Category Archives: Virginia Duigan

‘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.


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

Someone Has Altered the Rules*

20150526_073904-1As I post this, today would have been Sally Ride’s 64th birthday. Along with her many accomplishments, one thing that’s always stood out for me about Ride is that she wasn’t bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of the time. In fact, she helped change the rules, if you will, about women (at least American women) in the sciences and in NASA. On a personal note, when my daughter was young, she did a school report on Ride’s accomplishments. As part of her report, she wrote a letter to Ride, who answered her personally and in a very gracious way. My daughter still has that letter. She didn’t choose NASA or physics for her career, but she was among a generation of young people for whom Ride changed the game, if you will.

I’m sure you could think of a long list of other people who have refused to be bound by the cultural ‘rules’ of their times. Those people can make a big difference, and they often have interesting stories. We see characters like that in crime fiction, too. I know you’ll be able to offer a lot more examples than I ever could, but here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

At the time of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there were very strict cultural ‘rules’ that governed what men and women were and weren’t expected to do. Those rules don’t stop Irene Adler, whom we meet in A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia engages Holmes to retrieve a compromising photograph of him with Adler; if it goes public, that photograph could put an end to his plans to marry. Holmes agrees and in doing so, matches wits against a most formidable opponent. In fact, Adler bests him at his own game. Holmes respects her for it, too, referring to her afterwards as the woman.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to sculptor Henrietta Savernake. As the story begins, she’s involved with Harley Street specialist John Christow, who is married to someone else. But she’s hardly the stereotypical ‘kept woman.’ She’s independent, noted in her own right, and not one to wait around on the off chance her lover may stop by. In fact, that’s the one thing Christow finds irksome about her: she cares for him, but isn’t absorbed by the relationship. One weekend, Christow is shot while he and his wife Gerda are visiting some friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and circumstances get him involved in the murder investigation. In the process, he gets to know Savernake, and we see that she doesn’t play by the cultural rules of her day.

Robert B. Parker’s Night Passage introduces Jesse Stone. He’s suffered some real personal and professional setbacks, so he’s ready for a change from life as an LAPD detective. When he gets an offer to serve as Chief of Police for Paradise, Massachusetts, he accepts the job. In fact, he’s a little surprised he’s gotten the offer, because he’s hardly a stellar candidate. Still, with nothing much to lose, he makes the change. Soon enough, Stone discovers why he was hired. The Paradise town council, led by Hastings ‘Hasty’ Hathaway, wanted to hire a police chief that they could control. The cultural ‘rule’ of that town has for a long time been that the chief of police is a sort of ‘figurehead’ job to lend legitimacy to whatever the council wants. When Stone learns this, he decides to change that game, and begins to look into some very dubious things that have been going on in the town. That decision to alter the rules puts Stone in danger, but it makes some big changes in Paradise.

Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer decides to change the game in The Precipice. She’s left her position as a school principal, with the idea of moving to a custom-made home in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She has her dream home built and prepares to move in. But then, some bad luck and poor financial planning make that impossible. With no other choice, Thea has to settle for the house next door – a smaller home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington move into the house Thea still regards as hers. Not only does she resent having anyone living nearby, but it’s a particular sore point that they’ve bought ‘her’ house. Still, Thea grits her teeth and tries to get on with life. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with him and Ellice. Unexpectedly, Thea develops an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. So when she comes to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to do something about it. She thinks of pursuing her concerns with the police; but without actual evidence of a crime, they can’t do much. So Thea changes the game and decides to take matters into her own hands.

We see some altering of the rules in Seán Haldane’s historical novel The Devil’s Making. Chad Hobbes has recently finished his law degree at Oxford, and travels to British Columbia, where he gets a job as a police constable in the town of Victoria. Hobbes began his study in the Divinity program, but changed his views about religion. He’s interested in philosophy, though, especially the implications of Charles Darwin’s recently-published work. The nature of humanity is of particular interest to Hobbes, and as he begins his work, he gets plenty of opportunity to reflect on it. For one thing, he soon runs into the deeply ingrained prejudice against non-Whites. And as the novel begins, he doesn’t question it much. But when Richard McCrory is found brutally murdered, Hobbes begins to change his views. Wiladzap, a leader among the Tsimshian Indians, is arrested for the crime, but claims his innocence. As Hobbes begins the investigation into McCrory’s murder, he gets to know the Tsimshian better, and sees that traditional cultural ‘rules’ about men, women, and the social order don’t necessarily make the sense that he once thought they might. Throughout this novel, we see the impact of Darwin’s work and thought. Certainly his findings and perspective on them altered a lot of social and scientific ‘rules.’

People who do change the game – who alter the rules – may not always be proven right. But they do change our way of thinking, or at least invite us to reflect on it. And that, I think, can move us forward.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Good Night and Thank You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert B. Parker, Seán Haldane, Virginia Duigan

But it Don’t Take No Detective*

StoriesWithoutSleuthsWhen most people think of crime novels, they think of a story with a mystery (usually about a murder or series of murders) and the sleuth who solves the case. And a lot of crime novels have that form. But not all of them have that pattern. There are even crime stories that arguably don’t have a sleuth. In that sort of novel, there may be references to ‘the police,’ or a mention of one or another police officer. But those characters don’t really figure into the story.

It’s not easy to write that sort of story since traditionally, the suspense in a crime story is built as the sleuth solves the case. But when it’s done well, crime stories without sleuths can have their own kind of suspense. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could.

One very suspenseful story that has no sleuth is Frederic Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. The narrator tells the history of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some very dubious people. There are certainly crimes involved, but the suspense isn’t built through solving them. Instead, it’s built through the way in which the narrator addresses the reader.

There’s also no sleuth in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Architect Stephen Booker is made redundant by his company. At first, he thinks he’ll find a new job quickly; he is, after all, a professional. But time goes on and he finds nothing. He finally settles for a job driving a cab at night, so he can continue looking for a ‘real job’ during the day. One evening, he picks up a passenger who turns out to be professional thief Mike Daniels. Over time and several cab rides, they get to know each other, and they learn that they may be able to help each other. Daniels and his team are planning a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. In order for their logistics to work, they need help from an architect, and Booker may be just the man for the job. For his part, Booker is desperate for money, and after some misgivings about turning to crime, falls in with Daniels’ team. The group has every detail ready, and at first it looks as though the robbery will go off as planned. But then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has been killed in a car accident. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for some time, but he still feels her loss. What’s worse than that though is that he learns that she was not alone when she died. Sylvie had taken a lover Martial Arnoult, who was with her at the time of the crash and who also died. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left behind a widow Martine, he determines to find out about her. He soon becomes obsessed with Martine and begins a relationship with her. And that’s when things begin to spin completely out of control.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. As the story begins, she’s left her position and had a dream home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But bad luck and poor financial planning have changed everything. Now Thea has to settle for the smaller house next door, which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her perfect home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Elllice Charringon, whom Thea heartily dislikes (she calls them ‘the invaders.’). After a short time, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike her, too. Instead, she discovers that the girl has real promise as a writer, and even forms a kind of awkward friendship with her. So when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate living environment for Kim, Thea gets very concerned. The police won’t do much about it without clear evidence, so Thea makes her own plans to deal with the situation. This novel does refer to the police, but there really isn’t a sleuth. Rather, the suspense is built as we learn, little by little, about Thea, about the new arrivals, and about what happens when Thea decides to take matters into her own hands.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions is the story of middle school teacher and single mother Yūko Moriguchi. When her only child, four-year-old Manami, dies, it looks at first like a tragic accidental drowning. But Yūko knows that Manami was murdered; what’s more, she knows who is responsible. In fact, the novel begins with a speech she makes to her class in which she makes it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She doesn’t trust the juvenile justice system to punish the culprits appropriately, so she’s made her own plans for justice. And as the story goes on, we follow the lives of her students, and we learn what her plan was. The tension in this novel is built as life spirals downwards for several characters, and as we learn what, exactly, was behind the original murder.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman is one of the most promising students that secondary-school teacher Ilsa Klein has had. And Serena seems to be really interested in further education. Then, everything changes. Serena stops coming to class regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school counselor, and a visit is duly made to the Freeman family. When that effort is rebuffed, there’s not much more that Ilsa can do, although she is still worried. Then, Serena disappears. Three weeks later her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington to the family home in Alexandra to look for Serena. This novel doesn’t really cast Lynnie (or anyone else, for the matter of that) in the role of sleuth. Rather, the suspense and interest are built as we learn the truth about Serena and about some of the other characters. It’s that slow reveal, rather than a sleuth solving a mystery, that keeps the reader engaged.

It can be a challenge to build and maintain interest if the author tells a crime story without a sleuth. But in the right hands, it can work well. What are your thoughts on this? Does a story need to have a sleuth for you to ‘plunge in?’ If you’re a writer, have you ever tried your hand at a crime story without a sleuth?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Great Wall of China.


