Category Archives: Patricia Abbott

Fall in Philadelphia*

As this is posted, it’s 335 years since William Penn founded the US city of Philadelphia. As you’ll know, Philadelphia played a major role in early US history, and it’s still an important city, both culturally and in other ways. Did you know, for instance, that Le Bec Fin, one of the world’s top restaurants, is there? So are lots of other wonderful places to eat. And that the ‘Philadelphia sound’ had a powerful influence on popular music? And that the US Postal Service got its start there, when Benjamin Franklin set it up?

If you’re kind enough to read my blog on anything like a regular basis, then you’ll know that I spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia before more moving west, and I consider Philadelphia home. I’ve even set my next Joel Williams mystery mostly in Philadelphia. A standalone I’m writing is also set there.

And that’s the thing. Philadelphia is a great city in many ways, but it’s certainly not peaceful and crime-free! Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you that plenty of (at least fictional) mayhem happens there.

For example, Jane Haddam’s series features Gregor Demarkian, a former FBI agent who lives in an Armenian section of Philadelphia. He often gets drawn into mysteries through his association with the local parish priest, Father Tibor. The cases he gets involved in take him to many of Philadelphia’s different sections, and into its suburbs, too. In that way, Haddam shows clearly the diversity in the city. Each different part has a different ‘feel,’ and many of them are almost their own little worlds, where everyone knows everyone.

Gillian Roberts set her series featuring Amanda Pepper in Philadelphia. Pepper teaches English at Philadelphia Preparatory School (AKA Philly Prep), and gets drawn into more than one murder mystery. In Caught Dead in Philadelphia, for instance, Pepper gets an unexpected visit from Philly Prep’s part-time drama coach, Liza Nichols. Nichols asks if she can rest at Pepper’s home for a bit before going to the school later in the day. Pepper agrees, but when she gets home after her own work day, she finds Nichols dead. As you can imagine, she’s the first suspect, but Detective C.K. McKenzie is soon able to establish her innocence. This means, though, that someone else is guilty – someone who was in Pepper’s home. So, there’s a real sense of urgency about finding the killer.

Lisa Scottoline’s series is also set in Philadelphia. The Rosato and Associates/Rosato and DiNunzio novels feature the high-powered law firm, Rosato and Associates, owned by Benedetta ‘Bennie’ Rosato.  The series ‘stars’ various different members of the law firm in the different novels. The first, Everywhere That Mary Went, introduces Mary DiNunzio, who’s on track to become a partner in the firm. She soon finds that someone is stalking her. As if that’s not enough, her secretary is killed by a car that’s been following DiNunzio around.  Now, the firm is dealing with the murder of one of its own, as well as the very real risk that someone has targeted one of its junior attorneys.

Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel shows what life in Philadelphia was like in decades past, especially for those with means. The story begins in the late 1950’s. Evelyn ‘Evie’ Hobart grew up with little in the way of money or privilege, but she is beautiful and seductive. She is also acquisitive, and has always wanted ‘things.’ One night at a dance, she meets Hank Moran, who comes from a family with money and reputation, and it’s not long before they’re married. Now, Evie lives among the ‘better’ people in one of Philadelphia’s wealthy suburbs. It’s the sort of community where women take day trips into the city to shop, belong to clubs and societies, and focus on their well-appointed homes. Evie’s not really happy with her new life, though, since for her, the ‘spark of life’ comes from getting and having things, especially when she hasn’t paid for them. She’s caught more than once, but at first, everything’s kept quiet because of the family’s reputation and money. Finally, though, it becomes too much, and she is sent to The Terraces, an exclusive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured.’ Not much changes, though, and her daughter, Christine, grows up in that toxic environment. Evie does whatever she has to do to take what she wants, whether it’s money, jewels, men, or anything else. Christine can do little to stop her mother, until she discovers that her three-year-old brother, Ryan, is being drawn into the same dysfunctional web. Now, she resolves to free herself and her brother from their mother.

Most people think of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series as distinctively Wyoming. And it is. But as fans can tell you, Longmire’s deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, is a native of Philadelphia, and a former police officer there. She still has connections to the city, too. In fact, the third Longmire novel, Kindness Goes Unpunished, actually takes place there. At one point (in Death Without Company), here’s what Moretti says about herself:
 

‘‘I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.’’
 

