Category Archives: Kerry Greenwood

Without Compassion, There Can Be No End to Hate*

CompassionToday (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this), has been set aside as 1000 Voices For Compassion Day. The idea is to focus on the compassionate and good things that we do for one another. I think that’s a great idea. Of course, we don’t need a special day to be compassionate; it’s never out of style or out of season. That said though, it is good to be reminded of how important compassion is. It helps both the person in need of compassion and the person who offers it.

You wouldn’t think you’d see a lot of compassion in crime fiction. After all, crime stories are usually about people who kill other people – not a very compassionate thing to do. But you’d be surprised how often it shows up. I’ll just offer a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not what you’d call a particularly sentimental person. But he shows compassion at times. For instance in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Lady Eva Brackwell hires Sherlock Holmes for a very delicate case. She is being blackmailed by the notorious Sir Charles Augustus Milverton over some indiscreet letters she wrote several years earlier. Milverton has threatened to give the letters to Lady Eva’s fiancé unless she pays him a huge sum of money; and he’s the kind of blackmailer who won’t think twice about continuing to harass her until she has nothing left. Holmes takes the case and soon learns that Milverton is unyielding. So he and Dr. Watson take a novel approach to the case: they sneak into Milverton’s home one night, with the goal of finding out where the letters are hidden and taking them. They’re in the midst of carrying out their plan when they encounter another of Milverton’s victims, who has her own way of solving her problem. It’s an interesting example of the way Holmes sometimes shows that human, compassionate side of himself.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot does not, as he puts it, approve of murder. In his view, no-one ‘deserves to die.’ In that sense, he shows compassion for those who are killed. In fact, fans will know that in several stories, the death of a particular victim is upsetting to him. He also shows another kind of compassion. In some stories, he really does feel compassion for the killer. In fact, there’s even one story in which he agrees to give the police an account of a murder that lets the killer get away with the crime.

Arthur Upfield’s Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte shows compassion too. As just one example, in The Bushman Who Came Back, Bony is sent to Mount Eden, the ranch home of Mr. Wootton, when Wooton’s housekeeper Mrs. Bell is found shot. Worse, her seven-year-old daughter Linda has disappeared, presumably abducted by the killer. All signs point to a bushman nicknamed Ol’ Fren’ Yorky (usually called Yorky), and with good reason. He knows the area very well, and bootprints found at the back of the house are identified as his. What’s more, he hasn’t been seen since the killing. So although he’s popular in the area, a lot of people believe he’s responsible for Mrs. Bell’s death. Bony knows he’ll have to find Yorky as soon as he can, before anything happens to Linda. In this novel, we see how Bony shows compassion for several people as he gets to the truth about the killing. There are a lot of other classic/Golden Age novels in which we see that sort of compassion (I know, I know, fans of G.K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown).

In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, we are introduced to accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. One day she gets a visit from a teenage street child who says his name is Jase (Jason). He asks if she has any odd jobs available, and she puts Jase to work mopping the bakery floor. He’s clumsy at first, not well-rested and not well-nourished. But he does the job. Bit by bit, he starts to come by more often to do other chores, and soon he’s more or less an employee. Chapman finds out that he’s a heroin addict who’s recently stopped using, and he’s trying to get his life back together. It’s not easy, and there are moments when Chapman wonders whether she made the right choice to take Jason under her wing, as the saying goes. But he proves himself to be a real asset to the bakery, and in fact, he makes better gourmet muffins than Chapman does. This is a clear example of a case where compassion benefits everyone involved.

We also see compassion in Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders. Early one morning, her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, gets a disturbing call from her daughter Mieka. The body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin, who was one of Mieka’s part-time cleaning employees, has been found in a trash bin. Finding a body would be enough to upset and distress anyone, particularly if one knows the victim. But in this case, Mieka and her mother also have compassion for Bernice, who’d had a very unfortunate life. So both of them want this case solved, to at least give the victim some sort of dignified closure to her life. Another plot thread of this novel concerns Christy Sinclair, the former girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter. Christy’s had her share of issues, and Kilbourn was relieved when she and Peter broke up. Now she’s come back into the family’s life, and at one point even says that she and Peter are getting back together. On the one hand, this is not good news. On the other, Kilbourn does have compassion for Christy, and she treats her kindly, ‘though with eyes wide open, so to speak.

Compassion and treating others kindly is an essential aspect of many spiritual traditions, among them Buddhism. We see that connection between Buddhism and compassion in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok. We also see it in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series; Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police and an observant and dedicated Buddhist. There’s also a thread of this compassion woven into Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney novels; they too take place in Thailand.

But you don’t need to just read about compassion. The whole point of putting a focus on being compassionate is to remind us of how much good there is in the real world, and how much we can add to that good, just by showing concern and compassion for others. Simple, small gestures of humanity and compassion can make a huge difference, and they benefit everyone. Want to be a part of 100 Voices For Compassion? You can check it out here. Rather not? That’s fine too. You can be compassionate anyway.

 

On Another Note…
 
InaWordMurder
 

I’d like to take a moment and thank all of you for the support you’ve given the charity anthology In a Word: Murder. Since the anthology was released a year ago, proceeds of £250 have been donated to the Princess Alice Hospice. Your compassion is much appreciated. To those who contributed stories to this anthology, my continued humble thanks; you made the anthology possible.

Haven’t had a chance to check the anthology out yet? Now’s a good time (a-hem, for those celebrating Mothering Sunday, it’s only a few weeks away…). It’s a terrific collection of crime stories having to do with writing, publishing, editing and blogging, and it’s all in aid of Princess Alice Hospice. A group of highly talented authors contributed some memorable stories – you don’t want to miss ‘em! You can read more about the anthology on my ‘Writing’ tab, or click the picture on my side bar. Yes, that one.

This anthology is in memory of Maxine Clarke, devoted friend of the genre, who is still sorely missed.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Two Thousand Years.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, G.K. Chesterton, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, Kerry Greenwood, Timothy Hallinan

He’s a Pinball Wizard*

Arcade and Video GamesDo you play video and arcade games? A lot of people do. And arcade (and now video) games have been around for a long time, too – ever since the 1930s. Gamers will tell you that arcade and video games are fun, assist in eye-hand coordination and are great ways to meet other gamers. And with today’s online gaming communities, you can play video games against opponents from all over the world. Or, you can simply try to best your own top score.

Because arcade and video games are so popular, it’s little wonder that crime-fictional characters play them. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. Fans of Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series will know that Hill is a criminal psychologist and profiler who works with police detective Carol Jordan on many of her cases. Hill has plenty of baggage from his past, and his physical health isn’t particularly good. Those things, plus the stresses of his work, can be very difficult to bear. But Hill has an outlet: he enjoys playing video games. They help him de-stress and focus.

And Hill isn’t the only gamer among fictional sleuths. Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle is too. As the series begins, Boyle is a ‘summer cop’ who works with the regular police force of Sea Haven, New Jersey when the tourists come to town. As the series goes on, he becomes a full-time cop himself. Like a lot of seaside towns, Sea Haven has gaming arcades that are very popular with the tourists. But Boyle enjoys them too. Here’s what he says about it in Free Fall:
 

‘The video arcade game Urban Termination II is one of the many ways I hone the cop skill that, not to brag, has made me somewhat legendary amongst the boys in blue up and down the Jersey Shore. I have, shall we say, a special talent.
I can shoot stuff real good.’
 

Boyle will tell you that playing video games is actually a form of professional development.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a building called Insula. One of the shops in that building, Nerds, Inc., is run by Taz, Rat and Gully, whom Chapman refers to as The Lone Gunmen of Nerds, Inc. They are all gaming/computer wizards who deal in hundreds of different video games. They spend more time in front of their computers than they do with live humans, so they are experts in just about any kind of game or computer repair. They don’t exactly have a healthy diet, preferring cheese twists and pizza to anything like a balanced meal. And they don’t come out into daylight unless it’s necessary. Sometimes, Chapman finds them a little difficult to communicate with, since computers are not her specialty. But she does respect their knowledge, and finds them very helpful more than once.

Gaming can be a very social sort of activity, since even online, gamers can compete against each other. And of course in arcades there’s even more interaction. And that interaction is a part of the plot of Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. The real action in the novel begins during the summer of 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan’s parents reluctantly give her permission to spend a few weeks with her cousins Mick and Jane Griffin, and their parents Doug and Barbara. Angela, Mick and some of Mick’s friends spend their share of time at a nearby drugstore, where they play pinball. Angela’s no expert at the game, but the group allows her to join in. One day, Angela plays some pinball with the group as usual, and then says she’s heading back to her aunt and uncle’s house. She never arrives. Not long afterwards her body is discovered strangled. At first, the police concentrate on her friends and family members, but there are no good leads in that direction. Still, they are the most likely suspects. Then, a few months later, there’s another murder. Sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is found strangled in the same way that Angela was. Now the press begins to dub the killer the Sydney Strangler, and an all-out effort is made to catch the murderer. The police aren’t successful though, and the killings go unsolved. Years later, journalist Erin Fury is doing a documentary on families of murder victims and how they’ve been impacted by the tragedies that have happened. As a part of that project, she interviews Jane and her husband, Mick, and their parents. As she does, we learn bit by bit what really happened that summer, and who really killed Angela and Kelly.

Video and arcade games can be dangerous in and of themselves, too, at least in crime fiction. In Lindy Cameron’s Redback, for instance, we are introduced to journalist Scott Dreher, who’s doing a piece of the use of war simulation games to recruit terrorists. He’s on a flight to Japan to meet with legendary game designer Hiroyuki Kaga when he notices a fellow passenger playing a new game called Global WarTek. He gets permission to take a look at the game and soon makes a discovery that links that game to a shadowy group of terrorists. In another plot thread, crack Australian rescue/retrieval team Redback has become aware of a series of disasters, including a hostage situation, a train explosion, three murders and an attack on a US military base. They soon discover that this same terrorist group is behind those tragedies, and work to stop them before there are any more deaths. The key to the group’s goals and identity turns out to be Global WarTek.

See what I mean? Arcade and video games aren’t just fun ways to earn prizes. They’re taken very seriously by a lot of people. Sometimes deadly seriously…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Pinball Wizard. Yes, I know. An obvious choice. You’re welcome.

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Filed under Chris Grabenstein, Kerry Greenwood, Lindy Cameron, Val McDermid, Wendy James

I’ll Be Out in Cyberspace*

OnlineMeetingsIt’s no secret that technology keeps moving forward, making it increasingly easier to keep in contact with people from all over the world. And it’s happened at amazing speed too. Here are a few facts to put this all in a bit of perspective. People have of course been writing messages, notes and letters for as long as there’s been writing, really. But for many thousands of years, two things hampered this kind of contact. First, lots of people weren’t literate, and there are many cultures that don’t have a written language. Second, there were logistical and geographical issues to take into account, so letters could take a very long time to reach their recipients. Local communication by note and letter was easier (and you see a lot of that in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories), but it still left much to be desired.

The first transatlantic cable was sent in 1844, and the first telephone call was made in 1876. And within the next few decades, telephone and cable contact became more and more integral to people’s everyday communication. And you see it in crime fiction too. Agatha Christie fans can tell you about a number of cases that rely on cables for information (Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air is just one small example). And of course, we can all cite dozens of classic and Golden Age crime fiction stories where telephone calls are important parts of the plot, whether as alibis, clues or something else. And if you think about it, that’s just a matter of about sixty years (for the telephone). It was really the first long-distance synchronous communication, and it was revolutionary.

