Category Archives: Kishwar Desai

I’m Not the Same Person*

Most of us grow and change over time. That’s usually a positive thing, since it means we’re getting more mature. That process of changing and evolving can be a challenge, though, especially when others insist on thinking of us in the ‘same old ways.’ If you’ve ever returned to your home town, for instance, where people knew you as you used to be, you may know that feeling of frustration (e.g. ‘I’m not that person now! I’ve changed!).

In fiction, including crime fiction, changes in characters can certainly add to the story. And it can make for suspense, even conflict, when others don’t seem to want to accept those changes. There are plenty of examples in the genre. Here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, we are introduced to Hilton Cubitt. He’s concerned about his wife, Elsie. Before they married, Elsie warned him that she’d had some ‘unpleasant associations’ in her life, although she herself hasn’t done anything wrong. Because of this, she made her husband promise that he wouldn’t ask about her past, and he agreed. But now, it seems the past has caught up with her. She’s been getting cryptic letters written in code. They’re clearly upsetting to her, but she won’t confide in Hilton. So, he brings the case to Sherlock Holmes, who agrees to look into it. Then, messages are scrawled on one of the window sills of the Cubitt house. Now, Elsie seems terrified, but still won’t tell her husband why. Then a tragedy occurs, and Hilton is shot. Holmes works out the code, and discovers that someone has refused to let Elsie change, grow, and, if you will, reinvent herself.

Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger features brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton. Originally from London, they’ve taken a home in the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can recover from a plane crash injury. They’re just settling in when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that claims they’re lovers, not siblings. Soon enough, they find out that they’re not the only victims of these ‘poison pen’ letters. Someone in town is sending out anonymous letters to several other people. Then, there’s a murder. And another murder. Miss Marple gets involved in the investigation, and discovers the truth behind both the letters and the murders. One of the villagers is 20-year-old Megan Hunter. When we first meet her, she’s awkward and frumpy, and most people dismiss her. Jerry gets to know her, though, and finds himself falling for her. He takes her on a trip to London, where he pays for her to have a makeover and new clothes. When they return, Megan looks and learns to act more sophisticated and mature. But it’s a bit awkward at first, as not everyone is ready to forget the dowdy, clumsy Megan they knew.

In Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point, we meet brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. They grew up in Belize, but moved to Miami. Now, Patrick has a very promising career in local law and politics. He’s even being spoken of as a very good choice for the next mayor of Miami, with all sorts of possibilities after that. Leo is a poet, who also works at Jefferson Memorial, a mental hospital. He doesn’t travel in his brother’s circles, but they do have their past in common. And it comes back to haunt them. One day, Leo gets a visit from Freddy Robinson, whom he knew in Belize. Freddy’s now working for some ‘associates’ who want Leo to release one of the patients, Herman Massani. It seems that Massani has some information on voter fraud in the Miami-Dade County area. If that information is accurate, it implicates Patrick. At first, Leo doesn’t want anything to do with Freddy, who’s become a convicted felon. But Freddy insists, and reminds Leo that he knows about some dark things that happened in the Varela brothers’ past. Leo’s tried his best to move beyond Belize, but now, it seems that Freddy won’t let that happen. When Leo contacts his brother, Patrick wants to wait and see what will happen. But things soon begin to spin out of control for both brothers, and it’s clear that they won’t be easily allowed to get past what happened when they were younger.

In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, social worker Simran Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. She’s been living and working in Delhi, which suits her. But, when an old university friend asks for her help in a case, she finds it impossible to refuse. It seems that a horrible tragedy has occurred at the home of the wealthy Atwals. Thirteen members of the family have been poisoned, and some stabbed. What’s more, someone set fire to the house. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. The evidence isn’t clear on whether she was responsible for what happened, or was a victim who managed to survive. Durga herself has said nearly nothing about that night, so the police don’t know how to proceed with her (or the investigation). It’s hoped that if Simran works with the girl, she can get her to open up and talk about what happened. In one of the sub-plots of the novel, Simran faces the challenge of people who want to see her only as the girl she was, and not as the skilled, educated professional she is now. That proves to be a real stumbling block for her, although she does find out the truth about the Atwal case.

And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod, who makes his entrance in The Blackhouse. He’s originally from the Isle of Lewis, but left there several years ago. Now, he’s a police detective, living and working in Edinburgh. Then, there’s a murder on the Isle of Lewis that closely resembles an Edinburgh case MacLeod’s working. He’s seconded to the island, the idea being that if the two murders were committed by the same person, the two police forces should work together. For MacLeod, though, this isn’t a happy homecoming. He had good reasons for leaving in the first place, and had no real desire to go back. He does, though, and meets up again with the people he grew up with, several of whom never left the island. His interactions with them add some interesting tension to the novel. Over the years, he’s grown up, become a skilled detective, and made a new life for himself. But plenty of people on the island still see him as the boy he once was.

And that’s a big challenge when we try to grow up and remake ourselves. We sometimes have to deal with the fact that not everyone sees the ‘new us.’ That can make for real-life tension, and interesting conflict and character development in a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Bettye Crutch, Allen Jones, and Booker T. Jones.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Vasquez, Kishwar Desai, Peter May

We Know That It’s Probably Magic*

As this is posted, it would have been Jim Henson’s 81st birthday. As you’ll know, Henson was a creative innovator who pioneered an entirely new sort of character –  the Muppet. He was also instrumental in creating children’s television programming that reflected a diverse audience.

But it’s Henson’s way of reaching out to children that stays with me more than anything else. If you’ve ever seen episodes of Sesame Street (or, for the matter of that, any other of the various Muppet-based shows), you’ll already know that those shows respected their audiences. They addressed children’s real concerns about things as varied as starting in a new school and coping after death. There were segments that included children from many different socioeconomic and ethnic groups, too. Henson and his team communicated with their young viewers in real ways. And viewers responded. They still do.

Lots of famous people guested on the show, too, and allowed young people to see the range of creative talent out there. Among the famous visitors were Maya Angelou, Paul Simon, Meryl Streep, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Robin Williams, and Billy Joel. Yes, he visited several times. Yes, I watched those episodes. What?!   😉

Being able to reach out to children, to treat them with respect, and communicate with them, isn’t always easy, in real life or in fiction. But sometimes, children have important things to say. In some crime fiction, for instance, children may hold clues to investigations. Or, they may be deeply affected by something that’s happened, and need to be supported. So, being able to reach out to them can be a particularly valuable skill.

Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware, for instance, is a child psychologist. He’s therefore quite skilled at getting young people to talk, and helping them work through the things that they need to face. And it’s sometimes quite difficult. For instance, in When the Bough Breaks, Delaware’s friend, L.A.P.D. detective Milo Sturgis, asks for his help with a particularly challenging case. Psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez have been murdered. The only witness is seven-year-old Melody Quinn, but she can’t provide much information, and what she does say isn’t particularly coherent. Sturgis is hoping that Delaware will be able to get the child to open up and say what she saw. But that’s not going to be easy. Melody has been diagnosed with ADHD and other learning difficulties, so she’s heavily under the influence of Ritalin and other medications. What’s more, her pediatrician, Dr. Lionel Towle, isn’t willing to reduce her medication so that she’ll be able to communicate with Delaware. But Delaware manages to form a sort of bond with her. He even persuades her mother to reduce her medication somewhat, so that he can talk to the child in more depth. Then, Melody begins having nightmares. Her mother and Towle won’t let Delaware have any more access to the child, but he’s learned enough to start on the right trail. And it leads to the past, and to a secret that some people share.

Fans of Michael Robotham’s psychologist sleuth Joe O’Loughlin will know that he, too, has a special way of getting young people to talk to him. At the very beginning of The Suspect, for instance, he’s up on the roof of London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, trying to persuade a suicidal teenager not to jump. He’s successful, and just wants to get back to ‘normal’ life. But that’s not to be. Shortly thereafter, he’s drawn into the investigation when the body of a former client, Catherine McBride, is pulled out of the Union Canal. Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz is soon convinced that O’Loughlin is, at the very least, a ‘person of interest.’ And the longer things go on, the more drawn into the case O’Loughlin is. He soon sees that if he’s going to clear his own name, and catch the killer, he’s going to have to confront someone from his own past, and it could get very dangerous for him.

Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night introduces readers to Delhi social worker Simran Singh. She is persuaded to return to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab, when the police there are faced with a horrible and baffling set of murders. Thirteen members of the Atwal family have died of poison, and some of them have also been stabbed. The house has been set on fire as well. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, but it’s hard to tell from the evidence whether she is responsible for what happened, or was also a victim who just happened to survive. And Durga isn’t talking to anyone. It’s hoped that Singh will be able to break through and get Durga to tell her what really happened that night. Things don’t go well at first. Durga doesn’t trust Singh, and it’s soon clear that there are plenty of people who do not want the truth to come out. Little by little, though, we learn what really happened at the Atwal home that night – and why.

And then there’s Dr. Helen Blackwell, whom we first meet in Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness. She’s the local GP for the village of Highfield, at a time (just after World War I) when there were few female doctors. One night, Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes, are all brutally murdered. The only survivor is four-year-old Sophy Fletcher; she hid under a bed, and the killer didn’t find her. Sophy has been through quite a lot of trauma, and in any case, isn’t very articulate, because of her age. Still, Blackwell works with her and, little by little, gets her to remember what happened. And it turns out that Sophy has some very important clues to the killer.

There’s also an interesting example of reaching out to children in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. In it, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in investigating the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher.  At one point (and it’s not, admittedly a major part of the plot), Joanne and her adopted daughter, Taylor, are invited for dinner at the home of Ed Mariani and his partner, Barry Levitt. As it happens, Mariani and Levitt happen to have a painting done by Taylor’s biological mother, Sally Love. Mariani finds a way to reach out to Taylor by offering to let her see the painting. It gives her a connection, and reinforces her own interest in, and talent at, art.

Sometimes children do have important things to say. But it’s not always easy for adults to reach out in effective ways and hear it. That’s why people who can interact with children are so valuable. We miss you, Mr. Henson.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Williams’ and Kenneth Ascher’s The Rainbow Connection.

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Filed under Gail Bowen, Jonathan Kellerman, Kishwar Desai, Michael Robotham, Rennie Airth

Que Bonita es Barcelona*

Writers are like everyone else: we are products of our times, and we live through events as the rest of the world does. And those events sometimes have a real impact on us. Well, they do on me, at any rate.

And therein lies the issue. Like millions of others, I am heartbroken about the loss of life and the devastation in Barcelona. I’ve been there. I’ve walked down its streets and explored its history (did you know that Barcelona is home to Europe’s oldest synagogue?). So, there’s a really personal sense of loss. I felt the same way about what happened in London before that. And in Charlottesville. And in Manchester, although I admit I’ve not been there. And in other places, too. This has been, so far, a terrible year in terms of the awful things people can do to each other.

The thing is, I’m a writer. Writers are, in general, observers. That’s part of what we do. And we can’t help seeing what goes on around us (am I right, fellow writers?). The question is, what do we do with it? How do writers cope with some of the awfulness of life that we can’t help seeing?

Some writers speak out about it. That’s what Margaret Atwood has done in The Handmaid’s Tale. She herself has said that everything that happens in that novel has happened, or is happening, in real life. She’s used those things as inspiration, and brought a lot of things to our notice. Perhaps this novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, but crimes are certainly committed in it.

They are in George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, too. Like Atwood, Orwell spoke out about what he observed, and used what he saw to inspire his writing. And there’ve been many crime writers who’ve done the same. Attica Locke, Kishwar Desai, Antti Tuomainen and Sara Paretsky are only a few examples of authors who’ve been deeply affected by major issues like poverty, racism, and climate change, and have discussed them in their writing. I know you’ll think of many more.

Other writers have made other choices. For instance, Agatha Christie lived through two world wars. She was tragically familiar with wartime shortages, the loss of people she knew, and so on. In fact, she safeguarded both Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which were written during World War II, in case she didn’t survive it.

And yet, if you read Christie’s work, you see comparatively little discussion of the real costs of war. She certainly mentions war and its losses in books such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Taken at the Flood and some other work, too. But her stories really focus on the mysteries at hand, the characters involved, and so on. And in some books, such as Five Little Pigs, there’s no mention of the war at all, although that particular novel was published in 1942.

