Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

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

What Shall I Call You?*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you’ll know that right now, I’m working on revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. Revising can be a difficult process, especially if some fundamental things about a story need to be changed. But most authors have to make at least some revisions to their drafts.

One of the things I’ve discovered about this particular novel as I’ve been revising is that, of all things, the title I’d chosen no longer works. The plot has changed, and that means that the title doesn’t reflect it very well any more. So, I have to choose a new title.

Titles are interesting things, too. In some way, they have to catch the reader’s attention. Some authors do that by selecting unusual titles. For instance, the titles of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels are certainly inventive. There’s A Red Herring With Mustard, and I Am Half Sick of Shadows, just to name two. And Bradley’s by no means the only author to opt for such unusual titles.

Other authors, such as Sue Grafton and the ‘Nicci French’ team use titles to link the novels in their series. Fans can tell you that Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is sometimes called ‘the alphabet series,’ because each book begins with a letter of the English alphabet (e.g. A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc..). And the Nicci French Frieda Klein novels all have days of the week in their titles (e.g. Blue Monday).

Whatever title an author chooses, most people agree that it needs to be short enough to be remembered fairly easily. Too many words and it’s clumsy. That’s why there are so many crime titles that are one or two words (e.g. Elmore Lenoard’s Get Shorty, or Ruth Rendell’s The Vault). There are exceptions to this, of course. However, titles that are ‘crisp’ and not overblown generally seem to be more successful.

A title also arguably has a real advantage if it reflects something about the book. Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice has as one of its central plot points a dangerous new drug, known as ‘black ice.’ In this case, ‘black ice’ also refers more metaphorically to very dangerous situations that one might not see coming, and are all the more perilous if one’s not prepared. And Rex Stout’s Champagne For One is about the death of Faith Usher, who dies of poison after drinking a glass of champagne at a dinner party.

As you can see, the choice of a title can be a tricky business. It can’t be too long (but it has to be long enough to say something about the book). It can’t be too ‘cookie cutter’ (but not too ‘cutesy’ either). It has to be attention-getting (but not so strange that it’s off-putting). Little wonder that I’m really paying attention to this part of the revision.

But, you see, I have an advantage. I have you. You folks are all readers, and excellent judges of the titles of that get your attention or annoy you (or something in between). So, I’ve decided to ask you to help me and choose the title of my next Joel Williams novel. Below, you’ll see a poll with some possible titles. If you’d like a say, vote for your choice. The poll will be up for about a week, and then we’ll talk about it.

Now, to help you decide, here’s the tentative blurb (there may be some changes, but this is the basic story):
 

Research Can Be Deadly!

Criminal justice professor Joel Williams and two colleagues are studying Second Chances, a Philadelphia alternative school program that’s supposed to keep at-risk students off the streets and out of prison. But it hasn’t kept those young people out of danger. The research team is shocked when their work turns up a tragic death. One of the students, 15-year-old Curtis Templeton, fell from a building near the school, and everyone says it was a horrible accident. But if it was an accident, why isn’t anybody willing to talk about it? And if it wasn’t, who would want to kill Curtis?

To get answers, Williams and the team will step into the world of for-profit alternative schools, and into the lives of the people they’re meant to serve. And they’ll go up against someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep certain secrets hidden.
 

What do you think? Which title says it best?

 


 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ Flesh and Blood.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton

Rows of Houses That Are All the Same*

One of the most important socioeconomic changes of the post-WWII world was the growth of the suburb – the commuter town. The suburb was billed as close enough to the city for access, but with lower taxes, more affordable housing, and even better schools. And people moved to suburbs en masse.

Suburban life gave rise to a whole new sort of culture – and a new sort of crime novel. We certainly see it in a lot of contemporary domestic noir novels. But it’s woven into other sorts of crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, for example, much of the action takes place in the suburban town of Woodleigh Common. It’s the sort of place where people come and go (although there are people who’ve been there a long time), and where people tend to commute to their jobs. Christie’s fictional detective story writer, Ariadne Oliver, has been invited there to visit her friend, Judith Butler, and Judith’s daughter, Miranda. During her visit, Mrs. Oliver attends a Hallowe’en party intended for the young people of the area. The party ends in disaster when one guest, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds, is murdered. Mrs. Oliver isn’t an overly fearful type of person, but the incident leaves her badly shaken. So, she asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. Poirot discovers that, on the day she was killed, Joyce boasted of having seen a murder. Someone overheard that remark and was so afraid of being found out that the only option seemed to be killing the girl. In the process of finding out who killed Joyce, Poirot uncovers a past murder, and some ugly secrets, in Woodleigh Common.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives takes place in Stepford, Connecticut, a suburban town with access to New York City. Walter and Joanna Eberhart move to Stepford with their two children, Pete and Kim. They’re hoping to take advantage of lower taxes, good schools, and better prices on property. At first, all goes well enough, and the children settle in at their school. Then, Joanna’s new friend, Bobbie Markowe, begins to suspect that something is very, very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t agree. But it doesn’t take long, or many incidents, to convince Joanna that her friend is right. As she starts to ask more questions, Joanna learns that there may be real danger in Stepford. Then, a frightening event proves just how much danger there really is in that supposedly peaceful town.

In Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil, we are introduced to Patrick and Tamsin Selby. They live in the attractive suburban community of Linchester, and have settled in there. Then, the Selbys decide to celebrate Tamsin’s twenty-seventh birthday with an outdoor party.  They invite all of the local people, and it promises to be a fun event. During the party, a group of wasps begins to annoy the guests. So, Patrick climbs up a ladder to one of the eaves of the house, where the wasps have built their nest. As he’s trying to get rid of the nest, he’s badly stung.  A few days later, he dies. At first, Patrick’s death is put down to a massive allergic reaction. But, Dr. Max Greenleaf, who treated the victim, isn’t so sure that’s true. So, he starts to ask some questions. As he gets closer to the truth, we learn that the beautiful little suburb of Linchester has been hiding some dark secrets.

Science fiction novels Zack Walker learns how dangerous suburbs can be in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker convinces his wife, Sarah, to move from the city where they live to the suburban development of Valley Forest Estates. He’s sure that life there will be more peaceful and much safer than it is in the city. Besides, it’ll be much less expensive. The Walker family makes the move, and, although the children aren’t happy with their new school, everyone settles in. Then one day, Walker goes to the Valley Forest sales office to complain about some problems he’s having with their new house. During his visit, he witnesses a loud argument between one of the Valley Forest executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body at a nearby creek. Against his better judgement, Walker gets drawn into the mystery, and finds a web of fraud, murder and more. Valley Forest Estates certainly doesn’t turn out to be as safe and friendly as it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. Famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson hires LA PI Elvis Cole to find his ex-wife, Karen, and their son, Toby. It seems that Nelson and his wife had parted ways years ago, but now, he wants to be a real father to his son. The only problem is, Karen and Toby have disappeared. At first, Cole is reluctant to take the case. After all, people can have any number of reasons for not wanting to be found. But he’s finally convinced to look into the matter. It doesn’t take a lot of work for him to discover that Karen and Toby moved to a small Connecticut suburb of New York City. When he finds her, he learns that Karen has a solid job in a local bank and no interest at all in reuniting with her ex. Cole also discovers that Karen is working for some very dangerous people who do not want to lose their ‘bank connection.’ Now, Karen and Toby are in real danger, so Cole is going to have to protect them and try to convince them to at least meet with Nelson. He may have a persuasive way, but he’s going to need help from his PI partner, Joe Pike, to go up against the Mob members who are after Karen.

The suburbs may certainly have their advantages. And they can be lovely places to live. But safe? Not as much as you’d think (right, fans of Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows?).

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday, made famous by the Monkees.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay, Robert Crais, Ruth Rendell

A Brand New Book*

If you’re a bibliophile, or even simply love reading, it’s probably in part because you had access to books when you were young. There’s a great deal of research that suggests that a print-rich environment is associated with earlier literacy, more time spent reading, and so on. And there’s other research that suggests that cultivating a habit of reading is helpful on a lot of levels (not just academic). But I’ll bet you probably already knew or suspected all of that.

There are a lot of places where it’s so easy to get books that we don’t think very much about it. We may complain about the price of a book, or get annoyed if we’re far down on the ‘hold’ list at the library. But we do have easy access to books.

That’s not the case everywhere. Some people live remotely. There isn’t a nearby library or bookshop, and it’s harder than you think to get books delivered. Other people simply don’t have the money to buy books, and they don’t live near a library. Still others (mostly young people) simply don’t have good role models for reading, and don’t have access to books at home. They may be literate, but that doesn’t mean they can easily get books. And, there are those who are incarcerated, in hospital, in shelters and so on, places that may not have many books.

As this is posted, it’s World Book Night, a time to focus on making books available to people who might not otherwise get them. I’m always happy to talk about this issue, as I’m utterly convinced by the research that links reading to many, many benefits. And, besides, reading’s fun – why not share that fun?

To help celebrate World Book Night, I thought it might be fun to look at some crime-fictional cases of people who share books and the love of them with others. They’re out there in real life (and they’re heroes to me), and they pop up in the genre, too.

In Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, for instance, we are introduced to Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham. She’s originally from the Lake District, but now lives and teaches in London. Higher education, especially for young academicians, doesn’t pay well. Trust me. So, Jane lives in an economically depressed former council block. One of the other people who live there is thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole. She has, to say the least, a disastrous home situation, and has befriended Gresham as a mentor. She shares Gresham’s love of poetry, and is extremely bright, but she has little access to books and other learning materials at home. Gresham lends her whatever she can, and is always happy to ‘talk books.’ That support means a lot to Tenille, who becomes quite devoted to her mentor. When Gresham learns that there may be an unpublished Wordsworth manuscript, she can’t resist the opportunity to try to find it. Such a discovery would make her career as a scholar. So, she travels to the Lake District, where the manuscript is said to be, to look for it. Unbeknownst to Gresham, Tenille has run away from home, and follows her mentor. And she turns out to be very helpful.

Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series features Israel Armstrong. Originally from London, Armstrong dreamed of a career as a professional librarian, perhaps even someday working for a prestigious university, or even the British Library. As a first step, he takes a job with the Tumdrum and District Library in Ireland. And, as he soon learns, it’s hardly the British Library. He’s engaged to drive the area’s bookmobile to a series of remote stops, and as the series goes on, he gradually gets to know the area and the people who live there. These may not be wealthy people, and they live in a very rural place. But they want access to books, and the municipality is obliged to provide it. So, Armstrong becomes that link.  And, over time, he learns to see his role as providing books to people who might not otherwise find it easy to get them.

Jaqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series begins just before World War I. As soon as Maisie is old enough, she begins work as a domestic in the home of Sir Julian and Lady Rowan Compton. At that time, domestic servants aren’t expected to be intellectual, to pursue education, and so on. In fact, plenty are not even literate. But it doesn’t take long for Lady Rowan to see that Maisie is very bright and intuitive. So, she arranges for Maisie to meet her friend Maurice Blanche, who is a doctor and psychologist. Together, Blanche and Lady Rowan mentor Maisie, sponsor her through her university studies, and prepare her for a professional adult career. Maisie spends World War I serving as a nurse at military field hospitals, but after the war, becomes a private investigator. And her success owes much to the access she’s had to books and ideas because of her mentors.

There are other examples, too, of characters who work to make books and reading available to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access. And the alternative – no access to reading – is tragic. In real life, it means not being able to keep up with current events, not having access to some of humankind’s great ideas, discoveries, and so on, and not being able to manage one’s life. Ruth Rendell shows a bit of what that’s like in A Judgement in Stone. As we learn about one of the main characters, Eunice Parchman, we discover that she doesn’t know how to read. She’s intelligent, but for several reasons, never learned. She is so cut off from everyone because she can’t learn what’s in books that it has tragic effects on her. And that, in turn, has disastrous effects on the family who hires her as their housekeeper.

On this World Book Night, I invite you to stop for a moment and think about how easy it is for you to access something to read. And then I invite you to do something to make it a little easier for others to have that same access. There are a lot of individuals and agencies that work hard to make books an everyday reality for people who wouldn’t otherwise get them. You can check some of them out on the ‘Literacy’ tab right here on my site. Or, feel free to ask me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) if you’d like ideas.

 

‘Books are a uniquely portable magic.’ – Stephen King

‘Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.’ – Malala Yousafzai

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Ian Sansom, Jacqueline Winspear, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid