Category Archives: Roger Smith

I’m Free*

nmandelaAs this is posted, it’s 27 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison. People around the world watched as he walked out of the prison and into a new life that led to the top of South Africa’s leadership.

It’s all got me to thinking about what it’s like for people who’ve been imprisoned, and are set free. That’s a common plot point in crime fiction, of course, and it’s interesting to see how it’s handled. Of course, a lot of fictional characters haven’t been wrongly imprisoned in the same way that Mandela was. But that plot point can add an interesting layer to a story.

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables isn’t usually thought of as a crime novel. Still, there’s a crime in it, and Jean Valjean is imprisoned for twenty years because of it. The novel, of course, tells, among other things, the story of what happens after he leaves prison, and his reaction to being freed:
 

‘…when Jean Valjean heard in his ear the unfamiliar words, ‘You are free,’ the moment seemed improbable and extraordinary, and a ray of bright light, of the true light of the living, penetrated to him…’
 

His joy is short-lived, as you’ll no doubt know. But it’s no less there at first.
 

There’s the same sort of wonderment when Elinor Carlisle is freed in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. She’s been imprisoned for the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard, lodgekeeper’s daughter at Elinor’s family home, Hunterby. There’s good reason to suspect Elinor, too. For one thing, her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman has become infatuated with Mary, to the point where their engagement has been broken off. For another, Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura has very much taken to Mary, and there’s a good chance that she might bequeath all of her fortune to her, and not Elinor or Roddy. Still, local GP Peter Lord wants Elinor’s name cleared, mostly because he’s fallen in love with her. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. At the end of the trial, Elinor is freed. Here is what Poirot says about it:
 

‘‘When one has walked in the valley of the shadow of death, and come out of it into the sunshine – then, mon cher, it is a new life that begins…’’
 

And, although Christie isn’t specific, she does hint at exactly that.

Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel takes an interesting perspective on release from prison. In that novel, artist Agatha Troy is commissioned to do a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasman. The plan is for her to spend the Christmas holidays at his home, Halbards, while she does the work. Troy soon learns that Halbards is a bit unusual. All of the people who work there are people who’ve served time for murder. Bill-Tasman believes that these are not, by nature, violent people who are a threat to society. His view is that they killed once, but aren’t likely to again. He also believes in the redemptive power of honest work and a chance to start life over. For the staff members, it’s an opportunity that very few others would have been willing to give them, so they are grateful. The house runs smoothly enough until Christmas Eve. On that night, a special event is planned, in which Bill-Tasman’s Uncle Fleaton ‘Uncle Flea’ Forrester is to dress up as a Druid and distribute gifts to the local children, who’ve been invited for a party. Uncle Flea takes ill, though, and his valet/servant Aflred Moult takes his place. Right after the gifts are distributed, though, he disappears, and is later found dead. Bill-Tasman’s staff members come under quite a lot of suspicion, especially given their prison records. But Troy isn’t so sure any of them is guilty. Her husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is concerned, anyway, about his wife’s staying in a house where a murderer is likely staying. So, partly for that reason, he visits Halbards and investigates the crime. Together, he and Troy discover what really happened to Moult and why.

In one plot thread of Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, former journalist Robert Dell, his wife, Rosie, and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon near Cape Town. They’re ambushed, and their car goes over an embankment. Rose and the children die in the tragedy, but Dell survives (albeit with injuries). The police accuse Dell of murdering his family members (and it’s not spoiling the story to say that he is innocent). And it’s soon clear that nothing he says is going to make any difference. He’s imprisoned, framed for murder. Unbeknownst to Dell, his father, Bobby Goodbread, has learned of his situation, and finds a way to free him from jail. The two have been estranged for years, mostly due to their differing views on race, apartheid and politics. But Dell is extremely grateful to be free, and he and his father, each for a different reason, go in search of the person who really killed Dell’s family.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. A woman has recently been released from prison for murder. She’s given a place to live not far from a local child care facility, and settles in with her beloved companion, a bit bull named Sully. One day, the woman gets a letter from the local council. It seems that one of the parents associated with the child care facility has complained about Sully. Since he’s a restricted breed, his owner will have no choice but to get rid of him. Sully means everything to this woman, so she plots her own kind of revenge. As the story goes along, we learn why she was in prison, and what happened. It’s not as clear-cut a case as it seems in the beginning of the story. So, the reader is left to determine whether she was unjustly imprisoned.

It’s very interesting to see how crime writers approach that topic of people who’ve been released from jail. They have all sorts of reasons for being there, and all sorts of experiences after their release. And it can make for very interesting plot points and characters.

 

This ‘photo is iconic; it shows Nelson Mandela leaving Robben Island. Thanks, NPR.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Ngaio Marsh, Roger Smith, Victor Hugo

We Drank a Toast to Innocence, We Drank a Toast to Now*

ReunionsA really well-written post from Marina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write, has got me thinking about meeting up again with people from the past. In these days of easy access to social media, it’s not very difficult to track down someone you were friends with years ago, or your first love, or someone else who used to mean a lot to you. But even so, sometimes years go by without having any contact with those people.

What happens when, after many years, you meet up again with someone from the past? Sometimes it’s a wonderful experience. It can be awkward, though. It’s easy to be nostalgic about the past instead of realistic. And people do change over time, not always for the better. So sometimes these sorts of reunions don’t turn out well. But they’re always interesting, and they can add a layer of character development to a story.

There are a few such reunions in Agatha Christie’s work. One of them is between Rosamund Darnley and Captain Kenneth Marshall, whom we meet in Evil Under the Sun. Rosamund is a successful clothing designer who’s built a reputation for herself. She’s taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay, when she gets a ‘blast from the past.’ Kenneth, his wife Arlena, and his daughter Linda unexpectedly come to the same hotel. Rosamund and Kenneth grew up together, but hadn’t seen each other for more than fifteen years. They’re very happy to meet again, and they enjoy each other’s company. Then, Kenneth’s wife Arlena, who’s a famous actress, is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the local police to find the killer. Both Kenneth and Rosamund come under their share of suspicion, too. His marriage was not particularly happy; in fact, his wife was having a not-well-hidden affair. And Rosamund might have had her own reasons for wanting Arlena dead. You’re absolutely right, fans of Five Little Pigs and of The Hollow!

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn has a reunion in Murder at the Mendel. She and Sally Love were close friends when they were young. But then, Sally’s father died and the family moved away. Sally became an artist, and Joanne went on to a career in academia and political science. Then, word comes that Sally will be having a show of her work at the Mendel Gallery. Joanne wants to see the exhibit and, if possible, renew the friendship. The two women start talking again. But Sally isn’t the person Joanne wants to remember, and it’s not an easy reunion. Then, gallery owner Clea Poole is murdered and Sally becomes the chief suspect. The case turns out to be very painful, and has closer personal connections to Joanne’s past than she’d thought.

Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black is the first of her series featuring DI Jimmy Perez. Perez grew up in Fair Isle, Shetland, and was sent to school on Lerwick. It was a lonely time for him, mostly due to homesickness. And matters got worse when two bullies began to make his life miserable. At the time, fellow student Duncan Hunter befriended Perez and made boarding school a much better experience. But Perez and Hunter haven’t seen each other in years. Then, Hunter becomes a suspect in the murder of seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross. And Perez has to come to terms with the fact that Hunter has turned out to be an unpleasant person. That fact, plus the fact that Perez is investigating this crime, makes that reunion extremely awkward for both men.

Wendy James’ The Mistake includes a fascinating reunion. Jodie Evans Garrow grew up in a poor and dysfunctional family. But there was one bright spot in her life: her friend Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan. While they were friends, the two were inseparable. Years have gone by since then; Jodie has married a successful attorney and is now mother to two healthy children. Everything seems to be going just about perfectly, until the day her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident. She’s rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. No-one, not even her husband, knows about the baby. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave her up for adoption, but there are no formal records. So questions begin to arise. Where is the child? If she is dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? It turns out to be a nightmare for the Garrow family. Then one day, Jodie meets Bridie again at a book club meeting. The two renew their friendship, and it turns out to be a good experience for both.

There’s a different sort of reunion in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. Cape Town journalist Robert Dell and his wife and children are on a car trip one day when they are ambushed. The car goes over into a gorge, and Dell’s family is killed. Dell survives, though, and manages to make it back to Cape Town. He soon finds himself in terrible trouble, though, when he is arrested for the murders of his family members. It’s a trumped-up charge, and it’s clear Dell’s being framed. But he gets no cooperation from the police, and is soon jailed. His father, Bobby Goodbread, finds out about what’s happened and engineers his son’s escape. The reunion between father and son isn’t exactly friendly, as the two had been estranged for some time. Goodbread was pro-apartheid, while Dell was very much against it. That’s had all sorts of consequences for both, and makes meeting up again a difficult experience. But each man has reasons of his own to go after the person who really did ambush the Dell family. So they join forces. As the story goes on, they at least understand each other a little better, even though neither comes close to changing the other’s mind.

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse, the first of his Fiionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod novels. MacLeod is an Edinburgh police detective who’s been seconded to the Isle of Lewis. The murder of Lewis resident Angel Macritchie closely resembles a murder that MacLeod’s investigating already, so it’s hoped that if he works with the Lewis police, they’ll find out who the killer is. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the island, But it’s not one he relishes. There’ve been some very painful moments in his past. What’s more, he’s gone on to a different sort of life, while many of the people he knew as a child have stayed on the island. Some people have changed considerably; others haven’t. And to complicate matters, MacLeod still sees things with a young person’s perspective, which isn’t always accurate. It all makes for some real awkwardness as he gets back in contact with people he knew years ago.

And that’s the thing about renewing ties with someone you knew many years ago. People change, they get older, and their perspectives evolve. What’s more, when you have this sort of reunion, it can be difficult to accept the difference between the nostalgic view you may have had of someone, and the reality. But still, those bonds can be strong, and renewing them can add much to our lives.

Thank you, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, folks, may I suggest you make Finding Time to Write your next blog stop? Excellent poetry and flash fiction, lovely ‘photos, and terrific book reviews await you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Same Old Lang Syne.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Gail Bowen, Peter May, Roger Smith, Wendy James

We Can Learn From Each Other*

Cultural NexusOne of the plot threads in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead concerns the Andalusia Museum, a Toronto facility which is designed to celebrate the nexus of cultures in the Spanish region of Andalusia, especially during the Islamic Empire. Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty take an interest in the place when they investigate the murder of a major donor. It’s run by Mink Norman, who is passionate about that nexus. Here’s what she says about it:
 

‘‘Moorish architects designing a Jewish place of worship on Christian soil. Can you imagine such a sharing of religious space today?’’
 

That’s a very clear example of the way a variety of different cultures co-existed in that place at that time. And what’s interesting is, they didn’t just co-exist. They shared ideas and learned from each other. It wasn’t a question of members of different cultures who lived in the same city; you can see that in a lot of large, modern cities. Instead, it was a place where the cultures really blended.

Andalusia is a powerful example of a nexus of cultures, but it’s not the only one. And it’s very interesting to see how that sort of blending of cultures is portrayed in crime fiction. It can make for a compelling and interesting setting.

The region where I live, in Southern California, is arguably such a place. There’s a really interesting interconnection here of the traditional Spanish ‘mission’ culture, the more modern Mexican culture, and the dominant US culture. There are other influences,too. If you’ve been in this area, you’ve probably noticed it yourself. And there are several crime fiction authors who capture that blend in their work. For example, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch goes to several different places in Southern California as a part of the cases he works. In The Black Ice, he goes to the border towns of Calexico (California) and Mexicali (Mexico) in search of answers about the death of a fellow police officer, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. In fact, as we learn in the novel, Moore himself is a product of that nexus. You can also see this cultural blend in the work of Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer lives and works in the same area.

Another place where one can see that sort of infusion of many cultures is in the US state of Louisiana. As you’ll no doubt know, one group of people who’ve had a profound influence there is the Acadians, French speakers who were exiled from the eastern provinces of Canada. Today they’re known as Cajuns, and their language, music, food and culture are an important part of, especially, the southern parts of Louisiana. Just ask James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. He’s a Cajun who works for the New Iberia Police, and in the novels that feature him, we see a great deal of that culture. But we also see the other cultures that have blended into that part of Louisiana. For instance, there’s the influence of voodoo and other spiritual influence from Africa and the Caribbean (I invite you to check A Morning For Flamingos for interesting mentions of that). There are also many, many characters in the novels who are members of the black culture that has also profoundly influenced the region. There are other influences, too, and they’ve all contributed to the unique way of life there.

Shamini Flint’s series features Singapore-based Inspector Singh. He is a Sikh, although he doesn’t exactly observe the religion to the letter. Malaysia, where Singh lives, is another fascinating example of a nexus of cultures. There is influence from India (Singh even travels to India in A Curious Indian Cadaver). There is also Dutch influence, dating from the time of European exploration. There’s also a lot of influence from China (that link is clear in A Calamitous Chinese Killing). These and other cultures have all played important roles in life in Malaysia, and that’s evident in this series.

