Category Archives: Robert Crais

You’re So Vain*

EgotistsMost of us know, whether or not we admit it to others, that we’re not perfect. We’re wrong at times, and we make mistakes. And there are plenty of people who know more than we do and can do things better. But not everyone’s like that. There are certain people with very exaggerated senses of their own knowledge and importance. I’ll bet you’ve met people like that, yourself. Such people are sometimes very successful, if you define success as having a lot of money and/or power. And they can be personable, even charming. But they can be dangerous, too. And they can add an interesting texture to a crime story, even if they’re neither the victim nor the killer.

Agatha Christie created several egotistical characters in her novels. Some of them are obvious, and some less so. In Hickory Dickory Death, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates some odd thefts and other disturbing incidents at a hostel for students. When one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits to some of the thefts, everyone thinks the matter is closed. Then, two nights later, she dies. At first glance it looks like a suicide, but very soon it’s proven to be murder. Now Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who the killer is. They start with the other hostel residents, one of whom is a law student named Elizabeth Johnston. After interviewing her, here is what Inspector Sharpe has to say:

 

‘‘That’s a very interesting girl who just went out. She’s got the ego of a Napoleon and I strongly suspect that she knows something.’’

 

As it turns out, all of the residents are keeping secrets that they aren’t particularly eager to share.

One of the very interesting things about Elizabeth Johnston is that she isn’t the stereotypical egomaniac, who’s impolite to others and who constantly talks about him or herself. Rather, she’s quiet, unassuming, even pleasant. It’s an effective way to show that not all of those with oversized egos are obvious about it.

That’s certainly not true of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As fans of this series know, he is not in the least bit unassuming, and is positively arrogant in his estimation of his own ability. Stout uses the character of Archie Goodwin in part to serve as a foil to Wolfe. But even Goodwin accepts the fact that Wolfe is brilliant. He may have a Napoleonic ego, but he is very, very good at what he does. Is it really arrogance if you can back it up with success? Wolfe would probably say, ‘no.’ Or Pfui!

Some characters have been surrounded by sycophants and other hangers-on for so long that they’ve come to believe their own hype. This can make people all the more arrogant and convinced of their own worth and importance. Such a person is Kane ‘King’ Bendigo, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. He is the very powerful owner of a hugely successful munitions firm, so he has become quite wealthy. He, his wife Karla, and his two brothers, Abel and Judah, live on a private, heavily guarded island. When Bendigo begins to receive cryptic threats on his life, he doesn’t take them seriously at first. After all, the people on the island are loyal to him, and in any case, he’s carefully protected. You might say that he’s so convinced of his own hype that he can’t imagine anyone killing him. Abel, however, convinces him to take the threat seriously, so he arranges for Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery to travel from New York City to investigate the matter. The Queens are not exactly enthused about being summoned in that highhanded way, but they are convinced to go. They settle in and begin asking questions. Meanwhile, the threats continue, and get more and more specific about the date and time. It’s finally revealed that Bendigo will be shot on a certain Thursday at midnight. On that night, at that time, he is in his hermetically sealed office/study with his wife. There are no weapons in the office, and no-one can get in or out. Still, he is shot, just as was threatened. What’s even stranger is that the weapon used to shoot him was a gun that Judah fired at exactly midnight – in another room. Judah couldn’t have somehow gone to his brother’s office; he was with Ellery Queen. It’s a very tangled sort of ‘impossible, but not really’ crime.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, we are introduced to successful Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Like many Hollywood moguls, he’s been surrounded by eager hangers-on and sycophants for a very long time, and has come to have a high opinion of himself. More to the point for this novel, he believes that he can manipulate people and events to suit his whims. So when he decides that he’d like to get to know his twelve-year-old son Toby, he doesn’t see why that shouldn’t quickly happen. The only problem is, Toby lives with Nelson’s ex-wife Karen Shipley, and the two of them have disappeared. So Nelson hires L.A. PI Elvis Cole to find his family. At first, Cole demurs. He’s sure, as many people would be, that Nelson’s ex-wife had her own reasons – possibly very good ones – for going away without letting Nelson know. But Nelson insists. So Cole gets started on the case, and traces Shipley and Toby to a small town in Connecticut. He also discovers that Shipley has gotten tangled up with the Mob. Now he’s up against an arrogant director who insists on reuniting with his family, and a Mob group with an interest in that family. It’s going to be a tricky case for Cole and his partner Joe Pike.

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her in Still Life, she’s just been named to the Sûreté du Québec. Even better, she’s assigned to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who has the best reputation in the agency. It’s an understatement to say that Nichol isn’t perfect. She makes plenty of mistakes, and like anyone new at the job, she has a lot to learn. Fans of this series will know, too, that she turns out to be duplicitous, even malicious, and not trustworthy. Despite Gamache’s attempts to help her learn how to fit in and do her job well, Nichol refuses to take his advice. Part of the reason for that is that she is arrogant. She is convinced that she knows what she’s doing, and that any failures she has are the fault of others. In a sense, she becomes the victim of her own sense of self. What’s interesting about her character is that she combines this egotism with a desperate need to belong.

Egotists aren’t all rich and powerful. But, more or less, they all have an overinflated sense of their worth and importance. That can make life miserable for those around them, but even when it doesn’t, such characters can add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Carly Simon song. Did you know Carly Simon has a literary connection? That’s right. Her father, Richard Simon, was a co-founder of Simon and Schuster.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Robert Crais

Act Your Age, Not Your Shoe Size*

Act Your AgeI always love getting inspiration from you folks who are kind enough to read this blog. For me, it’s one of the best parts of blogging, really. The other day, I got a terrific idea for a post from crime writer and fellow blogger K.B. Owen, who writes the historical Concordia Wells series. Her novels reflect the end-of-the-19th-Century culture in which they take place, and her blog has all sorts of interesting information on that time period. You’ll definitely want to check out her site and her books.

K.B. suggested this post’s eponymous song lyric as something to think about, and she’s absolutely right. We all get the message at some point or other that we should ‘grow up,’ or ‘act our age.’ And in some ways, that makes sense. At a certain point in life, we do need to take adult responsibility for what we do. We also need to learn the adult skill of thinking beyond our own perspectives and desires, and consider others. In other ways, too, we need to learn to behave in adult, socially-acceptable ways, given our cultures.

But sometimes, ‘Act your age!’ doesn’t refer to that kind of maturity. It means, ‘Behave in the ways that are stereotyped for your age group.’ And that can be limiting. Is it really so important to stop reading children’s literature just because you’re not longer chronologically a child? Do we have to stop using crayons and markers because we’re adults? Why not blow bubbles or watch a beloved cartoon film?

Certainly this question of how we’re ‘supposed to’ behave comes up in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean; I know you’ll think of lots more.

Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole is a grown man who has a successful L.A. private detection agency with his partner Joe Pike. In many ways he behaves like an adult, takes adult responsibility for what he does, and so on. But he owns and wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, and has a Pinocchio clock in his office. Is that a case of ‘not acting his age?’ I don’t see it as a problem, and neither does he. In fact, there’s an interesting contrast between his maturity and that of a client in Lullaby Town. In that novel, Cole is hired by famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson to find his ex-wife Karen and their son Toby. After years of self-involved immaturity, during which he simply didn’t want to be responsible for his share of marriage and parenting (hence, the breakup), Nelson has decided he’s ready to be a parent. Cole knows it’s not that simple, even if he does find Karen and Toby. But he finally agrees to take the case. It turns out that finding his client’s ex-wife and son is only the first part of quite an adventure for Cole and Pike. And the novel shows some interesting perspectives on what ‘counts’ as ‘grown up.’

