Category Archives: Walter Mosley

All the Cats Who Are So In, I Don’t Fit In*

assimilating-or-notVery often, when two cultures come into contact, one of them ends up becoming dominant. There are many reasons for this, and many consequences of it. One of them is that members of the minority culture frequently have to make a painful choice – one of several. Do they keep their own language, cultural ways, and so on, or do they assimilate? If they assimilate, there’s more of a chance of surviving well within the dominant culture. But it means rejecting their own culture and language, with all of the loss that entails. Keeping that culture and language, though, means likely being cut off from a lot of opportunity.

This isn’t an easy choice to make, and matters aren’t helped by the pressure to assimilate and the equal (and opposite) pressure not to ‘sell out.’ And that pressure can come in several ways. And, in some cultures, being a member of a minority culture carries a stigma that greatly impacts a person. That, too, plays a role in the decisions a person might make. There are plenty of crime-fictional characters who face these dilemmas, and it adds to their characters.

In Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, we are introduced to Janet Pete. She’s a half-Navajo/half-white attorney whom we first meet in Skinwalkers. At first, she lives and works in Washington, D.C., where she has a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Later, she works for the Navajo Nation. For a time, she and Jim Chee are also romantically involved. Pete has learned how important it is to assimilate if one wants to ‘get ahead.’ She lives a white lifestyle, and at one point, encourages Chee to accept a position off the Reservation, so that they can live in a more dominant-culture way. But at the same time, she is well aware of her Navajo background, understands its traditions, and has a deep respect for her people. She has to make some very painful decisions as the story arc concerning her plays out. And part of the reason for that is the pressure she feels both to assimilate and to be a part of the Navajo world.

Jason Matthews faces much the same challenge in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary. He’s a Brisbane police detective who is also a member of the Corrowa people. He’s been able to manage his life by (mostly) assimilating, as have some other Aborigine characters in this novel. And so far, he’s done all right. Then, the Corrowa people get into a land dispute with a development company over Meston Park. Both groups lay claim to the place, and the situation gets very ugly. Judge Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa, and a few hours later, he’s found dead. Then there are other murders, each of someone involved in the case against the land claim. Matthews is on the team that investigates the killings, and the experience tests his views about assimilating, about identity, and about culture.

Then there’s the question of what’s sometimes been called ‘passing’ – being a member of one race, but identifying oneself (at least publicly) as a member of another. In the US, at least, there’ve been blacks who chose to ‘pass’ as white, rather than identify as black, and it’s been a difficult choice. On the one hand, ‘passing’ has meant opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise. On the other, many blacks have seen ‘passing’ as turning one’s back on one’s own. There’s a Walter Mosley book featuring PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins that addresses this very issue, but naming it would be too close to spoiling for my taste.

It’s been an issue in other places, too. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series, for instance, takes place in 1950s South Africa, a time when Apartheid was the law of the land. The rules about race were strict, and brutally enforced. They determined where one lived, what sort of education and job one got, whom one could marry, and much more. Being identified as white (whether Afrikaans or English) meant privilege, power, and opportunity. Being identified as non-white relegated one to a lower class of citizenship, with little opportunity and less voice. In that world, it’s so important to be considered white that many people hide any evidence that they might not be. And that fact figures into more than one character’s choices in the series.

One of Anya Lipska’s sleuths is Janusz Kiszka, a Polish immigrant to London. He’s a well-known member of the Polish community there, and has become sort of a ‘fixer’ – a person who can get things done. He doesn’t always use the ‘usual channels,’ but he always knows someone who knows someone, if I can put it that way. Although he has no burning desire to return to Poland, Kiszka has kept many of his cultural ways, as well as his own language. And he dislikes the tendency for some Polish immigrants to immediately adopt English ways, drop their language, and so on. It’s an interesting perspective on the meeting of cultures.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Roisin McPhedren. When we first meet her in A Madras Miasma, she serves as cook and housekeeper for Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu. They are also lovers, but they keep that secret. The series takes place in 1920s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the last decades of the British Raj. Roison is Anglo-Indian, and well aware of the social advantages of being as ‘English’ as possible, particularly since she is not of the upper class.  And that includes English social mores. It’s a painful situation for both her and Le Fanu. By contrast, Le Fanu’s assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah makes no attempt to ‘be English.’ He is unashamedly Indian, and Muslim. He may not assimilate, but Habi has earned the respect of others, most particularly his boss, because he is very, very good at what he does.

