You Wear Smug So Very Well*

SmugnessMost of us know that no-one’s always right, and no-one has all of the answers. Still, there are some people who are so convinced of their own perspective that they’re unwilling to even consider the possibility that they may be wrong, or that there may be other perspectives out there. That sort of smugness can be grating for anyone who has to deal with a person like that. It’s limiting for the person who’s smug, too, if you think about it.

In crime fiction, smugness can even make a person vulnerable. After all, if the only ‘correct’ perspective is your own, you’re not willing to consider that you might have enemies that could get the better of you. Such a character can also add a nice dose of conflict to a series, so that human frailty can be a useful tool for the writer as well.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people accept an invitation to go to Indian Island. On the evening of their arrival, it becomes clear that their host, whoever she or he is, will not be there. That’s odd enough, but things take a darker turn when each person is accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. One of the guests, Miss Emily Brewster, has been accused of being responsible for the suicide of a former housemaid. It comes out that when she discovered that the maid was what used to be called ‘in trouble,’ she fired her, leaving the young woman with no place to live and no options. In her smugness, Miss Brewster believes that she was correct, and that it wasn’t her fault if the maid had ‘loose morals.’ Miss Brewster ends up paying for her smug perspective when she becomes a victim to a killer who seems to be preying on all of the guests.

Louise Penny’s series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. In one story arc in this series, he is assigned a new member of the Sûreté, Yvette Nichol. On the one hand, when she first begins working with Gamache, she’s eager to make the best impression she can. On the other, she is smug. Because of this, she’s unwilling to learn from anyone else, and unwilling to take even the friendliest of advice. This makes for a host of problems for Gamache’s team. Not only does Nichol make mistakes (as we all do), but she isn’t willing to admit she’s wrong, watch and learn, or accept the fact that she doesn’t always know best. This is really limiting for her, as we see in the course of the series. She alienates people who might be real allies for her, and she’s not really welcome socially, either. It’s difficult for everyone.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma Precious Ramotswe takes on the case of a client who wants to make amends for wrongs he did years ago. In order to do that, he needs to locate his former landlady. That’s not going to be easy, but Mma Ramotswe thinks of a good starting place. The woman her client is looking for is the widow of a government worker, so it’s quite likely that her address and contact information can be found at the office that deals with government pensions. The clerk at that office is not helpful, though, and at first, refuses to give her any information. In fact, he’s quite smug about it:
 

‘‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’’

 

Mma Ramotswe has to think quickly, since this clerk is really her only solid lead. But she comes up with a way to best the clerk, and ends up getting the information she needs.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. As the novel begins, she seems to have the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she’s the mother of two healthy children, and she herself is both attractive and intelligent. Everything begins to fall apart, though, when a secret from Jodie’s past comes out. Her daughter, Hannah, is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years before, Jodie herself gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about this, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that the child was adopted, but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now, questions begin to be asked, and before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah. Of no help at all is Jodie’s mother-in-law, Helen Garrow. She’s a ‘blueblood’ who wasn’t happy when her son married Jodie, and who certainly doesn’t befriend her very much. She does ‘damage control,’ as far as the media goes, but that’s only to preserve the Garrow reputation. She’s quite convinced she’s right about the kind of person Jodie is, and although she does help to take care of the children, her smugness alienates Jodie, just when Jodie needs support the most.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Arthur Jepson. Jepson is Madras Commissioner of Police in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the British Raj. He’s not only very conscious of his position, but he’s absolutely convinced he’s right about the way to investigate. For instance, in The Pallampur Predicament, the Rajah of Pallampur is murdered. Jepson is sure that the victim was killed by disgruntled servants (Jepson is no fan of Indians). And that’s not an impossible explanation. But Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu (Stoddart’s protagonist) and his team believe that this is much more than just a ‘grudge murder.’ And they have more than one possible suspect. Still, Jepson is unwilling to listen to anyone else’s point of view. It all makes the case much more challenging for Le Fanu.

And that’s the thing about smug characters. I’ll bet we’ve all met people like that, and they have a way of making everything more difficult. Such people can be downright annoying in real life, but in crime fiction, characters like that can add interesting layers to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Poliça’s Smug.

22 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian Stoddart, Louise Penny, Wendy James

Endless Irritation, Endless Aggravation*

Frustrations and IrritationsIt never fails, does it? You’re busy with your life, when something happens to disrupt your routine. It may be someone coming in to fix the boiler/air conditioning/etc., or it may be that your access to the Internet isn’t working. There are lots of other things like that that happen, and they always manage to happen just when you’re in the midst of everything.

