Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

Hey Ho Let’s Go*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of Stephen King. Even if you don’t care for his work, it’s hard to deny the impact it’s had. Even his debut novel, Carrie, is still very popular 44 years after its first publication (Did you know he threw that work into the trash originally? Goes to show the value of perseverance.) King has also done much to support other writers and the writing craft/process itself.

One of the factors that sets King’s work apart is arguably that he taps into our own deepest fears. Yes, there’s violence in his work, some of it brutal. But the real source of tension and suspense in the stories he writes is more psychological than anything else. And that can have a way of keeping a reader engaged in a story. Many of King’s stories are about ordinary people – people readers can identify with – who are drawn into horrifying circumstances.

King’s a master of that sort of context. Other authors, too, have used the premise of an ordinary sort of person who’s drawn into horror. We see it all through the crime fiction genre, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, we are introduced to ten people, all of whom have been invited to stay at a house on Indian Island. None of these people is perfect – by any means – but they are all what’d you’d call ‘normal’ people (if there is such a thing). After dinner on the night of their arrival, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Then another. Now, the other guests see that they’ve been lured to the island by someone who is not as ‘normal’ as it seems. That someone is trying to kill them all, and they’ll have to work to find out who that person is if they’re going to stay alive. In this novel, it’s the growing psychological horror as much as anything else that really builds the tension and invites the reader to stay engaged.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is a bit like that, too. In it, we meet Eunice Parchman, who’s hired as a professional housekeeper by George and Jacqueline Coverdale. The Coverdales are well-off and well-educated; they’re ‘normal’ upper-middle class people. At first, the arrangement works well enough. But what the Coverdales don’t know is that Eunice Parchman has a secret – one she’s determined they won’t discover. Then, one day, she’s accidentally found out. That seals the fate of the entire family, and leads to tragedy. The tension in the novel starts building right away, as we’re told exactly what happens and why. Rendell continues to build the suspense as the Coverdales get closer and closer to disaster without really being aware of it.

Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit takes place in rural New England mostly on a property called Cabrioun, and the lodge associated with it. It used to be owned by French émigré Grimaud Désanat, but he died during a hunting trip some years earlier. Now, his widow, Irene, owns the property, together with her new husband, Frank Ogden. Along with family friend Luke Latham, the Ogdens own a business making specialty wood products. The kind of wood they need, though, is hard to find, and currently only available in a place called Onawa. That property was owned by Désanat, who didn’t want the place logged for twenty years. The business can’t wait that long, so the Ogdens and Latham have decided to hold a séance to contact the dead man and ask his permission to open the land to logging. The séance is duly held, and is creepy as it is. But the suspense builds even more when Irene is later murdered. There’s a real growing sense of horror as it appears that the death either has a supernatural cause, or the murderer is one of the people who attended the séance.

Pascal Garnier has also written several stories in which ordinary, ‘normal’ people have been drawn into situations that ended in horror. There’s the aimless young man who becomes a driver for a hit man in How’s the Pain?, and the widower who becomes obsessed with the widow of his dead wife’s lover in The Front Seat Passenger. There are other examples, too, in Garnier’s work. Although there is certainly violence in these stories, the real suspense, and even horror, comes from psychological tension, rather than the ‘shock value’ of violence.

That buildup of psychological tension, and tapping into very human fears is characteristic of several other authors, such as Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier. It’s also quite present in the film work of Alfred Hitchcock, among others. In their work, we also see the case of the ‘ordinary’ person inexorably caught up in a web of horror. Those premises and plot points can make for stories that really resonate with readers, in part because we can often identify with the characters. They’re frighteningly close to who we are, if I may put it that way.

I’ve only mentioned a few examples of this sort of story. I know you can think of many more than I can, anyway. Happy Birthday, Mr. King, and may you keep scaring the wits out of us for many more years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. King fans will know why I chose this one…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Hake Talbot, Pascal Garnier, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Stephen King

Oh, the Joy of You Close to Me*

As this is posted, it’s 63 years since the initial release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. As you’ll know, the film’s focus is L.B. Jefferies. When he’s laid up with a broken leg, Jefferies occupies himself watching the people in the other apartments surrounding the courtyard where he lives. He soon gets suspicious of one of them, a man named Thorwald, and the suspense builds as we learn the truth about Thorwald, and about some of the other characters.

But Jefferies is far from the only fictional character who witnesses something and then has suspicions that may or may not be true. In fact, it happens quite a lot in crime fiction. And it gives the author some interesting possibilities for plots. Is the suspicious character really a criminal? Is the witness reliable? All of these can add to a crime plot.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington, we are introduced to Elspeth McGillicuddy. Just a few days before Christmas, she takes a train to visit her friend, Miss Marple. While she’s on the train, she happens to look out the window and into the windows of another train going in the same direction. As that other train passes, Mrs. McGillicuddy sees a man strangling a woman. Or does she? Elspeth McGillicuddy is not a fanciful person, or a liar. She knows what she saw. At the same time, when she alerts the authorities, no corpse is found, and no-one has filed a missing person report on a woman matching the victim’s description. Despite this, Miss Marple believes her friend, and works out where the body probably is. With the help of her friend, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple finds out who the woman was, how she came to be on the train, and what happened to her body. She also, of course, discovers who killed the woman.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, Kingsmarkham Police Inspector Reg Wexford and his team investigate the murder of Annette Bystock. She was found strangled in her bed, but there’s very little evidence as to who the killer might be. And there doesn’t seem to be a compelling motive (like money, fear, etc..). There is a witness, though. Elderly Percy Hammond lives next door to the victim, and spends more than his share of time looking out of his window at the goings-on around him. He doesn’t hear very well, so it’s a little difficult at first to communicate with him. In fact, he’s all but dismissed as a witness. But, as it turns out, he saw something very important. And once the police pay attention to him, they get a vital set of facts. As it turns out, this murder is connected to another case that Wexford is investigating.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief features the murder of semi-retired executive Aurelio Lapècora. One day, he’s murdered in the elevator of his own apartment building. Commissario Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate. And of course, they look into the victim’s business matters as well as his personal life. Some interesting light is shed on both by Signora Clementina Vaile Cozzo, who has occasional insomnia, and the habit of looking out her window. She watches what goes on through the other windows on the street, one of which is the window to the dead man’s office. And what she tells Montalbano gives him some important and interesting information.

There’s a very unusual case of a witness to something suspicious in Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead. Garda Ben Devlin lives and words in Lifford, close to the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. In one plot thread of this novel, Devlin is asked to investigate a very strange occurrence. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry on her baby monitor. However, she and her partner have no children. They’d bought the monitor because Christine was pregnant, but the baby was stillborn. So, why would there be baby cries on the monitor? One explanation is that Christine is still far too fragile after the stillbirth to be a reliable witness, so there may have been no cries. But Devlin doesn’t think that’s true. So, he agrees to look into the matter. As it turns out, Christine knows very well what she heard, and this phenomenon is connected to another case he’s investigating.

There’s also Yvonne Mulhern, whom we meet in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? She and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, Róisín, so that Gerry can take advantage of an important job opportunity. The move goes smoothly enough, but Yvonne doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and she’s overwhelmed by the demands of new parenthood. To make things worse, Gerry’s not home very often to do his share. Soon enough, Yvonne finds solace in Netmammy, an online support group and forum for new mums. She soon finds herself very attached to the group members, although she’s never met them. That’s why she gets concerned when one of them seems to go ‘off the grid.’ In fact, she’s worried enough to contact the police about it. But there’s not much they can do at first. Then, the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle and her team investigate. The dead woman could be Yvonne Mulhern’s missing friend. If she is, then that has frightening implications for Netmammy. If she isn’t, then what happened to Yvonne’s friend? Among other things, this is an interesting case of an online witness, if I can put it that way.

It can be hard to avoid being curious about the other people who live and work around you. Sometimes, that curiosity can be very helpful to the police when they’re investigating. But it can also be quite risky…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Franz Waxman and Harold Rome’s Lisa. Fans of Rear Window will know why I chose this one, even if the lyrics don’t seem to quite fit.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Brian McGilloway, Ruth Rendell, Sinéad Crowley

Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?*

Have you ever watched someone do something, and wished you could be like that person? It’s not really envy, but it is wanting what another person has or can do. And it’s a very human emotion, really.

It’s little wonder, then, that it shows up in crime fiction. That feeling of wanting to be like someone else can add an interesting layer of character development. And it can add suspense to a story, especially if it’s taken too far…

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we are introduced to London hairstylist’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s accustomed to dealing with upper-middle-class and upper-class clients, and listening to their stories. It’s not really that she’s envious of them, but she certainly wouldn’t mind a taste of that life. So, when she wins a sweepstakes, she decides on,
 

‘A week at Le Pinet. So many of her ladies had been going to Le Pinet, or just come back from Le Pinet. Jane…had thought to herself, “Why the devil can’t I go to Le Pinet?” Well, now she could.’
 

Jane finds herself drawn into a murder investigation when a fellow passenger on her flight back to London is poisoned. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. There’s more than one possibility, too, since the victim, Marie Morisot, was a well-known moneylender with some desperate clients.

In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we meet Gilbert Hand, junior partner in a small bookselling/publishing firm. After the death of his wife, Rachel, Hand takes his doctor’s advice, and moves to London for a fresh start. He takes a room in respectable hotel and settles in. One day, he discovers that the davenport in his room has a storage area with an unusual package in it. He opens the package to find that it contains a long coil of dark hair. Immediately, Hand is fascinated by the hair, and wonders how it came to be there and whose it was. Soon enough, he learns that the person who had the room before him was a man named Freddie Doyle. Now curious about Doyle, Hand starts to ask some questions. Over time, he becomes more and more obsessed with Doyle, and imagines that he’s in some sort of ‘chess match’ with him. At the same time as he sees Doyle as an opponent, Hand is also fascinated with his life. It’s not long before that obsession spins out of control.

There’s a similar sort of fascination/envy in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. In one plot thread of the novel, Mix Cellini earns his living repairing exercise equipment. That’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. Soon enough, Cellini becomes obsessed with her, and imagines a relationship that isn’t really there. At the same time, he learns about notorious serial killer Richard Christie. The murderer’s life fascinates the phobic, neurotic Christie. And, as his own life isn’t particularly interesting, his fantasies soon become more and more real to him. It’s not long before Cellini’s life comes closer and closer to Christie’s, with tragic results. I know, I know, fans of A Judgement in Stone.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. Lora and her brother, Bill, are very close. So, when Bill falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele, Lora’s naturally concerned. But for Bill’s sake, she tries to get along with Alice. Then, Bill and Alice get married. Soon, Alice is the envy of their group of friends. She always hosts the perfect party, cooks the perfect meals, and manages to do it without looking frazzled. Still, Lora has questions about her new sister-in-law. Some things about Alice just don’t add up. As Lora slowly learns more and more about Alice’s secret life, she’s more and more repulsed by it. At the same time, though, she is irresistibly drawn to it. Alice seems to be sophisticated in a way that Lora isn’t. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could very well be mixed up in it. Telling herself that she’s trying to protect her brother, Lora begins to ask questions about the death. And it turns out that she’s in far deeper than she thought…

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. Fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan spends the summer of 1978 staying with her Aunt Barbara and Uncle Doug Griffin, and her cousins, Mick and Jane. Angela naturally bonds with Mick and his friends, since they are close in age. Jane is a little younger, and often ends up being a tagalong. She looks up to Angela, and very much wants to be like her, as Angela seems so mature and sophisticated. Then, one day, Angela goes missing. She’s later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the members of her family, and the friends she spent time with, are of a lot of interest to the police. But then, there’s another, similar, death. Now, it looks as though there’s a multiple killer around – one the Sydney press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The murderer is never found, though. Some thirty-five years later, documentary maker Erin Fury is doing a piece on families of murder victims. She wants to interview the Griffin family, and finally gets permission. And as she speaks to the different members, we see how Angela’s life and death impacted everyone.

It’s only natural to look up to, or wish you were like, someone else. It’s human nature. Sometimes it can spin out of control, though. And even when it doesn’t, it’s an interesting plot thread and piece of character development.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, Megan Abbott, Ruth Rendell, Wendy James

I’m Almost Through My Memoirs*

As this is posted, it’s 70 years since the very first publication of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl in Amsterdam. As you’ll know, it’s the story of the Frank family, especially their years of hiding from the Nazis. It’s had a powerful impact on generations of readers; and is required reading in many schools. If you haven’t yet visited the Anne Frank Huis/Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, may I strongly encourage you to do so. It’s a memorable, very moving, experience.

Diaries and memoirs are fascinating ways to learn about a lifestyle, a time period, and a particular person. Even though they almost always have biases (they are written from one person’s perspective), they’re often quite informative. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples of powerful diaries and memoirs than I could. I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s autobiography.

And this form of writing certainly finds its way into crime fiction. After all, not everyone may be eager to have certain things about them published in a diary. And sometimes, diaries and memoirs are effective ways to tell a story (right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories?).

Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is, by and large, a memoir told from the point of view of Dr. James Sheppard, who lives in the small village of Kings Abbot. The small town is rocked when retired manufacturing titan Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, insists that he’s innocent. She asks Hercule Poirot, who’s taken the house next to Sheppard’s, to clear Paton’s name, and he agrees. Christie also used the ‘memoir’ form of storytelling in Murder in Mesopotamia, which is told from the point of view of a nurse, Amy Leatheran. She’s hired by an expedition team that’s working a few hours from Baghdad, so she’s on the scene when Louise Leidner, who’s married to the team’s leader, is murdered. Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate. In both of those cases, we get an interesting perspective on the crimes, victims, and perpetrators.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, famous novelist Gerald Chandliss dies of a heart attack. His grief-stricken daughter, Sarah, decides to cope with her loss by writing a biography of her father, combined with a memoir of what it was like to grow up with him. The more she probes into his life, though, the more Sarah sees that he wasn’t at all the man she thought he was. His name, as it turns out, wasn’t even Gerald Chandliss. It turns out that Sarah’s planned memoir uncovers all sorts of dark secrets that she never imagined were there.

As Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House begins, Arthur Bryant, of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) is working on his memoirs. He’s been a part of the PCU since 1940, when it was established, and certainly has plenty of stories to tell. As he’s looking through the materials he has on the PCU’s first case, Bryant makes a shocking discovery, and decides to investigate it. Shortly after Bryant starts asking questions, a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices, taking him with it. Bryant’s grieving police partner, John May, decides to find out who set the bomb. To do that, May goes back to the 1940 Palace Phantom case that Bryant was investigating when the PCU offices were destroyed. At the time, there were several bizarre accidents and deaths connected with London’s Palace Theatre and its production of Orpheus. Someone wanted very badly to shut down the production, and took several drastic measures to do just that. As May looks into the case again, he slowly picks up on the trail Bryant was following, and makes the discovery that Bryant made. And that solves the present case, as well as answering some important questions about the 1940 case.

And then there’s Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. In that novel, Alec Dennet, who was a member of Gough Whitlam’s 1972-75 Australian government, has decided to write his memoirs. He and his editor, Lorraine Starke, are visiting Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra, so that they can focus on the work. One night, they’re both murdered. Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is reluctantly persuaded to return from a leave of absence and investigate the murders. Chen is interested anyway, since his Ph.D. work has to do with Australia’s political history. Soon, he and his team discover that the manuscript that Dennet and Starke were working on has disappeared. This opens up several possibilities when it comes to suspects. For one thing, there are still several people in high places who might be embarrassed or worse if some truths about them come out in the memoirs. For another, there are several foreign governments who are also interested in the content of that manuscript.

And that’s the thing about diaries and memoirs. They can shed fascinating light on a person, an era, or an event. And, in fiction, they can be an interesting way to tell a story. But they can also be dangerous, especially when their contents might put someone at risk.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s  I’m Still Here.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Christopher Fowler, Kel Robertson, Ruth Rendell

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