Category Archives: M.J McGrath

What I Didn’t Realise Was How You Would Change My Life*

One of the most common types of blended families is the stepfamily. In fact, there’ve been stepparents and stepchildren for so many years that we could even think of it as one of the traditional family structures.

Blending a family in this way can work, especially if everyone involved is willing to be flexible. But ‘stepping’ almost always presents challenges, even when family members love one another, and really want the relationships to be successful. And when there’s spite or malice, things can turn very bad, indeed.

There’ve been many, many crime novels that involve stepfamilies. One post couldn’t possibly do the topic justice. But I’ll mention a few examples, to start the conversation. Oh, and you’ll notice I don’t include examples of what a lot of people call domestic noir. Too easy…

Agatha Christie used stepfamilies many times in her work, so there are several examples. One is Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Captain Kenneth Marshall and his daughter, Linda, travel to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay for their holiday. With them is Marshall’s second wife (and Linda’s stepmother), famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. It’s soon clear that Linda dislikes her stepmother heartily. It’s not so much that Arlena is cruel to her, but she is self-involved, and mostly, she ignores Linda. What’s worse, Arlena is beautiful and graceful, and Linda is at an awkward point in her life, as young people often are at sixteen. One day, Arlena is found strangled in a cover not far from the hotel, Linda becomes a ‘person of interest,’ as does her father. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the hotel, and he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why. And as far as the ‘evil stepmother’ stereotype goes, there’s Christie’s Appointment With Death

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, we are introduced to the Priam family. Roger Priam and his business partner Leander Hill ran a successful company for years. But then, they both began receiving macabre ‘gifts’ that unsettled them. In fact, Hill died of a heart attack shortly after getting one of them. Hill’s daughter, Laurel, asks Ellery Queen  to find out who has sent the parcels, because she believes her father’s death is directly related to them. At first, Queen demurs, but he’s finally persuaded. When he learns that Priam also received packages, he tries to get his help. But Priam is unwilling to get involved at first. Still, Queen meets Priam’s wife, Delia, and her son, Crowe ‘Mac’ MacGowan. Mac is a very unconventional person. He lives in a treehouse he’s made on the Priam property, and wears as little as possible – sometimes nothing at all. He’s convinced that nuclear bombs are about to be unleashed (the book takes place in the early 1950s, during a particularly tense part of the Cold War), and wants to be ready to live in a world where not much is left. Priam has little to do with his stepson; he’s a businessman through and through. There’s an interesting, if dysfunctional, dynamic in the Priam household…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity begins when insurance sales representative Walter Huff decides on a whim to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. Huff happens to be in that area, and wants to see if he can get Nirdlinger to renew his policy. When Huff gets to the house, he finds that Nirdlinger isn’t there, but his wife, Phyllis is. The two get to talking and Huff soon finds himself attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, and before long, they’re having an affair. Then, Phyllis reveals that she wants her husband killed. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he falls in with her plan, even going so far as to write the double indemnity insurance policy she’ll need in order to collect from the company. The murder is duly pulled off, but that’s really only the beginning of Huff’s problems. He’s going to have to protect Phyllis as best he can if he’s going to protect himself. Then, he meets Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola. The two form a friendship (which Huff would like to be more than a friendship), and Lola tries to warn him about her stepmother. There is no love lost between the two, so there’s a possibility her attitude might simply be spite. But it turns out that Huff is in much deeper than he thought…

M.J. McGrath’s White Heat is the first in her series featuring Ellesmere Island hunting guide Edie Kiglatuk. As the story begins, Kiglatuk is escorting two hunters, Felix Wagner and Andy Taylor. During the trip, Wagner is fatally shot. Taylor says he’s not responsible, and the evidence supports him. So, at first, the death is put down to a tragic accident. But Kiglatuk is fairly certain that’s not the truth. Evidence that she saw suggests that another person shot Wagner. But she’s told that the Council of Elders, on whom she depends for her guide license, wants the ‘accident’ explanation ‘rubber stamped.’ Still, she starts to ask some questions. There’s not much she can do officially, but she tries to get answers. Then, there’s a disappearance. Then, her former stepson, Joe, with whom she’s still close, dies. On the surface, it looks like a suicide. But Kiglatuk is now sure that it was murder. In the end, we learn what connects all of these events; it turns out that there’s something much bigger going on than most people knew. The relationship between Kiglatuk and Joe is an undercurrent throughout the novel. It’s clear that they see each other as family, and take care of each other as close family members do. Not much of the ‘wicked stepmother’ stereotype here…

There’s also Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy. In that novel, former safecracker/lockbreaker Jeet Singh has decided to ‘go straight.’ He now owns and runs a small keymaking business. Everything changes, though, when he gets drawn into just one last job, for the sake of his former lover Sushmita. She married wealthy industrialist Pursumal Changulani, but now, he’s been murdered. At first, the murder looked like a carjacking gone wrong. But now, there’s evidence that it was a pre-planned murder. Sushmita is the main suspect, since her husband’s death means she now stands to inherit a considerable fortune. However, Changulani has three children from a previous marriage, and they claim that she was never legally married to their father. They argue that their stepmother was really just their father’s live-in lover. Sushmita needs money to pay a good lawyer to defend her interests, so Singh decides to help her. He ends up, though, being framed for murder. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how stepmother and stepchildren view each other when a lot of money is involved.