What happened next is possibly even more revolutionary: computer communication. Online communication actually began with a very small group of people in the 1970’s (the first email was sent in 1971), but for most consumers, email didn’t become a fact of regular life until the late 1980s/early 1990s. Still, that was only about 60 or 70 years after the telephone became an important part of daily life. And it made a huge difference too. If you’ve read Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, for instance, you know that the victim in that case is identified as Roseanna McGraw through a series of transatlantic telephone calls. They take time, the connection is terrible, and there are other technical problems too. Imagine if there’d been email then. I know that there simply wasn’t at the time that novel was written, and of course including it would have made the novel not credible. But it’s interesting to think of what the story might have been like.

In the last 30 years or so, global communication has once again been tranformed and arguably transformative. Today, email, texts and social media commentary link people from all over the world in a matter of microseconds. And we see that all over crime fiction. I’ll just give a few examples. There are Facebook posts that figure into Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness. Another social media site, Campus Juice, is an important factor in Alafair Burke’s 212. Texts feature in C.J. Box’s Below Zero. And the list could go on. And today’s Internet allows for all sort of sophistication too. How often do you see videos, lots of them uploaded from telephones, posted on blogs and other sites? And if you’ve ever done an online workshop, course or seminar, you know that Internet communication has had a powerful impact on education. As a somewhat personal aside, a hat tip goes to the way Australia has led the way in distance learning. I could give you lots of dates and academic references, but I’ll spare you…

These developments have come at an astonishing speed. They’ve also had of course some very negative consequences. Both in crime fiction and in real life, there are all sorts of stories of online predators. Perhaps a little less dangerous but no less upsetting are the stories of online ‘trolls.’ There’s another negative consequence too, that sometimes gets less attention, but is important. As we communicate more and more via technology, what’s happening to our in-person communication? There are studies (again, I’m sparing you the details) that suggest that young people who spend too much time using online technology do have difficulty with in-person social skills (e.g. appropriate eye contact, listening skills and the like). And even more studies support the vital importance of in-person contact. There are also plenty of crime novels that portray characters like this (for a witty but at times painfully real example, check Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. There’s a small group of computer wizards and gamers Chapman calls Nerds, Inc. that personify this phenomenon).

And there’s the question of just how intrusive online communication is. Do we really want to know what people had for breakfast? Where they partied last night? And more to the point, do we want others to know what we ate, where we went, or whom we see? Today’s communication has meant a need to re-think privacy and how to maintain it.

There’s another issue, too. Even with videos and pictures, asynchronous communication has its drawbacks. It’s hard to gauge people’s non-verbal language that way, and it can take longer for ideas to develop. And that’s to say nothing of the social and emotional benefits that come with real-time, face-to-face interaction.

Enter one of the most recent technological developments: communication applications such as Skype, Zoom and Google Hangout. With those applications, people from all over the world can have a live conversation. These applications are used for employment interviews, meetings, and simply keeping in contact with faraway friends and loved ones. Just to give you one example, every month, UK crime novelist Rebecca Bradley facilitates an online meeting of the Crime Book Club, which has members from several different countries. Yes, this is in part a plug for that great group. It meets the third Wednesday of every month at 8pm GMT, and everyone’s welcome. But this is more than just a plug. The Crime Book Club is a really clear example of what a tremendous impact technology has had on communication. And all of this in 175 years! Amazing!

