Category Archives: Wendy James

It Should be Easy For a Man Who’s Strong to Say He’s Sorry or Admit When He’s Wrong*

ApologiesBeing human, we all make mistakes at times. And some of those mistakes mean we also have to make apologies. Some apologies (e.g. accidentally bumping into someone) are easy. A quick, ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ and all’s usually well again. But other apologies are harder and take longer. They can be really awkward too. If you’ve ever had to look someone in the eye and tell that person how sorry you are, you know what I mean.

Apologies are an important part of relationships, though, and simply bringing the topic up can clear the air. They may not be the main plot point in crime fiction novels, but they can add some character depth and points of tension. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting Nasse House, Nassecomb, to help with preparations for an upcoming fête. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions. But she suspects something more than a fête may be going on. So she asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot arrives, he gets to know Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, who own Nasse House, as well as some of the locals who are helping to prepare for the big event. Among those helping out are Alec and Peggy Legge, who have taken a cottage nearby for a summer break. In one of this novel’s subplots, the Legges’ marriage is under a great deal of stress, and at one point, Peggy actually leaves. Poirot has guessed the reason for the strain, and advises Alec to go after his wife and patch things up with her. Alec agrees, and although Christie doesn’t tell us how it all works out, it’s clear he thinks that saving his marriage is worth humbling himself.

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters is the first pairing up of DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. In this novel, they’re investigating the sudden death of Meredith Winterbottom, who seems to have committed suicide. Kolla isn’t so sure of that, and Brock gives her the ‘green light’ to look into the matter. And it turns out that there are several reasons that someone might have wanted to kill the victim. For one thing, a developer wants to buy up all the property on Jerusalem Lane, where Meredith lived with her two sisters, and create a new shopping and entertainment district. Meredith was the lone holdout, refusing to take the developer’s offer. What’s more, she and her sisters are descendants of Karl Marx, who lived in that part of London for a time. They have some family books and papers that could be quite valuable. As if that’s not enough, her son stands to inherit the house (and the potential profit from selling it) if his mother dies. And he’s very much in need of money. For the most part, Brock and Kolla have a good working relationship. But there is an important rift between them, and Brock decides to work things out. So he visits Kolla, bearing a peace offering of flowers and a bottle of Scotch. It’s a little awkward for both of them, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say they patch things up.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who seems to have the perfect life. She’s healthy and good-looking, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. All is well until the day her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident, and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about that child, but a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she give the child up for adoption, but when the overzealous nurse checks into that, she finds no formal adoption records. Jodie’s family life begins to crumble when the gossip starts about what might have happened to the baby. And when it all goes very public, Hannah begins to feel the strain of having a mother who’s become a social pariah. We do learn the truth about the baby, and Hannah learns that there is no such thing as ‘black and white’ when it comes to people. When she sees a fuller picture of her mother’s story, she knows that she owes Jodie an apology:
 

‘‘Oh, Mum,’ she’s crying, a year’s worth – a lifetime – of tears. ‘I’m so sorry. It’s been so awful. I’m sorry I’ve been such a cow. I didn’t mean to. I don’t even know why. I’m so sorry. I just want everything to be the way it was.’’
 

Everything isn’t magically wonderful again after Hannah’s apology, but we can see that,
 

‘It’s going to be okay.’
 

That apology is an important part of opening up communication between mother and daughter.

Sometimes, it’s parents who have to say they’re sorry, and that can be just as awkward. In Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead, Garda Ben Devlin and his team are involved in some difficult and painful investigations that take up a lot of his time. In a sub-plot, he’s also facing a bit of trouble with his children, Penny and Shane. Penny is dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of a trauma she suffered. Shane loves his sister, but has to cope with the understandable jealousy (and guilt over that) that he feels about all of the attention Penny’s gotten. As a way of spending some special time with Shane, Devlin offers to take the boy to a film – a ‘just us men’ sort of thing. Shane’s all excited about it, but Devlin gets caught up in a piece of the case he’s working and forgets to take Shane out. He knows he’s really hurt his son, and at a vulnerable time, too, so he makes a special effort to say how sorry he is. At first, Shane’s not having any, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story that by the end of it, Shane forgives his father, even if he’s still not at all pleased about what happened.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s at a bit of a plateau in her career, and would love to find the story that will establish her at the top of her profession. That story comes in the form of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Everyone assumes that Bligh really was guilty, and nothing in the records indicates that the police were anything but conscientious and careful. But little pieces of evidence also suggest that Bligh might be innocent. If he is, this could make for an explosive story. So Thorne pursues it for all she’s worth. She finds out the truth about the case, but it comes at quite a cost. And when all is said and done, she knows she needs to make some apologies:
 

‘I’m sorry. So sorry. I behaved unforgivably.’
 

In the end, we see that life will go on, and Thorne starts over. But the apologies are very hard.

They often are. But they can help heal relationships. They can also be the stuff of rich character development and even story arcs in novels.
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Brian McGilloway, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

And I Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling*

Peaceful MomentsEver had one of those peaceful, calm times when life seems to be going along smoothly? It’s a fact of life that those times don’t last. In a way, that fragility makes them all the more precious, and even poignant. Here’s how Jodie Garrow puts it in Wendy James’ The Mistake:
 

‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’
 

It certainly seems to be. Jodie is married to Angus, a successful attorney. She has two healthy children and a well-off lifestyle. She’s healthy herself, and attractive. That peace is shattered when Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years before to another child. No-one –not even Angus – knows about that other child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie tells the nurse she gave the child up for adoption. But when the over-curious nurse looks for the records, she finds nothing. Now the question is whispered, and then asked quite publicly: what happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s life spins out of control as she becomes a social pariah. In the end, we learn what happened to the baby, and you can’t really say that Jodie’s life is forever ruined. But it’s never going to be the same.

There’s a peaceful moment like that in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, too. Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her brand-new husband Simon. Linnet is both wealthy and beautiful, so with her marriage to Simon, she seems to have it all. There were a couple of nerve-wracking moments when she and Simon encountered her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But things seem to have calmed down, and Linnet is enjoying herself. She and Simon go on a sightseeing visit to a temple, where she has the chance to rest after they’ve finished the tour:
 

‘‘How lovely the sun is,” thought Linnet. ‘How warm how safe… How lovely it is to be happy… How lovely to be me me… me… Linnet. … She was half asleep, half awake, drifting in the midst of thought that was like the sand, drifting and blowing.’
 

Just a moment or two later, a boulder falls, very nearly killing Linnet. It’s frightening to think someone might have been trying to kill her. Things go from bad to worse on the cruise when she is actually murdered. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race work to find out who the killer is.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police detective Dave Robicheaux is taking some time away to heal up after an on-duty shooting that killed his partner and left him wounded. He’s enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, the chance to fish and spend time with his daughter Alafair, and the simple pleasure of sitting on his small dock. Everything changes when he gets a visit from an old acquaintance. Minos Dautrieve is now working with the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a special task force. He wants Robicheaux to help the government bring down New Orleans gangster and drugs dealer Tony Cardo. At first, Robicheaux demurs. But when Dautrieve tempts him with the chance to go after a criminal he’s been wanting to catch, Robicheaux agrees. He soon finds his life getting more and more dangerous as he begins to get close to Cardo.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when University of Vancouver criminologist and academician Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan gets an unexpected chance for a trip to Nice. A colleague who was supposed to deliver a paper at a conference there has been injured and can’t go. So Morgan is tapped to take his place. She’s promised a lovely few days in Nice, with only the paper presentation on her docket. One afternoon, she’s sipping wine at an outdoor café, relaxing and thinking that maybe agreeing to this trip wasn’t so bad. She’s enjoying that peaceful moment when an old acquaintance, Alistair Townsend, passes by and sees her. She’s never liked him, but gets talked into attending a birthday party he’s giving for his wife. When he suddenly collapses and dies at the party, Morgan finds that what was supposed to be a peaceful trip is anything but…

