Category Archives: Louise Penny

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, Louise Penny, Arnaldur Indriðason, Camilla Grebe, Åsa Träff, 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, Louise Penny, Elizabeth George, Jo Nesbø, Camilla Läckberg

Put Under the Pressure of Walking in Your Shoes*

Famous ParentsOne of the big challenges that young people face is finding their own paths in life, and becoming their own selves, separate from their parents. That sort of individuation is hard enough as it is; it’s even more difficult if those parents are well-known, or even famous. There are all sorts of expectations, and of course, there’s the insecurity about following in well-known footsteps.

It adds up to a lot of pressure, and that can add an interesting layer of tension and conflict to a crime novel. It can also make for a solid plot thread of family dynamic as well as character development. Little wonder that we see this dynamic in the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She feels the awkwardness that’s common to many teenagers, and it doesn’t help matters that she has a famous stepmother, Arlena Stuart Marshall. Arlena is a well-known and somewhat notorious actress, who’s beautiful, graceful, sophisticated – in short, everything Linda feels she’s lacking. And although she’s not cruel to Linda, Arlena certainly doesn’t pay her much attention or support her in any way. One day, during the Marshalls’ holiday on Leathercombe Bay, Arlena is found strangled on a beach not far from the hotel where the family is staying. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is. As he does, it’s interesting to see the role that that family dynamic plays.

In Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, we are introduced to Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, who in this novel is a prosecuting attorney for fictional Kindle County. He gets drawn into a very difficult case when a colleague, Carolyn Polhemus, is murdered. It’s important that the case be solved as quickly as possible, and ‘by the book,’ especially since the victim is part of the prosecution team. It turns out that Sabich had an affair with Polhemus – a relationship he doesn’t mention at first. When that’s discovered, he’s removed from the case. Then, little pieces of evidence begin to suggest that he himself might be guilty. He’s indicted and soon finds himself on trial. One of the sub-plots in this novel (and, actually in Innocent, too) is the relationship Sabich has with his son, Nat. It’s not as though Nat and his father don’t care about each other. But there’s certainly awkwardness in the relationship. And part of it comes from the fact that Sabich is first a successful attorney, then a successful judge. Nat himself becomes a lawyer and, in Innocent, we see how that plot thread of following in famous footsteps plays out. In that novel, Sabich is once again accused of murder – this time of his wife, Barbara.

One of the plot points in Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot has to do with the relationships between Canadian celebrities and their children. Investigative journalist Kathryn Morrisey is doing an exposé of these families, and there are plenty of people who are upset about it. In fact, Sam Parker is so infuriated that he shoots (but does not kill) Morrisey. Parker hires Zack Shreve to defend him in court, and that lands Shreve and his partner, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, in the middle of this controversial case. As the story unfolds, we see how having a famous parent has a real impact on some of these young people, whether the relationship is dysfunction or not.

Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) features the de Poitiers family. CC de Poitiers has achieved a great deal of celebrity as a life coach and, if you will, lifestyle guru. Her book Be Calm has created a lot of interest and eager fans. CC’s daughter Crie faces enough challenges, being both brilliant and socially awkward. She’s also not what you’d call beautiful or graceful. So having a mother who’s good-looking and famous is awfully hard for her. Matters are made worse by the fact that CC is selfish, malicious and cruel. She’s very hard on her daughter, taking every opportunity to belittle her. CC makes plenty of other enemies, too. So when she is murdered during a Boxing Day curling match, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team have more than one likely suspect.

And then there’s Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Singapore Police Inspector Singh is called in on a very delicate case. Susan Tan is First Secretary to the Singapore Embassy in Beijing. Recently, her son Justin was murdered, and his body found in one of Beijing’s older, run-down blocks. The official police theory is that this was a robbery gone wrong. But Susan doesn’t believe it, and she wants Singh to look into the matter. Singh travels to Beijing, with the idea being that he’ll review the police report and probably come to the same conclusion. But when he gets there, he begins to believe that Susan Tan was right: this murder was planned. And it turns out there’s more than one suspect, too. For one thing, Justin had a romantic rival. For another, he was involved in research with Professor Luo Gan, who has opposed certain land development plans for Beijing. There are other possibilities as well. As Singh investigates, we see a gradually-developing portrait of a young man who was trying to find his own place, and of the challenges he faced being the son of a well-known diplomat.

And that’s the thing about having a well-known parent. It’s hard to escape the fame (or notoriety) and make one’s own way. And that can create an interesting context for a crime novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Linkin Park’s Numb.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Scott Turow, Shamini Flint

Some of Us Believe in Spiritualism*

SpiritualismFor a very long time, people have been fascinated by what I’ll call spiritualism (mostly for convenience’s sake). Strictly speaking, spiritualism is usually used to refer to the belief in communicating with the dead. And that possibility has certainly intrigued humans. But it’s taken on a wider meaning, too, and now often includes interest in psychics, prescience and so on.  And it’s interesting to see how that way of thinking about spiritualism has been woven into crime fiction.

You’ll notice as I go on today that I won’t be mentioning paranormal stories or fantasy stories. Those certainly have their places for readers who enjoy them. But fascination with spiritualism is also there in other crime fiction as well.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include spiritualism, and it’s interesting to speculate on what she might have thought of it. An interesting conversation with Moira at the excellent Clothes in Books got me thinking about Christie’s views, so thanks for that inspiration, Moira.

In Dumb Witness, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings visit the village of Market Basing. They’re there at the request of Miss Emily Arundell, who wrote to Poirot, asking him to advise her on a ‘delicate matter.’ By the time they get to Market Basing, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. At first, her death is put down to liver failure. But it’s proven in the end that she was poisoned. And there are several suspects, too, as she had a large fortune to leave, and several greedy/desperate relatives. One of the characters in this novel is Miss Arundell’s companion Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. Miss Lawson is a dedicated believer in spiritualism, and often attends séances and other such events. Her good friends, Julia and Isabel Tripp, are just as fascinated by mysticism, and often share those experiences with Miss Lawson. Miss Lawson’s interest in spiritualism is not the reason for Emily Arundell’s death. But it does add an interesting layer, both to her character and to the story. And it shows how strong a belief people can have in spiritualism. For those who do believe, it’s as real as anything else is.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces readers to Ava Garrett. A self-styled medium, she’s developed quite a following. One of those believers is Benny Frayle, who’s recently lost her good friend, financial planner Dennis Brinkley. The official report is that his death was a tragic accident when one of the antique war machines he collects malfunctioned. But Benny’s not so sure of that. The police, in the form of DCI Tom Barnaby, believe they’ve done all they can do, and that there’s no need for further investigation. And, to be fair, the police have done a thorough job. But Benny still thinks it was murder. So she attends one of Ava Garrett’s séances. During the event, Ava describes the murder scene vividly, although she’s not seen it. And she makes it clear that Benny was right. That’s enough for Benny, but the police still don’t really look into the death…until Ava herself is poisoned. One the one hand, I can say without spoiling the story that Barnaby and his team don’t learn the truth through a medium or psychic. But there is an interesting twist in the story that adds a layer to it.

In Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), the small Québec town of Three Pines gets some new residents: CC de Poitiers and her family. CC is a popular lifestyle/self-help celebrity whose book, Be Calm, has sold very well. Not everyone in town is happy about the newcomers, though. For one thing, CC is egotistical, rude, manipulative, and malicious. She manages to alienate everyone in town, including Beatrice Mayer, known locally as Mother Bea. Mother Bea has a yoga and meditation center, also called Be Calm, and is, as she puts it,
 

‘…familiar with all spiritual paths…’
 

She sees beneath the ‘spiritual wellness’ touted in CC’s hype, and is not happy at what she finds. When CC dies of electrocution, there’s no question that it’s murder. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec investigates with his team. They find that more than one person had a strong motive for murder. Admittedly, spiritualism doesn’t solve the mystery here. And it’s not the reason for the murder. But it’s an interesting look at the way spiritualism – or what’s hyped as spiritualism – impacts people.

We see that in Tarquin Hall’s The Man Who Died Laughing, too. Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of unmasking spiritual charlatans. He is the founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (DIRE); and, as such, does everything he can to stop those who prey on others’ fascination with spiritualism. One morning, he’s attending a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when, according to witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that she is punishing him for being an infidel. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri thinks this death has a more prosaic explanation. Jha was a onetime client, so Puri takes a special interest in this case, and decides to investigate it. One part of the trail leads to Maharaj Swami, a well-known spiritualist and advisor. He’s set up his own ashram, which has become quite popular, and seems to have quite a hold on his followers. Spiritualism doesn’t really solve this mystery. But it’s interesting to see how many people want to believe in the things Swami says and does.

There are other sorts of spiritualism in its very broadest sense in crime fiction, too. For example, both David Rosenberg’s The Junction Chronicles and Spencer Cope’s Collecting the Dead feature characters who are synthaesthetes. Their protagonists can sense things accurately that most of us can’t. Rosenberg’s Decker Roberts is able to tell whether someone is lying or not. And Cope’s Steps Craig can sense people’s essence – he calls it their ‘shine’ – on things they’ve touched. I confess I’ve not read the Cope (yet). But it’s a good example of the sort of almost paranormal ability that some characters seem to possess. Many people believe that there are real-life instances of such things, too.

Whether or not things such as psychic ability or spiritualism actually exist, people are fascinated by them. And that in itself is really interesting. Little wonder Arthur Conan Doyle was so intrigued by spiritualism.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Donovan’s Children of the World.

  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, David Rosenberg, Louise Penny, Spencer Cope, Tarquin Hall

You Wear Smug So Very Well*

SmugnessMost of us know that no-one’s always right, and no-one has all of the answers. Still, there are some people who are so convinced of their own perspective that they’re unwilling to even consider the possibility that they may be wrong, or that there may be other perspectives out there. That sort of smugness can be grating for anyone who has to deal with a person like that. It’s limiting for the person who’s smug, too, if you think about it.

In crime fiction, smugness can even make a person vulnerable. After all, if the only ‘correct’ perspective is your own, you’re not willing to consider that you might have enemies that could get the better of you. Such a character can also add a nice dose of conflict to a series, so that human frailty can be a useful tool for the writer as well.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people accept an invitation to go to Indian Island. On the evening of their arrival, it becomes clear that their host, whoever she or he is, will not be there. That’s odd enough, but things take a darker turn when each person is accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. One of the guests, Miss Emily Brewster, has been accused of being responsible for the suicide of a former housemaid. It comes out that when she discovered that the maid was what used to be called ‘in trouble,’ she fired her, leaving the young woman with no place to live and no options. In her smugness, Miss Brewster believes that she was correct, and that it wasn’t her fault if the maid had ‘loose morals.’ Miss Brewster ends up paying for her smug perspective when she becomes a victim to a killer who seems to be preying on all of the guests.

Louise Penny’s series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. In one story arc in this series, he is assigned a new member of the Sûreté, Yvette Nichol. On the one hand, when she first begins working with Gamache, she’s eager to make the best impression she can. On the other, she is smug. Because of this, she’s unwilling to learn from anyone else, and unwilling to take even the friendliest of advice. This makes for a host of problems for Gamache’s team. Not only does Nichol make mistakes (as we all do), but she isn’t willing to admit she’s wrong, watch and learn, or accept the fact that she doesn’t always know best. This is really limiting for her, as we see in the course of the series. She alienates people who might be real allies for her, and she’s not really welcome socially, either. It’s difficult for everyone.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma Precious Ramotswe takes on the case of a client who wants to make amends for wrongs he did years ago. In order to do that, he needs to locate his former landlady. That’s not going to be easy, but Mma Ramotswe thinks of a good starting place. The woman her client is looking for is the widow of a government worker, so it’s quite likely that her address and contact information can be found at the office that deals with government pensions. The clerk at that office is not helpful, though, and at first, refuses to give her any information. In fact, he’s quite smug about it:
 

‘‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’’

 

Mma Ramotswe has to think quickly, since this clerk is really her only solid lead. But she comes up with a way to best the clerk, and ends up getting the information she needs.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. As the novel begins, she seems to have the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she’s the mother of two healthy children, and she herself is both attractive and intelligent. Everything begins to fall apart, though, when a secret from Jodie’s past comes out. Her daughter, Hannah, is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years before, Jodie herself gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about this, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that the child was adopted, but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now, questions begin to be asked, and before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah. Of no help at all is Jodie’s mother-in-law, Helen Garrow. She’s a ‘blueblood’ who wasn’t happy when her son married Jodie, and who certainly doesn’t befriend her very much. She does ‘damage control,’ as far as the media goes, but that’s only to preserve the Garrow reputation. She’s quite convinced she’s right about the kind of person Jodie is, and although she does help to take care of the children, her smugness alienates Jodie, just when Jodie needs support the most.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Arthur Jepson. Jepson is Madras Commissioner of Police in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the British Raj. He’s not only very conscious of his position, but he’s absolutely convinced he’s right about the way to investigate. For instance, in The Pallampur Predicament, the Rajah of Pallampur is murdered. Jepson is sure that the victim was killed by disgruntled servants (Jepson is no fan of Indians). And that’s not an impossible explanation. But Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu (Stoddart’s protagonist) and his team believe that this is much more than just a ‘grudge murder.’ And they have more than one possible suspect. Still, Jepson is unwilling to listen to anyone else’s point of view. It all makes the case much more challenging for Le Fanu.

And that’s the thing about smug characters. I’ll bet we’ve all met people like that, and they have a way of making everything more difficult. Such people can be downright annoying in real life, but in crime fiction, characters like that can add interesting layers to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Poliça’s Smug.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian Stoddart, Louise Penny, Wendy James