Category Archives: Martin Clark

You’re Kidding Yourself*

self-deceptionIt’s said that the biggest lies, and the most difficult to get past, are the ones we tell ourselves. To an extent, we all do a bit a self-deception (e.g. ‘It’s just one piece of cake, after all;’ ‘It’s not my fault! ____ made a complete mess of this project;’ ‘Why are all these people such bad drivers?’). And just a little self-deception is usually harmless enough (it is, after all, just the one piece of cake, right?). But the less honest we are with ourselves, the more trouble we can find.

Don’t believe me? There are plenty of examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean. Crime-fictional characters who deceive themselves can add a solid source of tension to a novel. What’s more, they can be interesting reflections of our human nature.

For instance, in Megan Abbott’s 1950’s-era historical novel Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She has a close relationship with her brother, Bill, who’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office. Lora’s life may not be overly exciting, but she’s content. Then, Bill meets and falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. From the very beginning, Lora doesn’t think much of Alice, and she’s very uncomfortable with what she sees as Alice’s dubious past. But, for Bill’s sake, she tries to make her relationship with Alice work. That gets more difficult, though, when Bill and Alice marry. The more Lora learns about Alice, the more questions she has about her new sister-in-law, and that doesn’t help matters, either. At the same time as Lora is repelled by Alice’s life, though, she is also drawn to it. And it’s interesting to see how she doesn’t really admit that to herself. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be involved in it. In what she tells herself is an attempt to protect Bill, Lora begins to ask questions about the murder. But what, really, are her motives? And what does she really want from her life?

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice features former school principal Thea Farmer. When she left her position, her plan had been to have a house built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But a combination of bad luck and poor financial judgement changed everything. Now, Thea’s had to settle for the house next door – a home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ What’s worse, the home she still thinks of as hers has been purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington – a couple she refers to as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s niece, Kim, comes to live with him and Ellice. To her surprise, Thea finds herself developing an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. She sees real writing promise in Kim, and even takes the girl to the writing class she’s been attending. When Thea comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, she learns that the police are unlikely to do anything about it as things are. So, Thea decides to take matters into her own hands. Thea is a strong, intelligent character. But it’s interesting to see how she is also able to deceive herself. Her story is told through a series of journal entries that she makes for her writing class; and in those entries, we see how she views people and events in her life. But what is the real truth about the reason she left the school where she was principal? And what about the circumstances that led to her financial difficulties? There are solid hints here that Thea isn’t entirely honest with herself.

That’s also true of Gates Hunt, whom we meet in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. He and his brother, Mason, were raised in poverty, in an abusive home. But each had the means to get out. Mason has taken advantage of scholarships and other opportunities, and now has a ‘free ride’ to law school. Gates has a great deal of natural athletic ability, and has been told he could go far with that. But he’s chosen to squander his talent, and has ended up living on money he gets from his mother, and on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. One, night, the Hunt brothers are driving home after a night out when they encounter Gates’ romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. An argument they had earlier in the day flares up again, and before anyone really knows it, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason helps his brother cover up the crime, and life goes on for the Hunt brothers. Years later, Mason has become the commonwealth (of Virginia) prosecutor for Patrick County. Gates has gotten involved in drug dealing. When he’s arrested and handed a very long sentence, he begs his brother to get him out. This time, Mason refuses to help. Gates retaliates by implicating Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder, and now Mason may stand trial for the killing. Throughout this novel, we see how Gates deceives himself. He blames others for his bad choices, and he doesn’t consider his own role in what’s happened to his life.

There’s a lot of self-deception in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. One night, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, have dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant with Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. As the story goes on, and each different course is brought, we slowly get to know these characters. And we learn that these couples have a very dark secret. Their fifteen-year-old sons went in together in a terrible crime. The real purpose of the meal was to work out what they’re going to do about it. And in their conversations, we see how much these people are deceiving themselves about their children, their own roles in the crime, and more.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we are introduced to Niccolo ‘Nick’ Franco. His family came to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, all went well enough, and the family began to prosper. But then, Nick’s father ended up killing Luigi Lupo in a bar fight. Unfortunately for the family, the victim turned out to be the son of notorious mobster Tonio Lupo. The bereaved father has cursed the family, promising that all three Franco sons (including Nick) will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi was at his death. As we follow Nick’s story, we learn that he gets ‘the Hollywood bug’ and tries to make a name for himself in the silent films. He does well enough at first. But he has grandiose ideas about his future, and he’s not honest with himself about his mediocre acting. It doesn’t help matters that he’s fond of drugs, drink, and women. Nick’s refusal to see his own limitations end up costing him dearly.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which tells the story of Piriwee Public School, near Sydney, and the families that send their children there. The story’s focus is three families in particular. Trouble starts when the son of one of those three mothers is accused of bullying. He claims he’s innocent, but the accuser’s mother is adamant. Matters get worse as other families choose sides. One night, everything comes to a boil, as the saying goes, and there’s a tragedy. As the families cope with what’s happened, we see just what lies people tell themselves – especially when it comes to their own families and children.

See what I mean? Some of the ways we deceive ourselves aren’t so bad. But some can lead to disaster. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on my new novel. It’s only going to take me a couple of weeks, and I know it’s Nobel-worthy – way better than anything else out there.  What?! It is!  😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Megan Abbott, Virginia Duigan

When They Built You, Brother, They Broke the Mold*

brothersAn interesting post from Cleo, at Cleopatra Loves Books, has got me thinking about the roles that brothers play in fiction. There are plenty of stories about the bonds we may have with sisters, and that’s all to the good. But our bonds with brothers are also important, and they’re different to the bonds we have with sisters.

Bonds with brothers play important roles in crime fiction. And it’s interesting to see how they’re woven into plots in different ways. That’s realistic, though, if you think about it. There are many different kinds of relationships we could have with a brother.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he has an older brother, Mycroft. Dr. Watson doesn’t learn about Mycroft’s existence until The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter. In that story, Mycroft has heard a strange story from Mr. Melas, who lives on the floor above him. When Sherlock and Dr. Watson visit Mycroft at the Diogenes Club, they hear the story, too. It seems that Mr. Melas was abducted for a specific reason: he is bilingual in Greek and English. And someone forced him to translate during a very unsettling interrogation. This problem leads to a case involving greed and inherited property. And it shows an interesting side of Sherlock Holmes. In one scene, he and his brother are looking out a window and have a conversation about two men that they see:

“Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example.’
‘The billiard-marker and the other?’
‘Precisely. What do you make of the other?’
The two men had stopped opposite the window. Some chalk marks over the waistcoat pocket were the only signs of billiards which I could see in one of them. The other was a very small, dark fellow, with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm.
‘An old soldier, I perceive,’ said Sherlock.
‘And very recently discharged,’ remarked the brother.
‘Served in India, I see.’
‘And a non-commissioned officer.’
‘Royal Artillery, I fancy,’ said Sherlock.
‘And a widower.’
‘But with a child.’
‘Children, my dear boy, children.’
‘Come,’ said I, laughing, ‘this is a little too much.”

The conversation shows that private sort of language that brothers can develop. It also has hints of the competition, however friendly, that come up between brothers.

There’s an interesting brother/sister relationship in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AK Poirot Loses a Client). In that novel, wealthy Emily Arundell has a potentially fatal fall down a flight of stairs. As she’s recuperating, she begins to think her fall was no accident. So, she writes to Hercule Poirot to ask him to investigate. She’s not specific in her request, but Poirot is intrigued by her letter, and he and Captain Hastings visit Miss Arundell. By the time they get there, though, it’s too late. She has died of what’s put down to liver failure. Poirot isn’t satisfied, though. And, at any rate, he feels a responsibility to his client, although she has died. So, he and Hastings investigate the matter. They find that this death was a murder, and that more than one person had a very good motive. Two of the suspects are Miss Arundell’s niece, Theresa Arundell, and her brother, Charles. Both are desperate for money, and Charles had even said something to his aunt that easily be could construed as a threat. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Theresa and Charles try to protect each other, even as neither completely trusts in the other’s innocence. They understand one another at a very deep level.

