Category Archives: Paddy Richardson

Parents, Teachers, They’re Making Sure I Do as I’m Told*

Home and SchoolIn just a matter of weeks, students everywhere will be back in school for the autumn or spring term. And that means that teachers and parents will be negotiating that delicate and very important home/school relationship.

The home/school dynamic is culturally contextual, as most things are. Parents and teachers play different roles, depending on the way the culture values formal education. The dynamic’s also affected by factors such as socioeconomic class, education level of the parents, and the like. But no matter what form the home/school relationship takes, it plays a role in a family’s (and teacher’s) life. And it can add character depth and more to a novel.

Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, takes place mostly at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. The story opens on the first day of summer term. It’s a day full of activity, with parents arriving throughout the afternoon to bring their daughters to school. Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode and her second-in-command Eleanor Vansittart have their hands full meeting all of the parents, getting the students settled in, and ensuring that everything runs smoothly. It’s busy, but it seems much like the first day of any term. Not long after the beginning of the term, Grace Springer, the new games mistress, is shot in the Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Soon the school is embroiled in a very complex case. There’s one important clue to the case that comes up on that first day, when the teachers are interacting with the parents. But it’s such a busy time that it’s missed…at first. Throughout this novel, there are all sorts of interesting (and sometimes funny) interactions with families. It’s a reminder that there are some things about the home/school dynamic that haven’t changed much in the decades since the novel was written…

In one plot thread of Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, DCI Alan Banks and his team investigate a worrisome series of home invasions, one of which ends in a murder. One important ‘person of interest’ in this case is local teenager Trevor Sharp. He’s an aimless sort of teen who manages to stay clear of the worst sort of trouble but, as is so often said, he doesn’t live up to his potential. Banks decides to visit his school to get more information about the boy. When he does so, he gets some insight into the relationship between Trevor’s home (he’s being raised by a single father) and his school. Mr. Price, Trevor’s form master, has been in contact with Trevor’s father Graham, and says that the father shares his concerns about the boy. Without spoiling the story, I can say that in some ways, Graham Sharp’s reaction is a lot like other parents’ reactions when they’re told their children are struggling or heading for trouble. No-one wants to believe that such a thing is happening, and teachers everywhere can tell stories of trying to work with parents who are not able or willing to accept the truth about their children.

Timothy Hallinan’s The Queen of Patpong gives the reader insights and background on one of the main characters in this series. The protagonist of these novels is ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. He’s made a new life for himself in Bangkok, and shares it with his wife Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own cleaning company. In the course of this novel, we learn more about Rose’s history. One thread of that history involves an interaction between her teacher, Teacher Suttikul, and her father. One day the teacher visits her home to have a discussion with her father. Teacher Suttikul is hoping to persuade Rose’s father to allow her to stay in school and get a scholarship, rather than leave school and get work:
 

‘‘You know, you have a very smart daughter.’
‘So what?’ her father says… ‘She’s a girl.’
‘There are lots of good jobs for girls these days. She’ll earn plenty of money if she stays in school.’
‘What good does that do anybody? If she makes any money, it’ll go to her husband’s parents, not us.’
… ‘She’ll always take care of you. And I know she can get a good job. Someday she – ’
‘Someday,’ her father says heavily, as though the words are in a foreign language. ‘Someday. My children need food now. The roof needs to be fixed before the next rain comes. We need money now.’’
 

This conversation shows at a gut level what happens when teachers and parents have very different priorities and values, and different urgent needs.

There’s also a difficult home/school dynamic in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilse Klein is a secondary school teacher in the town of Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. One of her most promising students is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She’s engaged and interested, and shows real academic potential – the kind of student teachers everywhere love. Then things begin to change. Ilse notices that Serena has stopped attending class regularly. When she is there, she no longer participates. Increasingly concerned, she tries to get Serena to tell her what’s wrong, but with no success. When her concerns deepen, Ilse lets the school’s counseling staff know – a normal thing to do under the circumstances. But when the counselor, Sally Davis, visits Serena’s family, things go wrong. Here’s what Serena’s mother Char says about it:
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‘‘This teacher. This teacher, well, she thought she saw marks on Serena’s arm. You know, uh, bruises? So she told the counsellor at school. Sally Davis, her name is. She came around here –’’
 

Instead of sharing the school’s concerns and working with the staff, Serena’s mother does little to help, instead defending her live-in boyfriend Rob and trying to make as little of the matter as possible. But it’s not a small matter when Serena disappears. Among other things, this novel depicts the reality of trying to work with very dysfunctional families.

Of course, there are many home/school relationships that go much more smoothly. For example, in Priscilla Masters’ River Deep, we are introduced to Martha Gunn, coroner for Shrewsbury. The main plot of the novel concerns a murder that’s uncovered when the River Severn overflows its banks and flushes a dead man out of the basement of a home he doesn’t own. Gunn works with the police to uncover the truth and untangle what turns out to be a complicated investigation. In a sub-plot of this novel, she has another concern. Her twelve-year-old son Sam shows real promise as an athlete. In fact, the sports master Paul Grant believes that Sam could easily get a place at a football training school. He calls Gunn in to discuss the matter with her, and they actually have a very productive conversation. The dilemma for Gunn is this: on the one hand, Sam’s gift and passion should be nurtured. She agrees with that. On the other, even Grant agrees that the academic preparation at a football training school isn’t what it is in other schools. So Sam could be missing out on a university education. It’s an interesting look at how home and school can work together for big decisions such as this one.

It can be tricky for both teachers and parents to work with one another. But the research shows clearly (at least to me) that the home/school dynamic really does impact students’ lives. It’s an important part of family life, so it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction, too.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Lavin’s Freewill.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Paddy Richardson, Peter Robinson, Priscilla Masters, Timothy Hallinan

This is the End*

Books with Great EndingsNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books did a terrific post on crime books that she felt had the best endings. And that got me to thinking about which crime novel endings I’ve liked best. It’s actually not easy to write a good ending to a book. On the one hand, most readers want an ending that falls out logically from the story. ‘Out of the blue’ endings, or endings that are too far-fetched, are annoying. And readers want a sense that the important plot points (in the case of crime fiction, that’s usually the solution to the mystery) have been resolved.

On the other hand, an ending that is too ‘pat,’ where everything is tied up in a neat little ‘package,’ is annoying as well, and isn’t realistic. Life is usually messier than that. And an ending that’s too anticlimactic leaves the reader wondering, ‘Is this all there is?’

Nonetheless, there are some crime novels that have very powerful, memorable endings. They stay with the reader, and they encourage the reader to think about the book long after it’s finished. Of course, your idea of what sort of ending falls into that category is going to differ from mine. But, keeping in mind that this is just my opinion, here, in roughly chronological order of publication, are…

 

Margot’s Choices For Crime Novels With the Best Endings

 

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

In this story, Hercule Poirot is asked to solve the murder of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, who’s been found stabbed in his study. In some ways, the novel is reflective of the Golden Age style. There’s a wealthy dead man, several likely suspects in the household, the ne’er-do-well most likely suspect whom the police have targeted, the young lovers, and so on. It’s clear that Christie had mastered the art of the Golden Age whodunit. But then she turned it on its head and broke the rules with this novel. It’s got one of the most famous dénouements in crime-fictional history.

 

Presumed Innocent – Scott Turow

This novel introduces Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, who at this point is a Kindle County prosecuting attorney. When one of his colleagues, Carolyn Polhemus, is murdered, Sabich is assigned to the case. His boss has made it clear that that case must be handled both delicately and openly, with no hint of cover-up. Sabich gets started on the investigation, but there’s something he hasn’t told his boss: up until a few months before her death, he was involved with the victim. When that fact comes out, Sabich is removed from the case and replaced by a rival. That’s only the beginning of his trouble, though. Soon, evidence is found that suggests Sabich is the killer. In fact, the evidence is so compelling that he is arrested for the crime. Now on the other side of the table, so to speak, Sabich asks his friend and colleague Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him, and Stern agrees. This ending is particularly powerful for me because not only does Turow provide a strong ending to the court case, but also, the truth about Carolyn Polhemus’ death is, in my opinion, brilliantly done.

