Category Archives: Liane Moriarty

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow

See You, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard*

schoolyards-and-playgroundsWhen children are in the classroom, they’re supposed to behave themselves, and many do. What’s more, classroom activities are usually structured and choreographed by the teacher. So, they’re not always realistic, natural looks at what children are like.

But you can learn a lot about children and their families by watching them in the schoolyard or on the playground. Whether it’s before school, after school, or at recess/lunch/break, children tend to be more unguarded there. And, even when their parents or caregivers know that other people may see them, they’re sometimes unguarded, too. That can lead to all sorts of interactions.

Those can be the basis for interesting, and even suspenseful, plot points in crime fiction. There are a number of examples of these sorts of scenes. Here are just a few.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg discovers that her husband, Henrik, has been unfaithful. She’d had the illusion that she, Henrik, and their six-year-old son, Axel, had the perfect suburban life, so the news of Henrik’s affair is devastating. When Eva learns who Henrik’s mistress is, she decides to plot her own revenge. Her plan spins out of control, though, and leads to tragedy. In one plot thread of the story, she has a different sort of worry. One day, she’s driving Axel home from school when she notices he has a new toy. Then, he tells her about the man who gave it to him:
 

‘‘…he was standing outside the fence by the woods and then he called me while I was on the swing and said he was going to give me something nice.’’
 

Naturally, Eva’s frightened at the thought of what could have happened. Axel, as it turns out, is unhurt. But the man does figure into the plot, and the playground scene could frighten any parent.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red concerns the murders of Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. The only survivor that day was their daughter, Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the killings. For years, Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh, has been in prison for the murders. But now, there are little hints that he might not be guilty. And if he is innocent, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks she’s found the story to guarantee her place at the top of the list of New Zealand journalists. She starts asking questions, and takes the opportunity to meet several people, some of whom are convinced Bligh is guilty, and others who aren’t so sure. She also meets with Bligh himself, and persuades him to tell her his story. He takes her at her word, and sends her a long letter, telling her about his life. It’s not been a very happy one, either. He’s unusually intelligent, and never really fit in at school, because he was so far ahead of the other children intellectually. The letter tells of brutal play yard bullying, among other things. But then, Thorne learns that his story is different to the stories that his former schoolmates tell. The playground incidents aren’t the reason for the murders. And they don’t really get Thorne any closer to the truth about those killings. But they certainly shed light on what playground activities can be like when the adults aren’t around.

Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder tells the story of Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel. When they return to their home on the island of Fårö after two months away, they’re dismayed to see terrible messes everywhere. At first, it looks like a case of horrible tenants. But some of the family photographs have been damaged in a very deliberate way that looks much more personal. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin to look into the case, and see two possibilities. One is that one of the tenants had a personal grudge against the family. The other is that someone who knows the family found a way to get inside the house. The police aren’t sure what sort of case this is until the day that seven-year-old Ellen disappears from school. According to her friend, Matilda, Ellen was lured into a white car that stopped by the playground at the school she attends. That’s enough for the police to set a major search in motion, and certainly convinces them that this family is being targeted. Now they have to discover who’s behind everything, and what the motive is.

Some of the key action in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies takes place on the playground of Piriwee Public School, on the Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The story’s focus is three families who send their children to Kindergarten at the school. One of those children is accused of bullying by the mother of another child, and before long, this causes a major conflict. Many parents take the side of the accusing parent, because she’s one of the school’s leaders. Others, though, are not so quick to accuse, and take the side of the boy who’s been accused of bullying. The truth is, it was a playground incident, so no adult actually saw what happened. So, it’s hard to know who did what. There are other conflicts among some of the families, too, and other dynamics going on. It all simmers until Trivia Night, which is supposed to be a fundraiser for the school. The food doesn’t arrive on time, so everyone has too much to drink and not enough food to absorb the alcohol. Tempers flare and the end result is tragedy. The police investigate, and we slowly learn what really happened on the playground, and what really happened on Trivia Night.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, a retired academic and political scientist. In Kaleidoscope, her adult daughter, Mieka, opens a combination playground/meeting place she calls UpSlideDown in Regina’s struggling North Central district. Young parents in that area do not always have the support they need to help their children. So, Mieka has designed UpSlideDOown as a place where parents can meet, let their children play, get parenting advice, and find support. It’s so successful that Mieka opens UpSlideDown2. Admittedly, neither place is the scene of a murder, or an investigation. But both places play roles in the stories. And they’re both examples of the ways in which a playground can be a very positive place.

Playgrounds and schoolyards are where the action often is when it comes to young people’s interactions. And it’s where you sometimes see their parents in very unguarded moments, too. That’s part of what can make them so effective in crime novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.

    

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Filed under Gail Bowen, Håkan Östlundh, Karin Alvtegen, Liane Moriarty, Paddy Richardson

You’re Kidding Yourself*

self-deceptionIt’s said that the biggest lies, and the most difficult to get past, are the ones we tell ourselves. To an extent, we all do a bit a self-deception (e.g. ‘It’s just one piece of cake, after all;’ ‘It’s not my fault! ____ made a complete mess of this project;’ ‘Why are all these people such bad drivers?’). And just a little self-deception is usually harmless enough (it is, after all, just the one piece of cake, right?). But the less honest we are with ourselves, the more trouble we can find.

Don’t believe me? There are plenty of examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean. Crime-fictional characters who deceive themselves can add a solid source of tension to a novel. What’s more, they can be interesting reflections of our human nature.

For instance, in Megan Abbott’s 1950’s-era historical novel Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She has a close relationship with her brother, Bill, who’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office. Lora’s life may not be overly exciting, but she’s content. Then, Bill meets and falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. From the very beginning, Lora doesn’t think much of Alice, and she’s very uncomfortable with what she sees as Alice’s dubious past. But, for Bill’s sake, she tries to make her relationship with Alice work. That gets more difficult, though, when Bill and Alice marry. The more Lora learns about Alice, the more questions she has about her new sister-in-law, and that doesn’t help matters, either. At the same time as Lora is repelled by Alice’s life, though, she is also drawn to it. And it’s interesting to see how she doesn’t really admit that to herself. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be involved in it. In what she tells herself is an attempt to protect Bill, Lora begins to ask questions about the murder. But what, really, are her motives? And what does she really want from her life?

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice features former school principal Thea Farmer. When she left her position, her plan had been to have a house built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But a combination of bad luck and poor financial judgement changed everything. Now, Thea’s had to settle for the house next door – a home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ What’s worse, the home she still thinks of as hers has been purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington – a couple she refers to as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s niece, Kim, comes to live with him and Ellice. To her surprise, Thea finds herself developing an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. She sees real writing promise in Kim, and even takes the girl to the writing class she’s been attending. When Thea comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, she learns that the police are unlikely to do anything about it as things are. So, Thea decides to take matters into her own hands. Thea is a strong, intelligent character. But it’s interesting to see how she is also able to deceive herself. Her story is told through a series of journal entries that she makes for her writing class; and in those entries, we see how she views people and events in her life. But what is the real truth about the reason she left the school where she was principal? And what about the circumstances that led to her financial difficulties? There are solid hints here that Thea isn’t entirely honest with herself.

That’s also true of Gates Hunt, whom we meet in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. He and his brother, Mason, were raised in poverty, in an abusive home. But each had the means to get out. Mason has taken advantage of scholarships and other opportunities, and now has a ‘free ride’ to law school. Gates has a great deal of natural athletic ability, and has been told he could go far with that. But he’s chosen to squander his talent, and has ended up living on money he gets from his mother, and on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. One, night, the Hunt brothers are driving home after a night out when they encounter Gates’ romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. An argument they had earlier in the day flares up again, and before anyone really knows it, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason helps his brother cover up the crime, and life goes on for the Hunt brothers. Years later, Mason has become the commonwealth (of Virginia) prosecutor for Patrick County. Gates has gotten involved in drug dealing. When he’s arrested and handed a very long sentence, he begs his brother to get him out. This time, Mason refuses to help. Gates retaliates by implicating Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder, and now Mason may stand trial for the killing. Throughout this novel, we see how Gates deceives himself. He blames others for his bad choices, and he doesn’t consider his own role in what’s happened to his life.

There’s a lot of self-deception in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. One night, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, have dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant with Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. As the story goes on, and each different course is brought, we slowly get to know these characters. And we learn that these couples have a very dark secret. Their fifteen-year-old sons went in together in a terrible crime. The real purpose of the meal was to work out what they’re going to do about it. And in their conversations, we see how much these people are deceiving themselves about their children, their own roles in the crime, and more.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we are introduced to Niccolo ‘Nick’ Franco. His family came to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, all went well enough, and the family began to prosper. But then, Nick’s father ended up killing Luigi Lupo in a bar fight. Unfortunately for the family, the victim turned out to be the son of notorious mobster Tonio Lupo. The bereaved father has cursed the family, promising that all three Franco sons (including Nick) will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi was at his death. As we follow Nick’s story, we learn that he gets ‘the Hollywood bug’ and tries to make a name for himself in the silent films. He does well enough at first. But he has grandiose ideas about his future, and he’s not honest with himself about his mediocre acting. It doesn’t help matters that he’s fond of drugs, drink, and women. Nick’s refusal to see his own limitations end up costing him dearly.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which tells the story of Piriwee Public School, near Sydney, and the families that send their children there. The story’s focus is three families in particular. Trouble starts when the son of one of those three mothers is accused of bullying. He claims he’s innocent, but the accuser’s mother is adamant. Matters get worse as other families choose sides. One night, everything comes to a boil, as the saying goes, and there’s a tragedy. As the families cope with what’s happened, we see just what lies people tell themselves – especially when it comes to their own families and children.

See what I mean? Some of the ways we deceive ourselves aren’t so bad. But some can lead to disaster. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on my new novel. It’s only going to take me a couple of weeks, and I know it’s Nobel-worthy – way better than anything else out there.  What?! It is!  😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Megan Abbott, Virginia Duigan

In The Spotlight: Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies

>In The Spotlight: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Last RitualsHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the more popular and appealing contexts for a crime novel is the small town where everyone knows everyone, and where things are only idyllic on the surface. Such places can hide dark secrets, and that offers lots of possibility for suspense and tension. Let’s take a look at that sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

As the story begins, it’s Trivia Night at Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The event is intended as both a fun evening and a fundraiser for the school, so that Smart Boards can be provided for the classrooms. The hors d’oeuvres don’t arrive on time, and everyone drinks more than is judicious with no food to go along with it. The alcohol fuels conflicts, and the evening ends tragically. The police begin an investigation, and we begin to learn a bit about the people involved.

The novel then takes the reader back six months, and tells what happened in Piriwee Beach that led to the events of Trivia Night. As the story unfolds, we follow the lives of three families, all of whom have children enrolled in Piriwee Public’s Kindergarten class.

One family consists of Madeline Mackenzie, her second husband Ed, and their children Fred and Chloe. There’s also Madeline’s daughter, Abigail, whose father, Nathan, has recently remarried. Another family is the White family: Perry, his wife Celeste, and their twin sons Max and Josh. The third is Jane Chapman and her son, Ziggy. All three families are in different socioeconomic situations, have different sorts of dynamics and so on. But each has at least one child in the same class. And soon, Madeline, Celeste, and Jane become friends.

Trouble begins for Jane when one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ Renata Klein, accuses Ziggy of bullying her daughter Amabella. Ziggy claims that he’s not responsible, but Renata has a lot of sway, and before long, most people believe her. Celeste and Madeline don’t, though, so one plot thread of this novel follows the escalating conflict between the ‘Renata camp,’ and the ‘Jane/Madeline/Celeste’ camp.

In the meantime, each woman is facing other challenges. Madeline’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Abigail, has decided to move in with her father and his new wife, Bonnie (who, incidentally, also have a child in the Kindergarten). Jane has to cope with the outright hostility she faces at the school, not to mention the fact that several of Ziggy’s classmates are being told to avoid him, and that they’re not allowed to play with him. And Celeste has her own home-front issues.

The school-related and personal plot threads come together one fateful night. All of the simmering tension comes to a boil, so to speak, and the result is a tragedy. Each of the three families is profoundly affected, and is going to have to find a way to deal with what happens.

One of the important elements in this novel is the difference between image and reality. On the surface, Celeste and Perry White are the king and queen of the school, and their sons two young princes. They’re extremely wealthy, and Celeste has to work to ensure she doesn’t make other people feel uncomfortable around so much money. They’re a good-looking family, too, whom a lot of people envy. But we learn that there’s a high price to pay for that sort of life. Madeline is smart, tough, and very much her own person, whom more than one person envies for her independence. She’s happily married, too. But she’s hardly perfect, and has her own sadness to hide. When Madeline and Celeste take Jane under their wings, they see her as vulnerable and shy. And she is. But there’s a lot about Jane that they don’t know at first.

As we learn more and more about the different characters, we see how their lives are much more intertwined than they imagined. Those inter-relationships are also an element of this novel. And the context (a small town) is consistent with that element. Everyone is connected in some way to everyone else. And when anything happens, gossip about it, however untrue, spreads very quickly.

Another element in the story is the school setting. There’s a definite social structure within the school, and anyone who’s ever been closely involved with a school will find it familiar. There is the group of (mostly) mothers, nicknamed the Blond Bobs, who run the school’s social life. They put together events, and do much of the work of parent activism:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

There are also people often called Helicopter Parents. They’re the ones who insist that their children get special consideration, and sometimes even go to the school to, as the saying goes, fight their children’s fights. Trust me, such parents exist. And there’s the pettiness, cattiness and competitiveness you’d expect in such a group. Through it all moves the teacher, Rebecca Barnes, who’s trying to do the best job she can, and doesn’t want parental politics getting in the way.

And it’s the school politics that also add some lighter moments to the story. Those who’ve spent a lot of time at schools, and have served on the PTA, or a fundraising committee, will relate to that aspect of the novel. But this isn’t a comic, ‘frothy’ novel. The reality of what’s going on is very sad at times.

For example, the element of bullying and its impact also plays an important role in the novel. Bullying is a serious issue, and it has lasting and sometimes tragic consequences. Moriarty explores the way bullying can occur, how it may be learned, who’s affected, and how different people respond to it.

Big Little Lies is the story of three families and the way their lives intersect at the beginning of one fateful school year. It explores the lies we tell ourselves and others, and shows the consequences of bullying for everyone involved. But what’s your view? Have you read Big Little Lies? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 29 August/Tuesday, 30 August – The Last Child – John Hart

Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton

Monday, 12 September/Tuesday, 13 September – Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog – Boris Akunin

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Filed under Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty