Category Archives: Louise Penny

But I Simply Cannot Do it Alone*

Working With OthersThere are many skills that are important to doing well in any career. It’s important to know how to do the job, of course, but it goes beyond that. People also need a constellation of social and personal skills and dispositions (like truthfulness, consistency and conscientiousness). One of the most important of these is the ability to work with others. In fact, not working well with others is often cited among the top reasons employees are terminated, not promoted, or not hired in the first place.

It’s easy to understand why being able to work with others is so important. Nobody has all of the answers or all of the information needed to solve a problem. We depend on each other. And in real life, when it comes to solving crimes, it’s even more important. Police officers’ lives may quite literally depend on being able to work with their partners and with others on the force.

Not everyone is good at working with others, though. Although it’s certainly a skill that can be learned or improved, it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. And it’s interesting to see what happens in crime fiction when someone isn’t good at working with others.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of a retired business magnate. Since Ackroyd was murdered in his home, the various members of the household come under their share of suspicion. One of those members is the parlourmaid, Ursula Bourne. She does her job well, but she’s not friends with others, and doesn’t join in. In fact, one character calls it ‘unnatural’ that she doesn’t seem to have any desire to be a part of the group. And another character considers her ‘odd;’ she’s respectful on the surface, but doesn’t have the same response to authority as the other staff members do. That doesn’t, of course, mean that she’s the killer in this case. But it does show that not working well with others raises proverbial ‘red flags.’

Any fan of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels can tell you that Rebus has his challenges when it comes to working with others, especially authority figures. He certainly doesn’t ‘go along to get along,’ particularly if he thinks that what’s being done is wrong. And that gets him in big trouble in Resurrection Men. Rebus and his team are working on the case of Edward Marber, a murdered Edinburgh art dealer. The investigation isn’t going particularly well, and everyone’s nerves are frayed. One morning, DCS Gill Templer holds a meeting about the case, which Rebus attends. He’s fed up with the idea of yet another round of interviews, telephone calls and the like, which he sees as a useless waste of time. He mutters something under his breath, but Templer hears it. Their confrontation escalates until Rebus throws a mug of cold tea. That’s enough to get him assigned to Tulliallan Police College for last-chance training with other police officers who also have trouble working with others. They’re given a cold case to investigate, the idea being that they’ll learn to work as a team. But that doesn’t stop Rebus’ interest in the Marber case.

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, the first of her Armand Gamache novels, the Sûreté du Québec investigates the murder of former schoolteacher Jane Neal. The newest member of the investigation team is Yvette Nichol, and she is determined to prove herself. The problem is, though, that she’s not good at working with others. Right from the start, she is unwilling to listen and learn. She does things her own way, regardless of what others think. On the one hand, she is intelligent, and her ideas are not all wrong. On the other, she is immature as a detective, and has an awful lot to learn. Her ‘rookie mistakes’ cost the team more than once. At one point, Gamache’s second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, talks to his boss about how much trouble Nichol is causing. In response, Gamache tries to talk to her, to help her see how important it is to work with the team, to listen and learn from more experienced detectives, and to do as she’s asked without arrogance. It doesn’t work. In fact, Nichol blames Gamache for her failures, and the team for her difficulties working with them. It all ends up with her being removed from the investigation, and that has its own consequences. And in this novel, we also see that not working well with others is sometimes as hard on the person who can’t work as a team member as it is on the rest of the team.

Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House introduces DS (later DI) Wesley Peterson. He and his wife Pam have recently moved from London to Tradmouth, so he can take up his duties with the local CID. He and his team, led by DI Gerry Heffernan, are soon faced with the puzzling case of a young woman whose body is discovered at Little Tradmouth Head. Even more disturbing is the disappearance of young Jonathon Berrisford from the yard of the cottage where he and his mother Elaine are staying. As the team begins its work, Peterson learns a bit about why there was an open position in the Tradmouth CID. His predecessor was DS Harry Marchbank, who’d also come from London. It seems Marchbank was difficult to work with, and frankly, a racist. Here’s what one colleague says:
 
‘‘There was always an atmosphere. If Harry hadn’t got out when he did, I reckon Heffernan would’ve got him transferred.’’
 

Peterson is certainly not perfect. But he does work well with the team, and soon learns to fit in.

And then there’s Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck, whom we meet first in Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). Mørck isn’t exactly easy to work with under the best of circumstances, and these are hardly good circumstances. He’s recovering physically and mentally from a line-of-duty shooting situation in which one colleague was murdered and another left with paralysis. When he returns to the job, Mørck is so impossible to work with that complaints are made to his boss, Marcus Jacobsen. At first, Jacobsen wants to give Mørck a little more time. But there’s a lot of pressure on him to do something. Then, he comes up with what he thinks will be the perfect solution. The Danish government and the media have been pressuring the police to solve certain crimes that have ‘gone cold.’ So Jacobsen puts Mørck in charge of a new department – ‘Department Q’ – that will focus solely on such crimes. The new department is only there to serve political purposes, so in actual terms, it doesn’t exist. But Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad (who’s actually been hired as a custodian) get to work. Mørck is inclined not to do much, but Assad notices an interesting case – the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. Together, Mørck and Assad start to ask questions about the case, and slowly discover that she may not have died as everyone thought. And if she’s still alive, she may be in grave danger.

In that case, not working well with others leads to a whole new opportunity. But that’s not the way it usually happens. In general, working well with others is an essential professional skill. And there are definitely consequences for people who can’t do that.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s I Can’t Do it Alone.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Kate Ellis, Louise Penny

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

I Can Stand on My Own Without You*

SelfPerceptionSelf-perception plays a critical role in the way we live our lives. It impacts the way we dress, behave, speak, and interact. Often (not always) our view of ourselves is also affected by the way others treat us. And it’s fascinating to think about how much can change when our self-perception does.

In crime fiction, of course, that evolution of self-perception can have positive or negative (sometimes even tragic) consequences. And it’s interesting to see how it all plays out in terms of character development. Changes in self-perception can even form part of a plot line.

In Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, we meet Jerry and Joanna Burton, siblings who move to the village of Lymstock so that Jerry can recover from injuries he sustained in a plane crash. Soon after their arrival, they receive an ugly anonymous letter that suggests that they’re not brother and sister, but lovers. They quickly learn that they’re not the only targets, either. Someone’s sending vicious letters to several of the village’s residents. Then, there’s a suicide. And another death. The police look into the matter, but the local vicar’s wife thinks that Miss Marple will find out the truth more quickly. She knows the area and the people, and as she herself puts it, she knows human nature. In the end, Miss Marple discovers who’s behind what happens in Lymstock. One of Lymstock’s residents is the local solicitor’s stepdaughter, twenty-year-old Megan Hunter. She’s intelligent and interesting, but she is also awkward and unsophisticated. Certainly her self-perception isn’t very positive. Jerry, though, finds himself falling in love with her. In one scene of the novel, he goes to London and decides to take Megan along. While they’re in London, he arranges for her to have a makeover. Just those steps encourage Megan to begin to re-think the way she sees herself, and that ends up making a major difference in her. I know, I know, fans of The ABC Murders.

Stan Jones’ Nathan Active is an Alaska State Trooper. He is also Inupiaq. When we first meet him in White Sky, Black Ice, he has recently been assigned to the small town of Chukchi. Although Active knows that he is Inupiaq, he was raised in Anchorage by white adoptive parents. So he has little connection to his people, and no real self-perception as one of them. One of the story arcs in this series concerns the evolution of his view of himself as an Inupiaq, and his learning of what that means in terms of language and culture.

Many of Louise Penny’s novels take place in Three Pines, a small town in rural Québec. Several of the regular characters in this series are residents of that town. Two of those residents are artist Clara Morrow and her husband, Peter. As the series begins, Peter is acknowledged as the one with the real talent. Clara sees herself as being less talented and certainly less accomplished than her husband. But as the series moves on, Clara finds her artistic voice. She begins to get some notice, and her art begins to evolve. Now, she has to re-think her self-perception and see herself as the truly talented artist that she is. In some ways, it’s really empowering for Clara to see herself in that new way. But it also has serious unintended consequences.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. When the series begins, she does the baking by herself, and has the assistance of Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge in the shop itself. But then she meets Jason Wallace, a fifteen-year-old who’s just recently stopped using heroin. One day, he shows up at her bakery door asking for any work she might have. At first, he mops floors and does other cleaning tasks. He’s a tough street kid who doesn’t really see himself as having a place anywhere else. But before long, both he and Corinna notice something: he’s a natural baker. He’s got an innate sense of what goes into a good loaf of bread, a cake, and, especially, a muffin. In fact, he’s so good that before long, he’s put in charge of creating new varieties of muffins for the bakery. One of Corinna’s nicknames for him is the Muffin Man. As he begins to perceive himself in a new way, Jason starts to change. He becomes reliable, often getting to work in the bakery before his boss does. He takes pride in his work, and begins to see a future for himself.

Of course, the way we see ourselves can sometimes get us into trouble. Just ask Lewis Winter, whom we meet in Malcom Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s a small-time Glasgow drug dealer who’s never really ‘played with the big boys,’ as the saying goes. But he’s ambitious in his way, and sees himself as a soon-to-be major player in the underworld. On the one hand, that self-perception is empowering, and he begins have some influence. On the other, he also attracts the notice of Peter Jamieson and John Young, who are getting annoyed by Winters’ attempts to rival them. So they hire professional killer Callum MacLean to take care of the problem. MacLean is very good at what he does; and in the end, Winter’s self-perception as a dominant underworld figure turns out to have disastrous consequences.

Sometimes, even a title can make a difference in one’s self-perception. In Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District, for instance, brothel owner Candace Curtis hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. One of Curtis’ employees, Mary Carmen Santamaria, has gone missing, and Curtis is worried about. One of the things Jackson needs to do, of course, is get a sense of the business. Here’s a short bit of a conversation she has with her new client about it:
 

‘‘You have a database of hookers?’… [Jackson]
‘Please, don’t call them hookers. Most of the girls use the term intimacy consultant, though some call themselves relaxation therapists. I know they’re euphemisms, but they’re important to the girls’ self esteem.’
‘Consultants. Right. Got it.’’

 

Curtis knows that self-perception is an important aspect of success, and she wants her employees to have a sense of empowerment.

And that’s the thing about the way we see ourselves. It really does impact a lot about what we do. Everything from dress, to language, to interaction style is affected by the way we view ourselves. And when that view changes, so does everything else.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Fredrick Loewe’s Without You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jill Edmondson, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Malcom Mackay, Stan Jones

The Atmosphere is Electric*

AtmospheresAn interesting guest post on crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta’s site has got me thinking about atmosphere. In part, the post’s focus is on character development, and that’s important of course. But the post also mentioned the larger context – the atmosphere.

Writers, of course, can use context for a number of purposes, far too numerous to discuss here. So I’m going to just mention a couple of ways in which crime writers use atmosphere.

Sometimes, crime writers use atmosphere to serve as a stark contrast to the murder(s) that are the main plot threads of their story. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure: the peaceful, lovely small town that hides secrets.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories are like that. For instance, Hallowe’en Party takes place in the village of Woodleigh Common, a small, outwardly peaceful place. One afternoon, several residents are visiting Apple Trees, the home of town social leader Rowena Drake. They’re helping her to get ready for a Hallowe’en party planned for later that evening. Also among the group is detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During the preparations, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder once. Everyone immediately hushes her up, and the assumption is made that she said what she said to call attention to herself, especially as Mrs. Oliver was there. But later, at the party, Joyce is murdered. Now everyone has to face the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and help find out what happened, and he agrees. When the two of them visit Apple Trees to talk to Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Oliver says,
 

‘‘It doesn’t look the sort of house there’d be a murder in, does it?’’
 

And it doesn’t. It’s a neatly-kept, pleasant house in a small, peaceful community. Nothing creepy about it. And that contrasts with what happens at the house, and with what is later revealed about some events in the town.

Ira Levin uses a similar strategy in The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to find low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes smoothly. The town is beautiful, the residents are pleasant, and everyone settles in. But then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her seriously. But then, some things happen that show just how right Bobbie was. Levin fans will know that he takes quite a different approach in Rosemary’s Baby, where the apartment building that features so heavily in the novel is depicted as rather eerie right from the start.

Nelson Brunanski’s novels featuring John ‘Bart’ Bartowski often feature the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. It’s a quiet town where everyone knows everyone, and where life is mostly peaceful. That lovely small-town backdrop contrasts with the main murder plots of the stories. For example, in Crooked Lake, the first of the series, the body of Harvey Kristoff is found on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is former head greenskeeper Nick Taylor, whom Kristoff recently had fired. But Taylor claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart to help clear his name. In Frost Bite, Bart gets involved in the murder of Lionel Morrison, a CEO with quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge owned by Bart and his wife Rosie. Later, Bart discovers Morrison’s body under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. Crooked Lake’s peaceful, ‘down home’ sort of atmosphere serves as a really interesting contrast to the murders that happen there.

Of course, some crime writers use a story’s overall atmosphere to add to the suspense. That, too, can be quite effective. For example, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. When her mother dies, Mary obeys her mother’s last request and goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who own Jamaica Inn. The inn is in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. Before Mary even arrives, she’s warned about Jamaica Inn, but she chooses to continue the journey. And when she arrives, she finds that it’s every bit as dreary and unpleasant as she’d heard. The place is isolated, run-down and creepy. Her uncle is unpleasant and abusive, and her aunt so downtrodden that she does nothing about it. This atmosphere serves as the backdrop for a case of murder, and for some very dark secrets that Mary discovers.

Several novels in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make mention of the old Hadley house. Fans of this series will know that it has a dark history, and that adds to its eerie atmosphere. Even Gamache, who is not a fanciful person, doesn’t like going there. In The Cruelest Month, a murder takes place there. A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance during her stay. The first attempt doesn’t go well, but another is scheduled during the Easter break, and is to be held at the Hadley place. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s said that she was frightened to death. But soon, it’s discovered that she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. In this case, the house’s creepy history and atmosphere add to the suspense and tension.

And then there’s Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, which features DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. In that novel, two sets of remains are discovered in the Peak District on Pity Wood Farm, which used to be owned by the Sutton family. It now belongs to a Manchester attorney named Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the property after the remains were already there. So the detectives focus on the Suttons and on the people who lived in the area when they owned the farm. The nearest village is Rakedale, and Fry and Cooper are hoping to get some background from the residents. But Rakedale is a close-mouthed, creepy place. Few people are interested in speaking to the police, and even fewer in discussing the Suttons. It makes for a tense sort of atmosphere.

Whether the author chooses to use atmosphere to contrast with a murder (or murders), or add to the tension, it’s hard to deny the importance of atmosphere in adding to a story. Which atmospheres have stayed with you?

Thanks for the inspiration to Sue and her guest, David Villalva! Now, please go visit Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for crime writers, and a fascinating place to learn all kinds of interesting things.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s So Many Paths.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ira Levin, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Stephen Booth

And He’s Stealing the Scene*

Scene StealersMost crime fiction novels have a protagonist or protagonists who are the ‘stars’ of the story or series. The other characters are, hopefully, well-developed, but they don’t have top billing, as the saying goes. And yet, there are some secondary characters who can steal scenes very effectively. They have a way of calling attention to themselves, whether it’s because of a strong personality, an interesting background, or a way of serving as a foil to the protagonist. They can certainly add to a story, and if they’re well drawn, they can do so without taking away from the protagonist’s role.

For example, the protagonist in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit is Anne Bedingfield. After her professor father dies, Anne is left alone in the world without a lot of money. But she does have a sense of adventure. One day, she witnesses a terrible accident in which a man falls (or is pushed) from a train platform to the tracks below. She happens to notice a piece of paper that fell out of his pocket, and later, gets her hands on it. The message on the paper seems cryptic until she works out that it’s a reference to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage on the ship, and ends up getting mixed up in a case of international intrigue, stolen jewels and murder. One of the other passengers on the ship is Suzanne Blair, a wealthy woman a little older than Anne is herself. Suzanne is independent and knows exactly what she wants. She gets it, too. She becomes Anne’s friend, but is really quite a strong character in her own right. And she is most helpful in getting Anne out of trouble.

In Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate when a body is discovered at Holm Coultram College. Renovations are being made at the school, and part of the work involves digging up a statue and moving it to another place on campus. That’s when the body of the college’s former president, Alison Girling, is found. It was assumed she’d died as a result of an avalanche during a skiing trip, so everyone is shocked to find her body so close to home. And it turns out that several people at the school might have had a good reason to want the victim dead. One of the characters we meet in this novel is Franny Roote, who leads a revolutionary student activist group called the Student Union. He’s not what you’d call a nice person. And his fellow activists do their best to disrupt the normal goings-on of life at the campus. And yet, he does have a certain magnetism, and he’s a very interesting (i.e. not one-dimensional) character. As fans of this series know, he makes return appearances, too, in later books (Dialogues of the Dead and Death’s Jest-Book come to my mind). He may be a major thorn in, especially, Peter Pascoe’s side. But Franny Roote can steal a scene.

The setting for most of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the small, rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of the people who lives in that town is poet Ruth Zardo. She is brilliant and observant, but her wit is caustic and she doesn’t really let people close to her. There are a few characters with whom she has what you might call a friendship. At least, she has a sort of back-and-forth/give-and-take repartee with them. But she keeps a very close guard on herself, keeping others away with her prickliness. And yet, she knows a lot about what goes on in town, and she herself is more complex than it seems. She really shares her soul in her poetry more than in any other way. In A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), Ruth wins the Governor-General’s Award for her work, and her name begins to get around more than it has. So she launches her newest book of poems at a Montréal bookshop, and several of Three Pines’ residents go to the event. On the one hand, the book launch doesn’t draw crowds. On the other, we see that despite her manner, Ruth is important to the people of Three Pines.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins series mostly features Rawlins, a PI living in post-World War II Los Angeles. He’s originally from Louisiana, and still knows people from that time in his life. One of those people is his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. Mouse is a complex and interesting character. On one level, he’s dangerous. He has a hair-trigger temper and few boundaries. On the other, he is brave and loyal to Easy. In Little Green, for instance, we learn that he rescued Easy from certain death after a car accident. Mouse tells a compelling story, too. In one scene (also from Little Green) we learn how he survived being shot in the back. In that scene, Easy is recovering from his near-death experience as Mouse tells his story, and even in that short space, we can see how Mouse is able to steal that scene. And in the novel, it’s Mouse who asks Easy to help locate a missing young man named Evander, who seems to have disappeared after getting mixed up with some hippies (the story takes place in the late 1960s). Mouse may be violent at times, but he is also fascinating.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, we are introduced to Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In that novel, he and his team are looking into the sudden death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this investigation is Luparello’s political rival, Angelo Cardemone. In fact, there’s evidence that his son Giacomino was near the scene on the night Luparello died. That’s how Montalbano meets Giacomino’s wife, Ingrid Sjostrom. Originally from Sweden, she’s a race car driver who lives life exactly as she wants. She’s very much her own person, and that adds ‘spicy’ to her character. She and Montalbano become friends, and she can be very helpful. She can steal scenes, too. For instance, in this novel, she and Montalbano test one of his theories about Luperallo’s death. The test involves having Ingrid drive her car down a certain difficult path. She’s quite in control of that scene.

And then there’s Count Kolya, whom we first meet in William Ryan’s historical (late 1930s) novel The Holy Thief. Kolya is Chief Authority of the Moscow Thieves, and as such, lives life on the wrong side of the law. But he has his own code, and he is a complex character. As the series goes on, we learn bits about Kolya, and we see that there are depths to him. What’s interesting about this is that the series actually features Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. He, too is an interesting character, and the well-drawn protagonist of the series. But when Kolya is ‘on screen,’ he is compelling. And he has a habit of popping up unexpectedly. Korolev finds him an unlikely but sometimes very helpful ally.

It all just goes to show that a character doesn’t have to be the protagonist to steal a scene (or more). Which scene-stealing characters have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ellis Paul’s River.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan