Category Archives: Y.A. Erskine

Obeys All the Rules*

Unwritten RulesEach social group has its own ‘code of conduct.’ The rules may not be written anywhere, or even clearly articulated, but they’re there. If one’s going to belong to a given group, or have anything to do with anyone in that group, one has to follow those rules. And depending on the group, there can be severe consequences for anyone who doesn’t.

When those rules are woven into the plot of a crime novel, the result can be an interesting layer of tension. There are also lots of possible directions the story can take (e.g. a broken rule as the motive for murder). So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see those rules a lot in the genre.

One of the deep-seated traditions among the police is the rule of staying loyal to fellow cops. And that makes sense at one level. Police have to work together and trust each other implicitly if they’re to do their job well. Speaking out against another officer is therefore often seen as disloyal or worse. There are several novels that include that plot point. One is Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police goes to the scene of a home invasion with probationer Lucy Howard. While they’re there, White is stabbed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for a long time. The police have to do everything ‘by the book’ in this case; since Rowley is part Aboriginal, the media will be watching closely for anything that may smack of racism. As the novel evolves, we see how the death of one of their own impacts the force. It permeates everything the police characters do.

We also see this rule against speaking out in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth after an absence when he learns that a friend, Ruby Devine, has been killed. The police theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but there’s no real evidence. Swann believes there’s another explanation: a corrupt group of police known as ‘the purple circle.’ They’re powerful and dangerous enough that no-one has spoken out about them; and their fellow cops obey the ‘loyalty’ rule. Swann has made the dangerous choice to convene a Royal Commission hearing into their activities, so he’s a ‘dead man walking.’ But he is determined to find out who killed Ruby. Throughout the novel, we see how deeply-engrained this rule is, and what the consequences are for breaking it.

In the LGBT community, one of the long-held rules is that you don’t ‘out’ anyone. Coming out is an intensely personal and sometimes very difficult decision, not to be made by anyone else. That rule is touched on in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. He’s been publicly married for several years, but has also had trysts with other men. Someone has apparently found out about those relationships and is threatening to ‘go public.’ One of Quant’s first reactions is that Guest could settle matters in a straightforward way by coming out. But Guest doesn’t want to do that, and Quant respects those wishes. Perhaps a small part of the reason is the fee; the most important reason, though, is that Quant abides by the ‘no outing’ rule. It’s too important not to, and the loss of trust that results from breaking it has serious consequences.

The Mob and other criminal groups have their own rules, like any other social group. Perhaps the most important one is that you don’t discuss the group’s activities with anyone, especially not with law enforcement. Informing on the group usually carries a death sentence. That rule is brought up in a lot of novels; one of them is Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their children have recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. There are a lot of adjustments to be made in order to adapt to the new culture, but everyone makes an effort. They have to. As we soon learn, this is no ordinary family. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. He informed on the group, so he and his family were placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. At first, it seems that the move to Normandy will be successful. Then, word of the family’s location gets back to New Jersey. Now, the ‘Blakes’ have to face the fact that their lives are in imminent danger.

In many social groups, there’s a rule against marrying or even having strong social bonds outside one’s caste. It’s expected that the different socioeconomic strata will stay separated and people will keep to their places. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. In that novel, we meet Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury. She’s found a patron in wealthy Laura Welman, whose family owns the property. In fact, Mary’s been educated ‘above her station,’ and there are plenty of people who question the wisdom of that. When she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison, local GP Dr. Peter Lord asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, whose fiancé Roddy Welman had fallen in love with Mary. But Lord wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. In the process, he gets to know the local opinion of Mary and of Laura Welman. With few exceptions, it’s believed that it was a mistake to try to move Mary out of her station in life. Here’s what her admirer Ted Bigland says about it:

‘Mean well, people do, but they shouldn’t muck up people’s lives by interfering.’

Mary also comes in for criticism for ‘going after’ Roddy Welman, who is in a very different social group.

There are a lot of variants on that rule about relationships with people in other groups. Malla Nunn explores the issue of relationships among members of different racial groups in South Africa in her Emmanuel Cooper series. And it’s referred to much earlier than that, too, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face.  Many other novels also address the social rule against mixing of castes/races/ethnic groups.

In many social groups, there’s also a rule that you don’t turn your back on family, no matter what. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are countless novels where people feel compelled to do things (or overlook things) because someone is a sibling/parent/child/cousin/ etc… And in some cultures, that family bond is more important than anything else. For instance, in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we meet ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns his relationship with former bar girl Rose, who’s started her own apartment-cleaning business. The third member of Rafferty’s family is Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is trying to adopt. Rose is Thai, with that culture’s view about family. At one point, they’re discussing getting married, and Rose wants to make sure Rafferty is clear about what he’d be getting. Here’s how she puts it to Rafferty:

‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’

On the one hand, matters would be entirely different if Rose and Rafferty get married. On the other, she wants him to know that in marrying her, he’s marrying her family, as the saying goes.

Those rules by which different social groups live are different for each group. They’re not always codified, but everyone in the group learns them. And they can make for compelling plot points and layers of interest.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Depeche Mode’s Shouldn’t Have Done That.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Whish-Wilson, Malla Nunn, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine

Tough Kids, What Can I Do?*

Juvenile CrimeOne of the hardest challenges for law enforcement, social service and other professionals to face is working with young suspects and young people who are actually guilty of crimes. On the one hand, a crime is a crime regardless of the age of the culprit. On the other, there are real psychological and other differences between younger people and adults. What’s more, there are many people who argue that if you don’t give juvenile criminals genuine opportunities to make lives for themselves (as opposed, let’s say, to putting them in prison, especially with adults), you create repeat offenders who will probably be criminals for the rest of their lives.

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I don’t claim to have the solution. But young people’s involvement in crime is an important social reality, and so naturally, it comes up in crime fiction too. Space permits me only a few examples, but hopefully they’ll suffice.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With her are her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her stepdaughter Linda. Shortly after they arrive, Arlena begins a not-very-well-hidden affair with a fellow guest Patrick Redfern. One day she’s strangled and her body is discovered on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel and works with the police to find out who the murderer is. One of the people they interview is sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She disliked her stepmother intensely and as it turns out, doesn’t have a real alibi for the time. So she is a very real suspect for this crime. It’s interesting to note how the police (and Poirot) view her in light of her age. Saying a lot more would give away spoilers, but it’s an interesting treatment of a young suspect.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we meet Trevor Sharp, an Eastvale, Yorkshire teenager who’s having trouble fitting in at school and getting along. To his father’s dismay, he takes up with Mick Webster, who’s been in and out of trouble for a very long time. Although Trevor’s father warns him to stay away from Mick, Trevor doesn’t listen. He and Mick start getting involved in several ‘adventures’ that get them into real trouble. DCI Alan Banks encounters them in the course of a few cases he’s investigating: a voyeur who’s making the lives of the local women miserable; a series of home invasions; and a murder. As Banks and his team slowly follow the threads of these cases, we see how what starts as an adventure, a rebellious act, or an ‘I want to make my mark’ act can spiral out of control.

Kate Morgenroth’s Jude tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy’s who’s been living with his drug-dealer father. Jude is a witness when one day, someone shoots his father. So he’s taken away for his own safety. Later he goes to live with his mother, who’s the local District Attorney. Jude is placed in an exclusive private school. He remains under suspicion for his father’s murder, but the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. He knows more than he’s telling, too, but his life depends on his not saying anything. Then one day his new friend Nick dies of a heroin overdose and Jude is implicated. He’s not guilty, but he’s persuaded to plead guilty so as to shore up his mother’s campaign for re-election on an anti-drugs platform. Jude is promised that as soon as the election is over, his name will be cleared. Instead, he’s tried as an adult and convicted. Then, a school friend David Marshall, who’s now a reporter, gets wind of the story. Together he and Jude work to find out the truth about Nick’s death – and about Jude’s own past.

There’s also William Landay’s Defending Jacob. In that novel, fourteen-year-old Ben Rifkin is stabbed to death. Before long, his schoolmate Jacob Barber is suspected and in fact arrested. At first, his father, Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber, doesn’t believe his son had anything to do with the crime. But little by little, pieces of evidence begin to suggest that things are not what they seem. Is Jacob guilty of the crime? If so, what led to it? If not, who’s trying to frame him and why? This novel takes a look at juvenile crime from the legal and the personal perspective.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is in prison for a horrific crime. One night, thirteen members of her family were poisoned, and some stabbed as well. Then the house was set on fire. Only Durga survived, and the evidence suggests she may have been a victim as well, as she was tied up and possibly raped. But the police can’t get very far on the case because Durga hasn’t spoken about that night. The Inspector General for the State of Punjab knows that this is an extremely delicate case. Durga is not an adult, so she can’t really be treated as one. And yet, she obviously knows more than she is saying. So he asks an old friend, social worker Simran Singh, to come to the village of Jullundur to interview Durga, work with her and perhaps get her to open up. Simran agrees and makes the trip from Delhi, where she lives. As Simran slowly gets to know Durga, we see that applying the ‘usual rules’ to certain juvenile cases can do more harm than good. We also see that this is definitely not a case of a teenager who ‘just snapped.’

In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him goes probationer Lucy Howard, who’s hoping to get some experience. Tragically, White is stabbed to death at the scene of the crime. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the juvenile justice system for a long time. Since one of their own has been killed, the police are determined to catch the killer. But they know that to do that, they’ll have to ‘play by the rules’ no matter how much they’d rather not. It complicates matters too that Rowley is part Aboriginal, so the media will be very alert to any perceived discrimination. In this novel, there are some really interesting discussions of the protection provided by the juvenile justice system. There are also interesting questions raised about what kinds of crime young people commit, and at what point one considers them adults.

It’s challenging enough to decide what the best way is to deal with criminals. It’s even harder when alleged or actual criminals are (at least legally) children. I honestly don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know if there is just one answer. But it is a very real issue in real life, and it’s raised in crime fiction too. Which novels that deal with this issue have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pete Townhend’s Rough Boys.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Kate Morgenroth, Kishwar Desai, Peter Robinson, William Landay, Y.A. Erskine

The Underlying Theme*

ThemesofBooksMost of us read crime novels for the stories. Plots, characters, settings and so on draw us in when they’re done well, and they keep us interested. But if you look a little deeper, you can also often see some larger themes in crime novels. A novel’s theme may not be the reason you choose to read it, or even the reason you richly enjoy it (or don’t!), but a theme can add to a novel and give the reader something to think about when the novel is finished. And it’s surprising how many crime novels and series address larger themes without losing focus on the stories themselves.

For example, the theme of justice is explored in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is on his way across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, he’s stabbed. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same coach. Since Hercule Poirot is among that group, he’s asked to investigate and see if he can find the killer before the train gets to the next international border. The idea is that if he can present the solution to the police, there’ll be less trouble and delay. Poirot agrees and interviews all of the passengers. He also finds out what he can about their backgrounds. In the end, we find that this killing has its roots in a past event. Throughout this novel, questions of justice, what constitutes justice and how we serve justice are raised. It’s really a very important theme here.

Of course, justice is a theme in a lot of other crime fiction too. So is family.  Gail Bowen explores that theme quite often. Her sleuth is Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, an academic and political scientist who has her own family. Several story arcs and sub-plots involve her family members. But Bowen explores family in other ways too. For instance, in The Nesting Dolls, an unknown young woman gives a baby to a friend of Joanne’s daughter Taylor. With the baby is a note identifying the mother as Abby Michaels. Abby makes it clear that she wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody of the child. The situation is very complex, and of course a search is made for Abby. But she seems to have disappeared. She’s later found raped and murdered, her body left in her car. The themes of family in its many forms, family ties and family identity come up clearly in this novel.

Ruth Rendell explores family quite frequently too, both under her own name and under the pen name of Barbara Vine. Of course, those novels (I’m thinking for instance of A Dark-Adapted Eye) often explore families that aren’t particularly healthy. The theme of what family is and how family ties play out is a strong characteristic of her work though.

Honour is explored in a lot of crime fiction too. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight for instance, Superintendent Frank Swann of the Perth Police investigates the murder of brothel owner Ruby Devine. Although they were on opposite sides of the law, so to speak, they were friends, and he is determined to find out who killed her. It’s not going to be easy though. Swann’s run afoul of the ‘purple circle,’ a group of fellow cops he reported for corruption. He’s ‘broken the code,’ so very few people will co-operate with him. Little by little though, Swann finds out the truth about Ruby Devine’s death. The theme of honour, of who has honour and of what it means and can cost is clear in this novel. And yet, the story itself is the main focus.

That’s also true in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. The main plot is the murder one morning of Tasmania Police Sergeant John White. The main suspect in the killing is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley. For various reasons, the police have to tread carefully in this case to make sure that everything is done ‘by the book.’ But in the end, we do find out the truth about White’s murder. Throughout the novel, the theme of loyalty comes up in several ways. For example, there’s the loyalty that White’s colleagues had towards him. There’s the loyalty that’s expected in general among cops. And there are other kinds of loyalty too. We see how that loyalty can be both an important social ‘glue’ and an impediment. But the real central focus of the novel is the murder, its investigation and its effects on everyone involved.

Guilt is a theme that’s often explored in crime fiction. Certainly we see it clearly in Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Inspector Erlendur. One of the story arcs that runs through this series is Erlendur’s search for the truth about his younger brother Bergur’s fate. Years earlier, when the two were boys, Bergur was lost during a terrible blizzard, and Erlendur has always felt responsibility and guilt about this, since he was supposed to be ‘in charge.’ That guilt plays a powerful role in his thinking and choices. Guilt also plays a role in some of mystery plots in this series too. For instance, guilt is woven into the plot of Jar City, in which Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive old man named Holberg. The more they dig into his past though, the more possibility there is that he wasn’t as inoffensive as it seemed. As the case goes on, we see the theme of guilt in Holberg’s life. Guilt is also explored in the way that various people who knew Holberg react. But that theme doesn’t take over. The mystery plot is the focus of this novel.

And that’s the thing about an effective use of theme in a crime novel. Themes can add richness to a novel, and a layer of interest. They can also make the reader remember a novel long after it’s done. But the main focus of the high-quality crime novel is its plot, characters and context.

There’s only been space here for a few themes and examples. Which main themes do you see in the crime fiction you like to read? If you’re a writer, do you consciously address themes?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Limelight.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Barbara Vine, David Whish-Wilson, Gail Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Y.A. Erskine

They’re Talkin’ About You and It’s Bringin’ Me Down*

PoliceInvestigationWhen the police investigate or re-investigate a case, they don’t always confine themselves to just looking at whether the right person was arrested. They also look at the way the case was pursued, and that means looking at their own. I’m not talking here of police corruption. Crime fiction fans know that there are plenty of stories where the protagonist goes up against corrupt cops. Rather, I mean stories in which the police have to look at the way a case has been handled. It’s always uncomfortable to do that, as the cops may be investigating someone they’ve known and liked for a long time. But sometimes it’s indicated, and it can make for a very effective layer of suspense in a story.

For instance, in Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life, Cissy Kohler has been released from prison after serving time for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrop. Soon, allegations are made that Kohler was innocent and that Wallly Tallentire, who investigated the case, knew that and hid relevant evidence. Superintendent Andy Dalziel resents that claim bitterly; Tallentire was his mentor, and he is convinced that Tallentire’s conduct was entirely appropriate. He also believes that Kohler was guilty all along. Still, the case is re-opened and a new investigation is made. Dalziel and Peter Pascoe go about it from different angles, but each pursues the real truth about what happened to Pamela Westrop. Throughout the novel, there’s a thread of tension brought on by the reality of investigating a cop whom Dalziel knew and respected for years.

There’s a similar kind of tension in Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day. Harry Repp has been released from prison after serving time for burglary. An anonymous tip now alleges that he is also guilty of the two-year-old murder of a nurse Yvonne Harrison. So Superintendent Strange asks Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis to re-open the case. Morse seems unusually apathetic about the investigation, so Lewis does a lot of the work. As he looks into the matter, he makes a truly upsetting discovery that seems to show the reason for Morse’s apparent lack of interest in this murder. Dexter makes it clear how difficult it is for Lewis to continue the investigation after his find. But of course, this is Colin Dexter, so things are not what they seem.

Louise Penny gives readers a look at what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those sorts of questions in her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Beginning with Still Life, the first in the series, we get hints, and later facts, about an earlier case involving Gamache. We later learn that questions about it have been raised.  I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers. But I can say that this particular story arc lends a solid layer of tension to the novels. Although each of the novels contains a separate murder investigation, the story arc shows that these kinds of questions can go on in the background and can have a profound effect on the life of the subject of them.

Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond has a similar sort of sub-plot. The body of famous TV actor Geraldine ‘Gerry’’ Jackman has been found in Chew Valley Lake not far from Bristol. Superintendent Peter Diamond and his assistant DI John Wigfull investigate the death and they soon find that this is going to be a difficult case. For one thing, it turns out that the victim didn’t die by drowning, and was probably killed elsewhere and brought to the lake. For another, the deeper they dig into her background, the more complications they find. As if that weren’t enough, there’s already somewhat of a cloud over Diamond, resulting from his conduct during an earlier case. He’s very much ‘on probation’ in this investigation and in fact, it’s even arranged for a ‘company spy’ to keep tabs on him.

The murder of Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police brings on a deep look into his life in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. White has the reputation of being very much ‘a cop’s cop.’ Never accused of ‘going dirty,’ always supportive of his colleagues, he is much respected and admired by his peers. One morning he and probationer Lucy Howard respond to reports of a break-in. While they’re at the scene, White is stabbed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. But the police can’t move too quickly here. Rowley is part Aboriginal and from what people call a ‘disadvantaged background.’ The police know that the media is watching everything they do to be certain they ‘play by the rules.’ Besides, there are some hints that something more was going on with this case. As we learn what really happened in the days leading up to the murder, and on the day itself, we also see how the police react when one of their own – someone they really respected – comes under the proverbial microscope.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s  In Her Blood. In that novel, London investigator Catherine Berlin has been building up a case against loan shark Archie Doyle. She’s been working with an informant who goes by the name of Juliet Bravo. One day ‘Juliet’ is found dead in Limehouse Basin. Berlin feels responsible for putting her informant at risk, so she takes a special interest in finding out who killed her. Soon, though, she finds herself suspended for not following protocol with regard to her interactions with her informant. But she wants to know the truth about ‘Juliet’s’ death. Then, Berlin faces a personal crisis. She’s a registered heroin addict who’s been getting her supply from Dr. George Lazenby under the registered addicts program. One afternoon she goes to his office to keep her regular appointment only to find him dead and herself a suspect in his murder. With only seven days’ supply of the drug left, she’ll have to clear her name as quickly as she can, before withdrawal sets in. In the end, she finds out the truth behind Lazenby’s murder and how it ties in with ‘Juliet’s’ murder. She also discovers some things best left unknown about some of her colleagues.

There are also novels such as Ian Rankin’s The Complaints that deal with internal investigations of police. It’s difficult to have the responsibility of ‘policing the police,’ and those who do so don’t necessarily have a lot of friends in the rest of the department. But it’s a fact of police life.

It’s always difficult when questions are raised about a colleague, especially if that colleague is someone you’ve liked and respected. It’s even worse when it’s a member of the police force, who are supposed to be worthy of public trust. When it happens in real life it’s distressing for everyone. When it happens in crime fiction, it can add suspense to a story. Which gaps have I left?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Take it on the Run.


Filed under Annie Hauxwell, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Louise Penny, Peter Lovesey, Reginald Hill, Y.A. Erskine

What a Tale My Thoughts Could Tell*

Stream of ConsciousnessOne of the devices that authors use to tell stories is stream of consciousness. It’s a fairly useful device, as it’s handy for building a story’s background and adding character depth, among other things. Stream of consciousness can also provide valuable point-of-view depth as well. Of course, like any other tool, it can be over-used or used clumsily. But when it’s handled effectively, it can add to a story.

Stream of consciousness certainly shows up in crime fiction, just as it does in any other genre. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I’m quite sure you can think of lots more.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell invite a group of guests to their home for the weekend. Among the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot, who has taken a cottage nearby, has been invited for lunch. When he arrives, he thinks at first that it’s all some sort of macabre tableau set up for his ‘benefit.’ He soon sees that it’s all too real though, and works with Inspector Bland to find out who killed Christow and why. Christie uses stream of consciousness in several places in this novel. For instance, as the Christows are preparing to leave for the weekend, we follow Christiow’s line of thinking as he sees his last patients before the trip. We also follow Gerda’s line of thinking as she and their two children wait for him to join them for lunch. Those stream-of-consciousness moments give readers a look at their past history and backstory as well as their personalities.

There’s also stream of consciousness in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg’s dream of the ‘white picket fence’ life is shattered when she discovers that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. After her initial shock passes, she is determined to find out who the other woman is, and when she does, she makes her own plans for revenge. One night she happens to go to a pub when she meets Jonas Hansson, who is facing his own tragic issues. That meeting has terrible unforeseen consequences as life starts to spin out of control. In several places in the novel, we follow Eva’s line of thinking as she discovers Henrik’s affair, makes her plans and so on. We also follow Henrik’s line of thinking as we learn what led to his infidelity. And we follow Jonas Hansson’s thoughts as he meets Eva. In this case, the stream of consciousness gives insight into each character’s motivations and lets the reader see the events that happen from each one’s point of view.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind makes use of stream of consciousness too, mostly from the point of view of Stephanie Anderson. She is a newly-minted psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. One day she has a breakthrough with a patient Elisabeth Clark. Years earlier, her younger sister Gracie was abducted and never found. Not even a body was recovered. She’s still dealing with the trauma of what happened, and it touches a nerve for Anderson. Seventeen years earlier, her own younger sister Gemma was also abducted, again with no trace of her ever found. Anderson decides to use the information she has about Gemma’s abduction and the information she gets from her patient to find out who caused such devastation in their families. She journeys from Dunedin to her home town at Wanaka to solve the mystery and lay her own ghosts to rest. As she does so, we follow her thoughts and internal monologue. And that stream of consciousness gives insight into her character, into the effect Gemma’s abduction has had on her, and into the way she slowly begins to heal.

Y.A. Erskine uses stream of consciousness in part to give backstory in The Brotherhood. When Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is murdered one morning, an entire group of people is deeply affected by the incident. As his fellow officers pursue the case, we see the events from the perspectives of several of the people in his life, including the other officer who was there; White’s former lover; his wife; and his protégé. Their thoughts give the reader helpful information about White and about their history with him.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner also includes stream of consciousness. Paul Lohman, his successful politician brother Serge, and their wives Claire and Babette meet for dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. Within the context of the dinner, we learn about the family dynamics and about the awful secrets that some members of that family are hiding. The story moves through the courses of the dinner and as each course is served, we learn a little more about what those secrets are and what the family is really like. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Lohman, and Koch uses stream of consciousness to give the reader insights in to his character and into the family’s backstory.

Fans of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote will know that those novels often include stream of consciousness. For example, in Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg, Ghote is sent to a small village to uncover the truth about the death of an eminent politician’s first wife. Ghote faces several challenges here. One is that the death happened fifteen years ago, so finding evidence will be difficult. Another is that any such investigation is delicate because of the power of the people involved. What’s more, a local holy man seems dead set against any investigation into the events. In fact, he’s fasting, and very publicly, until the investigation is stopped. But Ghote has been given his orders, so he goes to the village in the guise of an egg-seller, and works to uncover the truth. Throughout this novel, stream of consciousness shows the reader Ghote’s deductions, his character and personality, and his way of arriving at the truth.

And that’s the thing about stream of consciousness. On the one hand, if it’s mis-handled, it can be tedious and can take away from the pace of a crime novel. On the other, when used effectively, it can lend a story character depth and can provide important background information.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you enjoy stream of consciousness in crime fiction, or do you find it off-putting? If you’re a writer, do you use that device?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind.


Filed under Agatha Christie, H.R.F. Keating, Herman Koch, Karin Alvtegen, Paddy Richardson, Y.A. Erskine