Christie isn’t the only author who didn’t really write about what she was living through at the time. The ‘Queen Team’ also wrote during World War II. Calamity Town, for instance was published in 1942. And yet, you don’t see a lot of discussion of war losses, shortages and so on. In fact, Calamity Town doesn’t really mention World War II at all.

Every writer is different, of course. Some deal with their sense of grief and loss and heartbreak through their writing. Others prefer to escape those sorrows and write other sorts of stories. Still others are motivated in different ways. I don’t think there is a ‘right’ way to cope, to be honest.

What do you folks think? If you’re a reader, are you comfortable with books in which the author explores the raw grief, anger and heartbreak that go with war, terrorism, loss, and sorrow? Or does that keep you too close to it all? If you’re a writer, do you deal with your sense of anger and grief at these horrible events by writing? Or do you use your writing to go (and take the reader) elsewhere?

As for me, I can’t answer that question right now – at least about the terrorism we’ve seen lately. It’s too recent. But just because I’m not writing about the heartbreak doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Manuel Moreno. In English (my translation) the title means: How beautiful Barcelona is.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Attica Locke, Ellery Queen, George Orwell, Kishwar Desai, Margaret Atwood, Sara Paretsky

I’m Your Social Worker*

social-workersThey’re often on the front lines in domestic situations. And they’re the ones who are called in when children may be at risk. I’m talking, of course, of social workers. They have a thankless and sometimes dangerous job, but the vast majority of them do their very best. There’s a high turnover rate among social workers, as you can imagine. The pay isn’t good, they often have a very much heavier caseload than anyone can reasonably be expected to handle, and they’re not always welcome at homes where they pay visits.

Yet, their work is vital, and can save lives. We do hear occasional horror stories of social workers who are incompetent or worse. But, as I say, the vast majority are hardworking, conscientious individuals who care.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of social workers who make appearances in crime fiction. It’s a natural fit, if you think about it. And they can add an interesting perspective to a crime story.

For example, in one plot thread of Jonathan Kellerman’s Blood Test, we learn of five-year-old Heywood ‘Woody’ Swopes. He has a treatable form of leukemia, but his parents refuse treatment. Instead, they want to choose holistic and other non-medical treatments. This could be fatal for Woody, so his doctor, Raoul Melendez-Lynch, asks a former colleague, child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware agrees, and  Melendez-Lynch puts him in contact with Beverly Lucas, a social worker attached to the hospital. She’s worked with the Swopes family, and Delaware is hoping that, together, they’ll be able to make some progress. Instead, Woody’s parents remove him from the hospital. Then, he disappears. Now, Delaware and Lucas must find the boy while he still has a chance to stay alive. Then, his parents are found dead. The only link to the family is Woody’s twenty-year-old sister, Nona, who has her own serious problems. In this novel, Lucas shows how important social workers can be when families have medical crises.

In Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House, DS (later DI) Wesley Peterson takes up his new duties at Tradmouth CID, in Devon. He’s no sooner settling in when word comes that the body of a young woman has been discovered at Little Tradmouth Head. The CID team begins the work of identifying her and trying to trace her killer. The trail leads to a local caravan of travellers and young man named Chris Manners, who may have some information. When it’s discovered that he has a little boy, Daniel, living with him, Social Services gets involved in the form of Lynne Wychwood. Among other things, she has to assess whether the boy is safe and living in an appropriate environment. And, if possible, she has to do that without alienating Chris; it’s going to be much easier if he sees her as an ally rather than The Enemy. Lynne doesn’t solve the case. But her work with Chris and Daniel proves very helpful, and it’s interesting to see how social workers try to be flexible and do what’s best for the child when they can.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In Exile, the second in the series, Mauri is working at a Glasgow shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. When one of the residents, Ann Harris, goes missing, not much concern is raised at first. Residents are free to come and go as they wish. But when Ann doesn’t return, Mauri begins to get concerned. Then, Ann’s body is found in the Thames a few weeks later. At first, Mauri is convinced that Ann’s husband, Jimmy, is responsible. But his cousin, who runs the shelter, insists that he’s innocent. So, Mauri tries to trace Ann’s last days and weeks. The trail leads to a London solicitor’s office where Mauri meets social worker Kilty Goldfarb, who’s also Scottish. The two strike up a friendship, and Kilty turns out to be helpful in this case. She returns in Resolution, the last of the trilogy, and her experience in social work turns out to be useful in that novel as well.

Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night introduces readers to Delhi social worker Simran Singh. At the request of a former university friend (who’s now Inspector General for Punjab), Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur. She’s there to work with the police on a very difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for murdering thirteen members of her family, and then burning the family home. There is evidence against her, but there is also the possibility that she, too, was a victim who managed to stay alive. The police can’t determine Durga’s role in the tragedy, because she hasn’t spoken about it. The hope is that Singh will be able to get the girl to open up and talk about what happened. At first, Durga is unwilling to say much of anything. But, bit by bit, she begins to trust Singh, and starts to talk about her family. Little by little, we learn what happened that night, and the dark secrets that led to the deaths. Among other things, this novel shows how social workers sometimes have to be creative when it comes to doing their best for the children they are charged with protecting.

Social workers take on a wide variety of roles. For instance, In Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, we learn that Chapman (who is a baker) works with the Soup Run, a Melbourne group that provides food, (non-alcoholic) drinks, blankets, and sometimes medicine to Melbourne’s street people. One of the other people involved with the Soup Run is Jen, a local social worker, who
 

‘…can wedge a client into a lodging house with pure force of character.’
 

Admittedly, Jen is not a main character who helps solve mysteries. But she shows the dedication that most social workers have to doing their best for those in need.

There’s also J.M. Green’s Good Money, which introduces Melbourne social worker Stella Hardy. When one of her clients, an émigré from Africa, is found murdered, and then a neighbour disappears, Stella starts looking for answers. And she finds that the truth is a lot more dangerous than she thought. I admit, I haven’t (yet) read this one. It was just too good an example not to mention. Want to know more? You can read terrific reviews here and here on Fair Dinkum Crime, the source for Australian crime fiction.

There are a lot of other social workers who appear in crime fiction. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glasvegas’ Geraldine.

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Filed under Denise Mina, J.M. Green, Jonathan Kellerman, Kate Ellis, Kerry Greenwood, Kishwar Desai

Evil Woman*

Malicious CharactersMarina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write, offered a ‘sneak peek’ at the novel she’s writing, and I was glad to read it. You’ll want to check it out yourself as you do your blog rounds. The character Marina Sofia depicts is malicious and cutting, and I have it on good authority that she was fun to write.

It all has me thinking about the way those malicious characters are portrayed in crime fiction. They may be first wives, office ‘queen bees,’ fellow club members, or something else. But they can make one’s life miserable. Still, they can add a layer to a crime story, and they can be fun to create.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, we are introduced to Louise Leidner. She and her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, are staying with the other members of Leidner’s dig team near an excavation site a few hours from Baghdad. Louise hasn’t really had an easy time of it at the site, though. She’s begun to have real fears about seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping and so on. Her husband has hired a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to stay with her and help allay her fears. It works well enough until the afternoon that Louise is found bludgeoned in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area on business, and is persuaded to take some time to investigate. He soon learns that the victim was not a much-loved, angelic person.  While she could be polite, even charming, when she wanted, she could also be quite rude. In fact, more than one character admits that Louise could get anyone angry, and that sometimes, she did so deliberately. It’s an interesting psychological portrait, and it gives Poirot plenty of suspects.

Louise Penny’s A Fateful Grace (AKA Dead Cold) features celebrated ‘life coach’ C.C. de Poitiers. Her book, Be Calm, has gotten a lot of notice and interest, and she’s parlayed that into a series of successful businesses. In private, she’s far from the supportive, kind coach that people see in her public persona. She’s rude, malicious and greedy. So when she decides to move her family to the small Québec town of Three Pines, it doesn’t take long for her to alienate just about everyone. On Boxing Day, she is murdered during the traditional curling match that takes place in the area. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team investigate the murder. They find out that there are plenty of people who were upset at the victim’s rudeness and malicious treatment of others.