Moretti is nothing if not unvarnished…

And I wouldn’t want to do a post on crime fiction in Philadelphia without mentioning Jerry Bruckheimer’s TV series, Cold Case, which aired in the US between 2003 and 2010. The show features a team of Philadelphia homicide detectives whose specialty is re-opening and investigating murder cases that have ‘gone cold.’ There are also, as you can imagine, story arcs about the detectives’ own lives. Admittedly, the show isn’t always – ahem – completely true-to-life. But it has a distinctive setting, and explores several of the different cultures in the city, as well as aspects of the city’s history.

See what I mean? Philadelphia is a vibrant city, rich with history, art, music, good food, top universities and medical facilities, and more. But peaceful? Crime-free? Well, perhaps not…

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Craig Johnson, Gillian Roberts, Jane Haddam, Jerry Bruckheimer, Lisa Scottoline, Patricia Abbott

You Had One Eye In the Mirror*

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to help her persuade her husband, 4th Baron Edgware, to give her a divorce. Poirot doesn’t usually take on this sort of case, so at first, he demurs. Then, she says,
 

‘‘You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?’’…
‘I should like everybody to be happy,’ said Poirot cautiously.
‘Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.’’
 

And that’s quite true. As we learn in the novel, Jane Wilkinson is thoroughly self-absorbed. She’s not cruel about it, or even particularly rude. But it’s obvious that her only concern is herself. In the course of the story, Poirot pays a visit to Edgware, who says he has no objection to granting a divorce. That night, Edgware is murdered. His widow is, of course, the most likely suspect. But several witnesses are willing to testify that she was at a dinner party in another part of London. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look for other suspects. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Jane’s self-absorption shows in her character.

She’s hardly the only self-absorbed crime-fictional character, though, and that’s not surprising. Characters who are completely self-absorbed can bring disaster on themselves and others. And they’re often vulnerable in ways that we don’t see in those who are concerned about others.

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, we are introduced to Phyllis Nirdlinger. She’s completely self-absorbed, but she’s so attractive that when insurance agent Walter Huff meets her, he’s soon besotted with her. In fact, it doesn’t take long for him to agree to a plan she has to get rid of her husband, in order to get the money from his insurance policy. Huff writes the double-indemnity policy she has in mind, and when the time comes, the murder is carried off as planned. That’s when it really occurs to Huff what he’s done: participated in a murder to get a woman. As if that’s not enough, there are questions both from the police and from Huff’s employer about the policy. What’s worst, though, is that Huff slowly learns just what sort of person Phyllis really is. As things spin out of control, Huff sees that he’s going to have to take some drastic action.

Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat introduces readers to Oxford Professor Belville-Smith. He’s doing a lecture tour of Australia, and has consented to give a few talks at Drummondale University. From the start, things go badly. For one thing, Belville-Smith isn’t accustomed to life in Australia, and adjusting isn’t easy. He’s also getting older, and not as scintillating as he used to be. In fact, he’s given the same lectures so many times that he drones them. He even mixes up two lectures at one point, beginning with one and ending with the other. What’s worst, though, is that he’s self-absorbed. Others’ views and reactions to what he says don’t occur to him. So, he is also insufferable. Then, Belville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room on the morning after a ‘greet the guest’ party. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s going to have to do just that now. And it turns out there’s more than one very good possibility.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is the story of brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve grown up in the same abusive home, but they’re quite different. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he can, and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his considerable athletic talent, and ends up living on money from his mother and from his girlfriend. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument ends, but not the rancor. Later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out. They encounter Thompson again, and the argument resumes. Almost before anyone knows it, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s convicted and given a long prison sentence. He reaches out to his brother, who’s now a county prosecutor, for help getting out of prison. This time, Mason refuses. Then, Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When Mason still refuses, Gates carries out his threat, leaving his brother to face a murder charge for a crime he didn’t commit. Throughout the novel, we see how self-absorbed Gates is. He has no real concern for his girlfriend, his brother, their mother, or anyone else. And that impacts the course of the novel.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is his first novel to feature Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao. In the novel, the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. She is soon identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. Because of her celebrity, this is going to be a delicate case. Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, are all too aware of the ramifications of a case that leads to high places. That’ll be especially true if the killer turns out to be a Party member. Still, they persevere, and slowly trace the victim’s last days and weeks. As they do, we learn quite a lot about the lifestyles of those who are high-ranking Party members – the High Cadre – and their families. Several of them are self-absorbed, and see things only from their own point of view. Without giving away too much, I can say that this self-absorption plays its role in the novel.

And then there’s Eve Moran, whom we meet in Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. Since childhood, Eve has been preoccupied with what she wants. And she’s had no trouble manipulating people and situations to acquire, whether it’s jewelry, clothes, or other things. She’s had the same view when it comes to men. She stops at nothing, including murder, if that’s what it takes. Eve doesn’t even really consider the needs of her daughter, Christine. She’s raised Christine in a very toxic environment, so that relationship is quite dysfunctional. Then, Christine begins to see the same thing happening to her three-year-old brother, Ryan. Now, she’ll have to find a way to free both herself and her brother if there’s to be a chance for either of them.

Self-absorption can be more than just an annoying character trait. It can lead to disastrous choices and dysfunctional relationships. Little wonder we see it in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Martin Clark, Patricia Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Barnard

Everything She Wants is Everything She Sees*

High MaintenanceYou know the type, I’ll bet. The sort of person who has no problem sending a dish back to the kitchen three times. Or who insists on getting instant service, answers to questions, and so on. Or who absolutely must have the best in clothes, food, or wine (or all of the above). Yes, I’m talking about high-maintenance people. I’m sure we’ve all met folks like that.

High-maintenance people can be the bane of existence for anyone in any sort of service industry. And they don’t tend to endear themselves to others in personal life, either. But they can make for interesting fictional characters. And they can be a ‘gold mine’ of conflict and tension in a crime novel.

Agatha Christie included high maintenance characters in several of her novels. One of them is Timothy Abernethie, whom we meet in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). He’s the younger brother of patriarch Richard Abernethie, who, at the beginning of the novel, has just died. Timothy is a hypochondriac who really does seem to relish the attention he gets due to his ‘ill health.’ He’s demanding, querulous and petulant, too. When his brother’s will is read, Timothy naturally assumes that he should inherit everything (and it’s quite a fortune), and be trusted to look after the other members of the family. That’s not what happens, though. Instead, the money is divided more or less evenly amongst Richard Abernethie’s relatives, and this infuriates Timothy. But that turns out to be the least of his problems when a suspicion is raised that this death might have been a murder. And when the youngest Abernethie sister, Cora Lansquenet, is murdered, it looks as though someone is determined to get that fortune. The family lawyer, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. It turns out to be a very interesting psychological case.

Barbara Neely’s Blanche White has to deal with high maintenance people in more than one of her investigations. She’s a professional housekeeper whose clients often make assumptions about themselves and about her because of their different social classes. They also often make such assumptions because many of them are white, and Blanche is black. On the one hand, she’s learned to manoeuver in that environment. She’s also learned that in subtle but real ways, she’s the one in control. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the very natural irritation that comes from being treated in a demanding, high-handed way. In Blanche on the Lam, for instance, she ends up taking a temporary housekeeping job with wealthy Grace and Everett. From the moment Blanche begins her new job, Grace treats her with at best, condescension and at worst, complete disrespect. Both Grace and Everett are demanding, high-handed and very particular. The fact that they’re high maintenance isn’t the reason for the two murders that occur in the novel. But it makes for an interesting layer of tension.

In Geraldine Evans’ Dead Before Morning, DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn investigate the murder of a young woman whose body is found on the grounds of the exclusive Elmhurst Sanatorium. Its owner, Dr. Anthony Melville-Briggs, is extremely concerned lest anything happen to the facility’s reputation, and he wants the case solved as quickly as possible. Soon enough, the body is identified as that of a sex worker named Linda Wilks. Once she is identified, the two sleuths trace leads that may link her to her killer. One very good possibility is that Melville-Briggs himself may be responsible, and Rafferty would like nothing better. Melville-Briggs is high-handed, demanding, and rude. He’s also quite high maintenance in that he expects instant results, instant call returns, and so on. It’s actually Llewellyn who has to remind Rafferty that there are other possibilities.

Toronto PI Sasha Jackson doesn’t have it much easier in Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom. One day, she gets a visit from Christine Arvisais, who wants to hire Jackson to solve a murder case. It seems that Arvisais’ former fiancé, Gordon Hanes, was shot on the day that would have been their wedding day had the engagement not been broken off. Everyone thinks Arvisais is responsible, but she claims to be innocent. From the beginning, Jackson doesn’t care much at all for this client. She’s rude, overly pampered, snooty, and very high maintenance. In fact, she doesn’t want the case solved because she cares who shot Hanes. She only wants to prove she didn’t. Still, a fee is a fee, and Jackson is just getting started as a PI. So she takes the case and gets started looking for answers. She finds that Hanes’ murder is linked to another murder, and in the process, digs up some shady secrets.

Sometimes, high maintenance goes beyond just spoiled and petulant. For example, in Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel, we meet the very high maintenance Eve Moran. From the time she was a small child, Eve has always wanted to acquire. And she’s never let anything, not even murder, get between her and what she wants, whether it’s money, jewels, men, or something else. Her daughter Christine has been raised in this toxic environment, so she and her mother have a very dysfunctional relationship. The more time goes on, the more trapped Christine is in her mother’s web. Then, she sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk of being caught in the same trap. She decides that she’s going to have to free both herself and Ryan if she’s going to save them.

And I don’t think I’d be forgiven if I discussed high maintenance people in crime fiction without mentioning Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Fans will tell you that he’s demanding, extremely particular, high-handed and sometimes very condescending. He definitely insists that the world run by his rules. And his partner, Archie Goodwin, is not afraid to tell him so. Wolfe gets away with what he does because he happens to be a brilliant detective. But that doesn’t make him a delight to be around at times…

And that’s the thing about high maintenance people. They are sometimes most unpleasant, and they’re not popular as bosses, potential partners or customers/clients. But they’re also a part of life. And they can add some interesting tension to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wham! ‘s Everything She Wants.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Geraldine Evans, Jill Edmondson, Patricia Abbott, Rex Stout

There is Good and Bad in Everyone*

DualNatureThere’s an old Cherokee story (you can read it here) in which a grandfather explains human nature to his grandson. He portrays it as a battle between our own good and evil tendencies, and claims that the side that wins is, as he puts it, ‘the one you feed.’

There’s a lot to that perspective if you think about it. We can look at human nature and good and evil from several points of view (philosophical, religious, anthropological, etc.). But, I’m not a philosopher, a member of the clergy, or an anthropologist. And besides, it’s a very large topic, and this is a very small blog. But even keeping the focus on crime fiction, we see plenty of examples of characters who ‘feed’ their ‘better angels’ as well as those who do just the opposite. In both cases, there are consequences.

G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau begins as a notorious thief. In fact, in the short story The Blue Cross, we learn that he has gone from France to England, and is on his way to steal a valuable religious artifact. Flambeau has bested many people, including the French police. But Father Brown proves to be more than a match for him. Flambeau then chooses to ‘feed’ the better side of his nature. He gives up his larcenous career and becomes a private investigator. He doesn’t start going to religious services, and he enjoys a good wine as much as the next person. It’s not those outer trappings of what some people think of as ‘morality’ that change. Rather, it’s his decision to nurture the ethical side of his nature.

We see that sort of conversation and struggle in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, too. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Among the other hotel guests are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall; her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall; and Marshall’s teenaged daughter Linda. It’s soon hotel gossip that Arlena is having a not-very-well-hidden affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern. So, when she is found murdered one day, her husband Kenneth comes under suspicion. He has a solid alibi, though, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. One of the people they talk to is Linda Marshall. As it turns out, she hated her stepmother, and cannot be ruled out as the killer. At one point, she and Poirot have an interesting conversation about the difference between the urge to kill someone and actually going through with the act. That conversation, and one other one, suggests that, while Poirot is not naïve about the existence of evil, he does believe that people can choose to ‘feed’ their better natures, too. I see you, fans of Death on the Nile.

In Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, we are introduced to fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. He’s finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam has been kept locked away for many years, so he has little knowledge of the world and no good skills to survive in it. Fortunately, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who’s at the house when Adam makes his escape, and who becomes his ally. The two spend the next week together, and Billy provides Adam with a great deal of ‘street knowledge,’ as well as basics like a place to stay, clothes, and food. As they spend time together, the two also become friends, and begin to confide in each other. It turns out that both of them are haunted by the past, and by their connections to the tragic disappearance of a small boy from a crowded market ten years earlier. As the story evolves, both Adam and Billy learn something about ‘feeding one’s better nature,’ and about starting over, if I can put it that way.

Of course, people sometimes ‘feed’ their worse – even evil – side as well. After all, where would crime fiction be if they didn’t? And when they do, the result can be disastrous.

In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we are introduced to Gilbert Hand, who works for a publishing firm. He’s recently moved to a very respectable London hotel, where he’s hoping to start over after the tragic death of his wife. Shortly after his arrival, he makes a bizarre discovery: in the davenport in his room, he finds a long coil of dark hair, wrapped in a scarf. Hand gets curious about the room’s former occupant and soon learns that it was man named Freddie Doyle. Now he’s even more curious, especially when Doyle pays him a visit to ask for the coil of hair (which request Hand refuses). Little by little, Hand becomes obsessed with Doyle, at the same repulsed and fascinated by him. He imagines a sort of ‘chess game’ between them. As his obsession grows, Hand starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the result leads to real tragedy.

A similar thing happens in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. Mix Cellini takes a flat in a home owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. They don’t really like each other, but it’s a business arrangement; and on that level, it works. Through his profession (he repairs exercise equipment), Cellini meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He’s immediately smitten, and soon goes beyond that to obsession. At the same time, he learns about the life of notorious killer Richard Christie. The more he reads, the more obsessed Cellini becomes with Christie, too. Little by little, he starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the end result, as you’d expect, is disastrous.

It does in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, too. Dr. Everett Seeley has lost his medical license due to his drug problems. He decides to go to Mexico to start over; but until he gets settled, he doesn’t want to bring his wife Marion with him. So he establishes her in a Phoenix apartment, and sets her up with a job as a file clerk in the exclusive Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion even makes two friends: Louise Mercer (a nurse at the clinic) and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. It’s not long before Marion starts spending more time with them, and getting more and more involved in their edgy, even dangerous, lifestyle of wild parties, drugs and drinking. As time goes on, Marion begins to ‘feed’ her own darker and more dangerous side. The end result is an awful tragedy that impacts everyone involved.

Oh, and speaking of Abbotts, you’ll also want to check out Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel as a really interesting example of making choices between which side of our nature we ‘feed.’ Eve Moran has always nurtured her selfish side, letting nothing – not even someone’s life – get in the way of what she wants. Her daughter Christine’s been brought up with this influence, and has been caught in her mother’s web, so their relationship is truly dysfunctional. But everything changes when Christine sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free herself and her brother from their mother’s influence.

And that’s the thing about human nature. People generally aren’t all good or all bad. The choices we make – the side of our nature that we ‘feed’ – plays a major role in what we do. And those choices can have far-reaching consequences.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, G.K. Chesterton, Honey Brown, Megan Abbott, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell

The Pursuit of Happiness Just Seems a Bore*

Privileged Lives and LimitationsPlenty of people dream about what it might be like to have a lot of money and be a member of the upper class. After all, many of us can’t afford to travel whenever we want, buy what we want on a whim, or send our children to the ‘best’ schools. But if you think about it, the lives of those people who seem to ‘have it all’ can be just as restrictive.

Crime fiction shows us clearly that that lifestyle can be at least as limiting as the lifestyle most of us have – perhaps more so. And being among that group of people is absolutely no guarantee against tension, conflict and tragedy. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime gives a witty, but biting, look at the upper-class life. In that novel, Catalonia politician Lluís Font hires Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep ‘Pep’ (who goes by the name Borja) Martínez. Font believes that his wife Lídia is having an affair, and he wants to know if he’s right. It’s not just that Font wants to know if his wife has betrayed him; he’s also concerned that any scandal could threaten his political career (he represents the Catholic Conservative party). The Martínez brothers take the case, but a week of surveillance doesn’t turn up anything. It does, however, offer a look at the lives of people of that class. Lídia Font spends her days visiting hairstylists and salons, going shopping, and having coffees and lunches with friends and acquaintances. Her husband, of course, has his political reputation to uphold, so he makes the ‘right’ speeches, goes to the ‘right’ meetings and so on. Then one evening, Lídia dies of what turns out to be poison. The police suspect Font of killing his wife, so he asks the Martínez brothers to stay on the job and clear his name.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack also explores the lives of ‘people of a certain class.’ That novel takes place in 1970’s Buenos Aires, a time when the military is in full control. Speaking out on anything is a very dangerous thing to do, so few people dare it. One day, police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano gets an early-morning call about two bodies left by a riverbank. He goes to the scene and, sure enough, finds the bodies. The two people are victims of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lescano knows better than to ask too many questions about that. But then, he finds a third body. This victim, too, seems to bear the hallmarks of a ‘hit,’ but there are small pieces of evidence that suggest that this is a different kind of murder. Lescano starts to ask questions, and opens quite a proverbial can of worms. The victim is Elías Biterman, a successful pawnbroker and moneylender, who counted among his clients some very wealthy and powerful people. As we get to know some of those characters, we see how restrictive that upper-class life is. One is expected to be at the ‘right’ events, behave in the ‘right’ way and so on. And one is expected to have a great deal of money to do all of that.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows addresses what happens when that protective ‘bubble of money’ is taken away. That novel takes place at the end of the 1990s, in the exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club. Only the wealthy can afford to live there, and prospective residents are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before being accepted. The story begins one September evening in 2001, when a tragedy occurs at the home of El Tano Scaglia and his wife Teresa. Then the story takes readers back to where it all began, and tells the events that have led to that tragedy. As those events unfold, we learn about the lives of the people who live in Cascade Heights. The men have ‘the right kinds of jobs,’ as high-level business executives, bankers, attorneys and so on. The women shop at the ‘right’ exclusive places, raise money for the ‘correct’ causes, host expensive parties, get cosmetic surgery and send their children to the best schools. Some have careers (one, for instance, is a real estate professional). Everything changes with the economic downturn at the end of the 1990s. People can no longer rely on a steady supply of easy money. And this has devastating consequences for everyone.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we are introduced to successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal and his wife. They live in an upmarket part of Delhi, have a beautiful home and a staff of servants. They also have a reputation and lifestyle to uphold, so the family’s good name is extremely important. Disaster strikes when Kasliwal is accused of raping and murdering a family servant, Mary Murmu. She disappeared a few months ago, and there’s been quite a lot of talk about her fate. He claims that he’s innocent, but the police arrest him. They don’t want to give the appearance of toadying to the rich and powerful, so it’s decided to make an example of this case. Kasliwal hires PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri to find out the truth about his servant’s disappearance, and clear his name. As we get to know the family, we see how limiting that upper-class status can be, despite the privilege associated with it.

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. It’s the late 1950s, and Evelyn ‘Eve’ Hobart has always been acquisitive. But she grew up with little money and no privilege. Things change when she meets Hank Moran at a college dance. He comes from a wealthier family with a reputation. Eve isn’t rich, but she is beautiful and seductive, and it’s not long before they’re married. Now she becomes a part of the ‘better class’ of Philadelphia-area society. Women of that class take day trips into the city to shop, spend money on their suburban homes, and belong to clubs and societies. For Eve, though, the real spark of life is getting and having things, especially taking things she hasn’t bought. It gets her in trouble more than once, and eventually, lands her in The Terraces, an expensive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured’ of her compulsions. But Eve remains completely dysfunctional and toxic, doing whatever it takes, including murder, to get what she wants, whether it’s clothing, jewels, or men. As her daughter Christine grows up, Eve draws her into that web, and Christine, being so dependent on her mother, can do little about it. As the years go by, that dysfunction continues to dominate their relationship until Christine notices that her younger brother Ryan is starting be drawn in to their mother’s life, too. Now, she decides she will have to rescue Ryan, and set herself free, too.

By the way, it was a conversation with Patti Abbott that got me thinking about this topic. Thanks for the inspiration!

On the outside, the life of those who have a privileged existence can seem very alluring. But it really is as limiting as any other life. And it can be at least as deadly.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Ernesto Mallo, Patricia Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana