Category Archives: Robin Cook

People Livin’ in Competition*

A recent post from Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, has got me thinking about competitiveness. Bill’s post, which you really should read, discusses competitiveness in attorneys. His point, which is very well-taken, is that trial lawyers have to be competitive. Otherwise, they don’t keep the ‘fire’ they need to do all of the work that’s involved in preparing for a trial and seeing it through.

There are many, many legal mysteries that bear him out, too. In John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, William Deverell’s Trial of Passion, and Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, to name just three, we see examples of attorneys who take on difficult cases – and want to win. There are far too many more examples of such novels for me to mention in this one post, so I won’t.

There’s plenty of competitiveness in other crime fiction, too, and it can add a healthy dose of character development, suspense, and plot to a novel. And, since there’s competitiveness in many different professions, the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to integrating it into a story.

Competitiveness is certainly important in the world of athletics. That’s a major part of the plot in Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. Devon Knox has rare gymnastic talent, and her parents, Katie and Eric, want to nurture it. So, when gymnastics coach Teddy Balfour approaches them with a proposition, they’re happy to listen:
 

‘‘Bring her to BelStars [a program he’s started up]  and she’ll find the extent of her power.’’
 

Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (which might not have been an accident) occurs, and changes everything. Devon is gifted, but the question becomes: how far are she and her family willing to go to get to the Olympics? After all, there are only a limited number of young people who can join the US team. So, when one person earns a place, it often means others lose.

Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry series also explores athletic competitiveness (and for the matter of that, journalistic competitiveness as well). Like her creator, Henry is a sportswriter. She works for the Toronto Planet. Henry especially follows the doings of the Toronto Titans baseball team, so she goes along with them on ‘away’ tours, attends the home games, and gets locker-room interviews with players, coaching staff and the like. When the team is in a slump, it’s devastating. When the team does well, it’s euphoric. These players work hard and train intensively to go as far as they can in the World Series competition. Gordon doesn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a mystery series, and the murder plots dominate the books. But the books also give readers a look at what it’s like to be Major League Baseball athlete. It’s not a life for those who aren’t competitive. Neither is the life of those who write and publish stories about sports.

Business can be very competitive, too. In most industries, there’s a finite pool of customers. So, companies vie to get as much of their business as possible. And sometimes, that competitiveness can be deadly. In Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Contagion, for instance, we learn about a major competition between two insurance giants: AmeriCare and National Health. That competition becomes important when a virulent strain of influenza seems to be the cause of a series of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. Medical examiners Dr. Jack Stapleton and Dr. Laurie Montgomery try to find out what’s causing the virus. The hospital’s authorities are interested in keeping the whole matter as quiet as possible, mostly to protect the institution’s image. But Stapleton in particular wants to whatever it takes, regardless of unpleasant publicity, to prevent more deaths. When it comes out that Manhattan General is affiliated with AmeriCares, the question becomes: did someone at National Health have something to do with these deaths, with the aim of discrediting the competition?

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide deals with the competitive world of the beauty pageant circuit. In it, wealthy pageant coach and judge Tristan Pembroke is murdered during a charity art auction being held at her home. The most likely suspect is local artist Sara Taylor, who had a public argument with the victim shortly before the murder. But Sara’s mother-in-law, Lulu, is sure that she’s not guilty. So, she sets out to clear Sara’s name and find out who the real killer is. There are plenty of suspects, too, as Tristan was both malicious and vindictive. And, for the contestants in the pageant, and their families, there’s an awful lot at stake. The beauty pageant life is demanding, expensive, stressful and time-consuming. You don’t stay in it long if you have no sense of competitiveness.

I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that there’s a lot of competitiveness in the academic world, too. Many academic mysteries have plots that involve competition for scholarships/bursaries, prizes, academic jobs, funding and so on. It’s a demanding life that takes a lot of time and effort. Just to give one example, Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James novels take place in the context of St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, where James heads the English Literature Department. One of the sub-plots in the first of this series, Murder is Academic, concerns funding for the program. Each department’s funding is based on its performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). There’s a lot of competition for finite funding, and James knows that she will have to ensure that all of the faculty’s scholarship (including her own) is as impressive as possible. That in itself is stressful. At the same time, she’s caught up in the investigation of the murder of her predecessor, Margaret Joplin. Admittedly, getting funding isn’t the reason for the murder. But it does add to the tension in the novel. And it’s a realistic look at one way in which competition works in academia.

