Category Archives: Sue Younger

My Mama Once Told Me of a Place With Waterfalls and Unicorns Flying*

It’s interesting how legends, if that’s what you want to call them, are built up around certain places. The reality seldom lives up to the promise of the legend, and most people know that intellectually. But the allure is often still there. So, people ‘buy into’ those legends. That’s why people can be sold on timeshares, ‘that perfect little place,’ and so on.

In crime fiction, those legends can add an interesting layer of tension as characters discover the truth behind the legend. And there are possibilities for character development, too. And that atmosphere, where reality and legend clash, can make for a solid background to a story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we are introduced to London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. When she wins a sweepstakes, she decides to use the money to take a trip to Le Pinet, which she’s heard about from clients. Jane’s neither gullible nor unintelligent, but the place does have a mystique about it. She finds, though, that Le Pinet isn’t anything as magical as the legends suggest. And on the flight back to London, she gets mixed up in a case of murder. One of the fellow passengers, a Parisian moneylender who went by the name of Madame Giselle, is poisoned. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight (and, incidentally, quite suspicious as far as the coroner’s jury is concerned!). He works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who would have wanted the victim dead. I agree with you, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

There are all sorts of legends built up around the ‘perfect suburban place, with white picket fence.’ And we see that in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Walter and Joanna Eberhart decide to move from New York City to the small Connecticut town of Stepford. The story is that it’s a lovely town with low taxes and good schools, and they want to be part of that dream, so to speak. They and their two children settle in, and all promises to go well. But soon, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is wrong with Stepford. Joanna doesn’t believe her at first, but soon some strange and frightening things show all too clearly that Bobbie was right. Some very dark things are going on in the town…

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move introduces readers to sci-fi novelist Zack Walker and his journalist wife, Sarah. He’s been concerned for some time about the safety of the city where he and his family live. Convinced by the legends of idyllic suburban life, Walker wants to move his family to a new development called Valley Forest Estates. Soon after they arrive, though, it becomes clear that this isn’t the ‘perfect suburban community’ Walker had thought it was. For one thing, the new house needs several repairs. Walker soon discovers, too, that all is not as it seems in this community. Matters come to a head one day when he discovers the body of a local environmentalist in a nearby creek. The more Walker tries to keep himself and his family safe, the more danger he seems to find. The ‘white picket fence’ suburban dream turns out to be nothing like the sales brochures…

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice takes place mostly in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Former school principal Thea Farmer has bought land there, and had a custom-made house built. For her, this is going to be the perfect home in the perfect place. It’s something she’s dreamed of doing. Then, bad luck and poor financial decision-making mean she has to settle for the house next door – a house she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ Worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea still thinks of as hers. As if that weren’t enough, Frank’s niece, Kim, moves in with him and Ellice. Now, Thea has to cope with the loss of her beautiful home as well as the fact that ‘invaders’ have taken it over. Unexpectedly, though, she forms an awkward sort of friendship with Kim, and sees promise in her. That’s why it’s so upsetting for Thea when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for the girl. When the police won’t do anything about it (they really can’t without clear evidence), Thea decides to take her own measures…

In Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman, her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi,’ and her partner, Yossi Shalev, move from London to Claire’s native Auckland. For Yossi, New Zealand is an almost ideal setting. He wants to live as far away as possible from the war and conflict he knew in Israel. And he’s excited to start over in what, to him, seems like the perfect place. Roi is happy about the move, too. Her mother has said very little about her background (and Roi’s), and Roi is curious to learn more. But Claire is not at all eager for the move, she had good reasons for leaving New Zealand in the first place. Her father, Patrick, was arrested and tried for the 1970 murder of seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips. Although there was never enough evidence to keep him in prison, plenty of people think he was guilty. Claire doesn’t want to go back to those memories. But, for Yossi’s sake, she goes along with the plan. Everything works well enough at first. Then, one of her patients, two-year-old Rory Peteru, is diagnosed with a tumour on his kidney. Claire wants to plan an operation to remove the growth, but Rory’s parents refuse on religious grounds. The conflict between them gets media attention and before long, Claire’s in the public spotlight. And that’s when some journalists bring up the Kathryn Phillips murder. Now, Claire will have to fight to keep her family safe from the media blitz, and try to do the best she can for her patient.

And that’s the thing about ‘buying into’ stories about perfect places and lifestyles. In real life, and in crime fiction, the reality can be quite different from the ideal. And that can lead in all sorts of dangerous directions.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay, Sue Younger, Virginia Duigan

Few of the Sins of the Father are Visited Upon the Son*

When a crime is committed, especially something like murder, it’s not just the victim and the perpetrator who are affected. The public’s memory can be long; so, even a generation or two (or more) later, a family can be associated with a crime. And that can impact family members, and even be very difficult for them (e.g. ‘Are you any relation to that man/woman who…?’).

Having an infamous crime or ancestor in one’s past can make for an interesting layer of character development. How, for instance, do you deal with the fact that your parent, or grandparent, or great-grandparent, etc., killed someone? Or stole a lot of money? This sort of plot point can add tension to a story, too. So, it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction.

For example, Ruth Rendell’s first novel as Barbara Vine was A Dark-Adapted Eye. In it, Faith Longley Severn has to come to terms with a terrible crime in her family’s past. Many years earlier, Vera Longley Hilliard was arrested, convicted, and executed for murder. The Longley family had always prided itself on its respectability, so this was an especially hard blow. No-one’s spoken of it since. But now, a journalist, Daniel Stewart, finds out about the story, and decides to write a book on the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith to see if she’ll cooperate, and provide him with whatever family history she may have. It’s a wrenching topic, but Faith agrees. And, as she and Daniel look into the past, we learn what happened in the Longley family, and how and why the death happened.

John Grisham’s The Chamber features the Cayhall family. Former Ku Klux Klansman Sam Cayhall is in prison in Mississippi, on death row for a bombing murder. He says he’s not guilty of the bombing. In fact, he’s had several stays of execution, but has run out of options, and is scheduled to be executed. His case is taken pro bono by a Chicago law firm. They send one of their attorneys, Adam Hall, to their Memphis office to defend Cayhall. As we soon learn, Hall was born Alan Cayhall, and is actually Sam Cayhall’s grandson. It turns out that Adam/Alan’s father, Eddie, was disgusted with his father’s Klan activities and bigotry, and left for California, never to return. He didn’t want to be associated with the Cayhall name. As the novel goes on, and Adam/Alan works on behalf of his grandfather, we learn the family’s history, and we learn the truth about the bombing.

Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs is the story of the Franco family. At the turn of the 20th Century, Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family leave their native Italy to settle in New York. He gets a job at a shoe repair shop, and starts to do well. In fact, he ends up opening his own shoe repair and sales company, and the family prospers. Unfortunately, he starts drinking, and ends up killing a man in a bar fight one night. He’s arrested and taken into custody. Then he discovers that the victim was Luigi Lupo, son of notorious crime boss Tonio Lupo. When Lupo finds out who killed his son, he visits Franco in jail, and curses his three sons, saying that they’ll die at the same age as his son was when he died. As the story goes on, we learn what happens to those three sons, and how they deal with being the sons of a man who committed murder.

Steve Robinson’s In The Blood introduces his sleuth, genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In this novel, business executive Walter Sloane hires Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry. Her family, the Fairbornes, split into two branches, one of which returned to their native England during the American Revolution. So, Tayte travels to England to contact the modern-day Fairbornes and see what he can learn. He discovers that some of the family members when missing, so he decides to find out what happened to them. Soon enough, he’s warned off, and it’s clear that someone does not want the truth about the family to come out. It turns out that even things that happened as long ago as the late 1700s still impact the family today.

We see a bit of similarity in Hannah Dennison’s Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall. In one plot thread of this novel, the small Devon town of Little Dipperton is preparing for a Skirmish – a re-enactment of a battle between the Cavaliers, who supported King Charles I, and the Roundheads, who supported Oliver Cromwell. As it happens, the Honeychurch family were Cavaliers; so Rupert Honeychurch is taking on that role. His wife, Lavinia, was a Carew before she married; and the Carews were Roundheads. As the story goes on, it’s interesting to see how crimes that were committed (or alleged to have been committed) by one side or other still play roles today.

