Category Archives: Wendy James

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.

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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.

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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.

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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