Category Archives: Louise Penny

For a Séance in the Dark*

seancesA recent post from Moira at Clothes in Books (also on the Guardian Website Book Pages) had to do with fictional séances. It’s an interesting topic, actually. If you believe that we can communicate with the dead, then you may be interested in séances anyway. If you don’t believe we can contact those who’ve died, it’s still fascinating to consider the impact that that belief has had on people. Thousands are spent each year on mediums, séances and so on. And there are people who absolutely swear by them.

Whatever you think about séances, they’re certainly woven into crime fiction. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, will know that he was fascinated by spiritualism, and attended a séance. He wrote on the topic, and joined more than one spiritualist group. It’s ironic, considering that his most famous protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, depends on science and pure reason for his deductions.

Agatha Christie used séances in more than one of her stories. Perhaps the most chilling one is her short story, The Last Séance. It’s not really a crime story, but it does have a séance as the central focus. Raoul Daubreuil pays a visit to his fiancée, Simone, who is a very successful medium. But she’s exhausted by the work, and wants to end it. She’s made one last appointment, though, with Madame Exe, who is desperate to stay in contact with her dead daughter, Amelie. Simone wants to cancel the appointment, but Raoul insists that she keep her commitment. She finally allows herself to be persuaded, with tragic consequences. You’re absolutely right, fans of Dumb Witness and The Blue Geranium.

A séance is used in a very interesting way in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. Lord Peter Wimsey has fallen in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane, and is determined to marry her. But she’s standing trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey decides to clear her name, so that he can pursue a romance with her. He only has thirty days, so he’ll have to work quickly. He’s helped along the way by his friend, Miss Katherine Climpson, who runs what you might call a secretarial agency. At one point, she wants to get a certain piece of information, and comes up with the ingenious device of using a séance for that purpose. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but it’s a very clever use of that tool.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to self-styled medium Ava Garrett. She’s become popular and well-regarded, and has quite a following. One of her devotees is Benny Frayle, who’s dealing with a recent loss. Her good friend, financial planner Dennis Brinkley, died of what looks like a tragic accident with one of the ancient weapons he collects. But Benny isn’t sure that it was an accident. In fact, she’s tried to get the police interested, but DCI Tom Barnaby hasn’t found any fault with the original police investigation. So, he’s reluctant to commit any further resources to looking into the matter. One day, Benny attends a séance led by Ava Garrett. To her shock, Ava describes the murder scene, although she never saw it. And she makes it clear that Benny was right. So, Benny redoubles her efforts to get the police involved. Then, there’s another murder. Finally convinced, Barnaby and his team link the two murders.

Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month also features a séance. In that novel, a noted Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, pays a visit to the small Québec town of Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance there. The first attempt doesn’t go very well, but another is scheduled. This one is to take place at the old Hadley place during the Easter break. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s thought that she was, quite literally, frightened to death. But then it’s determined that she died of an overdose of a diet drug. Now, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec investigates. He and his team find that there’s more to this case than it seems on the surface.

In Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic, we meet Cassandra James, of the English Literature Department, St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. She takes the position of Interim Head of the Department when her boss, Margaret Joplin, is found dead. The main plot of the novel concerns Cassandra’s search for the truth about Margaret’s death. But throughout the novel, we also get to know the other people in the department. One of them is Cassandra’s colleague Merfyn. He’s fascinated by spiritualism and séances, and actually believes he’s been channeling Arthur Conan Doyle. Cassandra is not convinced, but Merfyn persuades her to attend a séance. She isn’t quite sure what to expect, but brings her partner, Stephen, along. It turns out that there’s a big surprise in store for her at that event.

Whether or not you believe that we can communicate with those who’ve died, there are many, many people who do. Grief and the desire to know what it’s like ‘on the other side’ can often lead people to spiritualism and séances. That appeal can be used very effectively in a crime novel, too, for misdirection, atmosphere, character development or even clue placement in whodunits. There are other ways séances can be used, too.

Thanks for making me think of all of this, Moira. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s excellent blog, Clothes in Books. It’s the source for fictional fashion and culture, and what it all says about us.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Cry Baby Cry.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Christine Poulson, Dorothy Sayers, Louise Penny

We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature*

natural-restorativeIf you’ve read novels featuring Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll know that she’s very fond of her garden. Admittedly, she likes the opportunity that gardening gives her to – erm – observe others. But she also likes being outdoors when the weather allows it.

She’s not alone. There’s actually credible research that suggests that we all benefit in many ways (cognitive, emotional, and more) from being in nature. In fact, research that a colleague and friend has done suggests that children learn better, have fewer mental and other health problems, and are more creative if they are out in nature. And that’s only a few of the benefits. That may be one reason so many of us were told to ‘run outdoors and play’ when we were young.

Certainly being outdoors, without electronics, can be a real restorative. So it’s not surprising that we see plenty of cases of sleuths who like their time in nature. For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is recovering from the traumatic experience of being charged with murder (read Strong Poison for the details of that). She decides to take a break from the world by going on a hiking holiday near Wilvercombe. And at first, she does find it both relaxing and restorative. It helps her get some perspective, as nature tends to do. One afternoon, she stops to take a rest near a beach. When she wakes up, the tide is out, and she sees the body of a dead man. She alerts the authorities, who begin the investigation. The man is soon identified as Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer who works at a nearby hotel. Before long, Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane, and together, they work to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. It turns out that there are several possibilities.

The central focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage has to do with Framhurst Great Wood, which lies near the town of Kingsmarkham. There’s a plan to run a road through the wood, and plenty of people are upset about it. And that includes Inspector Reg Wexford. He’s resigned to the development, but he’s not happy about it:
 

‘When I retire, he had told his wife, I want to live in London so that I can’t see the countryside destroyed.’
 

He’s not alone. Many people love the forest, and don’t want to see it ruined. Several activist groups arrive in the area to protest the new road, and Wexford knows there’s going to be trouble. Matters get far worse when the situation disintegrates to a hostage-taking incident. What’s more, one of the hostages is Wexford’s own wife, Dora. Then there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to solve the murder as well as try to find a way to free the hostages.

Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache enjoys spending time in nature, too. In fact, in A Rule Against Murder, he and his wife, Reine-Marie, travel to the Manoir Bellechasse for an annual getaway to celebrate their anniversary. It’s a time for them to get away from it all, and at first, it’s a wonderful trip:
 

‘One day rolled gently into the next as the Gamaches swam in Lac Massawippi and went for leisurely walks through the fragrant woods.’
 

They enjoy themselves thoroughly until they begin to get to know the dysfunctional Finney family, who are also staying at the lodge. Then, there’s a murder. Now Gamache finds that his peaceful, natural retreat is anything but.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux can tell you that, in the first novels in the series, he lives in a small, rural home on a bayou where he operates a fish dock. Later, he lives in a house that’s a little less rural, but not far away from the bayou. Robicheaux often finds peace when he simply spends time out on a lake, away from ‘it all.’ Although he’s not an eco-warrior, he understands the value of nature’s rhythms, and some of nature’s healing power. And Burke’s descriptions share that natural beauty with the reader.

Many indigenous cultures are infused with the understanding of how important a connection with nature really is. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, or of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte can tell you that those sleuths pay very close attention to nature, and are attuned to its rhythms. They connect on a regular basis with the natural world.

So does Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. In Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), we learn that she spent her childhood among her mother’s Aborigine people:
 

‘…my little mob and I would hunt in the hills, fish in the creeks, climb the skeletal trees, scour the countryside on horses borrowed from the stock camps.’
 

Emily ended up being sent away to boarding school in Adelaide, but she returns to the Moonlight Downs encampment and finds a place to belong. And she reconnects in this novel and in Gunshot Road with the natural world.

Even dedicated city dwellers know how restorative it can be to take a walk in a park, listen to birds, grow plants, or sit watching the sea. For instance, there isn’t a much more determined ‘city person’ than Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. But fans know that he gets his ‘nature fix,’ too. He spends a few hours each day with his orchids. If you find that being in nature calms you and helps you focus, well, the research supports you. Little wonder we see so many fictional sleuths who know that.

Speaking of nature…just for fun, can you spot the baby lizard in the ‘photo (You can click on the ‘photo to enlarge it if you like)?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Dorothy Sayers, James Lee Burke, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

Making Mischief Used to Make My Day*

mischief‘I didn’t mean any real harm.’ ‘We were only having a bit of fun.’ I’m sure you’ve heard things like this when people make mischief. And sometimes mischief is really just that: a relatively harmless prank that’s no more than annoying. You might even laugh about it (much) later. But sometimes mischief gets out of control. And when that happens, there can be real consequences.

Mischief can be an interesting plot thread in a mystery novel. It can show a little bit about characters, or even be used to misdirect in a whodunit sort of story. Once in a while it can provide some comic relief, too, depending on the sort of mischief it is. In whatever way the author uses mischief-making, it can add a layer to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder by poison of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, everyone thought the killer was Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline. She had plenty of motive, and there was enough evidence to convict her. She died in prison a year later, but Carla has always believed her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to take the case, and interviews the five people who were present at the time of the murder. He also gets each person’s written account of the murder, and of the days leading up to it. One of those people is Carla’s aunt (and Caroline’s half-sister), Angela Warren, who lived with the Crales. At the time of the murder, she was fifteen years old, and about to be sent away to boarding school. She had an ongoing conflict with Crale about that and other things, and wasn’t above playing tricks on him. Among those tricks was putting things into his drinks. In one case, she put valerian (which has a very unpleasant taste) into his beer. And that habit makes her a possible suspect…

Peter Robinson’s Gallows View introduces readers to DCI Alan Banks. In this novel, he and his family have recently moved to the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. And they’re not long there before Banks has to face several challenges. One of them is a voyeur who’s making life miserable for the local women. Another is a series of home invasions. Then there’s a murder. Mixed up in some of this is Trevor Sharp, a young teenager who doesn’t really fit in in school. When he gets involved with textbook-case juvenile delinquent Mick Webster, trouble soon begins. What starts out as just having some fun goes very, very wrong.

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is assigned to investigate the death of Jane Neal. She is a beloved former teacher who lives in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Early one Thanksgiving morning, she’s killed in what looks like a terrible hunting accident. But Gamache comes to wonder whether her death really was an accident, and begins to look into the case. As he does, he and his team get to know her background and her relationships with the other residents of Three Pines. That’s how they learn about one incident in particular. It seems that three local boys had recently played a cruel prank on bistro/B&B owners Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. Jane saw what happened and called out two of the boys by name. They might have only been making some mischief, but the incident puts them squarely in the spotlight when it comes to motives for murder.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle features Andreas Winthur and his best (really, only) friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They’re not really by nature cruel or malicious. What they are is bored young people looking for some fun. One day, they’re spending time together as they usually do. As the day goes on, what starts out as ‘just some fun’ turns out very differently. At the end of it, Andreas disappears. His mother, Runi, gets concerned when he doesn’t come home, and goes to the police about it. But Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t overly worried. When more time passes, though, he begins to think something might have happened to Andreas, and looks into the matter more closely. Soon enough, he meets Zipp and asks him about what happened on that fateful day. But Zipp says as little as possible. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Zipp hasn’t killed Andreas. But he certainly knows more than he tells Sejer, at least at first. And as the story goes on, we see how far a little mischief can end up going…

Of course, not all mischief turns out so horribly. Fans of Alan Bradley’s historical (1950s) series featuring Flavia de Luce can tell you that she isn’t above making mischief. Flavia is the youngest of three sisters. Suffice it to say that the three of them certainly have their conflicts. Flavia’s two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy,’ consider her a nuisance at best, and sometimes play some very mean tricks on her. But Flavia isn’t without her resources. She’s a very skilled chemist, and uses that to her advantage. For instance, in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, she schemes to tamper with a lipstick belonging to one of her sisters. She distils the irritant in poison ivy, and puts it on the lipstick, hoping to make her sister miserable. And that bit of mischief has its own consequences.

