Category Archives: Reginald Hill

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow

Suddenly I Don’t Remember the Rules Any More*

crime-fiction-rulesThrough the years, there’ve been several sets of rules for detective fiction, among them S.S. Van Dine’s 20 rules, and Ronald Knox’s 10 rules. In some ways, it can be very helpful for the crime writer to have some guidance for creating a well-written story. This might be especially true for the first-time crime writer.

That said, though, we could also ask whether these rules really are relevant, especially for today’s crime fiction. Is it possible to write an excellent crime novel without each of those rules being followed?

Here’s one example. Both Van Dine and Knox wrote that the solution to a mystery should not be supernatural or otherworldly. They claimed that, to be credible, a mystery has to have a prosaic solution. Most readers seem to agree with this. In fact, one of the major ‘pet peeves’ that I’ve read is when a book lacks credibility, especially if there’s some sort of ghostly or paranormal solution. Some authors (Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, to name just two) have played with this rule. They’ve included characters who believe in the supernatural, for instance, or written stories where the culprit makes the murder look as though it has a supernatural explanation. But there’s nothing otherworldly about the real solution.

Closely related to this, both Van Dine and Knox claim that fictional detectives should not solve crimes through accident, intuition, or other means (Van Dine included unmotivated confession) besides logical deduction. And that was Arthur Conan Doyle’s main argument in creating Sherlock Holmes. He wanted a detective who solved crimes through logical, scientific means, not intuition. Crime fiction fans want their stories credible. That includes the means by which the sleuth gets to the truth. Too much coincidence takes away from that credibility. Seemingly magic intuition does, too. In real life, detectives solve crimes by making sense of evidence and putting the pieces together logically. That doesn’t mean they can’t have creative ideas. Great detectives do. But I think most of us would agree what we don’t want crimes to be solved through a series of happy accidents.

Another rule that both Van Dine and Knox mention is that the detective should not also be the killer. This, to these writers, is not ‘playing fair’ with the reader. What’s interesting about this rule is that there’ve been several novels (I won’t mention them because of spoilers) where the protagonist is, indeed, the killer. And some of those novels have gone on to great success and acclaim. Does this mean this rule isn’t relevant? What do you think? Have you read excellent crime novels where a detective is also the killer?

One rule that really is relevant (at least from my perspective – yours may differ) is that in whodunits, all of the clues have to be there for the reader to find. That is to say, both Van Dine and Knox refer to the need to give the reader the same opportunity as the detective has to solve the murder. I’m sure you can think of at least one novel you’ve read where you thought, ‘Well of course I’d have known who the killer was if I’d known that!’ I think most of us would agree that we want the author of a crime novel to ‘play fair’ and show us all the clues. In fact, the ‘Queen Team’ included asides to the reader in some of the Ellery Queen novels, to the effect that all of the clues are now in the reader’s possession. In a well-written whodunit, the clues may not be glaringly obvious, but they are there for the reader to find.

Van Dine has an interesting rule to the effect that there must be no love interest in a crime novel. He saw a romance angle as ‘cluttering up’ the intellectual exercise of solving a crime. On the one hand, I think most crime fiction fans would agree that too much emphasis on a romance can be a distraction. And, of course, every reader is different with respect to how much romance is ‘too much.’ That said, though, I can think of several highly-regarded crime novels that do include romances. One, for instance, is Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Fans of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series will know that his romance with detective novelist Harriet Vane is a story arc that ends with their wedding just before Busman’s Honeymoon. Romances are woven into some of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels, too. And those are by no means the only examples. What do you folks think? Was Van Dine right that romance should not figure into crime novels?

One of the other rules that Van Dine (but not Knox) proposed was that there should only be one detective – one main character. This one arguably hasn’t held up. If you look at series such as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, or Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (to name only three), you see how successful fictional partnerships can be. And a quick look at Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series, is all you need to see how well ‘ensemble’ series can work.

What about some of Van Dine’s and Knox’s other rules? Knox for instance, claimed that there shouldn’t be twins involved, unless the reader has been prepared for that. Van Dine said that there absolutely must be a corpse:
 

‘Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder.’
 

He also said that all crimes must have a personal motive, among other things.

What do you think of these rules? If they don’t apply, should there be other rules? If you’re a writer, do you follow ‘rules’ as you write your crime fiction?

 
 
 

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

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Dorothy Sayers, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Reginald Hill, Ronald Knox, S.S. Van Dine, Tony Hillerman

The Other Side of You*

multipleseriesMany crime fiction authors write more than one series. There are a lot of reasons for doing that, too. For instance, the author may want to ‘start fresh’ if a series has gone on for a while. Or, the author may want to experiment and try something new. Sometimes, if an author’s first series has done well, a publisher may request that the author start another series. Whatever the reason, the choice to have more than one series raises a question: how to generate interest in what may be a lesser-known series.

In some cases, both (or, at times, all three) of an author’s series are well-known. For instance, one of Elly Griffith’s series features Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist who teaches at North Norfolk University. Her expertise is frequently tapped by the police, mostly in the form of Harry Nelson. Griffiths fans will know that she also has another series, the Max Mephisto novels. These novels are set in the 1950’s, and feature Mephisto, who is a magician by profession. Both series are highly regarded. In this case, you might argue that Griffiths’ success with the Ruth Galloway series meant that there was an audience likely to be interested in the Max Mephisto series.

Robert B. Parker first gained a reputation with his Spenser novels, which he wrote between the mid-1970s and 2013. In fact, he may be best known for those novels. But he also wrote other series. Beginning in the late 1990s, he wrote a series featuring Police Chief Jesse Stone, and another featuring PI Sunny Randall. He even took the risk of having Stone and Randall join forces, both personally and professionally. Those series may be less well-known than the Spenser novels, but they are well-regarded.

Beginning in 1970, Reginald Hill became best-known for his series featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later DI) Peter Pascoe. As fans can tell you, the series ran for decades, and was successfully adapted for television. Starting in 1993, Hill created another protagonist, small-time PI Joe Sixsmith. He’s quite a different character to Dalziel (and to Pascoe). He’s an unassuming former lathe operator who also sings in a choir. Among other differences, this series isn’t as gritty as the Dalziel/Pascoe series can be. It’s also likely not as well known. But it’s certainly got fans.

That’s also the case for Kerry Greenwood. Her Phryne Fisher series takes place in Melbourne in the late 1920s, and features socialite Phryne Fisher, who becomes a ‘lady detective.’ Phryne is wealthy, elegant, and has access to the highest social circles. She’s quite independent and free-thinking, too. Greenwood’s other series, which began in 2004, is a contemporary series, also based in Melbourne, that features accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. Like Phryne, Corinna is independent and intelligent. But this is a very different series. Chapman is very much ‘the rest of us’ in appearance and income. Like most people, she has bills to pay, and doesn’t live in a sumptuous mansion. Both series feature regular casts of characters, and tend to be less violent and gritty than dark, noir novels are.

If you’ve read any of James Lee Burke’s work, my guess is that you probably read from his Dave Robicheaux series. That series features New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Robicheaux, and is one of the best-regarded series in American crime fiction. It’s a long-running series, and has gotten all sorts of acclaim. But it’s not Burke’s only series. He’s also written a series that feature the different members of the Holland family. This series is written as a set of standalone books that feature the different members of the Holland family. For instance, there’s Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland and his cousin Billy Bob Holland (who is a former Texas Ranger and now an attorney). Their grandfather was another lawman, also named Hackberry Holland. There’s also Weldon Avery Holland. He is another of the original Hackberry Holland’s grandsons. Several of the Holland family novels are historical, and are almost as much saga as they are crime novels. In fact, some question whether some of them are crime novels. In that sense, they’re quite different to the Robicheaux stories.

Fans of Ann Cleeves’ work can tell you that she’s done the Jimmy Perez Shetland novels, as well as the Vera Stanhope novels. These series are set in different parts of the UK, and feature different protagonists with different backstories. Both are very well regarded, and both have been adapted for television. But, before either of those series was published, Cleeves wrote another series featuring Inspector Ramsay of the Northumberland Police. She also wrote a series, beginning in the late 1980s, featuring retired Home Office investigator George Palmer-Jones and his wife, Molly.

And then there’s Vicki Delany, who writes the Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith series, a contemporary police procedural series set mostly in British Columbia. She’s also written historical crime fiction featuring saloon and dance hall owner Fiona MacGillivray. That series takes place at the end of the 19th Century, in Dawson, Yukon Territory. Delany has also just started a new series. This one takes place in Rudolph, NY, and is a lighter series featuring shop owner Merry Wilkinson.

There are, of course, other authors, such as Elizabeth Spann Craig, who write multiple series. Sometimes, those series are equally well-known. Other times, one series is much better known than the other.

Now, here’s the question. If you’ve really enjoyed an author’s work in one series, does that prompt you to go back and look for another series by that author? Does it depend on whether the two series are concurrent? Or on whether they’re similar (e.g. both cosy series)? I’d really like your opinion on this. Please vote, if you wish, in the poll below. I’ll let it run for a week, and then we’ll talk about it again.
 

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a title of the song by the Mighty Lemon Drops.

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Filed under Ann Cleeves, Elizabeth Spann Craig, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, Reginald Hill, Robert B. Parker, Vicki Delany

Boy, You’ll Be My Foil*

foilsOne interesting way to show what a character is like is by using a foil. Fictional foils contrast with other characters, so their personalities are more sharply defined. As with anything in crime fiction, foils have to be handled carefully. Otherwise, they can become too cartoonish. But when they’re well-crafted characters in their own right, foils can bring out other characters, and can add a layer of interest to a story. There are plenty of examples of foils in crime fiction; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), we are introduced to the Lee family. Family patriarch Simeon Lee decides that he wants his relatives to gather at the family home, Gorston Hall, for Christmas. No-one in the family wants to make the trip; Lee is a malicious, unpleasant old man who takes pleasure in others’ discomfort. But no-one dares to refuse the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby, and works with the police to find out who the killer is. In this novel, there’s an interesting contrast between two of Simeon Lee’s sons: Alfred and Harry. Alfred’s always been ‘the good son,’ who went into the family business (which he never wanted to do), and who has stayed at the family home to help care for his father. Harry is the wild adventurer, who’s been all over the world, and in trouble more than once. Where Alfred is more reserved and cautious, Harry is extroverted, and he can be witty. Their father knows all too well that Alfred and Harry’s differences will likely lead to conflict; that’s a big part of the reason he invited Harry. And it’s interesting to see how these two serve as foils for each other. You’re absolutely right, fans of Five Little Pigs. There’s an interesting contrast between brothers there, too.

Fans of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series will know that there are plenty of foils there. To take the most obvious example, we can look at the characters of Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later, Inspector) Peter Pascoe. Where Pascoe is educated, intellectual, and in some ways, highbrow, his boss is the opposite. Dalziel is a brilliant detective, but he doesn’t have a university background or gentrified tastes. They have other differences, too, and Hill used those differences to make them foils for each other. What’s interesting is that Pascoe’s wife, Ellie, also serves as a foil. In her political and social views, she often differs with Dalziel. She resents what she sees as his way of commandeering her husband, too. Part of what makes these characters work as foils is that all of them are well-developed and ‘fleshed out.’ They see one another’s positive traits, too, so their interactions are rich and complex.

Geraldine Evans’ DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn are also police partners who serve as foils for each other. Rafferty has Irish, working-class roots. He’s outgoing, and sometimes tends to jump to conclusions (although he usually isn’t overly rash).  Rafferty sometimes gets drawn into his family’s drama, too. On the other hand, Llewellyn is more intellectual and long-headed, as the saying goes. He’s quiet, and his personal life isn’t complicated in the way that his boss’ is. They’re both smart detectives, and bring complementary strengths to their investigation. And that’s arguably why they make successful foils for each other. They highlight one another’s personalities, and respect each other despite their differences.

And, of course, I don’t think it would be possible to discuss foils in crime fiction without mentioning Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. As fans know, they are, in many ways, a study in contrasts. Wolfe has a rigid routine and a taste for luxury, and can be both arrogant and temperamental. But he is a brilliant detective, and he has a compassionate side in his way. By contrast, Goodwin is energetic, pragmatic and down-to-earth. He does quite a lot of the ‘legwork’ for his boss, and is an accomplished detective in his own right. He sometimes gets himself into trouble by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or by wisecracking when that isn’t the safest choice to make. But he is at heart a person of integrity. Wolfe and Goodwin often spar. But they do respect each other, and their skills are complementary. Again, that’s part of what makes them good foils for each other.

If you think about it, foils really don’t have to be characters. Other sorts of contrasts can work, too. For instance, in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, we are introduced to Mary Yellan. As the story begins, she’s on her way from her home village of Helford to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at their establishment, Jamaica Inn. Mary’s mother has recently died, and Mary’s fulfilling a last promise to her by going to her relatives. Du Maurier presents Helford as a start contrast – a foil – for Jamaica Inn:

‘How remote now and perhaps hidden for ever were the shining waters of Helford, the green hills and the sloping valleys, the white cluster of cottages at the water’s edge. It was a gentle rain that fell at Helford…

This was a lashing, pitiless rain that stung the coach, and it soaked into a hard and barren ground.’  
 

The contrast between the two places becomes even more pronounced when Mary arrives at Jamaica Inn. It’s eerie, dilapidated, and lonely. It’s out by itself on the moor, and certainly not the welcoming, friendly place that Helford is. And the differences add to the sense of place in the novel, and the sense of foreboding. And if you’ve read the novel, you know just how dangerous and creepy Jamaica Inn turns out to be.

That’s really one of the most important purposes of foils. They serve to highlight aspects of a place or a character, because they provide contrasts with other characters and places. And that can be an effective to show what a character or a place is like without a lot of verbiage. Which fictional foils have you liked best?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of Jim Hutton (L) and John Hillerman (R), who had the roles, respectively, of Ellery Queen and private investigator/radio host Simon Brimmer in the 1975-76 series. Brimmer sees Queen as a rival, and often serves as his foil in this series, and Hillerman played the role quite well, I think.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Driving With Andy’s Sugar, Sugar.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Geraldine Evans, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout

‘Cause I Speak My Mind Sometimes*

bluntnessI’ll bet that, when you were a child, you were taught to be tactful. And most people do try not to be too blunt when they speak. Things just seem to go more smoothly when we temper what we say. And yet, sometimes people say things in a very forthright way. In a sense, it’s refreshing; you know where you are with such folks. At the same time, though, too much bluntness can make for awkwardness or worse. My guess is, you’ve had that experience in real life. And it’s certainly there in crime fiction.

The interesting thing about blunt statements is that they can reveal a lot about a character without the author having to go into too much detail. And bluntness can give clues to a story, too.

Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) introduces us to the Abernethie family. Patriarch Richard Abernethie has just died of what seems like natural causes, and his relatives have gathered for his funeral. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle also intends to use the occasion to share the terms of Abernethie’s will. During the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up; she herself tells the family not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, everyone thinks she may be right. And when she is murdered the next day, it seems clear that what she said is true. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. One thing that’s interesting about Cora’s character is that she’s always been prone to what Entwhistle calls, ‘awkward statements.’ It makes for an interesting layer to that character. I completely agree, fans of The ABC Murders.

Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers can also be quite blunt. In The Penguin Pool Murder, in which she makes her debut, Miss Withers is escorting her fourth-grade class on a trip to the New York Aquarium. They’re at the penguin pool exhibit, getting ready to leave, when they see a man’s body slide into the pool. He’s been murdered, so homicide detective Oscar Piper is called in to investigate. In the course of his work, he interviews Miss Withers. She tells him that she’s a teacher, and how she came to be at the aquarium. Later, he says:
 

‘‘Occupation?’
‘At present, answering foolish questions. Young man, I told you I was a teacher.’’
 
Interestingly, Piper isn’t permanently put off by Miss Withers’ bluntness, as fans of this series will know…

Any fan of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel will tell you that he is not exactly known for his tact or verbal restraint. It’s very much part of his character to be blunt. For instance, in Good Morning, Midnight, he and Peter Pascoe investigate the supposed suicide of Pal Maciver. What’s odd about this death is that it eerily mirrors the death of his father, ten years earlier. When he arrives at the scene, Dalziel finds a bit of chaos. Among other things, one of the people in the house at the time of the death has tried to leave, and gotten into an altercation with PC Bonnick, who’s trying to keep everything secured. Dalziel tries to get some answers from this man:
 

‘‘Look, I’m sorry – I was out of…but I was worried – we’d heard that…and he didn’t show, so I thought that…that…that…’
‘What’s your problem, lad,’ enquired Dalziel. ‘Apart from not being able to finish sentences?’’
 

Later, Dalziel finds out that the man is a PE teacher. Here’s his response:
 

‘‘PE, eh? That explains about the sentences. Pity but.’’
 

Anyone familiar with Dalziel will know that this is quite typical of his way of speaking.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, and that impacts his interactions with others. He’s not skilled at understanding social cues, so he says exactly what’s on his mind. One day, Christopher comes upon the dog that belongs to the people next door. The animal’s been killed, and he’s curious as to how it happened. The dog’s owners think Christopher might be responsible, but he knows he’s innocent. So he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. In the course of his search for answers, Christopher finds out some important truths about himself. And as he interacts with others, we see that he is at times very blunt indeed. It’s not to be unkind; he simply doesn’t understand the social skill of choosing one’s words and one’s approach.

And then there’s Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer, a former school principal whom we meet in The Precipice. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that she had bought a piece of property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, and had a home built there. But bad luck and poor financial decisions meant that she wasn’t able to move in. Instead, she’s had to sell the house and settle for the house next door, a home she calls ‘the hovel.’ When Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy Thea’s dream home (which she still considers hers), matters get even worse. Then, Frank’s niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to have as much contempt for Kim as she does for Frank and Ellice. But after a bit, she forms an awkward friendship with the girl, and sees real promise in her. That’s why she’s especially concerned when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When the police won’t take any action, Thea makes plans of her own. Throughout the novel, Thea is blunt – sometimes very unkind – in the journal she keeps. She’s not quite as blunt in her interactions, but she certainly has her say.

And that’s the thing about bluntness. Forthright people certainly put things in perspective. Case in point: a conversation I had with my granddaughter:

Miss Five: What kind of books do you write?
Me: I write mystery books.
Miss Five: Can I read them?
Me: Well, they’re for grownups. They aren’t really for kids.
Miss Five: Oh, so they’re boring?

There is nothing like a conversation with a five-year-old to put everything in perspective. Just in case I ever get full of myself… 😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rubens’ Lay it Down.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Mark Haddon, Reginald Hill, Stuart Palmer, Virginia Duigan