Category Archives: Ross Macdonald

Am I Living it Right?*

teaching-lessonsAn interesting post by author and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has got me thinking about the way stories are used to teach lessons. In oral history cultures, stories are used to teach values, what it means to behave appropriately, and so on. And there are plenty of stories like that in cultures with written histories, too. For instance, many children’s tales teach the value of hard work (The Little Red Hen is one). Others teach other values (honesty, for instance, in The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’).

What about crime fiction? Does crime fiction teach values, or a culture’s priorities? Perhaps it doesn’t do so deliberately. I don’t, personally, know any crime writer who consciously integrates a ‘values’ lesson. But there is an argument that an author’s, or a culture’s, values come through in the genre. And that makes sense. Crime fiction is written by humans. And humans have value systems and priorities.

You’ll notice that this post won’t make reference to things such as an author’s political agenda, or to an author’s stance on particular issues. Rather, I mean larger value systems.

For instance, I’m sure you could name dozens of crime novels where we see the lesson that ‘money doesn’t buy happiness.’ If you look at Raymond Chandler’s work (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Big Sleep, but it’s hardly the only example), you see that his Philip Marlowe often works with families that are rich, but miserable. The same is true of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer in The Far Side of the Dollar.

There are plenty of other lessons in crime fiction, too. In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we are introduced to British special agent Colin Lamb. He’s been looking into the death of a fellow agent, and believes that the key may be a spy ring that this agent was investigating. The trail leads to the small town of Crowdean, and to a street called Wilbraham Crescent. Lamb’s following up on that lead when he gets drawn into a case of murder. It’s not directly related to his own case, but he works with Inspector Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle to solve the crime – with help from his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot. At the same time, he’s pursuing his own investigation. And, in the end, he finds the answers. Woven throughout the story (as is the case in a lot of Agatha Christie’s work) is the question of human nature. People are complex – much more than just their intellect – and Christie often makes a point of discussing that complexity. At this end of this novel, Lamb says,
 

‘‘I’m content…to be human.’’ 
 

It’s an interesting reminder that underneath everything, people are human beings, and, Christie seems to say, should be valued as such. Perhaps that’s why Poirot, as he says, does not approve of murder.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s work will know that most of his stories take place in the US Southwest, among the Navajo people. In fact, his two protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are members of the Navajo Nation, as well as being officers in the Navajo Tribal Police. Since many of the characters in these novels are Navajo, readers learn about that culture. And one of the important lessons in the Navajo culture is the concept of hozro – beauty. But in this case, ‘beauty’ doesn’t refer to physical attractiveness or visual appeal. Rather, it means harmony with one’s environment, and peace with one’s situation. All sorts of things can threaten that harmony. Sickness, grief, and encounters with death are just a few examples. So are anxiety and anger. The Navajo culture teaches the value of harmony with others and with one’s environment, and that comes through in Hillerman’s stories. In more than one novel (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Ghostway, among others), characters deal with death, with trauma and so on, and then seek to restore themselves to hozro. It’s portrayed as a desirable state.

Simplicity and being comfortable with oneself are portrayed as valuable in several of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe novels. For instance, as fans can tell you, Mma Ramotswe is ‘traditionally built.’ Normally, she doesn’t worry too much about that fact. She wears flat, comfortable sandals, and clothing that’s roomy enough for her. She makes no attempt to hide her size. And yet, in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she decides to go on a diet. As it turns out, she’s no better off once she starts her diet, and she gets a reminder that she’s not really being true to herself, as the saying goes. In the same novel, Mma’s assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, has her heart set on a pair of beautiful blue shoes she saw in a shop. They don’t quite fit, and they’re not really right for work wear. But Mma Makutsi is determined, and buys them. In both of these cases, we get reminders of the value of being happy with simple things, and being comfortable with oneself.

Paddy Richardson’s Rebecca Thorne gets a lesson in Traces of Red. She’s a successful Wellington TV journalist who gets what she thinks will be a chance at a story that will cement her position at the top of New Zealand journalism. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Thorne learns that there is a possibility that Bligh might be innocent. If so, there’s a major story there, and she goes after it. In doing so, she finds herself getting much closer to the story than is safe. And she learns important lessons about ambition.

