Category Archives: Wendy James

There is a Life About to Start When Tomorrow Comes*

Political MovementsThere’s something about political movements that gets people really passionate. Some, of course, are drawn to the potential power involved. But for a lot of people, it’s the vision of what they see as a better future that drives them.

Political movements have been responsible for a lot of positive social change, such as better working conditions, universal suffrage, and anti-discrimination legislation. They’ve also done much to right long-standing wrongs (forced removal of Native American/First Nations children from their homes to attend government schools being just one example).

But political movements have their dark sides too. For one thing, we don’t all agree on what counts as ‘a better future.’ For another, even when a movement has what we might call a positive purpose (e.g. support for the working class), that doesn’t mean that everyone involved in the cause is noble, or that ugly things don’t happen.

Plenty of crime fiction includes or at least touches on political movements and struggles. They’re well-suited to the genre, I think. Space only permits me a sampling; I know you’ll think of lots more.

Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) introduces us to Howard Raikes. Young and idealistic, Raikes is involved in an activist movement to tear down existing governments and re-build the world. To him, entrenched government officials and those who support them need to be swept away in order for positive change to happen. Raikes is romantically involved with Jane Olivera, niece of powerful banker Alistair Blunt. On most things they agree, although Jane is much less violent in her views and more patient. They both get drawn into a case of murder when Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery. One theory of the murder is that someone was trying to get to Blunt, which makes Raikes a natural suspect. Hercule Poirot was also a patient of Morley’s and was at the victim’s office on the morning of the murder. So he works with Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is.

One of the characters we meet in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series is Riel Delorme, a Regina-based Métis activist. When we first encounter him in Kaleidoscope, he’s trying to put together opposition to a new development in the economically depressed North Central section of Regina. Delorme has a troubled past, and plenty of personal demons. But as the saying goes, his heart’s in the right place when it comes to wanting to improve the lot of the people who live in North Central. He and his group believe that the planned development will disenfranchise the residents, increase the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ and concentrate local wealth and power in too few hands. So he’s a very likely suspect when one the development company’s employees is murdered. Shreve and her attorney husband Zack get involved in this case on two levels. First, his law firm is representing the development company. On another level, her daughter Mieka is romantically involved with Delorme. This isn’t a simple case of ‘greedy developer vs crusading protectors of the downtrodden.’ In this novel, the developer is hardly all ‘bad,’ and the activist group isn’t exactly a chorus of angels. It’s an interesting look at how a smaller-level political movement impacts those involved.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is the fictional re-telling of the real-life case of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was convicted of the murder of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie meets and falls in love with Jack Hardy. They become secretly engaged, and Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When Maggie learns that she’s pregnant, she writes to him several times, but gets no answer. Knowing her family will reject her, Maggie moves to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie moves both of them to a home for unwed mothers. Then she learns that Jack has moved to Melbourne. She tracks him down, only to have him reject her utterly. With nowhere to go, Maggie tries to find lodging. She and the baby are turned away from six lodging houses, and that’s when the tragedy occurs. Maggie is arrested, imprisoned, and marked for execution. She finds a champion in Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. Vida is a leader in the movement for women’s suffrage and women’s rights, and that group is happy to have Maggie as a sort of ‘textbook case’ of gender inequity. There’s also an interesting look at the women’s suffrage movement in Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Murder.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders takes a look at another political movement, Australia First. On the surface of it, the movement stands for supporting Australian businesses, protecting the country from subversion by outside forces, and so on. It all sounds quite patriotic. But this novel takes place in 1943, when the country is at war with the Axis powers. There’ve been disturbing links between Australia First and Nazism, so the group died out. But when John Quinn and his son Xavier are found brutally murdered, it becomes clear that the group may be re-forming. If so, Melbourne police Inspector Titus Lambert and his second-in-command Joe Sable have a serious problem. One thread of this novel concerns the way idealism and the hope of a better future can be manipulated in appalling and horrible ways.

