Category Archives: Paddy Richardson

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

We’re On Safari to Stay*

School HolidaysIt’s almost time for school holidays, whether summer or winter, and the schoolchildren will soon be on break. On the one hand, it can be a lot of fun to have the kids home on holiday. There are lots of opportunities to do family things. And teachers can definitely use the opportunity to ‘recharge the batteries.’ Trust me.

But school holidays can also be frustrating and chaotic. And they do disrupt everyone’s routine. They can be good premises for a crime novel, though, since they allow for all sorts of possibilities. Here are just a few to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington, Alexander Eastley is spending the Christmas school holidays at Rutherford Hall, the home of his mother’s family, the Crackenthorpes. With him is his school friend James Stoddart-West. The boys are happy to have a break from school, and they’re old enough to want some adventure. They get more than their fill of it when a body is discovered on the property. The Crackenthorpes have hired a temporary professional housekeeper, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to help over the holidays. She does her job well, but she has another mission. Miss Marple has asked her to help investigate a possible murder that a friend saw through the window of a train. Lucy’s happy to oblige, and when she discovers the body, Alexander and James are eager to pitch in and look for clues. It’s not spoiling the novel to say that neither boy is responsible for the murder, but it’s interesting to see how they get involved in the hunt for the killer. There’s also a fun thread of wit as Alexander tries to play ‘matchmaker’ with his widowed father Bryan and Lucy.

Minette Walter’s The Breaker begins when two brothers, Daniel and Paul Spender, decide to go exploring near Chapman’s Pool, Dorset. They’re on summer holidays with their parents, and have gotten a bit bored. So they take their father’s expensive binoculars, planning to quietly return them before he notices. To their shock, they discover the body of an unknown woman on the beach. They give the alarm, and PC Nick Ingram begins the investigation. It turns out that the dead woman is Kate Sumner, whose toddler daughter Hannah has just been found wandering around in the nearby town of Poole. Ingram works with WPC Sandra Griffiths, DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed the victim, and how Hannah came to be in Poole. The Spender boys end up having quite a story to tell their friends when they return to school after their holidays…

In Gail Bowen’s The Last Good Day, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets a rare opportunity. A friend, Kevin Hynde, has invited the Kilbourn family to spend some time at his summer cottage on Lawyer’s Bay, about an hour from Regina. It’s an exclusive community, so an invitation is a prized thing. At first, all goes well. Kilbourn’s ten-year-old daughter Taylor has,
 

‘…discovered to her delight that the only other children staying at Lawyer’s Bay were two girls a year older than her, and after five minutes of squealed exclamations over shared passions, the trio had bonded as effortlessly as puppies and gone off in search of food to inhale and boys to taunt.’
 

Everything changes when one of the lawyers who is staying at Lawyer’s Bay dies of what looks like suicide. Since Kilbourn was the last to speak with the victim, she gets drawn into the investigation.

Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle and John Ceepak know all too well what it’s like when young people are on school holidays. They are police officers in Sea Haven, New Jersey, a magnet for families with,
 

‘…hyper kids who’d never let mom and dad sleep in on a Saturday…The ones who fling their forks at each other and topple sippy cups and steal their sister’s crayons so they can color in the maze on the Kidz Menu…’
 

Boyle starts out as a temporary (summer) cop, whose main job is to help direct traffic and otherwise help manage the large crowds. But murder comes to Sea Haven too, and Boyle gets drawn into some nasty cases.