It’s frustrating in real life, of course. And it’s realistic in crime fiction, too. After all, those are the sorts of frustrating things we all have to deal with at times. And for the writer, those discomforts also allow for added tension and sometimes conflict.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence pays a visit to Hercule Poirot. Spence is concerned because James Bentley is soon to be executed for the murder of his landlady, Mrs. McGinty, and Spence thinks Bentley may be innocent. He asks Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot travels to the village of Broadhhinny to investigate. There’s not much available in terms of lodging in such a small village, but Poirot finds a room at Long Meadows, the property of Johnnie and Maureen Summerhayes. Almost immediately, Poirot finds that his accommodations are, to say the least, not to his taste. His hosts are not skilled at running a guest house, so the food is bad, the room is uncomfortable, and the home is completely disorganized. Needless to say, those frustrations add tension (and actually, some funny moments) to the story. And they don’t make Poirot’s investigations any easier!

Stan Jones’ White Sky, Black Ice introduces readers to Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. Although he is Inupiaq, he was adopted and raised by white parents in Anchorage. So when he is assigned to the small northern town of Chukchi, there are a lot of adjustments he has to make. Shortly after his arrival, Active gets involved in the investigation of two deaths that, on the surface, look like suicides. One is George Clinton, who’s found dead outside a bar. The other is Aaron Stone, who’s found dead on what was supposed to be a hunting trip. Investigating Stone’s death involves going out to Katy Lake, where the victim’s hunting cabin was, so Active gets a ride from bush pilot Cowboy Decker. The plane is extremely small and uncomfortable, with so much noise that both pilot and passenger have to wear headphones so that they can communicate. And the trail isn’t any more comfortable, especially with night coming on and winter approaching. Fortunately, Active finds a place for the night with Amos Wilson, who has a cabin in that area. The cabin is far from what most of us would think of as comfortable, but it’s warm and safe.

In one sub-plot of Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets a temporary office-mate. There’s been vandalism in the building that houses the Department of Journalism at the university where Kilbourn works, and several of the faculty members in that department have to find temporary office space elsewhere until the damage has been repaired. Kilbourn offers to share her office with a colleague and friend, Ed Mariani. On the one hand, the two like each other, so they both work to make this arrangement go as smoothly as possible. On the other hand, it’s awkward for both of them. If you’ve ever had to share an office with someone, you know how uncomfortable that can be, what with people’s different habits, schedules and so on. Still, the two of them make the best of the situation. Matters get even more uncomfortable, though, when Kilbourn begins to wonder whether her friend and temporary office-mate might have committed murder…

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is asked to lend his expertise when the body of a young woman, Catherine McBride, is discovered. It turns out that the victim is a former client of O’Loughlin, so he rather reluctantly agrees to try to help find out who would have killed her. Then there’s another murder. And this one implicates O’Loughlin. DI Vincent Ruiz was already under the impression that O’Loughlin might know more about the case than he let on; now he begins to suspect him. O’Loughlin will have to clear his own name, and go up against a very dangerous killer, to avoid being convicted of crimes he didn’t commit. At the same time as all of this is going on, the boiler in the O’Loughlin home is broken, and a plumber will have to be called in. That means strange people coming in and out of the house, a disruption of routine, and, of course, the expense. If you’ve ever had that happen to you, you know how frustrating the whole thing can be.

And then there’s Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. In that novel, which takes place in London in the early 1920s, Emily Wray has recently lost her husband. At this time, and in this place, ladies don’t really have careers, as a rule. So Emily and her daughter Frances have no other option, as they see it, but to open their home to lodgers (they’re called ‘paying guests’ as a euphemism). The Wrays put out discreet advertisements, and soon enough, Len and Lilian Barber accept the terms and move in. Everyone knows that the arrangement is more or less necessary. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, fun, or smooth. For one thing, there’s the awkwardness of having strangers in the house. For another, there are the inevitable annoyances such as extra noises, not enough hot water when you want it, and so on. But everyone tries to make it work. Before long, though, things begin to spin out of control, and the end result of this arrangement is real tragedy.

Not all of those frustrations do end up that way, but they’re often enough to put us completely out of sorts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think my Internet’s about to cra –

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from No Fun at All’s Trapped Inside.  

 

19 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Michael Robotham, Gail Bowen, Stan Jones, Sarah Waters

Where’s That? ;-)

Fictional TownsSetting can play a major role in a crime novel (or any other novel, really). Whether it’s a big city, a small village, or the back of beyond, it’s all got me thinking of…
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

…a quiz!!! Oh, stop it! It’s hardly my fault if you take the risk in coming here, is it ? 😉

Many crime fiction series take place in fictional cities and towns. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your fictional settings, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer, and see how many you get right.