In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we meet brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve been raised in an abusive environment, but they’ve survived. Gates did his best to protect his younger brother, and Mason feels a sense of duty towards Gates for that reason. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he gets, and ends up going to law school on a scholarship. For his part, Gates squanders his considerable athletic talent, and ends up living on money he gets from his mother and from his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. One day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The fight starts again later that night, when the Hunt brothers are coming home from a night out and encounter Thompson. The argument spirals out of control and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason still feels a strong sense of loyalty and gratitude to his brother, so he helps Gates hide the gun and cover his tracks. The years go by, and the Hunt brothers move on in life. Mason becomes a prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gates starts having brushes with the law, culminating in an arrest for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a lengthy sentence, and asks his brother to help get him out of prison. This time, Mason refuses to support his brother. Gates threatens him, saying that if he doesn’t help, Gates will implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason knows that his brother isn’t above making good on that threat, and that’s exactly what happens. Now, Mason has to defend himself against a murder charge. One of the themes in this book is brotherly protectiveness and the loyalty that can engender – even when it can prove dangerous.

Fans of Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Reykjavík Inspector Erlendur can tell you that Erlendur is haunted by an experience he had as a boy. He and his younger brother, Bergur, were caught outdoors in a blizzard. Erlendur survived the storm, but Bergur was lost. The storm was so severe that no trace of him was ever found. Elendur has been carrying the weight of guilt and responsibility ever since, and a big part of the reason for that is that he is the older brother. A part of him feels that he should have protected Bergur, even though, as an adult, he understands that it’s not as simple as that.

And then there’s William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. This coming-of-age story features thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother, Jake. It’s the early 1960s in small-town Minnesota, and the Drum brothers are looking forward to baseball, going down to the local river, and relaxing. Everything changes when a boy that the Frank and Jake knew is killed on a railroad track. People say it was an accident, but it may not be. Then, murder strikes their own family. When that happens, the brothers have to depend on each other in ways they haven’t before. And they learn new things about each other. It’s a fascinating look at the way brothers perceive one another.

Relationships with brothers can be complicated. But they’re also fascinating. So, it’s little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction. I’ve only had space here for a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and visit Cleo’s terrific blog. Fine reviews await you there.

ps. The ‘photo is of the brother/sister dance at a friend’s wedding. It was a truly lovely wedding, and I couldn’t imagine a better depiction.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Terry’s Song.

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Martin Clark, William Kent Krueger

Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park*

Trailer ParksCaravans, mobile homes, trailers, they’re different names for the same kind of home. Whatever you call them, these homes can move from place to place. Sometimes their owners live in a community with other trailer/caravan owners. Other times they live by themselves. Either way a trailer/caravan is a really affordable alternative to owning a home or a condominium.

There are plenty of mobile homes in crime fiction. That shouldn’t be surprising, since lots of people find them both affordable and convenient (they can be moved, after all). Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of others.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels will know that Chee lives in a trailer. He prefers to live more or less away from other people, in the Navajo custom, and he’s placed his trailer so that it faces east, also in the Navajo tradition. It turns out to be not such a safe place in Skinwalkers, when he finds himself the target of a would-be assassin. When a series of murders connected with the Bad Water Clinic occurs, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn looks into the case, and Chee gets involved after he is attacked. One of the interesting layers in this novel is the discussion of Navajo beliefs about skinwalkers, witches who can change shape. Those traditional beliefs still impact the culture in some ways.

In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we are introduced to brothers Gates and Mason Hunt. They’ve had a difficult start in life, being the children of an abusive, alcoholic father. But Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he has to get out of that situation. He winds up getting a scholarship to university and goes on to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability. He ends up living on money he gets from his mother, and from his girlfriend’s Denise’s welfare allotment. One afternoon, the Hunt brothers are at Denise’s trailer when Gates’ romantic rival, Wayne Thompson, stops by. He and Gates get into a serious argument, and Wayne ends up storming off. Later that night, the brothers are on their way home from a night out when they encounter Wayne again. The argument heats up again, this time fueled by alcohol. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot his rival. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his Gates cover up what happened, and life goes on for both. Years later, Mason has become the commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Gates, meanwhile, supplements his income with drug dealing. Then, he’s arrested for trafficking in cocaine. He’s convicted and sentenced to a long prison term. He begs his brother to help him get out of prison, but this time, Mason refuses. Gates threatens to incriminate Mason for the still-unsolved Thompson murder if he doesn’t help, and now Mason faces criminal indictment for a crime he didn’t commit.

Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty is quite familiar with trailers. Her official business is a sewing supply shop. But she also has another business, with a certain kind of client. Women who’ve been abused know that they can count on Stella to help them even the score. She’s not a murderer, but she can be extremely persuasive. Her ‘parolees’ know after one visit that they’d better leave their victims alone. Anyone who doesn’t heed that first warning gets an even more unpleasant second visit. In A Bad Day For Sorry, for instance, Stella goes to the trailer of one of her ‘parolees,’ Roy Dean Shaw, to remind him of how he’s supposed to behave. All goes as expected, and Stella thinks she has the matter in hand. Until the next day, when she finds out from Dean’s ex-wife Chrissy that he’s disappeared, and he may have her son Tucker with him. Stella starts asking questions to try to track down her quarry and the boy, and finds that the trail leads to some very dangerous people. Still, Chrissy is determined to get her son back, and the two women go up against some very difficult odds to do just that.

David Liss’ The Ethical Assassin begins with a visit to a Florida trailer park. Lem Atlick is trying to save money to pay for Columbia University, so he’s taken a job as a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesperson. One hot day, he visits the trailer of a woman named Karen and her husband, nicknamed Bastard. He’s making his sales pitch when Melford Kean comes into the trailer and kills both Karen and Bastard. Kean didn’t expect a witness, but he thinks quickly. He offers Lem this deal: Lem can keep his mouth shut, or Kean will implicate him for the murders, and Lem won’t have much of an alibi. Lem soon finds himself drawn into Kean’s world, and discovers that this is no ordinary shooting spree.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features Jodie Evans Garrow, who grew up on the proverbial poor side of town. She’s done well for herself, though, and gotten a university education. Now she’s married to a successful attorney, Angus, and is the mother of two healthy children. One day the past comes back to haunt her, though. Her daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years earlier to another child – one she never mentioned, even to Angus. A nurse there remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says that she was adopted, but the nurse can’t find any formal records. Now, questions begin to arise, first in whispers, and then in a full-out smear campaign. Is the child still alive? If so, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? Now, Jodie is a social pariah. It’s all too much for her daughter, Hannah, who decides to take off with her boyfriend. One of Hannah’s visits is to her grandfather (Jodie’s father) who now lives in a caravan in a rural area. She’s hoping that he can give her some insight into her mother’s past. On the one hand, the visit’s a failure, as he’s hardly helpful. On the other, Hannah’s disappointment is a lesson in itself.

And then there’s Kate Ellis’ The Merchant House. In one plot thread of that novel, Jonathan Berrisford disappears from the yard of the summer cottage where he’s been staying with his mother, Elaine. The Tradmouth CID, of course, mount a major search effort, but don’t immediately find the boy. In the meantime, the body of a young woman has been discovered, so the CID has plenty on its plate, as the saying goes. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the police get some useful information on both cases from some people who are staying at a nearby caravan park.

In that novel, and in others that feature such places, you can see that the trailer/caravan life is a unique culture. It’s sometimes a relatively closed culture, but even when it’s not, it makes for an interesting context.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Cowboy Junkies song.

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Filed under David Liss, Kate Ellis, Martin Clark, Sophie Littlefield, Tony Hillerman, Wendy James

And I Wish I Could Have All He Has Got*

Wistful ThinkingI’m sure you’ve seen those cheerful social media updates. People post when they win awards, graduate, marry, have (grand)children, travel to exotic places, and go to fabulous restaurants. Those updates sometimes make it seem that the people who post them have charmed lives where everything’s going beautifully. Of course, in our rational minds, we know very well that life isn’t perfect, not even for people who post ‘photos of themselves being toasted at a major awards banquet. There really is no such thing as a charmed life. But when we compare our lives to others’ lives, it can seem that way.

An evocative poem by Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about how that comparison can play out in fiction. That thread of wistfulness – even envy – that people sometimes feel when they look at others’ lives can make for an interesting layer of suspense in a story. It can add a layer of character development, too. And in a crime novel, it can create a motive for all kinds of things…

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s had plenty of clients with the means to travel and enjoy life; and, although she’s not really what you’d call jealous, she’d like to play, too, as the saying goes:
 

‘So many of her ladies had been going to Le Pinet or just come back from Le Pinet. Jane – her clever fingers patting and manipulating the waves, her tongue uttering mechanically the usual clichés, ‘Let me see. How long is it since you had your perm, madam?… Your hair’s such an uncommon color, madam… What a wonderful summer it has been, hasn’t it, madam?’ – had thought to herself, ‘Why the devil can’t I go to Le Pinet?’
 

Jane gets her chance when she wins in the Irish Sweep. She’s returning by air from Le Pinet to London when a fellow passenger is poisoned. Since the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the cabin, Jane gets drawn into the investigation. Among other things, she learns that life among the ‘beautiful people’ is not charmed.