 

Gone, Baby, Gone – Dennis Lehane

If you’ve read this novel, then you’ll probably already guess why I chose it. For those not familiar with the story, the real action in it begins when Dorchester, Massachusetts PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro get a visit from Lionel McCready and his wife Beatrice. They want Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate the heartbreaking disappearance of their four-year-old niece Amanda. Both PIs are familiar with the case, as the media has made much of it. After all, it’s a missing child. And that publicity is part of why Kenzie and Gennaro are reluctant to take the case at first. They don’t see what they can do that dozens of police and all sorts of media outlets can’t do. But Beatrice McCready is insistent and determined, so the PIs agree to at least speak to Amanda’s mother Helene. Before they know it, they’re drawn into a gut-wrenching case of a missing child, and are faced with several difficult choices as they investigate. The ending to this story is, for me, one of the more powerful endings in crime fiction. It raises some important and fascinating topics for debate and discussion, and is surprising without being so completely impossible that it’s not credible. I can’t say more without spoiling it, but if you’ve read it…you know what I mean.

 

What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn

This novel begins in 1984, when ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective. In fact, she’s even started her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She doesn’t have much of a life otherwise; she lives in a rather grim English Midlands town with an ageing High Street and more struggling families than people of means. But she is content planning and operating her new company. She spends a lot of time at the newly-constructed Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she is sure she’ll find plenty of crime to investigate. Everything changes when her grandmother Ivy decides that Kate should go away to school. Kate refuses, but Ivy is convinced she’ll have a better chance for a ‘real’ life if she goes. Finally, Kate’s friend, twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer, agrees to go with her to the exclusive Redspoon School to sit the entrance exams. Only Adrian returns, and then the alarm is given, there’s a massive search. But no trace of Kate is found – not even a body. Everyone thinks Adrian is responsible, although he flatly denies it. In fact, he is harassed so badly that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is Assistant Manager at Your Music, one of the stores at Green Oaks. One night, she meets Kurt, one of the mall security guards. Kurt’s been seeing some strange things on his CCTV cameras lately: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. Each in a different way, Kurt and Lisa go back to the past, if you will, and we learn what really happened to Kate Meaney. The answer to that question, and the way it has impacted everyone, makes the ending to this book one of the more emotionally powerful endings I’ve read.

 

Confessions – Kanae Minato

This novel, which shows the ugly side of middle school, begins as Yūko Moriguchi addresses her class. It’s her last day at the school, and she has a powerful message for her students. Her four-year-old daughter Manami died not long ago, and she is convinced that it wasn’t the accident the police thought it was. In fact, she knows Manami was murdered, and she knows by whom: two of her students. What’s more, she knows exactly which students are responsible, and she makes that clear in her speech. Then, she duly resigns. She’s not convinced that the justice system will mete out an appropriate punishment, because the killers are juveniles. So she’s made her own plans. Still, a new teacher is assigned to the class, and life seems to go on. But it’s soon clear that things are not at all ‘normal.’ Before long, life begins to spin out of control for three students in particular. As matters get worse, we see exactly what Yūko Moriguchi planned to do, and we learn the truth about Manami’s death. The tension that’s built in this novel comes to a head at the end, and as the final pieces fall into place, Minato provides a powerful dénouement that raises questions and invites debate.

 

Traces of Red – Paddy Richardson

Connor Bligh has been incarcerated for several years in Rimutaka Prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived, and that was because she wasn’t home at the time of the tragedy. Now there are new little pieces of evidence that suggest that Bligh may not be guilty. When Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne hears of this, she thinks that the Bligh story may be just the story she needs to ensure her place at the top of New Zealand television journalism. So she decides to investigate the case more deeply. In the process, she finds herself more deeply and dangerously drawn in, and closer to the case, than she ought to be. The end of this novel is particularly memorable to me because it shows not just the truth about who killed the Dickson family, but also what the consequences are of the choices that journalists make. And Richardson does so in a way that is unexpected, but still credible. It’s a very powerful ending, for my money.

 

Other Books With Great Endings

Exit Music – Ian Rankin – A terrific end-of-book scene regarding a story arc.

The Half Child – Angela Savage – OK, not as much related to the mystery at hand, but one of the most lovely scenes between two characters that I’ve read. It’s just…great.

Lord Edgware Dies – Agatha Christie – One of the most telling, and unsettling, final lines from a killer:  Do you think they will put me in Madame Tussaud’s? Love it!

What about you? Which crime books have the best endings you’ve ever read?  Now, do please visit Moira’s excellent blog, and check out her fine choices.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ The End.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Catherine O'Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Scott Turow

You’re So Scared and All Alone*

Families of the AccusedAn interesting post from Mason Canyon at Thoughts in Progress has got me thinking about the families of those accused of murder. People who are suspected of murder often have parents, children, siblings, or other relatives; those people are deeply affected by the fact that one of their own may have killed someone. Their stories can add a compelling layer to a crime novel; they can allow readers to see just how much impact such an accusation can make, whether or not it’s true.

Agatha Christie addresses this in several of her stories. For example, in Ordeal By Innocence, Rachel Argyle is murdered with a fireplace poker. The evidence points to her stepson Jacko, who is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Later, he dies in prison.  Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary visits the Argyle family home, Sunny Point. He’s there to give them news that he thinks ought to please them: he can conclusively prove that Jacko Argyle was not a murderer. Calgary wasn’t able to provide that evidence at the time of the murder, because he was suffering from a case of amnesia. He’s since recovered, and now wants to put things right. To his shock, the Argyle family isn’t happy at all about his return or his news. If he’s right, it means that someone else within the family circle is a murderer. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow and of Five Little Pigs.

In Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, we meet Juliet Spence, an herbalist who lives with her thirteen-year-old daughter Maggie in the village of Winslough. One evening, Robin Sage, Vicar of Winslough, has dinner with the Spences. He dies soon after in what turns out to be a case of poisoning by water hemlock. At first it’s put down to tragic accident. But that’s not how it seems to Simon St. James, who’s staying in the area with his wife Deborah. He asks his friend, Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley, to look into the matter, and Lynley agrees. Maggie Spence has a particularly difficult time during this investigation. For one thing, she is of course, worried about her mother, who is now the chief suspect in a murder case. For another, she has to deal with schoolmates and others who see her as a murderer’s daughter. It’s an awful situation for her, and George makes that clear.

It’s the Garrow family who comes under fire in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who’s being spoken of as the possible next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s from a proud, ‘blue-blood’ family, and is highly regarded in the field. Everything changes when his wife Jodie becomes a murder suspect. It all starts when their daughter Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. That hospital happens to be the same place where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even Angus, knew about this baby. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says that she gave the infant up for adoption, but the nurse can’t find any formal adoption records. Now, some very ugly talk starts. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? That murder accusation changes the Garrow family forever.

Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake introduces readers to John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake, and own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Murder strikes Crooked Lake when the body of Harvey Kristoff is discovered on the green at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The police start to investigate, and it’s not long before they settle on Nick Taylor, former head greenskeeper of the course. There’s evidence against him, too. For one thing, he blames Kristoff for getting him fired from his job. For another, it turns out that his wife Wilma had an affair with Kristoff. And the murder weapon belongs to Taylor. Still, Taylor claims that he’s innocent. And his lawyer Frank Hendrickson wants to defend his client as best he can. So he asks Bart, Taylor’s oldest friend, to help. Bart isn’t at all certain that Taylor is innocent, but he does agree to do what he can. As the story goes on, we see the impact on the Taylor family of a murder accusation. It’s all made even worse by the fact that Crooked Lake’s a small town; everyone knows everyone else. Even the Bartowskis feel the strain of being ‘on the Taylors’ side.’

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. According to Kasliwal, he had employed a maid, Mary Murmu, in his home for a time. Then, several months ago, she went missing. New evidence has come up that suggests that she was raped and murdered, and that Kasliwal might be responsible. The media is watching this case carefully, as there’s a sense that Kasliwal will get special treatment because of his social status. The police are well aware of this, and are determined to show that they don’t toady to the rich. And that’s Kasliwal’s problem. He says that he is innocent, and doesn’t have any idea what happened to his maid. He wants Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. Puri agrees, and he and his team get to work on the case. As they look for answers, we see what happens to a family when a member is accused of murder, even if that family has high social status. It’s difficult for all of them.

The Blligh/Dickson family has a terrible time of it, too, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Several years ago, Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam were murdered one horrific afternoon. Only their daughter Katy survived, because she wasn’t home when the killer struck. At the time, Angela’s brother Connor Bligh was suspected of the crime. The evidence against him was compelling, so he was arrested, tried and convicted. Since then, he’s been in Wellington’s Rimutaka Prison. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of this case at a crucial time for her. She’s reached a plateau in her career, and is looking for a story that will ensure her spot at the top of New Zealand journalism. So when she hears that there’s evidence Bligh may not be guilty, she’s interested. If he is innocent, this could be the story she’s been wanting. Thorne begins to re-investigate the case, and soon learns that no-one in the family really wants to help her. One reason is that they believe Bligh is guilty. But just as important is the fact that it’s been awful for them to have family members murdered, and probably by a relative. Now, they just want to get on with their lives, and not rake things up again.

It’s very hard to be accused of murder, whether or not one’s guilty. It’s at least as hard on family members. But that, too, is a reality of criminal investigation. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Renegade.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

Wanna See My Picture on the Cover*

FameSeveral cultures place a premium on fame. Perhaps that’s at least in part because fame is often seen as a mark of individual achievement. Name recognition is often a status symbol, too. There’s also the fact that fame can open proverbial doors for a person; and it can mean lots of money. It’s little wonder then that plenty of people want very much to be famous. That goal can push people to work harder, do better, and so on. It can also lead to conflict and much worse. But even when it doesn’t, the desire for fame can add an interesting layer of character development, and it can add tension to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to actress Veronica Cray. She’s becoming quite famous; and her goal is to get to the top rung of the acting ladder. When her former lover John Christow is shot, she becomes a suspect in the murder. For one thing, she wanted very much to resume the relationship, although Christow had gotten beyond it. In fact, they had a bitter argument about it. For another, she’s staying in a getaway cottage near the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, where Christow was a house guest. She had easy access to the part of the property where Christow was killed. Hercule Poirot also has a nearby cottage, and in fact, is at the Angkatell home on the day of the shooting. So he works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who killed Christow. Here’s what Veronica says about herself at one point:

 

‘You mean that I haven’t got to the top of the tree. I shall! I shall!’

 

She’s not just egotistical; she’s determined to get to the top.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth is in part the story of aspiring actress Kerrie Shawn. She’s hoping for fame and success in Hollywood; but so far, she’s not found much of either. She and her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day share a dingy place and scrape by the best they can. She’s worked very hard, and she has ambition. Still, there are a lot of people who want to make it in the acting world; Kerrie has a lot of competition. Everything changes when eccentric millionaire Cadmus Cole returns from years at sea. He wants to track down his relatives so that they’ll be able to inherit when he dies. So he hires the PI firm that Ellery Queen has just opened with his friend Beau Rummell. There’s a hefty commission at stake, so even after Queen is laid up with illness, Rummell continues to search. As it turns out, Kerrie Shawn is related to Cole. When Rummell finds her, she is shocked at her good fortune. After Cole’s death, she and her friend pull up stakes and move into the Cole mansion on the Hudson River (that’s one of the conditions Cole laid down in his will). The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s been living in France. She, too, moves into the mansion, and, not surprisingly, conflict soon comes up. When Margo is shot, Kerrie is the natural suspect. Then, there’s what seems to be an attempt on her life, too. Now, with Queen’s guidance, Rummell has to find out whether Kerrie engineered that attempt, or whether someone else has targeted both young women.

In Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, the focus is on television fame. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne is the successful host of Saturday Night. But she’s reached more or less a crossroads in her career. She’s very well aware that there are other ambitious people coming up behind her, as the saying goes, and she wants to ensure her place at the top. In fact, up-and-comers such as Janet Beardsley, the darling of the network, are already making their mark. So Thorne needs the story – a story that will make her career. And that just may be the case of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Thorne learns that there are pieces of evidence that suggest Bligh may not be guilty. If he’s innocent, that story could be Thorne’s breakthrough. So she starts to pursue it. And one of the story elements is the reality of television ambition and the search for fame.

Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, whom we meet in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, are also out for television fame. It’s not so much that they’re egotistical. They are, however, both determined to ‘make it’ on ‘the soapies.’ By day, they work in Chapman’s bakery. But they also go to every audition they can; and when they do get parts, Chapman cuts back on their hours (without firing them) so they can do their television work. They’re young enough to have the energy to carry the load of two jobs, as it were. And they’re ambitious enough to do what they have to do.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, gets a new client. Mr. Pulani runs a very famous and popular Botswana beauty pageant. Now he wants Mma. Makutsi to help him find the best candidate to win the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest. It’s an odd request, but Mma. Makutsi agrees, and begins to meet the top candidates. She doesn’t have a lot of time to make her choice, but she soon gets to know enough about these young women to decide which one best embodies the pageant’s ideals. It’s an interesting look at the drive to win pageant fame. So, by the way, is Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann CraigHickory Smoked Homicide, which goes ‘behind the scenes’ of the beauty pageant circuit.

Then there’s the interesting case of Clara and Peter Morrow, whom Louise Penny fans will know as residents of the small Québec town of Three Pines. The Morrows are both artists, and when we first meet them in Still Life, Peter is widely acknowledged to be the one with the greater talent, and certainly more recognition. In one story arc, though, Clara finds her own artistic voice and begins to get some attention and notice of her own. She’s really not what you’d call greedy or overly ambitious. But it is interesting to see what happens to the dynamic between the Morrows as Clara begins to get noticed. I won’t spoil the arc for those who don’t know it. I can say, though, that it’s a case of up-and-coming fame changing a lot.

On the outside, anyway, fame seems to offer a great deal. So it’s little wonder so many people dream of it. But as any crime fiction fan knows, that ambition can carry a hefty price tag…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Cover of the Rolling Stone made famous by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Yes, that Shel Silverstein.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Paddy Richardson, Riley Adams

I Don’t Know What You’re Expecting of Me*

Stress On Young PeopleA few days ago I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who has young children. We were talking about the many stresses there are on today’s young people, and how that may impact them. And there is certainly a lot of pressure out there. To begin with, growing up isn’t easy. If you add to that the major societal changes of the last decades, the influence of the Internet and other social media, and the lightning-quick pace of life, it’s easy to see why so many young people are so stressed.

But the truth is, there’s always been pressure of one kind or another on children. A certain amount of it is more or less inevitable. And there’s a strong argument that it’s important to learn to take responsibility, cope with a certain amount of stress, and even experience failure sometimes. All of those things help us to be capable, confident adults. But there is definitely such a thing as too much pressure, and it can have damaging effects. We’ve all read such stories from real-life news; it’s there in crime fiction as well.

For instance, in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to twenty-eight-year old Gideon Davies. All his life, he’s had a rare musical gift, and has become a world-class violin virtuoso. One terrible night, he finds that he can’t play. Desperate to discover the source of that block, he starts to visit a psychologist. In one plot thread of this novel, he explores his past, which includes the tragic drowning death of his younger sister when she was a toddler. As he does, we see what the impact has been of the pressure put on him to make the most of his gift. It has profoundly influenced his thinking and his self-image.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features the Garrow family. Hannah Garrow is a healthy, psychologically normal (whatever that even means!) teen. Her parents Angus and Jodie love her and care about her. They’ve sent her to the ‘right’ school and are doing what they can set her up for success. But Hannah faces quite a lot of pressure. For one thing, there’s the matter of fitting in with her peers. She doesn’t identify with the socially popular students, and has little interest in ‘social climbing.’ And there’s the fact that her father is being spoken of as the next mayor of Arding (New South Wales). In order to be considered for that position, his family life has to bear up under scrutiny, so Hannah feels considerable pressure to be a successful politician’s daughter. Then one day, Hannah is involved in an accident that sends her to a Sydney hospital. As it turns out, it’s the same hospital where, years earlier, her mother Jodie gave birth to another daughter – one no-one’s ever known about before. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks into that, she finds no formal record of adoption. Now gossip begins to spread about Jodie. Where is the child? If she died, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie becomes a social pariah, it all has a terrible impact on Hannah. As parts of the story are told from her perspective, we see how all of this pressure affects her.

There’s plenty of pressure on young people in Ross Mcdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. Seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman has been sent to Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled young people. When he disappears one day, Dr. Sponti, who runs the school, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. They’re in Sponti’s office discussing the case when Tom’s father Ralph arrives. He says that Tom’s been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding ransom. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to help locate the boy before anything happens to him. Soon enough, he begins to notice some strange things. To begin with, Ralph Hillman and his wife Elaine don’t seem to have the frantic, panicked reaction to their son’s disappearance as you’d think. There are hints, too, that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who took him from the school. Then, there’s a murder. Then, there’s another murder, this time of one of the people with Tom. As Archer gets closer to the truth about what happened to Tom, and about the killings, we see that the pressure on young people doesn’t get any easier when parents and others are in denial about it.

Serena Freeman faces different sorts of pressure in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. At fifteen, she’s got a great deal of academic promise, and her teacher Ilsa Klein has real hopes for her. But it’s not easy for Serena. She comes from ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ and her home life has been difficult. It doesn’t help matters that her mother has the reputation of being somewhat promiscuous. Still, Serena works hard and dreams of a better life. Then, she begins to lose interest in school. She stops attending regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate in class. Now Ilsa is worried about Serena, and alerts the school counseling staff. That doesn’t do much good, as Serena’s mother isn’t co-operative. One day, Serena disappears. For three weeks, not much is done to find her. But when her older sister Lynette ‘Lynnie’ finds out her sister is missing, she is determined to learn what happened. She travels from Wellington, where she lives, to the family’s home in Alexandria to find Serena. Her search leads her in directions she couldn’t have imagined.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions shows, among other things, the intense pressure on young people during the middle school years. Yūko Moriguchi is a middle school teacher who has suffered the worst loss any parent can imagine: the death of her four-year-old daughter Manami. What’s worse, Manami was murdered, and Yūko knows who was responsible: two of her students. She announces her resignation in a speech to her class, making it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She’s well aware that the juvenile justice system can’t be trusted to dispense an appropriate punishment, because the offenders are juveniles. So she has developed her own plan. While she doesn’t spell out her scheme in so many words, her students quickly pick up on her intentions. After her resignation, Yoshiteru Terada takes over as teacher, and superficially, life goes on. But things soon begin to spin out of control, especially for three of the students. As we follow their stories, we learn what happened to Manami and what the plan for retribution really was. More to the point of this post, we get a look at the intense pressure for high grades, the bullying, and the other stresses that many of today’s young people have to face.

It’s never been easy to grow up. And there isn’t enough space in this one post to add in some of the other factors that only make things worse. For instance, there are many, many places where young people don’t get a chance to go to school (or to go for long) because they must get jobs as soon as possible. And there are places where those jobs get young people involved in the commercial sex trade and other extremely stressful work. It is important to learn to handle some pressure, to take responsibility for one’s own actions, and so on. It’s not very healthy to be overprotected. At the same time, research shows that excess pressure and stress can be toxic.

Finding a balance is the tricky part. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. As well as the normal pressures of growing up, all four of her children have had to cope with the stress of losing a parent. And her youngest daughter Taylor faces the added pressure of being a gifted artist whose work is already getting her a lot of attention. Helping these young people bear their burdens without coddling them or taking over is one of the ‘family’ threads woven throughout this series.

Which novels and series have brought this theme home to you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Linkin Park’s Numb.

 

 

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Filed under Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Ross Macdonald, Wendy James