Bill is right that being competitive is important if you’re going to win your case in a trial. It’s also an important personality trait in other fields, too. So it’s little wonder it figures so much in crime fiction. Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Bill’s blog. Thoughtful reviews and commentary await you there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boston’s Peace of Mind.

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Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Grisham, Megan Abbott, Riley Adams, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Cook, William Deverell

As a Restaurant Inspector It’s a Long Lonesome Road*

There’s an interesting (if small) plot thread in Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police. The small French town of St. Denis prides itself on its good food; it is, after all, in the food-famous Périgord. And, for as long as anyone can remember, there’s been a weekly market where the local residents get their fresh bread, cheese, and other items. These people know how to prepare, cook, sell, and store food. So, no-one is exactly pleased that EU inspectors have taken an interest in the market, and plan to apply EU rules to the food that’s bought and sold there. Local Chief of Police Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges is sworn to uphold the law; and in most cases, he believes in being law-abiding. At the same time, he’s a gastronome himself, and understands exactly how the citizens he serves feel about the EU health inspectors. So, he looks the other way when a few of the citizens find their own approach to preventing what they see as EU ‘meddling.’

In the main, though, most people agree that public health is a serious and important matter, and that there needs to be a way to ensure that any threats to public health are eliminated. Such inspections are thankless jobs, though. No company wants its operations interrupted, and making sure that everything is up to code can be expensive. And companies, hospitals, and the like don’t want to fail inspections. So, there’s a lot of pressure on anyone in that business.

The San Francisco Department of Health figures into Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor. In that novel, we are introduced to Dr. Calvin Doohan, a transplant from Scotland. He’s working on some research for the World Health Organization (WHO) when the city is hit with a number of cases of virulent, flu-like illness. Each case seems to end in death, and doctors are hard-pressed to isolate the cause. Doohan volunteers his services to San Francisco’s Board of Health, and soon finds himself working with Dr. Suzanne Synge, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It’s soon established that the illness can be traced to people who attended a convention at the Hotel Cordoba, so several interested parties (the CDC, the Board of Health, etc..) concentrate their efforts there. Inspections of the food and its handling start, and Doohan soon begins to suspect that this outbreak was deliberate. As he gets closer to the truth behind it, he finds more and more danger for himself.

The CDC also features in Robin Cook’s Outbreak. Dr. Marissa Blumenthal of the CDC is sent to Los Angeles when several patients of the Richter Clinic die. The clinic’s owner, Dr. Rudolph Richter, also succumbs. Blumenthal and the team she works with manage to contain the outbreak, and it seems that the public health isn’t at risk. Then, there’s an outbreak in St. Louis. And another in Phoenix. It now seems clear to Blumenthal that this virus is being spread deliberately. But she doesn’t have much evidence to support herself. Still, she perseveres, and soon finds she’s up against some very dangerous and powerful people who are not afraid to kill.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman has to be concerned about her local Health Department’s expectations, because she owns a bakery. By and large, she doesn’t have a bad relationship with the inspection team, although they don’t see eye to eye on Chapman’s approach to vermin control. Along with her ‘house cat’ Horatio, Chapman is owned by Heckle and Jekyll, the feline Rodent Control Officers who roam the bakery at night, making sure that Chapman’s baking supplies are vermin-free. It isn’t exactly what the Health Department pamphlets advise, but it works well, and Chapman’s bakery is successful. Then, in Trick or Treat, there’s an ergot infestation at another, nearby, bakery. The Health Department has to close that bakery until the ergot is removed, and all the other local bakeries, including Chapman’s, also become suspect. It’s hard for Chapman not to be able to go about her baking business. But she understands why the bakery has to close temporarily, and she certainly doesn’t want anyone sickened on her account. It’s among other things an interesting look at how health inspectors work when something goes wrong in a restaurant or other food-selling establishment.

Sometimes, health, food, and other inspectors are fictional targets. For instance, in Donna Leon’s Beastly Things, the body of an unknown man is found in one of Venice’s canals. There’s no identification, and no truly distinctive marks on the body, so at first, it’s hard to determine who the victim was. But Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team eventually identify the man as Andrea Nava. He was a veterinarian who worked part-time at a local slaughterhouse. His job there was to inspect the animals brought in by local farmers, to verify the health of their animals. As Brunetti and his team look into the murder, readers learn about the way slaughterhouse inspections are supposed to work, and how they work in this case.

A few of Carl Hiaasen’s novels include characters who are health inspectors, or have related roles. One of them is Razor Girl, which features Andrew Yancey, whom fans will remember from Bad Monkey. In this novel, he’s no longer a police detective. He’s been demoted to Inspector for the Health Department. He gets involved in a complex (this is Hiaasen….) case when he discovers hair from a beard in the food at Clippy’s Restaurant. The hair turns out to belong to Buck Nance, a reality show star who presumably went into hiding after a disastrous live show. One of Yancey’s leads is con artist Merry Mansfield, who ended up trying to scam Lane Coolman, who was supposed to meet Nance in Key West (Florida). Coolman’s now worried about Nance’s whereabouts, and Yancey sees a way to get his badge back if he finds out the truth. He and Mansfield work together, but Yancey’s got to go up against serious odds, including a restaurant infestation of Gambian pouched rats (yes, those are real, and they can grow to be about .9 m (about 3 ft.) long).

Public health is a very real and important concern. So, it’s little wonder that health inspectors of different sorts can shut down restaurants and all sorts of other businesses. Their job might not always make them a lot of fans, but we do need them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Three Penny Piece’s Saddam Henderson’s Old Time Country Kitchen.

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Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Frank Robinson, Kerry Greenwood, Martin Walker, Robin Cook, Thomas N. Scortia

Oh, Havana, I’ve Been Searching For You Everywhere*

As this is posted, it would have been Fidel Castro’s 91st birthday. Whatever you think of Castro, his politics or his history, it’s impossible to deny his impact on Cuba and on world politics. And it’s interesting to see how Cuba features in crime fiction. Leaving politics aside (Please! Let’s leave politics aside.), there are some interesting crime novels and series set in Cuba at different times, and they give readers a fascinating portrait of the country.

For instance, Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’ takes place in 1957 Havana, just before the revolution that will put Castro in power. At the time, Fulgencio Batista is still in power, and his secret police and armed forces do whatever it takes to keep things that way. But at the same time, there is a groundswell of support for a revolution, and plenty of tension in the atmosphere. Against this backdrop, we are introduced to Joaquín Porrata, a fledging reporter for the Diario de la Marina. So far, his assignments have mostly been ‘fluff’ pieces, such as interviews with starlets and ‘lightweight’ news. Then, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia in a New York City barbershop. Anastasia was known as The Great Executioner of Murder, Inc., and had quite a reputation among mobsters with strong links to the Havana casino and club scene. And that, Porrata believes, is the reason he was killed. He apparently ‘stuck his nose’ into other Mob bosses’ Havana interests, and that sealed his fate. Porrata’s managing editor doesn’t think Anastasia’s death is relevant for a Havana newspaper, and instead, assigns Porrata to another story, the mysterious death of a hippopotamus that had escaped from a local zoo. Porrata learns that the hippo’s death was likely a message to Anastasia, and comes to believe that the two stories are linked. When he’s lured away from his employer by the Prensa Libre, he’s given permission to investigate Anastasia’s murder. But the closer he gets to the truth, the more determined some very powerful people are that it will not get reported. Among other things, this is an interesting look at life in Havana just before Castro took power.

When Castro did come to power, many Cubans left the country and developed their own communities elsewhere. One of the largest ex-pat Cuban communities is in Miami, and that makes sense, given its proximity to Havana. Readers get a close look at that community in the work of Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, who is herself a Cuban-born American. Her sleuth is PI Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Solano. Solano’s parents emigrated from Cuba because of the revolution, and her father still feels a deep connection to his homeland. In fact, he pays close attention to any radio news he gets from Cuba, so that when the time is right, he and his family can return. The other members of the family also feel close to their Cuban background. They speak Cuban Spanish, eat a traditional Cuban diet to the extent they can, and keep their culture alive in other ways, too. And in several of the mysteries in this series, Solano’s investigations include links to Cuba. So they offer readers a glimpse of life in modern Cuba, and of the relations between people who stayed in Cuba and their families, and those who left.

Leonardo Padura also offers readers a look at life in Havana. His Mario Conde series features Lieutenant Mario Conde of the Havana police force. The first quartet of novels (published in English as Havana Red, Havana Blue, Havana Black, and Havana Gold) takes place in 1989, mostly in Havana. Through Conde’s eyes, readers follow the lives of people who stayed in Cuba and worked to make good lives there. Some stayed because they believed in the revolution. Others stayed because they saw no other option. Either way, the novels offer a look at Cuban life from the perspective of those who stayed on after the revolution. On the one hand, Conde sees clearly some of the serious problems facing the country. There’s corruption where there was supposed to be equity. There’s poverty, too, and shortages. There are other challenges as well. But at the same time, Conde loves his home, his old friends, and his culture. He isn’t at all blind to the failures of the Castro government, but he loves his homeland. For those interested, there’s also Havana Fever, which takes place in 2003, and features a now-retired Conde. Again, as much as anything else, it’s a look at modern Havana. Conde dreams of being a writer, and these novels are as much literary as they are crime fiction, but there are certainly important crime plots in them.

There’s also Paul Goldstein’s Havana Requiem, which features New York attorney Michael Seeley. In the novel, he’s trying to put his life back together after a devastating series of setbacks. He’s got a brilliant legal mind, so he’s starting to regain some of what he lost. Then he gets a visit from Héctor Reynoso, a Cuban musician and composer, whose music was very popular during the ‘Golden Age’ of Cuban music, in the 1940s and 1950s. Reynoso has taken grave risks to come to the US and ask for Seeley’s help on behalf of himself and some composer friends. His claim is that their music was stolen from them, and they want their rights (and royalties) back. And that adds up to a considerable amount of money, too, since the music is still popular and still being covered by contemporary Latin artists. Seeley has a reputation for defending the rights of composers and other artists, and Reynoso’s been told he’s the best. Seeley has his own problems, and at first doesn’t want to take this case. But when he sees how the group has been defrauded, he takes an interest. He goes to Havana and begins a search for the other composers in Reynoso’s group, but before he can accomplish much, Reynoso disappears. Now Seeley is caught up in a web of intrigue with international implications, especially given the always-delicate situation between Cuba and the US. The main plot of the novel has to do with copyright law, rights to work, and other, related, legal issues. But it also offers a look at modern Havana.

There are other novels, too, (I’m thinking, for instance, of Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Crisis, for instance) with scenes that take place in Cuba. It’s a country rich in heritage and culture, and whatever else one might say of Fidel Castro, he left his mark there.

 

ps. Thanks to Condé Nast Traveller for the ‘photo.
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Leonardo Padura, Mayra Montero, Paul Goldstein, Robin Cook

It’s Not Supposed to Be This Hard*

Have you ever noticed that there are some myths out there about life? Bear with me and I’ll explain. All of the advertisements and popular-culture outlets present life in certain ways that just aren’t realistic. And because of that people believe that’s how things ‘should’ be. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s not true.

Many people buy into those myths, only to discover later that things don’t work out that way. And that can lead to tension, depression, and more. That’s certainly true in real life. You may even have had the experience of thinking, ‘Why am I struggling so hard with this? It ought to be a lot easier!’ We see it in crime fiction, too. Although it can be damaging in real life, it can also add to the tension and suspense of a novel.

For example, one of the most pervasive myths there is, is that parents of newborns immediately bond with their children in such a fierce way that the challenges of child rearing simply don’t matter. But that’s not true. Caring for a baby is very hard work. We see that, for instance, in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me. That novel is the story of Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern, who move from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, Róisín. They’ve made the move so that Gerry can take a new job that’s a real step up for him. This means that he’s gone a lot, so Yvonne does most of the child care. And it turns out to be nothing like the myths of newborns and their mothers. She loves her daughter, but she finds many things a challenge. And it doesn’t help that she really doesn’t know anyone in Dublin. So, she turns to an online forum called Netmammy, where she finds solace and good advice from other new mothers. Then, one of the members of the group drops off the proverbial grid. Yvonne gets concerned, but there’s not much she can do about it. Then, the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Is it the missing member of Netmammy? If so, this has a lot of serious implications for the group. DS Claire Boyle and her team investigate, and find that the two cases are related, but not in the way you might think.

We also see this myth of the parent/child bond in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, make the move from Scotland to Alistair’s home town in Victoria, with their nine-week-old son, Noah. The first scenes in the novel take place during the flight. And we soon see just how challenging it is to travel with an infant, and how much harder those myths make it. The baby cries – a lot – and the parents are just as exhausted as any new parents are. Add to that the stress of travel, and it’s little wonder the flight is a nightmare. But there’s this myth that newborns are easy to care for, and that all new parents delight in the myriad tasks that are a part of raising children. And those myths don’t go away as children get older. Most parents do love their children very, very much, but that bond is a lot more complex than the myth would suggest.

So is the bond between partners. A permanent bond between two people requires hard work and commitment. That’s not to say there’s no fun and joy in it. There is. But it’s not easy. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband, Zack. As of the most recent novel in this series, Joanne is a retired academic, political scientist, and mother/grandmother. Zack is the current mayor of Regina. The two of them have faced a number of challenges, and are both strong-willed. They love each other and are committed to each other. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for them all the time. But then, neither was really expecting that the myth of the blissful, uncomplicated marriage could be real.

On the other hand, that’s exactly what Eva Wirenström-Berg, whom we meet in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, was hoping to have. She and her husband Henrik have been married for fifteen years, and have a six-year-old son, Axel. From the beginning, Eva believed in the myth of the perfect, blissful marriage and the ‘white picket fence’ sort of home. But lately, things between her and Henrik have been strained. It isn’t supposed to be this hard, and Eva is hoping that it’s just work stress. But then, she discovers to her dismay that Henrik has been unfaithful. And, in one plot thread of this story, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she finds out, she makes plans of her own, but things spiral far out of her control…

Another of those myths is the ‘golden life in a new place.’ After all, that’s the reason so many millions of immigrants have made the move from their homes to a new country. But, for many immigrants, no matter which country they choose, it’s rarely as easy is it seems that it ought to be. There’s the language, there’s finding work, there’s educating children, and more. In some cases, such as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, immigrants end up being highly successful; and in real life, that does happen.

But there are also cases where settling in to a new country and lifestyle is a lot harder than the myths say. For instance, in Robin Cook’s Vector, we are introduced to a taxi driver named Yuri Davydov. In the former Soviet Union, he was a technician working for the Soviet biological weapons program. After the breakup of the USSR, he emigrated to the US, lured (as he sees it) by promises of wealth and great success. But that hasn’t happened. He hasn’t found any sort of job in his area of expertise, so he’s had to take a job driving a cab. He’s completely disaffected, and so, is easy prey for an equally-disaffected group of skinheads who want to carry out a plan of ‘revenge’ – the release of anthrax in New York City. When medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Lori Montgomery become aware of the plot they have to work to find out who’s behind it, and stop the conspirators if they can.

There are many other crime novels that feature immigrants who find that life in their new home is a lot harder than they’d thought. Eva Dolan, Ruth Rendell, and Ausma Zehanat Khan, among others, have all written about this topic. And they’re far from the only ones.

Those myths of how easy it’s ‘supposed to be’ to have a child, sustain a marriage, become a professional lawyer (or doctor, or professor, etc.) are woven into many cultures. And those dreams can be motivating. But the reality is seldom much like the myth. And that can add tension, a plot thread, or a layer of character development to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Spinfire’s Prove Me Wrong.

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Filed under Ausma Zehanat Khan, Eva Dolan, Gail Bowen, Helen Fitzgerald, Karin Alvtegen, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, Ruth Rendell, Sinéad Crowley

Eva Beware Your Ambition*

Ambition is a fascinating human trait. On the one hand, it can push people to reach important goals that they might not otherwise attempt. Ambition is what gets a person through difficult exams, grueling work hours, and so on. But, like other human traits, it has its negative side, too. In fact, too much ambition can lead to disaster.

It’s interesting the way we view people who are ambitious. We may dislike what seems to be ruthlessness. But at the same time, we may admire those who have ‘made it.’ They’ve succeeded. At the very least, many people respect the drive that ambitious people have.

In crime fiction, ambition can make for a fascinating layer of character development. Since it can be both a fault and a strength, ambition can make for a more well-rounded character. And that’s to say nothing for what ambition can add in terms of suspense and even motive for murder.

Agatha Christie created several ambitious sorts of characters. One of them is Thora Grey, whom we meet in The ABC Murders. She serves as assistant to retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. One of Clarke’s passions is Chinese art, and Grey helps him to catalogue his findings, sort out his display room, search out new finds, and so on. One night, Clarke is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But his death is soon linked to two other deaths. Each body is found with an ABC railway guide nearby. And, each death is preceded by a cryptic warning note sent to Hercule Poirot. He and Captain Hastings work with the police to try to find out who is committing the murders. As he gets to know Grey a little better, he sees that she’s not really the mild-mannered, willing secretary/assistant that she seems to be on the surface. In fact, she’s quite ambitious.  As Poirot puts it, she is
 

‘…a type of young woman “on the make.’’
 

Grey’s ambitions are not really the reason for which her employer is murdered. But they play their role in the story.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Alice Steele. She’s a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant who’s had to scratch and scrabble for a living. In fact, she’s gotten involved with some disreputable people, and done things most people would think are sordid, especially in the 1950’s, when this story takes place. She gets her chance at a better life when she meets Bill King. He’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office, and has a real chance at some success. He falls in love with Alice, and it seems that the feeling is mutual. Despite the reservations that Bill’s sister, Lora, has about the match, the two get married. At first, Lora tries hard to develop a positive relationship with her new sister-in-law. But soon, little things about Alice don’t seem to add up. And the better she gets to know Alice, the more repelled she is by Alice’s life. At the same time, she is drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice just might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s doing so to protect her brother, Lora starts asking questions. That choice draws her even more into Alice’s past.

Robin Cook’s Seizure features Dr. Daniel Lowell. He’s been conducting promising stem cell research, and is hoping for both professional support and funding to pursue his interests. He’s not ambitious in the sense of being greedy, but he does want to make his name as a world-class researcher. He’s also, of course, interested in science and in what medicine can do. He’s concerned because the US Congress, in particular, Senator Ashley Butler, is proposing a ban on the sort of research he’s conducting. So, it’s a real shock when Butler contacts him with a proposal. It turns out Butler has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He’ll never be able to fulfill his own ambition of becoming president of the US if word of this gets out. So, he offers Lowell a deal. Butler will withdraw his objection to the research, in exchange for which Lowell will perform his controversial surgical procedure on Butler. Lowell agrees, and the two go to a private clinic in the Bahamas, to preserve secrecy. It turns out that ambition carries both men to extraordinary and dangerous lengths.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Mma Holonga. It seems that Mma Holonga is the successful owner of a chain of hair salons. She’s doing well professionally, but hasn’t taken the time to find someone to marry. Now she feels the time has come, and she wants Mma Ramotswe to help her choose among four suitors. One of them is Mopedi Bobologo. On the surface of it, he seems a fine enough choice for a husband, if a bit dull. He’s a well-regarded teacher, and he runs House of Hope, which is a home for troubled young girls. Mma Ramotswe soon finds, though, that underneath the surface, Mr. Bobologo is quite ambitious. In fact, he may even be marrying Mma Holonga for her money. When Mma Ramotswe tells her client what she’s found, though, she gets a surprising reaction. In this novel, it’s interesting to see how ambition can be hidden beneath a very mild-mannered sort of exterior.

And then there’s Rachel da Silva, whom we meet in John Daniell’s The Fixer. She writes for a Brazilian magazine, and wants to move ahead in her career. She gets her chance when she is sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, its popularity, and the rugby life. One of the players on the team she visits is former New Zealand All-Blacks star Mark Stevens. Stevens is getting closer to the end of his career, but he’s not quite ready to end his playing days. So, he’s spending a few years on a French professional team. Rachel is attractive, smart, and interesting, so Stevens has no problem agreeing to an interview. That interview gives access to the rest of the team, and it leads to a relationship between the two. It turns out, though, that Rachel has other ambitions. Soon enough, she tells Stevens about a friend of hers named Philip, who’s made a lot of money betting on rugby. Before he knows it, Stevens is drawn into a web of inside information. It makes Stevens uncomfortable, but it also means money that he needs for his retirement and for his family. Things change, though, when match-fixing is proposed. Stevens doesn’t want to cheat his teammates or ruin his reputation. But by now, he’s in deep. If he’s going to extricate himself, he’ll have to be very, very careful. In this novel, we see how ambition can drive people to do things, even illegal things, that they otherwise wouldn’t do.

And that’s the thing. Ambition is a positive quality in some ways. But it’s also got a very dangerous side. Like everything else, it needs to be tempered.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Eva and Magaldi/Eva Beware of the City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, John Daniell, Megan Abbott, Robin Cook