Many stepfamilies work well, function as a unit, and love each other (right, fans of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve?). But there are always some complexities, and sometimes, they play out in unexpected ways.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Andre’s Unconditional.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, James M. Cain, M.J McGrath, Surender Mohan Pathak

And I Know That You’ll Use Them However You Want To*

Prior Knowledge ReadersIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that authors often tap their own experiences and prior knowledge as they create new stories. That’s only natural if, as the research suggests, knowledge comes from associating new things with what we already know. But what about readers? Readers come from a wide variety of different backgrounds and have a wide variety of experiences. So how does an author invite readers to tap their own life experiences to make meaning from what they’re reading, and thus connect with a book at a deeper level?

I think it’s important to start by saying that readers enjoy using their imaginations. Wise authors respect their readers, and give them credit for the ability to imagine things they may not have experienced. Just because a reader hasn’t, say, been to Canada’s Ellesmere Island doesn’t mean that he or she can’t fully enjoy M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels, which take place there. Authors who assume otherwise either condescend to readers, or provide so much ‘information dump’ that it distracts from the story.

That said, though, there’s also research that shows that readers engage more with stories, remember them better and make more meaning from them when they can identify in some way with a story. In other words, when readers can tap their own backgrounds, they’re more likely to enjoy and remember what they read.

If that’s true, then how does the author accomplish that? One effective way to go about this is to focus on things, events and feelings that most people can identify with and connect with their own lives. For example, one plot thread of Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark concerns Gerda Klein and her daughter Ilse. Originally from Leipzig, in what used to be East Germany, they left there during the 1980s, during the Cold War, and ended up in New Zealand. That’s where their lives intersect with the life of fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, who is one of Ilse’s most promising students. When she loses interest in school, Ilse becomes concerned. And everything changes completely when she disappears. Not all readers have experienced life under a totalitarian regime. Not all readers know what it’s like to move to another country. But just about everyone has had the experience of being in a new and unfamiliar place, where you have to get used to where everything is, how to get things done, and how to fit in. On that deeper, human level, it’s easy for readers to identify with Gerda and Ilse Klein.

Today’s readers never experienced the Victorian Era – not on a personal level. So why do Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories still resonate the way they do? In part, of course, it’s that the mysteries are interesting. But more than that, there are common human experiences and themes woven throughout the stories. For instance, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the mystery of a strange set of coded messages sent to Elsie Cubitt. Her husband Hilton is concerned about them, mostly because of the change he sees in his wife. She’s obviously frightened, although she won’t tell him why, or who sent the messages. Not all readers are interested in or good at ciphers and codes. And as I say, today’s readers can’t identify on a personal level with the Victorian Era as a rule. But we can all understand at a deep level what it’s like to care about someone who’s hurting or frightened. And it’s not hard to understand the feeling of wanting to protect a loved one, as both Elsie and Hilton Cubitt try to do.

There’s another way in which authors can invite readers to tap their world views and knowledge and engage in a story: helping to build background knowledge. Some authors tell stories about places or times or particular events that others might not know very well. In those cases, giving the reader some information can be very helpful.

Of course, there’s an important caveat here. Too much information (and not enough story!) can pull a reader out of a novel. So it’s got to be done carefully. That said though, giving some background information can be helpful.

That’s what Stan Jones has done in his Nathan Active novels. Those novels take place in Chukchi, Alaska, and feature several characters who are Inupiak. Readers may very well not be very knowledgeable about those people and their lives. So Jones provides some really interesting information to help in forming some background knowledge. Yet, he doesn’t distract the reader from the story and the characters. Instead, the information is given as it’s relevant to the story, in pieces at a time. I hear you, Tony Hillerman fans…

That’s also true of Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series. Those novels feature an ‘inside look’ at Orthodox Judaism, since Lazarus is an observant member of that community. Several plots in this series involve Jewish observations, history, customs, and so on. And yet, Kellerman doesn’t overload the stories with facts, background information or long-winded histories. Rather, she provides information as it’s relevant to the story at hand. So readers who don’t have background knowledge can build it and can use that understanding to make meaning for themselves.

And that’s another aspect of inviting readers to connect with a story: trusting them to make that meaning. Authors who don’t assume that readers are active participants in the reading process risk several things. First, they risk insulting those readers. Not a good idea. Second, they risk boring those readers. If an author spells everything out (rather than trusting the reader to use her or his background knowledge to ‘fill in the blanks’), readers quickly lose interest. That’s also not a good idea.

It goes without saying (or should) that readers will engage themselves more in novels with effective writing and interesting plots and characters. But there is another, deeper level at which readers can also choose to identify with what’s happening in a story. That comes when the author provides characters, events and things that readers can connect with in their own lives, no matter their background. It can also be helped with the author provides some background information when it’s less likely readers would have it.

More than anything else though, at least in my opinion, it’s important to remember that readers bring their own backgrounds and experiences to the reading process. Trusting them to use that knowledge and giving them some points of connection can make the difference between a good book and one the reader will always remember (and hopefully recommend).

What are your thoughts on this? Are there books you’ve connected with on that very deep level? What’s done that for you? If you’re a writer, what do you do to invite readers to make those connections?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Breathe (2 AM). Best understood if you know that the preceding line is: ‘Cause these words are my diary screaming out loud.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye Kellerman, M.J McGrath, Paddy Richardson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman