Category Archives: Peter Høeg

He Does Love His Numbers*

Pi DayAs I write and post this, it’s 14 March (3.14), also known as Pi Day. Even if you hated maths in school, it’s hard to deny the importance of mathematical principles in life. They help us understand quite a lot about our universe; and we use them constantly, whether it’s following a recipe, keeping track of bank accounts, or deciding how much space we’ll need in that new place. The other thing about mathematics is that much of it is quite objective. Two of something, plus two more of that same something, equals four of that something. For those who like the objective and the clear (as opposed to the subjective and ambiguous), that can be quite refreshing.

Mathematics finds its way into just about everything, including music and poetry. So it’s little wonder we find a lot of mathematics and mathematicians in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, is a brilliant mathematician. Here is what Holmes says about him in The Adventure of the Final Problem:

‘‘He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him.’’

As Holmes goes on to explain, though, Moriarty has a dark side and is now London’s top criminal leader. In this story, Holmes and Watson find the man such a dangerous enemy that they end up having to leave London for a time. They end up in Switzerland, where Holmes and Moriarty have a climactic meeting at the Reichenbach Falls. Of course, if you are a fan of these stories, you’ll know the saga doesn’t end there…

Plenty of the action in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The school is very capably run by Honoria Bulstrode. But she depends very much on Miss Chadwick, the mathematics mistress and the co-founder of the school. Miss Chadwick is a bit vague when she talks and she’s hardly a fashionable dresser. But she is a brilliant mathematician, and passionately devoted to the school. When games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion, Miss Chadwick is one of the two people who discover the body. Then, there’s a disappearance. And another murder. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, discovers an important clue to the events at the school. She visits Hercule Poirot, who knows a good friend of her mother’s, and tells him what she knows. Poirot goes back to Meadowbank with her to investigate; and in the end, he finds out the connection between the murders, the disappearance, and a revolution in a Middle East country.

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), we are introduced to Smilla Jaspersen. She’s half-Inuit and half-Danish, but was originally raised among her mother’s people on Greenland. She’s since moved to Copenhagen and, after a troubled childhood and adolescence, has become a mathematician and scientist. She forms a friendship with a young boy Isaiah Christiansen, who lives in the same building and is also a Greenlander. When Isaiah falls (or jumps, or is pushed) from the roof of the building, Smilla takes a special interest in his death. The police account is that the boy was playing on the roof and accidentally fell. But that’s not what the snow patterns say. So Smilla begins to ask some questions. The trail leads back to Greenland and to a particular expedition there. And it’s mathematics, science and a deep knowledge of snow and ice that give Smilla the answers.

Keigo Higashino also uses mathematics in his series featuring physicist/mathematician Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In The Devotion of Suspect X, Tokyo police officer Shunpei Kasanagi investigates the murder of Shinji Togashi. The victim’s ex-wife Yasuko Hanaoka comes under suspicion, but Kasanagi can’t find any really good evidence to connect her with the crime. So he brings in Galileo to consult on the case. It’s not long before Galileo sees that he is up against a formidable opponent (and former college mate) Tetsuya Ishigami, a mathematics teacher who lives in the same building as Yasuko Hanaoka. Ishigami has fallen in love with her and would do anything to protect her. In this case, mathematics and physics are woven throughout the novel.

There are also mathematics-related mysteries intended for younger readers. For instance, Leith Hathout’s Crimes and Mathdemeanors is a collection of stories featuring fourteen-year-old Ravi, a math genius who helps the local police solve crimes. Readers who remember the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries will find this a similar sort of context. What’s interesting in this collection is that mathematics principles are used to solve the cases.

There are even crime writers who are mathematicians. For instance, fans of the Michael Stanley writing duo’s Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series may know that one half of that duo, Michael Sears, is a mathematician. His specialty was applied mathematics (e.g. image analysis and ecological modeling).

So you see? Mathematics is everywhere, including crime fiction. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll have a piece of π.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kate Bush’s π.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Keigo Higashino, Leith Hathout, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Peter Høeg

There Were Incidents and Accidents*

So-Called AccidentsSome deaths are quite obviously murders. In those cases, at least in crime fiction, the killer doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was murder. Rather, the murderer may work hard at an alibi, or may work hard to prove there was no motive. But really, it’s much easier to disguise the murder as an accident if it’s possible. And sometimes, that makes it awfully difficult to prove that a death was murder.

Examples of murders made to look like accidents run all through crime fiction, possibly because it’s really credible that someone would want to cover up a murder that way. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of examples – many more than I could list in one post. But here are a few.

Agatha Christie uses the so-called accident in several of her stories. To take just one example, in Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The enigmatic Mr. Shaitana gathers four sleuths (including Poirot) and four people that he hints have gotten away with murder. After the meal, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the evening, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were in the room at the time – the very four people Shaitana more or less accused of murder. Now the four sleuths are faced with the task of figuring out which of these equally-plausible suspects is guilty. One of them is Anne Meredith. At one point, she’d served as companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning by hat paint. Apparently, she confused the hat paint with her medicine, a very plausible accident. Or was it?

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), a young boy Isaiah Christiansen tragically dies after a fall from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had befriended fellow Greenlander Smilla Jasperson, and she is upset at his death. She’s drawn to the scene of the accident, and when she gets there, she sees signs in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. She begins to ask questions and soon discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. She persists though, and her search for answers takes her back to her homeland, where she finds the connection between Isaiah’s death and some secrets hidden in Greenland.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). The novel actually tells two stories, one of which is a recounting of the PCU’s first case. In 1940, the Palace Theatre is set to do a production of Orpheus. Then one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania dies in what some say is a freak accident. The police are investigating that death when Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed by a piece of scenery. Again it’s regarded as a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Still, it’s beginning to look very much as though someone is determined to stop the production. When another death occurs, and then a disappearance, Bryant and May and their team come under intense pressure to solve the case before there are any more tragedies.

Louise Penny’s Still Life is our introduction to the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of its residents Jane Neal is killed during the Thanksgiving holiday in what looks like a hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to the scene, and he soon finds that this death was actually a murder. The question though is who would have had a motive. The victim was a beloved former teacher whom everyone seemed to respect. Gamache and the team get to know the town, though, and some of its history. And it’s in the past that they find the motive and therefore, the killer.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone thinks he’s found a great new way to make money. He’s a marine biologist (well, in name at least) who’s hired by agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut’s company has been accused of pouring toxic waste into Florida’s Everglades, and Hammernut needs proof that his company doesn’t pollute. Perrone offers that in the form of a way he’s developed to fake the results of water testing so the water looks clean. The two begin to do business and all goes well enough at first. Then, Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, and threatens to report it. Now he needs to get rid of her, so he tells her they’re going on an anniversary cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the trip, he pushes Joey overboard, thinking that’s the end of his problems. At first everyone, including the police, thinks it’s a terrible accident and there’s much sympathy for Perrone. What he doesn’t know though is that Joey didn’t drown, and she’s made her own plans for revenge…

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man. In the late 18th-Century Lady Drusilla Davenish lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. The family is excited about Lucie’s upcoming wedding to Giles Saxborough. Everything changes though, when Giles’ father (and Lady Drusilla’s godfather) Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a tragic riding accident. But things don’t quite add up for Lady Drusilla. Her godfather was an expert horseman. It’s highly unlikely that he’d have died in that way. So she starts to ask questions. Not long afterwards, Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed in what’s put down as a horrible yachting accident. But Lady Drusilla is convinced that it’s more than that. And there’s more than one possible explanation. It might be connected to a smuggling operation she’s recently discovered. Or it might be someone with a vendetta against the Saxborough family. Or it might be something else…

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report suggests it might have been suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t think so. It could also have very well been an accident. Whatever the cause, Delbeck wants to know the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney takes the case and travels to Pattaya. As a part of her investigations, she decides to learn more about at New Life, going undercover as a volunteer. As she gets closer to the truth about Maryanne’s life and death, she finds out that some people do not want their secrets revealed…

At least in fiction, murders designed to look like accidents can serve a lot of purposes. They can give murderers effective ways to hide their crimes. They can also give the author a way to build suspense and interest. And they can allow the author the chance to lead the reader up the proverbial garden path. After all, sometimes an accident is just an accident. There are so many other examples of this plot point in crime fiction – many more than I could name. So…what gaps have I left?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Fowler, Dawn Harris, Louise Penny, Peter Høeg

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Injections

InjectionsThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is making great progress on our treacherous trek through the letters of the alphabet. As ever, my thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us all together and organized. Erm – You haven’t seen my passport have you, Kerrie? ;-)   This week we’ve arrived at the delightful Isle of I. The word is that there’s quite good fishing, hiking and outdoor sports here. So while everyone’s getting the anti-bug spray and changing into hiking shoes, I’ll share my contribution for the week: injections.

Some injections save lives. For instance, there’s naloxone (often marketed under the name Narcan) that reverses the effects of certain opiates such as heroin. And there’s epinephrine (adrenaline) that counteracts histamine reactions; it’s often carried by people who have severe allergies. But as any crime fiction fan can tell you, injections can be very dangerous too. There are a lot of examples in crime fiction of this kind of murder; I’ll just give a few of them.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family makes a sightseeing trip to the ancient city of Petra. One afternoon while they’re there, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be heart failure. But a few details of the death don’t quite add up, and Colonel Carbury isn’t entirely satisfied that Mrs. Boynton died a natural death. So he asks Hercule Poirot, who is in the area, to investigate. It turns out that Mrs. Boynton was a tyrant and a mental sadist and no-one in her family is exactly mourning her loss. Neither are any of the other sightseers on this trip. It also turns out that she was murdered by an injection of digitalis. Poirot looks more closely into Mrs. Boynton’s life and that of her family members, and finds that the key to her murder lies in the kind of personality she had, and in an incident from her past. Some of Christie’s other work also features the role of injections, but no spoilers…

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) begins with the funeral of Isaiah Christiansen, a young Greenlander boy who moved to Copenhagen. The official account of his death is that he fell off the roof of the building where he lived – a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Smilla Jaspersen lives in the same building and actually befriended Isaiah. Herself a half-Inuit Greenlander, Smilla felt drawn to the boy so she takes an interest in his death. Little signs in the snow on the roof suggest that Isaiah did not fall off the roof accidentally. This is enough for Smilla to start asking questions. Her suspicions are confirmed when she finds out that Isaiah had a puncture wound on his leg. There’s no sign of drugs, but Smilla is now sure that something about this death is not what it seems. So she keeps asking questions. The trail leads her to Greenland and an expedition that included both Isaiah and his father. That expedition turns out to be critical to the mystery.

Benjamin Black’s The Silver Swan is the story of the death of Deirdre Hunt. When her body is found off the rocks near Dalkey Island, the official explanation is that she committed suicide. Her husband Billy accepts that verdict and wants the case to go no further. In fact, he asks his old friend Dublin pathologist Garrett Quirke to do what he can to prevent an autopsy, saying that he doesn’t want his wife’s body subjected to being cut up. For the sake of their friendship Quirke agrees to see what he can do. But he begins to have suspicions about this death and when he prepares the body for a post-mortem examination, he finds evidence to support those suspicions. There’s a puncture wound in Deirdre’s arm, suggesting that she was injected with something. That needle mark is enough to get Quirke looking more deeply into the case. His search for answers leads him to the Silver Swan, a beauty shop in which Deirdre had an interest. There also turns out to be a connection in this case to an Indian faith healer and to Quirke’s own estranged daughter Phoebe, who’s dangerously mixed up in events at the Silver Swan.

Laos’ chief (actually only) medical examiner Dr. Siri Paiboun investigates a case involving injection in Colin Cotterill’s  The Coroner’s Lunch. Dr. Siri and his team are assigned to work on the politically-charged case of three Vietnamese men whose bodies are found in the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Kharmuon. There is a possibility that the men were spies, as there is no love lost between Vietnam and Laos. There are also signs of torture on the bodies. So the Vietnamese government is very interested in knowing what happened to its citizens and in knowing whether the Laotian government had anything to do with their deaths. Dr. Siri and his team are told to work as quickly and discreetly as they can so the press in both countries doesn’t fan the proverbial flames. Siri works with a Vietnamese counterpart Dr. Nguyen Hong on the murders and they find out something startling. Two of the men died not from torture or even from drowning, but from embolisms – injections of air. This suggests something more deliberate than simply the fate of captured Vietnamese spies and so it turns out to be.

Of course, injections can cause plenty of trouble even if they aren’t given directly to people. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. Chapman is a baker who lives and works in a Roman-style Melbourne building called Insula. As we learn in Heavenly Pleasures, her nearby neighbours Juliette and Vivienne Lefebvre own a chocolate shop called Heavenly Pleasures and sometimes use her as a taster for new creations. As Chapman puts it, Juliette


‘…really cares about chocolate in the same way that I care about bread.’


That’s one reason Chapman is so upset when some of the confections are sabotaged. Someone has injected chili into the chocolates, and although the Lefebvre sisters are quick to make things right, that doesn’t stop some questions being asked. There are other incidents of sabotage too and before long the Lefebvre sisters face having to close up shop until they find out what has happened to their chocolate. Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen look into the question of who is trying to ruin Heavenly Pleasures while they are also investigating a suspicious new resident in Chapman’s building as well as a bomb threat.

See what I mean? Injections can be as dangerous as they can be helpful. And you’ll notice I haven’t even mentioned the many medical thrillers and hospital-based crime stories where injections play a role. Too easy. Now, if you’ll step over here, let me give you something guaranteed to help prevent a reaction to insect bites …   ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, Benjamin Black, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Høeg

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Falls

FallingThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has gotten through the first five stops on our treacherous tour and now we’re heading to our sixth destination, the historic F Falls. Our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has been doing a fantastic job keeping us all together and safe; thanks, Kerrie. It’s rather opportune that we’re visiting the Falls today actually because, well, that’s my contribution for this stop: falls.

Falls from heights (buildings, cliffs, etc.) can be very dangerous. In fact they’re often fatal. In a mystery novel they’re extremely useful though. A fall can look like an accident or a suicide, so it’s relatively easy to ‘cover up’ the fact of murder. And given the right circumstances, nearly anyone can arrange for someone to have a tragic fall. A good hard push in the right place is all it takes. So it’s really no wonder we see this plot point so often in crime fiction.

One of the most famous falls in crime fiction occurs in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem. Sherlock Holmes is about to get hold of the evidence he needs to put his nemesis Professor Moriarty and Moriarty’s criminal gang into jail for a long time. But Moriarty finds out and Holmes and Watson are forced to flee England. They end up in Switzerland where Morarity manages to track Holmes to the Reichenbach Falls. In a dramatic scene, the two enemies grapple and both go over the falls. Of course, as Holmes fans know, that’s hardly the end of the great detective’s story…

There’s a tragic fall in Agatha Christie’s short story The Edge. Clare Halliwell is one of the ‘pillars of the community’ of Daymer’s End. She’s a parish worker with a reputation for being a ‘very good sort.’ Clare and Gerald Lee have been friends for a long time, and in fact, Clare thinks their relationship is more than friendly. But then Gerald shocks her by marrying Viven Harper. Viven isn’t much liked in the village but at first Clare tries to get along with her. It’s not a successful attempt though and as time goes by, Clare dislikes Vivien more and more. Then she accidentally discovers that Vivien has been having an affair. Now Clare is faced with a decision: should she tell Gerald what she knows? Vivien begs her not to, and Clare soon finds that she rather enjoys having Vivien in her power so to speak. The tension between the two women mounts, and it results in a tragic fall from a cliff. An interesting question this story raises is: what really caused the fall?

In Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (AKA The Mystery at Lover’s Cave), writer and newspaper correspondent Roger Sheringham is preparing for a holiday with his cousin Anthony Walton when business changes his plans. Sheringham’s employer The Daily Courier wants him to go to Ludmouth Bay in Hampshire to report on the investigation into the death of Elise Vane, whose body has been found at the bottom of a cliff. There are now clues that her death was neither an accident nor suicide, so Sheringham is assigned to follow the story. That’s how he meets Inspector Moresby, who’s staying at the same inn and who is in charge of the investigation. Bit by bit, and each in a different way, the two men get to know the various people in the victim’s life, and they find that more than one of those people may have had a good motive for murder. Elise Vane was an unpleasant person with a large fortune to leave. In the end, Sheringham and Moresby find out who wanted the victim dead badly enough to actually murder her.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow) begins with the funeral of Isaiah Christiansen, a ten-year-old Greenlander who fell from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lived. His death has been ruled an accident and most people are quite satisfied with that. But Smilla Jaspersen, who also lives in the building and has befriended Isaiah, is not. As a half-Inuit who grew up in Greenland, she has a strong sense of snow, and she can see by the snow on the roof that someone else was involved in Isaiah’s death. So she begins to ask questions. The trail leads to an expedition that Isaiah made to Greenland with his father and the events that happened there, so Jaspersen travels to Greenland to search for answers. That’s where she finds the connection between a little-known piece of scientific research, the glaciers of Greenland, and the boy’s death.

In Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss, wealthy and powerful Swedish financier Richard von Knecht dies after a fall from the balcony of his posh penthouse. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team are called to the scene for what is supposed to be a ‘rubber stamp’ determination that von Knecht committed suicide. However there are two problems with this theory. First, as the team learns, von Knecht was not the kind of person who would have done such a drastic thing. And there had been no signs that he was unhappy enough to take his own life – and certainly not in this manner, as he was very much afraid of heights. What’s more, the forensic evidence suggests that someone else might have been present on the balcony and could have pushed von Knecht over the edge of it. As the team gets to know von Knecht’s widow, son, daughter-in-law and friends/business associates, we learn that there are several people who might very well have wanted von Knecht dead.

Maryanne Delbeck learns how dangerous falling from heights can be in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. She came to Thailand from Australia to volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya. One night she is pushed, or jumps, or falls to her death from the roof of the hotel where she’s living.  The official police report is that Maryanne committed suicide but her father Jim doesn’t believe it. So he hires Bangkok PI Jayne Keeney to find out the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney travels to Pattaya and goes undercover at the children’s centre to find out everything she can about Maryanne’s life and work. She discovers that the centre has its own secrets and that Maryanne may have known about them. What’s more, she learns that Maryanne’s life was more complicated than it seems on the surface. In the end Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel find out what really happened to Maryanne Delbeck.


See what I mean? Falls from high places aren’t always very easy to prove as murder, even if they are. And sometimes what looks like murder ends up having been an accident. Or suicide. No wonder there are so many of these unfortunate run-ins with high places in crime fiction. Now, what do you say we take a nice walk to the top of that lovely cliff to see the falls? It’s a beautiful view… ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Berkeley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Helene Tursten, Peter Høeg

I’d Rather be Anything but Ordinary Please*

Outside the BoxOne of the things that can make a fictional sleuth or protagonist interesting and memorable is an unusual way of thinking. I’m not talking here about simple creativity of thinking although of course that can be an appealing trait. I’m really talking about a mindset that sees the world in a different way. Like anything else in a crime fiction novel, an unusual way of thinking can be overdone and so pull the reader out of the story. When that happens the sleuth is less believable. But when it’s done well, having a sleuth or other protagonist who looks at the world in a very unusual way can add richness to a story and can make for a very memorable character.

For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Queensland police inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is half Aborigine/half White. His way of looking at the world and his cases is unusual in part because of his cultural background. On the one hand, Bony is well aware of the European way of looking at life. He is a police detective, so he knows police procedure and he understands that way of thinking. At the same time, he is well versed in ‘the book of the bush.’ He thinks in terms of what the signs of the bush and nature tell him, and often gets very useful information from what he sees in nature when he investigates.  For instance, in The Bone is Pointed, Bony investigates the five-month old disappearance of Jeff Anderson, who was working Karwir Station, a ranch near Green Swamp Well, when he disappeared. One morning, Anderson went out to ride the fences on the ranch; only his horse returned. At first, everyone thought the horse (who was known for being difficult) threw him, but there is no sign of his body. No-one misses Anderson very much as he’s both sadistic and mean-tempered. But Sergeant Blake, who investigated the disappearance, now believes that Anderson either was murdered or deliberately went into hiding. Bony is assigned to investigate the man’s disappearance and begins to look into the case. He uses a very unusual but effective combination of his knowledge of the bush and the people who live there and his knowledge of police procedure and working with European-Australians to find out what really happened to Jeff Anderson.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla Jaspersen also has a very unusual way of thinking about the world. She is half-Inuit/half-White and was brought up on Greenland. So by the standards of most people in Copenhagen where she now lives, she doesn’t look at the world in the usual way. She is also a scientist who has learned to think about the world like a scientist does. And in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), she uses her unusual way of thinking to solve the mystery of the death of Isaiah Christiansen. Isaiah is a young boy, also a Greenlander by birth, who lives in the same building where Jaspersen does. When he dies after a fall from the snow-covered roof of the building, everyone puts it down to a tragic accident. But Jaspersen thinks otherwise. First, Isaiah was extremely at home in the snow and wouldn’t have made the kinds of mistakes that can end up in a tragic fall. What’s more, certain aspects of the snow and the marks in it suggest to Jespersen that the boy’s death was more than just a fall. So she begins to investigate. The answers lead Jaspersen back to Greenland and an excavation there where Isaiah’s father died. Throughout this novel, we see Jaspersen’s unusual way of thinking, at the same time both scientific and informed by her cultural background. She understands snow, ice and glaciers in a very traditional, culturally-contextual and deep way; she has a real feeling for them. At the same time she understands them from a scientific point of view and those two ways of thinking give her a very unusual perspective. They also point her in the right direction in solving this mystery.

We see a very unusual way of thinking in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. He’s high-enough functioning to communicate and to do quite a lot for himself. But he doesn’t think like ‘the rest of us’ do. When he discovers that his neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and find out who was responsible. The novel is written from Christopher’s point of view and that gives us a glimpse into how a person with his form and level of autism might see the world. It’s an interesting perspective and although Christopher is not skilled socially, we see that he is highly accurate at remembering details. His unique skills are part of what leads him to the answers he’s looking for – and to a truth about himself that he never knew.

There’s also the unique perspective of Dr. Jennifer White, whom we meet in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. White is a skilled Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in hand reconstruction. She has also been diagnosed with dementia. As the novel begins, White is still able to function fairly well although she has had to retire from active work. Her daughter Fiona and son Mark have arranged for her to have a live-in caregiver Magdalena. One night, White’s neighbour Amanda O’Toole is murdered and Detective Luton is assigned to the case. Forensic tests show that O’Toole was mutilated in a way that points to a murderer with highly developed medical skill, so Luton begins to wonder whether White might be guilty. But the evidence isn’t completely convincing, so Luton isn’t sure White is the murderer. White’s advancing dementia means she has progressively fewer lucid times and even if she did think the way ‘the rest of us do,’ Luton knows she wouldn’t be likely to admit to the murder if she is guilty. So Luton has to use all of her abilities to get to the truth about Amanda O’Toole’s murder. It turns out that the O’Toole and White families have a long history together and that this murder has everything to do with their pasts. Since this novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, we get to see the case unfold through the eyes of someone who thinks in a very unusual way.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost introduces us to ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who has a unique way of looking at the world. As the novel begins, Kate dreams of being a detective, and has already started her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. Her partner is Mickey the Monkey, a stuffed monkey who travels everywhere in Kate’s backpack. Kate’s favourite occupation is looking for suspicious characters and activity and there are few better places to do that than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center. Kate doesn’t have a lot of friends, and she doesn’t think the way other people do, but that doesn’t bother her. She’s perfectly content to live the way she’s living. But her grandmother Ivy, who is her caregiver, thinks Kate would be better served by going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate is finally persuaded to go when her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer agrees to go with her to the school. The two board the bus together but Kate never returns. No trace of her is found, and everyone blames Palmer for her disappearance. In fact, his life is made so difficult that he leaves town. Twenty years later his sister Lisa is the assistant manager at Your Music, a store in Green Oaks. Her job is to put it mildly uninspiring and she’s in a dead-end relationship. But life changes for her when she meets Kurt, a security guard at the mall. Kurt’s been seeing strange things on his security cameras: a vision of a young girl with backpack that has a monkey sticking out of it. Lisa is reminded of Kate, whom she met a few times, and each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt explore the past as we learn what really happened to Kate. Throughout this novel we see that Kate thinks in a way that’s unlike just about anyone else. That aspect of her personality makes her perhaps the most alive person in the novel, even twenty years after she’s disappeared.

More recently, Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker introduces us to Patrick Fort, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Fort’s father was struck by a car and killed when Fort was young and it’s partly for that reason that Fort is fascinated by what makes people die. He enrols at university in Cardiff to study anatomy mostly because of his fascination with the causes of death. Part of this novel is told from Fort’s perspective as he and his peers study a cadaver. Patrick notices some things about the cadaver that don’t tally with the official reports and that makes him curious about this death. Bit by bit we learn through Patrick’s very unusual way of looking at the world what happened to the dead man. Another thread of this story which is later tied in with Patrick’s experience is told from the perspective of Sam Galen, who’s in a coma in a neurological unit but hasn’t lost his ability to think. As he slowly re-unites with the world, we learn what happened to him and what life is like in that unit.  We get another perspective on the same unit from Tracy Evans, who is a nurse there. I confess I haven’t yet read this novel, but it was such a good example of a protagonist (in this case Patrick Fort) with a unique way of looking at the world that I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

Sarah Ward at Crimepieces has done a terrific review of Rubbernecker. Her review is what got me thinking about protagonists who don’t think like ‘the rest of the world’ so thanks, Sarah, for the inspiration. Folks, Sarah’s excellent blog is well worth a spot on your blog roll if you’re not already following it.

Characters with unique ways of thinking have to be drawn deftly or the story risks contrivance and melodrama, to say nothing of the risks to believability. But when such a character is done well, having an unusual way of looking at the world can add depth to a novel and set it apart from others.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s Anything but Ordinary.


Filed under Alice LaPlante, Arthur Upfield, Belinda Bauer, Catherine O'Flynn, Mark Haddon, Peter Høeg