Category Archives: Wendy James

Can You Picnic?*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 

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

 

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

Girl, I’m On Your Side*

Female MentorsSometimes we all benefit from the guidance of someone who’s more experienced and knowledgeable. Those mentor relationships are often organic, and they benefit both people involved, really. If you’ve ever had a mentor, you know how much of an impact that relationship can have. It’s certainly a part of real life, and there are plenty of crime-fictional examples as well.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode, head of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. In one plot thread, Miss Bulstrode’s been contemplating what will happen when she retires, and she’s deciding who should succeed her. One possibility is Eleanor Vansittart, her ‘second in command.’ Miss Vansittart is devoted to Miss Bulstrode, and makes it quite clear that she intends to run the school in exactly the way Miss Bulstrode does. Another possibility is Eileen Rich, who teaches English Literature and Geography. Miss Rich is quite young for a position of real authority; still, she has a real passion for teaching, and is gifted in the classroom. Miss Bulstrode’s concerns for the future of the school are put aside when games mistress Grace Springer is shot late one night at the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s another murder. And a disappearance. Julia Upjohn, a pupil at the school, makes an important discovery about the events at the school. She visits Hercule Poirot, who is acquainted with her mother’s good friend, and asks his help. Poirot returns with her to the school and investigates. Throughout this novel, we see how Miss Bulstrode acts as a guide and mentor, especially to Eileen Rich.

There’s a similar relationship between Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her informal mentor Hilda McCourt. When we first meet them in Deadly Appearances, Joanne is investigating the poisoning murder of her friend up-and-coming political leader Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. In part to deal with her own sense of grief and loss, Joanne decides to write Andy’s biography, and begins with his youth. That’s how she gets to know Hilda, who taught Andy in high school. Over the course of the next few novels in the series, the two women become friends. Joanne is glad of Hilda’s wisdom and experience, and benefits from using her mentor as a ‘sounding board.’ For her part, Hilda ‘adopts’ Joanne’s family and she too benefits from the relationship.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. The restaurant is named for Lulu’s aunt, who taught her about cooking and about running a restaurant. That mentoring relationship has been very important to Lulu, who is proud to carry on the good traditions she learned from her aunt. Now that Lulu is no longer a young woman, she’s a mentor herself. Her son Ben is married to Sara, a talented artist. In a few novels in this series, Lulu serves as a sort of informal mentor to Sara. And in Hickory Smoked Homicide, she helps clear Sara’s name when she becomes a suspect in the murder of socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. Lulu has a way of supporting Sara without ‘taking over’ or interfering in her daughter-in-law’s life.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer, who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, some poor financial decision-making and bad luck have meant that Thea has to give up that perfect house and settle for the house next door. None too happy about that, Thea calls the smaller house ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea still sees as her own. Thea dislikes then intensely, referring to them as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with the couple. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike Kim as much as she does Frank and Ellice. Instead, she develops an awkward kind of friendship with Kim, and sees real promise in the girl. She even invites Kim to join her in a writing class she’s taking. Thea sees herself as Kim’s mentor and support system, so when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she makes her own plans to do something about it.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: a Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the case of Maggie Heffernan, who was convicted and imprisoned in 1900 for the murder of her infant son, and sentenced to execution. In this account, Maggie meets Jack Hardy when he visits her rural Victoria town to see relatives of his. The two fall in love and secretly become engaged. Then Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack several times; but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she gets work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie lives briefly in a home for unwed mothers, until she learns where Jack is. When she goes to see him, though, he rejects her utterly, calling her ‘crazy.’ Maggie and her infant son are then turned away from six lodging houses; that’s when the tragedy occurs. In the meantime, we also follow the story of Elizabeth Hamilton, who moved to Australia after the death of her fiancé. She soon meets Vida Goldstein, the first woman in the British Commonwealth to seek office as an MP. Vida is a champion of women’s rights and women’s suffrage, and wants to mentor Elizabeth. The two women become interested in the case of Maggie Heffernan, and try to prevent her execution. Throughout this novel, we see several examples of women mentoring and supporting other women; it’s one of the story’s themes.

We also see that in Kishwar Desai’s stories featuring social worker Simran Singh. In Witness the Night, an old university friend asks Simran to travel from Delhi to her home town in the state of Punjab to help in an unusual and appalling case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is suspected of the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members; some were stabbed as well. Later, the house was set on fire. One possible theory is that Durga is responsible for what happened. However, there are signs that she may have been a victim too, and simply managed to escape. The authorities can’t get her to discuss that night though, so there’s no way to really know what happened. That’s where Simran comes in. It’s believed that if she can get Durga to talk about that night, there’ll be a clearer picture of the killings. Simran agrees and begins to interact with Durga. Bit by bit, the two get to know each other and Simran feels a sort of mentor-like protectiveness about the girl. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that she plans to take Durga in once the case gets resolved.

There’s also Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. In that novel, secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein becomes concerned when one of her prize students, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. She stops attending class regularly; and when she is there, she barely takes part in what’s going on. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school’s counselor, but Serena’s family is, to say the least, dysfunctional and not open to help from the outside. Ilsa and her mother Gerda continue to become involved in Serena’s life, and that decision draws them into more than either had imagined.Then Serena disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to the family home in Alexandra to look for the girl. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that mentoring/supporting plays a major role in this novel.

Those often-informal mentoring relationships can make a big difference in how we move along in life. Sometimes they make a bigger difference than more formal things. As I post this, we’re observing International Women’s Day. But really, supporting women is something that we can do all the time, not just on one day. Look behind you: there’s probably a woman (or another woman if you’re female) working her way up in life. Reach back and support her. It’s not a competition; it’s a matter of everyone doing better when each one does better.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thomas Bank and Candy Dulfer’s Girls Should Stick Together (for Nada).

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

Lately All the Missing Pieces Have Been Falling Into Place*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 

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

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

Acting Like a Born Aristocrat*

Casual SnobberyMost of us would probably say we don’t care much for snobbery. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a snub, then you know how alienating that can be. What’s interesting too is that sometimes, the assumptions that underlie snobbery (i.e. I belong to a group that’s inherently better than other groups) is so deeply ingrained that snobs may not even be aware of their own beliefs.

I got to thinking about that kind of snobbery after reading a really interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books. And by the way, if you don’t already follow that excellent blog, I really do recommend it. It’s a fabulous site for daily posts on fictional fashion, culture, and what it all says about us. Snobbery really is woven into a lot of cultures, and it’s certainly a part of crime fiction as well. There are far too many examples for me to list them all in this one post, but here are a few.

Agatha Christie depicts snobbery in several of her novels and stories. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a group of passengers is en route by air from Paris to London. Towards the end of the flight, one of the passengers, Marie Morisot, dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Hercule Poirot, who is on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who is guilty. Among the characters, we find a ‘mixed bag’ of people. Some of them, such as passenger Venetia Kerr, are ‘well born’ and have the assumptions of their class. It’s not that they’re rude or deliberately offensive. But, as one character puts it:
 

‘She walks about as though she owns the earth; she is not conceited about it: she is just an Englishwoman.’
 

There’s also Cicely Horbury, who started as ‘just a chorus girl,’ but has married Lord Stephen Horbury. In her case, she has eagerly taken on the lifestyle of the upper classes, but she doesn’t have those unconscious assumptions. She’s quite a different sort of snob. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile, Lord Edgware Dies, etc.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer gets a new client: Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida, a school for ‘troubled youth.’ Sponti is worried because one of the students, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. Tom’s parents are both wealthy and well-connected, so he’s afraid of what will happen if they find out Tom’s gone. Archer is at the school discussing the case with Sponti when Tom’s father Ralph Hillman bursts in with shocking news. It seems that Tom has been kidnapped and his abductors want ransom money. Archer returns to the Hillman home with Ralph and begins to investigate, in the hopes of finding Tom. It’s soon clear to Archer that this is no ordinary kidnapping case. For one thing, the Hillmans are not nearly as forthcoming about Tom and the family dynamics as you’d expect from a couple desperate to get their son back. For another, it’s quite possible that Tom may know the people who took him, and may in fact be with them willingly. Then, one of the people Tom is with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. As Archer finds out the truth in this case, we see how the Hillmans’ money and power have affected their assumptions about themselves and others. They are snobbish in their way, and that’s how they treat Archer- often without really seeming to be aware of it. What’s more, it’s very important for them to keep up their status in the community.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. One of the clients with whom he works in this novel is prominent attorney Ajay Kasliwal. A few months ago, one of Kasliwal’s household servants, Mary Murmu, disappeared. Now, evidence has come out that suggests Kasliwal raped and killed her. He claims that he’s innocent and has no idea what happened to her. But the police want to prove to the public that they cannot be ‘bought,’ so they’re making an example of Kasliwal. Puri agrees to look into the matter, and he and his team begin to investigate. As they search for the truth, we see how the Kasliwals’ assumptions about themselves and others are woven into what they say and do. On the one hand, Kasilwal is not a cruel, arrogant person. He’s not even particularly unpleasant. But it doesn’t really occur to either him or his wife to communicate with Mary’s family, members of an entirely different social class. And Mary’s life is not really important to either of the Kasliwals: their concern over her has to do with the possible damage to the family’s reputation, not with any concern for her.

We also see that same kind of casual snobbery in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. Much of the action in this novel takes place at Cascade Heights Country Club, an ultra-exclusive community thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Members are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in, and there are several measures in place to keep the ‘outside world’ away. Club members shop and dine in certain places, and it would never occur to them to mix with ‘other kinds of people.’ Tragedy strikes this supposedly safe haven, and things begin to unravel. But even then, we see how people who live in ‘The Heights’ interact with each other and others. At one point, for instance, some of the women who live in the community decide they want to help ‘the less fortunate.’ It would never occur to them to actually get to know any of those people. Instead, they host a charity sale of their used clothes and some accessories. The scenes in which they plan and hold the sale show how unconscious their snobbery is. They really aren’t nasty, cruel people. But they do assume that some people (including them) matter, and some don’t.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney living in Arding, New South Wales. He comes from a well-off ‘blueblood’ family, and it’s always been assumed he’ll do well in life. He has, too: he’s married to an attractive, intelligent wife, Jodie; he has two healthy children; and his career is on the rise. Then everything changes. His daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child Angus didn’t even know about until it comes out now. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks the files, there is no record of a formal adoption. Now the question is: what happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the Garrows’ lives spin more and more out of control, we see how the casual snobbery of people like Angus’ family of origin impacts how they feel about Jodie, and what they think should be done.

ferent sort of snobbery – but just as real – in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, which introduces Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. The body of national model worker Guan Hongying is discovered in the Baili Canal near Shanghai. It’s a politically-charged case, since the victim was somewhat of a celebrity and had several friends among the elite of the Party – the High Cadre. At first, the official theory is that she was raped and murdered by a taxi driver. But other evidence suggests strongly that that’s not what happened. Now Chen and his assistant Yu Guangming have to search elsewhere. Slowly, they trace Guan’s last days and weeks, and find out that way who killed her and why. Throughout this novel, we see clearly how High Cadre people and their families see themselves and others. It’s not that all of them are horrible, cruel people; some are, but some are not. But they do see themselves as entitled, and certainly not in the same class as ‘other people.’

And that’s the thing about that unconscious, casual snobbery. It’s so unconscious that people who have those assumptions may not even be aware of their own skewed thinking. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Herman’s Elegance.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Qiu Xiaolong, Ross Macdonald, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

He’s a Pinball Wizard*

Arcade and Video GamesDo you play video and arcade games? A lot of people do. And arcade (and now video) games have been around for a long time, too – ever since the 1930s. Gamers will tell you that arcade and video games are fun, assist in eye-hand coordination and are great ways to meet other gamers. And with today’s online gaming communities, you can play video games against opponents from all over the world. Or, you can simply try to best your own top score.

Because arcade and video games are so popular, it’s little wonder that crime-fictional characters play them. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. Fans of Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series will know that Hill is a criminal psychologist and profiler who works with police detective Carol Jordan on many of her cases. Hill has plenty of baggage from his past, and his physical health isn’t particularly good. Those things, plus the stresses of his work, can be very difficult to bear. But Hill has an outlet: he enjoys playing video games. They help him de-stress and focus.

And Hill isn’t the only gamer among fictional sleuths. Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle is too. As the series begins, Boyle is a ‘summer cop’ who works with the regular police force of Sea Haven, New Jersey when the tourists come to town. As the series goes on, he becomes a full-time cop himself. Like a lot of seaside towns, Sea Haven has gaming arcades that are very popular with the tourists. But Boyle enjoys them too. Here’s what he says about it in Free Fall:
 

‘The video arcade game Urban Termination II is one of the many ways I hone the cop skill that, not to brag, has made me somewhat legendary amongst the boys in blue up and down the Jersey Shore. I have, shall we say, a special talent.
I can shoot stuff real good.’
 

Boyle will tell you that playing video games is actually a form of professional development.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a building called Insula. One of the shops in that building, Nerds, Inc., is run by Taz, Rat and Gully, whom Chapman refers to as The Lone Gunmen of Nerds, Inc. They are all gaming/computer wizards who deal in hundreds of different video games. They spend more time in front of their computers than they do with live humans, so they are experts in just about any kind of game or computer repair. They don’t exactly have a healthy diet, preferring cheese twists and pizza to anything like a balanced meal. And they don’t come out into daylight unless it’s necessary. Sometimes, Chapman finds them a little difficult to communicate with, since computers are not her specialty. But she does respect their knowledge, and finds them very helpful more than once.

Gaming can be a very social sort of activity, since even online, gamers can compete against each other. And of course in arcades there’s even more interaction. And that interaction is a part of the plot of Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. The real action in the novel begins during the summer of 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan’s parents reluctantly give her permission to spend a few weeks with her cousins Mick and Jane Griffin, and their parents Doug and Barbara. Angela, Mick and some of Mick’s friends spend their share of time at a nearby drugstore, where they play pinball. Angela’s no expert at the game, but the group allows her to join in. One day, Angela plays some pinball with the group as usual, and then says she’s heading back to her aunt and uncle’s house. She never arrives. Not long afterwards her body is discovered strangled. At first, the police concentrate on her friends and family members, but there are no good leads in that direction. Still, they are the most likely suspects. Then, a few months later, there’s another murder. Sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is found strangled in the same way that Angela was. Now the press begins to dub the killer the Sydney Strangler, and an all-out effort is made to catch the murderer. The police aren’t successful though, and the killings go unsolved. Years later, journalist Erin Fury is doing a documentary on families of murder victims and how they’ve been impacted by the tragedies that have happened. As a part of that project, she interviews Jane and her husband, Mick, and their parents. As she does, we learn bit by bit what really happened that summer, and who really killed Angela and Kelly.

Video and arcade games can be dangerous in and of themselves, too, at least in crime fiction. In Lindy Cameron’s Redback, for instance, we are introduced to journalist Scott Dreher, who’s doing a piece of the use of war simulation games to recruit terrorists. He’s on a flight to Japan to meet with legendary game designer Hiroyuki Kaga when he notices a fellow passenger playing a new game called Global WarTek. He gets permission to take a look at the game and soon makes a discovery that links that game to a shadowy group of terrorists. In another plot thread, crack Australian rescue/retrieval team Redback has become aware of a series of disasters, including a hostage situation, a train explosion, three murders and an attack on a US military base. They soon discover that this same terrorist group is behind those tragedies, and work to stop them before there are any more deaths. The key to the group’s goals and identity turns out to be Global WarTek.

See what I mean? Arcade and video games aren’t just fun ways to earn prizes. They’re taken very seriously by a lot of people. Sometimes deadly seriously…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Pinball Wizard. Yes, I know. An obvious choice. You’re welcome.

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Filed under Chris Grabenstein, Kerry Greenwood, Lindy Cameron, Val McDermid, Wendy James