Filed under Frederic Brown, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Pascal Garnier, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan

Girl, I’m On Your Side*

Female MentorsSometimes we all benefit from the guidance of someone who’s more experienced and knowledgeable. Those mentor relationships are often organic, and they benefit both people involved, really. If you’ve ever had a mentor, you know how much of an impact that relationship can have. It’s certainly a part of real life, and there are plenty of crime-fictional examples as well.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode, head of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. In one plot thread, Miss Bulstrode’s been contemplating what will happen when she retires, and she’s deciding who should succeed her. One possibility is Eleanor Vansittart, her ‘second in command.’ Miss Vansittart is devoted to Miss Bulstrode, and makes it quite clear that she intends to run the school in exactly the way Miss Bulstrode does. Another possibility is Eileen Rich, who teaches English Literature and Geography. Miss Rich is quite young for a position of real authority; still, she has a real passion for teaching, and is gifted in the classroom. Miss Bulstrode’s concerns for the future of the school are put aside when games mistress Grace Springer is shot late one night at the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s another murder. And a disappearance. Julia Upjohn, a pupil at the school, makes an important discovery about the events at the school. She visits Hercule Poirot, who is acquainted with her mother’s good friend, and asks his help. Poirot returns with her to the school and investigates. Throughout this novel, we see how Miss Bulstrode acts as a guide and mentor, especially to Eileen Rich.

There’s a similar relationship between Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her informal mentor Hilda McCourt. When we first meet them in Deadly Appearances, Joanne is investigating the poisoning murder of her friend up-and-coming political leader Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. In part to deal with her own sense of grief and loss, Joanne decides to write Andy’s biography, and begins with his youth. That’s how she gets to know Hilda, who taught Andy in high school. Over the course of the next few novels in the series, the two women become friends. Joanne is glad of Hilda’s wisdom and experience, and benefits from using her mentor as a ‘sounding board.’ For her part, Hilda ‘adopts’ Joanne’s family and she too benefits from the relationship.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. The restaurant is named for Lulu’s aunt, who taught her about cooking and about running a restaurant. That mentoring relationship has been very important to Lulu, who is proud to carry on the good traditions she learned from her aunt. Now that Lulu is no longer a young woman, she’s a mentor herself. Her son Ben is married to Sara, a talented artist. In a few novels in this series, Lulu serves as a sort of informal mentor to Sara. And in Hickory Smoked Homicide, she helps clear Sara’s name when she becomes a suspect in the murder of socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. Lulu has a way of supporting Sara without ‘taking over’ or interfering in her daughter-in-law’s life.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer, who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, some poor financial decision-making and bad luck have meant that Thea has to give up that perfect house and settle for the house next door. None too happy about that, Thea calls the smaller house ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea still sees as her own. Thea dislikes then intensely, referring to them as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with the couple. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike Kim as much as she does Frank and Ellice. Instead, she develops an awkward kind of friendship with Kim, and sees real promise in the girl. She even invites Kim to join her in a writing class she’s taking. Thea sees herself as Kim’s mentor and support system, so when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she makes her own plans to do something about it.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: a Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the case of Maggie Heffernan, who was convicted and imprisoned in 1900 for the murder of her infant son, and sentenced to execution. In this account, Maggie meets Jack Hardy when he visits her rural Victoria town to see relatives of his. The two fall in love and secretly become engaged. Then Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack several times; but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she gets work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie lives briefly in a home for unwed mothers, until she learns where Jack is. When she goes to see him, though, he rejects her utterly, calling her ‘crazy.’ Maggie and her infant son are then turned away from six lodging houses; that’s when the tragedy occurs. In the meantime, we also follow the story of Elizabeth Hamilton, who moved to Australia after the death of her fiancé. She soon meets Vida Goldstein, the first woman in the British Commonwealth to seek office as an MP. Vida is a champion of women’s rights and women’s suffrage, and wants to mentor Elizabeth. The two women become interested in the case of Maggie Heffernan, and try to prevent her execution. Throughout this novel, we see several examples of women mentoring and supporting other women; it’s one of the story’s themes.

We also see that in Kishwar Desai’s stories featuring social worker Simran Singh. In Witness the Night, an old university friend asks Simran to travel from Delhi to her home town in the state of Punjab to help in an unusual and appalling case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is suspected of the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members; some were stabbed as well. Later, the house was set on fire. One possible theory is that Durga is responsible for what happened. However, there are signs that she may have been a victim too, and simply managed to escape. The authorities can’t get her to discuss that night though, so there’s no way to really know what happened. That’s where Simran comes in. It’s believed that if she can get Durga to talk about that night, there’ll be a clearer picture of the killings. Simran agrees and begins to interact with Durga. Bit by bit, the two get to know each other and Simran feels a sort of mentor-like protectiveness about the girl. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that she plans to take Durga in once the case gets resolved.

There’s also Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. In that novel, secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein becomes concerned when one of her prize students, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. She stops attending class regularly; and when she is there, she barely takes part in what’s going on. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school’s counselor, but Serena’s family is, to say the least, dysfunctional and not open to help from the outside. Ilsa and her mother Gerda continue to become involved in Serena’s life, and that decision draws them into more than either had imagined.Then Serena disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to the family home in Alexandra to look for the girl. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that mentoring/supporting plays a major role in this novel.

Those often-informal mentoring relationships can make a big difference in how we move along in life. Sometimes they make a bigger difference than more formal things. As I post this, we’re observing International Women’s Day. But really, supporting women is something that we can do all the time, not just on one day. Look behind you: there’s probably a woman (or another woman if you’re female) working her way up in life. Reach back and support her. It’s not a competition; it’s a matter of everyone doing better when each one does better.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thomas Bank and Candy Dulfer’s Girls Should Stick Together (for Nada).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Kishwar Desai, Paddy Richardson, Virginia Duigan, Wendy James

She’s Never Had a Nickname*

NicknameNicknames are a big part of many cultures. Sometimes they’re simply shortened versions of people’s names. Other times they’re descriptive (e.g. either ‘Curly’ or ‘Baldy’ for someone with no hair). Still other times they’re intended as insults. Either way, nicknames can add depth to a fictional character. And sometimes, they’re pretty funny, too. Here are just a few crime-fictional examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to travel to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the death of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the murderer is her lodger James Bentley, but Superintendent Spence is beginning to think Bentley is innocent. And as Poirot gets to know the various villagers, he suspects that several of them are hiding things that Mrs. McGinty may have discovered. One of Bentley’s few friends, former co-worker Maude Williams, wants to help clear Bentley’s name. Poirot enlists her aid as a sort of spy in the home of Roger and Edith Wetherby, with the goal of finding a clue that might link them to Mrs. McGinty’s death. The Wetherbys are not pleasant, friendly people; in fact, here is how Maude describes them during a conversation with Poirot:

‘Old Frozen Fish was shut up in his study as usual…
So I nipped upstairs into Her Acidity’s bedroom…’

Those nicknames really are quite descriptive, actually.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer. She’s had the perfect home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, and is looking forward to living there. But then, some bad financial decisions and bad luck get in her way, and she’s forced to sell that perfect home and settle for the smaller house next door – a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, her dream home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellyce Carrington, and they soon move in. Thea is contemptuous of the new arrivals and very resentful that they’re living in ‘her’ home. In fact, her name for them is ‘the Invaders.’ It’s quite reflective of what she really thinks of them and of her perception of life. Then, unexpectedly, she develops a sort of awkward friendship with Frank’s niece Kim, who comes to live with him and Ellyce. So when Thea begins to suspect that they are not providing an appropriate home for a child, she wants something done about it. The police can’t do much, so Thea makes plans of her own…

Of course, not all nicknames are meant as insults. In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, for instance, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest investigates when former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins is killed. At first it looks as though he was murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest suspects otherwise and starts to ask questions. Doc got his nickname because he was a geologist, and although he was a little eccentric, there are people who respected his knowledge. Tempest’s own miner/prospector father is nicknamed ‘Motor Jack.’

In Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is taking some time off duty to recover from the events of Dead Set. But he’s persuaded to come back to active duty when two politically charged murders occur. Alec Dennet, a member of Gough Whitlam’s (1972-1975) government, has been writing his memoirs with his editor Lorraine Starke. One night they’re both killed, and the AFP wants Chen back at work to help investigate. One possibility is that Dennet and Starke were killed because of the ‘dirty laundry’ he was going to include in his memoirs. There are several people in powerful places who don’t want that to happen. But there are other possibilities too, so Chen and his team have their work cut out for them, as the saying goes. Throughout the novel, Chen works with Constable Paul ‘Voodoo’ Filipowski, who turns out to be very helpful on the case. Voodoo got his name because he was badly injured in one particular incident, but survived, although odds were he wouldn’t. Chen also works with another teammate nicknamed Talkative and with Baby’s Arm, a police videographer.

Fans of Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri will know that nicknames are woven all through that series. Puri himself is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby’ because of his fondness for food. His office boy has the equally unflattering name of Doorstop, because he does nothing all day. Then there’s Handbrake, Puri’s driver, and Facecream, one of his investigators who has the knack of blending in wherever she goes. There’s also Tube Light, who is Puri’s top operative and quite skilled with things technical; and Flush, who got his nickname because his was the first house in his village with indoor plumbing.

Sometimes, nicknames are actually more appealing than a character’s real name. For instance, Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw frequently reports to DS Alvin ‘Streaky’ Bacon.

‘Alvin, she [Kershaw] thought. Who knew?’

Her boss doesn’t mind being called Streaky. Alvin is another thing.

And that’s the thing about nicknames. They can be insulting, a sign of bonding, or simply descriptive. They can also add solid character depth. Which fictional nicknames have stayed with you? If you’re a writer, do you give your characters nicknames?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Go-Betweens’ Head Full of Steam.







Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Kel Robertson, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan