Category Archives: Lilian Jackson Braun

As They Would Mingle With the Good People We Meet*

Social SkillsIn today’s world of social media and electronic communication, we can be in contact instantly with people all over the world. I think most of us would agree that that can be a very good thing. But there are also some studies that raise the question of what happens to people’s face-to-face social skills when they focus a lot on social media. And any crime fiction fan can tell you that social skills – the ability to mingle with different kinds of people – are very important for sleuths.

The social skills one needs to make appropriate eye contact, ‘read’ people’s expressions and so on allow the sleuth to find out valuable information. What’s more, those social skills give the sleuth the background to make sense of what people say (and don’t say) and what their non-verbals mean. It’s harder for people with few social skills to work those things out, even if they are highly intelligent.

There are some fictional sleuths who are very effective ‘minglers.’ They’re good at getting people to talk to them and they’re good at making sense of people’s non-verbals. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is one of them. To most of the English people with whom he interacts, Poirot is most emphatically a foreigner. But he has the ability to mix and mingle with all sorts of different kinds of people, including people from different social classes. We see that for instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, Poirot travels by air from Paris to London. One of his fellow passengers is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. When she is poisoned en route, Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. He interacts with several different kinds of people during that investigation, including Madame Giselle’s maid Elise Grandier and Venetia Kerr, who is ‘well born.’ He has a knack of getting the various characters to talk to him, and the skills to ‘read’ what they say. And that information helps him get to the truth. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile.

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte has solid social skills too. He is a member of the Queensland Police, so he’s sent to a wide variety of different places, and has to interview all sorts of people in the course of his work. Since Bony is bi-cultural (half Aboriginal/half White), he frequently works with both Whites and Aboriginal people as he investigates. And he has the skills to get people to talk to him no matter their background. In stories such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, he gets ranch hands to trust him at the same time as he mingles effectively with Aboriginal people who give him information. And in some stories, he gets children to trust him, too (Death of a Swagman is an example of that). Bony certainly depends on what he calls ‘the Book of the Bush’ – clues in nature – to help him solve crimes. But he also depends on his social skills. I’m not sure he’d be able to find out as much just using a social media application…

Social skills are important in the PI business, but they aren’t a ‘strong suit’ for Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. That’s where Archie Goodwin comes in. He does do a lot of the ‘legwork’ for Wolfe. But he also does his share of mingling with other people and getting a sense of them. Wolfe doesn’t always like to admit it, but he depends on Goodwin’s social skills, since he himself is almost never willing to use tact or diplomacy. It’s part of what makes that pair a formidable team. Wolfe has the brilliance (‘though Goodwin is no mental slouch) and Goodwin has the ‘people skills.’

Journalists often find that the better their social skills, the more information they get. Certainly that’s true for Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. After a career in big-city news reporting, he’s ended up in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ He’s got a way of getting all kinds of people to talk to him; and even though he prefers to live alone, he’s got solid social skills. Part of his local appeal comes from his fame as a newspaper columnist. But people do naturally seem to trust him and he’s good at ‘reading’ them, for the most part. And that’s how he often gets people to confide in him.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Borja and his brother Eduard are in many ways a study in contrasts, although they’re fraternal twins. Where his brother is more reserved, Borja is outgoing, even gregarious at times. He mixes with all sorts of people, and his social skills are considerable. Those skills are often key to getting new clients for the business. For instance, in A Not So Perfect Crime, Borja uses his ability with people to engage Lluís Font, a Member of the Parliament of Catalonia, as a client. Font believes that his wife Lília is unfaithful, and he wants the brothers to find out if that’s true. They take the case and for a week, they follow her movements and find out what they can about her. But there is no evidence that she’s seeing anyone. Then one evening, she is poisoned. Now Font is the prime suspect in her murder. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working for him and clear his name. Although they’ve never worked a murder case before, they take this one, and it’s soon clear that more than one person might have had a motive. Throughout the novel, there are situations that Borja manages to negotiate because of his social skills.

There are certainly famous fictional sleuths who are not, as the saying goes, good with people. But for a sleuth to get information, it’s useful to have the kinds of social skills needed to make people feel comfortable. It does make one wonder what will happen to fictional detectives as social media and electronic devices continue to be really popular.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Lilian Jackson Braun, Rex Stout, Teresa Solana

I’m Filling the Cracks That Ran Through the Door*

RenovationsHave you ever had a room or a home renovated? On the one hand, it’s exciting, and there’s the promise of a beautiful new place ahead. But of course, it involves plaster, paint, drywall, and lots of inconvenience and money. So most people don’t renovate on a whim.

Renovations are actually very useful plot devices for crime writers. For one thing, they can add an interesting sub-plot to a story. For another, renovation is a good reason for a character to stay elsewhere temporarily, and that opens up several possibilities. And there’s no telling what might be found when an older building is torn down or taken apart. So it should come as no surprise that we see painting and renovation in many different crime novels. Here are just a few.

Agatha Christie uses that theme in a few of her novels. For example, in Death on the Nile, we are introduced to beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. She’s purchased Wode Hall from its former owner, and as the novel begins, she’s in the midst of making it her own:
 

‘Ah, but Wode was hers! She had seen it, acquired it, rebuilt and redressed it, lavished money on it. It was her own possession – her kingdom.’
 

Linnet’s life changes dramatically when her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort asks her to hire Simon Doyle (Jackie’s fiancé) as land agent. She unexpectedly falls in love with Doyle and the two marry. On the second night of their honeymoon cruise of the Nile, Linnet is shot. Jackie is also on the cruise, so she is the natural first suspect. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t be the killer. So Hercule Poirot, who’s also aboard, has to look elsewhere. I know, I know, fans of After the Funeral and Dead Man’s Folly…

Renovation plays an important role in Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness. Queensberry House was originally the property of a wealthy landowner, but has also served as a military barracks and a hospital. Now it’s being completely renovated to house the new Scottish Parliament. In fact, it’s one of several major demolition/renovation projects in that area. To everyone’s shock, the renovation uncovers a long-dead body hidden behind a blocked-up fireplace. The body has been there for a few decades (i.e. the house is much older), so Inspector Rebus looks for answers in the building’s more recent history. In the meantime, there are two more deaths: an aspiring Member of Parliament and a homeless man with a surprising amount of money. It turns out that these three deaths are connected, ‘though not as you might think (this is Ian Rankin, after all).

There’s also an interesting case of renovation in Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has accepted a commission from wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane. Sloane wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as far back as possible. The trail leads to James Fairborne, who left America with his wife Eleanor and their children in 1783 with a group of Royalists. With Sloane’s support, Tayte travels to England to trace that branch of the Fairborne family. He discovers that James Fairborne married again shortly after his arrival in England. What’s more, there is no more information on Eleanor or the children. Now Tayte is curious and begins to look into the matter. In the process of looking for the truth, Tayte meets Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel was lost in a storm two years earlier. Just before he died, Gabriel had told his wife that he’d found out a secret, but he didn’t get the chance to tell her what it was. However, new construction on their home has uncovered an old hidden staircase and room. That’s where Amy finds a very old carved writing box with a love letter in it. Gradually, she and Tayte, each in a different way, connect that letter to his genealogical mystery.

Renovation doesn’t always have to be sinister of course. But it always involves a certain amount of stress and a lot of decisions. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn and her partner Zack Shreve are planning to get married. One of the things they’ll have to decide is where to live. For Zack to move into his bride’s two-story house will mean renovation, since he uses a wheelchair. And it isn’t practicable for Joanne and her daughter Taylor to move in with him. So they decide to purchase a new home. The new home and the renovations made to it aren’t really the main plot point of this novel. But they go on in the background and add a layer of interest to the novel.

Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series will know that it features James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, a journalist who moved from a large city to Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ At the beginning of Qwill’s life in Moose County, he lives in a few different places. But none of them is exactly what he’s looking for as a permanent residence. Then he hits on an ideal solution. He hires interior designer Fran Brodie to renovate an old apple barn to meet his needs. Together with building contractor Dennis Hough, she creates a custom-made home for Qwill and his two Siamese cats. In The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal, Qwill finds himself hosting an impromptu house-warming/cast party for the local repertory theatre group. The festivities are interrupted when the body of Hilary VanBrook, one of the cast members and the local high school principal, is found in his car on Qwill’s property. Not exactly an auspicious beginning to the ownership of a renovated home…

Renovations don’t always have such deadly aftermaths. But there’s no end to the havoc they can wreak. And I haven’t even mentioned the many novels that include excavations of old homes… Got any ‘war stories’ of your own??

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Fixing a Hole.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Lilian Jackson Braun, Steve Robinson

I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here*

Rags to RichesMost of us have probably imagined what it would be like. The official letter from the attorney’s office informing you that you’ve inherited millions. Or perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime lottery win. Or maybe meeting that perfect someone who’s also really wealthy. However it actually happens, the ‘rags to riches’ dream captures people’s imaginations. I’m sure we could all think of films and books in which that’s the main plot point.

It shows up in crime fiction, too. But of course, it doesn’t always work out perfectly, despite the fantasy. The ‘rags to riches’ phenomenon is a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include this plot point. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s had a very modest life in the village of St. Mary Mead for ten years, where she’s been paid companion to Mrs. Harfield. When her employer dies, Katherine gets the exciting and surprising news that she’s been named as sole heir to Mrs. Harfield’s considerable fortune. She’s now going to be quite a wealthy woman, and things begin to change immediately for her. In one amusing scene, for instance, she gets a letter from a Harfield cousin, who tries to persuade and then bully her into parting with the money. Then, she gets a letter from one of her own distant relatives Lady Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Rosalie has found out about her cousin’s good fortune and suddenly decides that it might be nice to have her visit. Katherine is no fool, and knows exactly what Lady Rosalie has in mind. But she has always wanted to travel, so she arranges to go from London to Nice, where Lady Rosalie lives, on the famous Blue Train. That’s how she meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on her way to meet her lover Armand de la Roche. The two end up having a long conversation, so when Ruth is murdered, the police want whatever information Katherine can provide. Hercule Poirot is on the Blue Train as well, so he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why.

In Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, Queen and his new business partner Beau Rummell set up a private investigation firm. One of their first clients is wealthy and very eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and hasn’t established bonds with anyone in his family. He wants Queen and Rummell to track down his relations so that they’ll be in a position to inherit when he dies. Then, Queen becomes ill, so Rummell has to take on the ‘legwork.’ He follows the trail to Hollywood, where Kerrie Shawn is an aspiring actress. She hasn’t had much success though, and shares a dingy place with her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day. Word comes that Cole has died, and Rummell gets the distinct pleasure of telling Kerrie that she is set to inherit a large fortune. Cole’s will stipulates that she and the other heir, Margo Cole, must share his home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit, so she and Vi move to the house. As you can imagine, trouble soon begins, since such a large amount of money is at stake. Then, Margo is shot and Kerrie becomes a suspect. By this time Rummell has fallen in love with her, so he wants to clear her name. If he does, it’ll be a real case of ‘rags to riches’ for both of them.

When Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series begins, her sleuth James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is trying to get his life back together. He’s a former big-city crime reporter and author who’s hit some hard times and gotten far too familiar with the bottle. In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, he gets a chance to start over when his former boss Arch Riker hires him as a features writer for the Daily Fluxion. At first, he lives the sort of paycheck-to-paycheck existence that you might expect. A bit later in the series (The Cat Who Played Brahms has the details) Qwill inherits a vast fortune from his mother’s friend Francesca ‘Fanny’ Klingenschoen. The only proviso is that in order to inherit, Qwill must live in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere’ for five years. If he chooses not to do that, the fortune passes to Atlantic City. When word gets around that Qwill is set to inherit so much money, there’s resentment at first, since many of the locals were hoping the money would be used in the town. But they’re even more upset at the thought of having all of that money go to Atlantic City. As fans know, Qwill finds a way to make it work. He’s not comfortable with vast wealth anyway, so he remains in Pickax and sets up a charitable fund, the Klingenschoen Foundation, that supports many town projects. And that still leaves him with more money than he could ever need.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, readers are introduced to Jodie Evans. She’s been brought up, as the saying goes, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ near Sydney. Her home life is not good, and she would like very much to get free of it and out of poverty. Her first chance comes when she does well enough in school to get a scholarship to an upmarket secondary school. Then later, she meets Angus Garrow, an up-and-coming law student from a ‘blue blood’ family. He falls in love with her and the two marry, very much against the wishes of his mother, who was hoping he’d choose someone from his own social class. For a long time, it seems that Jodie has successfully gone from ‘rags to riches.’ She and Angus remain married and she has two healthy children. There’s certainly a difference between her perspective and that of her new social circle, but she’s learned to fit in. Then everything changes. Her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a girl she named Elsa Mary. No-one knows about the child, not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie says she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption, but when the extra-vigilant nurse does some checking, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked, first privately and then very publicly. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As the story spreads, Jodie becomes a social pariah to the well-off people she’s been living among for so long, and she learns who her real friends are.

Even winning the lottery isn’t necessarily a great way to go from ‘rags to riches.’ Just ask Waldemar Leverkuhn, whom we meet in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. After a lifetime of working for a living, he and some of his friends go in together on a lottery ticket that turns out to be a big winner. He goes out with those friends to celebrate; but later that night, he is brutally murdered. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate. When they learn about the lottery ticket, one of their questions is whether someone was anxious to keep Leverkuhn’s winnings. The truth is more complicated than that, but it goes to show that riches can’t always protect you.

There’s just something about the ‘rags to riches’ fantasy. I’m sure you can think of lots of good examples of it that I’ve not included here. Just as well, as I’ve got to see what’s in this letter. You never know…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Håkan Nesser, Lilian Jackson Braun, Wendy James

You’re A Sad Sight, Honey, But You Look So Cute*

RidiculousWe usually think of fictional sleuths as brave, and very often they are. But well-drawn sleuths are also quite human. And that means that they have moments, as we all do, of feeling, well, not at all confident. For some people, speaking in public brings on that ‘I’m a complete idiot’ feeling. For others, it’s dressing in a certain way when they’re accustomed to dressing another way. There are other things too of course that make people feel that kind of anxiety. It happens to all of us, and it’s no different for sleuths.

As Agatha Christie fans will know, her Captain Arthur Hastings is not one to call a lot of attention to himself. He’s got a strong sense of what counts as ‘the proper thing to do’ and doesn’t like behaving in any other way. But every once in a while, his work with Hercule Poirot means that he has to do things that completely go against the grain for him. And that makes him feel ridiculous. For example, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Poirot and Hastings investigate the suspicious death of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. She has several family members who are desperate for their share of her fortune. To add to that, she changed her will shortly before her death so as to leave practically everything to her companion Wilhelmina Lawson. So there is no shortage of suspects in this case. At one point, Poirot and Hastings visit the victim’s niece Theresa Arundell, who has more than one motive for murder. Poirot is sure that Theresa and her brother are not telling everything they know, so after he and Hastings leave, Poirot wants to sneak back and eavesdrop. Hastings of course is horrified at the thought, but has no choice except to go along. He certainly feels idiotic and embarrassed about it though.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to mystery novelist Martin Canning. His literary agent has persuaded him to participate in an author panel during the Edinburgh Arts Festival, so he’s in town for that event. During his trip, he witnesses an accident between a Honda and a Toyota. The two drivers get into a serious argument that ends with Toyota driver Paul Bradley coming close to being killed. Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver just in time to prevent that happening, and ends up getting drawn into a case of multiple murder for his trouble. Canning is by nature a shy, introverted sort of person as many writers are. He’s not comfortable in public and certainly not when he feels ‘on display.’ His saving Paul Bradley happens almost by instinct; so at first, he doesn’t think much about it. Far worse in his mind is the upcoming literary event at which he’ll actually have to interact with readers face to face. If you’re that sort of author – the introverted sort – you’ll know how idiotic that makes Canning feel.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a journalist who’s not afraid of talking to people. In fact, he’s quite good at putting people at their ease. He’s by no means cowardly by nature. But in The Cat Who Went Into the Closet, he faces a very difficult challenge: serving as Santa Claus in the town Christmas parade. In ways, it’s even harder for him than solving two murders. In one plot thread of this novel, local department store owner Larry Lanspeak is slated to play that role; but when an injury sidelines him, someone else has to step in. At first, Qwill outright refuses. But he’s finally talked into it, and reluctantly takes part in the parade. When it’s over, he finds out he’s also scheduled for a stint with the local children, so they can pose for pictures and tell ‘Santa’ what they want for Christmas. It’s not one of his more confident days…

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters introduces DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. The two are paired up to investigate what looks at first like a suicide. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters in a house in London’s Jerusalem Lane. When a large development company wants to buy out the lane for a new project, several residents sell. But Meredith and her sisters refuse. Shortly after that she is found dead. It looks very much like a suicide, but Kolla isn’t sure. So with the ‘green light’ from Brock, she begins to ask questions. At one point, she and Brock have a serious falling-out. Brock knows that although Kolla’s not perfect, their dispute is mostly his fault. So he decides to make amends. He stops by her home with some ‘peace offerings’ and an apology, but at first she’s not having any of it. He certainly feels less than confident standing outside her door with gifts, trying to convince her to open the door and let him in. It’s a very human moment.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche, successful businessman Harold Chavell hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find his missing fiancé Tom Osborn. The two had planned to marry and then take a honeymoon trip to France, but Osborn disappeared, taking his copy of their itinerary with him. Quant takes the case and ends up going to France, following the itinerary himself, and trying to find out where Osborn is. Then he gets a note indicating that Osborn doesn’t want to be found. That’s when Chavell asks Quant to return to Saskatchewan. Not long afterwards, Osborn’s body is discovered in a lake near a home he and Chavell owned. Chavell of course becomes a suspect in the murder, and asks Quant to keep working for him to clear his name. At one point, Quant and a friend attend a party hosted by Quant’s friend and mentor Anthony Gatt and his partner Jared Lowe. Quant’s fond of both men, but there’s one problem with this party: his outfit. Gatt (who is in the upmarket men’s clothing business) has sent Quant a very trendy, very different sort of outfit, and Quant feels ridiculous wearing it. But, having little choice, he wears it anyway. And as it turns out, he gets some important information at that party.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to investigate the death of his daughter Maryanne. The official police report is that she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck is sure his daughter wasn’t suicidal. Keeney travels to Pattaya to look into the case. There, she goes under cover at New Life Children’s Centre, where Maryanne volunteered, to find out as much as she can. And it turns out that there’s more going on at the orphanage than it seems. In the meantime, Keeney is getting accustomed to having a new business partner, Rajiv Patel. He is also her love interest, and that too takes getting used to, as the saying goes. They have their difficult moments, but they do care about each other. Towards the end of the novel, Patel does something very surprising that must have made him feel a little ridiculous. Still, speaking strictly for myself, I think the scene is beautifully done.

So the next time you’re asked to speak in public, or are talked into wearing that outfit to a party, or are picked to wear a silly costume for a parade, remember: you’re not alone. Lots of the best fictional sleuths have been there…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this song is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Barry Maitland, Kate Atkinson, Lilian Jackson Braun

God Only Knows What I’d be Without You*

WF3It’s been…well…an interesting couple of days here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…. Since Tuesday, the area where I live has had record heat for the time of year (95°F/ 35°C) and high winds. With the ongoing lack of rain, it’s been the perfect recipe for wildfires, and we’ve had them. The ‘photos you see are of smoke and ash from one of the fires. Those ‘photos were taken from the balcony of my home, so although it’s not nearly as close as it looks, the fires have made their presence felt, to say the least. And even today, with the air calm and the temperature down, there’s still ash on people’s cars and particulates in the air. There’s still an acrid, oily smell of smoke in the air too.

But lest you worry for me, thanks for caring, but my WF2family and I are fine. We are safe and comfortable. Know why? A little bit of it is luck or whatever you want to call it. The winds didn’t blow the fires close enough to where I live for an evac order. But the big reason I am safe and comfortable is the tireless work of the brave and skilled members of the San Diego County Fire Department. Those people are heroes to me. They’ve been out on the line without food, sleep, showers and family time for three days now. And so have the dispatchers and others who keep everything connected and running smoothly. And all so that the rest of us would be safe. I know that’s their job, but if that’s not heroic, tell me please, what is?

WF1

I’ll bet most of us would agree that firefighters deserve our support, praise, thanks, whatever. They do work that most of couldn’t imagine doing. And there’s an argument that that generally positive (and well-deserved!!!) view of firefighters is a big part of the reason they’re usually depicted in positive ways in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples.

In Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House, we meet Rose Kearny, one of a group of London firefighters who are called to the scene of a warehouse fire. All fires are serious matters, but this one is also very tricky in other ways. For one thing, the warehouse’s owner is MP Michael Yarwood, an outspoken member of the Labour party. That makes his ownership of the warehouse a delicate business. What’s more, the body of an unidentified woman is found in the remains of the building. Scotland Yard’s Duncan Kincaid and his lover Gemma James begin the work of finding out who the woman was and who killed her. Meanwhile, there’s another fire. And another. Kearny sees a link between them and despite pressure not to do so, reports what she has found to Kincaid. As it turns out, she’s exactly right about that connection. Those fires have everything to do with the past.

Nevada Barr’s Firestorm takes a look at the lives of firefighters in US National Parks. National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been working in Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. A wildfire – the Jackville Fire – has broken out and Pigeon is serving as a medic at a spike camp, a temporary camp located as close as safely possible to the fire. A drop in temperature and calming winds mean the team may be able to leave the area. But then a freak thunderstorm whips up winds and sends a firestorm sweeping through. Everyone dives for cover in individual shelters, and when the storm has passed, the group tries to assess the damage. That’s when Pigeon discovers that firefighter Len Nims has been murdered. As Pigeon works to find out who killed him and why, we get a look at what firefighters really have to deal with on a regular basis.

For another look at the firefighter’s life, you’ll want to read Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350. Admittedly it’s not crime fiction. It’s the story of Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. On that day, a terrible firestorm swept through the Australian state of Victoria, and Kinglake-350 is the story of the people who fought that fire and of those who lived through it. It’s a powerful read.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, everyone in Moose County (‘400 miles north of nowhere’) is eager for the first major snowstorm of the year. It’s been a hot, dry summer and autumn, and the risk of wildfire is getting greater and greater. And the heat has been hard on everyone’s nerves. Then, a series of fires breaks out in the area. At first it’s put down to the weather conditions, which are tailor-made for fires. But then, the bookshop belonging to local dealer Eddington ‘Edd’ Smith is burned. What’s more, Smith himself is found dead. Now it’s clear that this is much more than a series of wildfires. Newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qiwilleran works with Police Chief Andrew Brodie to find out who’s been setting the fires and why, and who killed Edd Smith.

And then there’s Shelly Rueben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street. Artemus Ackerman, mayor of the small town of Calendar, wants to turn the Baldwin Theater into a museum of magic. To do that he’ll need the project to be bankrolled. So he’s hoping to put the most positive spin on his idea. But then there’s a fire on Sabbath Street, the same street where the building is located. Ackerman wants to know everything he can about the fire, because he doesn’t want it to lessen his chances of getting the museum of magic funded. So he sends his assistant and publicist Maggie Wakeling to get the facts. For that, she turns to Fire Marshal George Copeland. Then there’s another fire. And another. Now she and Copeland face the frightening reality that there’s an arsonist in their town. And Ackerman has to face the fact that the museum of magic may very well not materialise. As Wakeling and Copeland work to find out who’s behind the sabotage, readers get to see what the threat of fire does to an area and to people’s sense of stability.

There are lots of other novels too that focus on firefighters. By and large they present firefighters in a positive way, and that’s exactly as it should be. The ones who live in my area are heroic. My thanks to each of them.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Deborah Crombie, Lilian Jackson Braun, Nevada Barr, Shelly Reuben