Category Archives: Michael Dibdin

The Call of the Mountains, the Call of the Alps*

alpsIt’s the time of year when a lot of people enjoy cold-weather sports. And what better place than the Alps? There’s stunning scenery, all sorts of hiking, skiing and skating activities, après-skis, and lovely places to stay. And, since the Alps extend to eight different countries, there are all sorts of languages spoken and cultural traditions.

But if you think that means the Alps are safe and peaceful, think again. If you look at crime fiction, you see all sorts of examples that prove otherwise. Warm clothes and a cheery hearth don’t always keep people safe…

In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, we are introduced to Anne Meredith. During a winter trip to Switzerland, she meets an enigmatic man named Mr. Shaitana. As she puts it,
 

‘I didn’t know him well at all. I always thought he was a most frightening man.’
 

But he has a certain macabre appeal, and he does have very interesting parties. About nine months later, back in England, Anne is invited to dinner at Mr. Shaitana’s home. Also invited are seven other people. Four of them (including Hercule Poirot) are sleuths. The others are people Mr. Shaitana hints have committed murder. After dinner, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the game, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. It’s now clear that he was right about at least one person in the group, and that person wasted no time keeping him quiet. Poirot works with the three other sleuths to find out who the killer was. And, in the process, they find out some truths about the other guests, too. In this case, that meeting in Switzerland ended up drawing Anne Meredith into a murder case.

Scotland Yard detective Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, take a trip to the Italian Alps in Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski. They’re planning to stay at the Bella Vista Hotel in Santa Chiara for a holiday, which Henry is combining with a bit of investigating. Right from the time they arrive at the hotel, there’s tension among some of the guests. But everyone seems determined to have a good time. Then, one evening, several of the hotel guests are taking the chair lift from the village of Santa Chiara up to the hotel. On the way up, they see the other chair lift going down. In it is the body of one of the hotel guests, Austrian-born businessman Fritz Hauser. Capitano Spezzi and his team investigate the murder. Later, when he’s discovered Henry Tibbetts’ profession, Spezzi begins to work with him to find out who the killer is. Oh, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that there’s a very dramatic ski-escape scene here.

Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour takes place in the French Alps. The residents of the towns of Ventebrune and Pierrefor are unsettled when nine sheep are discovered with their throats slashed. At first, it looks like the work of a wolf. But then, a sheep breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found murdered in one of her sheep pens. She’s been killed in the same way as the sheep were, and now, there are whispers that a werewolf is on the loose. Those who believe that story even think they know who the werewolf is: a loner named Auguste Massart. He seems to have disappeared, though, so the villagers decide to try to track him down so that they can find out the truth. But they’re not successful, and end up asking Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg to investigate. He travels to the Alps and looks into the matter. As you can imagine, there are no werewolves behind the deaths.

In Michael Dibdin’s Medusa, a group of Austrian cavers discover a decomposed corpse in a disused military tunnel in the Italian Alps. The body turns out to belong to Leonardo Ferrero, an Italian soldier who was said to have died in a freak air accident years earlier. The body is taken to the morgue, from whence it soon disappears. It doesn’t take long for it to be clear that there’s some sort of cover-up going on. The Interior Ministry suspects that something untoward may be going on, so they send Aurelio Zen to investigate. And it turns out that he has to peel back several layers of secrets and corruption to find out the truth about what happened to Ferrero, and how it’s related to a secret Italian military organization called Medusa.

And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. That novel begins in 1974 at a monastery in the Swiss Alps. An unnamed art restorer has come to the place to look at some frescoes in the chapel, with an eye to restoring them. During his stay, he meets an old man who’s living in the care home on the monastery’s property. One day, the old man promises to tell him a story – ‘a good story’ – in exchange for having it recorded. So, the art restorer buys some tapes and the old man begins his tale. The story concerns the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy to New York at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, the family did well. But then, patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco got into a bar fight and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, son of notorious gangster Tonio Lupo. The elder Lupo put a curse on the Franco family, saying that all three of Ben Franco’s sons would die at the age of forty-two, the age Luigi was when he was killed. The old man then relates the stories of the three sons and their fates as his listener records them. Years later, those recordings play a role in the story, which ends in modern times. And it all starts because of what’s supposed to be a harmless visit to the Alps.

See what I mean? The Alps are beautiful, and a visit there may seem wonderful, especially if you’re sweltering in summer heat or dying for a break from fog, cold rain or slush. But safe? I don’t know about that…

Thanks, Alpenwild, for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eluveitie’s The Call.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Fred Vargas, Michael Dibdin, Patricia Moyes

So If You’re a Redhead, a Blonde or Brunette*

Physical AppearanceOne of the many benefits of reading is that it allows us to use our imaginations. In fact, I think most readers probably don’t want every detail provided to them. Not only does that get tedious, but it can also be insulting. So authors tend to leave some things to the reader’s imagination.

But what about physical descriptions? Should the author give a lot of detail about what a main character looks like? Do readers want to know whether a character is short or tall, heavy or slender, dark-haired or blond/e? Many people would say they want to know at least a bit about a main character’s physical appearance. But of course, there’s the risk of giving so much detail that it becomes burdensome.

Some authors have provided quite a bit of information about character appearance, and that has its advantages. It’s easy for the reader to conjure up the image the author intended. And the author can make a character distinctive (e.g. Dennis Lyndes’/Michael Collins’ one-armed PI Dan Fortune). And that sets a character apart from others.

For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle was quite specific about Sherlock Holmes’ physical appearance. Fans know that Holmes is,
 

‘…rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.’
 

This description and a few other details that come up in the stories has made Holmes as iconic a physical presence as anything else.

The same may be said of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. As Captain Hastings describes him,
 

‘He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible.’
 

Poirot’s luxurious moustache and his sense of the sartorial have also provided readers with a very clear visual image of what he looks like. So, casting directors have had a very specific ‘look’ they’ve wanted for those who’ve portrayed Poirot on the screen (with all due respect, David Suchet is Poirot. Just sayin’). Christie’s Miss Marple isn’t described in quite as much detail, but Christie makes it clear what she looks like.

There’s also Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Fans will tell you that he’s well-known for his bulk, his large head, and his yellow silk pyjamas. Of course, Wolfe has linguistic idiosyncrasies, too, that make him distinct. But even if you consider just his physical attributes, it’s easy for readers to develop a solid mental image of what he looks like and how he moves. I know, I know, fans of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley.

On the other hand, though, there are plenty of fictional sleuths whose appearance isn’t described, or is only briefly alluded to, with few details. One of the most famous is Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar. Tamar is a former Oxford don, who now serves as a sort of mentor to a group of young London lawyers. Granted, this series is only four books long. But within that span, we are never even told Tamar’s sex, let alone other physical details. It’s left completely up to the reader’s imagination what this character really looks like.

There’s also little given about Peter Temple’s Jack Irish. We can get a very rough approximation of his age (not in his first youth, but at the same time, not in late middle age, either). We also know that he’s a ‘regular guy,’ so he’s not a formal dresser. But we’re not given detailed information about what he looks like.

We aren’t told an awful lot about what Michael Dibdin’ Aurelio Zen looks like, either. We know that he’s Italian, and that he’s based in Rome. And we can make a few probably logical guesses as to his general appearance. But we don’t really get a lot of information about it. So it’s left up to the imagination.

And some readers like it that way. They prefer to make up their own minds as to whether a character is tall or short, has long or short hair, is heavy or not, and so on. Other readers want more detail than that. In fact, on an interesting note, when I was planning this post, I found there were many more instances of characters who are described, at least somewhat, than of those who are not. That makes sense, when you consider how much we rely on physical appearance to help us identify people. In fiction, physical appearance can also be an important element of character development.

Where do you stand on this? Do you like to have a lot of detail about what a character looks like? Do you prefer no detail at all? Perhaps you’re the sort of reader who’s happy with vague description (e.g. tall and middle-aged, with a slight beer gut). If you’re a writer, how much detail do you provide?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s (It’s) Hairspray.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dennis Lynds, Gladys Mitchell, Michael Collins, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Rex Stout, Sarah Caudwell

Everywhere You Look Now There’s Murder Incorporated*

Changing Bad GuysWell-written crime fiction shows us ourselves – who we are as people. We can learn a lot about what we wish for, fear, and more as we read in the genre. For instance, if you consider the ‘bad guys’ in certain crime novels, you see that they reflect sociopolitical events, societal fears and sometimes prejudices. You also see how those have changed as the world has changed.

For example, if you look at early crime fiction, or historical crime fiction that takes place during the late Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era, you see that the ‘bad guys’ were frequently members or leaders of shadowy syndicates and crime rings. The best known example that I can think of is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Fans will know that he is a highly intelligent master-criminal who gives Sherlock Holmes quite a run for the money, as the saying goes. But he’s not the only criminal of that type. You see that influence also in Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry. In that novel, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn go up against Sebastian Nightwine, a dangerous opponent whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. When Nightwine returns to London, Barker is sure that trouble is going to follow, and he’s right. Barker ends up accused of murder and on the run, with all of his assets frozen. Then there’s another murder. He and Llewelyn will have to work hard to clear his name and take down Nightwine’s.  A few of Agatha Christie’s novels (The Big Four being one of them) also set up shadowy syndicates as ‘the enemy).

More modern novels, such as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano stories, have a more contemporary take on the crime syndicate. Sometimes, as in Camilleri’s work and that of authors such as Michael Dibdin and Tonino Benacquista, the syndicate takes the form of what we call the Mafia (sometimes in the US, it’s called the Mob). There are also modern takes on crime syndicates from other places, too, such as the Glasgow underworld that we see in William McIlvanney’s and Malcolm Mackay’s work.

World War I and World War II had profound influences on people’s conceptions of ‘bad guys.’ Several of Agatha Christie’s stories (N or M? and Postern of Fate, for instance) set up first the Triple Alliance, then the Axis powers (specifically the Nazis) as ‘the bad guys.’

And by no means is Christie the only author who’s used Nazis, their associates, and their modern-day incarnations as antagonists. You see that in a lot of crime fiction and thrillers, actually. Just to take a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, and Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders.

In fact, the Nazis-as-enemies have had a profound influence even in modern crime fiction that simply touches on the World War II years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, and Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). In those novels (and many more), we see how modern relationships, interactions, and even crime has its roots in the war, in Nazi occupation and in loyalties of that time.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that theme as time goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people whose parents/grandparents/great-grandparents lived through World War II.

In the post-World War II era, one of the most important geopolitical realities was the Cold War between the UK, US and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies. This arguably set up the KGB and other Soviet-bloc spy agencies as very effective ‘bad guys.’ Read the work of authors such as John le Carré, Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum, and you’ll see that in a lot of those novels, the enemy is usually the KGB or other such agency in some form or another. Sometimes it’s one person who’s a member of such a group, but that person often represents the Soviet Union and its policies. You can even see such sentiments in books that aren’t exactly what you would call spy thrillers. For example, there’s Martin Cruz Smith’s work featuring Arkady Renko. And Walter Mosley’s The Red Death has his sleuth Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins being asked to take down a suspected Communist. As I think about the Cold War era, I often wonder what impression I’d get if I could read Russian well enough to read some of the novels of those years that are written in that language.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the world changed, and so did crime fiction. There are arguably two kinds of ‘bad guys’ that have populated crime fiction since that time. One is the Eastern European crime gang that we see in novels such as Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. Another, very closely related, outgrowth is arguably the Eastern European/Russian human trafficking gang (check out Tess Gerritson’s Vanish as an example). The other sort of ‘bad guy’ is the Russian oligarch/shady businessman. With official Communism at an end, these businessmen came to the fore in terms of their power and ruthlessness. Several of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels mention them (especially Exit Music). There are also some thrillers (such as Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules) that touch on such people as ‘the bad guys.’

Another recent development in terms of ‘bad guys’ is the terrorist group, particularly the Middle Eastern terrorist group. Novels such as le Carré’s 1983 The Little Drummer Girl are earlier examples of such crime fiction, but by no means the only ones. Lindy Cameron’s Redback includes such terrorists as ‘bad guys.’ So do many other novels. In the wake of more recent terrorist events, we’ve seen a lot more such ‘bad guys,’ even in novels that aren’t billed as ‘thrillers.’

There’s also been another development in the sort of ‘bad guy’ authors choose: big corporations and their leaders.  I’m sure you’ve read as many novels as I have in which big developers are depicted as antagonists. Some novels (I’m thinking of Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope) present a more complex picture of development. But many depict big companies and developers quite negatively. For instance, there’s Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, several of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, and more.

Not all crime novels feature this sort of plot. Many are more personal plots, if I can put it that way. They feature crimes where one person (or a group of people) commit murder for reasons such as revenge, fear, or personal greed. That said though, if we look at crime plots over time, we really do see, I think, how they often use certain antagonists to reflect the kind of fears and prejudices that we have. I wonder which group will be next to be depicted in this way…

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Larsson, C.J. Box, Camilla Läckberg, Daniel Pembrey, Daniel Silva, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Lindy Cameron, Malcolm Mackay, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Philip Kerr, Robert Gott, Robert Ludlum, Tess Gerritsen, Tonino Benacquista, Walter Mosley, Will Thomas, William McIlvanney

And You’ve Gone Too Far ‘Cause You Know it Don’t Matter Anyway*

Self-EntitlementThere’s a certain phenomenon that seems to go along with having influence and power, or at least with having wealth. It’s what I call the culture of entitlement. Of course, there are plenty of self-entitled people who aren’t extremely wealthy or powerful. Teachers and university-level educators have rafts of stories about students and their parents who want ‘an exception made in my (or my child’s) case.’ And I’m quite certain that police officers in just about every country can give you long lists of examples of people they stopped who didn’t see why they should have to drive safely. But it often seems that the culture of entitlement is especially associated with those who have money, power or both. We can all think of lots of examples from real life. And perhaps that’s a bit of why people are often especially glad when the rich and powerful are held accountable for what they do (e.g. ‘See? You have to live by the rules just like the rest of us do!’). There are plenty of cases of the culture of entitlement in crime fiction too. Here are a very few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Madame Giselle is en route from Paris to London when she suddenly dies. At first it looks as though she had heart failure resulting from an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. But it’s soon shown that she was poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on that flight, so Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp concentrate on those people. As it turns out, several of them could have had a very good motive for the murder. One of the suspects is Cecily Horbury, a former chorus dancer who married Lord Stephen Horbury and is therefore now a member of the ‘upper class.’ When she and the rest of the passengers are informed that they’ll have to wait at the airport after landing so that they can be interviewed, she takes a very self-entitled attitude. She’s incensed at being expected to wait like everyone else, and even asks the all too common question,
 

‘Don’t you know who I am?’
 

Lady Horbury’s self-entitlement isn’t the reason for the murder, but it reflects that view clearly. Christie addresses this in other stories too (I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs, Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express).

We also see the culture of entitlement in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. Crown Minister Sir Paul Berowne and a local tramp Harry Mack are murdered one night in a church. Given his position, Berowne’s murder is likely to attract a lot of media attention, so a special team is dispatched to investigate the case. The team consists of Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin. One of the first places they look for motive and suspects is of course within the Berowne family. There’s plenty of history and several secrets to be found there too. But the team doesn’t unearth them very easily. This is a wealthy and powerful family, and several members of it see no reason why they should have to co-operate with a police investigation the way everyone else does. That entitlement is also reflected in the high-handed way they treat the investigation team. The family attitude doesn’t stop the team finding out the truth, though…

In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, insurance investigator-turned-PI Cliff Hardy takes a case for wealthy and powerful Bryn Gutteridge. He and his twin sister Susan are the children of a wealthy business tycoon, so they’ve been insulated more or less from having to wait their turns like everyone else, so to speak. And that self-entitlement comes through from the very beginning, when Gutteridge first calls Hardy. Instead of asking Hardy to meet to discuss the case, Gutteridge summons him. Needless to say, that’s not exactly to Hardy’s taste, but a fee is a fee. So Hardy goes to the Gutteridge home to learn more about the case. Gutteridge tells him that his sister is being harassed and threatened, and he wants it stopped. Hardy doesn’t care much for his client, but he goes to work. Throughout this novel, we see how the culture of self-entitlement has impacted Bryn and Susan Gutteridge. Their family may have some dark secrets in the past, but they’ve never been held to the same standards as ‘the rest of us.’

Neither have the members of the powerful Miletti family, whom we meet in Michael Dibdin’s Ratking. When family patriarch Ruggerio Miletti is abducted, the Perugia police are notified, but don’t seem able to make much progress in finding out who is responsible. Aurelio Zen, who’s been working in the Ministry of the Interior in Rome, is seconded to Perugia to help out in the case. It’s going to be difficult too. The abductors have told the Milettis not to involve the police in any way. And they have enough power and influence that the police are inclined to stay out of their way. On the other hand, it won’t look good if the police appear to be in the family’s pay. So Zen has to negotiate a very difficult situation. Little by little, as he gets more information about what happened and what the reality of life in Perugia is, Zen learns just how entitled the Milettis really are. They are, all of them, accustomed to having the rules laid aside when it’s convenient. It doesn’t mean that any of them is happy, but it’s a fact of their lives.

In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, Superintendent Roy Grace has a difficult situation on his hands. Along with other cases he’s investigating, he’s told that superstar Gaia Lafayette will be spending time in her home town of Brighton to do a film that’s being shot there. There’s already been an attempt on her life, so there’s a lot of concern for her safety. What’s more, the Powers That Be have no interest in the bad publicity that would result if anything happened to her. So Grace is told that he will be responsible for ensuring her safety. On the one hand, Grace certainly doesn’t wish the star any harm. On the other, he has to face the reality of limited budgets and staff. Still, he’s been given an assignment and intends to meet his obligations. There are several examples of the self-entitlement of ‘superstars’ in the novel. Here are just two. In more than one scene there’s a discussion of the differences between firearms laws in the US and firearms laws in the UK. And several members of Gaia Lafayette’s entourage simply don’t see why they should have to abide by UK laws. Also, there’s a negotiation about how to arrange for the superstar’s safety. Given the logistics, the Brighton people want her to stay at the hotel, where they can arrange for careful monitoring. But that’s not how she and her people see it. She wants to visit the city, take her son out for pizza and so on. The cost of providing all of that extra protection is more than the Brighton team can afford, so they insist that the star pay for it. Her top people though see no reason why she should. She, after all, is Gaia Lafayette, the famous singer/actress. She’s doing Brighton a big service by ‘coming home.’ That self entitlement runs throughout the novel.

And I don’t think I could do justice to a post on the culture of entitlement without mentioning the work of Donna Leon, who explores that in several of her novels. Her sleuth Commissario Guido Brunetti lives and works in Venice. In several of the cases he investigates, it turns out that people who are rich, powerful and influential have committed crimes including murder. Brunetti’s boss, vice-questore Giuseppe Patta is quite happy to go along with the culture of entitlement. He’s a toady to those with influence, as he wants to advance his own career. Brunetti doesn’t let that stop him, though. He’s willing to take risks to solve cases, even if the culprit turns out to be someone who is self-entitled.

I’m sure you’ve met up with plenty of self-entitled people in your own life. They’re out there. And they make realistic and sometimes interesting characters in crime fiction too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must make a few ‘phone calls. It seems there’s this ridiculous policy about where I can park my car and someone left a ticket on it. I don’t see why I can’t park where I want. I shouldn’t have to pay a fine! 😉
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Daryll Hall and John Oates’ Rich Girl 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin, P.D. James, Peter Corris, Peter James

This is Your World, I’m Just Livin’ In It*

Matriarchs and PatriarchsOne of the more enduring character types in fiction is the patriarch or matriarch. She or he is the head of the family and, formally or informally, has the final say on family decisions. Sometimes these heads of families are warm, loving people. But that’s not always the case. There’s a wide variety of patriarchs and matriarchs in crime fiction, and only space enough to mention a few of them. But this should give you an idea of what I mean.

Agatha Christie created several head-of-family characters. One of them is Roger Ackroyd, whom we meet in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. He’s a retired manufacturing magnate who’s amassed a large fortune. He does ‘rule the roost,’ but although he’s thought of as frugal, you couldn’t really call him despotic. In fact, Christie shows a sympathetic side to his character. One night he is stabbed in his study. The most obvious suspect is his stepson Captain Ralph Paton, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. But his fiancée Flora is sure he’s innocent. So she persuades Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Needless to say, with a large fortune like that, there are plenty of suspects.

Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool lets readers into the wealthy Slocum family. Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter to her husband James. The letter alleges that she’s been having an affair, and Maude is sure that if James finds out about it, he’ll divorce her. Archer takes the case and begins to look into the matter. He soon finds that the Slocum family is headed by Maude’s mother-in-law Olivia Slocum. She’s the one with control over the family fortunes and as Archer finds out, she also has control over her son James. The family isn’t what you’d call happy, so when Olivia is found dead in the family’s swimming pool, Archer starts looking close to home for suspects. There are other people to consider though. The Slocum property includes land that oil company executive Walter Kilbourne wants for drilling, and Olivia refused to grant drilling rights. There are other possibilities too.

Michael Dibdin’s Ratking introduces us to the Miletti family, the wealthiest and most powerful family in Perugia. When their family patriarch Ruggerio Miletti is abducted, Aurelio Zen, who works with the Ministry of the Interior in Rome, is seconded to Perugia to help find him. He soon finds that the searching out the people who abducted Miletti is just one of his challenges. The members of the Miletti family have been told not to involve the police, so they’re wary of accepting help or input from anyone in law enforcement. And the Perugia police, who aren’t too happy about Zen’s presence as it is, are unwilling to upset the family or to appear too eager to toady to the rich. So the process of solving this case is difficult. It gets even more difficult when there is a ransom demand and a lot of disagreement about how to handle it. The family finally agrees to involve Zen in their plan, but things don’t go as intended. Throughout this novel we get a look at the dynamics in the Miletti family, and we see through their eyes what Ruggerio Miletti is like.

In Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, journalist Mikael Blomqvist is hired by Vanger family patriarch Henrik Vanger. Nearly forty years earlier, his grand-niece Harriet disappeared, and was always thought to have drowned. But he has reason to believe she may still be alive. He wants Blomqvist to find out what happened to Harriet. In exchange, he agrees to help Vanger bring down industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, who won an expensive libel suit against Blompvist and his publication Millennium. Blomqvist agrees, and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander go into the background of the Vanger family and the history of the day that Harriet disappeared. And that history yields all sorts of family and business secrets.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features the Garrow family. Helen Garrow is the matriarch of this ‘blueblood’ family, and is none too pleased when her younger son Angus falls in love with Jodie Evans. Jodie is from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ as the saying goes, and only managed her scholarship to a good school through hard academic work. Helen believes that Jodie is ‘not our sort,’ and too ambitious, and discourages Angus getting serious about her. But Angus and Jodie are in love, and they marry anyway. Over the years, Helen and Jodie get used to each other, and they have in common Angus’ well-being. But then comes a bombshell. It’s discovered that Jodie had a baby years earlier – a baby she never discussed with Angus. When she’s first asked about it, Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption. But no formal records of adoption can be found, and before long, some ugly questions are asked. If the child is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? Once the questions begin to threaten the family’s reputation, Helen Garrow does her best to ‘close ranks’ and keep the family’s social position intact. It’s easy to see though, that although she loves her grandchildren, Jodie’s well-being and the truth about the other baby are not her prime concerns.

Anthony BIdulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas is the story of the wealthy Wiser family, which is led by matriarch Charity Wiser. She believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. At her behest, her granddaughter Flora hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the would-be murderer is. Her plan is to invite Quant to join the whole family on a cruise on her private boat, so that he can sleuth the various family members. Quant finds he’s got more than he bargained for when first, there’s an attempt on Charity Wiser’s life and then, there’s a murder. Woven throughout the novel is the indomitable and powerful personality of Charity Wiser. She is most definitely a matriarch.

There are a lot of other fictional powerful heads of family. I’ve probably not mentioned the ones that most stick out in your mind. Who are they?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Willa Dean Parker, Homer Banks and Bettye Jean Crutcher’s It’s Your World. It’s best known as a Sam & Dave song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Michael Dibdin, Ross Macdonald, Stieg Larsson, Wendy James