So what’s coming next? And what will the implications be? Now that young people can communicate with family and friends via live video applications, will this improve social skills? Is physical proximity really necessary for that? Will family bonds be stronger (because of the ease of keeping in contact) or will they erode (because of time spent online with other people)? And what about privacy? I don’t have the answers, but my impression is that it’ll be a bit of a proverbial mixed bag. Let me put it this way: I am flattered, honoured and always amazed by the friendships I’ve made with people from all of the populated continents. And it’s all because of online technology. I wouldn’t be without online capability. But nothing is the same as meeting people in person. I wonder how close technology can get to that.

ps. Talking of Rebecca Bradley, you’ll want to visit her excellent blog. It’s a rich resource for crime fiction readers and writers. And you’ll want to check out her debut novel Shallow Waters. It’s a very solid police procedural/suspense thriller featuring DI Hannah Robbins of the Nottingham CID (I love the fact that this one takes place in a part of the UK that isn’t as common in crime fiction).
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Black-Eyed Peas’  Now Generation.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alafair Burke, Arthur Conan Doyle, C.J. Box, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Michael Connelly, Per Wahlöö, Rebecca Bradley

Dissatisfied With What I Am*

Body ImageA lot of people worry about how the way they look ‘measures up.’ Each culture of course has its own standards of what ‘counts’ as attractive, but in a lot of cultures, there is a great deal of media pressure and sometimes peer pressure to look a certain way. That’s one reason that the cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, fitness, hair salon and diet industries are so lucrative. People spend any amount of money on trying to fit the media/popular image of ‘attractive.’

Of course, a sometimes-very-unhealthy focus on appearance isn’t new. The pressure to look a certain way has been there for thousands of years, and there’ve been some unusual and sometimes horribly dangerous ‘remedies’ for what was perceived as ‘less than beautiful.’ But body/appearance issues are still very much with us, and they can still have dangerous effects.

Anxiety about the way one looks has certainly found its way into crime fiction, and not just recent stories either. In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, we meet sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She and her father Captain Kenneth Marshall are taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger, an upmarket hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With them is Marshall’s second wife, famous actress Arlena Stuart. She is, among other things, stunningly beautiful. So Linda has a great deal of anxiety about her own appearance:

 

‘She disliked her face very much. At this minute it seemed to her to be mostly bones and freckles. She noted with distaste her heavy bush of red-brown hair (mouse, she called it in her own mind), her greenish-grey eyes, her high cheek-bones and the long, aggressive line of the chin. Her mouth and teeth weren’t perhaps quite so bad – but what were teeth after all? And was that a spot coming on the side of her nose? She decided with a relief that it wasn’t a spot.’

 

Linda has in her mind an ideal image of what a young woman ‘should’ look like, and she doesn’t measure up to that image. That’s a bit of the reason she’s very resentful of her stepmother; Arlena makes it all look easy, and certainly doesn’t bother to be friends with Linda. So when Arlena becomes a murder victim, Linda has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she admits to herself that she hated Arlena. On the other, the idea of actually killing or being killed is frightening and horrible. Hercule Poirot is also at the Jolly Roger, so he works with the local police to find out who the murderer is.

In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets a new client. An excavation on the Westmann Island reveals four bodies in a basement. It soon turns out that they’ve been there since a 1973 volcanic eruption on the islands. Markús Magnússon was only a teen at the time, but he was living in that house. So he might have some knowledge of who the victims are, who killed them and how they got to the basement. Then, there’s another death. Alda Thorgeirsdóttir, who was actually Markús’ childhood sweetheart, has apparently committed suicide. What’s more, she had some knowledge of the incident that led to those bodies being in the basement. Now it’s beginning to look to the police as though Markús may have killed Alda, and may have had something to do with the older murders. Thóra travels to the islands with her secretary Bella to do the best job she can to defend her client against the murder accusation. One important witness is Tinna, a young teen who saw something vital. But no-one really pays much attention to her account. Tinna has severe anorexia, and is so obsessed by avoiding every single calorie that she’s got real mental, emotional and physical issues. They’ve made her sick enough that she’s not taken particularly seriously, although her illness is. It turns out though that she has a critical clue to the case.

