Category Archives: Megan Abbott

A Tiger is a Tiger, Not a Lamb*

Isn’t this wombat cute? I think so, too. But don’t let that fool you. Wombats are extremely strong, have sharp teeth, and can be very aggressive and destructive. That’s part of why they’re best left in their natural habitat. It’s a big mistake to be blind to what wombats can really be like.

The same is true of people. I think most of us would like to believe the best about the people in our lives. That’s arguably part of the reason we make excuses, at least to ourselves, for the way some people behave (e.g. ‘Yes, she’s very short-tempered, but look how creative she is!’). And sometimes, that way of thinking can allow us to work with others productively, even if we’re aware of their faults. And, in any case, no-one’s perfect.

It can be a mistake, though, to ignore others’ character traits, or to think that someone will change a fundamental trait (e.g. ‘I know he cheated on her, but it’ll be different with me.’). Making those sorts of excuses can lead to all sorts of sad consequences. And in crime fiction, it can lead to disaster.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of Crale’s death, it was believed that his wife, Caroline, was responsible, and she certainly had motive; he was having a very obvious affair. In fact, Caroline was arrested, tried, and convicted in connection with the murder. But now, their daughter Carla wants to clear her mother’s name. So, Poirot interviews the five people who were on the scene at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts of what happened from each one. Using the interviews and accounts, he works his way towards the truth of the matter.  As the story goes on, we learn more about the victim’s character. For him, his art was the most important part of his life. In fact, he even warned his mistress, Elsa Greer, not to believe in him or trust him, except for his art. She didn’t listen to him, though, and took their relationship far more seriously than he did. She believed they would marry as soon as Crale divorced his wife. Her refusal to see Crale for what he was caused all sorts of conflict and tragedy that play a role in the story.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office, and the two begin a relationship. Bill’s brother, Lora, a Pasadena teacher, isn’t enthusiastic about Alice at first, but she puts that down to her protectiveness about her brother. Even so, as she gets to know Alice, Lora begins to have questions. Alice and Bill marry, and Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law, but the questions and concerns won’t go away. The more she learns about Alice, the more repulsed Lora is by Alice’s life. At the same time, though, she is drawn to it. And she comes to have, as she sees it, fewer and fewer illusions about her sister-in-law. Bill doesn’t share her concerns, though, and Lora knows that he doesn’t see Alice for what she is. Then, there’s a murder, and it looks very much as though Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s looking out for her brother, Lora starts to ask questions. In the end, refusal to see things as they are ends up wreaking havoc.

Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry is the sixth in his series featuring London PI Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewellyn. In the novel, Scotland Yard Inspector Terence Pool goes to Barker with an odd request. It seems that the British government has granted immunity to Sebastian Nightwine, and that he will be returning to London at the government’s request, so as to take part in a top-secret mission. Nightwine has indicated that he’s afraid he’s in danger from Barker. It was Barker’s discovery of some of Nightwine’s crimes that caused him to flee England in the first place. Now that he’s returning, he’s concerned that Barker represents a threat to him. Pool warns Barker to stay away from Nightwine. But Barker strongly suspects that Nightwine has his own agenda, and may even have a major criminal plan underway. To Barker, the government is naïve in not acknowledging the sort of person Nightwine is, and that naivety will lead to disaster. So, he does a little checking, and discovers that he’s right. Before he can do anything about it, though, he’s neatly framed for a murder. Now, the police are after him, and so are Nightwine’s people. So, with help from Llewellyn, Barker’s going to have to clear his name and stop Nightwine if he can.

Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion is the first of her Anna Travis novels. In it, Travis has recently been promoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant (DS), and has joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. The team is facing a very perplexing case. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been discovered, and her murder is similar in many ways to six other deaths the team is investigating. But there are some major differences. For one thing, the other victims were all prostitutes, and Melissa wasn’t. For another, the other victims were all older; Melissa was a teenager. Still, it’s certainly possible that all seven women were killed by the same person. Gradually, the team comes to believe that a man named Alan Daniels is that person. But that possibility presents several challenges. Daniels is a beloved television actor who’s about to ‘make it’ in films. Any public aspersions on him will not be taken kindly. What’s more, there’s no conclusive evidence against the man. And, Daniels is wealthy and well-connected. He can afford the best legal representation, and the team risks a lot of public embarrassment (and more) if they botch this case. As a part of the investigation, Travis gets to know Daniels, even seeing him socially. All of this is planned by her team, but that doesn’t mean it’s not risky. And, as she sees more of him, Travis has to consider what sort of person he is, and whether there’s a ruthless killer underneath his charming surface. He is charming and attractive, and Travis needs to remind herself, more than once, not to make excuses for him.

And then there’s Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy, which features a locksmith named Jeet Singh. He’s a former safecracker/lockbreaker who’s ‘gone straight,’ and now operates a keymaking kiosk in Mumbai. One day, he gets an unexpected visit from his former lover, Sushmita, who asks for his help. It seems that her husband, wealthy industrialist Pursumal Changulani, has been killed in a planned murder disguised as a carjacking gone wrong. Sushmita says that she’s being accused of hiring a killer, so she could inherit her husband’s money. Now, she needs her name cleared. For that, she needs money, and that’s why she’s come to Singh. He’s still at least partly in love with Sushmita, so he agrees to do what he can. And that means taking on one more illegal job, so that he can earn some quick money. He knows that Sushmita broke his heart, callously (to him) marrying another man because he was very rich, and Singh is not. But he refuses to really see her for what she is, and that leads to all sorts of trouble in this novel.

And that’s the thing about not seeing people for what they are. Most of us acknowledge that everyone has faults. But we sometimes ignore troubling character traits. And that can cause real trouble. So…be careful if you pet a wombat.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Mein Herr.

10 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Lynda La Plante, Megan Abbott, Surender Mohan Pathak, Will Thomas

Don’t Blame Them, You’re the Same*

It seems to be a part of human nature that we’re sometimes very critical of others, for the very same things we do ourselves. We use a different set of standards, if you like to put it that way (e.g. ‘Well, it’s different in my case!’). Or, we simply don’t see the same trait in ourselves.

t’s certainly a human characteristic, so it’s realistic. It’s little wonder, then, that it comes up in fiction, including crime fiction. And it can make for interesting character development, not to mention tension.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, we are introduced to Miss Emily Brent. She’s among a group of people who are invited to spend time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. When the group arrives, they’re surprised to find that their host hasn’t yet made an appearance, but everyone settles in. Then, that night, each one is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another guest dies. Soon, it’s clear that someone has lured the guests to the island, and plans to kill them all. Now, the survivors have to find out who the killer is, and stay alive themselves. Miss Brent denies causing anyone’s death, and has no problem sitting in judgement, if you will, of the others as we learn about their situations. But little by little, we learn that she’s no different. She refuses to see that she’s no less guilty, though, and it’s an interesting layer to her character.

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die introduces readers to novelist Frank Cairns, who writes as Felix Lane. His son, Martin ‘Martie’ was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident, and now, Cairns wants to kill the man who was responsible. So, he returns to the town in which he and Martie lived at the time of the death, and begins to track down the driver of the car. He finds out that that man is George Rattery, and slowly makes his plans. His idea is to take Rattery out sailing and make sure he drowns. But Rattery finds out what Cairns has planned, and tells Cairns that if anything happens to him, Cairns will be suspected. Later in the day, Rattery is murdered by what turns out to be poison. Now, Cairns contacts poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways. He tells Strangeways that, while he plotted to kill Rattery, he isn’t actually the murderer. Strangeways agrees to look into the case and find out who the real killer is. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Cairns views what he planned. He doesn’t put his plot to murder Rattery in the same category as Rattery’s killing of Martie. He doesn’t see what he’s doing as the same thing at all.

In Megan Abbott’s historical novel (1950s) Die A Little, we meet Lora King, a Pasadena, California, teacher. She has a very close relationship with her brother, Bill, so she’s concerned when he begins to date former Hollywood seamstress assistant Alice Steele. At first, Lora tells herself that she’s being overprotective of her brother, but her concerns only grow when Bill and Alice marry. She tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law for Bill’s sake, but she starts to find out some things about Alice that really unsettle her. At the same time as she is repulsed by Alice’s life, though, she is also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could very well be mixed up in it. Lora tells herself she’s trying to help her brother, and begins to ask questions. Throughout this novel, there’s a very interesting and real question about whether Lora is really very much different to Alice, despite the way she judges her sister-in-law.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham police detective Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. When it’s discovered that she was a sex worker, the team looks among Michelle’s fellow sex workers and clients to find out who would have wanted to kill her. And it’s not long before they find several different possibilities. Throughout the novel, we see a clear prejudice against sex workers among many people. One thread of that (albeit not a major point in the novel) is that those who use sex worker services see a big difference between what they do and what the sex workers do.

And then there’s Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. That novel is the story of a plot to kidnap the son of wealthy São Paolo business tycoon Olavo Bettencourt. Bettencourt has a life that just about anyone would envy. He’s rich, he has a beautiful ‘trophy wife,’ Mara, and quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He also has a young son, Olavinho. A gang decides to kidnap the boy, and sets the plan in motion. Everything falls apart, though, when they get the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, they abduct the mute son of the Bettencourt’s housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do about this situation. And Bettencourt has to decide what to tell the media and the police about the situation. His business deals have not all been entirely legal, and he’s reluctant to have any of that brought to light. As the novel goes on, we learn more about the Bettencourts. Mara grew up desperately poor, and has done a lot of questionable things to get to the wealthy life she has now. She despises her husband, but it’s arguable that she’s not much different. For his part, Olavo is contemptuous of his wife and her ‘low class’ background. But again, it’s arguable that he is no different.

There are plenty of other examples of characters who look down on, or at the very least, judge, the very qualities in others that they themselves share. It’s a human trait, so it makes sense that we’d see it in fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Good Night and Thank You.

14 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Edney Silvestre, Maureen Carter, Megan Abbott, Nicholas Blake

Don’t Ask Too Many Questions*

Las Vegas is the sort of place where it’s very easy to be whatever you want, so to speak. People don’t ask a lot of questions; hence, the iconic Vegas catchphrase: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Las Vegas, of course, isn’t the only place or context where people don’t ask questions. There are plenty of places where asking too many questions is considered at best, bad form, and at worst, dangerous. This sort of context – where curiosity is not welcomed – can be a very effective backdrop for a crime novel. We all have secrets that we’d rather no-one ask about, and criminals in particular have things to hide. So it makes sense that they would prefer a context where no-one asks too many questions.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River isn’t, admittedly, a crime novel per se. But crimes are definitely committed in it. Beginning in 1806, the novel tells the story of William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children. Thornhill is a London bargeman who’s sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of valuable wood. The family lands in Sydney, which is at the time very much a frontier. It’s the sort of place where questions are discouraged. Most people are trying to start over, and don’t want a lot of discussion about what brought them there and what they’re doing. Thornhill gets a job delivering goods up and down the local waterways; his wife opens a makeshift pub. As time goes by, Thornhill finds a piece of land that he finds irresistible, and decides to claim it for his own. And he’s not alone. Plenty of other new arrivals want land, too. This leads inevitably to conflict and worse with the people who have always been on that land. Some brutal and bloody crimes are committed, and Thornhill wants no part of it, especially at first. But he also comes to see that he’ll have to get his hands dirty, too, if he wants to build the sort of life he wants.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s particularly close to her older brother, Bill, so she’s concerned when he meets and falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant, Alice Steele. At first, Lora puts her misgivings down to human enough, if not exactly productive, feelings of jealousy and protectiveness, since she is close to her brother. Bill and Alice marry, and Lora tries to be friends with her new sister-in-law. But as time goes by, she gets more and more worried about Alice, and what she finds out repels her. Alice’s former world – or is it really former? – is seamy and dangerous. She knows a lot of the sort of people who don’t welcome questions, and they certainly don’t welcome questions from Lora. At the same time as Lora is repulsed by Alice’s world, she is also drawn to it, though, and this has a real impact on her feelings and choices. Then, there’s a murder. Alice could very well be mixed up in it, too, so Lora decides to protect Bill (or so she tells herself) and find out the truth about what happened. The closer she gets to the truth, the closer she also gets to Alice’s life.

Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home introduces her protagonists, DI Dushan Zigic, and DS Mel Ferreira. They work with the Peterborough Police Hate Crimes Unit, so they’re called in when the body of man is found in a burned-out shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. The man is identified as an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov, and there’s a good possibility that his murder might be a hate crime. It’s going to be very hard to get answers, though. The immigrant community within which the victim moved is the sort of culture in which no-one asks questions. People often come, work for a while, and leave. Or, they stay longer, have their family join them, and move on. Or, they disappear for whatever reason. But no close ties are formed, and people such as landlords and moneylenders don’t ask any questions. In the end, Zigic and Ferreira find out who killed the victim and why. But they get very little willing help from anyone with whom he interacted.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy is set mostly in Glasgow’s criminal underworld. It tells the stories of men who kill for hire, and of the people who hire them. It also tells the stories of the victims, and how they get themselves into trouble. One of the important rules among these people is that you don’t ask a lot of questions. You buy your weapons, for instance, from people who won’t ask where the money came from, or how the weapon will be used. You borrow a car from someone who won’t ask why you need it. The more reliable you are at keeping your mouth shut and your curiosity under control, the more you’ll be trusted.

Even between people who are married, there are instances where it’s expected that you don’t ask a lot of questions. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt. It seems that Cubitt’s wife, Elsie, has been acting strangely lately. She’s been getting some cryptic letters lately from America, where she was born, and they have upset her greatly. She won’t tell her husband what the problem is, though, so he’s quite worried about her. They’ve always had the agreement that he would ask her nothing about her life in the US, because she had some unpleasant associations there. As she puts it, she has,
 

‘‘…nothing she need be personally ashamed of,’’
 

but she insists that her past be kept strictly private. And Cubitt has always respected that. But now he’s worried. Then, the same cryptic figures that appeared on the letters begin appearing in chalk on the ledges of the Cubitt home. Holmes works out that the drawings are a code, and that Elsie is being stalked. Then, one night, Cubitt is murdered. Holmes uses the code in the letters to lure the killer and learn the truth.

There are times and places where people don’t welcome a lot of questions. Asking them can get you in a lot of trouble – or worse. Especially in crime fiction.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Turin Brakes’ Last Chance.

24 Comments

Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Eva Dolan, Kate Grenville, Malcolm Mackay, Megan Abbott

People Livin’ in Competition*

A recent post from Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, has got me thinking about competitiveness. Bill’s post, which you really should read, discusses competitiveness in attorneys. His point, which is very well-taken, is that trial lawyers have to be competitive. Otherwise, they don’t keep the ‘fire’ they need to do all of the work that’s involved in preparing for a trial and seeing it through.

There are many, many legal mysteries that bear him out, too. In John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, William Deverell’s Trial of Passion, and Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, to name just three, we see examples of attorneys who take on difficult cases – and want to win. There are far too many more examples of such novels for me to mention in this one post, so I won’t.

There’s plenty of competitiveness in other crime fiction, too, and it can add a healthy dose of character development, suspense, and plot to a novel. And, since there’s competitiveness in many different professions, the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to integrating it into a story.

Competitiveness is certainly important in the world of athletics. That’s a major part of the plot in Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. Devon Knox has rare gymnastic talent, and her parents, Katie and Eric, want to nurture it. So, when gymnastics coach Teddy Balfour approaches them with a proposition, they’re happy to listen:
 

‘‘Bring her to BelStars [a program he’s started up]  and she’ll find the extent of her power.’’
 

Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (which might not have been an accident) occurs, and changes everything. Devon is gifted, but the question becomes: how far are she and her family willing to go to get to the Olympics? After all, there are only a limited number of young people who can join the US team. So, when one person earns a place, it often means others lose.

Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry series also explores athletic competitiveness (and for the matter of that, journalistic competitiveness as well). Like her creator, Henry is a sportswriter. She works for the Toronto Planet. Henry especially follows the doings of the Toronto Titans baseball team, so she goes along with them on ‘away’ tours, attends the home games, and gets locker-room interviews with players, coaching staff and the like. When the team is in a slump, it’s devastating. When the team does well, it’s euphoric. These players work hard and train intensively to go as far as they can in the World Series competition. Gordon doesn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a mystery series, and the murder plots dominate the books. But the books also give readers a look at what it’s like to be Major League Baseball athlete. It’s not a life for those who aren’t competitive. Neither is the life of those who write and publish stories about sports.

Business can be very competitive, too. In most industries, there’s a finite pool of customers. So, companies vie to get as much of their business as possible. And sometimes, that competitiveness can be deadly. In Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Contagion, for instance, we learn about a major competition between two insurance giants: AmeriCare and National Health. That competition becomes important when a virulent strain of influenza seems to be the cause of a series of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. Medical examiners Dr. Jack Stapleton and Dr. Laurie Montgomery try to find out what’s causing the virus. The hospital’s authorities are interested in keeping the whole matter as quiet as possible, mostly to protect the institution’s image. But Stapleton in particular wants to whatever it takes, regardless of unpleasant publicity, to prevent more deaths. When it comes out that Manhattan General is affiliated with AmeriCares, the question becomes: did someone at National Health have something to do with these deaths, with the aim of discrediting the competition?

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide deals with the competitive world of the beauty pageant circuit. In it, wealthy pageant coach and judge Tristan Pembroke is murdered during a charity art auction being held at her home. The most likely suspect is local artist Sara Taylor, who had a public argument with the victim shortly before the murder. But Sara’s mother-in-law, Lulu, is sure that she’s not guilty. So, she sets out to clear Sara’s name and find out who the real killer is. There are plenty of suspects, too, as Tristan was both malicious and vindictive. And, for the contestants in the pageant, and their families, there’s an awful lot at stake. The beauty pageant life is demanding, expensive, stressful and time-consuming. You don’t stay in it long if you have no sense of competitiveness.

I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that there’s a lot of competitiveness in the academic world, too. Many academic mysteries have plots that involve competition for scholarships/bursaries, prizes, academic jobs, funding and so on. It’s a demanding life that takes a lot of time and effort. Just to give one example, Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James novels take place in the context of St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, where James heads the English Literature Department. One of the sub-plots in the first of this series, Murder is Academic, concerns funding for the program. Each department’s funding is based on its performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). There’s a lot of competition for finite funding, and James knows that she will have to ensure that all of the faculty’s scholarship (including her own) is as impressive as possible. That in itself is stressful. At the same time, she’s caught up in the investigation of the murder of her predecessor, Margaret Joplin. Admittedly, getting funding isn’t the reason for the murder. But it does add to the tension in the novel. And it’s a realistic look at one way in which competition works in academia.

Bill is right that being competitive is important if you’re going to win your case in a trial. It’s also an important personality trait in other fields, too. So it’s little wonder it figures so much in crime fiction. Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Bill’s blog. Thoughtful reviews and commentary await you there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boston’s Peace of Mind.

14 Comments

Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Grisham, Megan Abbott, Riley Adams, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Cook, William Deverell

The Little Things That Give You Away*

When you do something often enough, or for a long enough time, you learn to spot things that are a little strange, and don’t follow the pattern you’re accustomed to seeing. For instance, I’ve been in higher education for years. It’s gotten to the point where I have a fairly good (by no means perfect!) sense of when a student’s work is not original. Why? Because I’ve read enough student writing to be able to pick up on their writing patterns. If something’s a bit ‘off,’ I notice it. In a similar way, people often begin to suspect their partners may not be faithful because they notice something ‘off’ about their partners’ patterns.

Being able to notice those patterns, and deviations from them, can be very helpful if you’re a sleuth. Those little ‘off’ things can be clues, or they can point to something bigger that’s worth investigating. And even when they aren’t, or don’t, they can be interesting bits of character development in a crime novel.

Agatha Christie’s sleuths make use of those little deviations more than once. In Evil Under the Sun, for instance, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. He gets drawn into a murder investigation when a fellow guest, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is strangled and her body found at a cove not far from the hotel. For Poirot, any correct theory about the crime has to account for all the details surrounding it. And in this case, there are several seemingly inconsequential oddities. Why, for instance, was someone taking a bath in the middle of the morning on the day of the murder? And what does that matter, anyway? And what’s the story behind an empty bottle that nearly hit another guest on the head? And what does that have to do with the murder? It all fits in, though, and once Poirot understands how the crime really happened, he’s able to make sense of all of those odd things.

In Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground, we meet American art enthusiast Thomas Murchison. He travels to London to see an exhibit of the work of Philip Derwatt that’s being held at the Buckmaster Gallery. Murchison is deeply knowledgeable about Derwatt’s work, and is excited to see it. And that’s exactly the problem for Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s protagonist, and his friends, Jeff Constant, Ed Banbury and Bernard Tufts. They’ve been making a tidy income by providing the gallery with ‘new’ Derwatt works (the artist died a few years earlier). Tufts forges the work, Banbury (a journalist) writes articles about Derwatt and his work, and it’s Constant’s job to photograph the paintings and advertise them. The whole scheme will fall apart if Murchison finds out that the ‘new’ Derwatt work is forged, so it’s decided that Ripley will go to London disguised as Derwatt. There, he’ll publicly identify the faked work as genuine. The disguise works well enough, but Murchison still notices small things that don’t fit the Derwatt pattern. He’s planning to go to the authorities about the matter, so Ripley invites Murchison to his home in France to discuss everything. Murchison doesn’t change his mind, though, and Ripley deals with Murchison in his own way. He solves ‘the Murchison problem,’ only to find he’s got even bigger problems now…

Peter Høeg’s Smilla Jaspersen, whom we meet in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, grew up in Greenland in her Inuit mother’s community, although she now lives in Copenhagen. So, she’s deeply knowledgeable about all sorts of patterns in snow and glaciers. That knowledge is an important part of her life. And it turns out to be very useful when one of the residents in her apartment building suddenly dies. Ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen has fallen from the roof of the building in what the police are calling a terrible accident. Smilla finds herself drawn to the scene, and notices that little patterns in the snow don’t add up to an accidental fall. Those small oddities are enough to make her curious, so she starts to ask questions. The trail leads back to Greenland, and to a past expedition there.

Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano is an experienced police detective. He’s accustomed to patterns associated with crime. That skill turns out to be quite useful when the body of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello is discovered. The dead man is found in a car in a notorious part of town called The Pasture. He’s obviously had a sexual encounter, and the official explanation is that he had a heart attack as a result of it, and died. But seemingly inconsequential things don’t add up to that explanation, and Montalbano asks for a little more time to investigate. He’s grudgingly granted two days, and gets to work. It’s not long before he finds that several people could have wanted Luparello dead. Little by little, he gets to the truth about the matter, and it’s not what it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s Die a Little. In that novel, which takes place in 1950’s California, we are introduced to Pasadena teacher Lora King. When her brother, Bill, meets ‘that special someone,’ Lora wants to be happy for him. And the woman, Alice Steele, is both beautiful and smart. But there’s just something ‘off’ about her, and Lora is not impressed. Still, the romance blossoms, and Bill and Alice marry. As time goes by, Lora begins to wonder more and more about her new sister-in-law, although she tries to like her for Bill’s sake. It’s really a pattern of little things that simply don’t add up. For instance, at one point, Alice asks Lora to help her get a teaching job at the school where Lora teaches. Alice claims she has a teaching certificate, but there’s no record of it. Why not? And, if she has no background in teaching, why would she want a job as a teacher? As Lora learns more and more about Alice’s life, she finds more and more that’s ‘off.’ At the same time as she’s repulsed by what she finds, though, she’s also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder. And Alice just might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s looking out for her brother, Lora begins to ask questions about the murder. And she finds that the answers are dangerous.

Those small breaks in patterns, and little ‘off’ things, might seem not to matter. And in some cases, they don’t. But sometimes, they tell a lot…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a U2 song.

6 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Megan Abbott, Patricia Highsmith, Peter Høeg