Category Archives: Pascal Garnier

Hey Ho Let’s Go*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of Stephen King. Even if you don’t care for his work, it’s hard to deny the impact it’s had. Even his debut novel, Carrie, is still very popular 44 years after its first publication (Did you know he threw that work into the trash originally? Goes to show the value of perseverance.) King has also done much to support other writers and the writing craft/process itself.

One of the factors that sets King’s work apart is arguably that he taps into our own deepest fears. Yes, there’s violence in his work, some of it brutal. But the real source of tension and suspense in the stories he writes is more psychological than anything else. And that can have a way of keeping a reader engaged in a story. Many of King’s stories are about ordinary people – people readers can identify with – who are drawn into horrifying circumstances.

King’s a master of that sort of context. Other authors, too, have used the premise of an ordinary sort of person who’s drawn into horror. We see it all through the crime fiction genre, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, we are introduced to ten people, all of whom have been invited to stay at a house on Indian Island. None of these people is perfect – by any means – but they are all what’d you’d call ‘normal’ people (if there is such a thing). After dinner on the night of their arrival, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Then another. Now, the other guests see that they’ve been lured to the island by someone who is not as ‘normal’ as it seems. That someone is trying to kill them all, and they’ll have to work to find out who that person is if they’re going to stay alive. In this novel, it’s the growing psychological horror as much as anything else that really builds the tension and invites the reader to stay engaged.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is a bit like that, too. In it, we meet Eunice Parchman, who’s hired as a professional housekeeper by George and Jacqueline Coverdale. The Coverdales are well-off and well-educated; they’re ‘normal’ upper-middle class people. At first, the arrangement works well enough. But what the Coverdales don’t know is that Eunice Parchman has a secret – one she’s determined they won’t discover. Then, one day, she’s accidentally found out. That seals the fate of the entire family, and leads to tragedy. The tension in the novel starts building right away, as we’re told exactly what happens and why. Rendell continues to build the suspense as the Coverdales get closer and closer to disaster without really being aware of it.

Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit takes place in rural New England mostly on a property called Cabrioun, and the lodge associated with it. It used to be owned by French émigré Grimaud Désanat, but he died during a hunting trip some years earlier. Now, his widow, Irene, owns the property, together with her new husband, Frank Ogden. Along with family friend Luke Latham, the Ogdens own a business making specialty wood products. The kind of wood they need, though, is hard to find, and currently only available in a place called Onawa. That property was owned by Désanat, who didn’t want the place logged for twenty years. The business can’t wait that long, so the Ogdens and Latham have decided to hold a séance to contact the dead man and ask his permission to open the land to logging. The séance is duly held, and is creepy as it is. But the suspense builds even more when Irene is later murdered. There’s a real growing sense of horror as it appears that the death either has a supernatural cause, or the murderer is one of the people who attended the séance.

Pascal Garnier has also written several stories in which ordinary, ‘normal’ people have been drawn into situations that ended in horror. There’s the aimless young man who becomes a driver for a hit man in How’s the Pain?, and the widower who becomes obsessed with the widow of his dead wife’s lover in The Front Seat Passenger. There are other examples, too, in Garnier’s work. Although there is certainly violence in these stories, the real suspense, and even horror, comes from psychological tension, rather than the ‘shock value’ of violence.

That buildup of psychological tension, and tapping into very human fears is characteristic of several other authors, such as Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier. It’s also quite present in the film work of Alfred Hitchcock, among others. In their work, we also see the case of the ‘ordinary’ person inexorably caught up in a web of horror. Those premises and plot points can make for stories that really resonate with readers, in part because we can often identify with the characters. They’re frighteningly close to who we are, if I may put it that way.

I’ve only mentioned a few examples of this sort of story. I know you can think of many more than I can, anyway. Happy Birthday, Mr. King, and may you keep scaring the wits out of us for many more years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. King fans will know why I chose this one…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Hake Talbot, Pascal Garnier, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Stephen King

A Few of Your Buddies, They Sure Look Shady*

The late Steve Irwin is credited with a really interesting comment about humans:
 

‘Crocodiles are easy. They try to kill and eat you. People are harder. Sometimes they try to be your friend first.’
 