Glen Peters’ Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta places readers in 1960’s Calcutta/Kolkata. Joan D’Silva, a teacher at a Catholic school, gets involved in a case of murder when her son discovers the body of a former student Agnes Lal. After the inquest, two other former pupils tell Mrs. D’Silva that the victim was murdered; then they ask her help in finding the killer. Soon afterwards, one of those students is arrested in connection with the stabbing of a factory manager. He claims he’s innocent, and has been forced to confess, and D’Silva begins to look more deeply into the case. That’s when she discovers that all three former students were members of the Workers Revolutionary Movement of Bengal, which is dedicated to overthrowing the current Indian government and stripping high-ranking Anglo-Indians of their power. As Mrs. D’Silva tries to clear her former pupil’s name and solve the murder, readers see how passionate people can be about political movements and righting what they see as society’s wrongs. We also see how that idealism can be used for certain people’s purposes.

There’ve been several novels featuring the IRA and other groups who’ve championed Irish independence and self-determination. Authors such as Brian McGilloway, Bartholomew Gill and Will Thomas, among many others, have looked at the vision those groups have had of a better future for Ireland. As we know, it’s not been as simple as that, and no side of the conflicts in that part of the world has been really innocent.

And that’s the thing about wanting a better future, and agitating for it. It’s messy and complicated; and it sometimes results in conflict and a lot worse. Little wonder such movements are popular contexts for crime novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bartholomew Gill, Brian McGilloway, Felicity Young, Gail Bowen, Glen Peters, Robert Gott, Wendy James, Will Thomas

I Betcha You Would Have Done the Same*

What Would I DoPart of the appeal of some crime novels is that they invite the reader to do some deeper thinking. For instance, I’d guess that we all want to think we’d do the right thing in a given situation. But what, exactly, is the right thing? It’s not always clear. Books that address those more difficult questions invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I have done in the same situation?’

There are certainly plenty of crime novels that raise that question. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed during a trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works with M. Bouc, a director of the train company, and with fellow passenger Dr. Constantine, to find out who the killer is. The solution leaves Poirot, Bouc, and Constantine with a decision, and it’s interesting to ask what we might have done in the same situation.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood has received an extortion letter from book dealer Arthur Geiger. The letter makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and of course, Sternwood wants Geiger to leave the family alone. So he hires PI Philip Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. By the time Marlowe tracks the man down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood is in the same room, and was a witness to everything. But she’s either drugged or has had a mental breakdown, and isn’t able to be of help. Now Marlowe faces a decision: does he simply call the police, thereby putting Carmen at risk? Or does he help her escape, thereby possibly protecting someone involved in the murder? His decision to help Carmen gets him in far deeper than he’d planned…

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the real-life case of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was imprisoned for the killing of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie is raised in rural Victoria, where she meets Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney for a visit with relatives. The two start seeing each other and become secretly engaged. Then, Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to Jack several times to let him know, but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie heads to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. The baby is duly born and for a short time, he and Maggie live in a home for unwed mothers. Then she discovers that Jack is also in the Melbourne area. When she finally finds him, though, he rejects her utterly, even calling her ‘crazy.’ With nowhere else to go, Maggie tries to get lodgings for herself and her son, but is turned away from six different places. That’s when the tragedy occurs. The novel invites the reader to ask, ‘What would I have done?’ in several places.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill does the same thing. Ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped by Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. There’s a sense of shock and outrage, and a great deal of sympathy for the Hailey family in the small Mississippi town where they live. Tonya’s father Carl Lee Hailey is determined that Cobb and Willard won’t get away with their crime. From his perspective, it’s not a given that they’ll be convicted, since they are White and he and his family are Black. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courtroom. Attorney Jake Brigance defends Hailey, and he’s up against considerable odds. Woven throughout this novel is the question of what any of us might do under the same circumstances.

Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos features a woman who’s recently been released from prison. Her only real companion is her Pit Bull Sully. At first, things aren’t too bad as she gets used to living in ‘the real world’ again. Then, a mother who uses the nearby day care facility lodges a complaint with the local council because Sully is a restricted breed. Forced to give Sully up, his owner plots her own kind of response. As the story goes on, we learn why she was in prison in the first place. It’s certainly not a straightforward case, and it leaves the reader wondering, ‘What might I have done?’

