Category Archives: Wendy James

Do You Need Anybody?*

Kindness of StrangersLots of crime fiction tells stories of people who try to be kind to someone, only to have it end up going very, very badly. And there’s something to that sort of story; it can be a very suspenseful premise for a plot. You know the sort of thing I mean: driver stops to help when a car is stranded, only to find real trouble. And in deft hands, novels with that plot point can be memorable.

But sometimes it’s also nice to remember that kindness to strangers isn’t always dangerous. In fact, it’s part of the glue that holds us together. And it can lead in all sorts of directions. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny. He’s there to look into the death of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. But Superintendent Spence has begun to think that Bentley was innocent, so he’s asked Poirot to investigate. One of the people he meets is Deirdre Henderson, who is one of the few villagers with a kind word to say for Bentley. It seems that Bentley once helped her rescue her dog from a trap. She hasn’t forgotten, and that’s part of why she isn’t convinced Bentley is a killer. Fans of this series will know that that one kind act has repercussions, which are brought up in another book, Hallowe’en Party.

Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors begins with a gesture of kindness to a stranger. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a road trip one New Year’s Eve when they get into a car accident and left stranded. The Reverend Theodore Venables, vicar of a nearby church, comes upon the two men and helps them get their car to a repair shop. He even offers them lodging at the vicarage until the car can be fixed. Very grateful, Wimsey and Bunter accept, and are soon taken to the vicarage. That evening, Wimsey gets the chance to return the kindness. It seems that one of the church’s bell ringers has gotten ill and can’t do his part of the traditional change-ringing. So Wimsey takes his place, and the change-ringing goes off well. When Wimsey’s car is ready, he and Bunter go their way. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables, asking him to return, and help with the odd mystery of a corpse that has turned up unexpectedly at another person’s gravesite. Although this mystery is really sad in its way, one bright point is the friendship that strikes up between Wimsey and Venables, all because of one kind gesture.

In one plot thread of Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano and his team are raiding a brothel. Once they’ve made the arrests, Lescano does a final walk-through of the premises. That’s when he discovers a young woman, Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. Without really thinking too much about it, Lescano rescues her and shelters her in his home. Part of the reason is that she looks very much like his wife, Marisa, who has died. But he also doesn’t want to see Eva get into trouble. It’s late in the 1970’s, when just about anything can lead to a person ‘disappearing’ in Argentina. At first, Eva isn’t sure why Lescano hasn’t denounced her, nor what he wants. He doesn’t demand sexual ‘rewards,’ he doesn’t blackmail her, and he continues to protect her. That kind gesture turns out to be very important to the novel as we see what happens to both characters.

There’s also a kind gesture in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That’s the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who starts life on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. One day, when she’s about eight, she happens to meet a girl about her own age, who’s just gotten some money in a dare. Then, she notices Jodie.

‘‘Hi, there,’ she says breezily. ‘He’s given me a dollar. You can get fifty cobbers for that up at Rafferty’s. You want to share?’’

Jodie’s unaccustomed to such a treat, and happy to accept. The other girl turns out to be Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, who comes from more money than Jodie has, and much more freedom. The two become inseparable until Bridie moves away. Years later, Jodie has good cause to remember that friendship when Bridie comes into her life again. Jodie has become a social pariah, since a devastating news story has broken about her. It seems that she gave birth to a baby who, shortly afterwards, disappeared. Was the child simply adopted? If so, why are there no records? Did the child die? If so, did Jodie have something to do with it? In the worst of it all, she meets Bridie again, and the two pick up their friendship. In fact, Bridie’s the one person who helps Jodie keep sane, if I can put it that way.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. In one plot thread of this novel, a young boy named François gets into trouble for stealing food from other children. Ordinarily, such a child would end up in the hands of authorities, but this child is different. His mother Karima seems to have gone missing, and the boy is just doing the best he can to eat. It soon turns out, too, that she may be mixed up in a murder investigation that Inspector Salvo Montalbano is conducting. He has sympathy for the boy, and decides to try to take care of him. As it happens, his long-time lover Livia is visiting, and she helps him to look after François. The two bond; and in fact, Livia considers whether she might want to adopt the boy when it’s discovered that his mother has been killed. That plan doesn’t pan out, but the boy is given a good, safe home with the sister of Montalbano’s second-in-command Mimì Augello. The kind gesture of taking care of François ends happily both for himself and for the family who adopts him.

