Category Archives: Louise Penny

Is That You, Baby, or Just a Brilliant Disguise?*

At first glance, this ‘photo might look like a bunch of mulch and earth, and some bushes. Look again, though, and you’ll see something else. Did you see the lizard? Like a lot of animals, lizards hide from both predators and prey by blending in with their environment, so that you don’t notice them.

If you read enough crime fiction, you see that a lot of characters do that, too. Being able to blend in is a very useful skill. There are far too many examples for just this one post, but even these few should show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, we are introduced to the members of the Abernethie family. When patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies, the members of his family gather for his funeral and the reading of his will. At the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and she herself retracts what she said. But privately, everyone starts to wonder whether she was right. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that Abernethie was killed. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot, and asks him to investigate, and Poirot agrees. He finds that every one of the family members benefited from Abernethie’s will, so there are several possibilities, if the man was really murdered. And being able to blend in plays an important role in this novel. I know, I know, fans of Cat Among the Pigeons.

Being able to blend in and camouflage oneself is a critical skill in espionage stories. The one thing that moles don’t want to do is call attention to themselves, after all. For instance, in Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, we are introduced to Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom. He’s a former MI6 field agent who’s now got a desk job at the agency’s London Central office. In one plot thread of this novel, the agency becomes aware that there’s a mole in a very high place. So Sansom starts investigating to find out who that person is. He’s good enough at his job, and experienced enough, to know that anyone could be the culprit. So, he has to consider colleagues, bosses, and other people he doesn’t want to believe are guilty. The outcome of this investigation plays a very important part in what happens in the other two books in this particular trilogy.

In Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom, British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann gets a new assignment. He’s to travel to Thailand and retrieve a lead-covered black box that ended up in the Andaman Sea when the ship it was on was sunk. Swann’s not told what’s in the box, nor why the British government wants it. All he’s told is that he needs to bring it back to the UK. For Swann, this assignment has an added danger. He’s made some powerful enemies as a result of a previous trip, and he’s going to have to work with those enemies if he’s going to get the resources he needs to do his job. But as it turns out, even Swann’s friends aren’t as trustworthy as he thinks they are. He’s got quite a dangerous enemy he’s not even aware of when he takes on this assignment.

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that these novels include several story arcs. One of them concerns police politics, corruption, and some enemies that Gamach has made in the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is savvy enough to know that these are people with enough power to influence others, including those he works with on a regular basis. And it turns out that he’s right to be wary. Some of the police characters we meet in the series turn out to be rather well-camouflaged.

William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in Moscow, just before World War II. As a member of the Moscow CID, Korolev’s job is to catch criminals, preferably immediately. The Party, with Stalin firmly in charge, wants to prove that the Soviet Union is crime-free, so there’s a lot of pressure to succeed in all investigations – and severe consequences for not doing so. Korolev wants to solve crimes, too, but he has to move very carefully. When the trail leads to high places, especially to members of the Party, Korolev knows that he could be in bigger danger if he catches a murderer than if he doesn’t. What’s more, people are encouraged to denounce one another. Anyone, including a colleague, a friend, or the person next door, could be a well-disguised enemy. That mistrust adds a layer of tension to this series. You’re right, fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series. There’s a sort of similar atmosphere there, too.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?, in which we are introduced to Yvonne Mulhern. She, her husband, Gerry, and their newborn daughter, Róisín, have recently moved from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of an important career opportunity. Yvonne is overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for a young infant. And Gerry isn’t much help, as he spends a lot of time at work. What’s more, Yvonne’s never lived in Dublin, so she doesn’t have a network of friends or family there. Then, she learns of Netmammy, an online support group for new mothers. She joins, and soon finds the friendship, support, and commiseration she so badly needs. When one of the members of the group seems to go ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne gets very concerned. But there’s really not much she can do about it. She contacts the police, but they can’t really do much, either, at this point. Then, the body of an unidentified woman is discovered in an abandoned apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle, also an expectant mother, is assigned to the case. The dead woman’s profile seems to be similar to that of Yvonne’s missing online friend. If it is the same person, then what might that mean for the members of Netmammy? After all, anyone can be anyone online… The case does turn out to be connected to the online forum, but not in the way you might think.

It takes skill to create a character who blends in in this way. It’s got to be done credibly, or the story loses authenticity. But when they’re done well, such characters can be interesting, and can certainly add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Brilliant Disguise.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Len Deighton, Louise Penny, Sinéad Crowley, William Ryan

How the Mighty Have Fallen*

Being powerful certainly has its advantages. Things get done on your say-so, and you have access to things that you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of people would like to be powerful.

But that’s just the problem. People in power can be very vulnerable, because others want that power. And there’s no guarantee that someone with power will stay in that powerful position. Just ask Thomas Cromwell, who was arrested on this date in 1540. As you’ll know, he was one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted advisors. And he had a great deal of influence. But that didn’t stop the king having him arrested and, a bit more than a month later, executed.

Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the upcoming The Mirror and the Light, tell the story of Cromwell’s rise, fall, and execution. They may not be, strictly speaking, considered crime fiction. But there are plenty of crimes mentioned in them. And they show how illusory power can be. And there are plenty of other historical figures whose stories show that, too. I’m sure you can think of many more than I could. We certainly see it in historical crime fiction, right, fans of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels?

We see how vulnerable the powerful can be in lots of crime fiction, actually. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia. He’s soon to marry a wealthy Scandinavian princess, and that union is expected to advance both of their fortunes. But there’s one big problem: an actress named Irene Adler. She and the king are former lovers, and she has a compromising photograph of them. The king wants Holmes to get that photograph, because he knows that if his fiancée finds out about it, the marriage won’t happen. Holmes agrees, and soon learns that he is up against a most worthy adversary. In fact, as fans of the Holmes stories know, she bests Holmes.  In this case, power has advantages for the king, but it also leaves him at a disadvantage.

In Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes places in the late 1990s, we are introduced to the wealthy, powerful families who live in an enclave called The Cascade Heights Country Club. Known as ‘The Heights,’ it’s a gated, ultra-exclusive community located about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest and most powerful people can afford to live there, and even they are ‘vetted’ carefully. The people who live in The Heights are protected from the daily struggles that a lot of people in Argentina face, and they are in completely unassailable social positions. Everything changes, though, when Argentina’s economic problems find their way into the community. The very power that has protected its residents also means that they have to live up their reputations. Many aren’t prepared to leave the community, find more affordable places to live, and so on. And for some, their social status has become so important that they can’t imagine life without it. And that leads to real tragedy.

Olavo Bettencourt learns how vulnerable power can make a person in Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. He’s an advertising executive whose services are much in demand. And, with Brazil’s political process getting more open, Bettencourt has found that political candidates are advertising more and more. And this means he’s steadily acquiring more and more power. But he’s trapped, although he’s not really aware of it, because he’s engaged in several corrupt business deals. He’s certainly being manipulated more than he thinks. That becomes all too painfully clear when a gang decides to kidnap his son, Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, given Bettancourt’s money and power. But the gang abducts the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, they take the son of the Bettancourts’ housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they kidnapped, and what to do about their original plans. And Bettancourt has to decide how much to tell the media and the police. After all, if he shares too much information, he could be vulnerable to prosecution. Not enough, and the result could be tragic.

Fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series can tell you that these novels often focus on those in power – the High Cadre. On the one hand, they are very important people. They make the decisions, they have all of the ‘perks’ that power brings, and so on. On the other hand, because they’re in such enviable positions, there are plenty of other people who would like nothing better than to take that power for themselves. So, even though they tend to protect each other, they are also very vulnerable to one another. And, they’re vulnerable to the ‘court of public opinion.’ Their public reputation can be, and is, used against them.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache isn’t what you’d call wealthy. And he’s not at the proverbial top of the tree when it comes to his position within the Sûreté du Québec. But he’s legendary in terms of his ability to solve cases. And he’s well-known as a person who supports his teammates, and coaches his juniors in helpful ways. So, in that sense, he has a certain amount of ‘clout’ within the Sûreté. And that’s part of what makes him vulnerable. In one story arc, we learn that several people would like to see him fail, and will stop at very little to succeed in that.

And that’s the thing about power. It’s most definitely got its advantages. But it also puts a person in a very vulnerable position. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Hoodoo Gurus.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, C.J. Sansom, Claudia Piñeiro, Edney Silvestre, Hilary Mantel, Louise Penny, Qiu Xiaolong

Hey, Better Send Some People Down*

Even the best-equipped police forces don’t always have the staff or the resources they need, especially when there’s a particularly difficult investigation going on. And many police forces serve areas where there’s little major crime. So, they don’t invest a great deal in special equipment, extra people, and so on. That’s not usually considered a wise use of taxpayer money.

What this means is that sometimes, police departments have to ‘borrow’ people from other police departments. Being seconded can give a detective solid experience, and it’s a way to get the job done with limited resources. Sometimes it goes smoothly; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, a secondment can add an interesting layer to a crime novel, and an equally-interesting look at the way police departments work.

For example, in Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), lifestyle guru Cecilia ‘CC’ de Poitiers decides to move to the small Québec town of Three Pines. She settles in with her husband and fifteen-year-old daughter, and it’s not long before she succeeds in alienating just about everyone. She’s mentally sadistic, malicious, and thoroughly self-involved, so it’s not surprising that she isn’t exactly the most popular person in town. Then, during a Boxing Day curling match, CC is murdered. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team investigate the murder. For duty officer Robert Lemieux, this case gives him the opportunity to work with the legendary Gamache, as he’s the one who reported the crime. Gamache welcomes Lemieux to the team, and does his best to take the fledgling detective under his proverbial wing. It turns out to be a very sad case, but it gives Lemieux valuable experience. And fans of this series will know that he plays an important role in The Cruelest Month, too.

James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown takes place mostly in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The city’s been devastated by the disaster, and the police force is stretched to its limits. So, many of Louisiana’s other police forces are tapped for extra support, including the New Iberia Police. And that means that police detective Dave Robicheaux is sent to New Orleans to help. He discovers that an old friend, Father Jude LeBlanc, has gone missing. LeBlanc had set off in a boat to try to save some of his parishioners, but hasn’t been seen. What’s worse, the boat he used has turned up in the possession of some looters. Robicheaux is sure that there’s a connection between LeBlanc’s disappearance and the looters; to him, this isn’t a case of people happening on an empty boat. But, with much of the city reeling from the hurricane, and with few resources, it’s not going to be an easy connection to make.

Inger Ash Wolfe’s (AKA Michael Redhill) DI Hazel Micallef lives and works in Port Dundas, Ontario. It’s not a very big place, and there’s generally not a lot of crime there. So, she doesn’t have a very big police department. That proves to be a major problem in The Calling, when a series of murders takes place in the area. A small team like Micallef’s isn’t enough to handle the multiple investigations, so she requests extra staff. At first, her boss, Commander Ian Mason, doesn’t see the need for any secondments; he’s not even sure there’s a serial killer involved. But Micallef knows that she and her small team aren’t going to be able to solve these crimes without help. She finally convinces Mason to approve some staff, and that’s at least a start. One of the interesting sub-plots in this novel is the politics behind secondments, and the way that ‘borrowed’ officers and the ‘regular’ team have to work together.

Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods sees Accra DI Darko Dawson seconded to the small town of Ketanu when the body of Gladys Menah is discovered in a nearby wood. The victim was a volunteer with the Ministry of Health, so the Minister of Health takes a special interest in this case; hence the secondment. Dawson’s the logical choice, because he speaks Ewe, the local language, and because he’s a skilled detective. That doesn’t cut much ice with Inspector Fiti of the local police, though. He resents what he sees as Accra’s meddling, and he doesn’t care much for the insinuation that he and his men can’t handle the case. Dawson does his best, at least at first, to reassure Fiti that he has no desire to meddle or take the investigation out of their hands. It doesn’t work, though, and there’s a great deal of conflict and friction between the two. This leads to its own sub-plot, which adds a layer of interest to this novel.

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse, the first of his Lewis trilogy. Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is an Edinburgh police inspector who’s working on a murder case when another, very similar, murder takes place on the Isle of Lewis. It’s very possible that the same person committed both crimes, so Macleod is seconded to help with the Isle of Lewis investigation. It’s hoped that if it’s the same murderer, he and the Isle of Lewis police will be able to help each other. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up there, but it’s not a happy one. He had very good reasons for leaving, and hasn’t had any desire to return. Still, he does his job and goes. This investigation will force him to confront his own past, and deal with several unresolved issues.

Jill Paterson’s Once Upon a Lie introduces readers to DCI Alistair Fitzjohn, of Sydney’s Day Street Station. He’s been in the UK taking some leave time, but returns to Sydney when the body of businessman Michael Rossi is found at a marina on Rushcutter’s Bay. Normally, the Kings Cross Police Station would handle this case, but they’re short-staffed at the moment. So, Fitzjohn is seconded to Kings Cross to help out. Fitzjohn insists that his second-in-command, Martin Betts, go with him. Betts isn’t overly eager, but he agrees, and the two take up their temporary assignment. It turns out that there are several possibilities, both personal and professional, when it comes to motive and suspect, so this case isn’t going to be easy. It doesn’t help matters, either, that Fitzjohn learns that a ‘mole’ may have been placed at Kings Cross to report back to his superior. In the end, though, Fitzjohn, Betts, and the Kings Cross team find out who killed Rossi and why.

Secondments can be awkward for everyone. Sometimes they even end up in friction or outright conflict. But they can also add to a crime novel. These are only a few of many examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Everybody’s Out of Town.

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Filed under Inger Ash Wolfe, James Lee Burke, Jill Paterson, Kwei Quartey, Louise Penny, Michael Redhill, Peter May

Oh, Those Small Communities*

In a recent post, Bill Selnes, at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, describes a small town coming together and supporting a family who’s suffered real tragedy. He makes an interesting point about small communities where members support one another. And, if you’ve ever lived in that sort of small town, you know that people do come together when there’s a need.

We see that sort of support in crime fiction, too. And that plot point can shed light on a local culture and on people’s perceived characters. For example, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, the local community of Clanton, Mississippi comes together, at least at first, when ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and beaten, and left for dead. Her family’s church community immediately begins to provide meals and other support, and even local people who don’t attend that church do what they can to help. There’s a lot of sympathy for her and for the Hailey family. As you can imagine, Tonya’s father, Carl Lee, is devastated by what’s happened. In his fury, he takes a drastic step. He waits in ambush for Tonya’s attackers, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, and shoots, killing them and wounding a sheriff’s deputy. That changes everything. For one thing, the Hailey family is black and the two rapists were white. So, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is interested. And there’s the fact that, whatever his race or his motivation, Hailey killed two people in an episode of vigilantism. Still, he has plenty of supporters (fathers: how would you feel?) Soon the town is torn by the competing interests. Local lawyer Jake Brigance takes Hailey’s case, and it’s interesting to see how outside interests try to pursue their own agendas.

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that those novels take place in the small, rural Québec community of Three Pines. The members of the community all know each other, and they are supportive of each other. Something that happens to one impacts everyone. We see that in Still Life, when the community comes together to mourn the loss of beloved former teacher Jane Neal, when she is murdered. We see it in A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) when a group of the Three Pines residents go into Montréal to support resident poet Ruth Zardo when she has book released. There are plenty of other examples, too, throughout the series. Yes, there are misunderstandings, and sometimes worse. But in Three Pines, people know they can depend on each other, and that permeates the novels.

So can the small Périgord community of St. Denis, which we get to know in Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series. Bruno is the local police chief, and knows just about everyone in town. Through his eyes, too, we see how the community itself comes together. When there’s a funeral, everyone attends. When there’s trouble, everyone does something to try to help. Bruno himself makes the most of his membership in the community. Rather than see him as an adversary, most of the people in town understand that he’s just doing his job, and they respect him for it. He’s welcome just about everywhere. In return, he acts with a real understanding of the town; he considers the consequences for this family, that business, and so on, before he takes action whenever he can.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman lives and has her bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Of course, Melbourne is a large, cosmopolitan city. But in it, there are smaller communities within which people help and support each other, and can count on one another for help. That’s certainly true of Insula. As fans of this series know, the various apartments in Insula are occupied by a diverse group of people. They all know one another, and help one another when it’s needed. They get together for impromptu snacks-and-drinks parties, they support each other during emergencies, and they know they can count on each other. That network is one of the important threads that runs through this series.

There’s also the small Scottish community of Lochdubh, in which many of M.C.Beaton‘s Hamish Macbeth novels take place. Macbeth is the local bobby, and has gotten to know just about everyone in Lochdubh. There are certainly some eccentric people in the village, and there are disputes among them at times. But they support each other. Townspeople show up for funerals, help each other in times of need, and so on. Macbeth’s woven into that fabric, too, and it’s interesting to see how his relationships with the other people in town play roles in the novels.

We also see that in one plot line of Peter May’s Entry Island. When James Cowell is murdered on Entry Island, Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec is assigned to help investigate. He’s never been to the place before, but almost as soon as he arrives, he begins to have a sense of déjà vu, that only grows stronger as he continues. At the same time, he begins to have vivid dreams about stories his grandmother told – stories about his Scottish ancestor, also named Sime, who immigrated to Canada in the mid-19th Century. Through those dreams, and through that Sime’s diary, we see what life was like in the village where Sime grew up. Everyone sticks together. The men hunt together; everyone pitches in when someone is ill, gives birth, or needs a hand with the harvest; and people look after each other’s children. That sense of community helps to give character to the community.

And then there’s Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw novels. Shaw’s a professor at the small North Carolina institution, Kenan College. The town of Kenan is small, and people know one another. So, when there’s a funeral, a wedding, or other occasion, everyone does a share. It doesn’t mean that there are no conflicts or disagreements in town. But there’s a sense that everyone’s responsible for everyone else.

I couldn’t do a post on this sort of community without mentioning Peter Weir’s 1985 film, Witness. In it, a Philadelphia police detective, John Book, spends time within the Amish community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when an Amish boy witnesses a murder. Throughout the film, starting from the beginning, we see how the members of this local Amish community watch out for one another, stick together, and depend on one another. For my money, the scene that shows that most clearly is a scene where everyone gets together for a barn-raising. I recommend the film highly, by the way, if you’ve not seen it.

As you can see, Bill’s right. Small communities have ways of standing together and helping one another. Even in crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest that your next blog stop be Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan? Thoughtful, well-written reviews, discussions, and more await you there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp’s Small Town.

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Filed under John Grisham, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Martin Clark, Peter May, Sarah R. Shaber

It Was Just My Dog and Me*

Recently, Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write posted some lovely pictures of writers with their cats. I really enjoyed that post, because I think it shows a side of authors that we don’t always see. And, although I don’t live with cats, I do like them very much.

Of course, there are also plenty of authors who are owned by dogs. So, I thought it might be fun to have a look at some of those authors, too.

 

Here is Canadian novelist Louise Penny with her Golden Retriever. Her series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who’s also owned by a dog.

 

This is Sara Paretsky with her Golden Retriever. As fans can tell you, her V.I. Warshawski is owned by two dogs, Mitch and Peppy.

 

And here’s Stephen King with his Corgi canine overlord. No, let’s not mention Cujo here….

 

This is Martin Walker, author of the Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series. Here he’s consulting with his Basset Hound owner.

 

I don’t think I could look at crime-fictional authors and their canines without mentioning Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here he is with his terrier owner.

 

And anyone who knows me will know that I also couldn’t do a post on crime fiction without a mention of Agatha Christie. Here’s a young Ms. Christie with her Fox Terrier. It shouldn’t be surprising that dogs figure so often in her stories.

It’s not just fictional sleuths who are owned by dogs. Their creators often are, too. Thanks very much, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. I’m really glad you got me thinking about this. Folks, give yourselves a treat and have a look at Marina Sofia’s excellent blog. Fine reviews, excellent poetry, and more await you there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Hiatt’s My Dog and Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Sara Paretsky, Stephen King