If you’ve ever had the experience of being badly hurt by someone you thought was a friend, you’ll probably agree with Irwin.

That plot point has become an important part of many crime fiction novels; and, if you think about it, it’s a natural fit for the genre. Sadly, it’s an all-too-realistic scenario. And it can make for suspense and tension in a plot.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock introduces Celia Austin, who lives in a hostel for students. When some troubling events happen at the hostel, Hercule Poirot investigates. At first, it looks as though the solution is easy. Celia admits to being responsible for some of what’s happened, and everyone thinks the matter is closed. Then, two nights later, she dies. It’s soon proven that she was murdered. And Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who was responsible. It turns out that Celia made the tragic mistake of trusting that someone at the hostel was a friend, and paid a very high price for that. Christie uses that in several of her other stories, too (right, fans of Death on the Nile?).

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance representative Walter Huff is drawn into a web of deceit and murder by someone he thinks he can trust. He happens to be in the Hollywood area one day, and decides to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, who lives nearby. He arrives at the house to find that Nirdlinger isn’t home. His wife, Phyllis, is, though, and she and Huff strike up a conversation. Soon enough, Huff falls for her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before he knows it, he’s so besotted that he falls in with her plan to kill her husband for his life insurance money. Huff even writes up the sort of policy that she needs. The murder goes as planned – at first. Then it hits Huff that he has actually been responsible for killing someone – because of someone he thought was more than a friend. And things spiral out of control from there.

They do in Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger, too. In that novel, Fabien Delorme is distressed to learn that that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car accident. He’s even more upset to learn that she wasn’t alone in the car. Unbeknownst to him, she had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, and that bothers him even more than does the fact that she is dead. Delorme finds out that his rival left a widow, Martine, and becomes unhealthily obsessed with her. He stalks her, and finally gets to meet her. They begin a relationship which spins completely out of control and ends up in ugly tragedy all around. I don’t want to give away too much, but I can say that, like most noir stories, there’s plenty of betrayal and hurt from people who seem trustworthy at first.

T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton introduces readers to solicitor Jim Harwood. He gets a very difficult case when a young man named Elton Spears is accused of murder. According to the prosecution, Spears killed an enigmatic woman named Sarena Gunasekera, and threw her body off a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. He was seen in the area, and it’s already well-known that he’s a troubled person. What’s more, he’s had brushes with the law before because of inappropriate contact with girls and women. Harwood knows Spears, and agrees to take the case. Together with barrister Harry Douglas, Harwood sets out to prove that Elton Spears is innocent. If he is, then someone else must be guilty. It turns out that that someone had seemed to be a person Spears could trust…

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Yvonne Mulhern and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, Róisín. It’s a major disruption, but it means that Gerry can take advantage of an important career opportunity, and that means a great deal more money for the family. Everyone settles in as best they can, and Gerry digs into his new job. Yvonne is exhausted, as new parents tend to be. What’s more, she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, so she feels isolated. Then she discovers an online forum for new mums called Netmammy. She joins the group and soon feels much of the camaraderie and support that she’s been missing. She gets to know the other members, too, and feels a real sense of friendship with them. And that’s why, when one of them seems to go ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne gets concerned. She’s worried enough to go to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unidentified young woman turns up in an abandoned apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle, herself an expectant mother, investigates the death. The victim’s profile is similar enough to Yvonne’s missing friend that it could be the same person. If it is, then that has frightening implications for Netmammy. Little by little, and each in a different way, the two women find out the truth. Throughout this novel, there’s a strong thread of people one thinks are friends, who turn out to be anything but…

And that’s the thing. There are people who seem to be friends, but aren’t at all to be trusted. And when they show themselves for what they are, it can change everything.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon Huff, Gene McFadden, and John Whitehead’s Back Stabbers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, James M. Cain, Pascal Garnier, Sinéad Crowley, T.J. Cooke

Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid*

An interesting quote, attributed to Dennis Lehane, goes this way:
 

‘Maybe there are some things we were put on this earth not to know.’
 

And it’s got me thinking about whether there really are some things that people are better off not knowing. On the one hand, if someone finds out the truth later, this can wreak all sorts of havoc, to say nothing of the breach of trust. On the other hand, there may very well be some things that are best left alone. And it’s not always an easy call to make. Just a quick look at crime fiction is enough to show that.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, Hercule Poirot gets involved in a murder investigation when he is invited for lunch at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. He arrives just in time to see that Dr. John Christow, another guest, has been shot. The apparent shooter is standing near the body, holding the weapon. But soon enough, Poirot is left unsure of whether he has really seen what he thinks he saw. He and Inspector Grange investigate, and find that there are several possible suspects. At one point, Christow’s widow, Gerda, says this about their son, Terry:
 

‘‘Terry always has to know.’’
 

She’d rather keep Terry and his sister, Zena, as far away from the investigation as possible, but Terry isn’t that sort of child. And even Poirot hints, later in the story, that Terry will want to know the truth. And there’s a real question about whether children should be told the truth about a parent’s death.

Similar sorts of questions are addressed in Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels. In one plot thread of that novel, we are introduced to four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards.  They’re growing up in a small, isolated Welsh village in 1962. As their part of the story goes on, we slowly learn about some secrets that people in the village are keeping. Little by little, the children learn what some of them are. What’s more, they find that they’re woven into the web of some of those secrets in ways they didn’t know. And that causes its own trouble. In fact, it’s an interesting question whether it would have been better for them not to know. To say more would spoil the story, but Horton address the question in some interesting ways.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger introduces us to Fabien Delorme. As the story begins, the police inform Delorme that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car crash. What’s more, they tell him that Sylvie was not alone in the car. It seems that she had a lover, and the news takes Delorme by surprise. He can’t resist trying to find out the other man’s name, and he soon does: Martial Arnoult. Delorme also learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine. Now he feels the need to know more about her; and before long, he’s stalking her. He even follows her and a friend as they take a holiday trip to Majorca, where he begins an affair with her. That relationship spins quickly out of control, and it’s not long before tragedy results. And you could argue that it all might have been prevented if Delorme hadn’t known the truth about his wife’s affair.

In Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais, we are introduced to Paris PI Aimée Leduc. Soli Hecht hires her on behalf of Temple Emmanuel to do some decoding, and deliver the results to one of the temple members, Lili Stein. By the time Leduc gets there, though, it’s too late: Lili Stein has been murdered, and a swastika marked on her forehead. Leduc is a ‘person of interest,’ since she was on the scene, but it’s soon clear that she’s not the murderer. She gets interested in the case, though, and investigates. The answers lie in the past, during and just after the Nazi occupation of France; and those events have repercussions in modern Paris. Leduc finds out what really happened, and we learn the truth. The question is, though, how much she will tell the victim’s son, Abraham:
 

‘‘Aimée,’ Réne[Leduc’s business partner] asked slowly, ‘Will you tell Abraham?’
‘If he asks. Otherwise, I’ll let the ghosts alone. All of them.’’  
 

In the end, it’s an interesting question whether Abraham Stein has the right to know everything about his mother’s death.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, the sixth in her series featuring retired Mumbai police inspector Lalli. In this novel, parents living in the small slum of Kandewadi become terrified when some children begin to disappear from the slum and are later found dead. At first, the media and police don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on. But after several children have been killed, Inspector Savio is assigned to the case, and he consults with Lalli. Finding out the truth is a slow, painful process, some of that truth is truly brutal and ugly. So Lalli doesn’t tell everyone everything. There are some things she keeps private, even from her niece, Sita, who is part of the team that helps her. In this case, Lalli believes that more harm than good would come from saying too many things to people who don’t need to know them. I can’t say more without spoiling the story, but it’s interesting to see how that question of how much people need to know is addressed.

And it is a good question. Is Lehane right? Are there things we’re better off knowing?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Daryl Hall and John Oates.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Cara Black, Kalpana Swaminathan, Pascal Garnier

I Can’t Mind My Own Business*

minding-own-businessHave you ever heard or told a story that starts like this: I was minding my own business when…? Strange things do happen sometimes, just when we’re going about our daily lives, so those stories aren’t as fantastic as they may seem. But can it work in crime fiction?

Most readers want their crime fiction to be believable. And the ‘I was minding my own business when…’ plot point can stretch creditability too far. There are stories, though, where it’s done in an interesting way.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt is the story of Stafford Nye, a low-level British diplomat. He’s at the airport one day, when he’s approached by a young woman. She tells him that her life is in danger, and that she has to flee the country. Nye refuses at first. But she continues to beg for his help, and finally persuades him to lend her his passport and diplomatic credentials (I know – in today’s world, that would never get her on a plane). Before he knows it, Nye is drawn into a dangerous web of international intrigue and murder. Behind it all is a shadowy group bent on world domination. In this case, the story is the sort of thriller where the reader would need to put aside a lot of disbelief to begin with. So, the way in which Nye is involved in the plot isn’t out of place.

In One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson takes a very interesting approach to this way of drawing a character into a plot. One afternoon, crime writer Martin Canning is waiting at a radio station to pick up a ticket to a lunchtime radio comedy broadcast. His housemate, Richard Mott, is to be the featured comic, and he’s invited Canning to see the show. Canning’s minding his own business when he witnesses an incident of ‘road rage.’ Paul Bradley, who’s driving a silver Peugeot, brakes suddenly to avoid hitting a pedestrian. The driver behind Bradley, who’s in a blue Honda, hits Bradley’s car, and the two get into an argument. Then, the Honda driver brandishes a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. By instinct, Canning throws the computer case he’s been carrying at the Honda driver. That stops the fight, but it also draws Canning into a strange case of murders, fraud and theft.

Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear is the first of his novels to feature cultural anthropologist Gideon Oliver. In this story, Oliver has accepted an invitation to give a series of lectures at the United States Overseas College (USOC), which has branches in several European locations. It seems like the perfect opportunity for a change of scenery, and a way for Oliver to continue to cope with the loss of his beloved wife, Nora, who died two years earlier. Things don’t work out that way, though. First, Oliver is attacked in his hotel room by two men who apparently believe he has something of value that they want. He reports the incident to the police, but his troubles are just beginning. Tom Marks and Hilaire Delvaux, two leaders in the NATO Security Directorate (NSD)’s counterespionage bureau, approach Oliver. They claim that spies working for the USSR (the novel was published in 1982) are trying to steal something, although they don’t know what that something is. They want Oliver to inform them if anyone makes any unusual requests of him that might be seen as suspicious. Now Oliver is unwittingly drawn into a dangerous case of international espionage and murder.

In Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain?, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s somewhat bored and restless, but not sure what he wants to do with his life. Then, ageing contract killer Simon Marechall approaches him with a proposition. Ferrand has a driving license, and Marechall needs a driver. He wants to make one last trip to the French coast to take care of some business. Ferrand agrees to the plan – after all, what else is there for him to do?  But he doesn’t know what sort of business Marechall is in at first. And by the time he does find out, he’s already in very, very deep, as the saying goes.

And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. That novel begins in 1974 at a monastery in the Swiss Alps. An unnamed art restorer is visiting the area, looking at some old frescoes in the chapel, with an eye towards restoring them. One day, an old man living in the elder care home attached to the monastery offers to tell the art restorer a story – a ‘good story.’ All he asks is that his tale be recorded on tape. This the art restorer agrees to do. He buys some blank tapes and the old man begins his tale That story concerns the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, all went well, as family patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco succeeded in the shoe business. Then one night, he got into a bar fight and ended up killing the other man. That man turned out to be Luigi Lupo, son of notorious gangster Tonio Lupo. When Lupo found out, he cursed the Franco family, promising that each of Franco’s three sons would die at the age of forty-two, the same age as Luigi was when he was killed. The old man then proceeds to tell his listener what happened to those three sons, and how that curse impacted them. As it turns out, Lupo had made plans to be sure his curse would be carried out. And we see the impact of it even decades later. And all because the old man approached the art restorer with an offer to tell a good story.

And that’s the thing about crime fiction. At least in that genre, even minding your own business can get you into trouble. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Kaiser Chiefs.   

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Kate Atkinson, Pascal Garnier

You’ll Feel Your Mind Slipping Away*

poe-horror-and-crimeAs this is posted, it would have been Edgar Allan Poe’s 208th birthday. Whether you’re a fan of Poe’s writing or not, it’s hard to deny his impact on literature and culture. Personally, I like it that the Baltimore (US) professional football team is called the Ravens.

Certainly, Poe had a tremendous influence on crime fiction. In fact, he is often regarded as the creator of modern detective fiction. His C. Auguste Dupin stories featured a detective in ways that hadn’t been done before. And fans can tell you that that he also created memorable horror stories.

What’s interesting about those horror stories is that they rely much more on psychological suspense and tension than on gore and violence. And, for many people, that psychological approach can build more tension, and is more frightening, than outright violence is.

Poe is by no means the only author to create stories with that element of psychological suspense, even horror. We see it quite a lot in crime fiction. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have retired from domestic service and opened their home to lodgers. They’re quite particular about the people they accept, so they haven’t had many lodgers. But one day, a stranger comes to ask about a room, and seems to be exactly the sort of lodger they want. Calling himself Mr. Sleuth, this new roomer pays his rent fully and promptly. He has quiet habits, too, and ‘speaks like a gentleman.’ The Buntings need the money, so they agree quickly to an arrangement. In the meantime, London is caught up in the news of a series of murders of young women, committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger. Robert Bunting, in particular, is as taken with this news as anyone is, and follows the details with interest. At first, his wife doesn’t want anything to do with stories of the murders. But slowly, and with growing horror, she begins to suspect that her new lodger may actually be the murderer. That creeping fear, and the hints (rather than actual scenes) of violence add a great deal of suspense to this story.

Shirley Jackson was noted for her ability to create eerie, frightening stories without gore. Fans can tell you that The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are both quite creepy novels. And then there’s her short story, The Lottery, which you can read right here. Do these stories count as crime fiction? Perhaps The Haunting of Hill House would be counted more as horror than as crime fiction. But We Have Always Lived in the Castle features arsenic poisoning and its consequences. And The Lottery….  I don’t want to spoil it in case you’ve not read it. But as far as I’m concerned, it includes a crime.

Daphne du Maurier also combined elements of horror and crime in her work, and much of the tension is psychological, rather than dependent on violence. In Jamaica Inn, for instance, Mary Yellan goes to live with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience Merlyn. Their home is a lonely inn on the moor in Cornwall, and it’s far from a warm, friendly place. The inn itself is eerie enough, and the more Mary finds out about the inn and some of its secrets, the eerier the story gets. There’s a real sense of horror as Mary discovers the truth about the inn. And there is some violence. But du Maurier relies much more on psychological suspense to build the tension and move the plot along.

Many people regard Stephen King as one of the masters of the modern horror story. But he has also used his skill at building eeriness and horror in the crime stories he writes. For instance, Delores Claiborne and Mr. Mercedes are certainly crime novels. But they also have elements of the horror story in them, too. There’s arguably an eerie sort of atmosphere, and the tension that builds is as much psychological as it is anything else. The same might be said of Misery. In all of those stories (and others King has written), there is violence – more than there is in some of the other examples I’ve mentioned here. But the violence isn’t the focus of the stories. Rather, it’s the psychological tension.

And I don’t think I could discuss that mix of crime and horror in fiction without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock’s film work. Several of his films are based on crime fiction, but even those that aren’t have that element of psychological suspense that really carries the plot along. And in some of those films, there really is very little violence. But they’re still suspenseful and eerie.

There are a lot of other authors (right, fans of, Hake Talbot, Patricia Highsmith and Pascal Garnier?) who have combined elements of horror with elements of the crime story to create eerie stories. It’s not easy to do that, especially if one doesn’t focus on gory violence. But when it’s done well, a dose of horror can add genuine suspense and creepiness to a crime story.

So, if you think about it, Poe didn’t just leave a legacy in terms of detective fiction (although he certainly did do that). He didn’t just leave a legacy of horror stories, either (although, of course, he did that, too). He showed how one might write a truly frightening, eerie story with a solid plot, but without resorting to a lot of gore.

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Don’t tell me it never rains in Southern California.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Alan Parsons Project’s The Cask of Amontillado. This track comes from their release Tales of Mystery and Imagination. All of the songs are Poe titles, and the songs themselves inspired by Poe’s stories.

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Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Hake Talbot, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Pascal Garnier, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King