Category Archives: Kerry Greenwood

Say I’m Old-Fashioned*

As times change, people often change with them. We learn to use new technology, we may change our thinking about things, and so on. But there are people whom time seems to leave behind. They stay with more traditional ways of thinking, and they see value in sticking to the old ways.

Characters like that can add a layer to a crime novel. They can be interesting in and of themselves. They can also provide perspective on other characters, and on the context of the novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), we are introduced to Miss Cecilia Wiliams. She’s one of five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day famous painter Amyas Crale was poisoned. Crale and his wife, Caroline, had hired Miss Williams to teach Carline’s half-sister, Angela Warren. So, she was present on the afternoon of his death. At the time, Caroline was widely assumed to be guilty, and she had good reason. That, plus the evidence against her, was enough to convict her of the crime, and she died in prison. Now, sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter, Carla, wants her mother’s name cleared. So, she hires Hercule Poirot to re-investigate the murder. To do so, he interviews Miss Williams and the other people who were at the Crale home when the killing took place. He also gets written accounts from each. Those interviews and accounts give Poirot the information he needs to find the killer. Throughout the book, we get to know Miss Williams’ character. She is Victorian in her outlook, and traditional in what she believes.
 

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing, denied to us in these days – she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’
 

Miss Williams’ evidence doesn’t solve the murder, but it does help clear Caroline Crale’s name.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Dane McKell learns that his wealthy father, Ashton, is hiding a secret. It seems that he is having an affair with famous fashion designer Sheila Grey. When Dane discovers who his father’s paramour is, he decides to confront her. Unexpectedly, he finds himself attracted to her, and the two begin a relationship. Then, one night, Sheila Grey is murdered. New York Police Inspector Richard Queen investigates, and, naturally, his son, Ellery, gets involved in the case. Both Ashton and Dane McKell come in for their share of suspicion. So does Ashton’s wife, Lutetia. As the Queens get to know her, we learn that she is very much a ‘throwback’ to Victorian times. She’s very traditional in her views, and that adds to the tension and even dysfunction in the family. As the investigation continues, the Queens find that the McKells aren’t the only suspects. The victim had a complicated personal life, and there are several possibilities when it comes to her murderer.

One of the recurring characters in Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus series is Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. He’s a notorious Edinburgh crime boss, and, as such, frequently goes up against Rebus. Every once in a while, the two find themselves ‘necessary allies’ when it’s in both of their interests. And, over time, they develop a grudging respect for each other, even though neither really likes or trusts the other. As the series begins, Cafferty is very much in charge of his share of Edinburgh’s crime trade. But, as the series goes on, times change, and crimes change with them. Little by little, crime bosses such as Cafferty are being supplanted by other sorts of crime and new sorts of criminals. For Cafferty, this raises a question. Where does an old-style crime boss like him fit in in Edinburgh’s new crime scene? It’s not an easy situation for him.

Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is the first of his series featuring Diamond. There’s a reason for that title, too. Diamond is, in many ways, an old-fashioned sort of detective. He believes in ‘legwork,’ in looking for clues, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and so on. And, although he’s had some trouble, he’s good at what he does, and he has a solid instinct. He sees himself as the last of the true detectives, who rely on their own skills, rather than getting all of their answers from computers. And he’s well able to show that nothing can completely replace a good police detective with solid instincts and the ability to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a former accountant-turned baker, who lives and has her bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Fans of this series know that the building is also home to several other ‘regular’ characters. One of them is retired professor Dionysus Monk. He’s a bibliophile who regularly quotes Greek and Roman classics. While he is fully aware that it’s a modern world, he has a sort of ‘old world’ charm and courtliness that appeals. And he often has quite a lot of wisdom.

So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. She is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only female-run private investigation company. Mma Ramotswe understands that the world keeps changing, and so do tastes and attitudes. She even agrees with some of those changes, as they improve life. But she is old-fashioned in many respects. She clings to traditional Botswana values, and is very proud of her people’s ways. She isn’t completely ‘stuck in the past,’ but she believes that many traditions are worth preserving.

There are other characters, too, who are, as you might say, reminders of an earlier time. They know the world is changing, but they prefer some (or even all) of the older ways. Depending on how the author creates those characters, this can make for a sympathetic character or…the opposite. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll.

19 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ellery Queen, Ian Rankin, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Lovesey

When Are You Free to Take Some Tea With Me?*

An interesting post from Tim at Informal Inquiries has got me thinking about tea. Yes, tea. If you think about it, tea’s played an important role in history and politics for centuries. And that’s to say nothing of its role in economics, sociology, and lots more. Plenty of people swear by tea’s medicinal qualities, too.

With all of this going for it, it’s not surprising at all that crime fiction is steeped with tea and tea shops. And, of course, there are myriad scenes where a character makes tea at home. There are far too many references for me to mention in this one post, but here are a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, we are introduced to Cora Lansquenet. When Cora’s brother, Richard Abernathie, dies, the rest of the Abernethie clan, including Cora, attend his funeral. At the gathering, Cora blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, but privately, several members of the family begin to wonder whether Cora was right. Then Cora herself is murdered the next day. Now, it seems quite clear that Cora must have been right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks for Hercule Poirot’s help in finding out the truth about these two deaths, and Poirot agrees. In the process, he and Mr. Entwhistle get to know the Abernethie family – all of whom were very much in need of the money that their patriarch left. They also meet Cora’s companion, Miss Gilchrest. Here’s what she says about her background:
 

‘‘When my little teashop failed – such a disaster – it was the war, you know. A delightful place. I called it the Willow Tree and all the china was blue willow pattern – sweetly pretty-  and the cakes really good – I’ve always had a hand with cakes and scones.’’
 

To Miss Gilchrest’s mind, keeping a teashop is the ‘essence of gentility.’ Certainly, tea shops like the one she had are woven into the culture in a lot of towns and villages – and stories about them.

There’s a very interesting example of a tea ceremony in Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. Tokyo Inspector Imanishi Eitaro is assigned to the team that investigates the death of an unknown man whose body is found under a train. At first, it’s difficult to find out who the victim was, but after some slow, patient work, he is identified as Miki Ken’ichi, the retired owner of a store in Okayama. Since the trail may lead to the man’s home town, Imanishi travels there. One of the people he interviews is Kirihara Kojuro, who knew the victim for years, and who’s been in town for a very long time. Kirihara is a traditionalist, so he formally invites Imanishi into his home, and serves him tea, using the traditional ritual, in a room set aside for the purpose. It’s an interesting look at the Japanese way of drinking tea. And, as it happens, Kirihara has some interesting information and perspective to share.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in late-1990s Shanghai. Our best knowledge is that tea was invented and first drunk in China. So, as you can imagine, the custom of drinking tea is an integral part of life in Shanghai, and there are many tea shops, stands, and so on. There are plenty of scenes, too, that have such places as backgrounds. For instance, in Enigma of China, Chen is looking into the death of Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. He’d recently been arrested in connection with a corruption scandal, and at first, it’s believed he committed suicide rather than face the public shame of a trial. But Chen isn’t so sure that’s what happened, and quietly starts to ask questions. One of his leads is a man named Melong, who runs an online watchdog group. The government monitors such groups very carefully, and Melong wants to keep a low profile. So, rather than come to the police station, he meets Chen in a local tea shop:
 

‘The waitress came into the room carrying a thick tea menu and long-billed bronze kettle.
Chen ordered ginseng oolong, and Melong chose Pu’er, the Yunan tea.
‘Enjoy your tea,’ the waitress said, bringing out the tea leaves from drawers in the table, putting each into a teapot, then pouring hot water from a kettle into their respective pots. ‘Snacks, which are on the house, are also listed on the menu.’’
 

Melong is an interesting character, and the scene shows the importance of the local tea shop for finding out information.

Tea also has a very long history in India. We see that, for instance, in Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s The Masala Murder, which takes place in Kolkata/Calcutta. In it, PI Reema Ray investigates the murder of a gourmet food importer named Prakash Agarwal. As it turns out, Ray had interviewed Agarwal as a part of her ‘day job’ working for a lifestyle magazine called Face. So, she remembers him (not very fondly), and his widow. Now, Mrs. Agarwal has asked Ray to find out what happened to him. And it turns out that there are plenty of suspects. Agarwal was not ethical in his marriage, his business, or much of anything else, and he made plenty of enemies. There’s an interesting scene in which Ray recalls her interview with the victim. On the surface, it’s a very pleasant interview, with gourmet tea served, and so on. But it makes her very uneasy, and the fine quality of the tea doesn’t do much to lift the suspense.

Of course, tea isn’t always soothing and ‘civil’ anyway. Just ask Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, who are regular characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. They work in Chapman’s bakery, and live in the same building. Their dream is to become television stars, and whenever there’s a bit part on any show, they audition. So, for Kylie and Gossamer, staying thin is critical. That’s why, in Devil’s Food, they’re so interested when they hear about a new diet tea that’s supposed to help in quick weight loss. Instead of helping them lose weight, though, the tea poisons them. Now, Chapman and her friend, Meroe, have to find out what, exactly, the poison is, so that they can help Kylie and Gossamer.

And, no discussion of tea shops and tea in crime fiction could possibly be complete without a mention of Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. Bayles is the owner of Thyme and Seasons, an herb shop that includes special herbal teas. She is also the joint owner of Thyme for Tea, a teashop that’s built behind her herb shop. Bayles lives and works in the small town of Pecan Springs, Texas, which is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone. Bayles gets involved in more than one mystery because she’s ‘plugged in’ to the local network.

See what I mean? Tea has been an essential part of many cultures for thousands of years. So, it’s no wonder we see so much of it in crime fiction. It’s even featured on several excellent book blogs, such as Bitter Tea and Mystery, and A Hot Cup of Pleasure. Thanks, Tim, for the inspiration. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the kettle’s boiling…
 
 
 

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

19 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Matsumoto Seichō, Qiu Xiaolong, Susan Wittig Albert

What a Cast of Characters*

For the reader, one of the advantages of standalone novels is that each one is a different experience. And that means it’s less likely that a reader will get tired of a given author’s work. At the same time, though, standalones may not give the reader the opportunity to really get to know a group of characters, and see how they evolve. For that, a series can be very appealing.

Developing those characters – especially secondary characters – over time can be tricky. Crime fiction fans generally want their stories to focus on crime at hand. And an effective series welcomes new readers, whether they start at the first novel or not. That said, though, there are plenty of series out there that people read as much for the ‘regular’ characters as they do for the individual plots. In fact, there are too many for me to discuss in one post. But here are a few.

Rex Stout’s main sleuths are, of course, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Most of the attention in the novels is on them, and the way they go about solving mysteries. The mysteries at hand –  the central plots of the stories – are the focus, too. And yet, there are other regular characters we get to know over the course of the series. For instance, Wolfe employs Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather – the ‘teers – to do freelance work for him when he needs information. There are also Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s world-class Swiss chef, and Theodore Horstmann, his orchid expert. Lily Rowan, Goodwin’s sometimes love interest, is also a regular character. And then there are various police detectives, like Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purly Stebbins, who also play roles in the series. For many people, these other characters, and their interactions, are as important to enjoying the stories as are the actual mysteries.

A similar thing might be said of Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe series. As fans can tell you, Mma Ramotswe has the only female-owned private investigation business in Botswana. Each novel features a few mysteries that she solves. But there’s also a set of other regular characters that readers have come to know well. Those characters arguably add much to the novels, and are part of the reason readers keep coming back. For example, Mma Ramotswe doesn’t investigate every mystery by herself. Her associate is Grace Makutsi, who started as the company’s secretary, and has proven herself a capable detective. On the home front, Mma Ramotswe is married to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He’s the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and is quite handy at fixing all sorts of things. He employs two assistants, who also sometimes figure into the stories. There’s also Mma Sylvia Potokwane, Mma Ramotswe’s friend, and proprietor of the local orphanage. All of these characters develop over time, and sometimes figure into the mysteries that are featured in the novels. And for many readers, they’re an important part of enjoying the series.

The same is arguably true of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series. Montalbano is the lead character, and the novels are told, much of the time, from his perspective. But the series also includes a group of other regular and recurring characters who add to the novels. One of them is Montalbano’s second-in-command, Mimì Augello. There are also Giuseppe Fazio and Sergeant Agatino Catarella, among others, who are Montalbano’s police colleagues. And then there are the people in Montalbano’s personal life: his partner, Livia Burlando; his friend, Ingrid Sjostrom; his housekeeper/cook, Adelina Cirrinciò; and his friend, Nicolò Zito, for instance. All of those characters add layers to the stories, and many fans of this series read the novels as much to keep up with their doings as to read about the crime(s) at hand.

Louise Penny’s Three Pines series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Each of the novels has a focus on a particular case that Gamache and his team investigate, and those cases are central to the novels. But the novels also follow the lives of Three Pines’ residents, and readers get to know them. Gabri and Olivier, who own the local B&B; Clara and Peter Morrow, both artists; resident poet Ruth Zardo; and psychologist-turned-bookshop owner Myrna Landers are just a few. As the series has continued, there’ve been several story arcs involving those characters, as well as Gamache’s wife, Reine-Marie, and his daughter, Annie. And for many fans of this series, those characters add a great deal to its appeal.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s work. One of her series ‘stars’ 1920s socialite Phryne Fisher. The other ‘stars’ modern-day accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman. They’re quite different, but they have some things in common (besides their Melbourne settings). One of them is that they each have a cast of regular and recurring characters. In the Phryne Fisher series, Phryne solves cases with the help of several people. One of them is her assistant, Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams. She also gets help from her friends, Albert ‘Bert’ Johnson, and Cecil ‘Cec’ Yates. They’re taxi drivers and wharfies who also do quite a lot of ‘legwork’ for Phryne. Phryne shares her home with her adopted daughters, Jane and Ruth, and her staff, Mr. and Mrs. Butler (yes, that’s their name). And, of course, there’s Inspector John ‘Jack’ Robinson, as well as Constable Hugh Collins, who do the police investigations.

Greenwood’s other series also includes a cast of regular characters besides Corinna. There’s her assistant, Jason Wallace, and her two other employees, Gossamer Judge and Kylie Manners. And of course, her lover, Daniel Cohen. Corinna’s home and shop are located in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. The other residents of Insula are also regular characters, who add quite a lot to the series. Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk, herbalist and Wicca shop owner Miriam ‘Meroe’ Kaplan, and Andy Holliday and his daughter Cherie are just a few of the other people who live in the building. In both series, the novels feature mysteries that form the central plots. But the regular characters are arguably just as important. And many fans will tell you that they follow the series in part because of those characters.

There are many other series, too, that readers follow as much for the cast of characters as for the mysteries. That’s one thing that a well-written series can provide that a standalone can’t always pull off. What about you? Are there series you follow as much for the cast of characters as for the plots? Which ones?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ She Saw Me Coming.

28 Comments

Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Andrea Camilleri, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout

I’m Poor as a Mouse, I’m Richer Than Midas*

As times have changed, so has society. And that shows, of course, in crime fiction. For instance, people don’t have paid companions as they once did. So, we don’t see them in the genre as much as, perhaps, they once were.

The same is arguably true of what used to be called wards. These are young people (usually, but not always, girls and young women) who live with guardians, rather than immediate family members. There still are such situations, but they are less common as social services have become broader and more common. For many young people, being a ward used to mean avoiding orphanages, workhouses and other places that could be dangerous or worse. Certainly, it meant the chance for a healthier life, depending on the guardian.

Wards are interesting characters in crime fiction. They aren’t exactly family members; but, at the same time, they’re also not paid employees. And they can add a layer to the family dynamics of a crime novel.

For example, you could arguably consider Charles Dickens’ Bleak House a crime novel. There’s a murder, there’s a detective, and so on. In one of the plot threads of the novel, we are introduced to Esther Summerson. She’s been raised by a very unpleasant, angry woman she calls Grandmother. Her life’s rather difficult until philanthropist John Jarndyce takes an interest in her. He takes her in as his ward, and arranges for her to be companion to a young woman, Ada Clare. The two become close friends, and Esther seems to have a relatively secure future. Even when Ada meets and falls in love with Richard Carstone, Esther remains in ‘the inner circle.’ Both Ada and Richard are distant kin to Jarndyce, so he stays in close contact with them. All of these characters are also linked, in their ways, to a dispute over a will that’s been languishing in the Court of Chancery for several generations. That will, and the people connected to it, are linked to a murder and another death. Admittedly, Esther’s story doesn’t turn out to be perfect. But her status as a ward is arguably much better than it might have been otherwise.

In Anna Katherine Green’s short story, The House of Clocks, New York private investigator Violet Strange gets a strange case. Wealthy Arabella Postlethwaite wanted her will drawn up, so she summoned an attorney for the purpose. When the attorney arrived, he discovered that his new client lives with her stepdaughter, Helena. But it’s not a close relationship. In fact, Helena is much more a ward who’s kept quite grudgingly than a loved member of the family. She’s not fed properly, and is treated like a slave. And it’s been made clear that she will get nothing when her stepmother dies. Violet’s charge is to look into the matter, so she goes to the house in the guise of a nurse/maid. She’s going to have to learn this family’s history, and find out the truth about the will, if she’s to rescue Helena.

Agatha Christie’s Cynthia Murdoch has a much easier time as ward. When we meet her, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, she’s living with wealthy Emily Inglethorp, her husband Alfred, and Emily’s stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish. Also living at the house are John’s wife, Mary, and Emily Inglethorp’s friend/companion Evelyn Howard. Cynthia is the daughter of a school friend of Emily’s; when she was left an orphan, with no money at all, Emily took her in. On the one hand, she has a solid life, a comfortable room, a job, and so on. And, to be fair, she’s not treated like ‘one of the help.’ On the other, she knows exactly which way her bread’s buttered, as the saying goes, and is deferential to her benefactor. And Emily reminds Cynthia of her status in subtle, but real ways.

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series takes place in the mid/late 1920s, mostly in the Melbourne area. In Murder on the Ballarat Train, Phryne meets two young girls, Jane Graham and Ruth Collins. Both were orphaned, and ended up working in a boardinghouse as more or less slaves. In the course of the novel, Phryne takes both girls in as her wards, and they settle in to their new lives. Fans of this series can tell you that Jane and Ruth are treated much more like daughters than like servants in Phryne’s household. In fact, she ends up legally adopting both. It’s very interesting to see how much of this is done informally, as opposed to a more formal, more regulated fostering and adoption situation.

And then there’s M.R.C. Kasasian’s Victorian-Era Grover Street Detective series. These novels feature famous private detective Sidney Grice. In The Mangle Street Murders, we are introduced to him, and to his goddaughter, twenty-one-year-old March Middleton. When March’s father dies (her mother died years earlier), she is left an orphan, with no near relatives. So, she goes to London to stay with Grice, who has agreed to act as her guardian. Before long, she becomes not just his ward, but his assistant, and the two become a successful detecting team. This is a grittier series than, say, the Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson mysteries that you may be thinking of as you read this. And, although March does settle in with her godfather, this doesn’t mean they become immediate fast friends…

Young people without immediate family have always been in a precarious position. Even today, with modern social services, there’s no guarantee of a safe, caring home and a good life. And a look at the way crime-fictional wards have been treated shows that there’s just as much uncertainly in the genre. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charmin’s I Don’t Need Anything But You.

15 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anna Katherine Green, Charles Dickens, Kerry Greenwood, M.R.C. Kasasian

I Drank a Cup of Herbal Brew*

Many people prefer natural remedies when they’re ill, and natural solutions for well-being. So, they go to herbalists and herbal shops, rather than to regular pharmacies. In fact, those sorts of health care products are so popular that lots of pharmacies stock them as alternatives to other sorts of medicines.

Herbalism has a long history, too. For millennia, people relied on herbalists, because there weren’t antibiotics and other modern medicines. And even now that there are, people still use herbal remedies. So, it’s not surprising that herbalism and herbalists have found their way into crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, we are introduced to Meredith Blake. As the older of two brothers, he inherited his family’s home and property. He had a real passion for herbs and herbalism, even dedicating a room to his special interest. He’d collected all sorts of information on the topic, too; and, although he wasn’t sought out for cures, he had a lot of background. Then, disaster struck. A long-time friend of the family, famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon. And it turned out that the poison came from Meredith’s own supplies. He himself wasn’t accused of the murder, but has felt responsible since then. In fact, he shut up his room and stopped working with herbs and other plants. Crale’s wife, Caroline, was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and died in prison a year later. There was plenty of evidence against her, and everyone assumed she was guilty.  Now, sixteen years later, the Crale case is being re-opened. Crale’s daughter, Carla, believes her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. To find out the truth, he interviews the five people (including Blake) who were on the scene at the time of the murder. From those interviews, and from written accounts that each person writes, Poirot finds out who really killed Amyas Crale, and why.

Fans of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael can tell you how important his skills as an herbalist are. He’s a 12th Century Benedictine monk who lives in the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. A former soldier, he’s seen his fair share of life, and has traded it in, as they say, for the cowl. His specialty is herbs and other medicines, and he’s in charge of the abbey’s infirmary. In his line of work, he’s come to know a great deal about many different sorts of plants, and what they do. He uses them for healing, and he’s familiar with the effects of those that are poisonous. That background helps him in many of the mysteries he encounters.

Much of Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph takes place in the small town of Winslough. Deborah and Simon St. James plan a trip there after Deborah meets the town’s vicar, Robin Sage, and is deeply impressed with him. By the time the couple get to the town, though, it’s too late. Sage has been killed. It seems that local herbalist Juliet Spence had invited Sage for a meal, and prepared a salad with water hemlock that she thought was wild parsnip. Since the food that she gave Sage was the last thing he was known to eat or drink, Spence is the most likely suspect. Simon St. James isn’t so sure it’s that simple, though, and asks his friend, Inspector Thomas Lynley, to investigate. One of the interesting things about this novel is the way that Juliet Spence is perceived because she is an herbalist. Not everyone is enthused about her interest…

Herbal and other natural approaches to healing and health are an important part of many African cultures. And plenty of people swear by the power of such medicines. For example, Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson series takes place in contemporary Ghana. Especially in urban areas such as Accra, people are familiar with, and make use of hospitals, modern antibiotics, and so on. But even those people also visit herbalists and makers of traditional remedies. In fact, Dawson’s own mother-in-law is a believer in herbalism, and takes her grandson (and Dawson’s son) to a traditional healer for a heart problem he has. And, as we learn in Wife of the Gods, this doesn’t exactly please Dawson, who is hoping to be able to afford the operation the boy needs. It’s an interesting look at the different perspectives on herbalism.

S.J.Rozan’s Lydia Chin is a Chinese-American PI who works in New York City’s Chinatown. On the one hand, she’s a 21st Century American, who lives a contemporary life. On the other, her family is traditionally Chinese, and her mother would like nothing better than for her to settle down, find a ‘proper’ Chinese husband and get married. That’s not the life that Chin wants, though. Still, she does respect her mother, and there are times when the traditional Chinese approach to healing is quite helpful. For instance, in China Trade, the first in this series, Chin is investigating a theft from a local art gallery. She knows that Mr. Gao, who owns the local apothecary, is ‘tuned in’ to all of the local gossip and knows everyone. His shop is popular, and he knows all of the traditional remedies, so he’s also quite well respected. And Chin finds that he’s a useful source of information. At one point in the novel, she’s injured (not life-threatening), and Mr. Gao sends over some herbal medicines. They work very well, and it’s an interesting look at how herbalists do their jobs.

And then there’s Miriam Kaplan, who goes by the name Meroe. She’s one of the regular characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Meroe is Wiccan, and also has a thorough knowledge of herbs and natural remedies. She has a way, too, of responding calmly in an emergency, and that, too, is helpful when someone is ill. In more than one of the Corinna Chapman mysteries, Meroe shows her knowledge of herbs, and it proves very helpful.

Herbs and herbalists have been around for a very long time, and their expertise is valuable. There’s certainly an important place for modern antibiotics, surgery, and so on. But many people also believe in the healing power of herbs.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Spirit Voices.

14 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ellis Peters, Kerry Greenwood, Kwei Quartey, S.J. Rozan