Category Archives: Virginia Duigan

‘Cause I Speak My Mind Sometimes*

bluntnessI’ll bet that, when you were a child, you were taught to be tactful. And most people do try not to be too blunt when they speak. Things just seem to go more smoothly when we temper what we say. And yet, sometimes people say things in a very forthright way. In a sense, it’s refreshing; you know where you are with such folks. At the same time, though, too much bluntness can make for awkwardness or worse. My guess is, you’ve had that experience in real life. And it’s certainly there in crime fiction.

The interesting thing about blunt statements is that they can reveal a lot about a character without the author having to go into too much detail. And bluntness can give clues to a story, too.

Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) introduces us to the Abernethie family. Patriarch Richard Abernethie has just died of what seems like natural causes, and his relatives have gathered for his funeral. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle also intends to use the occasion to share the terms of Abernethie’s will. During the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up; she herself tells the family not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, everyone thinks she may be right. And when she is murdered the next day, it seems clear that what she said is true. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. One thing that’s interesting about Cora’s character is that she’s always been prone to what Entwhistle calls, ‘awkward statements.’ It makes for an interesting layer to that character. I completely agree, fans of The ABC Murders.

Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers can also be quite blunt. In The Penguin Pool Murder, in which she makes her debut, Miss Withers is escorting her fourth-grade class on a trip to the New York Aquarium. They’re at the penguin pool exhibit, getting ready to leave, when they see a man’s body slide into the pool. He’s been murdered, so homicide detective Oscar Piper is called in to investigate. In the course of his work, he interviews Miss Withers. She tells him that she’s a teacher, and how she came to be at the aquarium. Later, he says:
 

‘‘Occupation?’
‘At present, answering foolish questions. Young man, I told you I was a teacher.’’
 
Interestingly, Piper isn’t permanently put off by Miss Withers’ bluntness, as fans of this series will know…

Any fan of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel will tell you that he is not exactly known for his tact or verbal restraint. It’s very much part of his character to be blunt. For instance, in Good Morning, Midnight, he and Peter Pascoe investigate the supposed suicide of Pal Maciver. What’s odd about this death is that it eerily mirrors the death of his father, ten years earlier. When he arrives at the scene, Dalziel finds a bit of chaos. Among other things, one of the people in the house at the time of the death has tried to leave, and gotten into an altercation with PC Bonnick, who’s trying to keep everything secured. Dalziel tries to get some answers from this man:
 

‘‘Look, I’m sorry – I was out of…but I was worried – we’d heard that…and he didn’t show, so I thought that…that…that…’
‘What’s your problem, lad,’ enquired Dalziel. ‘Apart from not being able to finish sentences?’’
 

Later, Dalziel finds out that the man is a PE teacher. Here’s his response:
 

‘‘PE, eh? That explains about the sentences. Pity but.’’
 

Anyone familiar with Dalziel will know that this is quite typical of his way of speaking.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, and that impacts his interactions with others. He’s not skilled at understanding social cues, so he says exactly what’s on his mind. One day, Christopher comes upon the dog that belongs to the people next door. The animal’s been killed, and he’s curious as to how it happened. The dog’s owners think Christopher might be responsible, but he knows he’s innocent. So he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. In the course of his search for answers, Christopher finds out some important truths about himself. And as he interacts with others, we see that he is at times very blunt indeed. It’s not to be unkind; he simply doesn’t understand the social skill of choosing one’s words and one’s approach.

And then there’s Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer, a former school principal whom we meet in The Precipice. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that she had bought a piece of property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, and had a home built there. But bad luck and poor financial decisions meant that she wasn’t able to move in. Instead, she’s had to sell the house and settle for the house next door, a home she calls ‘the hovel.’ When Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy Thea’s dream home (which she still considers hers), matters get even worse. Then, Frank’s niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to have as much contempt for Kim as she does for Frank and Ellice. But after a bit, she forms an awkward friendship with the girl, and sees real promise in her. That’s why she’s especially concerned when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When the police won’t take any action, Thea makes plans of her own. Throughout the novel, Thea is blunt – sometimes very unkind – in the journal she keeps. She’s not quite as blunt in her interactions, but she certainly has her say.

And that’s the thing about bluntness. Forthright people certainly put things in perspective. Case in point: a conversation I had with my granddaughter:

Miss Five: What kind of books do you write?
Me: I write mystery books.
Miss Five: Can I read them?
Me: Well, they’re for grownups. They aren’t really for kids.
Miss Five: Oh, so they’re boring?

There is nothing like a conversation with a five-year-old to put everything in perspective. Just in case I ever get full of myself…😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rubens’ Lay it Down.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Mark Haddon, Reginald Hill, Stuart Palmer, Virginia Duigan

But Nothing on Earth Could Ever Divide Us*

Children's Friendships with AdultsThere’s an old saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ Certainly children are influenced not just by their parents and siblings, but also by a lot of other people, too. And sometimes they form friendships with people you wouldn’t expect. There’s even a certain bond that develops sometimes between children and older people.

That may be because older people have the time and patience to hear what children have to say. And for their part, children often have a different perspective on what their grandparents and other older people have to say.  Those friendships are woven into crime fiction, and they can add interesting layers of plot and character development to a story.

Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun introduces readers to sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She and her father, Captain Kenneth Marshall, take a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. With them is Marshall’s second wife, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. Linda’s going through all of the awkwardness that comes with being a teenager. And things are not made any easier by the fact that her stepmother is beautiful and graceful. Linda’s very unhappy, but doesn’t really have anyone to talk to about what’s on her mind. One day, Arlena is found strangled not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot, who’s taking a holiday at the same place, works with the police to catch the killer. As a part of the investigation, he has to find out what Linda knows and whether she might have been involved in some way. And it’s interesting to see how he reaches out to her. In her own awkward way, Linda reaches out, too, and that adds to this story. I agree with you, fans of Dead Man’s Folly.

In Arthur Upfield’s The Bushman Who Came Back, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Boney’ Bonaparte investigates a murder that takes place at Mount Eden, a homestead belonging to Mr. Wooten. One day, Wooten’s housekeeper, Mrs. Bell, is found shot in the kitchen. What’s worse, her seven-year-old daughter Linda has gone missing. There’s evidence that a local bushman nicknamed Ol Fren Yorky was at the scene of the crime. He knew the people living at the ranch, too, and is thoroughly familiar with the area.  So it wouldn’t have been hard for him to take the child and disappear. No-one wants to believe that Yorky would have committed this crime or hurt Linda, since he’s well-liked. But it is a possibility, so he has to be found. Boney works with the local police to find out the truth behind this case; and, as he does, we learn that Linda and Yorky are friends in that way that children make friends with older people. It adds both a plot point and a layer of interest to the novel. You’re absolutely right, fans of Death of a Swagman.

Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his longtime lover, Livia Burlando, make friends with a young boy named François in The Snack Thief. In one plot thread of that novel, Montalbano investigates the murder of a retired business executive who was killed in the elevator of his apartment building. The key to this mystery, and to another murder that Montalbano and his team are investigating, may be Karima, a housekeeper and sometimes-prostitute who could be a connection between the two cases. By the time Montalbano discovers this link, though, Karima has disappeared, leaving behind her son François. While the police team is looking for the boy’s mother, he has to stay somewhere safe, so Montalbano and Livia (who happens to be visiting) take him in. In the process, they strike up a friendship with him, and Livia in particular begins to bond with him. François isn’t the reason for the murders, but that friendship adds character depth to Montalbano and to Livia, and an interesting plot thread.

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice features former school principal Thea Farmer. She bought a piece of land in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, and had a dream home built, with the idea of living out her retirement there. But bad luck and poor financial decisions have changed her plans. Now, she lives in the much smaller house next door to the home she used to own. What’s worse, the home she still considers hers has been purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, people she refers to as ‘invaders’ and ‘aliens.’ Thea’s just getting used to that when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece, Kim, moves in with him and Ellice. Oddly enough, considering that Thea tends to be a misanthrope, she and Kim form an odd sort of friendship. They begin to spend time together, and Kim even attends a writing class that Thea’s taking. In fact, Thea sees real promise in the girl. So when she suspects that Frank and Ellice may not be providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea gets concerned. She has no real evidence, though, so the police aren’t likely to do anything about it. So, Thea decides to make her own plans. The relationship between Thea and Kim is a really engaging (and important) plot thread in this novel.

And then there’s Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night. Sheldon Horowitz has moved from his native New York City to Norway, to be closer to his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Lars. One day, he inadvertently witnesses the murder of a young woman who lives upstairs from Rhea and Lars. He rescues her young son, and he and the boy go on the lam. Horowitz knows that the killers could be after the boy, and wants to keep him safe. Neither speaks the other’s language, but the two form a sort of friendship as they try to elude the murderers. For the boy, Horowitz represents a kind of safety. For Horowitz, the boy adds a purpose to his life.

And that’s the thing about the friendships that can develop between children and older people. Each fulfills a need that the other has, and that bond can do much for both. And in novels, such friendships can add character development and interest.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charmin’s I Don’t Need Anything But You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Upfield, Derek B. Miller, Virginia Duigan

I Am He as You Are He and You Are Me*

Point of ViewOne of the important choices writers have to make is which way they’ll tell a story. Most authors choose first or third person (more about second person in a bit). There are good reasons to choose each one, and a lot depends on what the author wants to accomplish.

Many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are written in the first person, from the point of view of Dr. Watson. One of the big advantages of first person here is that it allows for a really interesting perspective on another character, Sherlock Holmes. As fans will know, Holmes is unusual, even unique. And his skill at deduction is legendary. To see all of that from someone else’s point of view allows for the same kind of wonder (‘How’d he do that?’) that we might feel when watching a magician. And then, of course, Watson’s perspective allows Holmes to explain himself. There are examples of that moment woven through the Holmes stories and novels. One that I like very much comes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, Commissionaire Peterson brings an unusual case to Holmes. He broke up a fight in which some thugs were attacking a man. Everyone ran off, and in his haste, the man dropped his hat and a goose he was carrying. Peterson brought the goose home to his wife, and when she started to prepare it for cooking, she found a valuable gem in its craw. Peterson wants to know the story behind the gem, and for that, he’ll need the man’s identity. Holmes takes one good look at the hat and is able to be so precise about its owner that they soon find out who that person is.

Of course, sleuths are not perfect. Just ask Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. He’ll be very quick to lay out the limitations of his boss, Nero Wolfe. And that’s one of the real advantages of telling most of the Wolfe stories in first person, from Archie’s point of view. We get to see all of Wolfe’s faults (which he himself would hardly be willing to discuss). What’s more, we learn parts of the story that Wolfe wouldn’t necessarily know, since Archie usually serves as Wolfe’s ‘legs, eyes and ears.’

Agatha Christie used first person in several of her stories, too. One purpose that served (similar to what we see in the Stout stories) was to give some insight into another character. I’m thinking particularly of the Hercule Poirot stories in which Arthur Hastings serves as narrator. He certainly admires Poirot’s detection ability, but he is not oblivious to Poirot’s faults and eccentricities. And that gives us insight into Poirot’s character.

Hastings’ perspective also serves another purpose: misdirection. In Lord Edgware Dies, Poirot and Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. The victim’s wife, Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect, but according to the testimony of twelve other people, she was at a dinner party in a different part of London at the time of the murder. It’s a difficult case, and at one point, Poirot explains why he values Hastings’ perspective on it so much:
 

‘‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’’
 

What he means is that he learns from Hastings what the murder wants him to think. Hastings is not stupid, but he doesn’t put pieces of a case together the way Poirot does. He sees and hears things, but isn’t always aware of their significance.

Christie also created several first-person stories where the narrator is unreliable – another form of misdirection. I won’t list titles or characters, as that would give spoilers. But fans will know which ones I mean. And she’s not the only one who uses first person for the purpose of creating an unreliable narrator. A few authors and titles that come to my mind are James W. Fuerst’s Huge, Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind.

There are other reasons, too, for which authors choose the first person. For example, it allows for readers to really get to understand the protagonist. But it’s got its limits. It’s harder for an author to share information that a given character couldn’t know unless that author uses third person. That reader omniscience allows for a great deal of suspense as readers can anticipate what’s going to happen next once they get some information. Karin Fossum does this quite a lot with her Konrad Sejer stories, for instance. As one example, in When the Devil Holds the Candle, we know something terrible is going to happen when best friends Andreas Winther and Sivert ‘Zipp” Skorpe spend a fateful day together. But Sejer doesn’t know. And that tension as the events unfold, and as Sejer later investigates them adds to the suspense.

There’s also the fact that third person allows for multiple points of view. Many, many writers (including yours truly) share stories through different points of view. Doing that gives the reader a broader perspective on the events. It also allows for the evolution of a group of characters (since the reader can get to know more than one of them). Kate Atkinson does this in One Good Turn, for instance. In that novel, we follow the lives of several disparate characters, including her protagonist Jackson Brodie, who all end up in the same place one afternoon when a blue Honda crashes into the back of a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The lead-up to the crash, and the consequences of it, are fateful for several of the characters, and Atkinson shows us that through more than one pair of eyes.

There are some authors who’ve actually chosen to use the second person, too. Charles Stross’ Rule 34 comes to my mind as an example of this. That novel takes place in the near future, in a sort of alternative reality. In it, Edinburgh police detective Liz Kavanaugh and her team investigate several murders that are connected with online spamming, a shadowy criminal group called The Organization, and a former identity thief named Anwar. The points of view shift throughout the novel, but the story is all told in the second person.

There are good reasons to choose one or another way to tell a story. Neither first person nor third person is always ideal, and a lot of people are not comfortable with second person. At the same time, each of these offers some important advantages, too. Do you have a preference? Let me know in the poll below, and we’ll talk about it again when everyone’s had a week to vote. I’ll be interested in what you have to say. If you’re a writer, what drew you to the first/second/third person choices you’ve made?

 

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Stross, James W. Fuerst, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Mark Haddon, Rex Stout, Virginia Duigan

My Family Just Moved in Around the Corner*

New NeighboursI’m sure you know the feeling. A moving van pulls up to a home near yours and you start wondering. What will the new people be like? Will they have a dog that barks at all hours? Will they have loud parties? Will they be pleasant? It’s quite natural to be curious about new people, especially if you live in a place that’s not particularly transient. Sometimes, the new people who move in turn out to be terrific folks who become your friends. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, it’s enough to get people thinking.

That tension and curiosity about new people can also add a layer of interest and suspense in a crime novel. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd takes place in the small village of King’s Abbot. Dr. James Sheppard is the local GP, who lives with his sister Caroline. They’ve recently had someone new move into the house next door. Sheppard is not one to pry a lot, but Caroline is insatiably curious. Despite her best efforts, though, she hasn’t been able to find out very much about their new neighbour. One afternoon, though, Sheppard is doing some gardening when he has his own encounter:

 

‘I was busily exterminating dandelion roots when a shout of warning sounded from close by and a heavy body whizzed by my ears and fell at my feet with a repellent squelch. It was a vegetable marrow!

I looked up angrily. Over the wall, to my left, there appeared a face. An egg-shaped head, partially covered with suspiciously black hair, two immense moustaches, and a pair of watchful eyes. It was our mysterious neighbour, Mr Porrott.’
 

This isn’t the friendliest way to begin an exchange, but Hercule Poirot gushes out his apologies, explaining that he lost his temper with the vegetable and threw it without thinking. Before long, he and Sheppard get to talking. And when Sheppard’s friend, retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, is murdered, he and Poirot investigate.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, former school principal Thea Farmer has to deal with new people when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington move in next door. She has nothing but contempt for them, referring to them as ‘the invaders’ Getting used to these new people is even harder for her than it is for most of us, because they’ve bought the house that Thea had had built for herself. A combination of bad luck and poor financial planning meant that she wasn’t able to take possession of ‘her’ house, and had to settle for a smaller home nearby. All of this means that she’s not particularly disposed to like Frank and Ellice. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in. At first, Thea is sure this will make things even worse. But she ends up developing a sort of awkward friendship with the girl. That’s why she’s so upset when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Thea learns that the police aren’t going to do much about it without more direct evidence. So she makes her own plans…

William Ryan’s The Holy Thief introduces readers to Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID. This series takes place in the years just before World War II, when Stalin is firmly in charge in the then-Soviet Union. In one plot thread of the novel, Korolev has just been assigned new (and better) housing. Instead of having to share his room, he will have his own room in an apartment. It may not seem like much, but at that time, and in that place, it’s a definite step up. Korolev soon learns that he will be sharing the new apartment with Valentina Nikolaevna Koltsova and her young daughter, Natasha. It’s a little awkward at first, since they are complete strangers to each other. And it doesn’t help matters that during this time, it’s not uncommon for people to denounce each other to the authorities. So both Korolev and Koltsova are understandably very cautious about what they say to each other and what they do. Still, they gradually learn to like and trust each other.

In Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, we meet Emily Wray and her daughter Frances. It’s the early 1920s in London, when women don’t have many options for earning a living. Certainly women of ‘the better classes’ aren’t prepared to get jobs and have careers. So when Emily’s husband (and Frances’ father) dies, the two women are left without much money. They decide that they have no option but to take in lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism they use – to make ends meet. After a short time, Len and Lilian Barber answer the Wrays’ advertisement and take rooms in their house. It’s all awkward to begin with because of the Wrays’ embarrassment at having to take in boarders. But it’s also awkward because the Barbers and the Wrays don’t know each other, and don’t know what it will be like to be at close quarters. Frances isn’t particularly impressed with either Barber at first. But bit by bit, everyone gets used to the arrangement. It’s not long, though, before things begin to spin out of control. In the end, having new people around has disastrous consequences.

Of course, it’s no less awkward if you’re the new person moving in. That’s what science fiction writer Zack Walker finds out in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker decides that his family would be safer if they moved from the city where they’ve been living to a new, suburban home. He finds what he thinks will be the right place in Valley Forest Estates, where the lower cost of living means that he’ll be able to write full time. The family moves in, and they feel the awkwardness of being ‘the new people.’ It’s not long, too, before Walker begins to suspect that something is not right about this housing development. In the end, the Walkers discover that living in suburbia is hardly a tranquil existence. It all ends up in fraud, theft, and murder.

And that’s the thing about having new people move in (or being those new people). Sometimes it works out very well indeed. Sometimes it doesn’t.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Hill’s Proposal.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Linwood Barclay, Sarah Waters, Virginia Duigan, William Ryan

‘Till I Can’t Take it Anymore*

Pushed to the EdgeVery often, it’s not the major stressors of life that sap us the most. Those tragedies do happen, and they are awful. But they don’t generally happen very often, and if we take care of ourselves when they do, we get through them. No, what pushes most people too far is a buildup of smaller things. Those are the things that threaten marriages (e.g. ‘If you leave the cap off the toothpaste tube one more time….’). They make people lash out at strangers, too (Ever been on a long flight where there was an infant who wouldn’t stop crying? Especially if the flight was delayed, you were hungry, etc…).

That buildup of stress can add a lot of tension to a novel, and it’s realistic too. We all have those times when we feel like snapping because of all of the things that have gone wrong. Sometimes that buildup can even lead to violence and worse, so it shouldn’t be surprising that we see this sort of suspense in crime fiction.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater takes place during a terrible heat wave. Everyone’s miserable, and there seems no end to it. In the midst of this heat, police officer Mike Reardon is shot one day while on his way to work. Detective Steve Carella and his partner Frank Bush investigate. They’re hoping that once they find out what sort of gun was used in the killing, they’ be closer to catching the murderer. Then another officer, David Foster, is shot. His death is similar, so the police have to face the possibility that they are dealing with someone who has a vendetta against cops. In the meantime, the police have other duties as well. One of them is to attend lineups of those arrested for major crimes. The idea of this is that the police will become familiar with the area’s criminals. In one such lineup, we meet Virginia Pritchett, who’s been accused of murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the deed; in fact, she explains that it all happened because of the buildup of tension between her and her husband throughout the heat wave. According to her, the argument that led to the murder started out simply enough and spiraled out of control. And matters weren’t helped by the heat:
 

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
 

We see that buildup of small things leading to disaster in a few places in the novel.

P.D. James’A Taste For Death concerns the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church, along with the body of a tramp named Harry Mack. Because of Berowne’s status, the case is likely to attract a lot of media attention, so it’s going to have to be handled delicately. That’s where Commander Adam Dalgleish, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin come in. They’re the members of a special group of detectives who are assigned to cases such as this, where the media is likely to take a great interest. As the team begins to investigate, one of their first stops is the Berowne family. The Berownes are upper-class, and matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne (mother to one of the victims) is determined to protect the family’s public image. But behind that mask is a lot of ongoing resentment that’s built up. That’s especially true in the case of Evelyn Matlock, who was taken in by the family as a ward, and now serves as housekeeper and maid to Lady Ursula. At one point, she’s had one stress too much, and finally snaps:
 

“I’m tired, I’m overworked and I hate you all. You didn’t know that, did you? You thought I was grateful. Grateful for the job of washing you like a baby, grateful for waiting on a woman too idle to pick up her own underclothes from the floor, grateful for the worst bedroom in the house, grateful for a home, a bed, a roof, the next meal. This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.”
 

It’s interesting to see how class issues come out in this novel and in Evelyn’s reaction.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down introduces us to fuel station attendant Stanley Manning. He’s never really been much of a professional success, and it hasn’t helped his career at all that he has a prison record. Still, he’s trying to make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. The big problem is Vera’s mother Maude, who lives with the Mannings. Maude despises her son-in-law, and the feeling is most definitely mutual. They make each other’s lives miserable in any way they can. In fact the only ray of hope is that Stanley knows he and Vera will inherit Maude’s money when she dies. As time goes on and Stanley feels the pressure more and more, he decides to take matters into his own hands. And if you’ve read Rendell at all, you’ll know that that’s going to spell disaster.

There’s also Martin Edwards’ short story Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa. This story concerns a sales and marketing director named Lomas. He’s always had a nicely ordered life, but times have changed, and now he finds his life unbearable. For one thing, technology has changed the way people shop, so his job has changed. Lomas’ sales strategies haven’t really been able to keep up with the times, so he’s feeling work pressure. Then there’s the way modern technology has changed the way people communicate. The Internet, mobile ‘phones and so on are all troublesome for Lomas. His family adds to these stresses; his children have become teenagers who now inhabit a completely alien world from his perspective. Even the road system has changed. Lomas has tried, but all of these stresses have built up so much that at last, matters come to a tragic head.

That’s similar to what happens in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. That’s the story of former school principle Thea Farmer, who bought some property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains as a place to retire. She had a dream home built for herself and was ready to enjoy the rest of her life. Then things changed. First, some bad luck and poor financial decision-making meant that she couldn’t have that dream home. Instead, she had to settle for the house next door. Then, Frank Campbell and Ellyce Carrington bought the house that Thea always thought of as hers, and moved in. Thea resents both of those developments very much, and her stress is only increased when Frank’s niece Kim moves in with her uncle. Despite herself, though, Thea actually forms a sort of awkward friendship with the girl. And that leads to more trouble when Thea becomes convinced that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for his niece. All of this stress builds up to the point that Thea decides to deal with the situation herself. And what’s interesting in this story is how much of the stress Thea has brought on herself.

Most of us can handle one stress at a time, like a traffic jam, an argument, an Internet outage or a delayed flight. Pile them all on, though, and they can add up to real tragedy. And they can add suspense and character development to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Head Games.

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Filed under Ed McBain, Martin Edwards, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Virginia Duigan