Category Archives: Louise Penny

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

Lighten Up While You Still Can*

Light MomentsWit is a funny thing (pun intended😉 ). The thing about it is that what’s funny to some people isn’t to others. And what ‘counts’ as a lighter moment to some people isn’t funny at all to others. So even among members of the same culture, there might not be agreement about whether something is funny or it isn’t.

Because of that, it can be difficult to add in just the right light touch to a crime novel. I’m not talking here of comic caper novels, where the author deliberately adds in absurdity and funny dialogue. Rather, I mean crime novels in which those funny moments add a welcome light touch. It’s not easy to do that and still maintain the tenor of a story. But it can add interest, keep readers engaged, and keep up a certain energy level in a novel. We see it all through crime fiction, too, so there won’t be space in this one post for all of the examples out there. Here are just a few.

The main plot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton concerns a notorious blackmailer who’s gotten hold of an indiscreet letter written by one of Sherlock Holmes’ clients. She’s hired Holmes to get the letter and stop Milverton sending it to her fiancé. Holmes meets with Milverton, who refuses to part with the letter unless he gets an outrageous sum of money. So Holmes decides to take matters into his own hands and get the letter back another way. He learns the layout of Milverton’s home, and the household’s habits. Then he and Watson actually break into the house. Holmes knows he needs ‘inside information,’ so he takes on a disguise, and starts ‘walking out with’ one of Milverton’s housemaids. There’s a very funny scene where he tells Watson that he is engaged:
 

“You’ll be interested to hear that I am engaged.’
‘My dear fellow! I congrat—
‘To Milverton’s housemaid.’
‘Good heavens, Holmes!’
‘I wanted information, Watson.’…
‘But the girl, Holmes?’
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table. However, I rejoice to say that I have a hated rival who will certainly cut me out the instant that my back is turned. What a splendid night it is!’’
 

In the end, the information Holmes gets turns out to be very useful.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, famous director Peter Alan Nelson wants to hire Los Angeles PI Elivs Cole to find his ex-wife, Karen, and son, Toby. After years of not being involved with Toby, Nelson has decided he wants to be a part of the boy’s life. Cole tries to tell him that it’s not that simple, but Nelson insists. And a fee is a fee. So Cole reluctantly starts trying to trace Karen and Toby. When he finds them, he soon learns that his troubles have really just begun. It turns out that Karen has been working for some very nasty people, and now wants to be free of them. That doesn’t sit well with her ‘business associates,’ so Cole and his partner Joe Pike find themselves in a dangerous situation. At one point, Cole and Karen are in her house. Pike has just arrived, and the first thing he does is check the house carefully to ensure the safety of its occupants. He says nothing as he does so, though, so at first, Karen thinks it’s quite odd. It’s a funny scene as she watches Pike go through his security check as Cole tries to explain his rather unusual partner. She gets used to Pike, though, and he turns out to be very useful.

The beginning of Gail Bowen’s The Gifted takes place at Hallowe’en. So political scientist/academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack are planning to go to a costume party. It’s a light, funny moment as Zack makes the scene in yellow silk pyjamas and sporting an orchid. If you’re a crime fiction fan, that should be enough to tell you which character he’s portraying. And for her part, Joanne dresses in a
 

‘slick vintage suit’
 

to complete the picture. The novel itself isn’t what you’d call a light crime novel. The main plot concerns their daughter, Taylor, who is a gifted artist. In fact, although she’s only fourteen at the time of this novel, two pieces of her art have been included in an upcoming charity auction. She shares one of her pieces with her parents. But she keeps the other hidden until the auction. When it’s revealed, it turns out to have tragic consequences. That light moment at the beginning is an effective counterpoint.

Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Several of the novels have quite a lot of sadness in them, and the stories really aren’t what you’d call light, fun novels. At the same time, they are not unrelentingly bleak. And one of the reasons for that is the set of relationships among the characters. For example, the local B&B/bistro is owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. It’s a social hub, so everyone spends at least some time there. One of the regular denizens is poet Ruth Zardo. Ruth has a very acerbic exterior, and never wastes an opportunity to make a snide remark or toss off an insult. But Olivier and Gabri know that underneath that surface, Ruth cares about them and considers them friends. And as far as insults go, they give as good as they get. Those interactions not only lighten the tone of the novels, but they also add a layer of character development.

In Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel investigate the death of Chanida Manakit, who went by the nickname of Pla. Part of the trail leads to the offices of a development company, and Keeney and Patel want to find out more about it. But they know that they won’t learn much by just walking in and introducing themselves as detectives. So they go in the guise of a wealthy investor (played by Patel) and his secretary/assistant (played by Keeney). The funny part about this scene (at least for me; your mileage may vary, as the saying goes) is that in actuality, their relationship is nothing like that. Neither is their style of dress. It lightens up what is in some places a very sad story.

And then there’s Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. In that novel, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce discovers the body of an unknown man in the cucumber patch of the family garden. She doesn’t know who the victim is, but she does know he visited the house the night before. She also knows he had an argument with her father. The police learn that, too, and before very long, Flavia’s father is arrested. She doesn’t believe he’s a killer, so she decides to find out the truth. Flavia is a budding detective, and very knowledgeable about chemistry. But she is also an eleven-year-old child with two older sisters. She decides to get back at one of them by distilling the irritant in poison ivy, and putting it on her sister’s lipstick. That in itself is rather funny; so, in its way, is the eventual outcome.

Those lighter moments and funny scenes don’t always have to do with the actual investigation in a crime novel. And they can be tricky. But when they’re handled well, they can lighten up an otherwise very sad story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Take it Easy.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Robert Crais

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