It can be painful and difficult to decide whether and how much to assimilate, if one’s not a member of a dominant culture. And there isn’t really a ‘right’ answer. Perhaps that’s part of what makes such characters so interesting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beat’s I Don’t Fit In.

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Filed under Anya Lipska, Brian Stoddart, Malla Nunn, Nicole Watson, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

Take the Good From the Bad*

minus-to-a-plusWe all have traits that can be seen as disadvantages. Take me, for instance. At just over 1.5m (5ft) tall, there are plenty of things that I can’t easily reach. And it’s not always easy to find clothes that fit me properly. Other people have other things that can put them at a disadvantage.

The trick is, really, to use those disadvantages as advantages. For instance, as small as I am, air travel isn’t quite as difficult for me as it is for taller people. I can fit my things into a much smaller suitcase, and I don’t need as much room to sit. I don’t need as much leg room, either, so my things often don’t have to go into an overhead compartment.

It’s the same way with other traits. And when people turn disadvantages into advantages, they can often be more successful. Just a quick look at crime fiction, for instance, should show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has the disadvantage, as many people see it, of being a foreigner. At the time and place in which he lives, not being English is often considered a strike against him, and people usually end up respecting him not because he’s foreign, but in spite of it. And Poirot uses that very much to his advantage. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), for instance, he investigates two deaths. One is of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie, whose death was sudden, but not really unexpected. When Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered, people don’t believe her at first. But privately, Abernethie’s other relatives begin to wonder. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. At one point in the story, Poirot attends a weekend gathering of Abernethie family members. The purpose is to choose mementos they want, before the property is sold. Poirot’s there under the guise of a potential buyer, and has accentuated his ‘foreign-ness.’ Because of that, everyone condescends to him, and soon, he’s able to sit and watch, almost forgotten. And that proves to be very useful indeed.

For several fictional female detectives, the fact of being a woman puts them at a disadvantage. But the smart ones have learned to use popular stereotypes and sexist notions to their advantage. For instance, Anna Katherine Green’s Violet Strange is a private investigator in the early years of the 20th Century. She comes from one of the ‘better’ New York families, so she has access to the higher social circles. But she’s still female at a time when ‘proper ladies’ simply do not engage in something like detection. She uses that, though; in more than one story, she takes the ‘I’m just a woman’ approach to lower people’s guards. She hears more than she might otherwise hear, and gets into places from which she might otherwise be barred.

The same is true of K.B. Owen’s Penelope Hamilton. She’s a Pinkerton’s agent who lives and works at the very end of the 19th Century. And she’s learned to be quite good at using her role as ‘just a woman’ to do what she needs to do. So does Concordia Wells, for whom Hamilton is a mentor. Wells is a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College, where she’s supposed to concentrate on her role as a faculty member and supervisor of her pupils. But she often finds herself getting mixed up in mysteries. And she’s learned how to occasionally use her status as a woman to find out what she needs to know.

One of Walter Mosley’s series features Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. A black man, he lives and works in post-WW II Los Angeles, beginning at a time when institutional segregation was a fact of life. And the deep-seated prejudices and bigotry behind that segregation are alive and quite well in Rawlins’ world. On the one hand, that means he is at a real disadvantage. There are places he can’t go, people he’s not ‘supposed to’ speak to, and jobs he can’t hope to get. But he uses his race to advantage in the cases he investigates. He fits in in certain places in a way that a white sleuth wouldn’t. And other blacks trust him in ways that they would never trust a white sleuth. So, Rawlins can solve cases that his white counterparts, and the white police, can’t.

There’s an interesting use of disadvantage in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is eleven years old at the start of the series, which takes place in 1950s England. She may be ‘just a child,’ but Flavia is very skilled at chemistry, and has a knack for detection, too. She knows that no-one really pays very much attention to ‘just a kid.’ Flavia riding her bicycle is just Flavia riding her bicycle, and she’s not considered much of a threat. So, she often finds herself able to go places, observe things, overhear conversations, and so on, that she wouldn’t be able to do if she were an adult. On the one hand, being a child puts Flavia at a disadvantage. She’s smaller, more vulnerable, not as mature, and less well able to get around than adults are. But at the same time, she can go places they can’t, and she has access to private conversations and other clues that they don’t.

Of course, criminals can use disadvantages, too. For instance, in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling, we meet real estate agent William Heming. He’s not particularly attractive, or rich, or…. In fact, he has the disadvantage of being very, very ordinary – the sort of person nobody notices. And if you want to sell real estate, being noticed and remembered can be real advantages. But Heming uses his very, very average appearance and personality quite effectively. He’s observant of all of the people to whom he’s sold homes. And he’s kept copies of each house key. He has, shall we say, interests besides selling houses. And, when a body is discovered in the yard of one those houses, he’s as concerned as anyone. If people really remember him, too much might come out that Heming would prefer didn’t. In this case, that disadvantage of, well, ordinariness turns out to be very helpful to Heming.

And that’s the thing about disadvantages. They do restrict us, but they can also be used to good effect. And people who know how to do that can end up quite successful.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sara Bareilles’ Red.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Anna Katherine Green, K.B. Owen, Phil Hogan, Walter Mosley

Changing Times, Changing Rules*

changing-rulesSocial and other changes often mean different roles for just about everyone. In some ways, that can be very liberating. But it also means that the rules people had always lived by no longer apply in the same way as before. As much as that frees people up, it can also cause awkwardness and uncertainty. When two people go out on a date, who asks for the date? And who pays? What clothes are appropriate for a given event? And what about rules for written communication in this world of texting and email? These are just a few examples of the sorts of questions that used to have very easy answers. Not in today’s world.

All of this can cause anxiety, even as it means that we are evolving as a society. And that anxiety can add some interesting tension to a novel. For a crime novel, the uncertainty as rules change can add interesting background. It can sometimes add a layer of character development, too.

There’s an interesting discussion about social ‘rules’ in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). Famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a cocktail party, to which he’s invited several guests, including some ‘locals.’ One of those guests is the village vicar, Reverend Stephen Babbington. When Babbington suddenly collapses and dies, it’s soon established that he was poisoned with pure nicotine. Hercule Poirot is one of the party guests, and he works to find out who the killer is. Then there’s another death, also from nicotine poisoning. This time, the victim is noted specialist Sir Bartholomew Strange. As you can imagine, all of the people who were at both events are suspects, or at least ‘people of interest.’ That group includes Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore. In one plot thread of the novel, we learn that Egg is romantically interested in Sir Charles. Partly for that reason, she wants a hand in investigating the murder. For her Victorian-Era mother, Lady Mary, it’s bad enough that Egg’s chosen to get mixed up in a murder. But the fact that Egg’s finding ways to flirt with Sir Charles is of even more concern. In Lady Mary’s day, ‘proper’ young ladies simply did not do such things. Egg’s interest in Sir Charles isn’t the reason for the murders. But it adds a layer of interest, and a look at the changing landscape of the world of dating.

The social rules that govern dating have changed a great deal over the years, especially in the last fifty years or so. Before that, there were major changes during the 1920s, as automobiles became popular (so that couples could go somewhere, rather than ‘court’ in someone’s drawing room). And, as women’s social roles changed, so did the rules that they were ‘supposed to’ follow. For instance, it became more common for women to smoke during the 1920s, to go out without a chaperone, and so on. We see this reflected in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, which takes place during those years. For more on the social changes of that decade, let me also suggest you visit The Old Shelter, the terrific blog of author Sarah Zama, who’s an expert on that era. There’s a really interesting post there on dating during the ‘20s, that explains it all better than I could.

It’s not just rules about romantic relationships that change, though. In the last fifty years, there’ve been major social changes with respect to race. Ruth Rendell takes a look at that issue in Simisola. In one plot thread of that novel, Inspector Reg Wexford and his team are searching for a missing young woman, Melanie Akande. At one point, they think they’ve found her when the body of a young black woman is found in a nearby woods. But it turns out that this is another woman. Now, along with two cases to solve, Wexford has to confront his own assumptions about race. And at one point, he has an interesting conversation with his second-in-command, Mike Burden, about how to refer to black people. On the one hand, the pejoratives people used in the past are no longer acceptable. On the other, to say absolutely nothing about race, not to notice that race exists, does nothing to overcome racism. It’s really not an easy issue, and Wexford doesn’t resolve it in the novel. It really is a question of, ‘what do you do when the thing you’ve always done isn’t done anymore?’

We see that also in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a crime novel, although there is a crime in it. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns to her home town, Maycomb, Alabama, for a visit. During her stay, one of Maycomb’s residents, old Mr. Healy, is struck and killed by a car. This death strikes close to the Finch family; the driver is a young man named Frank, grandson of the Finches’ long-time maid/cook, Calpurnia. Since the victim was white, and the driver black, the case is racially charged. Jean Louise’s father, Atticus, takes Frank’s case, and plans to defend him in court. The case is set against backdrop of a South that’s changing in many ways. And there are plenty of people who find those changes very difficult to accept. It’s not always because they are actively, consciously racist. Rather, it’s because the rules they’ve always lived by don’t apply any more. The place they’ve always known isn’t what it was, and among other things, this causes a lot of anxiety.

We see just a bit of that in Walter Mosley’s Little Green, too. In that novel, Los Angeles-based PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded to go in search of a black man nicknamed Little Green. This is 1967 Lost Angeles, and the rules about interactions between men and women, and between blacks and whites, have changed dramatically. In fact, one of the people Rawlins hopes may help him is a young white woman named Coco. He makes arrangements to meet her at a restaurant, and the two eat together. That, in itself, represents a major shift in the rules that governed the relations between blacks and whites, at least in the US. When those rules no longer apply, this causes a little awkwardness, at least on Rawlins’ part.

There are many, many other examples of rules that simply don’t apply. Rules for what women and men ‘are supposed to’ do, rules for interactions among people, and even rules for dress, communication, and activities, have all changed as society has evolved. And that means people have more options than ever. That’s very liberating, but it can also cause awkwardness and tension. And that can add an interesting layer to a novel.

 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Notice that the car’s left-turn indicator light is on? I was testing it after I’d removed the light housing panel on the back of the car, opened up the light bulb panel, and changed a burned-out bulb. The rules about what women and men are ‘supposed to’ do have certainly changed, even within my adulthood. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I broke a nail bolting that panel back into place, and I want to fix it before I start cooking dinner… 😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chris Rae’s Changing Rules.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Harper Lee, Kerry Greenwood, Ruth Rendell, Walter Mosley

Get Away From These Demagogues*

DemagoguesLet’s face it: the world can be a very scary place. Tragedies happen, changes happen; and sometimes, life seems to be full of frightening news. At times like that, some people try to use others’ uncertainty and fears to gain power, or at least ascendency, over others. And that sort of demagoguery can have devastating and lasting consequences. We certainly see it happen in real life. We’re seeing it now.

It’s certainly not unique to real life, though. There’s plenty of demagoguery in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. For one thing, the use of rhetoric and bigotry instead of reasoned debate has been going on for a lot time. For another, the sort of conflict that demagogues exploit can serve as a very useful tool for building tension in a story. There are a lot of examples of this in the genre. I’ll just mention a few.

Some novels and series explore the consequences of the actions of real demagogues. For instance, both Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series and Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series are set (at least partly) in Berlin just before and then during the Nazis’ rise to power. In both of those series, there are good reasons for people to be uncertain and afraid. It’s the height of the worldwide Great Depression, there’s little food, and the currency isn’t worth very much. There aren’t many jobs, either. Against this background, as you’ll know, Hitler rose to power in part through exploiting people’s fears, and setting up easy targets for them to blame. You’ll also know just how horrible the consequences of that demagoguery were.

We also see that pattern in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series, which begins in Moscow just before World War II. Josef Stalin is firmly in power, and has consolidated his control of the Communist Party. He’s done that in part through playing his political rivals off against one another, and by preying on people’s fears of what might happen if he’s not there to steer the proverbial ship of state. And that’s not to mention the fears people have already had about securing life’s basic necessities. The consequences of that demagoguery have been tragic, too, as hundreds of thousands of people have died in Stalin’s purges and other oppressions. Against this background, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Slivka, have to move very carefully. One wrong move and they could be next on the list, so to speak. At the same time, they are charged with upholding the law and catching criminals. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and Ryan acknowledges that fact.

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was also arguably a demagogue. He exploited Americans’ fears of Communism to the point where many people were jailed and worse. Others lost their jobs (and any chance of getting another one), were shunned by others in their communities, and more. We see part of the impact of that demagoguery in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is a sort of unofficial PI in post-WWII Los Angeles. One day, he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter says that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes – money he has no way of paying. He’s resigning himself to prison when FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers him a way out. If Mosley helps the FBI bring down suspected Communist Chaim Wenzler, Craxton will make those tax problems go away. Mosley has little choice but to accept. And in any case, he, too, has been taught to fear Communism, and Craxton appeals to his patriotism on that issue. The case turns out to be much more complicated than Rawlins imagined when he finds himself becoming friends with Wenzler. It’s even more complicated when he’s framed for two murders.

Argentina has had more than its share of demagogues. Many of the military rulers have used people’s fears, as well as their concerns about meeting their basic needs, to get and maintain power. For instance, Juan Perón came to power with the backing of (and a great deal of appeal to) the working classes. Once in power, he maintained his position through increasingly authoritarian decisions. The impact of that demagoguery lasted for many decades, long after Perón was no longer in office. Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lascano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina, a time when a military dictatorship is in control of the country. People have been taught to fear the political left; and those who are suspected of having leftist sympathies are brutally silenced. So are those who are suspected of questioning or, worse, opposing, the existing government. It’s a very difficult political landscape for a police officer who’s just trying to do his job, and Mallo depicts this faithfully.

In Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair runs directly into demagoguery when he gets involved in finding out who murdered his uncle, also named Rowland. There’s a good possibility that Uncle Rowland was killed by members of the New Guard, an ultra-right political group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. Campbell’s been taking advantage of people’s misery (the novel takes place in 1931, and the Great Depression is taking a toll) and fear, and appealing to their patriotism to gain power. He and the New Guard are planning to install a new government in Australia, one run by ‘a few right thinking men’ who will preserve traditional ways of life and the current class order. He’s gotten plenty of people afraid of Communism, working-class revolts, and other perceived threats, and is set to gain real power. The radical left isn’t taking this lightly, and is preparing for an all-out battle. Rowly wants not only to find out whether Campbell sanctioned his uncle’s murder, but also to prevent violence if he can. But it won’t be easy.

And then there’s Robin Cook’s Seizure, in which we are introduced to US Senator Ashley Butler. He’s a demagogue who’s used people’s fear of the unknown to gain quite a bit of power. He’s strongly opposed to stem-cell research and other, similar, scientific advances. He’s also a staunch supporter of the ‘traditional’ family and ‘traditional family values.’ And he’s used his constituents’ worries about societal change, the economy, and other issues for his own purposes. Then, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Butler knows that if the facts of his medical condition are made public, he’ll never succeed at becoming president, which is his goal. So, despite the rhetoric he’s used, he reaches out to Dr. Daniell Lowell, who’s been doing exactly the kind of research Butler has publicly opposed. Lowell is no friend to Butler, as he’s seen quite a lot of scientific progress stymied by Butler. He’s also not a fan of Butler’s rightist social leanings. But when Butler offers to withdraw his opposition to stem cell research, Lowell can’t resist the opportunity to use his controversial procedure to see if he can help Butler. Technically speaking, this is more a thriller than a crime novel. But the character of Ashley Butler was too good an example of a demagogue not to mention it.

In case you hadn’t noticed, demagoguery is alive and well. In crime fiction, it almost always has unfortunate, sometimes tragic consequences. I think it does in real life, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Nettie Moore.

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Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Philip Kerr, Rebecca Cantrell, Robin Cook, Sulari Gentill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

It’s Just Apartment House Rules*

Apartment BuildingsFlats, apartments, whatever you call them, can be an attractive alternative to home ownership, especially if you don’t have a whole lot of money. Even if you are doing well financially, living in an apartment often means you don’t have chores such as house painting, grass cutting and the like. And, depending on where you live, you’re not responsible for most repairs, either.

Of course, the experience of living in an apartment can be miserable if your landlord/lady or the management company isn’t professional and responsible. And you live at close quarters with other people, not all of whom may be pleasant.

But apartment buildings can be very effective contexts for crime fiction. People get to know things about each other when they live in the same building. And some apartment communities are more transient, which makes for all sorts of possibilities for hidden pasts and other secrets. It’s little wonder, then, that we see apartment buildings going up all over the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick, a young woman who shares a London flat with Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. One day, she visits Hercule Poirot, telling him that she may have committed a murder. However, she leaves before she even gives him her name, since she says he’s ‘too old’ to be of help. Poirot finds out that his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver, knows the young woman; and, armed with her name, Poirot tries to find her to learn more about this possible murder. So does Mrs. Oliver. But before they can find out the truth about it, Norma disappears. Neither of her flat-mates knows where she is, and her family isn’t any more helpful. Eventually, though, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver learn the truth about the murder and Norma’s part in it. And it turns out that the apartment building in which she lives holds important clues.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, who lives in a Copenhagen apartment building. As the novel begins, she is attending the funeral of ten-year-old Isaac Christiansen, who, so the police say, tragically fell from the building’s roof. Like Smilla, Isaac was a Greenlander, so she felt a sort of bond with him, and is drawn to the roof where he fell. As she looks at the patterns in the snow, Smilla begins to wonder just how accidental the fall really was. So she starts to ask questions. Her search for the truth leads Smilla back to Greenland, and to something much bigger than just the death of one young boy.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlings owns three Los Angeles apartment buildings, including the Magnolia Street Apartments. Even though he’s the actual owner, he does the maintenance work in the building, and keeps a very low profile, letting someone else collect the rent. That way, he can have time for his other work, which we learn in A Red Death is
 

‘…the business of favors.’
 

He doesn’t have an official PI license, but he does have a good reputation for being able to solve problems and find people who don’t want to be found. And he knows everyone in the building, too. Most people there think of him as the handyman, and that’s how he likes it.

At the beginning of Val McDermid’s A Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar and fledgling academic Jane Gresham is living in a London council flat – not a luxurious place to be. It’s what she can afford, though, and she’s doing her best to move on in her academic career. She’s made a sort of friend in thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole, who lives in the same building. That’s what living at close quarters can do. Tenille is extremely bright, and Jane sees in her true potential in literature and writing. But Tenille has a terrible home situation. The first part of this novel has a strong focus on life in council flats. Then, Jane hears that a body has surfaced in a bog in her native Lake District. It is possible that the body may be that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. If it is, then it’s possible that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island as has always been believed. And if that’s true, he may have told his story to his good friend Wordsworth, which could mean there’s an unpublished manuscript out there somewhere. If it exists, that manuscript could be exactly what Jane needs to get her career going, so she goes to stay with her parents in their Lake District home to look into the matter. Meanwhile, one night after a tragic incident, Tenille leaves her home, too, and ends up in the Lake District. Her presence there plays an important role as Jane gets involved in a web of murder and false leads to try to find the manuscript she is convinced must exist.

There’s an interesting use of an apartment building in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. Waldemar Leverkuhn finds out that a lottery ticket he went in on with friends has come out the big winner. So he goes out with those friends to celebrate. Late that night, he is murdered in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate. Of course, the victim’s wife Marie-Louise comes in for her share of suspicion, but she claims she wasn’t home the night of the murder. The team members also speak to the other people who live in the same apartment building as the Leverkuhns, and it’s interesting to learn how much they know about each other. People know who’s been in and out, who does what, and so on. Despite that, though, the investigating team doesn’t get very far at first. Eventually, though, they link Leverkuhn’s death to the events that led to it.

Of course, no discussion of apartment buildings in crime fiction would really be complete without a mention of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Chapman is a baker, who lives and has her shop in a large Melbourne apartment building called Insula. As the series goes on, we get to know the other people who live in the building. They each contribute to the atmosphere of the place, and they all care about each other. They may not be related to the other residents, but the people of Insula have formed a sort of family of their own.

Apartment buildings can have that sort of effect. Of course, they can also be eerie places. That’s why we see so many of them in crime fiction – much more than I can show in one post (I know, I know, fans of Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall). After all, do you really know what the person living next door, above you, or below you is really like?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Høeg, Robert Rotenberg, Val McDermid, Walter Mosley