Category Archives: Mari Strachan

In The Spotlight: Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Novels that feature young protagonists offer an interesting perspective on plots, other characters, and so on. It can be tricky to write young characters; they need to be convincing and authentic, but still interesting. That said, though, books with young protagonists add a different sort of point of view to the genre. Let’s look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat.

The story takes place in the 1950s, in a small Welsh village, where twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan lives with her mother, Magda, her father, whom she calls Tada, and her older sister, Bethan. Gwenni’s a little unusual. She’s a reader and what people often call a dreamer. She’s curious, too, and likes to get answers to her questions. Life in the village isn’t exactly exciting, but it’s the only life most people, including Gwenni, know.

Then, one of the villagers, Ifan Evans, goes missing. Gwenni knows the Evans family; she minds their two children from time to time, and she likes Ifan’s wife, Elin. So, she wants to find out what happened to him. Then, she has a dream (or is it a vision?) in which she sees a body. When Ifan’s body is, in fact, discovered, Gwenni starts asking questions. Very slowly, she starts to put the pieces together.

As Gwenni searches for answers, we learn more about the people who live in the village. Beneath its idyllic surface, there are some dark secrets. And as Gwenni discovers what they are, she also learns some things about her own family. In the end, we find out who killed Ifan Evans and why. And it turns out that this murder is related to some of the dark secrets we learn.

In the meantime, Gwenni is growing up. And so are her friends and classmates. That’s a little difficult for her, as things are changing. For instance, her best friend, Alwenna Thomas, is now getting more interested in clothes and boys than she is in adventures with Gwenni. In fact, she chides Gwenni about being odd and about the way she dresses. This ‘coming of age’ aspect is woven through the story in other ways, too, as Gwenni finds some answers to her questions.

The story is told from Gwenni’s perspective (first person, mostly past tense). So, we learn quite a bit about her. She’s an unusual thinker, and doesn’t as a rule care much about other people’s opinions of her. I’ve read several comparisons of her character to that of Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. That comparison may not work for everyone, of course. At the same time as Gwenni is content with her own way of looking at life, she’s not unaware that she thinks differently. For example, Gwenni is convinced that she can fly in her dreams – really go to different places. Can she? Is she dreaming?  Whichever is the case, as she slowly makes sense of what she learns about herself, the town, and Ifan Evans’ death, readers see how she perceives the world.

This makes the solution to the mystery a bit different to, say, a police procedural or a PI novel. The clues don’t come in the form of, for instance, forensic evidence, witness statements and the like. Rather, Gwenni slowly works things out as she hears gossip, listens to what people say, and thinks about it all.

Readers also learn about the other people in the village, starting with Gwenni’s family. There are some dark undertones, as we see some signss of dysfunction. Gwenni’s mother, Magda, for instance, would like her daughter to fit in better. Village approval, if you will, and conforming to expectations, is very important to her. And it’s clear that she prefers Bethan’s company to Gwenni’s. And we discover that both Magda and Tada have their own issues. And those impact the family dynamics.

As the story moves on, and Gwenni interacts with the other characters, it’s clear that they know things Gwenni doesn’t.  Readers will want to pay attention to the characters’ reactions, comments and so on. Gwenni doesn’t always get the point of what others say, but readers will.

The story takes place in a small Welsh town, and Strachan evokes the setting in several ways. Daily life, culture, and so on all reflect the context. For one thing, it’s a small place, so everyone knows everyone’s business. And that figures into the plot. It’s a distinctly Welsh place, too. There are, for instance, some comments about speaking Welsh and speaking English, and there are a few Welsh words used. The novel is set in the 1950s, and there’s quite a bit of description of the times, too. World War II is still a very real memory for many people, and this post-war period has its share of privation.

There’s also a discussion of mental illness in the novel. It plays a role in more than one character’s life, and it’s interesting to see it’s perceived at this time and in this place. It’s also interesting to see how Gwenni thinks about it, and how her thinking evolves.

Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, The Earth Hums in B Flat takes place in a small, distinctively Welsh village not very long after World War II. It features a cast of village characters, some of whom have been keeping some dark secrets, and shows what happens to everyone when a murder takes place. And it’s seen through the eyes of an unusual girl who has her own perspective on everything. But what’s your view? Have you read The Earth Hums in B Flat? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 11 September/Tuesday, 12 September – The Dawn Patrol – Don Winslow

Monday, 18 September/Tuesday, 19 September – Another Margaret – Janice McDonald

Monday, 25 September/Tuesday, 26 September – Among Thieves – John Clarkson

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Filed under Mari Strachan, The Earth Hums in B Flat

I Thank the Lord I’m Welsh*

Wales is a beautiful country with a unique language, culture, and history. And, in the last few decades, there’s been a concerted effort to maintain that culture and teach that language. As you’ll know if you’ve lived there, or even been there, it’s a bilingual country (it’s been officially so since 1998).

But, if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that Wales isn’t exactly a peaceful, crime-free place. And it’s interesting to see how the country and its people are portrayed in the genre. Space doesn’t permit more than a quick peek at a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to add others.

One of Rhys Bowen’s series takes place mostly in the fictional Welsh town of Llanfair, in Snowdonia. These novels (there are ten) feature Constable Evan Evans, who was originally from Llanfair, but moved to Swansea as a child. When he gets fed up with life in the city, he decides to move ‘back home,’ where he’s now sometimes known as ‘Evans the Law,’ to distinguish him from others with the same surname. He re-acquaints himself with life in the small town in Evans Above, the first novel in the series. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly as idyllic a life as he had imagined it would. This is a small-town series, but it’s not a ‘frothy,’ light series. Among other things, it shows how social changes such as immigration, culture clash, family structure changes, and so on don’t affect just the larger cities. They even find their way into small villages.

In The Earth Hums in B-Flat, Mari Strachan introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan. She lives in a small Welsh village in the 1950s, and is just on the cusp of coming of age. Gwenni’s a creative thinker; some people call her a dreamer. She’s certainly not obsessed with clothes, boys, or an active social life. Everything in Gwenni’s life changes when one of the town’s residents, Ifan Evans, goes missing, and is later found dead. For various reasons, Gwenni wants to find out the truth about his death, so she starts to ask questions. As she searches out the truth, she also makes some life-changing discoveries about her own family. Strachan’s second novel, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, also takes place in a small Welsh town, just after World War I.

Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels has two timelines. One begins in 1962, in an isolated Welsh village, and is the story of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan; Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith; Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter; and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. These children don’t have much in common, but there aren’t a lot of other children in town. So, they spend their share of time together. During one eventful summer, they slowly begin to learn some of the town’s secrets, including some things that several people would much rather no-one find out. The other timeline begins some forty years later, when retired detective Will Sloane decides to return to his native Wales. He knows he doesn’t have a lot longer to live, and he wants to spend his last days in his own country. More than that, he finds a clue that’s related to mystery he was never able to solve. A child went missing, and was never found. Sloane was on the team that investigated, and everyone made efforts to find the child, but they had no success. Now, with this new clue, Sloane is hoping he can finally get some answers. As the children’s story moves forward, and Sloane’s backwards, we slowly learn how these children are connected to the secrets people are keeping. We also learn how all of that is related to Sloane’s investigation.

There’s also Cathy Ace’s WISE Enquiry Agency series. This series, in the traditional whodunit style, features four women (one Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish, and one English) who set up an investigation agency. The stories mostly take place in the Welsh town of Anwen by Wye.

One of Elizabeth J. Duncan’s series features Penny Brannigan, who emigrated from Nova Scotia to the small Welsh town of Llanelen, where she lives now. She’s the owner of the Happy Hands Nail Care shop, and as such, gets to hear a lot of what’s going on in town. And, because it’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, she knows most of the town’s residents. This is a lighter, cosy, series, but it’s not ‘frothy.’

Just in case you were wondering whether all Welsh crime fiction takes place in small towns and villages, think again. Stephen Puleston, for instance, has two crime fiction series. One of them features Inspector Ian Drake, and takes place in North Wales. The other is set in Cardiff. This series features DI John Marco of the Queen Street Police. These novels are sometimes-gritty, fast-paced thrillers, rather than the more traditional-style whodunits.

And I couldn’t do a post about crime fiction set in Wales without mentioning Hinterland (AKA Y Gwyll). This noir television drama takes place in Aberystwyth, and stars Richard Harrington as DI Tom Matthias. One of the interesting things about this particular show is that it’s actually filmed twice: once in English, and once in Welsh. And even in the English version, there are occasional (subtitled) Welsh words and comments.

There are, of course, lots of other mentions of Wales and of Welsh characters in crime fiction. For instance, Ellis Peters’ most famous sleuth, Brother Cadfael, is Welsh. In fact, his Welsh identity plays a role in more than one of the novels in this series. And Cathy Ace’s other sleuth, Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan is also Welsh, although she now lives in Canada.

Wales may not be a large country. But it’s got a rich, long history, and a language and culture of which its people are proud. And it certainly features in crime fiction. Which crime novels set in Wales have you enjoyed?

ps. Thank you, wales.com, for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Catatonia’s International Velvet.

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Filed under Babs Horton, Cathy Ace, Elizabeth J. Duncan, Ellis Peters, Mari Strachan, Rhys Bowen, Stephen Puleston

If I Were Huckleberry Finn, I’d Do the Things He Did*

huckleberryfinnAs this is posted, it’s 132 years since the US publication of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the novel had been published two months earlier in the UK). As you’ll know, the novel has been the focus of a lot of controversy (‘fodder’ for a post in itself, perhaps). And it wasn’t roundly accepted. Louisa May Alcott, for instance, wanted Twain to,
 

‘stop writing for…our pure-minded lads and lasses…if he cannot think of something better to tell…’
 

Still, the novel has become a classic. Even those who don’t care for it acknowledge its influence (and Twain’s) on literature in general, and US literature in particular.

But The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn’t the only exploration of coming of age and self-discovery. There are lots of examples out there, including examples from crime fiction.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place mostly at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. Late one night, Grace Springer, the school’s games mistress, is shot in the brand-new sports pavilion. The police are called in, but they don’t make much progress before there’s a kidnapping. Then, there’s another murder. One of the pupils, fifteen-year-old Julia Upjohn, finds an important clue to the murders. She’s smart enough to know that she’s now in grave danger, so she decides to do something about it. She sneaks out of the school, and goes to visit Hercule Poirot. She’s heard of him, because her mother is good friends with Maureen Summerhayes (Remember her, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead?). Poirot returns to the school with Julia, and works with the police to find out what’s behind the incidents at the school. That summer term turns out to be quite a time of adventure and self-discovery for Julia.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces readers to fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, but is quite high-functioning, so he attends school, works with a therapist, and mostly lives what a lot of people would call a ‘regular’ life – or close to it. Still, because of his autism, there are a lot of subtleties and nuances that Christopher isn’t aware of when he interacts with people. One day, he discovers the body of the dog that belongs to the people next door. They’re prepared to blame Christopher for the animal’s death, but he knows he didn’t harm the dog. So, he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. He starts asking questions and following leads. As he does, he learns important truths about himself, and he has more than one adventure.

So does ten-year-old Kate Meaney, whom we meet in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. The story begins in 1984, in a rather bleak Midlands city. Kate wants very much to be a detective; she even has her own agency, called Falcon Investigations. When the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens nearby, Kate is sure that she’ll find lots of suspicious activity there, so she spends quite a lot of time at the new mall. She has more than one adventure as she goes in search of criminals. But her grandmother, Ivy, thinks that the girl would be much better off going away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate and her friend, Adrian Palmer, go to the school, but only Adrian returns. No sign of Kate – not even a body – is found. Then, twenty years later, a mall security officer starts to see strange images on his security camera: a girl who looks a lot like Kate. By chance, he meets Lisa Palmer, who works in the mall, and is Adrian’s younger sister. Each in a different way, they go back to the past, as you might say, and we learn what happened to Kate.

Mari Strachen’s The Earth Hums in B-Flat is the story of twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who lives in a small Welsh village in the 1950s. She doesn’t quite fit in where she lives, as she’s a bit of a dreamer. But she lives a fairly normal life until the day one of the locals, Ifan Evans, disappears, and is later found dead. For various reasons, Gwenni wants to find out who’s responsible. So, she starts searching for the truth. That search leads her on more than one adventure, some more dangerous than others. And in the process, she also finds out quite a bit about herself.

In William Kent Kreueger’s Ordinary Grace, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother, Jake, are growing up in 1961 New Bremen, Minnesota. Everything changes for Frank the day a local boy is killed in what looks like a railroad accident. Frank knows he’s not supposed to go down to the railroad tracks, but he also wants a bit of an adventure. So, he and Jake go down to the tracks, where they find a dead man. Frank can’t resist the chance to see the dead body more closely, so he goes to have a look. And he and Jake get drawn into a much greater adventure than they’d thought. Then, tragedy strikes Frank’s family, and he learns a great deal about himself, about family, and about growing up.

Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks introduces readers to fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. As the story begins, he’s finally worked up the courage to leave his abusive father, Joe. Adam’s been very much kept under lock and key for most of his life, so he has very little knowledge of the outside world. Fortunately for Adam, a young man named Billy Benson happens to visit the house just as Adam’s preparing to leave. He befriends Adam, and the two spend the next week together. Billy knows all about how to scrounge food and a place to stay, and Adam learns a great deal from him. As the two get to know each other, they learn some things that neither is entirely comfortable accepting. And they learn that they are connected to each other, and to an abduction that took place ten years earlier.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Fireside Books’ Leaders and Legacies series. These books feature Canada’s prime ministers as young sleuths, and follow their adventures and growing-up experiences.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may not have been the first coming-of-age adventure, but it’s one of the best known. And a lot of people consider it one of the best written. And, whatever you think of it, it’s certainly been influential.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sam Lewis, Joe Young, and Cliff Hess’ Huckleberry Finn.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Honey Brown, Mari Strachan, Mark Haddon, Mark Twain, William Kent Krueger

Baby, We Were Born to Run*

RisktakingIt’s common among young people (and sometimes, not-so-young people) to believe in the ‘it can’t happen to me’ myth. That myth of indestructibility is arguably part of the reason for which many young people take the kinds of risks that they probably wouldn’t take if they were older. You see this myth playing out in a lot of crime fiction, and it can be both compelling and poignant. After all, young people are not indestructible. I’m only going to be mentioning a few examples here, but I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie includes several characters in her stories who seem to believe in their own indestructibility. I’ll just mention one. In And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), we meet Anthony Marston, a young man who’s received an invitation to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. He accepts the invitation and travels to the island, where he finds that a group of other people have received and accepted invitations. After dinner on that first night, each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. In Marston’s case, he’s accused of having killed two small children in a reckless driving incident. Later that evening, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Then there’s another. Now it’s clear that someone lured these people to the island and seems bent on killing them one by one. The survivors will have to find out who that person is if they hope to stay alive. More than once in this novel, Marston’s youth, apparent strength and seeming invincibility are mentioned, and that gives his death all the more impact. I know, I know fans of The Man in the Brown Suit’s Anne Bedingfield…

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman. His parents Ralph and Elaine have placed him at the Laguna Perdida School, a boarding school for ‘troubled students.’ One day Tom disappears from the school. Dr. Sponti, who is head of Laguna Perdida, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy before his parents discover that he’s missing. But it’s already too late. During their meeting, Ralph Hillman bursts into the office saying that Tom has been kidnapped. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Tom’s parents to try to get him back. Almost immediately something seems ‘off.’ For one thing, the Hilmmans aren’t nearly as forthcoming about Tom as you’d expect from parents who were distraught about a missing child. For another, there’s some evidence that Tom may have joined the kidnappers willingly. If so, he may be part of a plot to extort money from them. Archer’s trying to track down leads when one of the people Tom’s with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. Now it’s clearer than ever that this is not an ‘textbook’ kind of kidnapping. Throughout this novel, we see ways in which Tom (and some of the other young people at the school) have behaved in that ‘indestructible’ way. Many of them take risks that they probably wouldn’t if they really contemplated the danger involved.

We see a bit of that perception of invulnerability in Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food too. Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman is concerned when two of her employees Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge begin behaving very oddly. In fact, they behave so strangely that Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen think they may be on a new kind of drug. It turns out that the girls bought weight loss tea at a club one night and were poisoned by it. Now Chapman wants to find out who poisoned the tea and why. At one point, she also makes another discovery. Kylie and Goss are always worried about gaining any weight at all, so instead of reading the instructions and taking the tea as directed, they took a much larger and stronger does than was recommended, so they’d lose weight faster. Their choice to buy this tea from someone they barely knew, and to take it in the way they did, is a reflection of how young people often don’t think through the consequences of what could happen to them. After all, ‘it won’t happen to me.’

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer investigates the disappearance of Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and likes nothing better than a little adventuring. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, who goes along with Andreas’ plans more out of a desire for the friendship than any enjoyment he gets out of their adventures. One day the two meet as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. When his mother Runi first goes to the police about it, Sejer isn’t too worried. Lots of young men take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. But as more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre look into the matter. To do this, they trace Andreas’ movements on the day he disappeared. Although Zipp isn’t at all forthcoming, especially at first, he eventually tells Sejer what happened that day. But even he doesn’t know what happened to Andreas. As it turns out, Andreas was convinced that everything would be all right – nothing bad would happen to him. But the truth turns out to be quite different…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, there’s an interesting sub-plot about an upcoming event. Mma. Sylvia Potokwane plans a benefit in aid of the orphanage she directs. One of the attractions is to be a parachute jump, and she wants Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs a local garage, to do the jump. Secretly he’s afraid to jump, especially from such heights, but of course he won’t admit that to Mma. Potokwane. Besides, she is strong-willed and persuasive. So he reluctantly agrees. As the day draws closer he gets more and more nervous about it. But his wife Mma. Precious Ramotswe has an idea that works out well for everyone involved. She suggests that Charlie, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistants, might be glad for the chance to do the jump. That way he can do some good and impress the local girls. And that’s exactly what happens. Charlie is a little nervous, but he feels indestructible enough (and is interested in enough in being admired by the young ladies) that he’s eager to do it. It’s an interesting look at the way young people as opposed to more mature adults view risk-taking.

Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who’s growing up in a small Welsh town during the 1950s. Gwenni’s a bit of a dreamer, and doesn’t always fit in. But life goes on for her, her sister and her parents until the day that a one of the locals Ifan Evans disappears. Later, he’s found murdered. Gwenni wants to find out why he was killed and by whom, so she starts her own kind of investigation. She’s not completely heedless as she goes about it, but she doesn’t really appreciate the risks she’s taking nor the danger she could bring on herself.

And that’s the thing about a lot of young people. They have that sort of myth of indestructibility that sometimes leads them to take all sorts of risks. In that sense, they’re both brave and extremely vulnerable. Which characters like that have stood out for you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Mari Strachan, Ross Macdonald

I Really Want to Be Your Friend*

Mari StrachanNo matter how devoted we may be to favourite authors and series, it’s always a real pleasure to ‘meet’ new ones. It helps broaden one’s reading and sometimes there are real gems out there for the taking. That’s why I’m delighted to participate in the Best New (To Me Anyway) Author meme, skillfully led by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. I’ve had the good fortune of ‘meeting’ a lot of talented authors lately, but my choice for this quarter is Welsh author Mari Strachan.

Besides being an author, Strachan has a background in library science and has served as librarian in several different library settings. She also has an interest in history.

And that interest comes through clearly in Strachan’s debut novel The Earth Hums in B Flat. In that novel, twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan is growing up in a small Welsh town in the 1950’s. She is an unconventional thinker and that in itself is a challenge for her, especially where her mother Magda is concerned. But despite the tensions between them, and occasional disputes with her sister, Gwenni’s life is more or less stable until the day when one of the locals Ifan Evans disappears. When he is later found murdered, the police begin their investigation. But, independent thinker that she is, Gwenni is curious about what happened and begins her own kind of investigation.

The Earth Hums in B Flat

The novel is about the crime and its investigation. But it’s just as much about the relationships in a small town. It’s about family and what that means, and it’s about hidden secrets and how they can ‘come back to bite’ later on. What’s interesting is that the story is told from Gwenni’s point of view, so as she gradually learns the truth, so does the reader. That has the effect of peeling away layers of assumptions as Gwenni slowly comes to some important realisations about the crime and about people she’s always thought she’s known. It’s not a ‘typical’ crime fiction novel (if there is such a thing). But then, Gwenni Morgan is not a typical young person.

 

Want to know more about The Earth Hums in B Flat? It’s right here.

 

Want to know more about Mari Strachan? Her web site is right here.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the White Stripes’ Sister, Do You Know My Name? 

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