Crime fiction may not be written with the purpose of teaching a lesson, as, say, Aesop’s fables were. And readers would probably get annoyed anyway with crime novels that served as ‘morality plays.’ At the same time, there are lessons woven through the genre. And it’s interesting to see how they reflect an author or a culture’s values.

Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration. Folks, do visit D.S. Nelson’s great blog, and try her Blake Heatherington mysteries. They’re terrific.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Why Georgia.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald

You’re Keeping Secrets From Me*

secrets-children-keepHow well do you really know your children? Loving and caring parents want to believe that they know their children very well, and perhaps they do. But how well can you truly know anyone, even someone you love? We all have private thoughts, and most of us have our own personal secrets. So, in real life, it’s not surprising that we might not know everything about our children. And sometimes, the things we don’t know can be quite unsettling.

In crime fiction, that fact can add a great deal to a novel. It can add tension to a plot as parents discover things about their children, and as children keep their secrets. It can also add a layer of character development and interest. And in whodunits, the secrets children keep can add to the list of suspects or ‘red herrings.’

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, we are introduced to Captain Kenneth Marshall. He’s come for a holiday to the Jolly Roger, on Leathercombe Bay. With him is his wife, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Linda. One day, Arlena is strangled, and her body found not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the Jolly Roger, and he works with the local police to find out who the killer is. As Poirot gets to know the other hotel guests, he learns things about Linda – things her father didn’t know. For instance, Linda hadn’t adjusted well at all to her stepmother, and felt very awkward around her. Her dislike of the victim makes her a possible suspect, even though her father really didn’t know that she was unhappy.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer gets a very challenging case. Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida School, has hired Archer to find one of his pupils, Tom Hillman, who’s gone missing. Tom’s parents are wealthy and well-connected, so Sponti wants Archer to solve this case as quickly and as quietly as possible. Archer is in Sponti’s office, discussing the matter with him, when Tom’s father, Ralph, bursts in. It seems that Tom’s been abducted, and his captors are demanding ransom money. Archer returns with Ralph to the Hillman home to see what he can do. Soon enough, he comes to believe that all is not as it seems on the surface. For one thing, the Hillmans are surprisingly reticent about Tom, and about the reason for which he’s at Laguna Perdida. There are also hints that Tom might not have been kidnapped at all, but left of his own accord. If so, then there could very likely be things about Tom that his parents don’t know. Certainly there are things they’re not telling Archer. Those secrets turn out to be crucial to what’s happened to Tom.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She’s one of the most academically promising students at her secondary school, and her teacher, Ilse Klein, has high hopes for her. Then, Serena begins skipping school. And when she is there, she shows little interest in her lessons or in participating in class. Ilse begins to be concerned for the girl, and speaks to the school’s counseling team. A visit to Serena’s home does little good, as her mother isn’t much interested in the girl. And it’s soon clear that she doesn’t know much about her daughter’s life. Then, Serena disappears. Ilse soon finds that she is more drawn into Serena’s situation than she had imagined she would be.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls deals with the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. At the time, she was spending the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin and their two children, Mick and Jane. There wasn’t much to do, so Angela spent a lot of time with Mick and his friends, playing pinball at a local drugstore. Then one day, she went missing. She was later found dead, with a scarf tied around her head. At first, the police concentrated on Angela’s family and Mick’s friends. But there was never any clear evidence against any of them. Then, a few months later, another girl was found dead, also with a scarf around her neck. The police began considering the possibility of a serial killer (the press dubbed the murderer the Sydney Strangler), but the murderer was never caught. Now, years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on families who’ve lost someone to murder. She wants to interview the Griffin family, and gets reluctant permission. As she talks to the various people involved, we learn that there were sides to Angela that her parents didn’t know. And those things played their role in her death. James’ new novel, The Golden Child, also has as one of its themes the things that parents don’t know (or perhaps, don’t accept) about their children. I confess I’ve not read this one yet, but I am eagerly looking forward to reading it when it becomes available where I live.

And then there’s Theresa Schwegel’s The Good Boy. Featured in this novel is the Murphy family. Pete Murphy is a Chicago police officer with the K-9 team (his furry partner is Butch). He loves his wife, Sarah, but they’ve had some hard times lately. He also loves his teenage daughter, McKenna, and eleven-year-old son, Joel. But McKenna has started living her own life, a lot of which she keeps secret. Joel, too, has made his own life. When Joel learns that McKenna is planning to go to a party at the home of Zack Fowler, he gets concerned. He already has good reason to hate and fear Zack, and he is convinced McKenna’s going to get into trouble. So, he takes Butch and goes to the Fowler house to try to help her. It all backfires badly when there’s a shooting. Joel and Butch go on the run, and now Pete has two big problems. For one thing, he’s involved in another investigation. For another, he’s got to find his missing son, and protect his daughter from the consequences of being at a house where there was a shooting. As Pete and Sarah try to find their son and help their daughter, they learn things about their children that neither one knew.

And that’s probably true of a lot of parents. We may know our children very well, and they may never get into trouble at all. But there are always pieces of them that they keep to themselves. We shouldn’t be surprised; we do the same.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Xavier Rudd’s Secrets.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Paddy Richardson, Ross Macdonald, Theresa Schwegel, 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

I Don’t Know What You’re Expecting of Me*

Stress On Young PeopleA few days ago I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who has young children. We were talking about the many stresses there are on today’s young people, and how that may impact them. And there is certainly a lot of pressure out there. To begin with, growing up isn’t easy. If you add to that the major societal changes of the last decades, the influence of the Internet and other social media, and the lightning-quick pace of life, it’s easy to see why so many young people are so stressed.

But the truth is, there’s always been pressure of one kind or another on children. A certain amount of it is more or less inevitable. And there’s a strong argument that it’s important to learn to take responsibility, cope with a certain amount of stress, and even experience failure sometimes. All of those things help us to be capable, confident adults. But there is definitely such a thing as too much pressure, and it can have damaging effects. We’ve all read such stories from real-life news; it’s there in crime fiction as well.

For instance, in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to twenty-eight-year old Gideon Davies. All his life, he’s had a rare musical gift, and has become a world-class violin virtuoso. One terrible night, he finds that he can’t play. Desperate to discover the source of that block, he starts to visit a psychologist. In one plot thread of this novel, he explores his past, which includes the tragic drowning death of his younger sister when she was a toddler. As he does, we see what the impact has been of the pressure put on him to make the most of his gift. It has profoundly influenced his thinking and his self-image.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features the Garrow family. Hannah Garrow is a healthy, psychologically normal (whatever that even means!) teen. Her parents Angus and Jodie love her and care about her. They’ve sent her to the ‘right’ school and are doing what they can set her up for success. But Hannah faces quite a lot of pressure. For one thing, there’s the matter of fitting in with her peers. She doesn’t identify with the socially popular students, and has little interest in ‘social climbing.’ And there’s the fact that her father is being spoken of as the next mayor of Arding (New South Wales). In order to be considered for that position, his family life has to bear up under scrutiny, so Hannah feels considerable pressure to be a successful politician’s daughter. Then one day, Hannah is involved in an accident that sends her to a Sydney hospital. As it turns out, it’s the same hospital where, years earlier, her mother Jodie gave birth to another daughter – one no-one’s ever known about before. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks into that, she finds no formal record of adoption. Now gossip begins to spread about Jodie. Where is the child? If she died, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie becomes a social pariah, it all has a terrible impact on Hannah. As parts of the story are told from her perspective, we see how all of this pressure affects her.

There’s plenty of pressure on young people in Ross Mcdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. Seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman has been sent to Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled young people. When he disappears one day, Dr. Sponti, who runs the school, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. They’re in Sponti’s office discussing the case when Tom’s father Ralph arrives. He says that Tom’s been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding ransom. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to help locate the boy before anything happens to him. Soon enough, he begins to notice some strange things. To begin with, Ralph Hillman and his wife Elaine don’t seem to have the frantic, panicked reaction to their son’s disappearance as you’d think. There are hints, too, that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who took him from the school. Then, there’s a murder. Then, there’s another murder, this time of one of the people with Tom. As Archer gets closer to the truth about what happened to Tom, and about the killings, we see that the pressure on young people doesn’t get any easier when parents and others are in denial about it.

Serena Freeman faces different sorts of pressure in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. At fifteen, she’s got a great deal of academic promise, and her teacher Ilsa Klein has real hopes for her. But it’s not easy for Serena. She comes from ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ and her home life has been difficult. It doesn’t help matters that her mother has the reputation of being somewhat promiscuous. Still, Serena works hard and dreams of a better life. Then, she begins to lose interest in school. She stops attending regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate in class. Now Ilsa is worried about Serena, and alerts the school counseling staff. That doesn’t do much good, as Serena’s mother isn’t co-operative. One day, Serena disappears. For three weeks, not much is done to find her. But when her older sister Lynette ‘Lynnie’ finds out her sister is missing, she is determined to learn what happened. She travels from Wellington, where she lives, to the family’s home in Alexandria to find Serena. Her search leads her in directions she couldn’t have imagined.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions shows, among other things, the intense pressure on young people during the middle school years. Yūko Moriguchi is a middle school teacher who has suffered the worst loss any parent can imagine: the death of her four-year-old daughter Manami. What’s worse, Manami was murdered, and Yūko knows who was responsible: two of her students. She announces her resignation in a speech to her class, making it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She’s well aware that the juvenile justice system can’t be trusted to dispense an appropriate punishment, because the offenders are juveniles. So she has developed her own plan. While she doesn’t spell out her scheme in so many words, her students quickly pick up on her intentions. After her resignation, Yoshiteru Terada takes over as teacher, and superficially, life goes on. But things soon begin to spin out of control, especially for three of the students. As we follow their stories, we learn what happened to Manami and what the plan for retribution really was. More to the point of this post, we get a look at the intense pressure for high grades, the bullying, and the other stresses that many of today’s young people have to face.

It’s never been easy to grow up. And there isn’t enough space in this one post to add in some of the other factors that only make things worse. For instance, there are many, many places where young people don’t get a chance to go to school (or to go for long) because they must get jobs as soon as possible. And there are places where those jobs get young people involved in the commercial sex trade and other extremely stressful work. It is important to learn to handle some pressure, to take responsibility for one’s own actions, and so on. It’s not very healthy to be overprotected. At the same time, research shows that excess pressure and stress can be toxic.

Finding a balance is the tricky part. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. As well as the normal pressures of growing up, all four of her children have had to cope with the stress of losing a parent. And her youngest daughter Taylor faces the added pressure of being a gifted artist whose work is already getting her a lot of attention. Helping these young people bear their burdens without coddling them or taking over is one of the ‘family’ threads woven throughout this series.

Which novels and series have brought this theme home to you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Linkin Park’s Numb.

 

 

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Filed under Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Ross Macdonald, Wendy James

Acting Like a Born Aristocrat*

Casual SnobberyMost of us would probably say we don’t care much for snobbery. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a snub, then you know how alienating that can be. What’s interesting too is that sometimes, the assumptions that underlie snobbery (i.e. I belong to a group that’s inherently better than other groups) is so deeply ingrained that snobs may not even be aware of their own beliefs.

I got to thinking about that kind of snobbery after reading a really interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books. And by the way, if you don’t already follow that excellent blog, I really do recommend it. It’s a fabulous site for daily posts on fictional fashion, culture, and what it all says about us. Snobbery really is woven into a lot of cultures, and it’s certainly a part of crime fiction as well. There are far too many examples for me to list them all in this one post, but here are a few.

Agatha Christie depicts snobbery in several of her novels and stories. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a group of passengers is en route by air from Paris to London. Towards the end of the flight, one of the passengers, Marie Morisot, dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Hercule Poirot, who is on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who is guilty. Among the characters, we find a ‘mixed bag’ of people. Some of them, such as passenger Venetia Kerr, are ‘well born’ and have the assumptions of their class. It’s not that they’re rude or deliberately offensive. But, as one character puts it:
 

‘She walks about as though she owns the earth; she is not conceited about it: she is just an Englishwoman.’
 

There’s also Cicely Horbury, who started as ‘just a chorus girl,’ but has married Lord Stephen Horbury. In her case, she has eagerly taken on the lifestyle of the upper classes, but she doesn’t have those unconscious assumptions. She’s quite a different sort of snob. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile, Lord Edgware Dies, etc.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer gets a new client: Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida, a school for ‘troubled youth.’ Sponti is worried because one of the students, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. Tom’s parents are both wealthy and well-connected, so he’s afraid of what will happen if they find out Tom’s gone. Archer is at the school discussing the case with Sponti when Tom’s father Ralph Hillman bursts in with shocking news. It seems that Tom has been kidnapped and his abductors want ransom money. Archer returns to the Hillman home with Ralph and begins to investigate, in the hopes of finding Tom. It’s soon clear to Archer that this is no ordinary kidnapping case. For one thing, the Hillmans are not nearly as forthcoming about Tom and the family dynamics as you’d expect from a couple desperate to get their son back. For another, it’s quite possible that Tom may know the people who took him, and may in fact be with them willingly. Then, one of the people Tom is with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. As Archer finds out the truth in this case, we see how the Hillmans’ money and power have affected their assumptions about themselves and others. They are snobbish in their way, and that’s how they treat Archer- often without really seeming to be aware of it. What’s more, it’s very important for them to keep up their status in the community.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. One of the clients with whom he works in this novel is prominent attorney Ajay Kasliwal. A few months ago, one of Kasliwal’s household servants, Mary Murmu, disappeared. Now, evidence has come out that suggests Kasliwal raped and killed her. He claims that he’s innocent and has no idea what happened to her. But the police want to prove to the public that they cannot be ‘bought,’ so they’re making an example of Kasliwal. Puri agrees to look into the matter, and he and his team begin to investigate. As they search for the truth, we see how the Kasliwals’ assumptions about themselves and others are woven into what they say and do. On the one hand, Kasilwal is not a cruel, arrogant person. He’s not even particularly unpleasant. But it doesn’t really occur to either him or his wife to communicate with Mary’s family, members of an entirely different social class. And Mary’s life is not really important to either of the Kasliwals: their concern over her has to do with the possible damage to the family’s reputation, not with any concern for her.

We also see that same kind of casual snobbery in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. Much of the action in this novel takes place at Cascade Heights Country Club, an ultra-exclusive community thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Members are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in, and there are several measures in place to keep the ‘outside world’ away. Club members shop and dine in certain places, and it would never occur to them to mix with ‘other kinds of people.’ Tragedy strikes this supposedly safe haven, and things begin to unravel. But even then, we see how people who live in ‘The Heights’ interact with each other and others. At one point, for instance, some of the women who live in the community decide they want to help ‘the less fortunate.’ It would never occur to them to actually get to know any of those people. Instead, they host a charity sale of their used clothes and some accessories. The scenes in which they plan and hold the sale show how unconscious their snobbery is. They really aren’t nasty, cruel people. But they do assume that some people (including them) matter, and some don’t.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney living in Arding, New South Wales. He comes from a well-off ‘blueblood’ family, and it’s always been assumed he’ll do well in life. He has, too: he’s married to an attractive, intelligent wife, Jodie; he has two healthy children; and his career is on the rise. Then everything changes. His daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child Angus didn’t even know about until it comes out now. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks the files, there is no record of a formal adoption. Now the question is: what happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the Garrows’ lives spin more and more out of control, we see how the casual snobbery of people like Angus’ family of origin impacts how they feel about Jodie, and what they think should be done.

ferent sort of snobbery – but just as real – in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, which introduces Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. The body of national model worker Guan Hongying is discovered in the Baili Canal near Shanghai. It’s a politically-charged case, since the victim was somewhat of a celebrity and had several friends among the elite of the Party – the High Cadre. At first, the official theory is that she was raped and murdered by a taxi driver. But other evidence suggests strongly that that’s not what happened. Now Chen and his assistant Yu Guangming have to search elsewhere. Slowly, they trace Guan’s last days and weeks, and find out that way who killed her and why. Throughout this novel, we see clearly how High Cadre people and their families see themselves and others. It’s not that all of them are horrible, cruel people; some are, but some are not. But they do see themselves as entitled, and certainly not in the same class as ‘other people.’

And that’s the thing about that unconscious, casual snobbery. It’s so unconscious that people who have those assumptions may not even be aware of their own skewed thinking. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Herman’s Elegance.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Qiu Xiaolong, Ross Macdonald, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James