Category Archives: Mark Haddon

The Truth Has Become Merely Half-Truth*

HalfTruthsMost of us don’t like to lie, so we’re not particularly good at it. And even those who are fairly good liars generally prefer to tell the truth. There’s less cognitive stress involved. So, when people do lie, they sometimes settle on a kind of not-quite-a-lie. ‘It’s true as far as it goes’ is an expression that captures that rather neatly.

That’s why, when real-life or fictional sleuths investigate, they have to be as alert to what is not said as to what is said. So do crime fiction fans. After all, crime writers can be quite good at hiding clues in those things that aren’t said.

Agatha Christie, for instance, used that sort of strategy in several of her stories. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot takes on a sixteen-year-old case, the poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of the murder, everyone assumed that Crale’s wife Caroline was the killer. There was certainly evidence against her, and she had motive, too; her husband had said he was going to leave her for another woman. But the Crales’ daughter Carla, who was a small child at the time, has always believed her mother to be innocent. So she hires Poirot to find out the truth. To do that, he interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each about the murder and the days leading up to it. From that, he is able to work out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. What’s very interesting about this novel is the number of things that those five people don’t say and write. In some cases, it’s deliberate. In others, it’s forgetfulness or the belief that something or other wasn’t important. But it all adds up. There’s even an Agatha Christie novel (a different one) where one particular sentence highlights some very crucial things that are not said. Readers who don’t pay attention to that are easily led up the proverbial garden path.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways investigates the poisoning murder of George Rattery. As the story goes on, we learn that there are several suspects. The victim was an abusive husband and father, so his widow, Violet and son Phil had motive. He was also having an affair with his business partner’s wife, so there’s motive there, too. And he was responsible for a hit-and-run incident that killed Martin ‘Martie’ Cairnes; Cairnes’ father Frank therefore has a motive as well. As it turns out, everyone has something to hide. Part of Strangeways’ task, then, is to learn what is unsaid, and there’s plenty of that. So he pays attention to things people don’t mention, things they gloss over, and so on, to get to the truth.

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife takes a slightly different approach to the things left unsaid. In that novel, we meet successful developer Todd Gilbert and his psychologist partner Jodi Brett. They’ve been married in everything but name for twenty years when everything changes. Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, who is the daughter of his business partner. He’s strayed before, but this time, things are different: Natasha discovers that she’s pregnant. She wants to keep the baby, get married and have a family, and Todd tells her that’s what he wants, too. But as he reflects on it, he wants to keep his options open, as the saying goes. So he also tries to ‘mend fences’ with Jodi. For Jodi, it’s humiliating enough that Todd has left her. It’s even more so that he’s not being honest with her (or, for the matter of that, with himself). Matters reach a head when, on the advice of his lawyer, Todd serves Jodi with an order of eviction from their home. The order is, so the attorney says, perfectly legitimate, since the couple is not legally married. And it will protect Todd. With her options running out, Jodi becomes increasingly withdrawn and unhappy. And life’s not any better for Todd, who is finding that living with Natasha and planning their wedding is not turning out as he’d planned. Then, Todd is killed in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking gone wrong, but the police soon begin to suspect otherwise. As it turns out, someone hired Todd’s murderers, and there are several people who had motive. This novel is told from both Todd and Jodi’s perspectives. And in both cases, there are half-truths that these characters tell each other and themselves that are important to understanding their relationship as well as what happens in the novel.

T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton is the story of the murder of Sarena Gunasekera, and enigmatic young woman whose body is found at the bottom of a cliff near Beachy Head in Eastbourne. The police soon have a very likely suspect. He is Elton Spears, a mentally troubled young man who’s had brushes with the law before. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence against him, too. But Spears’ solicitor, Jim Harwood, knows his client and has worked with him previously. Determined to prove his client innocent, Harwood gets started on the case. Throughout this novel, readers know who the killer really is. The question is more whether the killer will get away with the crime. And part of doing that will involve saying things that are true as far as they go, but don’t really tell the whole truth. It’s very delicate balance for the murderer.

Angela Savage’s The Half Child takes another sort of look at things left unsaid. In that novel, Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter, Maryanne. Police reports say that she committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck doesn’t believe his daughter killed herself. Keeney agrees to look into the matter, and gets started on the investigation. She knows that she won’t make much progress, and she will potentially cause a lot of trouble, if she doesn’t pay due respect to the local authorities in Pattaya, where the victim died. So she visits Police Major General Wichit, who has a family connection in Pattaya. They have a very delicate, but ‘loaded’ conversation, with much more implied than said. Keeney once helped Wichit with a very difficult family situation, thereby saving him and his family from ‘losing face.’ So he owes her. On the other hand, it’s very bad form, even insulting, to outright remind him of his debt. So the two refer to it in only the vaguest terms. The reader is aware of the underlying messages, though, and it’s interesting to see how what is not said is at least as important as what is said.

Part of the reason that detectives are able to ‘read between the lines’ is that they are, by and large, able to pick up on subtle nuances of communication, both written and oral. But not everyone can do that. Mark Haddon’s Christopher Boone can’t. As we learn in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, he has autism. He’s high-functioning, but he doesn’t pick up on unspoken cues very well, and he doesn’t understand subtleties of speech. So he’s at a real disadvantage when he decides to conduct an investigation. He discovers the body of the dog that lives on his street one night, and ends up being accused of killing it. He knows he’s innocent, and wants to clear his name. He also wants to be a detective, like Sherlock Holmes. So he begins asking questions. The story is told from his perspective, so it’s really interesting to see how he interprets what is said to him versus what readers can make of it. It’s soon clear that much more is going on in this story than people actually say to Christopher, and that adds layers to the novel.

It’s often easier to tell the truth as far as it goes than it is to outright fabricate. So when people feel the need to hide something or lie, that’s what they often do. It’s no surprise, then, that those unsaid things and half-truths play such an important role in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Depeche Mode’s Lie to Me.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Mark Haddon, Nicholas Blake, T.J. Cooke

There are Elephants in Every Room I See*

Elephant in the RoomAt this time of year, a lot of people go to gatherings of friends and family. There are also the inevitable office gatherings. And if you pay attention to what people talk about, you’ll notice that there are things they don’t talk about as well: the proverbial elephant in the room.

At a company gathering, it may be an imminent buyout by another company. In a family get-together, it may be someone’s unemployment, or someone else’s worries about the choices a child is making. You get the idea. Of course those things are important, but a lot of people consider them too painful, or too divisive, or too something else to discuss. So they don’t, unless some outspoken person brings up the topic.

There are many examples of these ‘elephants in the room’ in crime fiction, and that makes sense. They can add an interesting layer of tension to a story; they can also make for solid motives for conflict – and worse.

Agatha Christie makes effective use of this social tendency in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). In that novel, the members of the Abernethie family gather at the family home, Enderby, when patriarch Richard Abernethie dies. His will is read, and a few comments are made about it. Then, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up, and even she says not to pay attention to what she’s said. But it turns out that that question has been the elephant in the room here. And when Cora herself is murdered the next day, it’s clear that she was probably right. Mr. Entwhistle, the family lawyer, asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the ‘elephant in the room’ plot point is used very effectively here.

It is in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, too. The story is written from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has autism. He’s high-functioning, but he doesn’t have a lot of social tact or the ability to read subtle social cues. Still, he’s very bright, and wants more than anything else to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes. He gets his chance when he discovers that the dog belonging to the people next door has been killed. They think he’s responsible, but Christopher knows he is not. So he decides to find out the truth. In the process, he finds out a great deal about himself. He also challenges his family to face an important elephant in their room: the loss of his mother.

In Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, we are introduced to Orla Payne, who works at St. Herbert’s Residential Library. She’s intelligent, but emotionally fragile. In fact, one of the elephants in her family’s room is that her mother Niamh was also fragile and succumbed to alcoholism. The more important elephant, though, is that twenty years ago, Orla’s brother Callum disappeared. His body was never found, and it’s haunted the family ever since – especially Orla. One day, she makes a call to Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett to ask her to look into the case. Unfortunately, Orla’s had far too much to drink, and doesn’t make her point coherently, so Scarlett doesn’t take the case seriously. She has good reason to later, though, when Orla commits suicide (or is it suicide?). Little by little, Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team connect Orla’s and Callum’s deaths; in the process, they uncover several family truths lying just beneath the surface.

Jane Casey’s How to Fall features eighteen-year-old Jess Tennant. After her parents’ bitter divorce, Jess travels with her mother Molly from London to Molly’s home town of Port Sentinel. The idea is to spend the summer visiting Molly’s twin sister Tilly and her family and taking some time to regroup. Not long after their arrival, Jess is confronted with the ‘family elephant’ – the death of her cousin Freya the year before. The family has handled it best by claiming that it was an accident, and that’s certainly possible, since Freya died of a fall from a cliff. And when Jess asks about it, she quickly learns that everyone wants to believe that explanation:

 

‘‘It was an accident, wasn’t it?’
‘As far as I know.’
‘Not suicide or something.’
The car lurched forward as Mum yanked the wheel, irritated. ‘Jess, I’m serious. Do not even suggest something like that to Tilly. Promise me.’
‘I was just asking.’
‘You can’t ask. It would be too hurtful.’
‘Because they don’t want to think Freya killed herself.’
‘Exactly.’
‘Don’t they want to know the truth, though?’
‘Not necessarily.’’
 

Soon, though, all sorts of hints and bits of evidence begin to suggest that there is more to Freya’s death than a tragic accident. So Jess begins to ask questions on her own.

The elephant in the room at the beginning of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is money. It’s 1922 in London, and Emily Wray and her daughter Sarah have been left in a very difficult financial position after the death of Emily’s husband (and Sarah’s father). At that time, and in that place, it’s still extremely uncommon for ‘well bred’ ladies to take up careers, so neither woman has marketable skills. They decide that the only option they have is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism – to earn some money. Soon, Len Barber and his wife Lilian respond to the Wrays’ discreet advertisement and take rooms in the house. It’s all very awkward, especially at first, and part of that comes from the whole issue of money. It’s just not something that’s discussed in ‘polite circles.’ Soon enough, though, the Barbers’ arrival begins to have more consequences, and they become increasingly drastic.

It’s always difficult to have an easy conversation among people when they share a room with a large elephant. But it happens often enough, both in real life and in crime fiction. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jon McLaughlin’s These Crazy Times.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jane Casey, Mark Haddon, Martin Edwards, Sarah Waters

A Fortress Steep and Mighty*

SecurityOne of the most important needs we have is the need for security. We need to feel that we can depend on our lives to stay more or less stable. In fact, if scholars such as Abraham Maslow are right, the only needs that are more urgent are our physical needs such as air, water, food, and physical safety. The need for security plays a major role in many of our decisions. If you’ve ever known someone who kept a dull and dreary job because it was more secure than risking a career change, you know what I mean.

The need for security also plays an important role in crime fiction. It acts as a motivator, it adds to character development and it can add a layer of tension to a story. Here are just a few examples from the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood, we meet the Cloade family. They’ve always had the security of knowing they’d have no financial worries. Family patriarch Gordon Cloade has seen to their needs and has promised they’d never have to be concerned about money. Then everyone’s sense of security is shaken when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay. What’s worse, he dies tragically in a bomb blast without changing his will. Now Rosaleen is set to inherit everything, leaving the rest of the Cloades with nothing. The possibility of security returns in the form of a mysterious stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden. He hints that Rosaleen may actually have been married to someone else at the time of her marriage to Cloade. If that’s true, then she can’t inherit. When ‘Enoch Arden’ is killed, Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation. Throughout this novel, we see how each of the Cloades deals with the feeling that their precious security may no longer be a given.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of the Hillman family, who’ve built a secure, safe upper-middle-class life. When their seventeen-year-old son Tom begins to have some difficulties, they send him to Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled teens. One day he disappears from the school. Fearing that the school will be held liable, headmaster Dr. Sponti hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. During their meeting, Tom’s father Ralph Hillman comes into the office with the news that Tom’s been abducted and that there’s been a ransom demand. Archer returns with Hillman to the family home where he agrees to find out who’s kidnapped Tom. In the process, he finds that things are not at all what they seem on the surface. This is not a case of kidnapping a rich boy for the money. Then, there’s a murder. As Archer gets closer to the truth, he finds that the Hillmans depend greatly on the sense of security they get from their reputation and their social standing. When that’s threatened, it’s a threat to their very identity.

Karin Fossum’s  Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride)  includes another treatment of the need for security. Gunder Jormann has lived all his life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and life is slow-paced, even a bit dull, but secure. Jormann himself isn’t exactly the quickest thinker, but he is steady and dependable, a lot like the town.  Then he makes the surprising announcement that he’s going to find a bride. What’s more, he’s going to Mumbai to do so. His sister Marie isn’t at all sure he should do this. It certainly doesn’t sound like a safe, smart thing to do. But Jormann goes ahead with his plan and travels to Mumbai, where he meets Poona Bai. They strike up a relationship and Poona agrees to marry him. He travels back to Norway to make the house ready for her, while she stays behind to finish up her life in India. On the day of Poona’s arrival in Norway though, Marie is involved in a car accident and Jormann has to stay with her. So he asks an acquaintance to meet Poona at the airport. They miss each other though, and Poona never arrives at Jormann’s house. The next day her body is discovered in a nearby field. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the killing. In this case, security isn’t specifically the reason for Poona’s death. But it does play an important role in the way everyone responds to her and to her murder.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces us to fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, but functions at a high enough level that he can go to school and learn academic material. Because of his autism, Christopher has a high need for security. Everything has to be in a certain order, there are certain routines he has to follow, and so on. His comfort and ability to function depend quite a lot on his sense that things are stable. One day Christopher discovers that the neighbour’s dog has been killed. At first, he’s accused of being responsible. So to prove his innocence, he decides to become a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and discover who the guilty person is. In the process of finding out the truth, Christopher finds out a lot about himself. A lot of his assumptions come into question and all of it calls into question the stability he’s always assumed.

We also see the role that the need for security plays in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s planned the perfect dream house in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s looking for the security of a quiet, secluded life in her new home. Then, poor financial decision-making results in a serious blow that means she has to sell her perfect house and settle for the smaller house next door. Her security is further threatened when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy ‘her’ house and move in. She doesn’t want anyone living nearby and even refers to them as ‘the invaders.’ Soon afterwards, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them and Thea’s sense of security is even further threatened when Kim takes an interest in her. Little by little though, she and Kim form a kind of awkward friendship and she senses real promise in the girl. That’s why she feels particularly upset when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When she learns that the police aren’t going to do much, Thea decides to take her own action. This story is told in the form of journal entries Thea makes as a part of a writing class she’s taking. The journal prompts force Thea to confront her own past and it’s interesting to see how her security is threatened by that too.

And then there’s Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. The setting for this novel is an exclusive gated community outside Buenos Aires called The Cascade Heights Country Club. The community represents security to its wealthy residents. There’s a six-foot-high perimeter fence, a group of security guards, etc., all designed to keep the scary ‘larger world’ out. But no-one is really as secure as we’d like to think. And when national economic troubles find their way into Cascade Heights, everyone begins to feel the crumbling of that sense of security. Then one night there’s a tragedy at the home of one of the residents. That tragedy shakes the foundations of life for several of the people who live in Cascade Heights, and we really see how dependent people are on their sense of security, whether or not that security is illusory.

It seems we all have the need to feel secure. When that sense of security is threatened, the experience can shake us to the core. And that can make for a rich layer in a crime novel. I’ve given just a very few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock. Yes, I know I’ve used this one more than once. It’s a great song. You’re welcome.  ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Karin Fossum, Mark Haddon, Ross Macdonald, Virginia Duigan

I Touch No One and No One Touches Me*

Emotional DetachmentIn Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into several odd thefts and murders that occur at a student hostel. As a part of that investigation, they get to know the residents and find out about their backgrounds. One of those residents is Elizabeth Johnston, a brilliant, highly driven law student who is interested, so it seems, only in her work. At one point, Poirot and Sharpe are discussing the likelihood of each resident being the killer. Here’s what Poirot says about Elizabeth Johnson:

 

‘The West Indian girl Elizabeth Johnston has probably the best brains of anyone in the Hostel. She has subordinated her emotional life to her brain – that is dangerous.’

 

It certainly can be dangerous, but there are people who are more or less completely emotionally detached. It’s difficult to write about them because very often, emotionally detached characters feel ‘flat.’ On the one hand, it’s healthy not to get too emotionally caught up in life. But on the other, emotions are a part of the human experience, so we’re accustomed to characters who have them and are sometimes driven by them. And in real life, many people are like that. So it takes skill to make an emotionally detached character interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention. There are some of them out there, though.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes finds the problems he investigates much more interesting as a rule than the people with whom he interacts. As he looks at evidence, makes deductions and so on, he often remains emotionally detached. And yet, he isn’t as completely detached as perhaps he might like to be. For instance, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Holmes gets a new client Violet Hunter. She’s been offered a position as governess to Jeprho Rucastle’s six-year-old son. Rucastle offers her a generous salary, but the position comes with some odd requests that unsettle her a little. They make Holmes uneasy too, and in fact he counsels her not to take the position. At first, she listens to him and declined the offer. Then, Rucastle increases the salary he proposes to pay. This time Violet can’t refuse and she takes the job. Holmes tells her that if ever she should need him, to contact him. This she does when some frightening things begin to happen, and Holmes and Watson rush to the Rucastle home as soon as they can, hoping to prevent disaster for Violet. On the one hand, Holmes is detached in terms of deducing what’s going on at the house and why Violet Hunter is in danger. On the other, it’s clear that he feels for her and wants her to stay safe – not a real case of complete lack of emotion. That said though, Holmes is often detached.

So is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. He can be personable when he wants to be and he has a circle of friends and acquaintances. He even marries as the series of novels featuring him moves along. But he is emotionally detached from most of his fellow humans. He’s responsible for a great deal of crime, including murder. Yet, although he doesn’t delight in killing, he doesn’t have qualms about the crimes he commits unless you count his not wanting to be caught. It’s an interesting case of a character who may be intellectually really interesting, but certainly doesn’t have the full range of human emotions.

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, we are introduced to Martin Lemmer, a bodyguard who is employed by a personal protection company called Body Armour. Emma le Roux hires the company when she decides to make a dangerous trip and Lemmer is assigned to protect her. Emma is searching for her brother Jacobus who everyone thought died in a skirmish with poachers years earlier. But she has reason to believe he may still be alive and she wants to find out. She and Lemmer travel from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out the truth, and in the course of their trip, run up against some very dangerous people who won’t hesitate at all to kill. Especially at the beginning of the novel, Lemmer is emotionally quite detached from his clients. In fact he makes a point of that. He is also emotionally detached from the work he has to do. He’s not at all what you’d call trigger-happy, but his job is to protect his client.

There’s a really interesting case of emotional detachment in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a teenager with autism. He’s reasonably high-functioning, so he can interact with others, learn academics and so on. But his autism prevents him from really making social and emotional connections with the people in his life. When a neighbour’s dog is killed, Christopher decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes and find out who is responsible. As he sets about it, we see how detached he is from the way others feel and react. We also see how that detachment is helpful (in the sense that he is not hampered by social niceties), but at the same time impedes him. In a way, the reader can tell a lot more than Christopher can, at least at first, just by paying attention to the emotional/social site of people.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy shares the lives of Glasgow’s criminal world, including the lives of the professional hit-men who are a part of it. In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Sudden Arrival of Violence, we see how emotionally detached people can be from others. Several of the characters in these novels like their work and take professional pride in what they do. But they are detached from others. And in a way, the more detached they are, the better they do their work.

Emotions can of course be destructive, and it’s healthy to know how to let go of them and ‘step back.’ But what about complete emotional detachment? What do you think about emotionally detached characters? Do you find they take away from a story? Do they seem too ‘flat’ to you? Or do you find them interesting? If you’re a writer, have you created detached characters? How do you do that, considering most of us are emotionally connected with the world?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Deon Meyer, Malcolm Mackay, Mark Haddon, Patricia Highsmith

I Have My Own Life and I Am Stronger Than You Know*

Unique VoicesMost authors tap their own life experiences and world views when they write. And that makes sense; tapping one’s own experiences has a way of adding authenticity to a story and it allows the author to write in a more natural way. But some authors have taken interesting risks by creating protagonists who don’t have much in common with the author at all. Giving an authentic voice to that kind of character can be a real challenge. Essentially, the author has to re-think her or his assumptions about everything when writing the character. It’s not easy to do, but there are some examples of authors who’ve done it very well.

Agatha Christie created several protagonists who had different voices to her own. One of them is Captain Arthur Hastings (and I’ll bet you thought I was going to mention Hercule Poirot!). Hastings has in common with Christie an English background and wartime experience. But they are quite different, not least in terms of their genders. And it’s interesting to see how Christie goes about giving Hastings his unique voice. We see it for instance in The Murder on the Links. Hastings is returning by train to London after a business trip when he meets a mysterious young woman who is a fellow passenger. The woman, who refers to herself only as ‘Cinderella,’ turns out to play an unexpected role in the case that soon preoccupies Hastings and Poirot. Paul Renauld writes to Poirot to ask his help, and Poirot and Hastings travel to Renauld’s home in France in response. When they get there they find that Renauld has been stabbed. Poirot investigates and discovers that this stabbing is related to Renauld’s hidden past. Throughout the novel, we see Hastings’ interactions with ‘Cinderella’ as well as with other characters. His voice strikes the reader as authentic and his reactions are believable, despite the fact that he has little in common really with his creator.

The same is true of Christopher Boone, whom we meet in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. When he discovers that a neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and find out who is responsible. In the process of investigating, he finds out not just the truth about the dog, but also some truths about his own life. Haddon has had experience working with people with disabilities and Christopher’s character shows that knowledge. But Christopher’s voice is quite different to Haddon’s. This story is told from Christopher’s point of view, so we get an authentic look at the way a person with autism might see the world and might process a series of events. Haddon took a risk in writing Christopher’s voice and it paid off (at least in my opinion, so do feel free to differ with me if you don’t agree). The voice is very believable and that’s part of what makes this novel work.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce has a voice that’s very different to her creator’s voice. While Bradley has said that he has some things in common with his protagonist, the two really are different. Besides the obvious gender difference, Flavia is English and Bradley is Canadian. Flavia is interested in chemistry and Bradley’s professional background was in electrical engineering and technology. And of course, Flavia is a child while Bradley isn’t. And yet, Bradley has created an authentic voice for Flavia. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, she attends a church fête where there are several attractions, including fortune-telling. Flavia has her fortune told, but the experience ends in disaster. Afterwards, she feels a sense of obligation to the Gypsy who told her fortune. When the Gypsy tells her that she and her husband were once forced off the property of Flavia’s own home Buckshaw, here is Flavia’s reaction:

 

‘And that was when it came to me. Before I could change my mind I had blurted out the words.
‘You can come back to Buckshaw. Stay as long as you like. It will be all right…I promise.’
Even as I said it I knew there would be a great flaming row with Father, but somehow that didn’t matter.’

 

In this we see a very eleven-year-old response. Flavia is bright and observant, but like any eleven-year-old, she hasn’t thought out the consequences of what she’s offering. And when the Gypsy is later found murdered, she uses that same enthusiasm to find out who the killer is.

Karin Fossum and her sleuth, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer, both live and work in Norway. But beyond that, they are quite different. Fossum is a poet as well as a novelist, but she has had other work experience too, including hospital work and working as a home aid caregiver. Her creation though is a cop. That’s been his life’s work. In other ways too, they are different. They have different perceptions of life just by dint of their being different sexes. And yet Sejer has a distinctive voice that doesn’t seem forced at all. He is a widower whose process of grieving his wife Elise seems natural, as does his relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel, which begins in He Who Fears the Wolf and evolves as a story arc. He is believable as a middle-aged male cop and doesn’t strike the reader (well, at least this reader) as a female civilian’s perception of what a male cop would be like.

Shona MacLean (who now writes her series as S.G. MacLean) has created a sleuth who’s quite different to her in her Alexander Seaton series. Like MacLean, Seaton is Scottish, but there the resemblance ends. MacLean studied history; Seaton studied religion. MacLean lives in 21st Century Scotland, but Seaton lives in the Scotland of the 17th Century. And of course, there’s the gender difference. To MacLean’s credit though, Seaton’s voice is quite authentic. He inhabits his world just as naturally as we inhabit ours, and he sees the world in a believable way. His voice is very real too as he meets, gets to know, woos and marries Sarah Forbes.

And then there’s Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. She is very different to her creator, being not just female but half-Aborigine. What’s more, her home is Australia’s Northern Territories, a very different environment to Hyland’s own Melbourne. He began by writing,

 

‘…a young whitefella who, whatever I did to him, always seemed to be too much like me’

 

Feedback from a manuscript assessment place caused him to re-think his story:

 

‘So I pulled the whitefella out altogether and Emily stepped forward. That forced me into a plot and some structure.’

 

Hyland took a risk in creating Emily, but fans of this series (of whom I am one) can tell you that Emily’s character is rich, authentic and certainly has a distinctive voice.

And that’s the thing about talented authors. They can create characters who have completely different voices and make those characters just as real as they themselves are. What are your thoughts on this? If you’re writer, have you written characters who have completely different voices to your own?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Leather and Lace.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Karin Fossum, Mark Haddon, Shona MacLean