And that’s the thing about kindness to strangers. You never know what will happen. And they happen in real life, too. Picture this – true story, as Wendy James’ Bridie Sullivan would say. It was a sweltering, and I mean sweltering, August day – my first full day of university. Never mind how long ago. I’d spent the morning unpacking my things, and was ready to go get something to eat. So I went to one of the university cafeterias. I was waiting my turn to get food when the heat overcame me and I began to get dizzy. Barely keeping my feet, I stumbled to the nearest table and slumped into a chair, arms on the table, head dropped onto them.  I sat there for a few moments that way, thoroughly embarrassed both at my dizziness and the attention I knew it would bring. I’d so wanted to make a good impression on that all-important first day ‘in public,’ and passing out was not what I’d had in mind. All of a sudden I heard a voice beside me, asking me if I was OK. I nodded, hoping desperately that whoever it was would leave me alone and let me slink away.

It didn’t happen. That person saw that I was in need, and went to get me a fruit juice, then sat beside me so I wouldn’t be alone, until I felt better. That glass of fruit juice, and the friendship that started because of it, made all the difference in the world to me. This many years later, we are still friends.

If you’re reading this, you know who you are. You may have forgotten that day, but I never will.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Dorothy Sayers, Ernesto Mallo, Wendy James

You’re So Scared and All Alone*

Families of the AccusedAn interesting post from Mason Canyon at Thoughts in Progress has got me thinking about the families of those accused of murder. People who are suspected of murder often have parents, children, siblings, or other relatives; those people are deeply affected by the fact that one of their own may have killed someone. Their stories can add a compelling layer to a crime novel; they can allow readers to see just how much impact such an accusation can make, whether or not it’s true.

Agatha Christie addresses this in several of her stories. For example, in Ordeal By Innocence, Rachel Argyle is murdered with a fireplace poker. The evidence points to her stepson Jacko, who is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Later, he dies in prison.  Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary visits the Argyle family home, Sunny Point. He’s there to give them news that he thinks ought to please them: he can conclusively prove that Jacko Argyle was not a murderer. Calgary wasn’t able to provide that evidence at the time of the murder, because he was suffering from a case of amnesia. He’s since recovered, and now wants to put things right. To his shock, the Argyle family isn’t happy at all about his return or his news. If he’s right, it means that someone else within the family circle is a murderer. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow and of Five Little Pigs.

In Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, we meet Juliet Spence, an herbalist who lives with her thirteen-year-old daughter Maggie in the village of Winslough. One evening, Robin Sage, Vicar of Winslough, has dinner with the Spences. He dies soon after in what turns out to be a case of poisoning by water hemlock. At first it’s put down to tragic accident. But that’s not how it seems to Simon St. James, who’s staying in the area with his wife Deborah. He asks his friend, Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley, to look into the matter, and Lynley agrees. Maggie Spence has a particularly difficult time during this investigation. For one thing, she is of course, worried about her mother, who is now the chief suspect in a murder case. For another, she has to deal with schoolmates and others who see her as a murderer’s daughter. It’s an awful situation for her, and George makes that clear.

It’s the Garrow family who comes under fire in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who’s being spoken of as the possible next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s from a proud, ‘blue-blood’ family, and is highly regarded in the field. Everything changes when his wife Jodie becomes a murder suspect. It all starts when their daughter Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. That hospital happens to be the same place where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even Angus, knew about this baby. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says that she gave the infant up for adoption, but the nurse can’t find any formal adoption records. Now, some very ugly talk starts. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? That murder accusation changes the Garrow family forever.

Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake introduces readers to John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake, and own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Murder strikes Crooked Lake when the body of Harvey Kristoff is discovered on the green at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The police start to investigate, and it’s not long before they settle on Nick Taylor, former head greenskeeper of the course. There’s evidence against him, too. For one thing, he blames Kristoff for getting him fired from his job. For another, it turns out that his wife Wilma had an affair with Kristoff. And the murder weapon belongs to Taylor. Still, Taylor claims that he’s innocent. And his lawyer Frank Hendrickson wants to defend his client as best he can. So he asks Bart, Taylor’s oldest friend, to help. Bart isn’t at all certain that Taylor is innocent, but he does agree to do what he can. As the story goes on, we see the impact on the Taylor family of a murder accusation. It’s all made even worse by the fact that Crooked Lake’s a small town; everyone knows everyone else. Even the Bartowskis feel the strain of being ‘on the Taylors’ side.’

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. According to Kasliwal, he had employed a maid, Mary Murmu, in his home for a time. Then, several months ago, she went missing. New evidence has come up that suggests that she was raped and murdered, and that Kasliwal might be responsible. The media is watching this case carefully, as there’s a sense that Kasliwal will get special treatment because of his social status. The police are well aware of this, and are determined to show that they don’t toady to the rich. And that’s Kasliwal’s problem. He says that he is innocent, and doesn’t have any idea what happened to his maid. He wants Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. Puri agrees, and he and his team get to work on the case. As they look for answers, we see what happens to a family when a member is accused of murder, even if that family has high social status. It’s difficult for all of them.

The Blligh/Dickson family has a terrible time of it, too, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Several years ago, Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam were murdered one horrific afternoon. Only their daughter Katy survived, because she wasn’t home when the killer struck. At the time, Angela’s brother Connor Bligh was suspected of the crime. The evidence against him was compelling, so he was arrested, tried and convicted. Since then, he’s been in Wellington’s Rimutaka Prison. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of this case at a crucial time for her. She’s reached a plateau in her career, and is looking for a story that will ensure her spot at the top of New Zealand journalism. So when she hears that there’s evidence Bligh may not be guilty, she’s interested. If he is innocent, this could be the story she’s been wanting. Thorne begins to re-investigate the case, and soon learns that no-one in the family really wants to help her. One reason is that they believe Bligh is guilty. But just as important is the fact that it’s been awful for them to have family members murdered, and probably by a relative. Now, they just want to get on with their lives, and not rake things up again.

It’s very hard to be accused of murder, whether or not one’s guilty. It’s at least as hard on family members. But that, too, is a reality of criminal investigation. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction, too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Renegade.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

Criticising All You See*

Uninformed OpinionsWhenever a major news story comes out, people weigh in with their views. That makes sense in a society that supports freedom of expression. And in today’s world of instant communication and social media, it takes very little time before people from all over the world have their say on stories.

On the one hand, I don’t think many people would say we shouldn’t have the right to speak our minds. On the other, the price for this is that people sometimes do so before they have all the facts. And that can make it much harder to get to the truth about something. It can also make things terribly difficult for the people involved in such news stories.

That said, people do share their opinions, sometimes quite publicly, and that can add an interesting layer of tension to a crime novel. It also makes for an interesting point of conflict.

Even before the days of the Internet, people spoke out publicly, whether or not they had all the facts. Agatha Christie, for instance, uses this plot point in several of her stories. To take one example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence visits Hercule Poirot to ask him to look into a case. James Bentley has been arrested for murdering his landlady. There’s evidence against him – enough, in fact, that he’s been convicted. But Spence has come to believe that Bentley is innocent. He wants Poirot to investigate and find out the truth before Bentley is executed. Poirot goes to the village of Broadhinny to learn what actually happened, and very soon discovers that popular opinion is very much against Bentley. Everyone assumes that he is guilty, and many people are surprised that Poirot is even interested in the matter. There are those who claim they always ‘knew’ Bentley was dangerous, and plenty more who are happy to give Poirot their opinions as to Bentley’s guilt. But there’s more to this case than a misfit lodger who killed his landlady, and Poirot soon finds that more than one person might have had a motive to kill Mrs. McGinty. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs… 