In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, Delhi social worker Simran Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur in the state of Punjab to help with a troubling case. Thirteen members of the powerful and wealthy Atwal family have been poisoned, and some stabbed. The house has been set on fire, too. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, but she hasn’t said anything about what happened. And it’s not clear whether she is guilty, or is a victim who survived the attack. The police hope that Simran will be able to get the girl to talk about what happened.  This case means a return to Simran’s home town, and it’s not exactly a happy occasion. Still, she resolves to try to find out what she can. That will mean talking to several people whom she knew as a child. One of them is her school friend Amrinder, with whom she used to compete academically. Both Amrinder and her mother, Ma Sukhhi, remember Simran very well, and although Ma Sukhi is now older and quite ill, she is still more than happy to ‘put Simran in her place’ with plenty of rudeness and reminders of her social position. That reunion doesn’t solve the case, but it does give the reader a sense of what social life is in towns such as Jullundur.

In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, PI Lena Jones goes undercover at a strange religious compound called Purity. She’s there to find out who killed its leader, Solomon Royal. The most likely suspect is one of Jones’ own clients, and she wants to clear her client’s name if possible. As a part of her cover, Jones adopts the guise of a new arrival, and is assigned to work with the other women of Purity. Soon enough, she encounters Sister Ermaline, the victim’s first wife, who runs Purity’s large kitchen operations. In her position, she is in charge of just about everything the other women do, and is quick to establish both her authority and her power. She’s unpleasant and bossy, and it’s easy to fall afoul of her. So Jones finds it a challenge just to speak with her, let alone find out anything useful. It’s an interesting example of the ‘pecking order’ in the place.

We get a slightly different perspective on such characters in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Alistair Robertson and his partner Joanna Lindsay take a very long trip from Scotland to his home near Melbourne. With them is their nine-week-old son, Noah. The trip itself is a disaster, but they finally arrive in Melbourne, and begin the drive from the airport to Alistair’s home town. The idea is that if they move there, he’ll be in a better position to get custody of his teenaged daughter Chloe, who lives with her mother (and Alistair’s ex-wife) Alexandra. During the drive, Joanna and Alistair face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of Noah. A massive search is undertaken, and at first, there’s a lot of public support for the couple. But then, questions arise, as they often do in such cases, and people begin to wonder whether the parents, especially Joanna, might have had something to do with Noah’s disappearance. Some of the chapters in the novel are written from Alexandra’s perspective, and a few include interactions between her and Joanna. In those, it’s interesting to see that on one level, Alexandra is the bitter, rude ex-wife you might expect. On another, though, there is more to her character than you might imagine. It’s an interesting look at what might be going on in the mind of what seems like a malicious character.

Interestingly, it’s not always female fictional characters who are portrayed in this way. For instance, in Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinju, which takes place in 1689 in what is now Tokyo, we are introduced to Sano Ichirō, the city’s newest senior police commander. He is assigned to write and submit a report on the deaths of ‘well-born’ Niu Yukiko and a peasant artist named Noriyoshi. At first, the deaths look like a double suicide, and the official theory is that the couple were secret lovers who committed suicide because they couldn’t be together. But Sano soon comes to believe that there was more to these deaths than that. Very soon, though, he runs up against several obstacles. One is that his supervisor insists that he not do any personal investigation, as that sort of work is for police who are lower in rank. Another is that any suggestion of bothering or offending Yukiko’s wealthy and powerful family will mean serious trouble. It doesn’t help matters that Sano doesn’t have the support of his fellow senior investigators Yamaga and Hayashi. They both see themselves as superior since they’ve been there longer, and since they were born into families of higher social status. So they never hesitate to insult Sano and treat him rudely, sometimes subtly and sometimes quite overtly. Still, Sano has a sense of duty to his position, and continues looking into the case. He finds that these deaths are much more complex than a case of desperate lovers.

Malicious, rude characters can add a lot to a story, particularly when they offer insight into a social structure or character. And they can be fun to write. Which ones have stayed with you?

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by ELO (Electric Light Orchestra).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Helen Fitzgerald, Kishwar Desai, Laura Joh Rowland, Louise Penny