The main action in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing starts peacefully enough for Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. He’s just arrived at his office, and goes through his usual morning routine. It’s a pleasant, if a bit mundane, sort of a morning, fueled with deliciously seasoned Kashmiri tea. Then everything changes. Puri’s secretary Elizabeth Rani brings him the morning paper, which contains terrible news. Dr. Suresh Jha has been killed. Jha was a former client of Puri’s, so the PI certainly takes an interest. It seems that Jha was killed when the goddess Kali appeared and murdered him as punishment for being an unbeliever. Puri is a spiritual enough person, but he doesn’t believe in supernatural solutions to mysteries. So he begins to ask questions. And he finds that this incident isn’t at all what it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. That novel begins as Gurdial Singh goes on his morning rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers who live in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. It’s a peaceful time of day, and Singh enjoys the routine. He’s content with his life, too, and likes where he is, if I can put it that way. Then he gets to the home of radio celebrity Kevin Brace. Singh finds the door a bit open, which is unusual enough. But when Singh knocks at the half-open door and Brace answers it, things turn much worse. Brace says only,
 

‘I killed her, Mr. Singh.’
 

Singh goes inside and discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the condominium’s bathtubs. The police are alerted and begin their investigation. It turns out to be a more complicated case than it seems on the surface, and Singh is drawn into it as an important witness.

Those peaceful, even idyllic moments are probably all the more precious because we know they end. And they can certainly add to the texture of a novel. I’ve given a few examples. Your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Tempchin’s Peaceful, Easy Feeling.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, James Lee Burke, Robert Rotenberg, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

There is a Life About to Start When Tomorrow Comes*

Political MovementsThere’s something about political movements that gets people really passionate. Some, of course, are drawn to the potential power involved. But for a lot of people, it’s the vision of what they see as a better future that drives them.

Political movements have been responsible for a lot of positive social change, such as better working conditions, universal suffrage, and anti-discrimination legislation. They’ve also done much to right long-standing wrongs (forced removal of Native American/First Nations children from their homes to attend government schools being just one example).

But political movements have their dark sides too. For one thing, we don’t all agree on what counts as ‘a better future.’ For another, even when a movement has what we might call a positive purpose (e.g. support for the working class), that doesn’t mean that everyone involved in the cause is noble, or that ugly things don’t happen.

Plenty of crime fiction includes or at least touches on political movements and struggles. They’re well-suited to the genre, I think. Space only permits me a sampling; I know you’ll think of lots more.

Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) introduces us to Howard Raikes. Young and idealistic, Raikes is involved in an activist movement to tear down existing governments and re-build the world. To him, entrenched government officials and those who support them need to be swept away in order for positive change to happen. Raikes is romantically involved with Jane Olivera, niece of powerful banker Alistair Blunt. On most things they agree, although Jane is much less violent in her views and more patient. They both get drawn into a case of murder when Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot in his surgery. One theory of the murder is that someone was trying to get to Blunt, which makes Raikes a natural suspect. Hercule Poirot was also a patient of Morley’s and was at the victim’s office on the morning of the murder. So he works with Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is.

One of the characters we meet in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series is Riel Delorme, a Regina-based Métis activist. When we first encounter him in Kaleidoscope, he’s trying to put together opposition to a new development in the economically depressed North Central section of Regina. Delorme has a troubled past, and plenty of personal demons. But as the saying goes, his heart’s in the right place when it comes to wanting to improve the lot of the people who live in North Central. He and his group believe that the planned development will disenfranchise the residents, increase the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ and concentrate local wealth and power in too few hands. So he’s a very likely suspect when one the development company’s employees is murdered. Shreve and her attorney husband Zack get involved in this case on two levels. First, his law firm is representing the development company. On another level, her daughter Mieka is romantically involved with Delorme. This isn’t a simple case of ‘greedy developer vs crusading protectors of the downtrodden.’ In this novel, the developer is hardly all ‘bad,’ and the activist group isn’t exactly a chorus of angels. It’s an interesting look at how a smaller-level political movement impacts those involved.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is the fictional re-telling of the real-life case of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was convicted of the murder of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie meets and falls in love with Jack Hardy. They become secretly engaged, and Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When Maggie learns that she’s pregnant, she writes to him several times, but gets no answer. Knowing her family will reject her, Maggie moves to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie moves both of them to a home for unwed mothers. Then she learns that Jack has moved to Melbourne. She tracks him down, only to have him reject her utterly. With nowhere to go, Maggie tries to find lodging. She and the baby are turned away from six lodging houses, and that’s when the tragedy occurs. Maggie is arrested, imprisoned, and marked for execution. She finds a champion in Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. Vida is a leader in the movement for women’s suffrage and women’s rights, and that group is happy to have Maggie as a sort of ‘textbook case’ of gender inequity. There’s also an interesting look at the women’s suffrage movement in Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Murder.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders takes a look at another political movement, Australia First. On the surface of it, the movement stands for supporting Australian businesses, protecting the country from subversion by outside forces, and so on. It all sounds quite patriotic. But this novel takes place in 1943, when the country is at war with the Axis powers. There’ve been disturbing links between Australia First and Nazism, so the group died out. But when John Quinn and his son Xavier are found brutally murdered, it becomes clear that the group may be re-forming. If so, Melbourne police Inspector Titus Lambert and his second-in-command Joe Sable have a serious problem. One thread of this novel concerns the way idealism and the hope of a better future can be manipulated in appalling and horrible ways.

Glen Peters’ Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta places readers in 1960’s Calcutta/Kolkata. Joan D’Silva, a teacher at a Catholic school, gets involved in a case of murder when her son discovers the body of a former student Agnes Lal. After the inquest, two other former pupils tell Mrs. D’Silva that the victim was murdered; then they ask her help in finding the killer. Soon afterwards, one of those students is arrested in connection with the stabbing of a factory manager. He claims he’s innocent, and has been forced to confess, and D’Silva begins to look more deeply into the case. That’s when she discovers that all three former students were members of the Workers Revolutionary Movement of Bengal, which is dedicated to overthrowing the current Indian government and stripping high-ranking Anglo-Indians of their power. As Mrs. D’Silva tries to clear her former pupil’s name and solve the murder, readers see how passionate people can be about political movements and righting what they see as society’s wrongs. We also see how that idealism can be used for certain people’s purposes.

There’ve been several novels featuring the IRA and other groups who’ve championed Irish independence and self-determination. Authors such as Brian McGilloway, Bartholomew Gill and Will Thomas, among many others, have looked at the vision those groups have had of a better future for Ireland. As we know, it’s not been as simple as that, and no side of the conflicts in that part of the world has been really innocent.

And that’s the thing about wanting a better future, and agitating for it. It’s messy and complicated; and it sometimes results in conflict and a lot worse. Little wonder such movements are popular contexts for crime novels.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bartholomew Gill, Brian McGilloway, Felicity Young, Gail Bowen, Glen Peters, Robert Gott, Wendy James, Will Thomas

I Betcha You Would Have Done the Same*

What Would I DoPart of the appeal of some crime novels is that they invite the reader to do some deeper thinking. For instance, I’d guess that we all want to think we’d do the right thing in a given situation. But what, exactly, is the right thing? It’s not always clear. Books that address those more difficult questions invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I have done in the same situation?’

There are certainly plenty of crime novels that raise that question. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed during a trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works with M. Bouc, a director of the train company, and with fellow passenger Dr. Constantine, to find out who the killer is. The solution leaves Poirot, Bouc, and Constantine with a decision, and it’s interesting to ask what we might have done in the same situation.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood has received an extortion letter from book dealer Arthur Geiger. The letter makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and of course, Sternwood wants Geiger to leave the family alone. So he hires PI Philip Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. By the time Marlowe tracks the man down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood is in the same room, and was a witness to everything. But she’s either drugged or has had a mental breakdown, and isn’t able to be of help. Now Marlowe faces a decision: does he simply call the police, thereby putting Carmen at risk? Or does he help her escape, thereby possibly protecting someone involved in the murder? His decision to help Carmen gets him in far deeper than he’d planned…

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the real-life case of Maggie Heffernan. In 1900, she was imprisoned for the killing of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie is raised in rural Victoria, where she meets Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney for a visit with relatives. The two start seeing each other and become secretly engaged. Then, Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to Jack several times to let him know, but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie heads to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. The baby is duly born and for a short time, he and Maggie live in a home for unwed mothers. Then she discovers that Jack is also in the Melbourne area. When she finally finds him, though, he rejects her utterly, even calling her ‘crazy.’ With nowhere else to go, Maggie tries to get lodgings for herself and her son, but is turned away from six different places. That’s when the tragedy occurs. The novel invites the reader to ask, ‘What would I have done?’ in several places.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill does the same thing. Ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped by Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. There’s a sense of shock and outrage, and a great deal of sympathy for the Hailey family in the small Mississippi town where they live. Tonya’s father Carl Lee Hailey is determined that Cobb and Willard won’t get away with their crime. From his perspective, it’s not a given that they’ll be convicted, since they are White and he and his family are Black. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courtroom. Attorney Jake Brigance defends Hailey, and he’s up against considerable odds. Woven throughout this novel is the question of what any of us might do under the same circumstances.

Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos features a woman who’s recently been released from prison. Her only real companion is her Pit Bull Sully. At first, things aren’t too bad as she gets used to living in ‘the real world’ again. Then, a mother who uses the nearby day care facility lodges a complaint with the local council because Sully is a restricted breed. Forced to give Sully up, his owner plots her own kind of response. As the story goes on, we learn why she was in prison in the first place. It’s certainly not a straightforward case, and it leaves the reader wondering, ‘What might I have done?’

That’s also true in Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X. When Shinji Togashi is murdered, his ex-wife Yasuko Hanaoka comes under suspicion. But Detective Shunpei Kasanagi can’t find clear evidence against her. He gets help from Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa, who soon learns that he’s up against a formidable opponent. Mathematics teacher Tetsuya Ishigami lives in the same building as Hanaoka does; in fact, he’s fallen in love with her. He’ll do anything to protect her, and he’s smart and skilled. In this novel, there are several places where the question comes up of what any of us might do if we were in the same situation as Hanaoka and Ishigami.

One of the clearest examples of the ‘What might I do?’ sort of novel (at least for my money) is Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone. When four-year-old Amanda McCready goes missing, the police launch a massive effort to find her. They aren’t successful though; and the more time that goes by, the less chance there is that Amanda will be found alive. So her uncle and aunt, Lionel and Beatrice McCready, hire PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to find the girl. At first the two are reluctant to take the case. For one thing, they’re still recovering from their last case. For another, they don’t see what they can do that dozens of Boston-area police can’t do. But they are finally persuaded to at least ask some questions. They begin their search for Amanda and soon find that there are several possibilities. In the end, Kenzie and Gennario find out the truth about the child. But this isn’t a simple instance of, ‘PIs find out what happened to little girl.’ It raises a very challenging set of questions.

And that’s the thing about novels that invite the reader to ask, ‘What would I do?’ The best ones tell a well-written, cohesive story. But they also raise issues that make us wonder how we might act in a similar situation. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Cell Block Tango.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Dennis Lehane, John Grisham, Keigo Higashino, Raymond Chandler, 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, Joan Lindsay, Martin Walker, Wendy James