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen decides to take some time away to work on his writing. So he travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he plans to stay in a guesthouse owned by the town’s social leaders John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen’s visit naturally puts him in contact with the Wright family; and he learns a sad part of their history. John F. and Hermy’s youngest daughter Nora had been engaged to Jim Haight; in fact, the guesthouse in which Queen is staying was intended as their first home. But Haight left town suddenly, jilting his fiancée. When he returns just as suddenly, everyone is already prejudiced against him. But Nora is determined to renew her relationship with him, and to everyone’s dismay, the couple marry. Then, Haight’s sister Rosemary comes to Wrightsville for an extended visit. On New Year’s Eve, she dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Haight is arrested for murder, and people are soon very quick to voice their opinions, both verbally and in letters to the editor of the local newspaper. One opinion builds from another, and the outcry becomes so intense that Haight’s attorney Eli Martin has a very difficult job assembling his case. In the end, the only people who believe that Haight might be innocent are Queen and Nora’s sister, Pat. And they work to find out who really committed the crime.

There’s a similar sort of ‘fanning the flames’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. When Tom Robinson is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, there’s an immediate public reaction. Without knowing any of the real facts involved, everyone assumes that Robinson is guilty. It doesn’t help matters at all that he is Black, and Mayella Ewell is White. Word spreads quickly and Robinson’s life is at risk. But local attorney Atticus Finch isn’t convinced that things happened the way everyone thinks they did. He takes Robinson’s case and digs more deeply. His job is made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone’s sure of what happened, without having actual information. Oh, and talking of Harper Lee….her new novel Go Set a Watchman is due to be released on 14 July. I’m proud to be co-hosting a blog tour to celebrate its release. You can check out the details right here, and get involved if you’d like.

In the US, one of the big questions people have weighed on is what really happened to President John F. Kennedy. Despite the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in that murder, people have voiced all sorts of views, including views not supported by facts. The same is true for the famous O.J. Simpson case. Editorials, blogs, books and articles have been written on that case; it’s still a subject for discussion over twenty years later. And people are still convinced one way or the other without always carefully reviewing the facts.

One of the clearest examples of people having their say has been Australia’s Lindy Chamberlain case. The 1980 death of Lindy Chamberlain’s daughter Azaria sparked a major outcry and a great deal of media interest. The question of whether or not ‘Lindy did it’ was a very hot topic for a long time. And it’s found its way into a few books in which we see that theme of people sharing their opinions regardless of whether they’re informed.

One of them is Wendy James’ The Mistake. In that novel, Jodie Evans Garrow has what seems to be the perfect life. She’s smart and attractive, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. Everything changes when her daughter is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even her husband, knows about the child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the nurse can find no formal record of that. Now the gossip starts. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, what happened to her? If she is dead, is Jodie responsible? The outcry gets louder and more public, and Jodie becomes a social pariah. And a lot of vitriol comes from people who don’t have the facts. Interestingly, in one scene, Jodie is invited to a book club meeting at which the group is discussing a book about the Chamberlain case. We do learn the truth about Jodie’s first baby, but it’s despite, not because of, public views.

There’s an oblique reference to the Chamberlain case in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. When Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson report their infant son Noah missing, there’s a huge amount of public support for them at first. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, editorials and more urge the return of the baby and express sympathy for the couple. But when questions come up about the incident, the tide of public opinion sways. Before long, people begin to be sure that Joanna had something to do with the baby’s disappearance. Now social media outlets burst with condemnation and worse. We do learn what really happened to Noah, but it’s no thanks to the uninformed blog posts, comments, Tweets and so on.

And that’s the thing about having a say. It can lead to all sorts of heated debate, informed or no, about a case, event or person. And sometimes that means one’s got to wade through all sorts of commentary to get to the truth.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Back Chat.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, Helen Fitzgerald, Wendy James

Tearful Nights, Angry Dawns*

DomesticNoirAn interesting post from Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling has got me thinking about what many people call domestic noir. It certainly isn’t a brand-new kind of crime story, but it’s gotten an awful lot of press in recent years. I thought it might be interesting (I hope it will!) to have a look at some examples and see how it’s evolved. Now, before I go on, please pay a visit to Reading, Writing and Riesling. Lots of great reviews, recipes and fabulous ‘photos await you there.

Domestic noir mostly concerns itself with intimate family relationships (sometimes friends are involved too). And that dynamic is an effective backdrop for a crime novel, since such relationships are complex. What’s more, the complexity and conflict aren’t always obvious on the outside. All of this means (at least to me) that it’s not surprising at all that those relationships are featured in so much crime fiction.

As I say, threads of domestic noir have been woven through crime fiction for a long time. For example, Agatha Christie’s The Hollow is in part the story of John and Gerda Christow. He’s a successful Harley Street specialist; she’s his frumpy, adoring wife. One weekend, they’re invited to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, who’ve put together a house party. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and was in fact, invited for lunch that day. When he arrives, his first thought is that the scene of Christow’s murder has been staged for his ‘amusement.’ Soon enough it’s clear that this is a real murder, so Poirot works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who the killer is. There’s a network of relationships here that matter in the course of this novel. There’s the Christows’ relationship, the relationship Christow has with his former lover Veronica Cray (a famous actress who’s also taken a cottage nearby), and the relationship Christow has with sculptor Henrietta Savernake, who is a member of the Angkatells’ house party. And (also in the tradition of domestic noir), this story doesn’t end happily for most of the characters. Admittedly, most people wouldn’t call this a ‘pure’ example of the sub-genre, but it’s an interesting take on it.

Both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell wrote several novels you might argue are examples of domestic noir. One of them is her first Barbara Vine novel, A Dark-Adapted Eye. In that novel, journalist Daniel Stewart decides to do a story on the execution of Vera Longley Hilliard. Years ago, she was hung for murder, and Stewart wants some background on her life and on the events that led up to the killing for which she was convicted. He approaches Vera’s niece Faith Longley Severn, hoping he can persuade her to help him write his story. As the two begin to collaborate, we learn the background of the proud, ultra-respectable Longley family. There’s a very complicated network of relationships in the family; and as they are explored, we see how they’ve led to murder.

Wendy James’ The Mistake offers readers an intimate look at the various members of the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney, and is being put forward as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. His wife Jodie is beautiful and intelligent, and a good mother to their two healthy children, Hannah and Tom. On the surface, they’re a family to be envied. Then one day, Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. It turns out to be the same hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another girl – a baby she never mentioned to anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby, and Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption. But when the nurse checks, she finds no records of a formal adoption. Now all sorts of ugly questions begin to surface. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, can she be contacted? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the stories get worse and worse, the Garrow family begins to splinter, and we how complex and sometimes difficult those relationships really are.

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife introduces readers to a successful Chicago couple, Todd Gilbert and Jodi Brett. He’s a developer; she’s a psychotherapist. Although they’ve been together for twenty years, they’ve never formally married. Everything changes for the couple – or better to say, a lot is revealed – when Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. Todd’s strayed before, but this time things are different. Natasha becomes pregnant, and wants marriage and a family. Todd says that’s what he wants, too, and moves in with her. Under the advice of his lawyer, Todd arranges for a letter to Jodi, evicting her from the home they’ve shared for years, and making it clear she has no claim to it, since they were never married. With her options getting more and more limited, Jodi begins to withdraw from life. Meanwhile, Todd has his own problems. He’s finding that life with Natasha isn’t at all what he imagined it might be, and is missing Jodi. Then, he’s murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking or burglary gone wrong. But it’s not long before the police discover that the killers were paid. The question of who paid them and why is of course an important aspect of this novel. But so is the slow peeling away of the layers of Todd and Jodi’s relationship, and their relationships with the other people in their lives.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry begins when Alistair Robertson and Joanna Lindsay make the long trip from Scotland to Victoria, where Alistair was born and raised. The idea is to be closer to Alistair’s daughter Chloe, who lives there with her mother Alexandra. Alistair wants to get custody of Chloe, and he knows his changes are better if he lives near her and re-establishes his relationship with her. The journey to Melbourne is nightmarish. Alistair and Joanna have with them their nine-week-old son Noah; and as anyone who’s ever been on a long flight with an infant knows, it’s difficult under the best of circumstances. And Noah is not an ‘easy’ baby. But, they finally arrive and begin the trip from the airport to their destination. That’s when they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The police are alerted and a massive search is undertaken. The Australian media make much of the case, and there are all sorts of fundraising and other efforts in support of the family. But then, questions begin to come up about, especially, Joanna. There are certainly cases where parents are responsible for the loss of their children, and many people begin to wonder whether that’s happened here. As matters spiral out of control for both Alistair and Joanna, we get an ‘inside look’ at their relationship and the relationships they’ve formed with others. As is the case in a lot of domestic noir, not much is as it seems on the surface.

Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel explores another sort of relationship: the mother/child dynamic. Eve Moran is driven by her desire to acquire – money, things, men. And she’s toxic enough to do whatever it takes, including killing, to get what she wants. Her daughter Christine depends on her mother, as children do, and is drawn into Eve’s web because of that dependency as well as an unwillingness or inability to see her mother for what she is. It’s a very complicated relationship and it grows more and more dysfunctional. Then Christine begins to see that her three-year-old brother Ryan is being drawn into the same unhealthy, devastating pattern. This compels Christine to try to find a way to break free (and free Ryan) from Eve. In this novel, Abbott shows how the intimate relationships among parents and children can be at least as damaging as partner relationships.

There are a lot of other novels, too, that you could argue are examples of domestic noir (I know, I know, fans of Pascal Garnier, Minette Walters and of Karin Alvtegen). What do you think of this sub-genre? Why do you think it’s gotten so popular?


ps. The ‘photo is a reminder that lots of relationships aren’t noir at all. Happy anniversary, Mr. COAMN, and thanks for so many good, good years.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jacob Brackman and Carly Simon’s That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Helen Fitzgerald, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell, Wendy James

I Don’t Know What You’re Expecting of Me*

Stress On Young PeopleA few days ago I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who has young children. We were talking about the many stresses there are on today’s young people, and how that may impact them. And there is certainly a lot of pressure out there. To begin with, growing up isn’t easy. If you add to that the major societal changes of the last decades, the influence of the Internet and other social media, and the lightning-quick pace of life, it’s easy to see why so many young people are so stressed.

But the truth is, there’s always been pressure of one kind or another on children. A certain amount of it is more or less inevitable. And there’s a strong argument that it’s important to learn to take responsibility, cope with a certain amount of stress, and even experience failure sometimes. All of those things help us to be capable, confident adults. But there is definitely such a thing as too much pressure, and it can have damaging effects. We’ve all read such stories from real-life news; it’s there in crime fiction as well.

For instance, in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, we are introduced to twenty-eight-year old Gideon Davies. All his life, he’s had a rare musical gift, and has become a world-class violin virtuoso. One terrible night, he finds that he can’t play. Desperate to discover the source of that block, he starts to visit a psychologist. In one plot thread of this novel, he explores his past, which includes the tragic drowning death of his younger sister when she was a toddler. As he does, we see what the impact has been of the pressure put on him to make the most of his gift. It has profoundly influenced his thinking and his self-image.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features the Garrow family. Hannah Garrow is a healthy, psychologically normal (whatever that even means!) teen. Her parents Angus and Jodie love her and care about her. They’ve sent her to the ‘right’ school and are doing what they can set her up for success. But Hannah faces quite a lot of pressure. For one thing, there’s the matter of fitting in with her peers. She doesn’t identify with the socially popular students, and has little interest in ‘social climbing.’ And there’s the fact that her father is being spoken of as the next mayor of Arding (New South Wales). In order to be considered for that position, his family life has to bear up under scrutiny, so Hannah feels considerable pressure to be a successful politician’s daughter. Then one day, Hannah is involved in an accident that sends her to a Sydney hospital. As it turns out, it’s the same hospital where, years earlier, her mother Jodie gave birth to another daughter – one no-one’s ever known about before. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks into that, she finds no formal record of adoption. Now gossip begins to spread about Jodie. Where is the child? If she died, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie becomes a social pariah, it all has a terrible impact on Hannah. As parts of the story are told from her perspective, we see how all of this pressure affects her.

There’s plenty of pressure on young people in Ross Mcdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. Seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman has been sent to Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled young people. When he disappears one day, Dr. Sponti, who runs the school, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. They’re in Sponti’s office discussing the case when Tom’s father Ralph arrives. He says that Tom’s been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding ransom. Archer goes back to the Hillman home to help locate the boy before anything happens to him. Soon enough, he begins to notice some strange things. To begin with, Ralph Hillman and his wife Elaine don’t seem to have the frantic, panicked reaction to their son’s disappearance as you’d think. There are hints, too, that Tom may have gone willingly with the people who took him from the school. Then, there’s a murder. Then, there’s another murder, this time of one of the people with Tom. As Archer gets closer to the truth about what happened to Tom, and about the killings, we see that the pressure on young people doesn’t get any easier when parents and others are in denial about it.

Serena Freeman faces different sorts of pressure in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. At fifteen, she’s got a great deal of academic promise, and her teacher Ilsa Klein has real hopes for her. But it’s not easy for Serena. She comes from ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ and her home life has been difficult. It doesn’t help matters that her mother has the reputation of being somewhat promiscuous. Still, Serena works hard and dreams of a better life. Then, she begins to lose interest in school. She stops attending regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate in class. Now Ilsa is worried about Serena, and alerts the school counseling staff. That doesn’t do much good, as Serena’s mother isn’t co-operative. One day, Serena disappears. For three weeks, not much is done to find her. But when her older sister Lynette ‘Lynnie’ finds out her sister is missing, she is determined to learn what happened. She travels from Wellington, where she lives, to the family’s home in Alexandria to find Serena. Her search leads her in directions she couldn’t have imagined.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions shows, among other things, the intense pressure on young people during the middle school years. Yūko Moriguchi is a middle school teacher who has suffered the worst loss any parent can imagine: the death of her four-year-old daughter Manami. What’s worse, Manami was murdered, and Yūko knows who was responsible: two of her students. She announces her resignation in a speech to her class, making it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She’s well aware that the juvenile justice system can’t be trusted to dispense an appropriate punishment, because the offenders are juveniles. So she has developed her own plan. While she doesn’t spell out her scheme in so many words, her students quickly pick up on her intentions. After her resignation, Yoshiteru Terada takes over as teacher, and superficially, life goes on. But things soon begin to spin out of control, especially for three of the students. As we follow their stories, we learn what happened to Manami and what the plan for retribution really was. More to the point of this post, we get a look at the intense pressure for high grades, the bullying, and the other stresses that many of today’s young people have to face.

It’s never been easy to grow up. And there isn’t enough space in this one post to add in some of the other factors that only make things worse. For instance, there are many, many places where young people don’t get a chance to go to school (or to go for long) because they must get jobs as soon as possible. And there are places where those jobs get young people involved in the commercial sex trade and other extremely stressful work. It is important to learn to handle some pressure, to take responsibility for one’s own actions, and so on. It’s not very healthy to be overprotected. At the same time, research shows that excess pressure and stress can be toxic.

Finding a balance is the tricky part. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. As well as the normal pressures of growing up, all four of her children have had to cope with the stress of losing a parent. And her youngest daughter Taylor faces the added pressure of being a gifted artist whose work is already getting her a lot of attention. Helping these young people bear their burdens without coddling them or taking over is one of the ‘family’ threads woven throughout this series.

Which novels and series have brought this theme home to you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Linkin Park’s Numb.




Filed under Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Ross Macdonald, Wendy James