That’s also true in Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X. When Shinji Togashi is murdered, his ex-wife Yasuko Hanaoka comes under suspicion. But Detective Shunpei Kasanagi can’t find clear evidence against her. He gets help from Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa, who soon learns that he’s up against a formidable opponent. Mathematics teacher Tetsuya Ishigami lives in the same building as Hanaoka does; in fact, he’s fallen in love with her. He’ll do anything to protect her, and he’s smart and skilled. In this novel, there are several places where the question comes up of what any of us might do if we were in the same situation as Hanaoka and Ishigami.

One of the clearest examples of the ‘What might I do?’ sort of novel (at least for my money) is Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone. When four-year-old Amanda McCready goes missing, the police launch a massive effort to find her. They aren’t successful though; and the more time that goes by, the less chance there is that Amanda will be found alive. So her uncle and aunt, Lionel and Beatrice McCready, hire PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to find the girl. At first the two are reluctant to take the case. For one thing, they’re still recovering from their last case. For another, they don’t see what they can do that dozens of Boston-area police can’t do. But they are finally persuaded to at least ask some questions. They begin their search for Amanda and soon find that there are several possibilities. In the end, Kenzie and Gennario find out the truth about the child. But this isn’t a simple instance of, ‘PIs find out what happened to little girl.’ It raises a very challenging set of questions.

And that’s the thing about novels that invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I do?’ The best ones tell a well-written, cohesive story. But they also raise issues that make us wonder how we might act in a similar situation. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Cell Block Tango.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Dennis Lehane, John Grisham, Keigo Higashino, Raymond Chandler, Wendy James

Can You Picnic?*

PicnicsThe weather is finally beginning to warm up a bit in the Northern Hemisphere; and in the Southern Hemisphere, the worst of summer’s heat is over. For a lot of people, that delightful ‘warm-but-not-hot’ weather is perfect for having picnics. If you enjoy picnics, you know how delightful it can be to take off for the beach, a hill, or just your garden and enjoy the outdoors as you eat. It’s a popular thing to do. Little wonder then that we see picnics crop up as they do in crime fiction. Let me if I may just share a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie features picnics in a few of her stories. In one of them, Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Also staying at the hotel are Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife Arlena Stuart Marshall, and his daughter (and Arlena’s step-daughter) Linda. It’s soon obvious that Arlena is carrying on a not-too-well-hidden affair with another guest Patrick Redfern, so when she is found dead one afternoon, her husband becomes the obvious suspect. But he can prove his whereabouts, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. The investigation takes a toll on everyone, and at one point, Poirot suggests that they all go on a picnic. At first no-one is in the mood for a light-hearted adventure like a picnic, but everyone finally agrees. And that picnic proves informative for Poirot…

Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is the story of a group of schoolgirls at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, an exclusive private boarding school in Victoria. On Valentine’s Day of 1900, they go to Hanging Rock for a picnic. Mmlle. De Poitiers, the French mistress, and Greta McCraw, who teaches mathematics, go along as chaperones. During the picnic, three of the students, plus Miss McCraw, go missing. One of the students is later found, but she is dazed and cannot remember anything that happened. A thorough search of the area turns up nothing. Then, other strange events happen, and parents start pulling their daughters out of the school. Ultimately, things end tragically for the school. This is one of those unusual stories that doesn’t give readers an explanation for what happens. Lindsay later published a chapter that had been removed from the original text; in it, she provides the explanation for the events. But the story itself leaves readers to work out what happened.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional account of the 1900 arrest and trial of Maggie Heffernan for the killing of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie is brought up in rural Victoria by ‘respectable’ parents. One day she sees a newcomer, Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney staying with relatives. The customs of that era don’t allow Maggie to be ‘forward,’ as the saying used to go, but she’s smitten. Not long after she first sees Jack, she learns that he’ll be joining the local cricket team in a match coming up soon. So she eagerly goes along with her family for a ‘cricket picnic.’ After the meal, she finally gets a chance for a few words with Jack, and it doesn’t take long before they begin to see one another regularly. In fact, they become secretly engaged. Then, Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When he does, he tells Maggie, he’ll send for her. In the meantime, Maggie learns that she’s pregnant. She writes to Jack several times to tell him, but gets no answer. She knows that her parents will not accept her, so she decides to leave to find work in Melbourne. The baby is duly born, and for a short time, Maggie moves to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she learns that Jack has come to Melbourne and tracks him down. When she does, he rejects her, calling her ‘crazy.’ With little other choice, Maggie and the baby go to six different lodging houses, and are turned away from each one. That’s when the tragedy occurs. Before long, Maggie finds herself imprisoned and sentenced to execution. Vida Goldstein, the first woman to stand for Parliament in the British Empire, takes an interest in Maggie’s case. She and her protégée of sorts Elizabeth Hamilton work to get Maggie released.

In Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police, we are introduced to Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, Chief of Police for the small town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. The main plot of the novel concerns the brutal murder of Mustafa al-Bakr, who emigrated years ago from Algeria. As dedicated as Bruno is to his job (and he is), he doesn’t let it consume him. In fact, a sub-plot of the novel features his developing relationship with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale. She’s been sent to St. Denis to work with Bruno on this case, since it may involve the Front Nationale, a far-right group that’s not afraid to use terrorism to achieve its goals. At one point, he takes Isabelle out for a dinner picnic near the ruins of a castle. Bruno’s prepared the picnic carefully, and his date is most impressed:
 

‘’My toast is to you and your wonderful imagination. I can’t think of a better evening or a better picnic, and there’s no one I’d rather enjoy it with.’’
 

The picnic may not be the entire reason the two begin a relationship, but it doesn’t hurt!

Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men includes a few of Mma. Precious Ramotswe’s cases. For instance, there’s Mr. Molefelo, who wants to make amends for some wrongs he did. There’s also some competition from Satisfaction Guaranteed, a newly-established detective agency. And there’s the case of Mma. Selelipeng, who believes her husband is being unfaithful to her. As you can imagine, Mma. Ramotswe and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi don’t have a lot of spare time. To add to everything, Mma. Makutsi has decided to offer typing classes for men, who wouldn’t have been taught how to type in school. So life at the detective agency does get a bit hectic. When matters are finally settled, Mma. Ramotswe, her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and Mma. Makutsi arrange for a picnic at a dam not far from where they live. They make a fire where they cook chicken, sausages, rice and maize pap. And they’re not the only group there. Other families have also gathered for picnics, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s two apprentices are delighted to find some pleasant young girls to flirt with as they eat and relax. It’s a pleasant end to the story.

And it’s true that picnics can be very pleasant and relaxing. But sometimes, the insects aren’t the only things you need to worry about as you eat! ;-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Laura Nyro’s Stone Soul Picnic, made famous by The Fifth Dimension.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Joan Lindsay, Martin Walker, Wendy James

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).

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

Lately All the Missing Pieces Have Been Falling Into Place*

EquilibriumOne really interesting aspect of human psychology is that we like things to make sense. We like questions to have answers. When things do make sense, we get closure. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called this process ‘equilibration.’ To him, cognitive development occurs when we become aware that our assumptions don’t answer all the questions. When that happens, we adjust our thinking and find out more. That’s how we return to cognitive equilibrium.

And that’s arguably part of the driving force behind people’s reaction to old, unsolved crimes – ‘cold cases.’ Of course, for the family and friends involved in unsolved cases, there’s also the sense of loss and grief. But there are also the unanswered questions. Those questions can drive the sleuths who investigate those cases as well. And they’re sometimes the reason those cases come back to haunt people, as the saying goes, even years later.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth behind the death of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Sixteen years earlier, he was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. His wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and she had motive. Her husband was having an affair with the subject of the portrait he was painting. What’s more, she had the poison in her possession. At the time, it seemed that the police had caught the right person. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. And Caroline can no longer speak for herself, as she died a year after her conviction. Poirot interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder, and also gets written accounts of the murder from each of them. He uses that information to find out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. Throughout this novel, we see how this case has come back to haunt some people, precisely because the ‘official’ report at the time didn’t answer all of their questions. I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder

Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men sees Inspector John Rebus remanded to Tulliallan Police College after an unfortunate run-in with a supervisor. He and a group of other cops (they’re called ‘The Resurrection Men’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’) are given an unsolved case to work together. The idea is that the experience will teach them teamwork and the skills they need to co-operate with authority figures. The case is the 1995 murder of small-time crook Eric Lomax. The victim was hardly an upstanding citizen, but his murder has left some nagging questions. And as Rebus and the others on the team look into the case, they find more there than they’d thought. And Rebus finds that Lomax’s murder is connected with a case he and his team-mate DS Siobhan Clarke were investigating before his remand. As it turns out, the need for answers in that older case leads to answers in the recent case.

In Jan Costin Wagner’s The Silence, we are introduced to Inspector Antsi Ketola. He’s at the point of retirement, but is still haunted by one particular case. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen disappeared and was later found murdered. Ketola was never able to find out who killed the girl. It’s bothered him since then, not least because he wasn’t able to get answers for himself or for Pia’s family. Now another case has come up. Sinikka Vehkasalo was on her way to a volleyball session when she went missing. Her bloody bicycle has been found at the same place where a cross marks Pia Lehtinen’s murder. The older case still nags, and Inspector Kimmo Joentaa suspects that it may be related to this new case. So he asks Ketola’s help in solving both. It turns out that someone has been keeping secrets for a very long time…

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett supervises the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. The team’s job is to re-investigate old cases that offer new leads. And part of what motivates these people (and the families and friends involved) is the desire to get some answers. In The Hanging Wood for instance, Orla Payne contacts Scarlett because she wants to find out what happened to her brother Callum. Twenty years earlier, Callum disappeared, and no trace of him – not even a body – was found. She’s been haunted by this for years, and part of the reason for that is that it doesn’t make sense to her. At first, Scarlett doesn’t pay close attention to the case; unfortunately Orla Payne is quite drunk when she calls about it, and doesn’t make a good impression. But not long afterwards, Orla herself dies in what looks like a case of suicide. But was it? Now Scarlett feels a strong sense of guilt that she didn’t take the victim more seriously, and re-opens the Callum Payne case. She also works to find out what really happened to Orla.

Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne looks for that same kind of equilibrium in Cross Fingers. She’s working on an exposé of dubious land developer Denny Graham when her boss asks her to change her focus. The idea now is to do a documentary on the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s called. At the time, apartheid was still very much in place in South Africa, and many New Zealanders protested their country’s welcoming of the South African team. On the other hand, the police simply wanted to keep order. And of course, rugby fans just wanted to see some good matches, politics aside. The tour went from bad to worse to devastating, and it’s certainly documentary-worthy. But Thorne believes that the story’s already been done well already, and that there are no real new angles for her to pursue. Then she gets interested in one small detail. During a few of the protests, two people dressed as lambs showed up at games. They danced, made fun, and entertained the crowds at the matches. Then, they stopped coming to the games. Thorne wants to know what happened to The Lambs, and decides to pursue that question. She discovers that one of them was a professional dancer who was murdered late one night. Now this older case nags at her, especially as it becomes clear that there are some people who do not want her to find the answers.

There’s a powerful example of unsolved cases coming back, so to speak, in Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. In 1978, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found dead, with her own scarf round her head. The police do a thorough investigation, but they can’t get clear evidence against any one particular person. Then, a few months later, the body of sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is discovered, also with a scarf round her head. Now it’s suspected that this is the work of a serial killer the press dubs The Sidney Strangler. The investigation continues, but the killer isn’t caught. There aren’t really answers in this case, and that haunts the people involved more than they know. Years later, journalist Erin Fury is putting together a documentary on the effects of murder on the families involved. She gets an introduction to Angela Buchanan’s cousins Jane Tait and Mick Griffin, as well as their parents. As she interviews these people, we see how much they’ve been impacted by what happened. And it’s not only their sense of loss. It’s also the lack of real answers and their growing awareness that things really aren’t as they seemed.

That need for things to make sense is part of what drives our curiosity. It’s also part of what keeps detectives and family members looking into old cases that don’t have clear answers, especially when those cases affect present investigations. These are just a few examples of what’s out there. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Getting Closer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jan Costin Wagner, Martin Edwards, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James