Category Archives: Natsuo Kirino

Here’s the Mystery of Fitting In*

Human interactions can be complicated, since people are complex. That may be part of why each group of people develops rules – some of them very subtle and unspoken – for being accepted. If you know and follow those rules, you have a much easier time in that particular group. If you don’t, it’s more difficult; you may even be made unwelcome.

Those rules permeate our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re also woven into crime fiction. For example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is Belgian, with a lifetime of that culture’s subtle and not-so-subtle ‘rules’ for interaction. He’s smart and observant enough to know that things are different in his adopted home of England. So, he’s made the adjustment. In The Murder on the Links, for instance, he and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, who lived with his wife and son in Merlinville-sur-Mer, in France. At one point, Poirot makes a trip to Paris to follow up on a lead. Here’s how he takes his leave of Hastings:
 

‘‘You permit that I embrace you? Ah, no, I forget that it is not the English custom. Une poignee de main, alors.’’
 

Needless to say, a handshake is much more suited to Hastings’ style.

In Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, Trafalgar, British Columbia (BC) Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and her boss, Sergeant John Winters, investigate the murder of land developer Reginald ‘Reg’ Montgomery. There are plenty of suspects, too. He wanted to create the Grizzly Resort, an upmarket tourist attraction that some people say would have brought in a lot of welcome revenue. But, there are just as many people who didn’t want the resort, saying it would wreak havoc on the environment and make life harder for the local people. The victim had some secrets in his personal life as well. There were certainly plenty of people who didn’t like Montgomery, but he knew some of the ‘rules’ for fitting in in Trafalgar:
 

‘…he made a point of shopping at the local stores, rather than the Wal-Mart in Nelson, eating out regularly, usually in family-owned restaurants, and tipping well. Ellie, his wife, had her hair done at Maggie’s Salon on Front Street, bought her clothes from Joanie’s Ladies Wear, and contributed generously, in time as well as money, to the hospital and the seniors center.’
 

Montgomery wanted the locals to accept him and his wife, and learned how to help make that happen.

In many groups, new members get the least desirable assignments, and sometimes have to be good sports about having tricks played on them. Once they show they can ‘take a joke,’ and are willing to do lowly tasks, they’re accepted. Of course, such ‘rules’ can be taken much too far, and amount to hazing. But they’re a part of a lot of groups’ cultures. For instance, Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood is the story of the murder of Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police. One day, he’s called to the scene of a home invasion, and takes probationer Lucy Howard with him to investigate. He’s killed at the house, and everyone assumes that the murderer is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley. Howard didn’t see the murder, though, as she was at a different part of the house when it happened. So, the police have to investigate. As they do, we get to know the people White worked with, and the bond they share. One of those people is Constable Cameron Walsh, who considered White a mentor, even though White played a ‘new guy’ prank on him. Walsh was accepted among his fellow coppers, including White, in part because he proved he ‘could take a joke.’

One of the most important things one learns in the LGBT community is that you don’t ever ‘out’ someone. People choose to come out or not of their own accord. And Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant knows and follows that rule. In Flight of Aquavit, Quant gets a new client, successful accountant Daniel Guest. Guest is a ‘closeted’ married gay man, who’s being blackmailed over some trysts he’s had with other men. He wants Quant to find the blackmailer and stop that person. Quant’s first reaction is that it would be a lot easier if Guest simply went public with the fact that he’s gay. But that’s not Quant’s decision to make, and Guest is unwilling to take that step. So, he takes the case and begins to look into the matter. It’s a challenging case, and leads to murder; but in the end, Quant finds out the truth.

Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates takes place in Japan, mostly in Tokyo. In that culture, at that time (the book was written in 1961), there are a number of expectations for the way one is supposed to interact. There are several ‘rules’ for verbal and other communication. Some indicate who has authority and who doesn’t; others are used to get along with others and to be accepted. Some of those expectations are still in place (we see some of them, for instance, in Natsuo Kirino’s Real Life, which was published in 2003). And it’s interesting to see how those rules and rituals allow for social harmony among a large group of people concentrated in a small place.

It’s much harder to be accepted among a group of people if you don’t know the social subtleties and rules. Just ask Harry Bingham’s Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths, whom we first meet in Talking to the Dead. In this novel, she’s the most junior member of her Cardiff-based police team. It’s vital for a group of police officers to be able to work together, and Griffiths knows that. But knowing and following those ‘rules’ is difficult for her, because she is dealing with a mental illness. It’s not so debilitating that she can’t work, but it does hamper her ability to interact productively with others, and to live on what she calls ‘Planet Normal.’ Things such as joking around, small talk, dating, and so on can be real challenges. She’s not the only one who faces this, either, is she, fans of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?

Most of us learn the ‘rules’ and expectations for interaction very early on. And that’s a good thing, as they make it much easier to work with others and get through life. In fact, they’re so much a part of our lives that we probably don’t pay a lot of attention to them. Little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pale Pacific’s How to Fit In.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Harry Bingham, Mark Haddon, Matsumoto Seichō, Natsuo Kirino, Vicki Delany, Y.A. Erskine

And Always You’ll See That You Reflect on Me*

You know the feeling, I’ll bet. A child misbehaves in public, and one of your first thoughts might be, ‘What is that mother/father thinking?’ Or, you cringe when your child’s teacher asks to speak to you, and brings up something that may be going on at school. In many societies, what children do is often seen as a reflection on their parents. When children are ‘well-behaved,’ get high grades, and so on, the parents must be doing something right. When they aren’t, or don’t, that’s largely seen as ‘the parents’ fault.’

We all know, of course, that it’s not as simple as that. Children have their own identities, priorities, and thoughts. And their dreams may very well be different to their parents’. That’s not to mention that even loving, involved parents don’t always know everything their children do. In society’s eyes, that doesn’t always matter, though, and it’s interesting to see how this plays out in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, we are introduced to the Tucker family. They’re a working-class family that stays out of trouble. And the parents are happy that their older children are settled and have ‘respectable’ lives of their own. Then, tragedy strikes. Fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is murdered during a fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is at the event, since she designed one of the activities. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. He works with Inspector Bland to find out who would want to kill Marlene. Poirot interviews her parents, and gets very little help from them. They saw their daughter as ‘a good girl,’ if not exactly brilliant. And that respectability is important to them. But, as Poirot learns from Marlene’s younger sister Marylin,
 

‘‘Mum don’t know everything.’’
 

And he learns that Marlene had a habit of finding out people’s secrets – something her parents would not have approved of her doing. And that put her squarely in the sights of a killer.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and (now retired) academician. She is also a mother. And, as is the case with most parents, she wants the very best for her children. She doesn’t expect them to be exactly like her, but they do, in their way, reflect on her. So, when her oldest child, Mieka, decides to withdraw from university and open her own business, it’s hard for Joanne to accept. Part of it is that Mieka’s choice is a very risky one. But part of it is that children’s choices are seen as reflecting on their parents. In the end, entrepreneurship turns out to be right for Mieka, and Joanne is justly proud of her daughter’s success. But it’s not always easy to accept that Mieka will go her own way.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit introduces us to Mason Hunt, commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. He is also the widowed father of fifteen-year-old Grace. The main plot of the novel has to do with a long-ago murder committed by Mason’s brother, Gates. At the time of the murder, Mason helped his brother cover it up out of a sense of loyalty. But that comes back to haunt him later. In the meantime, Grace has problems of her own. She becomes pregnant, and it’s very clear that the father will not be a part of the baby’s life. That’s not at all what Mason had envisioned for his daughter, and in the small town where they live, he has reason to believe Grace’s choices may reflect on him. But, he loves his daughter, and he knows that she has never needed him more than she needs him now. So, he stands by her, and when the baby is born, helps to take care of the child.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner has as its context a full-course dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants – the kind where you have to call months in advance to even have a hope of getting a reservation. The two couples at this particular dinner are Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. As the dinner moves on through the courses, we learn that this isn’t an ordinary dinner where brothers and their wives get together to catch up. Little by little, we learn that Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are responsible for a terrible crime. The police are looking into the case, and before they get too far, the two couples have to decide what to do. No matter what happens, what the boys did reflects badly on their parents. And both sets of parents are particularly interested in preserving their veneer of respectability. That’s an important thread woven through the story.

We see this issue from the other side, as it were, in Natsuo Kirino’s Real Life. This novel’s focus is four Tokyo teenagers: Toshiko Yamanaka, Kazuko Terauchi, Kiyomi ‘Yuzan’ Kaibara, and Kirari Higashiyama. One day, the mother of the family who lives next door to Toshiko is murdered. And, as it turns out, her son, Ryo, is suspected of the crime. He acts quite guilty, too, stealing Toshiko’s bicycle and telephone and going on the run. Toshiko and her friends each come into contact with Ryo, and each has a different reaction. But they all decide not to inform the police or their parents about what they know. As the events of the next few days play out, things start to spin out of control for everyone, and it all leads to tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see how clearly these young people understand that they are seen as reflecting on their parents. That sense of responsibility is an important part of the way they think.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The story features families who send their children to Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. Three families in particular are the focus of the novel; all of them have at least one child in Kindergarten. When one child is accused of bullying another, the parents begin to divide into two ‘camps.’ That resentment is enough of a problem, but there are other resentments, too. Everything boils over one night at a fundraiser, and it ends up in a tragedy. In this story, we see how important it is to some of these families that their children be perceived as ‘good,’ as ‘bright,’ as ‘well-behaved.’ In a small community like this one, the way children behave really is seen as, at least in part, a reflection on their parents.

And that’s the thing about parents and children. We know intellectually that children are not the same as parents, and that the children of excellent parents can still make serious mistakes. But that’s not always how it plays out…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthias Meissner, Thomas Schwarz-Janen, Frank Peterson and Andrea Silveira’s The Second Element

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Natsuo Kirino

It’s Better to Burn Out Than it is to Rust*

burning-the-candle-at-both-endsEdna St. Vincent Millay’s First Fig goes like this:

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!

 

I’m sure we’ve all known people like that. They live life to the absolute fullest, and sometimes, they burn out. Characters like that can add a lot to a crime story (or any story, really). They can add zest to a plot, and they can be interesting in and of themselves.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, we are introduced to Anthony Marston. Young, good-looking, and fond of driving fast and living life to the utmost, he is one of ten people who are invited for a stay at Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Like the others, Marston accepts the invitation. Oddly enough, when the guests arrive, they find that their host isn’t there to greet them. Still, they settle in and dinner that night is both successful and delicious. Everything changes after that, though. Each guest is accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. Then, Marston suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, there’s another death. It’s soon clear that someone is targeting all of the guests. So, the survivors have to find out who the killer is if they’re to stay alive.

Margaret Millar’s Mermaid features attorney Tom Aragon. One day, he gets an unusual visitor. Twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jaspar wants to ask him about her rights. It’s soon clear that she’s got special needs, although she is high-functioning. As she tells Aragon, she attends an exclusive special school, and lives with her much-older brother, Hilton. According to Cleo, her life is far too conscripted, and she never gets to do what she wants. Aragon can’t help her much, and she soon takes her leave. Not long afterwards, Aragon learns that Cleo went missing not long after her visit, and that her brother is trying to find her. In fact, Hilton wants Aragon to find his sister and persuade her to return. Aragon agrees, and starts to ask questions. As he tries to trace her whereabouts, Aragon slowly builds a picture of Cleo. And he learns that she wanted very much to experience life to the fullest. She was quite well aware that there’s a big world out there, as the saying goes, and wanted to see it. That aspect of her personality plays an important role in what happens in the story.

Natsuo Kirino’s Real World features five teens who are caught up in a tragedy when one of them, Ryo, is accused of killing his mother, and goes on the run. Toshiko, who lives next door, hears a crash at the time of the murder, and is, therefore, a witness. But she chooses not to tell the police what she knows. Among her reasons for not cooperating with the police is that she’s afraid she’ll be considered an accomplice. She’s even more drawn into the case when she learns that Ryo has stolen her bicycle and her telephone. Then, he begins to contact her other three best friends, Kazuko, Yuzan, and Kirari. Each in a different way, this group of friends gets involved in what’s happened, and no-one discusses the matter with the police, or with any other adult. Before long, things spin out of control for all of the characters, and the end result is tragedy. The murder isn’t committed because of ‘burning the candle at both ends.’ But for one character in particular, the desire to experience life – to really live – plays an important role in the story. And for all of the teen characters, there’s at least some feeling of restlessness, and of wanting to see all that life has to offer.

That’s also the case with Niccolo ‘Nick’ Franco, whom we meet in Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. This novel tells the story of the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy in the first years of the 20th Century. Patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco made a success of the shoe repair and sales business, and the family started to live out what’s sometimes been called ‘the American dream.’ One night, though, Ben got into a bar fight, and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, son of notorious mobster Tonio Lupo. Ben was imprisoned, but that wasn’t enough for Lupo, who cursed the family. He visited Ben in prison, and promised that each of his three sons would die at the age of forty-two – the same age Luigi was at his death. The story goes on relate what happened to those sons, one of whom is Nick. As it happens, Nick is attractive enough, and star-struck enough, to go to Hollywood and get started on a film career. For a while, his career goes very well, as he slowly gets bigger and bigger parts. It doesn’t last, though, especially after the advent of ‘the talkies.’ He doesn’t have as much talent as he thinks he does, but he is convinced that he’s going to make a comeback as a great actor. And he wants to experience the exciting ‘Hollywood life.’ And for him, that involves women and drugs. That personality trait – wanting to live ‘on the edge’ – turns out to be disastrous for Nick.

And then there’s fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan, whom we get to know in Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. It’s 1978/1979, and Angela is spending the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin, who live not far from Sydney. There’s not much to do there, so Angela, her cousin Mick, and Mick’s friends, spend quite a lot of time playing pinball at the local drugstore. One day, Angela goes missing, and is later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the police focus on Mick and his friends, as well as Mick’s family. But a few months later, another young girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, is also found dead, also with a scarf around her head. Now, the police begin to believe that there’s a serial killer out there, someone the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The cases remain unsolved, and life goes on as best possible. Years later, a documentary filmmaker, Erin Fury, decides to do a film about the families of murder victims, and asks to work with the Griffin family. Little by little, the truth about the Angela’s death comes out as Fury puts the film together. And readers learn what Angela was like. She wanted some excitement out of life – to live as much as she could. And that plays a role, both in how she’s treated and in what happens to her.

Characters who burn the proverbial candle at both ends can be self-destructive. But they can also be fascinating, and can add leaven to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Margaret Millar, Natsuo Kirino, Wendy James

And I’m Not What I Appear to Be*

Impostor SyndromeNone of us is perfect. We all know that in the abstract, but it doesn’t stop us wanting to appear to ‘have it all together’ in front of others. That’s a very natural desire, really. Who wants to come across as incompetent? But for some people, it goes further than that. For those people, it leads to strong feelings of self-doubt and fear that others will find out about real and perceived weaknesses. And that can result in what’s often called Imposter Syndrome.

People with Imposter Syndrome are convinced that they’re not really competent or successful, no matter how much evidence there might be to the contrary. Because of this, they sometimes feel fraudulent; that can lead to even more feelings of unworthiness or worse.

There are certainly people like that in real life, and we see such characters in crime fiction, too. They can add sub-plots, story arcs, and more to a story or series; and such characters can resonate, since there are plenty of readers who can relate.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Hercule Poirot is invited to a cocktail party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Among the other guests is Oliver Manders, a young man who’s just getting started in his career. Manders is an insecure and unhappy young man; but of course, he doesn’t want anyone to know that. So he pretends to be bored and jaded, and pretends to a lot of self-confidence that he doesn’t really have. Unfortunately, because of that superficial attitude, he doesn’t make the best of first impressions. Still, he thinks that, as the saying goes, he has everyone fooled. At the cocktail party, another guest, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Manders is shaken up, as all of the guests are, but continues to put on a façade of sneering contempt. It’s not until there’s a second murder, and the possibility that he may be blamed for it, that Manders is willing to admit his insecurities. When he does, Poirot turns out to be quite helpful to him.

It’s not unusual for young people to be vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome; they’re trying to fit in, and they often don’t have the confidence in themselves that they’ll develop later in life. That’s arguably the case with Christy Sinclair, whom we first meet in Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel. In one sub-plot of that novel, we learn that Christy is dating Peter Kilbourn, the son of Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn. In the next novel, The Wandering Soul Murders, it’s revealed that Christy and Peter have broken up, and that Joanne is just as well pleased about that. Then, Christy comes back into the Kilbourns’ lives, even saying that she and Peter are getting back together. Not long afterwards, Christy dies in what seems at first to be a suicide by drowning. It’s not that simple, though, and as Joanne looks into the matter, she finds that Christy had quite a lot of insecurity, and a sense of not being ‘good enough.’ Partly that came from her background (she grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks). But there are other reasons, too, and they form part of this plot thread.

Natsuo Kirino’s Real World takes us into the lives of five Tokyo teenagers. When one of them, Ryo, is suspected of killing his mother, he goes on the run. Each in a different way, the other four teens, all of whom are in the same social group, interact with Ryo. The situation begins to spin out of control for all of them, but instead of getting the adult help they need, they decide to try to manage it themselves. None of them even speaks to a parent about what’s really going on. In part, that’s because they don’t want to be suspected of being complicit in a murder. But there’s also the strong sense that they don’t want to appear helpless and unable to cope. They’d rather be caught in a dangerous and frightening mess than show just how incompetent they really think they are. And in the end, that choice has tragic consequences.

Plenty of new parents feel a sense of the Impostor Syndrome. Advertisements, some television characters, and so on make parenting a brand-new infant look easy. It’s not. There’s the set of hormonal changes, there’s chronic sleep deprivation, and there’s the never-ending demand for feedings, changings, changings, changings…  And that’s not to mention infants’ occasional illnesses or issues such as colic. And yet, plenty of new parents buy into the myth that they should do it all and do it well. And that can go on for a long time (‘If I were a good parent, my child would ____,’ or, ‘If I ask for help with ____, everyone’ll know what a horrible parent I am.’).

We see that sort of Impostor Syndrome reflected in a lot of crime fiction. I’m sure you can name plenty of examples. One of the more recent ones is Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Like many new mothers, Yvonne struggles with the demands and societal expectations for new parents. Matters aren’t made any easier by the fact that she’s recently moved from Ireland to London, so she hasn’t made a lot of friends – not friends that she can really trust. So, she turns to NetMammy, an online community of new mothers, for support. And that’s what she finds at first. Then, one of the other members all of sudden goes ‘off the grid.’ Anyone can take a break from online activity, but Yvonne begins to suspect that something is very wrong. And then a body is discovered…

No-one likes to appear weak or incompetent. And sometimes, those feelings of inadequacy, and the myth that everyone else has it right, can lead to a real sense of self-doubt. And that can lead in all sorts of directions, especially in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ I’m a Loser.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Natsuo Kirino, Sinéad Crowley

It’s the Terror of Knowing What this World is About*

AnomieAny major change, especially a major social change, can make people uneasy. That uneasiness and anxiety – sociologists have called it anomie – can have drastic consequences. Some sociologists have looked at this from the broader perspective of general lawlessness. Others look at it from a more individual perspective – as a factor in deviance and lawbreaking. Either way you think about it, there’s certainly evidence for anomie in the real world.

There is in crime fiction, too, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Crime fiction deals with lawlessness, lawbreaking, and the perceived need to keep order. And from a purely literary point of view, that uneasiness and anxiety can make for a solid layer of tension and interest in a story.

Agatha Christie touches on anomie a few times in her stories. Just to give one example, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to Nasse House, in Nassecomb, at the request of his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions at an upcoming charity fête; but she’s come to suspect that there’s more going on at Nasse House than the preparations for the big event. She wants Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. On the day of the fête, Mrs. Oliver’s fears are justified when the body of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is discovered in the boathouse on the property. On the surface of it, there seems no motive to murder the girl. But Poirot keeps asking questions, and discovers that Marlene had found out some things it wasn’t safe for her to know. One of the themes that runs through this novel is the set of major socioeconomic changes that came after World War II. A few characters mention, for instance, the breakup and sale of former estates, and their use as Guest Houses and hostels. Others mention the increase in ‘foreigners’ in the country. As one character puts it,
 

‘‘So many things are hard, M. Poirot.’’
 

Admittedly, anomie isn’t the reason for Marlene’s murder. But it certainly is woven through the anxiety a lot of people feel in this novel.

After the breakup of the former Soviet Union, there was a great deal of social anxiety both there and in the other Warsaw Pact nations. There was exhilaration; at the same time, there was anxiety. If there wasn’t going to be a Soviet Union any more, what was there going to be? We see that anxiety in many novels of and about that era. I’ll just mention one. In Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Georgetown University law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith gets involved in the shooting death of US Congressman Paul Latham. At first Latham’s death is branded a suicide. But one of Smith’s former students, who’s now with the CIA, convinces him that there’s more to this death than that. One possible explanation for the murder is that Latham had made contact with a businessman who’s trying to make inroads into the new post-Soviet economy. And there are some very dangerous Russian ‘businessmen trying to fill the power vacuum in Russia. Negotiating these waters is Yvgeny Fodorov. With the fall of the Soviet Union, everything has changed, including his mother Vani. Nothing makes sense any more, and he feels truly disaffected by what he sees as the ruination of Russia. This makes him ripe for manipulation by the new Russian Mafia, and before he knows it, Fodorov is deeply involved in a much bigger and more dangerous scheme than he knows.

When the system of apartheid in South Africa ended, many people weren’t sure what was going to come next. If the ‘old order’ wasn’t going to determine life in that country any more, than what was? As much as people rightly celebrated the end of the apartheid era, they also weren’t sure what was going to come next. We see that anomie in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie, and their children are on a drive outside Cape Town when their car is ambushed and goes over an embankment. Dell is the only survivor. For reasons he doesn’t know, he’s soon framed for the murders of his family members and jailed in preparation for what will likely be a rigged trial. His estranged father, Bobby Goodbread, comes to his rescue, finding a way to get Dell out of prison. Then, for different reasons, they go in search of the man who actually killed Dell’s family. Also looking for the same man is Disaster Zondi, a bureaucrat who’s just lost his job. And then there’s seventeen-year-old Sonto, who usually goes by her English name, Sunday. She’s trying to escape becoming the fourth wife of the man who killed the Dell family. As the fates of these people intersect, we see the larger anxiety caused by the major social changes in the country. Nothing is certain and there seems no order of any kind. And that shows in many of the events in the story.

There are also plenty of crime novels that focus more on personal anomie – on the anxiety people feel when they’re rootless, with no order in their own lives. Several of Pascal Garnier’s stories have that sort of anomie as one of the elements. For example, in How’s the Pain? we are introduced to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s rather aimless and purposeless, and not particularly good at anything. But he does have a driver license. And that’s just what Simon Marechall needs. Marechall has his own kind of anxiety. He’s an ageing contract killer who sees the end of his career coming. But he wants to get in one more job while he can. He wants Bernard to drive him to the French coast so that he can take care of his business, and Bernard agrees. What else, really, is there for him to do? What he doesn’t know at first is exactly the sort of business his new boss is in. If you’ve read Garnier, you know that this will not end happily ever after…

Natsuo Kirino’s Real World offers another look at the kind of rootlessness and anxiety that can lead to anomie. In that novel, Toshiko Yamanaka and three of her friends are drawn into a case of murder when the police suspect that Ryo, the boy who lives next door to Toshiko, has killed his mother. Toshiko has some information to share about the killing, but decides to lie to the police. She and each of her three friends interact with Ryo, who has fled, and each decides not to turn him in. As the days go by and Ryo does not return, we see how things spin out of control for all five young people. The result is tragic, and the novel highlights the alienation these teens feel. For various reasons, they don’t feel a part of their families’ society or culture. And they don’t have a strong sense of purpose in life. That anxiety and their uncertainty about where they fit in and what they’ll do plays a major role in the choices they make.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary addresses the rootlessness and lack of purpose that change has brought to the Corrowa people of Brisbane. The real action in the story begins when a judge rules that the Corrowa people cannot prove their claim to Brisbane’s Meston Park. Hours later, the judge is murdered. Then, one by one, other people connected with the case are also killed. Among other things, this investigation forces several people involved, including the police who look into the murders, the lawyer who took the case to court, and others, to face their feelings of anxiety and unease about who they are and where they fit in.

And that’s the thing about anomie. Whether you look at it on a societal level or look at things such as delinquency, that sort of anxiety and lack of order and purpose can have real consequences. And that can add a rich texture in a crime novel

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure.  Bowie’s loss is a blow, and he will be much missed…

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Margaret Truman, Natsuo Kirino, Nicole Watson, Pascal Garnier, Roger Smith