Category Archives: Mark Haddon

‘Cause I Speak My Mind Sometimes*

bluntnessI’ll bet that, when you were a child, you were taught to be tactful. And most people do try not to be too blunt when they speak. Things just seem to go more smoothly when we temper what we say. And yet, sometimes people say things in a very forthright way. In a sense, it’s refreshing; you know where you are with such folks. At the same time, though, too much bluntness can make for awkwardness or worse. My guess is, you’ve had that experience in real life. And it’s certainly there in crime fiction.

The interesting thing about blunt statements is that they can reveal a lot about a character without the author having to go into too much detail. And bluntness can give clues to a story, too.

Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) introduces us to the Abernethie family. Patriarch Richard Abernethie has just died of what seems like natural causes, and his relatives have gathered for his funeral. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle also intends to use the occasion to share the terms of Abernethie’s will. During the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up; she herself tells the family not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, everyone thinks she may be right. And when she is murdered the next day, it seems clear that what she said is true. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. One thing that’s interesting about Cora’s character is that she’s always been prone to what Entwhistle calls, ‘awkward statements.’ It makes for an interesting layer to that character. I completely agree, fans of The ABC Murders.

Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers can also be quite blunt. In The Penguin Pool Murder, in which she makes her debut, Miss Withers is escorting her fourth-grade class on a trip to the New York Aquarium. They’re at the penguin pool exhibit, getting ready to leave, when they see a man’s body slide into the pool. He’s been murdered, so homicide detective Oscar Piper is called in to investigate. In the course of his work, he interviews Miss Withers. She tells him that she’s a teacher, and how she came to be at the aquarium. Later, he says:
 

‘‘Occupation?’
‘At present, answering foolish questions. Young man, I told you I was a teacher.’’
 
Interestingly, Piper isn’t permanently put off by Miss Withers’ bluntness, as fans of this series will know…

Any fan of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel will tell you that he is not exactly known for his tact or verbal restraint. It’s very much part of his character to be blunt. For instance, in Good Morning, Midnight, he and Peter Pascoe investigate the supposed suicide of Pal Maciver. What’s odd about this death is that it eerily mirrors the death of his father, ten years earlier. When he arrives at the scene, Dalziel finds a bit of chaos. Among other things, one of the people in the house at the time of the death has tried to leave, and gotten into an altercation with PC Bonnick, who’s trying to keep everything secured. Dalziel tries to get some answers from this man:
 

‘‘Look, I’m sorry – I was out of…but I was worried – we’d heard that…and he didn’t show, so I thought that…that…that…’
‘What’s your problem, lad,’ enquired Dalziel. ‘Apart from not being able to finish sentences?’’
 

Later, Dalziel finds out that the man is a PE teacher. Here’s his response:
 

‘‘PE, eh? That explains about the sentences. Pity but.’’
 

Anyone familiar with Dalziel will know that this is quite typical of his way of speaking.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, and that impacts his interactions with others. He’s not skilled at understanding social cues, so he says exactly what’s on his mind. One day, Christopher comes upon the dog that belongs to the people next door. The animal’s been killed, and he’s curious as to how it happened. The dog’s owners think Christopher might be responsible, but he knows he’s innocent. So he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. In the course of his search for answers, Christopher finds out some important truths about himself. And as he interacts with others, we see that he is at times very blunt indeed. It’s not to be unkind; he simply doesn’t understand the social skill of choosing one’s words and one’s approach.

And then there’s Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer, a former school principal whom we meet in The Precipice. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that she had bought a piece of property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, and had a home built there. But bad luck and poor financial decisions meant that she wasn’t able to move in. Instead, she’s had to sell the house and settle for the house next door, a home she calls ‘the hovel.’ When Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy Thea’s dream home (which she still considers hers), matters get even worse. Then, Frank’s niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to have as much contempt for Kim as she does for Frank and Ellice. But after a bit, she forms an awkward friendship with the girl, and sees real promise in her. That’s why she’s especially concerned when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When the police won’t take any action, Thea makes plans of her own. Throughout the novel, Thea is blunt – sometimes very unkind – in the journal she keeps. She’s not quite as blunt in her interactions, but she certainly has her say.

And that’s the thing about bluntness. Forthright people certainly put things in perspective. Case in point: a conversation I had with my granddaughter:

Miss Five: What kind of books do you write?
Me: I write mystery books.
Miss Five: Can I read them?
Me: Well, they’re for grownups. They aren’t really for kids.
Miss Five: Oh, so they’re boring?

There is nothing like a conversation with a five-year-old to put everything in perspective. Just in case I ever get full of myself…😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rubens’ Lay it Down.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Mark Haddon, Reginald Hill, Stuart Palmer, Virginia Duigan

Try to Find Equilibrium*

equilibrium-and-disequilibriumIf theorists such as Jean Piaget are right, it’s human nature to want equilibrium. We want things to be in balance and to make sense. We want some sort of order. If you think about it, that drive for equilibrium arguably fuels many of our actions. We’re curious (which throws us into disequilibrium because we don’t know something). So, we seek to learn, or to find out about something. Or, perhaps we move to a new home. That throws us into disequilibrium until we unpack, put our things where we want them, and find out where the local library and the grocery stores are. Then, as we settle in, we impose new order on our lives and are back into equilibrium. And the list of examples could go on.

For any story, the drive for equilibrium can be an effective way to construct the action. The protagonist starts out in equilibrium, a conflict happens (which throws the story into disequilibrium), and the protagonist seeks to restore order. Or, perhaps, the story starts out in disequilibrium, and the protagonist sets out to restore equilibrium. There are other possibilities, too. And we see this very obviously in crime fiction. After all, in crime fiction, there’s usually a murder or other crime (disorder), and an investigation (the attempt to explain it and restore order). But even if you put that overarching conflict aside, there are a lot of other ways in which we see the drive to restore equilibrium.

For instance, in Agatha Chrirstie’s Sad Cypress, we are introduced to Mary Gerrard. She’s the daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterby, the home of wealthy Laura Welman. As it happens, Mrs. Welman has taken a particular interest in Mary, and has educated her ‘above her station.’ This decision has upset what you might call the social equilibrium of the village where they live. For one thing. Mary no longer feels sure of where, exactly, she belongs, if I can put it that way. For another, it’s upset those who feel that Mary is now ‘above herself.’ In fact, one day, Mrs. Welman’s niece Elinor Carlisle gets an anonymous letter that hints that Mary is actively manipulating the situation to ensure that she, not Elinor, inherits when the older woman dies. Elinor and her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ decide to go to Hunterby and see for themselves what’s going on. This further upsets the equilibrium when Roddy finds himself smitten with Mary. With her engagement broken and her comfortable assurance of money in question, Elinor has more than one motive for wanting Mary out of the way. So when Mary is poisoned, she’s the most likely suspect, and she’s duly arrested and charged. Local GP Peter Lord wants Mary’s name cleared, and he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. In this novel, it’s not just the whodunit and whydunit that reflect that drive for equilibrium. I know, I know, fans of Ordeal by Innocence. Yes, indeed, fans of Taken at the Flood.

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, we are introduced to Emma la Roux. She’s watching television one day when she sees a news story on television about a man named Cobie de Villiers, who’s wanted in conjunction with the murder of a traditional healer and three other men. The man the newscasters call de Villiers looks eerily like Emma’s brother Jacobus, who disappeared twenty years earlier. At the time, everyone said he was killed in a skirmish with poachers. Now, though, it seems he may still be alive, and that throws Emma’s world into disequilibrium. She wants to make sense of it all, so she hires professional bodyguard Marin Lemmer to accompany her from Cape Town to the Lowveld. As they search for answers, they find that this case goes deeper than just a man who may have stayed under the proverbial radar. It involves murder, fraud, and corruption in very high places.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist/academician. She is also the mother of four children, and of course, cares about them deeply. So she’s quite concerned when, in The Wandering Soul Murders, her son Peter’s old girlfriend, Christy Sinclair, comes back into his life. For several reasons, she’d thought Peter was well rid of Christy, and life had gotten back into equilibrium. But one day Christy re-appears. She invites herself along on a family trip to celebrate the engagement of Joanne’s daughter, Mieka, and even says that she and Peter are getting back together. Needless to say, this is discomfiting for Joanne. Then Christy dies in what looks like a successful suicide, but turns out to be murder. And Joanne discovers that this murder is related to another case that’s been proverbially dropped into her lap.

Equilibrium is particularly important for those who have autism and other spectrum disorders. We see that in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This story is told from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has autism, although he functions on a high level. One day, he comes upon the dog that belongs to the people next door. The animal’s been killed, and its owners think he might be responsible. Christopher knows he’s not, though, and sets out to prove it, just like Sherlock Holmes. Along the way, he makes a personal discovery that throws his carefully-ordered life into complete disequilibrium. And one important plot thread in this novel is how he reacts to that change, and what happens as a result.

Wendy James’ The Mistake introduces readers to Jodie Evans Garrow. Although she’s from the ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ Jodie has made a very good life for herself. She’s smart and attractive, and is married to a successful attorney whose name is being suggested as the next mayor of their small New South Wales city. She’s got two healthy children, and life is content – even idyllic. Then, Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in accident that sends her to the same Sydney hospital where, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another baby girl. She’s never told anyone, even her husband, about that other baby. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. When Jodie says she gave her up for adoption, the over-curious nurse looks into it, but can find no records of a formal adoption. Now, questions start to come up. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? Jodie’s well-ordered life falls into disarray as an investigation begins to loom. In this novel, there is certainly the plot thread of the mystery surrounding the baby. But there’s also the plot thread of what happens to the Garrows when they are thrown into disequilibrium, and have to find some sort of order in it all.

Human nature seems to be like that. We like equilibrium and balance. We want things to make sense. So when they don’t, this drives us to want to put things right. And that drive can add a lot to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bush’s The Sound of Winter.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Gail Bowen, Mark Haddon, Wendy James

Fastidious and Precise*

OCDMost of us would probably say that we like to keep things in some sort of order. Even people whose desks look like bombsites generally have a sense of where things are. But for some people, the urge to keep things orderly and neat goes much farther than what we’d call ‘normal.’

I’m not a clinical psychologist, so I’m not sophisticated about the most recent definition of and treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But for those who have it, neatness and routine are much more than just that ‘I really should clean up that desk!’ impulse, or the regular housework most people do. Those with OCD are hypersensitive to anything that’s out of order and, sometimes, to any change in their routines. OCD can take different forms, and many argue that it’s a continuum. But it nearly always includes a need for order and cleanliness, and often for a strict routine.

There’s an argument that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would very likely be diagnosed with OCD if he were a contemporary character. Fans will tell you that he’s obsessed with neatness and tidiness, both in dress and in his surroundings. In fact, sculptor Henrietta Savernake mentions it in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). She’s a ‘person of interest’ in the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow, so they have several conversations. At one point, she pays him a visit:
 

‘Poirot ushered her into his sitting room…
‘Nice,’ she said, ‘two of everything. How you would hate my studio.’
‘Why should I hate it?’
‘Oh, a lot of clay sticking to things – and here and there just one thing that I happen to like and which would be ruined of there were two of them.’’
 

Poirot’s obsession may be annoying at times, but in more than one case (no spoilers!) it gives him vital clues.

In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. His clinical diagnosis is autism, which carries with it a similar obsession with routine and order. He depends on a very specific schedule, and his possessions have to be kept in a certain way. He’s also very particular about the way his food is presented. One day, he discovers the body of the dog that lives next door. He’s suspected of being responsible, but knows that he’s not guilty. So he decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes, and find out what really happened. As he does, he finds out some surprising things about himself.

There are other protagonists, too, who have OCD in one of its forms. For example, there’s Stephen Puleston’s Inspector Ian Drake. A member of the Wales Police Service, he’s based in the northern part of Wales. Drake is a skilled police detective who is affected by OCD. He’s very sensitive to any hint of feeling dirty or sweaty. He washes his hands often, and keeps toothbrush and toothpaste in his desk drawer. In fact, he gets counselling for his symptoms to keep them manageable.

And of course, no discussion of OCD and similar disorders would be complete without a mention of television’s Adrian Monk, whose role is acted by Tony Shalhoub. Monk is a former homicide detective with the San Francisco Police Department. Grief over the murder of his wife worsened his already-existing OCD symptoms, making it ultimately necessary to suspend him from the department. Now, he operates as a homicide consultant, with his ultimate goal being to return to regular police work. In this case, as in other cases of detectives who have OCD, it’s Monk’s very symptoms that often give him important clues.

Ruth Rendell’s Adam and Eve and Pinch Me introduces readers to Minty Knox. As a result of the terrible 1999 train crash near London’s Paddington Station, she loses her lover Jock Lewis. It turns out that Jock was a good-looking but manipulative con artist, and that Minty isn’t the only victim. As her life intersects with the lives of two other women, we see how powerful psychological manipulation can be. Minty herself is fragile in many ways. She has an obsession with cleanliness that Rendell doesn’t specifically call OCD, but that certainly is reflective of that disorder. And she has an increasing difficulty with distinguishing between fantasy and reality

Sometimes, it’s the fictional criminal who has OCD. For instance, in Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman. In that novel, Chief Nico Sirsky, Head of the Paris CID La Crim’, is faced with a disturbing series of crimes. First, the body of Marie-Hélène Jory is discovered in her Paris home. The body has been mutilated, but very precisely. And everything else is particularly neat – not a thing is out of place. Then there’s another murder. And another. Among other things, this killer seems to focus on being neat, even making sure that slippers belonging to one of the victims are put very neatly in a specific place. It’s not spoiling the story to say that the killer’s penchant for tidiness is not the reason for the murders. But it’s a fact that the CID team has to deal with as they investigate.

Most of the time, we don’t think too much about combing our hair or washing our hands after using the restroom. But for some people, neatness, cleanliness and tidiness mean much more than that. These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Killer Queen.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Frédérique Molay, Mark Haddon, Ruth Rendell, Stephen Puleston

I Am He as You Are He and You Are Me*

Point of ViewOne of the important choices writers have to make is which way they’ll tell a story. Most authors choose first or third person (more about second person in a bit). There are good reasons to choose each one, and a lot depends on what the author wants to accomplish.