Hannah Dennison’s Deadly Desires at Honeychurch Hall features former journalist Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford, who’s living with her mother, Iris, in the former carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall. She’s gotten to know the Honeychurch family (interested readers should check out Murder at Honeychurch Hall for the details), and struck up a sort of friendship with seven-year-old Harry Honeychurch, son of the present earl. Harry’s been sent away to school, as many boys of that social group are. But he’s miserable there and keeps coming back to his home. Kat gets involved as Harry’s parents try to work out what the best choice is for their son, and it’s an interesting debate. Just how ‘grown up’ should a child be before going away to school? At what point is a child supposed to ‘stop acting like a kid?’

Older people, too, are often expected to behave in a certain way, and that can be at least as limiting. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is a former English teacher who’s now in her eighties. Her son, who’s the local police chief, really wishes she would ‘act her age,’ and do things such as knit, work crossword puzzles, get involved in church activities and so on. Certainly he doesn’t want her investigating crime. But Myrtle is absolutely not ready to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes.  She wants to be as independent as ever, and has no interest in being restricted to doing things older people are ‘supposed to do.’ So there’s an interesting ongoing tension in this series between Myrtle and her son. From his perspective, it’s a matter of keeping his mother safe; after all, criminal investigation can be very dangerous. From her perspective, it’s a matter of self-determination and not being condescended to, just because she’s elderly.

Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s Emily Micallef doesn’t want to be condescended to, either. She is the octogenarian mother of Redhill’s sleuth, Port Dundas, Ontario, DI Hazel Micallef. Emily has retired from service as Port Dundas’ mayor, but that doesn’t mean she wants to slow down. As one example, she plays poker regularly, and as she tells her daughter,
 

‘We don’t play for nickels…’
 

There may be people who don’t think that regular poker nights (and subsequent morning-after hangovers) are ‘acting your age’ for an eighty-plus person. But Emily Micallef doesn’t really care very much whether people think she’s behaving like an elderly woman ‘should.’

And then there’s Derek B. Miller’s Sheldon Horowitz, whom we meet in Norwegian by Night. He’s an eighty-plus former New Yorker who’s moved to Norway to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. Instead of settling into life as an old man living with his granddaughter, Horowitz gets drawn into a series of adventures when he inadvertently witnesses the murder of a young woman. He rescues her son, and they go on the lam, since the killers are probably going to go after the boy next. Horowitz certainly doesn’t ‘act his age,’ if you go by stereotypes of what elderly people are ‘supposed to’ do. But that doesn’t stop him.

It’s all very well (in fact, important) to develop some maturity about some things. But is there anything really wrong with hopping on a hopscotch pattern or making a paper plane? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got this great set of crayons…   Thanks, K.B.!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Prince’s Kiss.

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Filed under Derek B. Miller, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Hannah Dennison, Inger Ash Wolfe, K.B. Owen, Michael Redhill, Robert Crais

Hello Old Friend*

Renewing RelationshipsHave you ever renewed a relationship with someone you hadn’t seen in years? In some cases it seems as though no time at all has gone by, and people pick up the relationship just where it left off. But we all change over time, and we all have life experiences that affect us, sometimes deeply. So sometimes those reunions can be awkward. And it doesn’t make it any easier that we often have mental images, left over from the past, of how the people in our lives ‘should’ act, speak and think. It can be difficult to accept it when someone doesn’t fit that image. Whether they’re easy, even joyful, or awkward, those reunions are full of history, character and so on. And that means that they’re also interesting plot points for stories. There are plenty of them in crime fiction too; let me just give you a few examples. I know you’ll be able to think of many more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we meet Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife Gerda are invited for a weekend visit to The Hollow, the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. During their visit, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and gets involved in the case. In one of the related sub-plots, we learn that fifteen years earlier, Christow had been involved with now-famous actress Veronica Cray. Their romance ended with Christow getting a broken heart, and he’s never really been able to leave it all completely in the past. When he and Gerda get to The Hollow, he’s shocked to learn that Veronica has taken a cottage in the area, and is eager to renew their relationship. When the two reunite, Christow has a sudden awareness that they’ve both changed and that he has moved on. Here’s what he says to Veronica:

 

‘I’m a man fifteen years older. A man you don’t even know – and whom, I daresay, you wouldn’t like much if you did know.’

 

Veronica has her heart set on Christow though, and her rage at his rejection makes her a suspect in his murder.

There’s an interesting case of reunion in Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. Famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson hires PI Elvis Cole for a delicate domestic case. Years ago Nelson was married to Karen Shipley and they had a son Toby. The marriage fell apart and Karen disappeared, taking Toby with her. Now, Nelson wants to begin to be a father to his son, so he engages Cole to trace Toby and his mother. At first Cole is reluctant. After all, a lot of people disappear precisely because they don’t want to be found, especially in cases like this one. But eventually Cole is persuaded to look into the matter and he and his partner Joe Pike start the investigation. It doesn’t take long to find Karen and Toby; they’ve moved to a small town in Connecticut. But it turns out that a reunion with her ex is the last thing on Karen’s mind. She’s got major problems of her own, including trying to get free of a Mob trap into which she’s fallen. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that there is a reunion, and Crais shows how awkward such experiences can be. Nelson has a mental image of the wife he knew and of his son as a baby. The reality of course is quite different. For her part, Karen has an image of the self-involved man she left, and has to adjust to the fact that perhaps her ex really wants to try to be a father.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, we are introduced to biographer (later crime writer) Erica Falck. She’s returned to her parents’ home in Fjällbacka to sort through their things after their deaths. Then she learns of the sudden death of her former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner. The two were best friends during their childhoods, but hadn’t really been close for twenty-five years. Erica wants to know the sort of person Alex became, so she decides to write a biography of her former friend. In the process, she learns that the adult Alex is quite different to the friend she knew as a girl, and that a lot happened in the meantime. She also begins to get a sense of who might have wanted to kill Alex. At the same time, police officer Patrik Hedström and his team are officially investigating the death. It’s been made to look like suicide, but of course, it isn’t. In one plot thread of this novel, Erica discovers that the friend she remembers from childhood turned out to be a different person in adulthood. In another, Erica and Patrik, who knew each other years ago, re-discover each other. And that becomes the basis for the relationship that develops between them.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has more than one reunion with the love of his life Eleanor Wish. Early in the Bosch series, she’s an FBI agent. For several reasons, she leaves her position and becomes a professional poker player. When Bosch reunites with her in Trunk Music, they decide to marry. As fans of Angels Flight will know, the marriage doesn’t last and you might say that Eleanor disappears. A few years later the two meet up again in another case, and Bosch learns that he is the father of (then) four-year-old Maddie. Eleanor figures again in 9 Dragons. In all of these reunions, we see how both people have to re-adjust their images of each other. We also see how Bosch has to adjust his mental image of Maddie as she grows up, since she doesn’t live with him until 9 Dragons.

Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point also features a reunion of sorts. Brothers Leo and Patrick Varela were born and raised in Belize, but have since moved to Miami. Now, Leo is a poet and a mental health care worker. Patrick has gotten involved in politics and is poised for real success that could lead to a career on the national level. Everything changes when they get a visit from an old friend Freddy Robinson. Robinson grew up in Belize with the Varela brothers and he knows all about their former lives. In fact, he tries to use something he knows about them as leverage when he asks Leo for something. Robinson is working for some very dubious ‘employers’ who want information on Patrick Varela’s political strategy. One person who may know the truth is in the care of the facility where Leo works, and Robinson wants Leo to arrange for that patient’s release. When Leo refuses, Robinson threatens to tell what he knows. Seeing no other option, Leo agrees. And that’s when the real trouble starts. In this novel, it’s interesting to see how Robinson has a mental image of the Varela brothers from their years in Belize, and how different that is to the reality of the brothers’ lives in Miami.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. During their girlhoods, Jodie Evans Garrow and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan became close friends. Then Bridie moved away and each girl went on with her life. Jodie married successful attorney Angus Garrow and is now the contented mother of two children. Her life seems just about perfect on the surface. Then, her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child Elsa Mary. Jodie never told anyone, not even Angus, about this baby, but a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now the questions begin. What happened to Elsa Mary? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? The gossip evolves into an all-out attack on Jodie, who becomes a social pariah. Then, unexpectedly, she has a reunion with Bridie. Both women have changed over the years of course. And at first, there’s a little awkwardness. But gradually, they renew their friendship and we can see how they get past the mental images they had of each other and re-establish their relationship.

When people who haven’t seen each other in years try to pick up the pieces, there’s often that kind of awkwardness when the mental image they had doesn’t fit the person they see in front of them. But sometimes those relationships can be re-established, and that can provide a welcome continuity in life. Or they can be very dangerous. I’m thinking for instance of Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel. When academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn finds out that a former friend Sally Love is having an exhibition of her art at the Mendel Gallery, she decides to attend, and try to re-establish the friendship. That decision has drastic consequences and ends up getting Kilbourn involved in a very sad murder investigation.

These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Eric Clapton.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Gail Bowen, Ian Vasquez, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Wendy James

All the Sounds of Long Ago Will be Forever in My Head*

SoldiersToday (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) the US observes Memorial Day, a day to remember those who gave their lives in the service of their country. And that’s as it should be. We owe a debt of gratitude to them and to their families that cannot be repaid.

The casualties of war though are not just physical. The experience of war leaves deep and lasting, sometimes permanent, psychological scars. Sometimes those scars are accompanied by more physical scars; sometimes they aren’t. Either way, though, those soldiers who do make it home alive don’t always leave the war behind. Certainly that’s true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction too.

In Chris Wormersley’s Bereft, Quinn Walker returns to his home in Flint, New South Wales after serving in the Somme during WWI. He’s been physically and emotionally scarred by the Great War. But instead of the rest and peace he needs, he finds that Flint is caught up in the terrible influenza pandemic that followed the Great War. What’s more, many people, including Walker’s own father, believe that he is responsible for the death of his sister, which occurred ten years earlier. Walker knows that he’s not welcome in the family home, so he hides out in an abandoned shack. That’s how he meets ten-year-old Sadie Fox, who’s hiding there herself. With her help, Walker gets past his war scars enough to find the courage to let his mother know he’s alive and to piece together what really happened to his sister.

Jacqueline Winspear and the mother/son writing team of ‘Charles Todd’ both explore the issue of PTSD in their novels. Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs was a nurse during WWI, and as the 1920’s begin, she has to cope with the physical and mental scars the war left. She also has to learn to deal with other people’s scars. In fact, the theme of returning soldiers trying to fit back into society is quite strong in that series. Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series features a police detective who took time away from his job to fight during WWI. He’s returned a different person though, and deals with several psychological issues. One of the themes addressed in this series is what people call ‘survivor’s guilt,’ as well as the issue of coping with the fact that one’s had to kill.

Geoffrey McGeachin explores what we now call PTSD in his Charlie Berlin series, beginning with The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin served in Europe, and although he’s come home from the war physically intact, he has several psychic and emotional scars. McGeachin shows how Berlin has to cope with flashbacks and nightmares, as well as with the grim reality that many of his comrades didn’t make it home at all. As time goes on, Berlin does what many former soldiers have done. He gets on with his life as best he can, he tries to start living again and he does what he needs to do. But that doesn’t mean PTSD isn’t part of his life.

It’s also a part of life for James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. Robicheaux is a veteran of the Vietnam War. In several of the novels that feature him, he deals with flashbacks and nightmares from that time. And he has a sort of bond with others who also face the same demons. He doesn’t always cope successfully with the psychological challenges he faces, and his life as a cop doesn’t make it any easier. But he does his best to make a life for himself and his family.

Michael Palmer’s The Last Surgeon features Dr. Nick Gerrity, who suffers from PTSD after an act of terrorism during his service in Afghanistan. When he returns to the US, he does his best to start life again. He works with the Helping Hands Mobile Medical Unit to assist wounded veterans and to provide medical service to Washington’s street people. Then a nurse, Belle Coates, is murdered by someone who tries to make the death look like suicide. Belle’s sister Jillian doesn’t believe that though, and works to find out who killed Belle and why. Very few people believe her until her own home is firebombed. The trail leads to a connection between Belle and Nick Gerrity, and he and Jillian work to learn the truth about Belle’s death.

And then there’s Robert Crais’ Suspect, a standalone that features LAPD police officer Scott James. James has PTSD as a result of an attack that left him wounded and his police partner Stephanie Anders dead. Once James heals physically, he’s moved to the LAPD’s K-9 unit.  There he is paired with Maggie, a German Shepherd with her own case of PTSD after the loss of her handler during service with a US Marine Corps unit. James is determined to find out who killed Anders, and he and Maggie begin the investigation. But this is a much more complicated and dangerous case than it seems, and James and Maggie will have to depend on each other and trust each other if they’re going to solve it.

As you can see just from these examples, PTSD is a very real part of life for those who’ve seen military service, and I’ve only offered a few instances here. There are many more. It just goes to show that not all casualties of war are those who die in battle. But I hope these examples also show that those who come back from war with PTSD are humans, capable of growth, of healing and of a meaningful life.

Part of our debt of gratitude to those who gave their lives in military service includes, I think, our debt to those who came back and who need our support. They don’t want our pity. They want and richly deserve the psychological and other support they need as they work to put their lives back together. There are lots of ways in which we can help provide that support too. Volunteering, donations and so on are just a few examples. I’ll bet you can think of more. Whatever you come up with, it’s the least we can do for people who’ve laid their lives on the line for us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charlie Daniels’ Still in Saigon.

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Filed under Charles Todd, Chris Womersley, Geoffrey McGeachin, Jacqueline Winspear, James Lee Burke, Michael Palmer, Robert Crais

Around the Corner the Skies Are Blue*

Rays of HopeWhether it’s fictional or real, murder is of course a horrible crime, and well-written crime novels don’t make light of that. But on the other hand, a novel in which there is no ray of hope or reason to be positive can be awfully depressing. That’s why it can add much to a novel if there is a character with a positive outlook on life: one who can make us see that everything will work out somehow or other. I’m not talking here about comic relief; that’s another topic entirely. Rather, I mean characters whose overall positive outlook on life can lighten an otherwise dark story.

One such character is Robert Crais’ L.A.-based PI Elvis Cole. Part of Cole’s appeal is that he has a sometimes wisecracking sense of humour and he isn’t overly pessimistic. He knows how horrible murder is and he doesn’t look at investigating as a fun, happy pastime. But at the same time, overall, he has the sense about life that it will be all right. For example, in The Monkey’s Raincoat, Ellen Lang hires Cole to find her husband Mort, who’s disappeared and taken their son Perry with him. Cole knows that plenty of people disappear because they want to disappear. Still, he is concerned about the boy’s safety, so he agrees to look into the matter. The situation becomes urgent when Mort is found dead, with no sign of Perry anywhere. Now Cole has to find out who killed the victim if he has any hope of finding his son. Throughout the novel, Cole does his best to support Ellen Lang and give her as much hope as he can while still being truthful. He doesn’t make light of the situation but he does take a positive attitude.

So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is no stranger to life’s sadness. The former wife of an abusive husband, Mma. Ramotswe has lost a child and her father, so she knows that life often brings sorrow. But she has an overall optimistic and positive attitude that provides a great deal of comfort and solace for her clients. For instance, in Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Ramotswe is hired by an important Government Man to find out whether his sister-in-law is, as he believes, trying to poison his brother. Mma. Ramotswe travels to the Government Man’s home village, where she begins to get to know the people in his family. One afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she is able, Mma. Ramotswe has conversations with everyone, and uses her own recall to piece together what happened. She learns how and by whom everyone was poisoned, and she uses her positive outlook on life to help resolve some issues within the family.

Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez also has an overall positive attitude about life. When he and his brother Eduard take on their first murder investigation in A Not So Perfect Crime, Eduard isn’t sure they’re prepared to look into a crime like that. He tends to be cautious and would rather focus the brothers’ efforts on cases that are more similar to what they’ve done before. But Borja has an upbeat, ‘It’ll all work out’ view of life. Besides, the client Lluís Font is powerful and wealthy. When he is accused of murdering his wife Lídia, it’s in the Martínez brothers’ interest to clear his name and build their reputation. And they do discover who the murderer is, despite some (sometimes very funny) setbacks. Throughout the novel, Borja’s positive outlook on life may be a bit on the ‘happy-go-lucky’ side, but it does serve to keep the investigation going and to complement his brother’s occasional pessimism.

It’s not always the sleuth whose positive attitude can really serve a crime novel. Sometimes other characters do that too. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a group of people who live in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Chapman herself owns a bakery in that building and through her eyes we get to meet the other residents. One of them is (retired) Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk. He’s getting on in years and at times he’s hurt or laid-up with illness. But even then, he has a more or less optimistic attitude about life. He’s an expert in the classics and often uses references from those writings to make sense of life. He’s had his own sorrows, but he proves a solid source of overall optimism and steadiness that proves a real comfort. And he has old-fashioned manners and courtesy that remind the other residents of the way it is possible to treat others.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer sometimes has very difficult and ugly cases to solve. And although he has a close relationship with his daughter Ingrid and his grand-son Matteus, he has his own share of life’s sorrows. He’s a widower who still misses his wife Elise, and he has seen some terrible things in the course of his work. But there is also optimism and hope if you will in his life. Beginning with He Who Fears the Wolf, Sejer develops a relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel. She helps him to understand some of the people who figure in that novel. That understanding helps Sejer as he investigates the murder of Halldis Horn, whose body is found in her front yard. Since she lived alone in a remote place, there aren’t many witnesses. But one likely suspect is a troubled young man named Errki Johrma who was seen in the area. The case isn’t that simple though, and Sara provides helpful insights. She is realistic and doesn’t shy away from life’s sadness. But she is also a generally optimistic, sometimes-spontaneous person who adds a bright note to Sejer’s life.

And then there’s Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, whom we meet in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That story features Jodie Evans Garrow, who meets Bridie during their childhoods. Jodie hasn’t had a lot of happiness in her life, but Bridie is positive and optimistic, with big dreams. She brings a proverbial ray of sunshine to Jodie and the girls become inseparable. Then Bridie moves away and life goes on for both of them. Later, Jodie marries Angus Garrow and settles down to what seems like an enviable life. Angus is a successful attorney, Jodie has a comfortable home and upper-middle-class lifestyle, and they have two healthy children. One day their daughter Hannah is involved in a car accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital – the same hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another baby girl whom she’s never discussed with anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal records. Now the whispers start and soon the media gets hold of the story. If the child is alive, where is she? If not, what happened to her? Did Jodie kill her? Before long the accusations become very public and Jodie is made a social pariah. Then by chance, she meets Bridie again at a book club meeting. Bridie proves the same source of support she was during the girls’ childhood and her basically positive outlook on life provides real solace for Jodie.

And that’s the thing about people and fictional characters who offer hope and have positive outlooks on life. They don’t deny that life can be hard, but they firmly believe that things will get better. Which ones do you like best?

 

In Memoriam…

 

ShirleyTemple and SidCaesar

 

This post is dedicated to the memories of two people who gave much hope and ‘sunshine’ when people needed it. This past week we lost both Shirley Temple Black and Sid Caesar. They both had private troubles, but kept on going and offered the world a hopeful look at life. For that, I am grateful. They will be much missed.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roger Edens’ and Earl Brent’s Around the Corner.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Robert Crais, Teresa Solana, Wendy James