Category Archives: Wendy James

We Love to Cut You Down to Size*

Tallest PoppyAgatha Christie’s Death on the Nile begins with a conversation between Mr. Burnaby, landlord of the Three Crowns, and a friend of his. They’re talking about wealthy and beautiful Linnet Doyle, who’s just bought nearby Wode Hall. At the end of the conversation, Mr. Burnaby’s friend says,
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‘Got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair…’
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And she does. Linnet is intelligent, stunning-looking, and one of the richest young women in England. Those ‘pluses’ don’t save her, though, when she’s shot on the second night of her honeymoon cruise of the Nile. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race, who is also aboard, look among the various other passengers and crew members to see who would have had a motive for murder. Among other things, one of the elements we see more than once in this novel is a sense of resentment because Linnet ‘has it all.’ She’s smart in business, attractive, and very well-off. This makes more than one person speculate on how unfair it is; you can even call it an example of the ‘tallest poppy’ syndrome, the urge to cut down those who do well.

We see that element in a lot of other crime fiction, too. For example, in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau investigates when the body of an unknown woman is found in a canal. The victim turns out to be Guang Hongying, a national model worker and, therefore, somewhat of a celebrity. Ironically, she’s become a celebrity because she’s not a ‘tall poppy.’ She works as many extra shifts as needed, she lives as humbly as any other worker does, and so on. In the 1990s Shanghai culture in which this novel takes place, there’s a great deal of social pressure not to stand out or have a lot of personal possessions or wealth. Those outward signs of success aren’t really welcome. And there’s a lot of private resentment against the members of the High Cadre – the top members of the Party – and their families, in part because they have a lot of success. We see that again in Enigma of China, in which Chen and his team investigate a supposed suicide. It turns out that the victim was under investigation for corruption, and part of the evidence against him comes from photographs of the outward signs of his success.

In Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod returns to his family home on the Isle of Lewis. He’s been seconded there after the discovery of the body of Angel Macritchie, whose death bears a striking resemblance to a murder MacLeod is investigating in Edinburgh. It’s thought that this second murder might have been committed by the same person. MacLeod grew up with the people of Lewis; in their eyes, he’s a local ‘made good.’ And that, for some, is a problem. Here, for instance, is what his old friend Artair says:
 

‘And you’d…escaped…the island, everything. And here was me, stuck looking after a mother who needed to be fed through a straw…’
 

Artair has a lot of resentment against his old friend, and part of the reason for that is that MacLeod’s ‘made good.’

Tarquin Hall’s The Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi private investigator VIshwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Most of his business comes from ‘vetting’ prospective spouses for their future families-in-law; but one day, he gets another sort of client. Successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal has been accused of the rape and murder of a household servant, Mary Murmu. She disappeared a few months earlier, and no trace of her has been found. There’s reason to suspect Kasliwal, and the police are under pressure to make an example of him, so as to show that they do not toady to the rich and well-placed. Kasliwal claims that he is innocent, and hires Puri to find out the truth about his missing servant. This Puri agrees to do, although he’s not exactly drawn to this client. As news of the case gets out, there are many people who are pleased to see Kasliwal in a lot of trouble, and part of the reason is that he’s wealthy and successful. They’re only too happy to see him ‘brought down to size.’ So, among other things, Puri has to go up against this popular dislike as he searches for the truth.

We see that sort of resentment in Wendy James’ The Mistake, too. Jodie Evans Garrow has what seems to be an idyllic life. Although she was raised on the proverbial wrong side of town, she’s done well for herself. She’s married to a successful attorney, and is the mother of two healthy children who have solid futures. She herself is smart and attractive, too. Everything begins to fall apart when it’s discovered that years earlier, she gave birth to another child – a child even her husband didn’t know existed. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but there are no formal records of that. Now, the questions begin, and before long, people begin to suspect openly that Jodie might have had something to do with her baby’s disappearance. Soon, she becomes a social pariah. It’s all made even worse by the fact that Jodie’s mother Jeannie very publicly sides against her. Here’s what she says in one letter to an editor:
 

‘She is a social climber who couldn’t wait to get away from her background and who has always been ashamed of her parents and her family.’ 
 