Many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are written in the first person, from the point of view of Dr. Watson. One of the big advantages of first person here is that it allows for a really interesting perspective on another character, Sherlock Holmes. As fans will know, Holmes is unusual, even unique. And his skill at deduction is legendary. To see all of that from someone else’s point of view allows for the same kind of wonder (‘How’d he do that?’) that we might feel when watching a magician. And then, of course, Watson’s perspective allows Holmes to explain himself. There are examples of that moment woven through the Holmes stories and novels. One that I like very much comes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, Commissionaire Peterson brings an unusual case to Holmes. He broke up a fight in which some thugs were attacking a man. Everyone ran off, and in his haste, the man dropped his hat and a goose he was carrying. Peterson brought the goose home to his wife, and when she started to prepare it for cooking, she found a valuable gem in its craw. Peterson wants to know the story behind the gem, and for that, he’ll need the man’s identity. Holmes takes one good look at the hat and is able to be so precise about its owner that they soon find out who that person is.

Of course, sleuths are not perfect. Just ask Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. He’ll be very quick to lay out the limitations of his boss, Nero Wolfe. And that’s one of the real advantages of telling most of the Wolfe stories in first person, from Archie’s point of view. We get to see all of Wolfe’s faults (which he himself would hardly be willing to discuss). What’s more, we learn parts of the story that Wolfe wouldn’t necessarily know, since Archie usually serves as Wolfe’s ‘legs, eyes and ears.’

Agatha Christie used first person in several of her stories, too. One purpose that served (similar to what we see in the Stout stories) was to give some insight into another character. I’m thinking particularly of the Hercule Poirot stories in which Arthur Hastings serves as narrator. He certainly admires Poirot’s detection ability, but he is not oblivious to Poirot’s faults and eccentricities. And that gives us insight into Poirot’s character.

Hastings’ perspective also serves another purpose: misdirection. In Lord Edgware Dies, Poirot and Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. The victim’s wife, Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect, but according to the testimony of twelve other people, she was at a dinner party in a different part of London at the time of the murder. It’s a difficult case, and at one point, Poirot explains why he values Hastings’ perspective on it so much:
 

‘‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’’
 

What he means is that he learns from Hastings what the murder wants him to think. Hastings is not stupid, but he doesn’t put pieces of a case together the way Poirot does. He sees and hears things, but isn’t always aware of their significance.

Christie also created several first-person stories where the narrator is unreliable – another form of misdirection. I won’t list titles or characters, as that would give spoilers. But fans will know which ones I mean. And she’s not the only one who uses first person for the purpose of creating an unreliable narrator. A few authors and titles that come to my mind are James W. Fuerst’s Huge, Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind.

There are other reasons, too, for which authors choose the first person. For example, it allows for readers to really get to understand the protagonist. But it’s got its limits. It’s harder for an author to share information that a given character couldn’t know unless that author uses third person. That reader omniscience allows for a great deal of suspense as readers can anticipate what’s going to happen next once they get some information. Karin Fossum does this quite a lot with her Konrad Sejer stories, for instance. As one example, in When the Devil Holds the Candle, we know something terrible is going to happen when best friends Andreas Winther and Sivert ‘Zipp” Skorpe spend a fateful day together. But Sejer doesn’t know. And that tension as the events unfold, and as Sejer later investigates them adds to the suspense.

There’s also the fact that third person allows for multiple points of view. Many, many writers (including yours truly) share stories through different points of view. Doing that gives the reader a broader perspective on the events. It also allows for the evolution of a group of characters (since the reader can get to know more than one of them). Kate Atkinson does this in One Good Turn, for instance. In that novel, we follow the lives of several disparate characters, including her protagonist Jackson Brodie, who all end up in the same place one afternoon when a blue Honda crashes into the back of a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The lead-up to the crash, and the consequences of it, are fateful for several of the characters, and Atkinson shows us that through more than one pair of eyes.

There are some authors who’ve actually chosen to use the second person, too. Charles Stross’ Rule 34 comes to my mind as an example of this. That novel takes place in the near future, in a sort of alternative reality. In it, Edinburgh police detective Liz Kavanaugh and her team investigate several murders that are connected with online spamming, a shadowy criminal group called The Organization, and a former identity thief named Anwar. The points of view shift throughout the novel, but the story is all told in the second person.

There are good reasons to choose one or another way to tell a story. Neither first person nor third person is always ideal, and a lot of people are not comfortable with second person. At the same time, each of these offers some important advantages, too. Do you have a preference? Let me know in the poll below, and we’ll talk about it again when everyone’s had a week to vote. I’ll be interested in what you have to say. If you’re a writer, what drew you to the first/second/third person choices you’ve made?

 

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Stross, James W. Fuerst, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Mark Haddon, Rex Stout, Virginia Duigan

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