Most mischief does, though. Playing what seems like a harmless prank can end up in laughter. But it can also have serious consequences. But don’t take my word for it. Crime fiction’ll show you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Super Furry Animals’ Bad Behaviour.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Karin Fossum, Louise Penny, Peter Robinson

Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling*

fear-of-the-darkWe all have our fears, and sometimes even phobias. One of the more common fears people have is fear of the dark. For those people, the scene in the ‘photo you see isn’t peaceful or romantic. It’s frightening. If you think about it, fear of the dark is understandable. Things and places look different in the dark, even if they’re familiar. Shadows can take on different dimensions and look a lot more threatening. And if you consider our origins as a species, there are certainly predators that came (and still come) out at night. So a heightened feeling of danger at night probably made sense. And plenty of people still prefer daylight.

That instinctive reaction to the dark plays a role in crime fiction, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Among other things, weaving fear of the dark into a story allows the author to create a tense atmosphere, and tap readers’ instincts. What’s more, adding in a fear of the dark can make for an interesting layer of character development.

Agatha Christie made use of that instinctive fear of the dark in And Then There Were None. In that novel, a group of people is invited for a trip to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation. When they arrive, they’re surprised to learn that their host isn’t there. But they settle in as best they can. After dinner on that first night, each is accused of having been responsible for at least one other death. Just about everyone protests innocence; but later that evening, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The next morning, another is found dead. It’s soon clear that there’s a murderer on the island, and that the survivors are going to have to find out who it is if they’re to stay alive. At one point, a storm cuts off power, and everyone is affected. Even the more stalwart among the guests feel the need to keep the candles lit, and that feeling adds a real layer of tension to the story.

We see a similar situation in Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month. In that novel, a well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in the small Québec town of Three Pines. During her stay, she’s persuaded to hold a séance. The first attempt isn’t a success, so another is scheduled during the Easter break. It’s to be held at the old Hadley house, which fans of this series will remember. The atmosphere of the house is eerie enough (if you follow the series, you’ll know what I mean). And when everyone arrives, it’s only lit by candles:
 

‘The darkness seemed darker, and the flickering flames threw grotesque shadows against the rich wallpaper.’
 

The setting is creepy enough, but everything turns much worse when Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies of what turns out to be an overdose of a diet drug. The darkness, and our sense that it’s dangerous, is used effectively here.

Sometimes, fear of the dark can be a helpful clue to a person’s character. In one plot thread of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Hypothermia, for instance, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur gets interested in the death of a woman named Maria. The first theory of the crime is that she hung herself out of despondence at the death of her mother, Leonóra, with whom she was extremely close. But Erlendur learns something very interesting: Maria was afraid of the dark, so she didn’t go out at night. Why, then, would she have left the house during the night to hang herself? It doesn’t quite add up for Erlendur and he pursues the case more deeply.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace introduces readers to Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s been devastated by the death of her beloved husband, Stefan, and the trauma has had some powerful impacts on her. She is afraid of the dark, so she always keeps her home well-lit, even when she’s sleeping. Still, she functions well enough professionally, and has a stable list of clients. Then one day, she gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. What’s worse, someone manages to get her case notes, so all of her confidential sessions are now accessible to her stalker. It’s not long before she is sure that someone is watching her; now, the very lights that make her feel safe at night may actually be making her more vulnerable. Matters get far worse when the body of a client, Sara Matteus, is found in the water on Bergman’s property. And there’s a suicide note that links the death to Bergman. At first, she is a suspect. But soon enough, it’s clear she’s being framed. So, she has to work to find out who the killer is and why she’s being set up.

R.J. Harlick’s sleuth is Meg Harris, who inherited a property called Three Deer Point, in Outaouais, in Western Québec. Meg’s recently left an abusive relationship, so when the series starts (with Death’s Golden Whisper), she’s still dealing with that trauma. And her ex-husband, Gareth, is not as eager to let go of their relationship as Meg is. It all makes for a great deal of stress, which isn’t made any easier when Meg gets caught up in a land rights dispute and a case of multiple murder. One of the lasting effects of being with an abusive partner is that Meg is afraid of the dark. It doesn’t completely debilitate her, but it’s definitely there.