Ready? Touch the Navigation app to begin…if you dare!😉

 

Navigation

 

30 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

In The Spotlight: Michael Hogan’s Burial of the Dead

>In The Spotlight: Martha Grimes' The Anodyne NecklaceHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels are as much literary novels as they are the stories of crimes and investigations. Such novels cross genre lines, so they’re a little harder to put into categories. Still, they can be interesting ways to tell a crime story. As an example, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Michael Hogan’s Burial of the Dead.

The real action in the story begins with the death of 70-year-old Emma Kost O’Neal, owner of the O’Neal mortuary. Mrs. O’Neal died a wealthy woman, so there’s quite a lot of money, especially insurance money, at stake. Since the insurance company won’t pay out if the death was a suicide, manner of death becomes all important here.

It’s soon clear that the Mrs. O’Neal didn’t die of natural causes. In fact, evidence shows that she was asphyxiated. The main question for the insurance company is: was this death a suicide or a murder? There are plenty of people with a stake in the outcome of the investigation, and some of them are powerful. So Officer David Talmadge and Detective Mark Moraski are under a great deal of pressure. Still, they try to be fair and get at the truth.

If the victim was murdered, there are several suspects. There’s her grand-niece, Emmanuelle ‘Manny’ Whitman, who was in the house when the body was discovered, and who may inherit everything. And there’s Matthew Wyman, who discovered the body. There’s also the possibility that Robert ‘Bobby’ Sullivan, who worked for the O’Neal family for years, might have been involved.

The most likely suspect is Wyman, who’s always been mentally very fragile, anyway. In fact, at one point, he’s even committed to a mental institution. He could have had a motive, since he was involved with Manny, and there’s other evidence against him. Moraski isn’t entirely convinced that Wyman’s the killer, but he has to go where the evidence leads.

As the investigation goes on, it seems increasingly clear that everyone will be happiest if Wyman is arrested and the case is closed. But is he being framed? And if so, by whom?  What’s strange, too, is that he doesn’t protest unduly against his arrest or the assumption he’s guilty. Why would he go along with a plot to frame him? In the end, and after many layers of lies, half-truths and secrets are peeled away, we learn the truth about Mrs. O’Neal’s death.

This is a crime novel in the sense that there’s an unnatural death, an investigation, witnesses and so on. But it is also a literary novel. So we learn a great deal about the various characters who play important roles. One of the major characters is Wyman, a brilliant artist with a fine mind. He’s not in good mental health, though, and depends on medication. Still, there’s a strong argument that he’s as sane as anyone, and a lot saner than the many other characters who either won’t or can’t face the truth about their lives. We follow the story partly from his perspective, and from that of his older brother, Brian. There’s a sub-plot, too, concerning their family.

Other parts of the story are told from other points of view, including Moraski’s, Talmadge’s, Manny Whitman’s, and a few others. Readers who dislike multiple points of view will notice this. Hogan uses this approach to add character development and to provide backstory.

The story begins with Mrs. O’Neal’s death, but it’s not a sequential story. Rather, it tells the story from different perspectives, as if through different lenses. And these perspectives shift back and forth in time as we learn about the different characters, and find out their personal histories and relationships to each other. Each chapter is labelled with the perspective being shared, but readers who prefer a linear, chronological story will notice this approach to telling the story. Readers who enjoy very in-depth character studies will appreciate this.

The story is told in the present tense, with flashbacks being told in past tense. So we learn not just what happened to Mrs. O’Neal, but what led to it, how all of the characters are interconnected, and so on. Readers who prefer their stories to be told only in one or the other tense will notice this.

Although this is a literary novel, it is also, as I mentioned, a crime novel. So, although this is not a very fast-paced novel, there are some twists and turns in the plot as the various lies and half-truths are revealed for what they are. Few of the characters are really what they seem to be; and, in the end, there’s a hint of noir as readers learn how much deception and self-deception there’s been.

That suggestion of noir is also apparent in the story behind the murder. It’s an unhappy story, and the resolution doesn’t make anything any better, really. Those who prefer to see their ‘bad guys’ led away in handcuffs will notice this. Like some other noir novels, this one has a theme of corruption and of people who will do whatever’s necessary either to get ahead or to stay out of the way of those who want to.

The story takes place in fictional Hartford and West Hartford, Massachusetts, and Hogan places the reader there in several ways. The geography, climate, speech patterns and so on all reflect that part of New England.