Now that Jodie’s found some success, her mother is very quick to try to cut her down, and her comments become quite popular in the media and in the public’s opinion.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of that ‘tallest poppy’ syndrome. Many people do feel resentful when someone of their group ‘makes good,’ shows skill, or has real success. Whether it’s jealousy or something else, it can bring out the almost irresistible urge to cut that person down. It may not be the most appealing of human traits, but it does make for solid conflict and tension in a novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s Dirty Laundry.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Peter May, Qiu Xiaolong, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

And You Could Hear a Pin Drop*

Pin Drop MomentsI’m sure you’ve had it happen. You’re sitting with a group of people, perhaps at dinner, or perhaps at a business meeting. All of a sudden, someone says something that’s at best awkward. It’s the kind of moment where everyone takes a sudden interest in the food, or meeting notes, or something – anything – else besides the comment just made. One of those moments where, it’s said, you can hear a pin drop. Those moments can be challenging if you’re the host or if you’re the one facilitating the meeting. In fiction, though, they can add some real tension, even conflict, to a story. And they can show important information or layers of character.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), the Cloade family is shocked when the wealthy family patriarch, Gordon Cloade, marries. His new bride, Rosaleen, was a widow Cloade met on a ship, and the romance was what people used to call whirlwind. As if that’s not enough, Cloade is tragically killed by an enemy bomb (the novel takes place just after World War II) shortly after his wedding. He’d always promised his family he would take care of them financially, but as it happens, he’s died intestate. So Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Against this backdrop of financial discomfort, Katherine ‘Aunt Kathie’ Cloade invites everyone to dinner at her home. The various members of the Cloade family attend, as do Rosaleen and her brother, David Hunter. It’s soon clear how Hunter feels about the Cloades. While everyone is greeting each other and being polite, one of the Cloades asks Rosaleen how she likes Furrowbank, the Cloade family home. Here’s what Hunter says:
 

‘’Poor old Gordon did himself well,’ he said. ‘No expense spared.’’
 

That moment passes, and everyone goes into the dining room to eat. A little later, Hunter is talking with Cloade’s niece Lynn Marchmont:
 

‘‘With all the ill will in the world you and your family can’t do much about Rosaleen and myself, can you?’’
 

Lynn herself takes the comment in stride, but it certainly does nothing to lighten the dinner conversation. I see you, fans of After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal)!

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is as shaken as the rest of her colleagues are when Reed Gallagher, head of the Department of Journalism, is found dead. As if that’s not enough, she’s concerned about one of her students, Kellee Savage. Kellee is emotionally very fragile, and now she’s been making accusations of inappropriate conduct against a fellow student. Then, Kellee disappears. The last time anyone saw her was during an evening at a bar called the Owl. And as it turns out, that was a very awkward evening. As another student tells the story, several of them, including Kellee, were in the bar. Then, the student Kellee had been accusing walked in, and Kellee had an outburst. It was uncomfortable for everyone, and it’s only been made worse by the fact that someone found out Kellee had tape recorded the group’s conversation without anyone knowing. The tape recording doesn’t solve the mystery of Reed Gallagher’s death or Kellee’s disappearance (they are connected). But it does give Joanne Kilbourn an interesting perspective on her students’ opinions of her.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to Jodie Evans Garrow. From the outside, it seems as though she has the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she has two healthy children, and she herself is healthy, attractive, and well-regarded. Then her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years before, Jodie gave birth to another child. No-one knows about the child, not even Jodie’s husband. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal records. Now questions begin to arise, first privately and then quite publicly. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she is dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Soon, Jodie becomes a social pariah. So she’s grateful when one night, she’s invited to a meeting of a local book club. The meeting starts out well enough, but then, one of the members of the club makes it clear that Jodie’s been invited because of her notoriety. They want her ‘expertise’ as they discuss a book about then famous Lindy Chamberlain case.
 

‘The room is silent. All Jodie can hear is her own harsh and ragged breathing.’
 

Jodie quickly makes her escape from the meeting, feeling more like a specimen in a jar than a human being.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse is the first of a trilogy featuring Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. In that novel, he’s seconded from Edinburgh, where he’s a police officer, to his home on the Isle of Lewis. A murder there bears a strong resemblance to a murder Macleod is investigating, and it’s hoped that he can get closer to finding the killer if he works with the local Lewis police. Lewis is a small place, so Macleod knows just about everyone, including the victim, Angel Macritchie. So one element in the novel is the network of past and present relationships on the island. In fact, Macleod meets up again with his old flame, Marsaili, who’s married another old friend, Artair Macinnes. One night, Artair insists on Macleod staying for dinner with him and Marsaili. It’s all very awkward, as you can imagine, but at first everyone tries to be polite. Then, Macinnes insists that Macleod stay overnight. That adds to the awkwardness, which gets worse after Marsaili leaves to get the spare room ready. Then, her husband says:
 

‘‘You know, I’d never have f-ing married her if it hadn’t been for you.’’
 

That comment in and of itself is uncomfortable enough. But it’s followed by even more vitriol, until finally,
 

‘Fin was shocked. He had no idea what to say. So he just sat, clutching his watered-down whisky, feeling the glass warm in his hands, watching the peat embers dying in the hearth. The air in the room seemed suddenly to have chilled…’
 

It’s certainly not an easy exchange between two old friends.

And then there’s Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice, Quiet Holiday. Justice Harish Shinde and his law clerk Anant travel from Delhi to Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. They’ve been invited for a stay with Shinde’s old friend Shikhar Pant. Pant has other houseguests, too, including another old friend Pravin Anand, and Anand’s son Avinash. Also invited are Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who own a controversial NGO. It’s raised people’s hackles, so to speak, because one of the Mittals’ goals is to educate people in the rural parts of India about AIDS. Many people think that’s obscene as it is; others take it as personally offensive. Pant’s guests include people on both sides of this issue, so as you can guess, it all gets a bit awkward. Still, people do try to observe the social niceties. Then, the news comes of a protest against a pamphlet that the Mittals have published. That sets Aviansh Anand off, and he rails against the ‘filthy language and filthy pictures’ in the pamphlet. His father asks him to calm down, which he does at first. Everyone goes in to lunch and things are a bit less charged. But then the discussion starts up again, with Avinash speaking up strongly about his feelings. That makes everything difficult, and it’s made no easier when there’s a murder among the group…

There are a lot of other ‘pin drop’ awkward moments in crime fiction; one post couldn’t possibly do justice to them all. They serve some useful purposes, too. They can add character layers, suspense, and motivation.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ben Folds’ Tom and Mary.

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Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Peter May, Wendy James

Mama, Just Killed a Man*

FamousCasesThere are certain criminal cases that capture people’s imagination, even years later. Sometimes they inspire crime fiction; but even when they don’t, they have a hold on our consciousness in some ways.

I’m not talking here of those rare cases of psychopaths who kill. Those stories may get the headlines for a while, but as a rule (with a few exceptions, of course), they don’t quite hold the public consciousness in ways that certain other cases do.

Not having a background in psychology, I don’t have the exact, definitive explanation for why certain cases get our attention. But if you read enough crime fiction, you see that they’ve certainly made their way into the genre.

Some cases, I think, hold our imagination because they’ve never really, conclusively been solved. The Whitechapel Murders – the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ – killings in London at the end of the 19th Century serves (at least to me) as one example of this kind of case. There’ve been many, many attempts to learn who ‘Jack the Raipper’ really was, and several different theories.  But to my knowledge, no-one has yet posited a theory about the case that everyone agrees is probably the truth. As far as I know, there’s never been a credible confession.

This sort of case invites people to speculate about what really happened, which is part of why there’ve been so many fictional stories inspired by this case. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is said to have been inspired by the Whitechapel Murders case. And it’s not the only one, by any means.

Another case that remained open for a long time was the case of Azaria Chamberlain, who died as an infant in 1980. Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, claimed that she was killed by a dingo, but there was also evidence that implicated them. They were convicted and went to prison, but later evidence supported them; and they were eventually released and compensated. Yet there was debate for quite a long time about this case. Recent DNA evidence has shown, to the satisfaction of many people (including the Northern Territories coroner) that Azaria did die as a result of a dingo attack. Still, there are those who aren’t satisfied. It’s exactly the sort of case that people speculate about because it isn’t conclusive – at least at first. Little wonder it’s shown up in books such as Wendy James’ The Mistake, which concerns the case of Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s the wife of a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children; in short, she’s living a life many would envy. But then comes the shocking news that she had a child years earlier – a baby not even her husband knew existed. She claims the baby was given up for adoption, but there are no formal records to support what she says. That’s when the questions begin, and soon enough, talk begins that she might have had something to do with the child’s disappearance. There are several people who compare Jodie to Lindy Chamberlain.

Some cases fascinate people not because they are unsolved, but because they are unusual, or shocking (at least for the times). Here, there is sometimes ‘shock value,’ but there’s also the larger question: What would make someone do that? For instance, in 1928, Ruth Snyder was execute for the murder of her husband. Her partner in crime was her lover, corset salesman Judd Gray. This case got a lot of publicity in part because her execution was caught on camera, and a photograph like that gets people’s attention. But the question of what, exactly, would have driven Gray to participate in a crime like this is also interesting. James M. Cain speculated on just that sort of question in Double Indemnity, which is loosely based on the Snyder case. There, too, we have a woman who decides to kill her husband and takes out a double-indemnity insurance policy on his life. While other details aren’t the same, the novella explores that question of what makes people behave as they do.

We also see this in the 1931-33 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, a Phoenix medical secretary who was found guilty of killing two of her friends, allegedly over the affections of Jack Halloran. The case has been referred to as ‘the Trunk Murders case’ because the bodies of the victims were discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders. The case raised several questions. What would make someone commit murders like this? Could love be such an obsession? What would these people be like? These questions are addressed in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is based on this case. In the novel, she explores the relationships among the people involved, and shows how the whole thing might have come about.

And then there’s the case of James Bulger. He was killed in February, 1993, at the age of two by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were both ten years old at the time. There was, of course, great public sympathy for the victim’s family and shock that he was so young. Just as shocking was the youth of his killers. There were many questions raised about how to deal with offenders who are this young. On the one hand, the two boys committed a horrendous crime. On the other hand, they were children. Most justice systems aren’t set up for such young offenders who are guilty of such horrific crimes.

Along with this set of questions is another set of questions about what would drive boys of this age to commit such a crime. And are children really capable of the kind of premeditation that adults are? Ruth Dugdall’s Humber Boy B addresses this sort of question. It’s not, per se, based on the James Bulger case. But it takes up the topic of juvenile criminals, and brings up the kinds of challenges that those who work with them face.

And that’s the thing about some famous cases. They capture our imagination, even decades or more afterwards, because they raise these difficult questions. Or they’re unsolved. Or they are of real psychological interest. There are also cases (which I’ve not had space to bring up here) that raise really important legal questions. All of these things can keep people interested in a case for a very long time.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Megan Abbott, Ruth Dugdall, Wendy James

I Think of Childhood Friends and the Dreams We Had*

Changes OVer LifeIf you think back to the time when you were in your teens and early twenties, there’s a good chance you’re not living the life you imagined for yourself at that time. Most of us don’t. There are all kinds of reasons for that, too. Young people tend to be idealistic, and don’t always know how life can get in the way of, well, life. And there are unexpected good things that happen, too – things that young people don’t plan on happening. People mature and evolve, too; as we get to know ourselves better, we adjust our life’s course. So perhaps it’s not always a bad thing that we aren’t the people we might have thought we would be.

The way people change over time can be really interesting in real life. It is in crime fiction, too. That element can add a layer of character development, and it can add a solid plot point.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), for instance, Hercule Poirot is hired to find the killer of famous painter Amyas Crale. The case is complicated by the fact that the murder happened sixteen years earlier. It’s made even more difficult because Crale’s wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the case. She died a year later in prison, so she can no longer be of assistance in the case. Even at the time, she didn’t do much in the way of defending herself, so everyone has always thought she was guilty. But her daughter Carla doesn’t. So Poirot interviews the five people who were there at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each one about the events of that day. From that information, he’s able to determine who the killer was. This novel includes a ‘big reveal’ scene in which all of the suspects are gathered together. Most haven’t seen each other since the time of the murder, and it’s very interesting as we learn how much they have and haven’t changed since their younger days.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of Jodie Evans Garrow. She has a good life with her successful husband Angus and two healthy children. She is content with the way things have turned out for her, until her past comes back to haunt her. Jodie’s daughter Hannah is injured and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie herself gave birth years ago to another child. She’s never told anyone about the child, not even her husband. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overcurious nurse can’t find any official adoption records. Now questions begin to come up, first privately, then quite publicly. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As more and more gossip spreads around, Jodie becomes a social pariah. In the midst of all this, she has an unexpected reunion with a friend from childhood, Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan. The two were inseparable until Bridie moved away, and Jodie hadn’t seen her for years. Now Bridie comes back into her life, and there’s an interesting plot thread that shows the reader how different they are to what they thought they might be.

In Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is spending some time in Saskatoon, where her two oldest children are at school. There, she reunites with an old friend from childhood, Sally Love. They’ve been estranged since they were thirteen, when Sally’s father died and Sally went away to art school. Now Sally has become a renowned, if controversial, artist, and she’s having an exhibition at the Mendel Gallery. So Joanne decides to attend, and perhaps try to renew their friendship. The two do re-establish contact, and we see how life has worked out quite differently for them than they thought, despite Sally’s focus on her art. Then, gallery owner Clea Poole is murdered, and Sally becomes a likely suspect. It’s a difficult and very sad case with a lot of personal connections for Joanne.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse begins when Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help in a murder investigation. The victim is Angel Macritchie, and his murder closely resembles a murder that MacLeod is working on, so there’s a good possibility the two murders were committed by the same person. Macleod was born and raised on Lewis, so for him, this is a homecoming, albeit not one he relishes. He hasn’t seen anyone he knew as a child since he left for university, and that was how he wanted it. But now he has to renew his acquaintance with a lot of old friends, and people who weren’t friends. One important plot thread in this novel is the relationships among those people, both then and now. And it’s interesting to see how their lives have turned out, as compared to how everyone thought things might be.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingo, New Iberia, Louisiana, police officer Dave Robicheaux is working on building up a case against New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. In the course of this investigation, he happens to meet up again with an old flame, Bootsie Mouton Giacano. The two of them were lovers as teens, but their relationship ended when Robicheaux went to Vietnam. As they get to know each other again, we see how different their lives are to what they thought their future might be. As fans will know, they discover they still have feelings for each other, and Bootsie becomes Robicheaux’s wife in a series story arc.

It’s always interesting to think back on what we thought we might become, and what we actually have become. And it adds some interesting layers to stories, too. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke, Peter May, 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.

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