James W. Fuerst’s Huge takes place during the school summer holidays in small-town 1980’s New Jersey. Twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls is just as well pleased to be done with school, as he isn’t much of a social success. He is highly intelligent though, and wants more than anything to be a detective, like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother offers him ten dollars to find out who defaced the sign at the senior facility where she lives. Huge agrees, and starts looking for answers. As he tracks down clues, Huge also learns a great deal about himself. Throughout the novel, we see what summer holidays were like at that time. We also see the challenges they posed for working parents (Huge lives with his sister and single mother, who works full-time). In fact, school holidays are still a big challenge for parents who have full-time jobs. They don’t always overlap with parents’ time off work.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988 Wanaka, where everyone is celebrating the start of school summer holidays with a school picnic at the lake. There’s plenty of food and drink, the weather is perfect, and everyone’s having a wonderful time. Then, every parent’s worst nightmare happens. The Anderson family is packing up to leave when they notice that four-year-old Gemma is missing. At first, her mother Minna simply thinks the child has wandered off somewhere, and sends her fourteen-year-old daughter Stephanie to go look for her sister. When Gemma can’t be found, everyone gets concerned. Concern turns to dread when a massive hunt turns up nothing – not even a body. Gemma is never found, and her loss haunts the Andersons. Seventeen years later, Stephanie has nearly finished her preparation to be a psychiatrist. Now she lives and works in Dunedin, and has tried to put her life together as best she can. Then she gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, who tells of the terrible disappearance of her own sister Gracie years earlier. Her story is eerily similar to the Andersons’ story, so Stephanie decides, against her better judgement, to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out what happened to both missing girls. Her journey takes her back to Wanaka, and helps her make sense of what happened to her own family.

There’s also Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. In 1978, Angela Buchanan gets her parents’ very reluctant permission to spend part of her summer holidays with her aunt and uncle, Doug and Barbara Griffin and their children Michael ‘Mick’ and Jane. In some ways, it’s a typical summer, where the kids get bored and look for things to do. For Angela, Mick and some of Mick’s friends, the solution is going to a nearby drugstore to play pinball and spend time together. Jane wants to be accepted in this group, but she’s two years younger, a bit awkward, and of course, Mick’s younger ‘tagalong’ sister. Still, she does go with the group a few times. Then one terrible day, Angela disappears and is later found strangled, with a scarf around her head. At first, there’s a question of whether Mick or one of his friends might be guilty. But there are no clear leads in that direction. Then, a few months later, another young girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, is also found strangled. Now the press is full of stories of ‘the Sydney Strangler.’ The killer is never caught. Years later, journalist Erin Fury decides to do a documentary on the effect of murder on families left behind. She interviews the members of the Griffin family, as well as Jane’s husband Ron. As she does, we find out the real truth about Angela.

Lots of young people look forward to their school holidays (did you ever count down the days yourself?). But they aren’t always peaceful or fun-filled…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Surfin’ USA, with lyrics from Brian Wilson set to the music of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Gail Bowen, Minette Walters, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

It Should be Easy For a Man Who’s Strong to Say He’s Sorry or Admit When He’s Wrong*

ApologiesBeing human, we all make mistakes at times. And some of those mistakes mean we also have to make apologies. Some apologies (e.g. accidentally bumping into someone) are easy. A quick, ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ and all’s usually well again. But other apologies are harder and take longer. They can be really awkward too. If you’ve ever had to look someone in the eye and tell that person how sorry you are, you know what I mean.

Apologies are an important part of relationships, though, and simply bringing the topic up can clear the air. They may not be the main plot point in crime fiction novels, but they can add some character depth and points of tension. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting Nasse House, Nassecomb, to help with preparations for an upcoming fête. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions. But she suspects something more than a fête may be going on. So she asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot arrives, he gets to know Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, who own Nasse House, as well as some of the locals who are helping to prepare for the big event. Among those helping out are Alec and Peggy Legge, who have taken a cottage nearby for a summer break. In one of this novel’s subplots, the Legges’ marriage is under a great deal of stress, and at one point, Peggy actually leaves. Poirot has guessed the reason for the strain, and advises Alec to go after his wife and patch things up with her. Alec agrees, and although Christie doesn’t tell us how it all works out, it’s clear he thinks that saving his marriage is worth humbling himself.

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters is the first pairing up of DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. In this novel, they’re investigating the sudden death of Meredith Winterbottom, who seems to have committed suicide. Kolla isn’t so sure of that, and Brock gives her the ‘green light’ to look into the matter. And it turns out that there are several reasons that someone might have wanted to kill the victim. For one thing, a developer wants to buy up all the property on Jerusalem Lane, where Meredith lived with her two sisters, and create a new shopping and entertainment district. Meredith was the lone holdout, refusing to take the developer’s offer. What’s more, she and her sisters are descendants of Karl Marx, who lived in that part of London for a time. They have some family books and papers that could be quite valuable. As if that’s not enough, her son stands to inherit the house (and the potential profit from selling it) if his mother dies. And he’s very much in need of money. For the most part, Brock and Kolla have a good working relationship. But there is an important rift between them, and Brock decides to work things out. So he visits Kolla, bearing a peace offering of flowers and a bottle of Scotch. It’s a little awkward for both of them, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say they patch things up.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who seems to have the perfect life. She’s healthy and good-looking, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. All is well until the day her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident, and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about that child, but a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she give the child up for adoption, but when the overzealous nurse checks into that, she finds no formal adoption records. Jodie’s family life begins to crumble when the gossip starts about what might have happened to the baby. And when it all goes very public, Hannah begins to feel the strain of having a mother who’s become a social pariah. We do learn the truth about the baby, and Hannah learns that there is no such thing as ‘black and white’ when it comes to people. When she sees a fuller picture of her mother’s story, she knows that she owes Jodie an apology:
 

‘‘Oh, Mum,’ she’s crying, a year’s worth – a lifetime – of tears. ‘I’m so sorry. It’s been so awful. I’m sorry I’ve been such a cow. I didn’t mean to. I don’t even know why. I’m so sorry. I just want everything to be the way it was.’’
 

Everything isn’t magically wonderful again after Hannah’s apology, but we can see that,
 

‘It’s going to be okay.’
 

That apology is an important part of opening up communication between mother and daughter.

Sometimes, it’s parents who have to say they’re sorry, and that can be just as awkward. In Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead, Garda Ben Devlin and his team are involved in some difficult and painful investigations that take up a lot of his time. In a sub-plot, he’s also facing a bit of trouble with his children, Penny and Shane. Penny is dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of a trauma she suffered. Shane loves his sister, but has to cope with the understandable jealousy (and guilt over that) that he feels about all of the attention Penny’s gotten. As a way of spending some special time with Shane, Devlin offers to take the boy to a film – a ‘just us men’ sort of thing. Shane’s all excited about it, but Devlin gets caught up in a piece of the case he’s working and forgets to take Shane out. He knows he’s really hurt his son, and at a vulnerable time, too, so he makes a special effort to say how sorry he is. At first, Shane’s not having any, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story that by the end of it, Shane forgives his father, even if he’s still not at all pleased about what happened.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s at a bit of a plateau in her career, and would love to find the story that will establish her at the top of her profession. That story comes in the form of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Everyone assumes that Bligh really was guilty, and nothing in the records indicates that the police were anything but conscientious and careful. But little pieces of evidence also suggest that Bligh might be innocent. If he is, this could make for an explosive story. So Thorne pursues it for all she’s worth. She finds out the truth about the case, but it comes at quite a cost. And when all is said and done, she knows she needs to make some apologies:
 

‘I’m sorry. So sorry. I behaved unforgivably.’
 

In the end, we see that life will go on, and Thorne starts over. But the apologies are very hard.

They often are. But they can help heal relationships. They can also be the stuff of rich character development and even story arcs in novels.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shameless.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Brian McGilloway, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

On the Wind That Lifts Her Perfume Through the Air*

ScentsI was recently a witness at a crime scene. I can’t say much about it, because it’s an ongoing investigation, and because I don’t want to compromise any of the people involved. I can say that thankfully, no-one died. Also, I’m grateful to say that no-one in my family or circle of friends was involved.

With that background, one of the striking things about the scene, both at the time of the incident and later, was the smell of the blood. To be candid, it’s still with me. And no, I promise this post will not be a long list of books where the smell of blood is mentioned. But I can tell you that I have more respect than I ever did for all first responders (including police) who deal with it on a regular basis. How you folks do that is more than I can imagine.

Scents don’t have to be as powerful as that of course to be memorable. In fact, it is said that our sense of smell is a lot more powerful than we may think. Smells of all kinds bring back memories (Ever catch a hint of the cologne or perfume an old flame wore? See what I mean?). They’re powerful advertisements, too; bakeries everywhere count on that. And of course, they play a role in investigations, both real and fictional.

It’s a bit harder to depict scents and their impact in fiction, but it can be done well. And some detail about scents can add to a reader’s engagement in a novel. Certainly it does in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks she’s found the story that will make her career when she learns of the case of Connor Bligh. He’s in prison for the murders of his sister Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. The only member of the family who escaped was their daughter Katy, who wasn’t at home at the time of the murders. Here’s what Katy says about her arrival home that terrible day:
 

‘Then my heart started beating so hard it felt as if it would burst and I started choking. Choking and retching. It was the smell.’
 

This description is actually given several years after the murders; that’s how much of an impact the scent of the murder scene had.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins when journalist Jack Parlabane wakes up to the sound of a terrible commotion coming from the flat downstairs. He’s got an awful hangover, but he is curious about what’s going on. He leaves his own home, not thinking to bring his key along, and goes downstairs. The crime scene that awaits him (no, I won’t describe it in detail) is, to say the least, foul. The scents are enough to make Parlabane feel much, much worse, and he wants to get back to his own place as soon as he can. But without his key, he can’t do that. So he decides to go through one of the windows in the downstairs flat and climb up into the corresponding window in his own. That’s when DC Jenny Dalziel, who’s one of the investigators, catches him. And it’s how Parlabane gets involved in a crime story he couldn’t have imagined.

As I mentioned, scents can also be powerful triggers for memory. Agatha Christie uses that fact in several of her stories. For instance, in Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale was poisoned one afternoon, and the assumption has always been that his wife Caroline was responsible. She had motive, too, and in fact, was arrested and convicted. She died in prison, so is no longer there to defend herself; but Carla is convinced she was innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and starts by interviewing all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each. Then, he uses that information to establish who was guilty. One of the things that several people tell him is that the murder happened so long ago that it’s impossible to remember details. But Poirot uses strong scents in two instances to trigger memories; that information helps him greatly in solving the mystery. I know, I know, fans of After the Funeral and Murder on the Orient Express.

Of course, not all scents are unpleasant or terrible reminders. But they all have the capacity to influence us. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne baker who knows the appeal of the smell of fresh-baked bread. Here’s what she says about it in Heavenly Pleasures:
 

‘The scent of fresh baked bread was dragging the famished hordes out of the cold street, where a nasty little Melbourne wind had whipped up…’
 

It’s very hard to walk past a bakery for just that reason.

Scent is also a really important part of the appeal of wine. Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen’s Benjamin Cooker could tell you all about it.  He is a winemaker and a noted oenologist, whose opinion is respected throughout the winemaking community. His expertise also makes him and his assistant Virgile Lanssien perfect choices to investigate when there is fraud, theft or worse among the members. More than once in this Winemaker Detective series, there are mentions of the way wine is made, and how that process impacts its aroma. It’s a really clear example of how much our sense of taste is affected by our sense of smell.

You may not think about it much unless perhaps you have a cold, so that you can’t smell much. But scents really are very powerful triggers, for memories and a lot else.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Brookmyre, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Kerry Greenwood, Noël Balen, Paddy Richardson

But it Don’t Take No Detective*

StoriesWithoutSleuthsWhen most people think of crime novels, they think of a story with a mystery (usually about a murder or series of murders) and the sleuth who solves the case. And a lot of crime novels have that form. But not all of them have that pattern. There are even crime stories that arguably don’t have a sleuth. In that sort of novel, there may be references to ‘the police,’ or a mention of one or another police officer. But those characters don’t really figure into the story.

It’s not easy to write that sort of story since traditionally, the suspense in a crime story is built as the sleuth solves the case. But when it’s done well, crime stories without sleuths can have their own kind of suspense. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could.

One very suspenseful story that has no sleuth is Frederic Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. The narrator tells the history of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some very dubious people. There are certainly crimes involved, but the suspense isn’t built through solving them. Instead, it’s built through the way in which the narrator addresses the reader.

There’s also no sleuth in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Architect Stephen Booker is made redundant by his company. At first, he thinks he’ll find a new job quickly; he is, after all, a professional. But time goes on and he finds nothing. He finally settles for a job driving a cab at night, so he can continue looking for a ‘real job’ during the day. One evening, he picks up a passenger who turns out to be professional thief Mike Daniels. Over time and several cab rides, they get to know each other, and they learn that they may be able to help each other. Daniels and his team are planning a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. In order for their logistics to work, they need help from an architect, and Booker may be just the man for the job. For his part, Booker is desperate for money, and after some misgivings about turning to crime, falls in with Daniels’ team. The group has every detail ready, and at first it looks as though the robbery will go off as planned. But then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has been killed in a car accident. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for some time, but he still feels her loss. What’s worse than that though is that he learns that she was not alone when she died. Sylvie had taken a lover Martial Arnoult, who was with her at the time of the crash and who also died. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left behind a widow Martine, he determines to find out about her. He soon becomes obsessed with Martine and begins a relationship with her. And that’s when things begin to spin completely out of control.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. As the story begins, she’s left her position and had a dream home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But bad luck and poor financial planning have changed everything. Now Thea has to settle for the smaller house next door, which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her perfect home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Elllice Charringon, whom Thea heartily dislikes (she calls them ‘the invaders.’). After a short time, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike her, too. Instead, she discovers that the girl has real promise as a writer, and even forms a kind of awkward friendship with her. So when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate living environment for Kim, Thea gets very concerned. The police won’t do much about it without clear evidence, so Thea makes her own plans to deal with the situation. This novel does refer to the police, but there really isn’t a sleuth. Rather, the suspense is built as we learn, little by little, about Thea, about the new arrivals, and about what happens when Thea decides to take matters into her own hands.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions is the story of middle school teacher and single mother Yūko Moriguchi. When her only child, four-year-old Manami, dies, it looks at first like a tragic accidental drowning. But Yūko knows that Manami was murdered; what’s more, she knows who is responsible. In fact, the novel begins with a speech she makes to her class in which she makes it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She doesn’t trust the juvenile justice system to punish the culprits appropriately, so she’s made her own plans for justice. And as the story goes on, we follow the lives of her students, and we learn what her plan was. The tension in this novel is built as life spirals downwards for several characters, and as we learn what, exactly, was behind the original murder.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman is one of the most promising students that secondary-school teacher Ilsa Klein has had. And Serena seems to be really interested in further education. Then, everything changes. Serena stops coming to class regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school counselor, and a visit is duly made to the Freeman family. When that effort is rebuffed, there’s not much more that Ilsa can do, although she is still worried. Then, Serena disappears. Three weeks later her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington to the family home in Alexandra to look for Serena. This novel doesn’t really cast Lynnie (or anyone else, for the matter of that) in the role of sleuth. Rather, the suspense and interest are built as we learn the truth about Serena and about some of the other characters. It’s that slow reveal, rather than a sleuth solving a mystery, that keeps the reader engaged.

It can be a challenge to build and maintain interest if the author tells a crime story without a sleuth. But in the right hands, it can work well. What are your thoughts on this? Does a story need to have a sleuth for you to ‘plunge in?’ If you’re a writer, have you ever tried your hand at a crime story without a sleuth?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Great Wall of China.

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Filed under Frederic Brown, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Pascal Garnier, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan