Category Archives: Wendy James

Yes, I Know I’m Just an Outcast*

As this is posted, it’s the 167th anniversary of the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter. As you’ll know, it’s the story of Hester Prynne, who has a child out of wedlock and is therefore, punished for adultery. There are many themes in the novel – it’s a complex story, really – and I won’t pretend to touch on them all here. But one of them that’s quite relevant to crime fiction is the trope of the outcast.

Different cultures have different reasons for rejecting people and considering them outcasts. But no matter what the reason, being outcast is traumatic. Humans by nature are social. We have a deep-seated need to be accepted. So, it’s especially distressing not to have a group to accept us. That tension can add much to a story, and can add a fascinating layer of character development.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer is her lodger, James Bentley. In fact, there’s enough evidence against him that he’s been convicted and is set to be executed. But Superintendent Spence doesn’t think he’s guilty. And if he is innocent, Poirot doesn’t want to see him hanged, either. But Poirot soon runs into a problem as he investigates. Bentley has never really been accepted in the village. He doesn’t have much in the way of social skills, and he isn’t the ‘dashingly handsome type.’ So, he’s become a sort of outcast, although people don’t go out of their way to hurt him. Still, he’s an easy mark when the time comes to arrest someone for Mrs. McGinty’s murder. And most people aren’t really interested in standing up for him. But Poirot perseveres, and we learn, in the end, who really killed the victim and why.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, we are introduced to Jim Haight. He was engaged to Nora Wright, whose parents, John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright, are the undisputed social leaders of the small town of Wrightsville. Three years ago, though, Haight unexpectedly jilted his bride-to-be, and left town. That’s how matters stand at the beginning of the novel, when Ellery Queen temporarily moves into the Wrights’ guest house so that he can do some writing. Not long after Queen’s arrival, Haight returns to town. He’s not welcome after having treated Nora as he did. But he and Nora rekindle their romance, and even get married. Then, some evidence comes up that suggests that Haight married Nora only for her money, and is planning to kill her. On New Year’s Eve, there is, in fact, a murder. Haight’s sister, Rosemary, drinks a cocktail that was intended for Nora, and dies of poison. Haight is arrested right away, and because he’s already an outcast, gets no support. In fact, the residents have an almost-vigilante attitude towards him. But Queen isn’t convinced of his guilt. So, he and Nora’s sister, Pat, look into the matter more deeply and discover who the real killer is.

Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black takes place mostly in the small Shetland town of Ravenswick. Everyone in town knows everyone else, and just about everyone stays away from Magnus Tait. He’s an eccentric loner, so he’s not much of a ‘mixer’ to begin with. It doesn’t help his case that there are whispers that link him to the disappearance several years earlier of a young girl. For the most part, he’s not overtly bullied, but he’s certainly not welcome in people’s homes, either. One New Year’s Eve, local teenagers Sally Henry and Catherine Ross stop by Tait’s home to wish him a good year. It’s partly a ‘dare you to knock on the door’ moment, and partly a matter of feeling bad for someone left alone on the holiday. Just a few days later, Catherine is found murdered, not far from Tait’s home. Immediately it’s assumed that he is the killer, and people are only too happy to lead Inspector Jimmy Perez in that direction. But Tait claims that he is innocent. Besides, Perez is a good cop who doesn’t want to assume guilt without the evidence to support that assumption. So, he digs deeper, and finds that more than one person might have had a motive for murder.

Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel sees his Amsterdam Police sleuth, Piet Van der Valk, sent from Amsterdam to the small Dutch town of Zwinderen. A number of anonymous, ‘poison pen’ letters have been sent to the residents, and everyone’s shaken up. In fact, one recipient committed suicide; another had a mental breakdown. Matters are not helped by the fact that Zwinderen is a small community, where everyone knows everyone, and where people feel a great need to fit in and be accepted. The local police haven’t made much headway in finding the author of the letters, so Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, go to Zwinderen. It’s not long before Van der Valk discovers that a lot of people think that a certain M. Besançon is the guilty party. He’s somewhat of an outcast, and no-one in the town really likes him much. He lives alone in a house with a walled garden for privacy (something that makes the townspeople quite suspicious). And, he’s not ‘one of them;’ he’s a French Jew who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the Netherlands.  Van der Valk is soon able to show that M. Besançon didn’t write the letters. But it’s interesting to see how quick the residents of Zwinderen are to blame him.

And then there’s Jodie Evans Garrow, whom we meet in Wendy James’ The Mistake. She has, by most people’s estimation, a perfect life. She’s educated, attractive, and married to a successful attorney. She’s the mother of two healthy children, and seems to have everything going for her. Although she grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, Jodie now lives among well-off, well-connected people who’ve accepted her as one of them, for the most part. Then, disaster strikes. It comes out that, long ago, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child she never told anyone about before. Not even her husband knew. Jodie claims that she gave the baby up for adoption, but there are no formal records to support that. So, very soon, questions start to arise. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? It’s not long before Jodie’s social group rejects her, and she becomes a pariah. As we slowly learn what happened to the baby, we also see how difficult it is for Jodie to be shunned or worse by the very people who once accepted her.

And that’s the thing about outcasts. They often have little in the way of a support system, and that can make life miserable. That tension may add to a novel, but in real life, it’s awful.

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’ God Help the Outcasts.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Ellery Queen, Nicolas Freeling, Wendy James

Someday You’ll Thank Me For This Advice*

for-your-own-good‘It’s for your own good!’ ‘Someday you’ll thank me.’ I’ll bet you’ve heard this sort of thing before. Very often, the person who says something like that is well-meaning, or at the very least not deliberately malicious. And yet, what someone else thinks is for our own good isn’t always. And the way that plays out in crime fiction can be very interesting.

I got to thinking about what is(n’t) for someone’s own good when I read an excellent review of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper from Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. Admittedly, I’ve not (yet) read the story myself. But it’s got a plot point that includes that question of what is really best for someone. But don’t take my word for it. Please go check out Cleo’s review yourself. Her blog is an excellent resource for all sorts of terrific reviews, so you’ll want it on your blog roll if it’s not there already.

We see this plot point in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family travels from the US to the Middle East for a sightseeing tour. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is manipulative, malicious and tyrannical, but no-one in her family dares go against her will. That includes her seventeen-year-old daughter, Ginevra ‘Ginny.’ In more than one place in the novel, Ginny wants (or doesn’t want) to do something, and her mother insists she do the opposite. It’s almost always, according to Mrs. Boynton, because Ginny has no idea what’s best for her. But the reader soon sees just how unpleasant and controlling Mrs. Boynton really is, and how little of what she does is the best thing for her daughter. On the second afternoon of the family’s trip to the ancient city of Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is in the area on a trip of his own, so Colonel Carbury asks him to investigate. And Ginny becomes one of the ‘people of interest’ whom he interviews.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is a world-class violinist, who’s been a musical prodigy for most of his life. But one frightening day, he finds himself unable to play at all. Terrified, he seeks the help of a psychologist to try to get to the root of his mental block. Through that plot thread, we learn that he’s been groomed (many would say, pushed) since he was a little boy. We also learn that, twenty years earlier, he lost his sister Sonia (she was a toddler at the time) to a tragic drowning accident (or was it?). All of these past issues play a role in Gideon’s life now. And we see how he’s been impacted by that attitude of ‘I know what’s best for you.’

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction novelist Zack Walker decides that his family isn’t safe in the city. He’d rather live in the far-less-dangerous suburbs. Neither of his children wants to make the move. They’re both well-established in school, and don’t see the point of moving. And Walker’s wife, Sarah, likes their present home, too. Still, she is finally persuaded to make the move. Walker thinks he knows what’s best for his family, but it certainly doesn’t turn out that way. First, there are several problems with the house. And Walker doesn’t get much help when he goes to the development’s sales office to complain. Then, during Walker’s visit to the office, he witnesses an argument between one of the executives there, and local environmental activist, Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body at a local creek. Before he knows it, he’s drawn into a complex case of murder and fraud. As it turns out, he didn’t know what was best after all…

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost is the story of Kate Meaney. As the story begins (in 1984), she is a ten-year-old budding detective. In fact, she’s got her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a great deal of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, since she is sure that a mall is a magnet for criminals and suspicious activity. Kate’s very content with her life, despite the fact that she lives in a somewhat dreary town. But her grandmother, Ivy, thinks that it would be better for the girl to go away to school. Over Kate’s objections, Ivy arranges for her granddaughter to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Ivy believes she’s doing this for Kate’s own good, but things don’t turn out as planned. Kate and her friend, Adrian Palmer, take the bus to the school for the exams, but only Adrian comes back. Despite a massive search, no sign of Kate is ever found – not even a body. Twenty years later, Kurt, a security officer at Green Oaks, starts to see unusual images on the cameras he monitors. They seem to be of a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, Kurt meets Lisa (Adrian Palmer’s younger sister), who has a job at the mall. He and Lisa strike up a sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, they re-open the past. We find out what happened to Kate, and we see that ‘for your own good,’ isn’t always for the best.

We see that, too, in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence, a fictional retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan, who was arrested in Victoria in1900 for the murder of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie meets Jack Hardy in 1898. She falls in love with him, and the feeling seems to be mutual. In fact, he asks her to marry him, but says their engagement must be kept secret until he can provide for a family. Maggie agrees, and Jack goes to New South Wales to look for work. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to Jack a number of times, but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that she can’t go home to her family, she goes to Melbourne to look for work. She finds a job at a Guest House, where she stays until her baby, whom she names Jacky, is born. Then, she goes to Mrs. Cameron’s home for unwed mothers. There, the young women are taught all sorts of things, ‘for their own good,’ including ways to take care of their babies. Maggie’s instinct is that Mrs. Cameron and her ways are wrong for both mother and baby. So, when she discovers that Jack Hardy has moved to Melbourne, she goes in search of him. When she finds him, he rejects her, telling her that she’s crazy. In her grief, Maggie goes from lodging house to lodging house, looking for a place for her and the baby to stay. She’s turned away from six establishments before the tragedy with Jacky occurs. She’s arrested and imprisoned, where again, a lot of what happens is ‘for the good’ of the prisoners. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at what was expected at that time.

Many people really are well-meaning when they say they’re doing/saying something ‘for your own good.’ And sometimes it works out that way. But sometimes it doesn’t. And that can add real tension to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Save Your Life  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, Linwood Barclay, Wendy James

You’re Keeping Secrets From Me*

secrets-children-keepHow well do you really know your children? Loving and caring parents want to believe that they know their children very well, and perhaps they do. But how well can you truly know anyone, even someone you love? We all have private thoughts, and most of us have our own personal secrets. So, in real life, it’s not surprising that we might not know everything about our children. And sometimes, the things we don’t know can be quite unsettling.

In crime fiction, that fact can add a great deal to a novel. It can add tension to a plot as parents discover things about their children, and as children keep their secrets. It can also add a layer of character development and interest. And in whodunits, the secrets children keep can add to the list of suspects or ‘red herrings.’

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, we are introduced to Captain Kenneth Marshall. He’s come for a holiday to the Jolly Roger, on Leathercombe Bay. With him is his wife, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Linda. One day, Arlena is strangled, and her body found not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the Jolly Roger, and he works with the local police to find out who the killer is. As Poirot gets to know the other hotel guests, he learns things about Linda – things her father didn’t know. For instance, Linda hadn’t adjusted well at all to her stepmother, and felt very awkward around her. Her dislike of the victim makes her a possible suspect, even though her father really didn’t know that she was unhappy.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer gets a very challenging case. Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida School, has hired Archer to find one of his pupils, Tom Hillman, who’s gone missing. Tom’s parents are wealthy and well-connected, so Sponti wants Archer to solve this case as quickly and as quietly as possible. Archer is in Sponti’s office, discussing the matter with him, when Tom’s father, Ralph, bursts in. It seems that Tom’s been abducted, and his captors are demanding ransom money. Archer returns with Ralph to the Hillman home to see what he can do. Soon enough, he comes to believe that all is not as it seems on the surface. For one thing, the Hillmans are surprisingly reticent about Tom, and about the reason for which he’s at Laguna Perdida. There are also hints that Tom might not have been kidnapped at all, but left of his own accord. If so, then there could very likely be things about Tom that his parents don’t know. Certainly there are things they’re not telling Archer. Those secrets turn out to be crucial to what’s happened to Tom.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She’s one of the most academically promising students at her secondary school, and her teacher, Ilse Klein, has high hopes for her. Then, Serena begins skipping school. And when she is there, she shows little interest in her lessons or in participating in class. Ilse begins to be concerned for the girl, and speaks to the school’s counseling team. A visit to Serena’s home does little good, as her mother isn’t much interested in the girl. And it’s soon clear that she doesn’t know much about her daughter’s life. Then, Serena disappears. Ilse soon finds that she is more drawn into Serena’s situation than she had imagined she would be.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls deals with the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. At the time, she was spending the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin and their two children, Mick and Jane. There wasn’t much to do, so Angela spent a lot of time with Mick and his friends, playing pinball at a local drugstore. Then one day, she went missing. She was later found dead, with a scarf tied around her head. At first, the police concentrated on Angela’s family and Mick’s friends. But there was never any clear evidence against any of them. Then, a few months later, another girl was found dead, also with a scarf around her neck. The police began considering the possibility of a serial killer (the press dubbed the murderer the Sydney Strangler), but the murderer was never caught. Now, years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on families who’ve lost someone to murder. She wants to interview the Griffin family, and gets reluctant permission. As she talks to the various people involved, we learn that there were sides to Angela that her parents didn’t know. And those things played their role in her death. James’ new novel, The Golden Child, also has as one of its themes the things that parents don’t know (or perhaps, don’t accept) about their children. I confess I’ve not read this one yet, but I am eagerly looking forward to reading it when it becomes available where I live.

And then there’s Theresa Schwegel’s The Good Boy. Featured in this novel is the Murphy family. Pete Murphy is a Chicago police officer with the K-9 team (his furry partner is Butch). He loves his wife, Sarah, but they’ve had some hard times lately. He also loves his teenage daughter, McKenna, and eleven-year-old son, Joel. But McKenna has started living her own life, a lot of which she keeps secret. Joel, too, has made his own life. When Joel learns that McKenna is planning to go to a party at the home of Zack Fowler, he gets concerned. He already has good reason to hate and fear Zack, and he is convinced McKenna’s going to get into trouble. So, he takes Butch and goes to the Fowler house to try to help her. It all backfires badly when there’s a shooting. Joel and Butch go on the run, and now Pete has two big problems. For one thing, he’s involved in another investigation. For another, he’s got to find his missing son, and protect his daughter from the consequences of being at a house where there was a shooting. As Pete and Sarah try to find their son and help their daughter, they learn things about their children that neither one knew.

And that’s probably true of a lot of parents. We may know our children very well, and they may never get into trouble at all. But there are always pieces of them that they keep to themselves. We shouldn’t be surprised; we do the same.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Xavier Rudd’s Secrets.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Paddy Richardson, Ross Macdonald, Theresa Schwegel, Wendy James

Must Have Been the Right Month*

januaryA lot of people see January as the time to start anew. It’s the beginning of the year, it’s a chance to ‘do it right this time,’ and it’s a time when many people set positive goals for themselves. You’d think it’d be an optimistic time of year, right?

Not exactly. For one thing, there’s the weather. In some places, it’s the dead of winter, with freezing temperatures, bad weather and little light. In others, it’s mid-summer, with intolerable heat and the onset of wildfire season. And there are plenty of crime novels that take place in January, too.

For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train begins in January. In one plot thread, we are introduced to Katherine Grey, who has served as paid companion to wealthy Mrs. Harfield for ten years. When Mrs. Harfield dies, Katherine unexpectedly inherits a large fortune. One of her decisions, now that she has money, is to do what many other people with money do at that time of year: escape the January winter weather and head for a warmer climate. She decides to accept an invitation from a distant relative, Lady Rose Tamplin, to stay with her in Nice for a while. Katherine arranges to take the famous Blue Train to Nice, and that turns out to be a fateful decision. On the way, she gets drawn into a case of theft and murder. Hercule Poirot is also on the train, and Katherine works with him to help find out who the murderer is.

One focus of Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill is a case from 1978. One January day, Sophie Jenkins and Rachel Jones walked to school together. Only Rachel returned. A massive search was undertaken, but no trace of Sophie was ever found. Now, years later, there’s another death, this time of Yvonne Jenkins. At first it looks like a tragic, but straightforward case of suicide. But DI Francis Sadler suspects it might be more than that when a discovery is made that links this death to the 1978 case. With help from Superintendent Llewellyn, who investigated the original case, Sadler and his team look into the 1978 disappearance again, and discover how it is related to the present death.

Bitter January weather sets the scene for the end of a difficult case for Martin Beck and his team in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna. One summer day, the body of a young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern. At first, the police find it hard to identify her, since she wasn’t Swedish. But in time, they learn that she was twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a cruise tour of Sweden when she was killed. Little by little, and after several false starts, Beck and his team trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and they find out who was on board the cruise ship when she died. It takes months of hard work, and some lucky breaks, but they finally narrow down the list of suspects, and discover who was responsible for the murder. Then, they set up a ‘sting’ operation to catch that person. The operation takes place during bitterly cold January weather, which adds to the atmosphere. In the end, the team solves the crime, but it takes a lot of time and effort.

In some places in the world, January is the middle of summer. But that doesn’t make things any safer. For instance, Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood takes place in January. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White goes to the scene of a home invasion. With him is Probationer Lucy Howard. She’s at the front of the house, and White goes to the back, where he’s stabbed to death. The suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. The police are more than eager to avenge the murder of one of their own, but they’ll have to tread lightly. For one thing, the suspect is a juvenile. For another, he may be able to claim Aboriginal identity. If he and his lawyer choose to do that, then the media will put everything the police do under very close scrutiny. It isn’t usually particularly hot in Hobart in January, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of tension in this novel…

There is in Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues, too. That novel takes place in January, 1967 – the ‘Summer of Love.’ Melbourne police detective Charlie Berlin has been shunted aside, so to speak, in the police hierarchy because he doesn’t ‘play politics.’ But he’s pulled into action when fifteen-year-old Gudrun Scheiner goes missing. Her father is a wealthy and well-connected developer, and is desperate to get his daughter back if possible. So, the police are motivated to get to a solution quickly. As Berlin soon comes to believe, this isn’t an isolated case. Gudrun is one of nine girls who’ve disappeared, and it could be that Melbourne is up against a serial killer. With summer in full swing, and young people not in school, it’s even more difficult to track people’s whereabouts, but Berlin and his partner/former protégé Rob Roberts search for the truth. And the truth turns out to be very unexpected…

And then there’s Wendy James The Lost Girls. This story’s focus is in part the murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. It’s January, 1978, and Angela’s been given (reluctant) permission to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin. There isn’t much to do, so Angela, her cousin Mick, and Mick’s friends spend plenty of time at the local drugstore, playing pinball. Then, one horrible day, Angela goes missing. She’s later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the police concentrate on family and friends, as is only logical. But they don’t have enough evidence to charge anyone. Then, a few months later, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is also found dead, also with a scarf around her head. Now, it looks as though the same person committed both crimes, and the press begin to dub this killer, ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ The case is never solved, and it leaves the family with lasting scars. Years later, documentary filmmaker Erin Fury decides to do a film on families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. She wants to include the Griffin family, and interviews the various members. Little by little, and partly through these interviews, we learn the truth about Angela’s fate, and about Kelly’s.

See what I mean? January is not really a safe month. Perhaps it’d be best to follow the lead of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman and shut up shop for the month, as she does in Cooking the Books

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s January.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

It’s Better to Burn Out Than it is to Rust*

burning-the-candle-at-both-endsEdna St. Vincent Millay’s First Fig goes like this:

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!

 

I’m sure we’ve all known people like that. They live life to the absolute fullest, and sometimes, they burn out. Characters like that can add a lot to a crime story (or any story, really). They can add zest to a plot, and they can be interesting in and of themselves.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, we are introduced to Anthony Marston. Young, good-looking, and fond of driving fast and living life to the utmost, he is one of ten people who are invited for a stay at Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Like the others, Marston accepts the invitation. Oddly enough, when the guests arrive, they find that their host isn’t there to greet them. Still, they settle in and dinner that night is both successful and delicious. Everything changes after that, though. Each guest is accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. Then, Marston suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, there’s another death. It’s soon clear that someone is targeting all of the guests. So, the survivors have to find out who the killer is if they’re to stay alive.

Margaret Millar’s Mermaid features attorney Tom Aragon. One day, he gets an unusual visitor. Twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jaspar wants to ask him about her rights. It’s soon clear that she’s got special needs, although she is high-functioning. As she tells Aragon, she attends an exclusive special school, and lives with her much-older brother, Hilton. According to Cleo, her life is far too conscripted, and she never gets to do what she wants. Aragon can’t help her much, and she soon takes her leave. Not long afterwards, Aragon learns that Cleo went missing not long after her visit, and that her brother is trying to find her. In fact, Hilton wants Aragon to find his sister and persuade her to return. Aragon agrees, and starts to ask questions. As he tries to trace her whereabouts, Aragon slowly builds a picture of Cleo. And he learns that she wanted very much to experience life to the fullest. She was quite well aware that there’s a big world out there, as the saying goes, and wanted to see it. That aspect of her personality plays an important role in what happens in the story.

Natsuo Kirino’s Real World features five teens who are caught up in a tragedy when one of them, Ryo, is accused of killing his mother, and goes on the run. Toshiko, who lives next door, hears a crash at the time of the murder, and is, therefore, a witness. But she chooses not to tell the police what she knows. Among her reasons for not cooperating with the police is that she’s afraid she’ll be considered an accomplice. She’s even more drawn into the case when she learns that Ryo has stolen her bicycle and her telephone. Then, he begins to contact her other three best friends, Kazuko, Yuzan, and Kirari. Each in a different way, this group of friends gets involved in what’s happened, and no-one discusses the matter with the police, or with any other adult. Before long, things spin out of control for all of the characters, and the end result is tragedy. The murder isn’t committed because of ‘burning the candle at both ends.’ But for one character in particular, the desire to experience life – to really live – plays an important role in the story. And for all of the teen characters, there’s at least some feeling of restlessness, and of wanting to see all that life has to offer.

That’s also the case with Niccolo ‘Nick’ Franco, whom we meet in Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. This novel tells the story of the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy in the first years of the 20th Century. Patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco made a success of the shoe repair and sales business, and the family started to live out what’s sometimes been called ‘the American dream.’ One night, though, Ben got into a bar fight, and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, son of notorious mobster Tonio Lupo. Ben was imprisoned, but that wasn’t enough for Lupo, who cursed the family. He visited Ben in prison, and promised that each of his three sons would die at the age of forty-two – the same age Luigi was at his death. The story goes on relate what happened to those sons, one of whom is Nick. As it happens, Nick is attractive enough, and star-struck enough, to go to Hollywood and get started on a film career. For a while, his career goes very well, as he slowly gets bigger and bigger parts. It doesn’t last, though, especially after the advent of ‘the talkies.’ He doesn’t have as much talent as he thinks he does, but he is convinced that he’s going to make a comeback as a great actor. And he wants to experience the exciting ‘Hollywood life.’ And for him, that involves women and drugs. That personality trait – wanting to live ‘on the edge’ – turns out to be disastrous for Nick.

And then there’s fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan, whom we get to know in Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. It’s 1978/1979, and Angela is spending the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin, who live not far from Sydney. There’s not much to do there, so Angela, her cousin Mick, and Mick’s friends, spend quite a lot of time playing pinball at the local drugstore. One day, Angela goes missing, and is later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the police focus on Mick and his friends, as well as Mick’s family. But a few months later, another young girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, is also found dead, also with a scarf around her head. Now, the police begin to believe that there’s a serial killer out there, someone the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The cases remain unsolved, and life goes on as best possible. Years later, a documentary filmmaker, Erin Fury, decides to do a film about the families of murder victims, and asks to work with the Griffin family. Little by little, the truth about the Angela’s death comes out as Fury puts the film together. And readers learn what Angela was like. She wanted some excitement out of life – to live as much as she could. And that plays a role, both in how she’s treated and in what happens to her.

Characters who burn the proverbial candle at both ends can be self-destructive. But they can also be fascinating, and can add leaven to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Margaret Millar, Natsuo Kirino, Wendy James