There’s also Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass. Pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland with her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ She had her reasons for leaving Auckland in the first place, so she’s reluctant to go back. But it’s very important to Yossi, so she agrees. At first, all goes well enough. But then, one of her patients, two-year-old Rory Peteru, is diagnosed with a tumour on his kidney. From Claire’s perspective, it’s best to remove the growth as soon as possible. But the child’s parents, Isa’ako and Kate, refuse the procedure on the grounds of their religious beliefs. The media take an interest, and before Claire knows it, she’s the focus of publicity – some thing she didn’t want. Years earlier, her father, Patrick, was arrested and convicted for the 1970 murder of Kathryn Philips. Although he was jailed, there was never enough evidence to truly determine whether he was guilty, so he was released. Still, plenty of people think he was guilty, and they associate Claire’s name with that case. For Claire, it’s as though she can’t shake the stigma associated with her father.

And that does happen when a family member commits a crime. Sometimes it even happens when there’s just suspicion. Either way, it can cast a very long shadow.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Forgotten Years

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Barbara Vine, Hannah Dennison, John Grisham, Ruth Rendell, Steve Robinson, Sue Younger

Everybody in the World Likes Chocolate*

Recently, FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, conducted an interesting scientific study of chocolate. Using the My Life in Books meme from Adam at Roof Beam Reader, Fiction Fan compared two sets of data. One set, collected before eating any chocolate, was an initial list of responses to the My Life in Books prompts. Then, FictionFan provided answers to the same prompts after eating chocolate. As you can clearly see from FictionFan’s answers, there was a definite positive effect of chocolate on mood.

Of course, any study ought to be replicated, if possible, in order to lend support to the results. So, I decided to do just that. Like FictionFan, I collected two sets of data: one was collected before eating chocolate, and the other after. My own data is presented below:

 

Prompts

Before Chocolate

After Chocolate

In high school, I was:

Among Thieves

In Like Flynn

People might be surprised (by):

The Colaba Conspiracy

[What] Harriet Said

I will never be:

You

Wife of the Gods

My fantasy job is:

Nunslinger

An Easy Thing

At the end of a long day, I need:

Burial Rites

A Jarful of Angels

I hate it when:

Days are Like Grass

Not a Creature Was [is] Stirring

Wish I had:

The Frozen Shroud

Greenlight

My family reunions are:

Murder and Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall

Above Suspicion

At a party, you’d find me with:

The Hidden Man

Ruby and the Blue Sky

I’ve never been to:

The Cemetery of Swallows

China Lake

A happy day includes:

Dead Lemons

Crystal Ball Persuasion

Motto I live by:

Can Anybody Help Me?

Happiness is Easy

On my bucket list is:

Talking to the Dead

The Dawn Patrol

In my next life, I want to have:

A Moment’s Silence

A Three-Pipe Problem

 

As you can see, chocolate also had a positive effect on my mood. Now, of course, this study is limited, as all studies are. For one thing, I made use of Belgian chocolates for this research. Other sources and types of chocolates would have to be studied to really confirm the hypothesis that chocolate enhances one’s mood. For another thing, FictionFan’s data and mine are only two iterations of this study. More researchers would be needed, to rule out effects based on any similarities between me and FictionFan (I mean, we are both crime fiction readers, etc..). There are other limitations, too, as any academician can tell you.

That said, though, I think it’s safe to say that this study certainly lends support to FictionFan’s conclusion that chocolate has mood-enhancing effects. Anyone else care to take part in this all-important research?

Thanks, FictionFan, for your groundbreaking study!

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Control’s Chocolate (Choco Choco).

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Filed under Babs Horton, Beryl Bainbridge, Christopher Abbey, Don Winslow, Edney Silvestre, Finn Bell, Gordon Ell, Hannah Dennison, Hannah Kent, Harry Bingham, Jane Haddam, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, John Clarkson, Julian Symons, Katherine Dewar, Kwei Quartey, Lynda La Plante, Meg Gardiner, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Rhys Bowen, Robin Blake, Sinéad Crowley, Stark Holborn, Sue Younger, Surender Mohan Pathak, Zoran Drvenkar

I Want to Protect You*

Most of us have private things in our histories – even secrets – that we don’t necessarily want to share with others. And when those ‘others’ are our children, it may be especially important to us to keep those things to ourselves. There are all sorts of reasons for which parents don’t always tell their children all the details of their histories. Sometimes it’s because those details are embarrassing. Sometimes it’s because knowing the truth could be hurtful. And sometimes, it’s because parents want their children to have a certain image of them, and that image would be damaged if the truth came out.

Whatever the reason, there are plenty of examples in crime fiction of parents who want to keep things from their children. And there are examples of children who are just as determined to find those things out. It makes sense, too. Not only is that realistic, but it’s also a solid source of interest and conflict in a novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s novella Dead Man’s Mirror, Hercule Poirot is summoned to the country home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. It seems that Chevenix-Gore believes that someone is stealing from him, and he wants Poirot to find out the truth. At first, Poirot doesn’t want to look into this matter, as he’s not pleased about Chevenix-Gore’s highhandedness. But he agrees to go. Shortly after his arrival, though, Chevenix-Gore is shot. In the beginning, it looks very much like a suicide. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise, so Poirot starts to ask questions. He soon learns that more than one person might have wanted to kill the victim. One of the people involved is Chevenix-Gore’s adopted daughter, Ruth. In the course of the story, we learn something about her past – something that no-one has told her. And it plays a part in the story.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar introduces readers to the Hillman family. Ralph and Elaine Hillman have sent their son, Tom, to Laguna Perdida, a residential school for ‘troubled youth.’ When Tom goes missing, the school’s owner/director, Dr. Sponti, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. As they’re discussing the case, Ralph Hillman comes to the office, and says that Tom’s been abducted, and he’s had a ransom demand. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to see what he can do to help. Soon enough, though, he learns that this is not a case of a wealthy family being extorted for money. There’s something more (and darker) going on here. And when it comes out that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who have him, it’s even clearer that this is a different sort of case. Archer perseveres, despite the hurdles he faces, and finds out the truth. It turns out that one important factor here is a set of secrets that Tom’s parents have kept from him.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Bangkok-based member of the Royal Thai Police. His mother, Nong, is a former bar girl who’s now embarked on a new career. Sonchai and his mother are close, and he treats her with respect. She loves him, too, and cares very much about him. But there’s one thing that she won’t tell him: the name of his father. Sonchai is half farang (foreigner), so he knows that his father is not Thai. But he doesn’t know the man’s name or background, and his mother won’t share that information with him, at least at the beginning of the series. It’s one of the few real sources of tension between them.

In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, we meet twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his grandmother, Gloria. They’re not well off (‘though they’re not desperate), and on the surface, you’d think it was a normal, working-class family. But it’s not. Nineteen years earlier, Lettie’s brother (and Steven’s uncle), Billy Peters, disappeared and never returned. Despite a thorough search, Billy was never found – not even a body. Lettie’s and Gloria’s way of coping with the devastation has been silence. They don’t discuss Billy or the events of that time. Steven knows a few things about what happened, and about his uncle, but not much. The adults in his life have tried, in their way, to protect him, but you could almost say that it’s had the opposite effect. Steven is almost obsessed with wanting to know what happened to his Uncle Billy. He’s learned that a man named Arnold Avery most likely abducted and killed Uncle Billy. He’s hoping he can get Avery to tell him where his uncle’s body is. So, he decides to contact Avery, who’s in prison for other child murders. The two begin a suspenseful exchange of letters, which Steven does his best to hide from his family. In the end, that exchange opens up some very old wounds, and opens up some of the silences in the family.

And then there’s Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass. In that novel, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland. With her, she brings her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ While Yossi and Roi are eager to start over again in Auckland, Claire’s been very reluctant. She doesn’t want her family’s past dug up, and she wants to protect Roi, in particular, from her own past. Soon enough, we see why Claire’s so concerned, In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips went missing and never returned. Claire’s father, Patrick, was accused of abduction and murder. He was even tried and convicted. But there was never enough evidence to sustain the conviction on appeal. So, he was released. Still, plenty of people think he’s guilty. When a hospital case thrusts Claire into the media spotlight, the old case comes up again, and now Claire wants desperately to hide it all from Roi. In the meantime, Roi wants to know more about her own background. Claire’s told her that her birth father was a Māori man with whom Claire had a brief affair, but nothing more than that. Now, Roi would like to find out more, and get to know her Māori family. And she’s as determined to get her answers as Claire is to protect her from them.

There are plenty of reasons parents might not want to share everything with their children. Sometimes, keeping things quiet is the right choice. Other times, it’s not. Either way, it makes for an interesting layer of character or source of tension in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Eels song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, John Burdett, Ross Macdonald, Sue Younger

In The Spotlight: Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. This week, we’re continuing with our special look at this year’s finalists for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. Today, let’s turn the spotlight on Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass.

As the story begins, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman has just returned from London to her native Auckland with her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ It wasn’t a move that she wanted. Claire would much rather have left her past behind. But Yossi wanted to make the move to New Zealand. He’s looking for some peace after growing up in a very dangerous Israel.

At first, despite Claire’s reluctance to return to come back to Auckland, things go well. Everything changes, though, when one of her patients, two-year-old Rory Peteru, is diagnosed with a tumour on his kidney. Claire wants to remove the tumour as soon as possible. But Rory’s parents, Isa’ako and Kate, refuse the surgery. They believe in natural healing and religious faith, and do not want an operation for their son. The media soon set this up as a David (the parents) vs Goliath (the hospital) fight, and there’s a lot of sympathy for the parents (who would know better what the best choice is for their son?). Claire becomes the target of media attention, and we soon learn why that’s such a dangerous prospect for her.

In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips disappeared. Some of the evidence at the time linked Claire’s father, Patrick Bowerman, to the disappearance. In fact, he was arrested and imprisoned in connection with the case, but there was never enough evidence to truly determine whether he was guilty. He was eventually released, but the media and plenty of people still consider him guilty. And now the Bowerman case is coming to light again as Claire becomes a focus for the media. One important plot thread of this novel is the search for the truth about the Phillips case.

Claire is determined to protect her family, especially Roi, from media scrutiny, but before long, the story gets out. Then, Claire gets a call from Simon Flaxstone, who’s researching a book on the case. He believes that her father may be innocent. And he wants Claire’s help on his research. Now, Claire sees that her family history is going to be a major media topic, and that’s the last thing she wants.

In the meantime, Roi’s old enough now to start wanting to know about her own cultural background. She’s never met her birth father (Yossi’s been a father to her since she was very young), but Claire never lied to Roi about his identity. Roi knows that her birth father, Brent Te Hira, is Māori, and that he and her mother had a very brief affair, but not a long-term relationship. Claire wants to protect Roi as much as she can, but now that they’re in New Zealand, Roi wants to be a part of her Māori family. At first, Claire dodges her daughter’s questions. But then, she gets a visit from Brent’s sister, Rachel, who’s discovered that Claire and Roi are in Auckland. Rachel wants Roi to meet that side of her family, and at first, that’s something Claire wants very much to avoid.

As the story goes on, we learn the truth about the death of Kathryn Phillips. We also follow the outcome of the Peteru case. And we see how the matter of Roi’s questions is resolved.

One element in this novel is the weaving together of the three plot strands: the Peteru case, the Phillips case, and Claire’s personal life. The plot strands aren’t related in the sense that two fictional murders might be if they’re committed by the same person, for instance. But they are all intertwined. Readers who prefer books with only one major plot strand will notice this.

Another important element in the novel is its sense of place and culture. Claire is not Māori, but as the novel goes along, we learn some things about Māori traditions and the Māori sense of family, as well as Māori contemporary life. There’s also a distinct sense of the Auckland setting and way of doing things.

The solution to the mystery – what really happened to Kathryn Phillips – is a sad one. Readers learn what happened to the girl, and the truth about Patrick Bowerman’s involvement. But knowing the truth doesn’t make anything all right again. That said, though, this isn’t really a dark story, in the sense that a noir novel is. There is no extended brutal violence, for instance.

The story is told mostly from Claire’s, Yossi’s and Roi’s points of view (third person, present tense). So, throughout the novel, we follow along as Claire, Yossi, and Roi try to make a life together in Auckland, and try to be a family, with all that that means. This is yet another very important element in the story. They love one another deeply, and Yossi in particular wants to get past the keeping of secrets and the insecurities to forge a deep bond with his partner and with Roi. Readers who are tired of dysfunctional families who tear one another apart will be pleased to know that this family is committed to success. They argue, they say the wrong things, and all three are wrong from time to time. It’s a messy, loyal, dedicated, fallible, and loving family group, as a lot of families are.

Days Are Like Grass is the story of a long-ago murder, and its lasting impact. It’s also the story of what happens when a hospital and doctor have one view of what’s best for a child, but the family has a very different one. It features a distinctive Auckland setting, and a family that’s starting over again with one another and with their new home. But what’s your view? Have you read Days Are Like Grass? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 

 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 4 December/Tuesday, 5 December – The Student Body – Simon Wyatt

Monday, 11 December/Tuesday, 12 December – The Frozen Shroud – Gordon Ell

Monday, 18 December/Tuesday, 19 December – Red Herring – Jonothan Cullinane

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Filed under Days Are Like Grass, Sue Younger, Uncategorized