Category Archives: Wendy James

Down to Elvis Presley Boulevard Where All the Faithful Cried*

As this is posted, it’s 40 years since the death of Elvis Presley. Whatever you think of his music, Presley was a worldwide phenomenon, and millions of people still make the pilgrimage to his home at Graceland. Oh, and by the way, you’ll want to check out Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, which takes place in Memphis, and which has plenty of mentions of (and even a big event at) Graceland.

Presley’s passing left his legions of fans grief-stricken. There are even those who swear that he’s still alive; that’s how much he meant to them. But it’s often that way when someone you’ve put on a pedestal dies. If it’s a famous person, there’s a wide outpouring of emotion. If it’s someone you’ve personally had as an idol (say, a colleague or friend or mentor), the grief may not be as public, but it’s no less there. Certainly, that’s true in real life, and it is in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife, Gerda, are among a group of people invited to spend a weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area and has been invited for lunch, arrives just after the shooting; in fact, at first, he thinks it’s an ‘amusement’ staged for his benefit. Very soon, though, he sees that it’s all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the murderer is. As he does, we see just how many people put Christow on a pedestal. And even for those who didn’t do that, we see clearly that his death has left a gaping hole, if I can put it like that.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate when eighteen-year-old Andreas Winther disappears. When Andreas’ mother, Runi, first reports him missing, Sejer isn’t overly concerned. There are, after all, plenty of reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he’s going. But when more time goes by, and he doesn’t return, Sejer begins to look more seriously into the matter. He begins with Andreas’ best friend, Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. I can say without spoiling the story that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does know a lot more than he’s saying about their last day together, and about what might have happened to Andreas. And, as the story goes on, we see that, in a way, Zipp hero-worshipped his friend, and is dealing with his own kind of grief and sense of loss.

Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) is the story of the murder of Viktor Stråndgard. His body is discovered in a Kiruna church called the Church of the Source of All Our Strength. The victim was an up-and-coming church leader who was sometimes called The Paradise Boy. He had many, many followers, so his death makes national news. In fact, that’s how Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson hears about the murder. It’s especially shocking to her because she grew up in Kiruna, and knew the Stråndgard family. Then, she gets a call from the victim’s sister, Sanna, a former friend. Sanna says that the police suspect her of the murder, and she needs Martinsson’s help. At first, Martinsson refuses; she had her own good reasons for leaving Kiruna in the first place, and has no desire to return. But Sanna finally persuades her to go. Martinsson hasn’t been there long when Sanna is actually arrested for the murder and imprisoned. Now, if she’s to clear her former friend’s name, Martinsson will have to find out who the real killer is. As she looks into the case, we see how Viktor Stråndgard’s death has impacted the church, his followers, and plenty of other people as well.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is the first in his series featuring Shanghai police detective Chief Inspector Chen Cao. One morning, the body of a woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. Very soon, she is identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. That means this investigation is going to have to be done very delicately. The victim was somewhat of a celebrity, and her death has been reported widely, leaving many people upset. What’s more, she had high political status, and moved in circles with some important people. So, it’s going to be critical that the case be handled as carefully as possible.

A similar thing might be said of William Ryan’s The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), which takes place in the then-USSR in the years just before World War II. It’s the story of the murder of Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya, a dedicated Party worker and up-and-coming actress. When she’s found dead at a filming location, it looks at first as though it might be a suicide. But there are enough questions about it that Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev is seconded to Odessa to find out the truth. And that’s going to be a problem. If the victim died by suicide that’ll be put down as a tragedy, but no more. If it’s a murder, though, the matter could turn very ugly for some important people. And, since the victim was a celebrity, albeit a minor one, there’ll be news reports, and word will get out. So, Korolev will have to tread very, very lightly as he investigates.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. The real action in this novel begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan goes missing and is later found dead, with a scarf round her head. At the time, the police concentrate heavily on her family, especially her aunt, uncle and cousins, with whom she’s staying during the summer. Then, a few months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is killed. She, too, is found with a scarf. Now, the Sydney police seem to be dealing with a mass killer that the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. No-one is ever arrested for the crimes, though, and the cases go cold. Years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on the families of murder victims. She approaches Angela’s cousin Jane Tait, who gives very reluctant permission to be interviewed. She also interviews Jane’s brother, Mick, and their parents, Barbara and Doug Griffin. As the story goes on, we learn the story of that summer, and we learn what really happened to both Angela and Kelly. Admittedly, Angela is not a film or music idol. But Jane put her up on a pedestal, in a way, and her loss struck a devastating blow from which the family still hasn’t really recovered. It’s an interesting case of a person who isn’t famous, but who is still someone’s idol.

The loss of an idol can have a profound impact on a person. And that can make for an interesting crime plot or layer of character development. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Elvis Presley Boulevard.  

26 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Karin Fossum, Qiu Xiaolong, Riley Adams, Wendy James, William Ryan

Why These Victorian Views?*

The Victorian Era ended more than 100 years ago. But, if you think about it, that era’s customs, culture, and so on still exert influence, especially in the West. Just as one example, consider the tradition of the white wedding dress. That wasn’t a custom until Queen Victoria chose to wear a white dress for her own wedding. And that’s not to mention the many other beliefs, ‘rules,’ and so on that became a part of that era. One post isn’t nearly enough to do justice to the topic, but it’s interesting to take a glance at it.

We see the influence of this era in a lot of ways in crime fiction. And, as you’ll see, I’m not really talking of the crime fiction (such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s) that was written during the Victorian years. Even novels written after those years ended show the era’s influence.

One of the very important characteristics of the era was an emphasis on doing one’s duty. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was suspected of the murder, and with good reason. In fact, she was arrested and convicted, and died in prison a year later. Carla insists her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. In order to find out the truth, Poirot interviews the five people who were present at the time. He also gets their written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who acted as governess to Carla’s aunt, Angela Warren. Here’s what we learn about Miss Williams:
 

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing…she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’
 

In other ways, too, Miss Williams reflects Victorian attitudes. For example, one of the ‘people of interest’ in the novel is Elsa Greer Dittisham, who was Crale’s lover at the time of his murder, and who was staying at the house while he painted her portrait. Miss Williams describes her as ‘thoroughly unprincipled.’ Later she says:
 

‘‘Whatever our feelings, we can keep them in decent control. And we can certainly control our actions. That girl had absolutely no morals of any kind. It meant nothing to her that Mr. Crale was a married man. She was absolutely shameless about it all – cool and determined. Possibly she may have been badly brought up, but that’s the only excuse I can find for her.”
 

Miss Williams is as much upset at what she sees as the lack of propriety and ‘proper conduct’ as she is about anything else.

We also see the Victorian emphasis on propriety in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Strong Poison. In the novel, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is tried for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and immediately becomes smitten with Vane. In fact, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. And, with help of some friends, as well as his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, that’s exactly what he does. As the story goes on, we learn that Vane and Boyes lived together before their relationship ended. Since they never married, that’s very much held against her. In keeping with the Victorian view of what was ‘proper,’ it’s considered inappropriate to cohabit. The fact of their relationship is almost less important than the fact that Vane behaved in an ‘unseemly’ way.

We also see that attitude in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series, which takes place in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai). In one story arc, we learn about the relationship between Le Fanu and his housekeeper, Roisin McPhedren. The two care very much about each other, but their relationship is doomed. For one thing, Le Fanu is, at least in name, married. His wife, who now lives in England, wants a divorce, but that’s somewhat scandalous. For another, Le Fanu and McPhedren live in the same house, and are not married. If any whispers got around that they had more than a professional relationship, that would mean the end of La Fanu’s career. Such impropriety isn’t in keeping with the ideals he’s supposed to be upholding. And that’s to say nothing of what would happen to Roisin McPhedren’s reputation. There would be no way she could get any kind of ‘respectable’ employment. This series offers a look at Victorian attitudes towards class and race, as well, and how they impacted the British Raj.

There’s an interesting example of the Victorian perspective in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die. In it, poet and private investigator Nigel Strangeways looks into the poisoning death of George Rattery. The most obvious suspect is crime writer Frank Cairnes, who holds Rattery responsible for the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie.’ But Cairnes says that he’s innocent, and there are solid reasons to believe him. What’s more, as Strangeways discovers, Cairnes is not the only possible suspect. For one thing, it turns out that Rattery was having an affair with a woman named Rhoda Carfax. Rattery’s mother, Ethel, is
 

‘…crazy about family honour, and being a Victorian she looks upon sexual scandal as the arch-disgrace.’ 
 

That passion for ‘respectability’ could have been part of a motive for murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at that need to be ‘respectable.’

There’s also an interesting look at the impact of the Victorian-Era perspective in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This novel is James’ fictional retelling of the 1900 Melbourne arrest and conviction of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie meets and is wooed by Jack Hardy. He asks her to marry him, but says they need to keep their engagement secret until he can support them. Maggie agrees, and he soon leaves to look for work in New South Wales. In the meantime, Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack. Even after several letters, she doesn’t hear from him. Maggie knows her family won’t accept her (what ‘proper’ family would?), so she gets work in a Melbourne Guest House. When baby Jacky arrives, Maggie moves briefly to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she discovers that Jack Hardy has moved to Melbourne, and goes in search of him. When she finally tracks him down, he utterly rejects her. With nowhere else to go, Maggie goes from lodging house to lodging house, and is turned down by six places.  That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. This story takes place in the last year or two of the Victorian Era, and really shows how that perspective influences everything that happens to Maggie, including her own point of view.

There are also other historical series, such as K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells novels, and Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland series, that depict Victorian-Era perspectives, world views and mores. Owen’s series takes place at the very end of those years, and Young’s takes place in the Edwardian Era that followed it.

Even today, we can see how the Victorian Era has left its mark. It has on Western society, and it certainly has in crime fiction. Which examples have stayed with you?

ps The ‘photo is of a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself.

14 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian Stoddart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Felicity Young, K.B. Owen, Nicholas Blake, Wendy James

It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest*

Not long ago, crime writer and fellow blogger Christine Poulson did a very interesting post about clothing fads and other fads, too, that make us wince now, but were all the rage. You know what I mean: bug-eyed glasses, bowl haircuts, and cable-knit vests, among others.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of clothing. Fads can come in any form, and not all them are as cringe-worthy as jumpsuits for men. But they all leave their mark, including mentions in crime fiction.

For example, during the Jazz Age, Mah Jong became all the rage.  People played it at parties, at home, and sometimes in clubs. Agatha Christie makes mention of that fad in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, the small village of Kings Abbot is rocked by the stabbing death of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t think he’s guilty, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. This novel is narrated by the village doctor, Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the house Poirot has taken. One evening, Sheppard, his sister Caroline (who lives with him), and two guests play a game of Mah Jong. A good deal of gossip is passed around during the course of the evening, and some of it is relevant to the mystery at hand. We also get to follow the game, and learn a bit about how it’s played.

Christie also mentions other fads that came later. For instance, the ‘Teddy Boy’ look makes an appearance in The Pale Horse. And we see bits of faddish fashion in Hallowe’en Party, too. Here, for instance, is a description of Desmond Holland, a character who turns out to be helpful in solving the murder of a young girl, Joyce Reynolds:
 

‘The younger one was wearing a rose-coloured velvet coat, mauve trousers, and a kind of frilled shirting.
 

Not something that would likely be worn today, but the look was especially popular at the time (the book was published in 1969).

Another fad we see in crime fiction is the dance marathon. These marathons became extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s; and, as the name suggests, involved couples moving to music for as long as they could. The winners of this endurance contest might win money or some other coveted prize. A dance marathon forms the background for a murder in Kerry Greenwood’s 1920s-era novel, The Green Mill Murder. In that novel, Phryne Fisher and her escort, Charles Freeman, are at an upmarket dance club called the Green Mill. The club is hosting a dance marathon that night, which is supposed to be an exciting event. But it turns tragic when one of the dancers, Bernard Stevens, slumps to the floor, dead of a stab wound. Phryne starts investigating, but she hasn’t got very far when Charles Freeman goes missing. His mother hires Phryne to find him, and she agrees. It turns out that his disappearance is related to Stevens’ death, and to the end of World War I.

On the topic of dancing, one of the crazes of the 1970s was disco dancing. There were disco outfits, disco contests, and so on (right, those who’ve seen Saturday Night Fever?). Of all fictional sleuths, you wouldn’t expect Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun to get caught up in disco. But that’s exactly what happens in one plot thread of Disco For the Departed. In that novel (which takes place in 1970s Laos), Dr. Siri is sent to northern Laos in his capacity as the country’s medical examiner. Construction of a concrete walkway to the president’s palace has uncovered a body. With a major celebration coming up, the government can’t afford a public embarrassment like this, and Dr. Siri is expected to quietly do away with the ‘problem.’ But it’s clear that this victim was murdered, and Dr. Siri wants to know why and by whom. As fans of this series will know, there’s an element of the supernatural in these novels, as Dr. Siri discovers that he has a connection with the spirits of those who’ve died. And in this case, that connection becomes clear when he arrives at the village of Vieng Xai, where the body was discovered.  For several nights in a row, Dr. Siri hears disco music – music no-one else can hear.  Here’s what Dr. Siri thinks about it when he first hears it:
 

‘It destroyed any hope of sleep. He wondered what type of people would start dancing in the middle of the night and how anyone could enjoy such an ugly Western din. Or perhaps this was one of the Party’s torture techniques to punish the officials from Vientiane. He could think of few things more cruel.’
 

But, as it turns out, that music, and those spirits, play a role in the novel. The mystery itself has a very prosaic solution, but Dr. Siri gets inspiration from several different sources, including the spirits of those who’ve died.

Pinball has been played for a long time, and many people still enjoy it. During the 1960s and 1970s, though, pinball became a craze. It’s enshrined in the Who’s rock opera Tommy, and it’s in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Wendy James The Lost Girls, we learn of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. She was spending the summer with her aunt, uncle and cousins; and, like most teens, didn’t want to spend all day sitting at home. So, she, her cousin, Mick, and Mick’s friends, spent their share of time at the local drugstore. There, they played plenty of pinball. One afternoon, after a pinball session, Angela disappeared. She was later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, Mick was ‘a person of interest.’ But no real evidence was found against him. And a few months later, another young girl, Kelly McIvor, was found dead, also with a scarf around her. The police began to see the two deaths as related; in fact, the press dubbed the killer the Sydney Strangler. The murderer was never caught. Now, nearly forty years later, filmmaker Erin Fury wants to interview Angela’s family as a part of a documentary on families who survive the murder of one of their members. As she speaks to Angela’s cousins, aunt, and uncle (her parents have since died), we learn what really happened to her. Pinball isn’t the reason for her death, but it’s an interesting example of how a fad can find its way into a story.

And that’s the thing about fads. They’re an important part of our culture, so it makes sense that we’d see them in crime fiction, too. Thanks, Christine, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be Christine’s excellent blog? Great book reviews, discussions of writing, and more await you. Oh, and you’ll want to try her crime fiction, too. You won’t be disappointed.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Mann and Bernie Lowe’s Mashed Potato Time.

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Christine Poulson, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, 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.

25 Comments

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  

11 Comments

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