Another place where we see that sharing of cultures is Cape Town. There is Dutch influence (it was a Dutch colony), and English influence, too. There’s also indigenous influence from the people who were always there, and from indigenous groups who came later. There’ve also been many contributions from French Huguenots who made their way there as a result of religious wars in France. Despite apartheid, those different cultures influenced each other, learned from each other, and so on. We see that particular nexus in Deon Meyer’s work. In Meyer’s Benny Griessel novels and his standalones, we see that blending. Fans of Roger Smith’s work will know that we can also see what a cultural crucible Cape Town is in those stories.

There are other places, too, where different cultures have co-existed, have learned from one another and have benefited from the interactions. In those cases, the whole of a place is much more than the sum of its parts, as you might say. That certainly isn’t to say that it happens without tension, and even conflict – quite the contrary at times. But over time, and in the larger sense, that sort of co-existence can lead to a unique sort of setting. And it can serve as a fascinating context for a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ All Around the Place.

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Filed under Ausma Zehanat Khan, Deon Meyer, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Roger Smith, Ross Macdonald, Shamini Flint

It’s the Terror of Knowing What this World is About*

AnomieAny major change, especially a major social change, can make people uneasy. That uneasiness and anxiety – sociologists have called it anomie – can have drastic consequences. Some sociologists have looked at this from the broader perspective of general lawlessness. Others look at it from a more individual perspective – as a factor in deviance and lawbreaking. Either way you think about it, there’s certainly evidence for anomie in the real world.

There is in crime fiction, too, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Crime fiction deals with lawlessness, lawbreaking, and the perceived need to keep order. And from a purely literary point of view, that uneasiness and anxiety can make for a solid layer of tension and interest in a story.

Agatha Christie touches on anomie a few times in her stories. Just to give one example, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to Nasse House, in Nassecomb, at the request of his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions at an upcoming charity fête; but she’s come to suspect that there’s more going on at Nasse House than the preparations for the big event. She wants Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. On the day of the fête, Mrs. Oliver’s fears are justified when the body of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is discovered in the boathouse on the property. On the surface of it, there seems no motive to murder the girl. But Poirot keeps asking questions, and discovers that Marlene had found out some things it wasn’t safe for her to know. One of the themes that runs through this novel is the set of major socioeconomic changes that came after World War II. A few characters mention, for instance, the breakup and sale of former estates, and their use as Guest Houses and hostels. Others mention the increase in ‘foreigners’ in the country. As one character puts it,
 

‘‘So many things are hard, M. Poirot.’’
 

Admittedly, anomie isn’t the reason for Marlene’s murder. But it certainly is woven through the anxiety a lot of people feel in this novel.

After the breakup of the former Soviet Union, there was a great deal of social anxiety both there and in the other Warsaw Pact nations. There was exhilaration; at the same time, there was anxiety. If there wasn’t going to be a Soviet Union any more, what was there going to be? We see that anxiety in many novels of and about that era. I’ll just mention one. In Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Georgetown University law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith gets involved in the shooting death of US Congressman Paul Latham. At first Latham’s death is branded a suicide. But one of Smith’s former students, who’s now with the CIA, convinces him that there’s more to this death than that. One possible explanation for the murder is that Latham had made contact with a businessman who’s trying to make inroads into the new post-Soviet economy. And there are some very dangerous Russian ‘businessmen trying to fill the power vacuum in Russia. Negotiating these waters is Yvgeny Fodorov. With the fall of the Soviet Union, everything has changed, including his mother Vani. Nothing makes sense any more, and he feels truly disaffected by what he sees as the ruination of Russia. This makes him ripe for manipulation by the new Russian Mafia, and before he knows it, Fodorov is deeply involved in a much bigger and more dangerous scheme than he knows.

When the system of apartheid in South Africa ended, many people weren’t sure what was going to come next. If the ‘old order’ wasn’t going to determine life in that country any more, than what was? As much as people rightly celebrated the end of the apartheid era, they also weren’t sure what was going to come next. We see that anomie in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie, and their children are on a drive outside Cape Town when their car is ambushed and goes over an embankment. Dell is the only survivor. For reasons he doesn’t know, he’s soon framed for the murders of his family members and jailed in preparation for what will likely be a rigged trial. His estranged father, Bobby Goodbread, comes to his rescue, finding a way to get Dell out of prison. Then, for different reasons, they go in search of the man who actually killed Dell’s family. Also looking for the same man is Disaster Zondi, a bureaucrat who’s just lost his job. And then there’s seventeen-year-old Sonto, who usually goes by her English name, Sunday. She’s trying to escape becoming the fourth wife of the man who killed the Dell family. As the fates of these people intersect, we see the larger anxiety caused by the major social changes in the country. Nothing is certain and there seems no order of any kind. And that shows in many of the events in the story.

There are also plenty of crime novels that focus more on personal anomie – on the anxiety people feel when they’re rootless, with no order in their own lives. Several of Pascal Garnier’s stories have that sort of anomie as one of the elements. For example, in How’s the Pain? we are introduced to twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s rather aimless and purposeless, and not particularly good at anything. But he does have a driver license. And that’s just what Simon Marechall needs. Marechall has his own kind of anxiety. He’s an ageing contract killer who sees the end of his career coming. But he wants to get in one more job while he can. He wants Bernard to drive him to the French coast so that he can take care of his business, and Bernard agrees. What else, really, is there for him to do? What he doesn’t know at first is exactly the sort of business his new boss is in. If you’ve read Garnier, you know that this will not end happily ever after…

Natsuo Kirino’s Real World offers another look at the kind of rootlessness and anxiety that can lead to anomie. In that novel, Toshiko Yamanaka and three of her friends are drawn into a case of murder when the police suspect that Ryo, the boy who lives next door to Toshiko, has killed his mother. Toshiko has some information to share about the killing, but decides to lie to the police. She and each of her three friends interact with Ryo, who has fled, and each decides not to turn him in. As the days go by and Ryo does not return, we see how things spin out of control for all five young people. The result is tragic, and the novel highlights the alienation these teens feel. For various reasons, they don’t feel a part of their families’ society or culture. And they don’t have a strong sense of purpose in life. That anxiety and their uncertainty about where they fit in and what they’ll do plays a major role in the choices they make.

Nicole Watson’s The Boundary addresses the rootlessness and lack of purpose that change has brought to the Corrowa people of Brisbane. The real action in the story begins when a judge rules that the Corrowa people cannot prove their claim to Brisbane’s Meston Park. Hours later, the judge is murdered. Then, one by one, other people connected with the case are also killed. Among other things, this investigation forces several people involved, including the police who look into the murders, the lawyer who took the case to court, and others, to face their feelings of anxiety and unease about who they are and where they fit in.

And that’s the thing about anomie. Whether you look at it on a societal level or look at things such as delinquency, that sort of anxiety and lack of order and purpose can have real consequences. And that can add a rich texture in a crime novel

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure.  Bowie’s loss is a blow, and he will be much missed…

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Margaret Truman, Natsuo Kirino, Nicole Watson, Pascal Garnier, Roger Smith

When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down*

(FILES) West Berliners crowd in front ofThere are certain ‘watershed’ moments in time that change everything. They force a sort of paradigm shift that’s thrilling and exhilarating, but at the same time can be nerve-wracking. Everything people have known is now different, and it can be frightening to conceive of a new order, no matter how desperately the old order needed to be changed. I’m sure we could all think of examples of those major changes throughout history. I’ve only space here for a few of them; I hope they’ll suffice.

The old social order in the US for many generations was institutionalised racism. And even in places where there weren’t laws mandating it, there was often de facto segregation. Beginning in the 1940s, though, those walls started to fall. First it was Major League Baseball. Then it was the US military. And bit by bit more change happened. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought the issue to the forefront of the national conversation. The paradigm began to shift, and brought with it a whole new social order. Does this mean racism is over? Of course not. There’s still racism, and there’s still awkwardness about race, and those things make having a national conversation about it difficult. We don’t know what kind of a new social order will develop; it’s only been fifty years and we have quite a ways to go. But the end of de jure segregation in the US was a watershed moment in history. Speaking strictly for myself, the moment was captured when Barack Obama took the Oath of Office as the 44th US President. No matter what you think about him, his politics, etc.. (This isn’t really about politics anyway), it changed the rules.

We see that watershed captured in a lot of crime fiction. I’ll just share one instance. In Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a missing Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a group of hippies, so Rawlins begins his search with those people. He hears that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about them so he makes contact with her and arranges to meet her at a restaurant. While they’re there, something happens that surprises Rawlins; here’s his observation about it:

 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’

 

The paradigm shift away from the old order may not be complete yet, but Rawlins’ moment of happy surprise is obvious.

In 1947, India became independent. As you’ll know, the independence movement had been building for some time, but it culminated with the raising of the flag of India in August of that year. It was a joyful, exhilarating time. It was also a time of awkwardness and change, as all watersheds are. There was a whole new paradigm and India had a whole new course to chart, as the saying goes. That’s captured just a bit in H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. In that novel, which takes place in the early 1960s, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector with the Bombay Police and is hoping to take some much-needed time off with his pregnant wife Protima. Instead, he is sent to the town of Mahableshwar to look into the apparent suicide of Iris Dawkins, whose husband is a friend of Ghote’s boss Sir Rustom Engineer. Ghote’s job is to find out what drove the victim to kill herself. When he arrives and starts asking questions though, he discovers that this isn’t as straightforward a case as he thought. It takes time, but little by little, he finds out the truth about what happened to Iris. One of the threads in this novel is the changing dynamic between Anglo-Indians and Indians without a British background. The rules have changed, and the social order is different now. This makes for some awkwardness as Ghote investigates (after all, he’s investigating a lot of White people). India’s independence is only 67 years old as I write this. It’s hard to see what sort of country will emerge as India evolves. But those choices are India’s to make.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison on South Africa’s Robben Island. That iconic image of him leaving the prison is etched on many people’s memories. And it marked a watershed moment in history. The social order imposed by apartheid (and by common consent even before those laws) was changed. The rules everyone had lived by for a very long time no longer structured people’s lives. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series captures neatly the world of South Africa during the apartheid years. When apartheid ended in the early 1990s, this opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for the country. This paradigm shift meant that the dynamic among Afrikaners, English, Blacks, Indians and others within the country would have to change, and that hasn’t been easy. Of course, it’s only been twenty years as I write this. If you read the work of Deon Meyer, Roger Smith or Jassy Mackenzie, it’s clear that the new social order, whatever it will eventually be, is still evolving. But with that uncertainty has also been the excitement and joy for millions of people of having their futures in their own hands.

As I post this, today marks the 25th anniversary of another watershed: the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989. From just after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and its allies had been engaged in a Cold War (which blew hot more than once) with the US, the UK and their allies. Millions of people had never known any other kind of social reality. There was a certain structure to life, and for most people, the concept of living in any other way was unimaginable. When the wall came down though, this event changed everything. It wasn’t a sudden moment of change; pressure had been building in Eastern Europe for democracy or at least for autonomy from the then-Soviet Union (as an example, just look at the Gdansk-based Solidarity movement of the 1980s). And even in the Soviet Union itself, pressure had been growing for personal freedom and for a move towards democracy. But that moment, when the wall was breached and then officially opened, marked a paradigm shift. And when the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the countries of Eastern Europe (to say nothing of the former Soviet states) had a whole new social order to create.

That new reality hasn’t been easy. Anya Lipska addresses that very issue in her novels featuring DC Natalie Kershaw and Janusz Kiszka. Kiszka is Polish, a veteran of the Gdansk uprising and movement towards Polish independence. The new Poland isn’t always to his liking; it’s not as uniquely Polish as he’d prefer, now that it’s so easy to interact with the world. Kiszka lives in London, where he sees even more the impact on the Polish community of integration with the rest of the world. But at the same time, he wouldn’t want the old order restored.

We also see some of the uncertainty in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector and Ian Rankin’s Exit Music. In all of those novels (and there are many others), we see for instance the rise of the Russian and Eastern European Mobs as the economies of Russia and Eastern Europe evolve. We also see how the political processes in those countries have changed as the sociopolitical paradigm has shifted. None of this has been easy.

But (and here’s the important thing), those processes and those changes are now in the hands of the people most directly affected by them. Of course the choices aren’t always pleasant, but there are choices. There are challenges and difficulties, but there are also options and opportunities that were never possible. That’s what watersheds are all about, really: challenges, but wonderful possibilities at the same time.

On this anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, my thoughts are with those who gave their lives to make those opportunities possible.

ps. I wish I had been there to see the wall actually opened. I wasn’t, but Time magazine was. Thank you, Time, for this ‘photo.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp and George Green’s Crumblin’ Down.

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Filed under Anya Lipska, Deon Meyer, H.R.F. Keating, Ian Rankin, Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn, Margaret Truman, Robin Cook, Roger Smith, Walter Mosley