And that’s the thing about fear of the dark. It may not be completely debilitating, but for a lot of people, it’s real. And for some people, it’s incapacitating.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buck Ram, Morty Nevins, Al Nevins, and Artie Dunn’s Twilight Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Louise Penny, R.J. Harlick

Let’s Try Again*

trying-an-author-againI’m sure you’ve this sort of experience. You excitedly begin to read a novel by one of your very top-of-the-list authors, and you’re expecting to be drawn into the story. Unfortunately, just the opposite happens, and that book you’ve been eagerly looking forward to ends up in the DNF pile. Or, perhaps you finish the book, but only out of a sense of duty or loyalty to the author.

The fact is, no author is perfect all of the time, not even the best. And there’s the issue of personal taste. You may enjoy, say, a trilogy by an author, but be really disappointed in a standalone that the author has written. That’s especially the case if an author tries something new.

That disappointment can happen to anyone. The question becomes: what do you do when the author’s next book is released? Are you ready to forgive, or do you give up on that author’s work? Perhaps it depends on the situation.

Agatha Christie, for instance, wrote different kinds of books. Her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series are, with few exceptions, whodunits in the traditional style (with some whydunit in there, too). But she also wrote adventure/thrillers, too, such as The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad, and Passenger to Frankfurt. Plenty of people aren’t as impressed with her international-intrigue stories as they are with her whodunits. But she must have been forgiven, since And Then There Were None, which was by no means her first novel, is her best-selling effort. For those of you who’ve read Christie’s work, I’d be interested in whether you read more of it after being disappointed (if you were).

Many people were badly upset at the outcome of one of the plot threads of Elizabeth George’s With No One as Witness. In that novel, there’s a series of deaths of young boys. The police haven’t been able to make much headway on the case. Then there’s another death. This time there’s a difference: the other victims have been non-white, but this victim was white. Now the police are under a great deal of pressure to show that they’re not biased in their investigations. There’s a terrible tragedy in the novel that put a lot of readers off the series, at least for a time.

The same sort of thing happened with Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast. Oslo police detective Harry Hole and his partner Ellen Gjelten have learned that a new kind of rifle is being smuggled into Norway. It’s the sort of weapon that’s most likely being used by terrorists, so it’s imperative to find out who has the guns and why. So one plot thread of the novel involves the search for the people who have this new gun, and the attempts to link the trafficking with a neo-Nazi group. But there’s a tragic event that also occurs in the novel, and plenty of people weren’t happy with that at all. Some readers decided, because of that occurrence, not to read any more about Harry Hole.

And it’s not just tragic events, either. Sometimes people part company with an author if something too improbable happens in a novel. For example, in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast, a young boy discovers a very large disused gun hidden in the woods near the small Québec town of Three Pines. At first, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache isn’t ready to believe the boy, but the story turns out to be true. Then, in one plot line of the novel, the boy who discovered the gun is killed. An excellent point about this plot was raised by Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. How would the residents of a small town like Three Pines not know anything about a large gun having been built and hidden in a forest not very far from town? Even if not everyone knew the story behind the gun, there’d certainly be word of it passed around in one form or another. Does that sort of credibility stretch put you off reading the author again? Or are you willing to try that person’s next novel?

And then there are series such as Camilla Läckberg’s Erica Falck/Patrik Hedström novels, that many people argue change over time. The Ice Princess, which is the first novel in the series, has as its focus the murder of Alexandra “Alex” Wijkner, a former friend of Erica’s. The emphasis is on the investigation and on the history that led to the murder. As the series has evolved, there’s arguably been a shift in focus away from the actual crimes, and more towards the home life of Falck and Hedström. That sort of change can put off readers who prefer not to have a lot of emphasis on sleuths’ home lives and domestic situations.

There are many other things, too, that can get a reader quite upset about a book. If it’s an author whose work you love, you may come back again for another try. Or you may decide to give up. What do you usually do? Have your say and vote in the poll below. I’ll give it a few days, and we’ll talk about it in a week or so.
 

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Isham Jones and Charles Newman. There are several recordings of it, including the one I like by the Drifters.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Elizabeth George, Jo Nesbø, Louise Penny