’t ask a lot of questions; hence, the iconic Vegas catchphrase: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Las Vegas, of course, isn’t the only place or context where people don’t ask questions. There are plenty of places where asking too many questions is considered at best, bad form, and at worst, dangerous. This sort of context – where curiosity is not welcomed – can be a very effective backdrop for a crime novel. We all have secrets that we’d rather no-one ask about, and criminals in particular have things to hide. So it makes sense that they would prefer a context where no-one asks too many questions.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River isn’t, admittedly, a crime novel per se. But crimes are definitely committed in it. Beginning in 1806, the novel tells the story of William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children. Thornhill is a London bargeman who’s sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of valuable wood. The family lands in Sydney, which is at the time very much a frontier. It’s the sort of place where questions are discouraged. Most people are trying to start over, and don’t want a lot of discussion about what brought them there and what they’re doing. Thornhill gets a job delivering goods up and down the local waterways; his wife opens a makeshift pub. As time goes by, Thornhill finds a piece of land that he finds irresistible, and decides to claim it for his own. And he’s not alone. Plenty of other new arrivals want land, too. This leads inevitably to conflict and worse with the people who have always been on that land. Some brutal and bloody crimes are committed, and Thornhill wants no part of it, especially at first. But he also comes to see that he’ll have to get his hands dirty, too, if he wants to build the sort of life he wants.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s particularly close to her older brother, Bill, so she’s concerned when he meets and falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant, Alice Steele. At first, Lora puts her misgivings down to human enough, if not exactly productive, feelings of jealousy and protectiveness, since she is close to her brother. Bill and Alice marry, and Lora tries to be friends with her new sister-in-law. But as time goes by, she gets more and more worried about Alice, and what she finds out repels her. Alice’s former world – or is it really former? – is seamy and dangerous. She knows a lot of the sort of people who don’t welcome questions, and they certainly don’t welcome questions from Lora. At the same time as Lora is repulsed by Alice’s world, she is also drawn to it, though, and this has a real impact on her feelings and choices. Then, there’s a murder. Alice could very well be mixed up in it, too, so Lora decides to protect Bill (or so she tells herself) and find out the truth about what happened. The closer she gets to the truth, the closer she also gets to Alice’s life.

Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home introduces her protagonists, DI Dushan Zigic, and DS Mel Ferreira. They work with the Peterborough Police Hate Crimes Unit, so they’re called in when the body of man is found in a burned-out shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. The man is identified as an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov, and there’s a good possibility that his murder might be a hate crime. It’s going to be very hard to get answers, though. The immigrant community within which the victim moved is the sort of culture in which no-one asks questions. People often come, work for a while, and leave. Or, they stay longer, have their family join them, and move on. Or, they disappear for whatever reason. But no close ties are formed, and people such as landlords and moneylenders don’t ask any questions. In the end, Zigic and Ferreira find out who killed the victim and why. But they get very little willing help from anyone with whom he interacted.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy is set mostly in Glasgow’s criminal underworld. It tells the stories of men who kill for hire, and of the people who hire them. It also tells the stories of the victims, and how they get themselves into trouble. One of the important rules among these people is that you don’t ask a lot of questions. You buy your weapons, for instance, from people who won’t ask where the money came from, or how the weapon will be used. You borrow a car from someone who won’t ask why you need it. The more reliable you are at keeping your mouth shut and your curiosity under control, the more you’ll be trusted.

Even between people who are married, there are instances where it’s expected that you don’t ask a lot of questions. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt. It seems that Cubitt’s wife, Elsie, has been acting strangely lately. She’s been getting some cryptic letters lately from America, where she was born, and they have upset her greatly. She won’t tell her husband what the problem is, though, so he’s quite worried about her. They’ve always had the agreement that he would ask her nothing about her life in the US, because she had some unpleasant associations there. As she puts it, she has,
 

‘‘…nothing she need be personally ashamed of,’’
 

but she insists that her past be kept strictly private. And Cubitt has always respected that. But now he’s worried. Then, the same cryptic figures that appeared on the letters begin appearing in chalk on the ledges of the Cubitt home. Holmes works out that the drawings are a code, and that Elsie is being stalked. Then, one night, Cubitt is murdered. Holmes uses the code in the letters to lure the killer and learn the truth.

There are times and places where people don’t welcome a lot of questions. Asking them can get you in a lot of trouble – or worse. Especially in crime fiction.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Turin Brakes’ Last Chance.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Eva Dolan, Kate Grenville, Malcolm Mackay, Megan Abbott

Just a Little Smile is All it Takes*

nonverbalsWhen most people think of communication, they think of language. But there are plenty of ways in which we communicate non-verbally. Winks, smiles, and of course, that famous one/two-fingered wave, are all examples of the way people send messages without using words. And research shows that we tend to be quite attuned to those non-verbals. In fact, we pay more attention to them than we do to the words people use, or the signs they use, in signed languages.

The police and other investigators know the value of paying attention to non-verbals. That’s how they often get clues as to whether a person is lying. It’s also how they pick up on whether someone is afraid, would like to say more but doesn’t want to, and so on. It’s no wonder, then, that we see those all-important non-verbals in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, John Cavendish invites his old friend, Captain Arthur Hastings, for a visit to his (Cavendish’s) home, Styles Court, in the village of Styles St. Mary. Hastings accepts, happy to renew his acquaintance with Cavendish, his brother Lawrence, and their stepmother, Emily Inglethrop. All is not well with that family, though. Neither Cavendish brother can tolerate Emily’s new husband, Alfred. There are other tensions, too. Still, all goes smoothly enough until the night that Emily is poisoned. There are several suspects with different sorts of motives, but neither Cavendish wants the investigation to be made public. So, when Hastings learns that another old friend, Hercule Poirot, is living in the area, it seems like a very good solution to have him look into the crime. Poirot agrees; Emily Inglethorp was his benefactor, so he feels a sense of obligation. Hastings, of course, tells Poirot everything that he knows about the night of the victim’s death. And one thing he mentions is the ‘ghastly expression’ one the face of one of the characters. Without knowing it, that character has revealed something, and it’s interesting to see how Poirot uses that one non-verbal communication to put one of the pieces of the puzzle in place.

Very often, facial expressions and other non-verbals are important forms of communication when people don’t speak the same language. That can be risky, though, because different cultures have different ways of using non-verbals. For example, in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, we are introduced to the Thornhill family. In 1806, bargeman William Thornhill is convicted of taking a load of wood. From his perspective, he needed to sell the wood in order to feed his family. There is a certain amount of sympathy for him, so instead of being executed, he is sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. He, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long voyage and start life again in Australia. But it’s not going to be easy. There’ve been people in Australia for many thousands of years, so one major challenge is going to be interacting with them. The Thornhills, and many of the other immigrants, speak English. The Aboriginal people have their own languages. So, verbal communication is limited at best. In fact, Thornhill sees their words as,
 

‘between them like a wall.’
 

When Thornhill does encounter Aborigines, there is an attempt to communicate non-verbally. Pointing, pictures drawn in dust, and holding things out with a hand are some of the ways both sides try to communicate. And in some ways, they’re successful. But that doesn’t prevent tragedy. There’s already been bloodshed as the two groups have clashed. Thornhill himself has no desire for butchery, unlike some of the other settlers. But, he’s expected to support his own. Besides, he’s found a piece of land he truly loves, that’s perfect for him and his family. He soon learns that he’ll have to get his hands bloody, too, if he’s going to keep that land.  

As I mentioned, most non-verbals are culturally contextual. One of those is the wai, which is a Thai greeting. Like the Japanese bow, the wai is nuanced, and, among other things, reflects the relative social status of the people involved in the interaction. It’s got several meanings, too, besides greeting. It’s used in thanks, in apology, in farewells, and in other situations, too. It is a very useful gesture, and communicates quite a lot without a lot of fanfare. To see the wai in action, may I recommend Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney, PI, novels. Keeney is an Australian ex-pat who’s now based in Bangkok. She’s been there long enough that she’s fluent in Thai, and that includes the non-verbals that are used in that culture. In more than one situation, Keeney finds that that simple-but-nuanced gesture is very helpful in easing tensions and in getting her out of difficult situations. John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels, and Timothy Hallinan’s ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels also include this simple gesture that can mean so much. A note is in order, too, about the ‘Thai smile,’ which is also woven into these authors’ books. There are dozens of situations in which a smile is used in the Thai culture, and the context often determines what the person who is smiling is communicating. The smile can mean many different things, including, ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘No harm done,’ and ‘I’m embarrassed.’

As this is posted, pitchers and catchers are reporting to their training camps to get ready for this year’s Major League Baseball season. It won’t be long now, baseball fans! So, as we’re thinking about non-verbals, and what they mean, it’s also worth mentioning Alison Gordon’s series featuring sports writer Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry, who works for the Toronto Planet. She follows baseball most especially, and Gordon’s novels often feature scenes from games, where pitchers, catchers, coaches and batters often communicate without using any words at all. Henry is thoroughly familiar with what those non-verbals mean, as was her creator, and it’s interesting to see how that knowledge comes through in Henry’s writing and in the stories.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we do communicate a great deal through facial expressions, eye contact (or lack of it) and other non-verbal means. When detectives pay attention to those messages, they can learn a lot. And it’s always interesting to see how people use non-verbals, especially when they can’t, or don’t choose to, use spoken language.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of Raymond Teller, one half of the famous illusionist duo, Penn and Teller. If you’ve seen these guys in action, you’ll know that Teller doesn’t speak during the show. Instead, he uses non-verbals to get his meaning across, and he’s quite good at it, too. If you’re reading this, Mr. Teller, Happy Birthday!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Everybody Loves You Now.

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