Burial of the Dead is the story of the death of one elderly woman, and of the lives of many of the people with whom she interacted. It’s a literary approach to telling a crime story, and features a look at life in modern New England. But what’s your view? Have you read Burial of the Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

 

Tuesday, 31 May/Wednesday, 1 June – For the Love of Mike – Rhys Bowen

Monday, 6 June/Tuesday, 7 June – Total Chaos – Jean Claude Izzo

Monday, 13 June/Tuesday, 14 June – The Body Snatcher – Patricia Melo

31 Comments

Filed under Burial of the Dead, Michael Hogan

‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

Individualist and Collectivist CulturesCrime fiction arguably says a lot about the culture from which it comes. This is a very large topic, so I’ll just focus on one aspect of culture. One of the important ways in which cultures differ is in the extent to which they’re collectivist or individualist. Of course, very few cultures are what you’d call entirely collectivist or entirely individualist. But most cultures lean towards one or the other.

Individualistic cultures tend to value individual achievement and efforts. In those cultures, one’s identity comes from individual experiences, choices and the like. In collectivist cultures, on the other hand, individuals’ identities come from their memberships in the larger group. Group goals and achievements have priority over individual goals, and members of the group rely on each other for child and elder care, financial support and the like. The point here isn’t to argue the merits of one type of culture or the other. Rather, it’s to point out that individualism or collectivism really does impact cultures.

We certainly see it in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. For example, one aspect of individualistic cultures is an emphasis on individual effort. And that’s arguably reflected in the kinds of sleuths and stories that come from US authors (the dominant US culture is considered highly individualistic). If we look at characters such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Bill Pronzini’s Nameless, or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, we see examples of sleuths who generally work alone, and certainly don’t get their sense of identity from membership in a particular group. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have friends, don’t value what they learn from others, and so on. But their individual efforts are really the main point of the stories that feature them.

Another characteristic of a lot of individualistic cultures is what’s often called low power distance. In just about every culture, some people have more power than others. Power distance refers to individuals’ willingness to accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. So, lower-ranking individuals from low power distance cultures are less likely to be comfortable with the unequal distribution of power. To see how this plays out, we can take a look at David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, the first of his Superintendent Frank Swann novels. These take place in 1970’s Perth, in a culture that’s generally considered to be quite individualistic. In Line of Sight, Swann investigates the murder of a former friend, brothel owner Ruby Devine. To get to the truth, he has to go up against a very powerful group of top police brass known as the ‘purple circle.’ The novel shows, among other things, the view that titles and power don’t necessarily equal the respect of others. Certainly they don’t guarantee obedience from others. And that’s not surprising, considering that this is an individualistic culture.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels will probably find that perspective familiar, and that’s not surprising, either. These stories take place mostly in Scotland, which is also considered an individualistic culture. The cultural values of low power distance and an emphasis on individual effort and achievement come through very clearly in the series.

These aren’t the only examples of individualistic cultures and the novels that come from them, of course. There are many, many more. And as we look at novels from individualistic cultures, we see how those perspectives and cultural values come through.

That’s also arguably true of collectivist cultures and the novels that depict them. For example, we can take a look at power distance from the point of view of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen lives and works in late 1990’s Shanghai, a culture that’s considered very collectivist. High power distance (or, the acceptance and expectation of unequal distribution of power) is an important aspect of that culture. And we see that reflected in this series. It is expected that those of higher rank – those considered more important – have more power and make the rules that they see fit to make. That’s not generally questioned very much. You might argue that, in his way, Qiu does question that power structure, since the murders Chen investigates often lead to very high places. But at the same time, there is an acknowledgement of that characteristic of this society.

Another collectivist characteristic that we see in Qiu’s novels is the emphasis on group, rather than individual, goals. One important political goal is social harmony (that’s a main plot point of Enigma of China). The greater good, so the belief goes, is served when nothing disrupts the order and harmony of the group. Fans of this series will undoubtedly be able to think of examples of how this plays out in the novels.

Because collectivist cultures place a high value on group membership, members are responsible for the welfare of other members. Group effort is therefore a very high priority. This is reflected in Swati Kaushal’s Niki Marwah series, which takes place in northern India. There are, of course, many different cultures in India; it’s a large and diverse country. But in general, it’s considered collectivist. Marwah is Superintendent of Police in Shimla, and as such, makes the final decisions. But she’s not really out for personal gain and achievement. And she knows very well that without the efforts of her team members, crimes won’t be solved. Each team member has something to contribute, and each team member is responsible to the others.

This series (and Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series, too, among others) also shows the vital importance of family in many collectivist societies. Marwah may be an independent and successful police inspector. But she’s also a member of her family, and takes her responsibilities seriously. She attends family events, she listens to what the older members of her family say (even if she doesn’t end up taking their advice) and so on.

These are just a few examples of the ways that culture impacts stories and characters. And of course, collectivism/individualism is just one dimension of culture. There are many, many more. But even with this small peek at the topic, it seems clear (at least to me) that we can tell a lot about a culture from its crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams’ All For Love.

14 Comments

Filed under Bill Pronzini, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Qiu Xiaolong, Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Swati Kaushal, Tarquin Hall