In one plot thread of Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s wedding. One of the events is to be a posh engagement-party weekend at the home of Mieka’s future in-laws. Then, Joanne gets an unexpected call. Christy Sinclair is the former girlfriend of Joanne’s son, Pete. She has a history of lying and being manipulative, so when she and Pete broke up, it seemed very much all for the better. Now Christy is back, and even says that she and Pete are getting back together. She wants to travel with the Kilbourns to the engagement party, where Pete is supposed to meet them, and Joanne reluctantly allows it. When Christy arrives the next day to join the family, she says,
 

“I’ve missed this family.’’
 

And it’s not just because of her relationship to Pete. When she is killed the next night in what looks like a drowning suicide (but isn’t!) we learn more about her history. She has a tragic background, and looked on the Kilbourns as almost a model of what she would like in a family. Fans of this series will know that Joanne and her family are not perfect, nor are their lives charmed. But that’s how it seems to Christy.

One of the main characters in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is Gates Hunt. When the story begins, in 1984, he is just moving into young adulthood in rural Patrick County, Virginia. He has a lot of natural athletic ability and the opportunity to parlay that into a successful career that can get him out of the poverty in which he grew up. He doesn’t make use of his talent, though, instead squandering everything. In fact, he lives on money from his mother Sadie Grace and from his girlfriend Denise’s Welfare payments. In the meantime, Gates’ younger brother Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity that comes his way. He’s worked hard and gotten a real chance at academic success. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The argument ends for the moment; but later that night, the Hunt brothers run into Thompson again. More words are exchanged and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots his rival. Out of filial loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. The years go by, and Mason continues to be successful. He becomes a prosecuting attorney, marries a woman he loves, and with her, has a healthy child. Gates envies his brother, although it’s not the sort of resentful envy you might imagine. That is, not until Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and sentenced to a long prison term. He reaches out to Mason to help get him out of prison, but his brother refuses. Then Gates uses a powerful bargaining chip: he threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder if Mason won’t help him. Mason calls his brother’s bluff, as the saying goes, and Gates carries out his threat. Now Mason has to clear his name and avoid being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets the opportunity to join a family cruise on a private yacht owned by wealthy business executive Charity Wiser. She’s hired Quant because she believes someone is trying to kill her, and she wants him to find out who it is. The idea is that if he goes on the cruise, he can ‘vet’ the various members of the family and identify the would-be murderer. Quant knows that even the wealthy don’t have a perfect, charmed life. But as Quant puts it,
 

‘I am generally a person with his feet planted firmly in reality, but I do love to dream…This case fit my dream perfectly. A swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.’
 

For him, it’s a chance to live, however briefly, the wealthy life. But as he finds out on this cruise, it can be as dangerous as it is enviable.

And, although it’s not really a crime novel, I couldn’t resist mentioning Monica McInerney’s Hello From the Gillespies. Angela Gillespie has spent more than thirty years sending out the sort of family newsletter that makes people resentful. You know the kind: perfect life, perfect children, success for all. But the reality is quite different for this family. They’re coping with everything from debt to career trouble to problematic retirement, and more. This year, for the first time, Angela tells the truth about her family:
 

‘It’s been a terrible year for the Gillespies. Everything has gone wrong for us.’
 

The trouble really starts when that letter gets sent accidentally to everyone on the newsletter list…

So as you see, you may get wistful or worse about your own life when you see those Facebook updates or get those holiday newsletters. When you do, it’s always good to remember that things are not usually what they seem. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop by Finding Time to Write? It’s a treasure trove of poetry, fine book reviews, and lovely ‘photos. Thanks for the inspiration, Marina Sofia.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ David Watts.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Gail Bowen, Martin Clark, Monica McInerney

There’s Still Time to Change the Road You’re On*

Going Back or NotA lot of murders, both real and fictional, come about because of a sort of cascade of events. Looking back later, we can point to several places where the buildup, if you will, could have been stopped, and the murder thus prevented. Of course, that wouldn’t leave very much plot for a crime novel, but it’s interesting to take a look at how sometimes small decisions can spiral out of control and result in disaster.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for example, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. And it seems like a godsend to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort when Linnet is willing to hire Jackie’s fiancé Simon Doyle as her land agent. But then Linnet finds herself attracted to Simon. Instead of turning back from that, as you might say, she pursues him and it’s not long before they’re married. Their honeymoon trip includes a trip to Egypt and a cruise of the Nile; to Linnet’s dismay, Jackie turns up at the hotel, as she has everywhere they’ve been. Linnet approaches Hercule Poirot, who’s at the same hotel, to ask him to make Jackie stop. He gently points out to her that she had the chance to prevent all this in the first place. Later, he talks to Jackie and asks her to turn back and leave the couple alone before it’s too late. Neither woman really listens to him, and Jackie goes along on the cruise. On the second night, Linnet is shot. Jackie is the first suspect, but it’s soon proven that she could not have killed the victim, so Poirot and Colonel Race have to look elsewhere for the killer. Throughout the novel, there are other examples, too, of points where people make choices that end up cascading out of control.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, Ystad Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team are faced with the brutal murders of local farmer Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria. The victims seemed to have no enemies, and they weren’t known to be wealthy. So there seems no motive for the murders. Even a look into their family background doesn’t really reveal anything that points to the killer. There is one possibility though. Just before she died, Maria said the word foreign. A lot of people have taken this to mean that the killers were foreigners. At this point, matters could be controlled somewhat, but the media gets hold of the story and it sets a spark to the already-simmering local prejudice against immigrants. When the story gets into the news, it sets off a backlash, which has its own consequences. And as we find out later, the murder itself might have been prevented, but for someone’s choice not to let matters go.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. Eva very much wants the peaceful suburban lifestyle, complete with white picket fence, for herself, her husband and their son Axel. So when she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful, Eva is devastated. At that point, she might choose to leave her husband or forgive him; many people do one of those things. Instead, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she sets in motion a chain of events that spins out of control. One night, she goes to a pub for a drink. There, she meets Jonas Hansson, a man with his own issues. She has the opportunity at that point to flirt with Jonas and make something of the evening, or to go home. Her decision to spend the night with Jonas has consequences that neither of them imagined. In this case, you could argue that a lot of what happens might have been prevented at several key points in the story.

That’s also true of Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit.  Mason and Gates Hunt are siblings with a terrible background including alcoholism and abuse. Mason chooses to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way to get out of his situation. He excels in school and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability and ends up living on money he gets from their mother, and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One afternoon, Gates’ romantic rival Wayne Thompson comes by, and the two get into an argument. Thompson leaves and the whole matter might have rested there. But later that night, the Hunt brothers are returning home from a night out. They run into Thomspon again and the argument starts anew. Instead of letting it all go, both men get angrier and angrier until, before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and time goes by. Years later, Mason is a commonwealth prosecutor. Gates has been convicted of cocaine trafficking. Gates begs his brother to get him out of prison, but this time Mason refuses. Instead of letting matters go, Gates threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder unless he co-operates. Now matters spin even more out of control until Mason finds himself indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Now he’ll have to find some way to clear his name before his brother is released from prison.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger makes quite a bit of use of those moments where people might turn back, but don’t. It begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has died in a car crash. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for a long time, but he still feels a sense of loss. He’s even more upset to discover that Sylvie wasn’t alone in the car. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who died in the crash as well. Instead of leaving matters alone and getting on with his life, Delorme takes an interest in Arnoult’s widow Martine. His interest soon leads to obsession and he begins to follow her. He even books a holiday in the same place on Majorca where Martine and her friend Madeleine go. Delorme’s decision to give in to his obsession has all sorts of dark and tragic consequences. And you could argue that it could all have been prevented if he had let the matter of Sylvie’s lover go and got on with the business of living.

There’s also Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. Luke Murray is riding a bus one day when three young people get on and soon begin to bully him. At one point, another passenger, Jason Barnes, intervenes and tells the group to stop. For a short time they do. But then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. So does Jason. Instead of leaving the matter, the bullies start up again and this time the fight escalates. It goes on all the way to Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Luke is left gravely wounded. As we follow the story, we see that there are several places where the whole thing might have been stopped, but for people’s choices. Other than Jason, the people on the bus don’t do anything to stop the bullying. The bullies don’t stop either, and neither do Jason and Luke. It’s a clear example of the consquences when things spin out of control.

And that’s what happens sometimes. One decision, one choice not to hold back or back down, and situations can go completely wrong in very tragic ways.
 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Pascal Garnier