Body image issues are also often a part of the high-profit trade in anabolic steroids and other performance enhancers. On the one hand, they can seem very effective as muscle bulk increases and endurance seems to improve as well. And carefully-supervised medically appropriate steroids can help heal injuries. But as I’m sure you know, those performance enhancers also sometimes come with dangerous side effects, especially when they are abused. Yet, the ‘ideal’ image of the well-muscled, toned body is irresistibly appealing for those who’d like to change the way they look.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Hiss of Death, for instance, her sleuth, Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen has a frightening health crisis. She is treated at Central Virginia Hospital where she meets a nurse, Paula Benton, who’s very helpful to her. So when Benton is murdered, Harry is determined to find out why. Then, there’s another murder. In the meantime, she’s joined Heavy Metal, a local gym, to help her build her strength. That’s where she starts to learn how performance enhancers are made available illegally. And it turns out that that information is critical to solving this case.

There’s a similar sort of theme in G.A. McKevett’s Killer Physique, which features her PI Savannah Reid. Reid gets the opportunity to meet celebrity Jason Tyrone, who embodies the muscle-toned, fit look that you see on advertisements for performance enhancers and fitness clubs. When he is killed, Reid finds a connection between that murder and a possible performance-drugs ring at the famous gym where Tyrone worked out.

There’s also Bev Robitai’s Body on the Stage. Dennis Dempster has been ‘out of it’ since his divorce from his ex-wife Louise. His sister persuades him to pick up his life a bit and audition to work on the Regent Theatre’s upcoming production of Ladies Night. He’s taken on as part of the backstage crew and soon gets into the routine of working there. That’s how he meets Cathy, who owns a gym called Intensity where she’s training the dancers for the show. When he fixes a computer problem for her, Cathy invites him to take a tour of Intensity, and even offers to work up a fitness plan for him. Dennis knows he’s out of shape, but at first, he’s reluctant. Still, he goes along with her idea, and even joins the dancers for their workouts. He and Cathy begin to develop a relationship too. Then, Cathy’s assistant Vincenzo Barino disappears. When he is found dead, the case turns into a murder investigation. It turns out that the victim had a lucrative ‘side business’ in illegal performance enhancers, where he had some unpleasant ‘business associates.’ What’s more, he had a reputation as a ‘ladies’ man,’ with no concern for whether his current love interest was involved with someone else. So there are plenty of suspects, including Cathy herself. Dennis wants to clear Cathy’s name and Cathy wants to save her gym’s reputation. So the two of them work together with the police to find out who the killer is.

Just about any responsible medical expert will tell you that it’s a good idea to stay fit. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good, too. But sometimes, what starts as interest can turn into unhealthy obsession. And being consumed by a media/peer-hyped ideal of what we ‘should’ look like can have terrible consequences. That’s one reason I like Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman so much as a character. She owns a Melbourne bakery where she does what she truly loves: provide bread. Corinna is no sylph. But she doesn’t obsess about what the media says she ‘should’ look like; instead, here is her view:
 

‘I could not get that thin if I starved myself for ten years, and that is a fact. We are famine survivors, we fat women and ought to be valued for it. We must have been very useful when everyone else collapsed of starvation. We would have been able to sow the crops, feed the babies and keep the tribe alive until spring came. If you breed us out, what will you do when the bad times come again? At the very least, you could always eat us. I reckon I’d feed a family of six for a month.’
 

In my opinion, that’s a really healthy attitude.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Kinks’ (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bev Robitai, G.A. McKevett, Kerry Greenwood, Rita Mae Brown, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

My Little Town*

Communities within CommunitiesFor a lot of people, it’s important to belong to a community. It can be very comforting to be among people who share your culture, language, lifestyle, or something else. That’s why very often, even in large cities, you’ll find smaller groups of people who have some sort of bond. Those smaller communities, even when they’re not closed off (e.g. a cloister) can be very interesting to explore. And they make for interesting contexts for a novel.

There are all sorts of possibilities in terms of plot and character development when the author explores smaller communities within larger ones. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction. I’m quite sure you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we are introduced to Hercule Poirot, a former member of the Belgian police who’s had to escape to England. He and a group of fellow Belgians have settled in the village of Styles St. Mary and are trying to pick up their lives as best they can. They were sponsored and helped by wealthy Emily Inglethorp, and all of them are very grateful to her. So when she is poisoned, Poirot takes a very particular interest in solving the murder. We don’t get a very deep set of insights into the inner workings of this small Belgian community, but we do learn that they’ve been more or less accepted by the locals. In fact, one of them mentions that while he’s not overly fond of foreigners, he doesn’t mind the Belgians.

London is of course home to many different smaller communities. For example, Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters takes place in Jerusalem Lane, one of London’s historic districts. Among the other people who live in that small community are Meredith Winterbottom and her sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe. They’re the great-granddaughters of Karl Marx, who actually lived in that area at one point. A large development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to turn it into a shopping and entertainment district. One by one, the various residents sell up, but Meredith Winterbottom refuses. Then, she dies, apparently a successful suicide. But when DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla look into the case, they notice small things that don’t quite add up to suicide. So they begin to investigate more deeply. It turns out that along with the development company and its representatives, there are other people in whose interest it was to get Meredith Winterbottom out of the way. As Brock and Kolla look into the case, we get an ‘inside’ look at Jerusalem Lane and the network of relationships among its residents.

There are also many smaller immigrant communities in London. Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka novels explore one of them: immigrants from Poland. Kiszka is a veteran of the uprising against the former USSR that began in the Gdansk shipyards. He’s settled into London, but is still tightly connected to the Polish community there. In fact, he’s known as a ‘fixer’ among his fellow Poles – someone who can get things done. Since the imigrant Polish community is tight-knit, there aren’t many degrees of separation between Kiszka and any one other member of that group. That’s part of what makes him very useful to Kershaw when she investigtes crimes that affect London’s Polish community. Kiszka and Kershaw meet in Where the Devil Can’t Go, when he is a suspect in a murder she’s investigating. From both of their perspectives, readers get the chance to see how a smaller community functions within a larger one, and how each impacts the other.

New York is also composed of many, many different smaller groups of people. One of them for instance is its Russian community. There are lots of crime novels that focus on Russian-born and Russian-heritage New Yorkers. One of them is Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House. When US Congressman Paul Latham is found dead, it’s thought at first that he committed suicide. But that’s not by any means the only possibility. So when Georgetown University Law School Professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith learns of the case from a former student, he agrees to look into it. He finds a connection between Latham’s death and the economic climate that emerged in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. At one point in the novel, one of the characters travels from his home in Russia to New York, where he’s been told to wait for further instructions. He’s taken in by a former countryman and we see how the members of New York’s Russian community have created their own small world-within-a-world.

Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street explores smaller communities based on socioeconomic status. One warm night, Valerie ‘Val’ Merinao and June Giatto get on a pink rubber raft to take a ride on the bay near their home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Early the next morning, local teacher Jonathan Sprouse finds Val, injured but alive. June has disappeared. As we learn about the impact this has on the people who knew her, we see that there are really two small communities here. One is mostly middle-class, ‘respectable’ and largely Roman Catholic. The other is working poor/unemployed, mostly non-White, and more on the fringes of society. June’s disappearance and the investigation into it show how small communities can be formed around common economic situations and ethnic culture as well. And what’s interesting here is that these two groups live very close to each other; yet until June goes missing, they don’t really interact very much.

But proximity can matter a great deal in creating a small community within a larger one. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a Roman-style Melbourne building called Insula. The people who live and work there are disparate in some ways, but they’ve formed their own small group and they take care of each other. In this case, what started out as more or less being thrown together in the same place has evolved into a close-knit community.

There are many other examples of stories and series that explore these communities-within-communities. I’m thinking for instance of the Asian community in Los Angeles, which we read about in Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons. There’s also Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series, which features New York’s Chinatown. Which of those communities has stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Barry Maitland, Henry Chang, Ivy Pochoda, Kerry Greenwood, Margaret Truman, Michael Connelly