Go Where You Wanna Go*

ItinerantMost of us have a fixed place to live. It may not be where we grew up, or where we think of as ‘home,’ but it’s the place we return to when the work day is done. When we fill out forms, we have an address to include. But that’s not true of everyone. There are many people who have, as the saying goes, no fixed abode. They travel from place to place, never staying anywhere very long. They’re often on the fringes of society, too.

Groups like this can be insular, since they don’t often make a lot of connections with people not in the group. What’s more, ‘outsiders’ often don’t trust them, and the feeling is usually mutual. So when they’re involved in cases of murder, it can be especially difficult for the police to investigate. It doesn’t help matters that the police are often (‘though certainly not always) biased against itinerants. The whole dynamic can make for a very effective crime novel, given the realities of not having one particular place to live, and the feelings that others have about that.

One such group of people is the group of migrant farm workers. At least in the US, they move from place to place, working a few weeks or months on one farm or in one area, and then moving on. They follow harvests, and when their services are no longer needed, they’re expected to leave.

We see this lifestyle in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That’s the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who’ve been forced to leave their last place of employment and move on to the next. Lennie, who is of limited intelligence, was wrongly accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress. He says that he just enjoyed stroking it because it was soft, but that’s not how the young woman saw it. When George and Lennie get to their new jobs, they are checked in, given places to sleep, and introduced to the boss’ son, Curly. He’s arrogant, spiteful and rude – not a person you want to cross. As they settle in and try to do a good job, we see how migrant workers have traditionally been treated. And when tragedy befalls the farm, we see how their migrant status affects both men.

The Roma people, too, have a tradition of moving around and staying nowhere for very long. Stef Penney explores life among these people in The Invisible Ones. In that novel, Leon Janko hires PI Ray Lovell to find his daughter Rose, who’s been missing for seven years. At first Lovell demurs, saying that missing person cases aren’t his area of expertise. But Janko insists, and then explains that he wants Lovell because Lovell is half Roma.
 

‘You’re always who you are, even sitting here in your office, behind your fancy desk. You’re one of us.’
 

Janko says that Lovell will be able to talk to people in ways that gorijos (non-Roma) will not. Finally Lovell is persuaded to look into the matter. He’s soon dismayed by the resistance he gets from the Jankos, especially considering that it was Leon Janko who hired him. It’s soon clear that they’re hiding something that may very well relate to Rose’s disappearance. As Lovell investigates further, readers get a real sense of what life is like for people who never live anywhere for very long.

In Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich, a Roma girl who allegedly fell into a canal from a Venice roof after robbing an apartment in the building. Brunetti begins to wonder just how accidental the girl’s death was, though, and investigates. His search for the truth leads him to the Roma encampment near the city. As he tries to work with the victim’s people, we see what their lives are like, and why they have very little reason to trust Brunetti, at least at first.

You might not think of it right away, but circus workers are also often itinerant. They may stay for a couple of months in one place, but they spend much of their time ‘on the road.’ That’s what we see, for instance, in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is happy that they’ve been given permission to stay on the Blackcraig Estate for the winter. As compensation, they’ve agreed to do a few shows for the wealthy Wilson family, who own the place. There are some concerns about having ‘those kinds of people’ around for the winter, but Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver’s two sons couldn’t be happier; they want to see the circus. Then, some nasty events begin to happen in the circus, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. She asks Dandy to investigate. Things go from bad to worse when Anastasia ‘Ana,’ the bareback horse rider, falls from her mount and is killed. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but it’s not long before Dandy begins to believe it was murder.

A circus also plays a role in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He stops her just in time, and takes her to a nearby all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Her mother died when she was two years old; otherwise, her life had been a more or less happy one until recently. In a very strange series of events, Harlan Reid met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he himself puts it, is cursed with being able to predict the future. Despite warnings, and against his daughter’s wishes, Reid began to visit Tompkins more and more often, whenever he was faced with an important decision. Now Tompkins has predicted that Reid will die on a certain night at midnight. Reid firmly believes that it will happen, and Jean can no longer tolerate the stress. Shawn decides to help her if he can, and takes her to his boss, McManus, to see what the police can do. After all, since Reid is a wealthy man, this could simply be a scam to get his money. That part of the investigation leads to an itinerant circus and another murder investigation. In the meantime, Shawn tries to protect the Reids as well as he can, in case the threat to the family is real. Among other things, this novel offers a glimpse of what it means to travel in a circus, and how ‘circus people’ are viewed from the outside.

Of course, there are some fictional sleuths, too, who don’t really have a ‘regular’ home. Yes, I mean you, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Eleanor Kuhn’s Will Rees is another example of a sleuth who’s a bit of an itinerant. He’s a late-18th Century weaver who goes from place to place on commission. He’s recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker sect. As the series goes on, it’ll be interesting to see how his roving life changes.

Itinerant people often live outside the realm of what we think of as ‘normal.’ They usually have relatively few possessions or connections, and they have a unique culture based on moving around. Perhaps that’s part of what makes them such interesting characters in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by John Phillips, made famous by The Mamas and the Papas. See whether you like that version or the recording done by The Fifth Dimension better.

28 Comments

Filed under Catriona McPherson, Cornell Woolrich, Donna Leon, Eleanor Kuhns, John Steinbeck, Lee Child, Stef Penney

Off-Duty! ;-)

Hobby QuizWhen you think about how hard most of us work, it’s no wonder we need hobbies and pastimes to add some balance to our lives. And that’s got me thinking of….
 
 
 
 
 

….a quiz!!! Oh, stop it! You ought to know better than to be careless when you come to this blog!! ;-)

 

Even detectives need a break sometimes. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your fictional sleuths’ pastimes and hobbies, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question with the correct answer. Then see how well you’ve done.
 

Ready? Choose a tool to begin… if you dare! ;-)

 

Toolkit

 

32 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

In The Spotlight: Peter May’s The Blackhouse

>In The Spotlight: Laura Lippman's Baltimore BluesHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels and series weave the culture and lifestyle of a particular place into the story in such an integral way that readers learn as much about the place as they do about the story itself. That’s the way Peter May’s Lewis trilogy is, so let’s use that to take a look at one particular place and culture. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Blackhouse, the first of that trilogy.

Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is an Edinburgh-based police detective who’s investigating the murder of conveyancing lawyer John Sievewright. The team hasn’t got very far when there’s another murder with a lot of points in common. This time, the victim is Angel Macritchie, who’s lived all his life on the Isle of Lewis. Macleod’s boss DCI Black wants him to go to Lewis and find out if the same killer is responsible for both murders. At first Macleod doesn’t want to go. For one thing, he and his wife Mona are still dealing with the first shock and sadness of losing their son Robbie in a hit-and-run accident. For another, Macleod has no desire to return to Lewis, where he grew up. He’s had a lot of sadness there, and memories that he would rather keep buried. But his boss insists.

When Macleod arrives, he and DS George Gunn, a local man, get to work on the Macritchie murder. For Macleod, this is a very personal case. He and Macritchie grew up together and have a complicated history. And as he talks to the people who knew the victim, he also reunites with many people he knew when he lived on Lewis. For example, there’s his former best friend Artair Macinnes and Artair’s wife Marsaili. There are also Murdo Ruadh, Donald Murray and Calum Macdonald, who’ve lived in the area all their lives too. All of these people have a history with the victim; and with very little exception, it hasn’t been good. Macritchie had always been a bully and a boor, and several of the people Macleod speaks to have painful memories of his harassment. Macleod himself has been at the receiving end of it more than once.

But most of those experiences were long ago, so on one level, it doesn’t make much sense to kill a man now for something that happened almost twenty years ago. As Macleod digs deeper, though, he finds that there are also some very good present-day motives for the murder. Macritchie hasn’t exactly changed his ways.

There’s another issue, too. If the killer was local, with a personal motive, how does that explain the Edinburgh killing? It’s a complex puzzle, and to solve it, Macleod has to do more than just find clues and establish relationships and alibis. He also has to face his own past.

Most of this novel takes place on Lewis. As cliché as it may sound to say this, the island itself really does become almost a character. It’s a sometimes very inhospitable place, but with unexpected flashes of sunlight and charm, and rugged beauty. The people there know how to respect the forces of nature, and they’re very much attuned to it.

It’s more than just the geography and climate, though, that make this place unique. There’s also the local language and culture. Many of the people speak Gaelic (although a lot speak English as well), and they do so with pride. For those not familiar with that language, May provides a helpful pronunciation guide at the beginning of the story. It’s also worth noting that as we learn the histories of the characters, we also learn some interesting things about language use on the island. For a time, there was great social and educational pressure to make sure that the school children learned and used only English. It was regarded as the status language. Now, Macleod notices that it’s become fashionable to speak Gaelic; having that language is now considered a mark of prestige. I could speculate on several reasons for this that are outside the scope of a book analysis; it’s a fascinating phenomenon.

There’s also the element of tradition vs modernity in the novel. For example, one island tradition, stretching back as far as anyone knows, is that each year, a group of men go to an outlying rock fifty miles from Lewis called An Sgeir. They spend about two weeks there harvesting guga, young gannet who nest on An Sgeir. It’s a difficult and dangerous trip, and those who go belong, as you might say, to a special club. It’s been a mark of high status for many, many generations to be asked to join the team. But there is a growing opposition to what’s seen as animal cruelty and destruction of natural resources. This conflict is one backdrop to the story, and An Sgeir plays its role in the events.

There is also the character of Macleod himself. He grew up on Lewis, passed his exams, was accepted to Glasgow University, and went there to start his own life. But in some ways, he’s never really left Lewis. As we learn the truth about Angel Macritchie’s death, we also learn about Macleod’s backstory. His history is told through flashbacks interspersed throughout the novel, and presented in the first person. Through those flashbacks we learn of his childhood, his interactions with the other characters in the story, and, very slowly, about some of the key points in his life. Readers who prefer a story to be told in sequence will notice this. That said, though, May makes it clear when the various events in the story take place.

Life hasn’t been easy for Macleod, and it isn’t now. He and Mona have been having trouble, especially since their son’s death. And the process of facing his past is difficult. But readers who are tired of drunken, dysfunctional sleuths who cannot cope with life will be pleased to note that Macleod doesn’t drown his sorrows or dissolve them in pills. His life has had plenty of heartache, but he deals with it.

This is the first of a trilogy. So there are story arcs that are not completed. Readers who prefer standalones, where everything is settled in the one novel, will notice this. Still, the main mystery – who killed Angel Macritchie and why – is resolved.

The solution to the case is bleak. And none of the characters (including Macleod) is, as the saying goes, without sin. This isn’t a light story where the killer is led off in handcuffs and everything is sorted out again. And no-one comes through unscathed. At the same time, there are signs that life will go on, and there could even be some good in the future.

The Blackhouse is the story of life on the Isle of Lewis, and of one man’s journey, if you will, into his past as he solves a mystery that takes place there. It features a look at a unique place and way of life, and shows how past events impact our lives even years later. But what’s your view? Have you read The Blackhouse? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 3 August/Tuesday 4 August – Working Girls – Maureen Carter

Monday 10 August/Tuesday 11 August – Massacre Pond – Paul Doiron

Monday 17 August/Tuesday 18 August – Seneca Falls Inheritance – Miram Grace Monfredo

42 Comments

Filed under Peter May, The Blackhouse

Pack Up My Belongings, I’ve Got to Get Away*

Mobile SocietyOne of the major sociological developments of the past hundred or so years has been mobility. People no longer necessarily spend their lives within just a few miles or so of where they were born. Many people relocate because of jobs, although of course, that’s not the only motivation to move house.

This mobility has had a profound impact on communities everywhere. Places where everyone once knew everyone have become more transient. Even in big cities, residents of the same building or block once usually knew each other. That’s not so much the case any more (although of course, it does happen). For police, this change means that it’s sometimes harder to get information about crimes (e.g. ‘I don’t know who lives in that apartment,’ or ‘I’ve seen him/her, but I’ve no idea where that person works, or if that person was at home last night.’)

You see this increase in mobility a lot in crime fiction, which makes sense when you think of the genre as a reflection of society. And it’s been going on for quite some time. For instance, Agatha Christie discusses it in several of her stories, including The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, the village of St. Mary Mead is undergoing quite a bit of change. There’s new council housing in the area, and many people there whom Miss Marple doesn’t know. They come from different places and are changing the makeup of the village as they work, shop and send their children to school. One day, Miss Marple decides to take a walk in the new development. That’s how she meets Heather Badcock, who lives there with her husband Arthur. They’re a pleasant enough couple, and they actually are very helpful to Miss Marple when she has a fall and injures her ankle. Miss Marple discovers that Heather is a fan, to put it mildly, of film star Marina Gregg, who’s just purchased Gossington Hall with her husband Jason Rudd. