Category Archives: Rex Stout

The Phantom of the Opera is There*

operasDo you enjoy the opera? Operas run the gamut from light and comic to very dark and tragic. And there are all sorts of forms of opera. When you think about it, there can be at least as much drama behind the scenes of an opera as there is on stage. So, it’s no wonder that opera features in crime fiction. It’s said, for instance, that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler (she features in A Scandal in Bohemia) is a former opera singer. And there are lots of other examples, too.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Swan Song, we are introduced to renowned opera singer Paula Nazarkoff. She’s much in demand, but makes time to accept an invitation from wealthy Lady Rustonbury to take the lead in an opera production to be staged at her country home. The diva sets one condition, to which Lady Rustonbury agrees, and plans are made. On the night of the production, famous baritone Roscari, who was to take the male lead, is taken ill. Fortunately, Edouard Bréton lives nearby, and is persuaded to take Roscari’s place. The production goes ahead, and the audience is transfixed. At the pivotal point, though, Bréton is murdered. The truth about this murder lies in the victim’s past. You’re absolutely right, fans of Lord Edgware Dies.

In Rex Stout’s novells, The Gun With Wings, Nero Wolfe gets a visit from Margaret ‘Peg’ Mion and Fred Weppler. They explain to Wolfe that they’re in love and want to marry, but they can’t. That’s because there’s still suspicion surrounding the death of Peg’s former husband, famous opera singer Alberto Mion. The official account is that he committed suicide, and on the surface, it looks that way. He was found in his soundproof studio, with a fatal gunshot wound, and the gun lying next to his body. But Peg insists that he would never have killed himself. She tells Wolfe that she and her lover can’t really feel comfortable marrying until they know the truth. Wolfe takes the case and soon learns that there are other suspects. For instance, baritone singer Gifford James had a grudge against the victim – had even injured him in a quarrel. And there’s Clara, James’ daughter, whom Mion had seduced. There are other possibilities, too. There’s also, of course, the chance that one or both of Wolfe’s clients murdered the victim. It’s a sort of ‘impossible, but not really’ mystery, but Wolfe gets the answers.

Gladys Mitchell’s Death at the Opera (AKA Death at the Wet) finds her sleuth, Mrs. Bradley, investigating a murder at the Hillmaston School. Maths mistress Calma Ferris is shy and quiet, but has still managed to upset several people at the school. For example, she’s alienated the games mistress, the art master, and the English mistress, among other problems. On the other hand, she’s offered to underwrite the school’s upcoming production of The Mikado. And, in fact, she is selected to take the role of Katisha. She doesn’t turn up for the performance, and is later found backstage, drowned in a sink full of water. The school’s Headmaster asks Mrs. Bradley to look into the matter, and she agrees. As any fan of Gladys Mitchell can imagine, this is far from a straightforward case…

Ngaio Marsh’s Photo Finish features renowned coloratura soprano Isabella Sommita. She’s being stalked by a photographer named ‘Strix’ who’s been taking unflattering ‘photos of her and selling them to newspapers. In order to escape this, Isabella accepts an invitation from her lover, Sir Montague Reece, to stay at Waihoe Lodge, his home in southern New Zealand. Also invited are Sir Roderick Alleyn and his wife, Agatha Troy, who’s been commissioned to paint a portrait of the singer. Isabella appears in an opera written especially for her, and, shortly afterwards, is found stabbed. Alleyn investigates, and finds that there are several possibilities. For one thing, ‘Strix’ has made his way to the lodge. Then there’s the victim’s new lover, who wrote the opera. And there’s Reece. In the end, Alleyn finds out the truth, and it’s not what one might have expected.

In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Opera, Georgetown School of Law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith, and his wife, Annabel Reed-Smith, get involved in an upcoming production of Puccini’s Tosca. The opera will be staged at the Kennedy Center’s Washington National Opera, and Smith is to serve as an ‘extra’ (his wife is on the National Opera Board). Taking part in this production will be a very promising Toronto soprano, Charise Lee. One day, she doesn’t show up for rehearsal, and a search is made. She’s found stabbed in the chest, and the Board asks Smith to help look into the case. He works with former cop-turned-PI Raymond Pawkins to find out who killed Lee and why.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first of her series featuring Venice police detective Commissario Guido Brunetti. In that novel, world-renowned conductor Helmut Wellauer is poisoned backstage with cyanide during a performance of La Traviata at the Teatro La Fenice. Brunetti is called to the scene, and begins investigating. He soon finds more than one motive for murder. For one thing, Wellaeur was well known (and disliked) for his homophobia. It’s also said that he had Nazi sympathies. And then there are the personal reasons that several people might have for murder. It’s not an easy case. Fans of this series will know, too, that Flavia Petrelli, whom we meet in this novel, makes a return in Falling in Love, in which she comes to Venice to take the lead role in Tosca. Unfortunately, she’s acquired a determined stalker. When her friend, Federico ‘Freddy’ D’Istria is attacked, Brunetti learns that this stalker is extremely dangerous; he’ll have to work quickly to find out who he is.

See what I mean? Opera can be exciting, even magnificent. But safe? I’m not so sure of that…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe’s The Phantom of the Opera. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gladys Mitchell, Margaret Truman, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

Renaissance Man*

renaissance-peopleThey’re sometimes called ‘Renaissance people,’ or polymaths. They’re experts in several, sometimes very different sorts of fields, and that can make them fascinating. In real life, people such as Winston Churchill and Benjamin Franklin have been called ‘Renaissance people.’ I’m sure you could think of others, too.

There are, arguably, also such people in crime fiction. The trick in creating them, of course, is to balance that variety of expertise areas with credibility. No-one can really do it all, or really knows it all. So, it can be a challenge to create such characters and make them appealing.
 

One such character is arguably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Not only is he an expert in chemistry, but he’s also well-skilled in other areas, too. Here, for instance, is a bit of Dr. Watson’s summation (from A Study in Scarlet):
 

‘7. Chemistry. — Profound. 8. Anatomy. — Accurate, but unsystematic. 9. Sensational Literature. — Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century. 10. Plays the violin well. 11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman. 12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.’
 

That’s a wide variety of skills, and fans of these stories will know that Holmes uses those skills at different times. What’s interesting, though, is that there are some areas in which he has very little knowledge. He knows nothing of literature or philosophy, and little of politics. In fact, Holmes himself says that he devotes his attention only to knowledge that’ll help him in his profession. It’s an interesting mix of skills and lack of knowledge.

Fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey can tell you that he has a wide and quite varied set of skills. Along with his ability to deduct and solve mysteries, he’s got many rare books, and is somewhat of an expert in that field. He also knows his way around wine. And that’s not to mention his skills as a change ringer (right, fans of The Nine Tailors?). Those who’ve read Murder Must Advertise can also vouch for his skills on the cricket field. In fact, some readers have found Wimsey tiresome, in part because he’s good at so very much. Whether you’re in that group or not, there’s no doubt that Wimsey has a lot of expertise in different areas.

So does Rex Stout’s Nero Wole.  He is, as fans know, a brilliant detective. His skills at deduction are impressive. But any fan of Wolfe knows that he is also thoroughly knowledgeable about orchids of all kinds. He can discuss the most minute detail of orchid raising with the best-informed experts. And, although, orchids are his particular passion, he also knows other things about gardening. And I couldn’t discuss Nero Wolfe without mentioning his thorough knowledge of gourmet food. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on food, and several of the Wolfe mysteries feature his adventures among the gourmet greats (e.g. Too Many Cooks). What’s interesting about Wolfe, though, is that there are also things he’s not mastered quite so well. As Archie Goodwin is happy to point out, Wolfe has his limitations. He may be a ‘Renaissance person,’ but that certainly doesn’t make him perfect.

You could also argue that Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a “Renaissance person.’ She is a forensic accountant who, as the series begins, works for a Hong-Kong based company run by Chow Tung, whom she calls ‘Uncle.’ The company works on behalf of people who’ve been bilked out of money (sometimes a great deal of it), and are desperate to get that money back. Lee’s job is to track the missing money down. And that means she has to be able to follow a financial trail. So, as you can imagine, she’s an expert in accountancy. Lee is also (again, not surprisingly) an expert on computers and cyber-activity. Along with that, Lee is an expert in martial arts. That’s probably not a bad thing, considering the danger she often encounters in the course of her work. Whether she’s too ‘over the top’ will likely depend on the reader’s point of view and taste. But she’s certainly skilled in a lot of areas.

And then there’s Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s Reema Ray. She’s a PI who, as the series starts, has her own business in Calcutta/Kolkata. She’s studied several aspects of criminology; in fact, she almost became a police officer. But she has other skill sets, too.  Her small business isn’t immediately successful, so she has to also consider other ways of making ends meet. She is, therefore, a journalist – a writer for a lifestyle magazine called Face. Another area in which Reema has some expertise is in gourmet food. She’s not only an enthusiastic cook (mostly baking) herself, but she also is quite familiar with different sorts of cooking styles, spices and so on. Part of that expertise comes from her own interest; part comes from what she learns through her lifestyle writing and reporting. This doesn’t mean she’s all-knowing or perfect, though. She has her share of weaknesses and vulnerabilities as we all do.

And that’s the challenge with ‘Renaissance’ characters. It can be tricky for an author to endow them with several areas of expertise, and still keep them credible. No-one’s perfect, and that includes people who have a wide variety of skills. And when characters are too expert to be credible, this can quickly get tiresome. Still, a ‘Renaissance’ character can be interesting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Midnight Oil.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ian Hamilton, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Rex Stout

When Sleuths Take Flight ;-)

when-sleuths-take-flightAs this is posted, it’s 113 years since Wilbur and Orville Wright conducted the first sustained flight of a motor aircraft. Since that time, flight has changed dramatically. Of course, modern air travel has lots of inconveniences, and I’m sure all of you have your own airline ‘horror stories.’ I know I do.

It’s all got me to thinking. At this time of year, many people travel by air, whether it’s to visit friends and family, or to get away for a holiday. Fictional sleuths are no different, if you think about it. So, what would it be like if some of our most famous fictional sleuths took to the air on a modern flight? If you’ll ask your disbelief to go get some snacks and an airport book for the trip, let’s talk about…

 

When Sleuths Take Flight

 

I. Miss Marple (Agatha Christie)

 

Miss Marple approaches the security checkpoint. She is carrying a handbag and a tote bag that contains her knitting and a book.

First Security Officer: Boarding pass and ID, please.
Miss Marple (After fumbling for a moment in her purse for her boarding pass): Here you are.

The security officer glances at the documents and then briefly at Miss Marple. Then, the officer nods and waves a hand towards the conveyer belts. Miss Marple approaches the belt and places her things on the belt as she walks through the metal detector.

Second Security Officer (Holding up Miss Marple’s tote bag): Whose is this bag?
Miss Marple; Why, that’s mine. She steps over to retrieve it, but the security officer holds up a hand to stop her.
Second Security Officer: I’m afraid you can’t take this on board, Madam.
Miss Marple: Whyever not?
Second Security Officer: It’s the knitting needles, Madam. They’re forbidden on the aircraft. You may check them if you wish.
Miss Marple: But then I shall have to go down two floors, through the security checkpoint again, and then quite probably miss my flight.
Second Security Officer: I’m sorry, Madam, but that’s the rule. No knitting needles on board.
Miss Marple (Leaning closer and looking somewhat sorrowful): You know, it would be a real shame, wouldn’t it, if I couldn’t finish this jumper that I’m knitting. It’s a Christmas present, you see. And (drops her voice even lower as her eyes become much shrewder), you wouldn’t want me to mention to your superiors that I saw that open flask in your pocket, would you? She smiles and reaches out for the tote. The security officer hands it back to her wordlessly. She straightens up and, with great dignity, goes on towards the gate. 

 

II.Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

 

Holmes and Dr. Watson are seated on a plane. Watson glances around; Holmes is reading a scholarly paper on bloodstain analysis.

Watson:  Quite a nice pair of seats we have, Holmes, wouldn’t you say?
Holmes (Without looking up): I daresay they are comfortable, but the airline has certainly seen better financial days. These seat covers have been repaired at least three times, rather than being replaced. And you’ll note that the overhead compartments are made of a plastic that was last manufactured eight years ago. A solvent airline would replace them with a more modern plastic.
Watson (Now looking out of the window): Holmes! Look here! You can see the entire region!
Holmes: (Glances past Watson’s shoulder at the view from the window). Yes, we are approximately five miles from Ramsgate, heading south. You will observe the way the traces of the Wealdon Dome become quite obvious at this point. He turns back to his paper. Watson snaps down the window shade and, shaking his head, picks up his book.

 

III. Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout)

 

Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are sitting in the First Class cabin. Wolfe looks around peevishly, and shifts in his seat.

Wolfe: Confound it, Archie! I cannot possibly be expected to be comfortable in this seat! It was obviously designed for a malnourished ten-year-old street urchin!
Goodwin (Looking pointedly at Wolfe’s bulk): I’m not having any problems. Besides, I figured you were gonna gripe about it, so I got you two seats.
Wolfe: Two!? Preposterous! You see, Archie? This is why I object so strenuously to any kind of travel. There is simply no room to sit. And what will happen when this infernal contraption begins to move?
Goodwin (Shrugs): Best way to get where we’re going. The client lives in Miami. And he’s rolling in it. We want the dough, we go there. Besides, you haven’t wanted to throw a Christmas party in a few years. Might’s well go where it’s warmer.
Wolfe: Hmmph. He tries again to settle into his seat. For a few moments, there’s silence. Archie stretches his legs, slips his fedora over his eyes, and tries to sleep. Meanwhile, Wolfe is looking at the menu card. Then he mutters, grudgingly.  Well, at least there’s to be a real meal. Medallions of lamb, baby potatoes, yes, it might be all right. Archie pretends not to hear his boss, but smiles a little.

An hour later….

Archie straightens up and pushes back his fedora. He and Wolfe are getting ready to eat. A flight attendant brings them utensils. Wolfe looks askance at his.

Wolfe: Archie, this isn’t genuine silver.
Goodwin: So? It does the job. Better than what you get at a greasy spoon. He looks up as the attendant returns, this time with covered food dishes. The attendant places some dishes in front of each man and invites them to enjoy their meals. Wolfe suspiciously lifts the lid off his dish.
Wolfe: I don’t like the smell of this, Archie. Not at all. It certainly doesn’t smell like proper medallions of lamb.
Goodwin (already starting to eat his own meal): It’s OK. Give it a try.
Wolfe raises an eyebrow, but slowly picks up his fork and takes a cautious bite. Immediately he winces and drops the fork. He then lets out a stream of incoherent Serbo-Croatian invective. The flight attendant rushes up.

Flight attendant: Is something wrong, sir?
Goodwin: Nah, I think he just bit his tongue a little. He starts to grin as he turns his attention back to his meal.

 

IV. Kurt Wallander (Henning Mankell)
 

Wallander is sitting morosely in his Economy Class seat. He is on the aisle. The passenger to his left is wearing a red cap decorated with a pom-pom and sparkles. She turns to Wallander.

Passenger: Don’t you just adore Christmas? I do!! It’s so lovely with all of the lights, and the presents, and the good will!

Wallander nods in an attempt to be polite, and opens a report he has on his lap. Just then, there is an announcement requesting all passengers to pay attention to the safety video. Wallander sighs, puts down his report and looks up at the monitor in front of him. The characters on this particular safety video are all elves, and the whole theme is Christmas joy. When the video finally ends, Wallander picks up his report again. Just then, there’s a noise from across the aisle. Sitting there is a set of parents with two very small children. They’ve begun to sing Christmas songs, clapping to the rhythm and encouraging their youngsters to do the same. A flight attendant, dressed like a Christmas elf, comes down the aisle. She stops when she gets to the front of the cabin.

Flight Attendant: Welcome on board everyone! Now, to get us in the holiday spirit, why don’t we all join this lovely family here and sing some Christmas carols! Won’t that be fun?  Wallander signals for the flight attendant and, when he arrives, asks for whisky.

These are just a few examples (space precludes any more from me). Your turn!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henning Mankell, Rex Stout

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

To a Land of Opportunity*

immigrationOne of a country’s great strengths is arguably the talent, energy and intelligence of those who immigrate. Fresh ideas and other perspectives add richness to a country. Of course, there is no need for me to detail how difficult immigration can be. And I think we’re all familiar with the all-too-true horror stories of immigrants who’ve been mistreated or worse. There are plenty of crime fiction novels that have that motif, too.

But there are also stories of immigrants who’ve made good lives in their new homes, where both they and their adopted countries have benefited. Those stories, too, are important. And in crime fiction, they allow for all sorts of character development and plot twists, too. They also reflect reality in our world, where it’s increasingly easy to move from one country to another.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is originally from Belgium. He came to England as a result of World War I, and quite frankly, hasn’t really looked back. There are things about life in Belgium that he no doubt misses; in general, though, he is content in his adopted home. Interestingly, apart from a few characters and remarks (I know, fans of Taken at the Flood), he’s been more or less accepted. He’s most definitely a foreigner, and treated differently sometimes for that reason. But he’s been accepted.

So has Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who immigrated to the United States from Montenegro when he was a young man. He’s become an American citizen, and has had a good experience in his new country. In fact, he’s grateful to the United States, and has done well.

One of the main characters in Anya Lipska’s series is Janusz Kiszka, who immigrated to London from his native Poland. Now he is a sort of ‘fixer’ in London’s Polish community. He knows how to get things done, whom to talk to, and so on. And he knows most of the other people in the community. So he proves to be very helpful to DC Natalie Kershaw. The two are very different, and certainly come from different cultural backgrounds. But they slowly learn to work together and trust each other. Kiszka is content with his Polish cultural identity. At the same time, though, he has no burning desire to return to Poland. His immigrant experience has been more or less a successful one, and he’s made a new life for himself in London.

We might say a similar thing about Gerda Klein, whom we meet in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Gerda and her husband, along with their daughter Ilse, emigrated from Leipzig, in the former East Germany, when Ilse was a child. They ended up on New Zealand’s South Island, in the small town of Alexandria, and made a good life for themselves. And New Zealand has been, in the main, welcoming to them. For that, Gerda is grateful, and she’s been more than content to stay in her adopted country, even after Germany’s reunification. Ilse, though, has a different perspective. She, too, has been treated well, and has made a good life for herself (she’s a secondary school teacher). But she was a child when the family left Leipzig, and doesn’t have the troubling memories of the Stasi (the East German secret police) that her mother has. Still, she likes New Zealand, and has done a fine job teaching. Her dedication is exactly why she starts to get concerned when one of her most promising pupils, Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. When she does come to class (which isn’t often), she doesn’t participate. And she doesn’t compete much schoolwork. Ilse grows even more worried when Serena disappears. And it turns out that she and her mother will get more drawn into what happened to Serena than either imagined.

In Three Little Pigs, Apostolos Doxiadis tells the story of the Franco family, who immigrated to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco started out making a living as a shoemaker. As time went on, he and his family saved their money, adopted many American ways (they even changed their last name to Frank), and began to fit in. Ben opened his own shoe repair shop and shoe store, and the family prospered. In many ways, this family began to live what some people have called ‘the American dream.’ Everything changed when Ben got into a bar fight one night and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, who, as it turns out, was the son of a well-known criminal and member of the Mob, Tonio Lupo. This Lupo cursed the family, saying that each of Ben Frank’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, Luigi’s age when he was murdered. As we follow along with the family’s story, we see how the curse played out. We also see how that family became not Italian so much as Italian-Americans.

And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club. In that novel, which takes place in 1950’s Auckland, we are introduced to Istvan Ziegler. He left his native Hungary after World War II, wanting to make a new life for himself. After a stop in London, he learns that there’s work available on a new bridge at Auckland Harbour, and decides to go there. He has no family, and there’s nothing really keeping him in Europe, so he takes a chance. When he arrives in Auckland, he starts work on the bridge. There are moments when things are more difficult for him because he’s a foreigner. But in general, he’s treated fairly and shows by his hard work that he can do the job. And that’s what really matters. Istvan soon finds himself drawn into complex and dangerous situation when he helps a young girl, Judith Curran, recover from a (then illegal) abortion. It turns out that that act gets him involved in a case that uncovers some truly ugly things going on just under the surface of this seemingly peaceful city.

There are plenty of other stories of fictional characters who’ve immigrated successfully, and of their families (right, fans of Anthony Bidulka’s Russel Quant?). That plot point offers the author some interesting opportunities for character development as well as for a sense of place and culture. There’s only space for a few examples here (I know, fans of Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel!). Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pogues’ Thousands are Sailing.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Apostolos Doxiadis, Jen Shieff, Paddy Richardson, Rex Stout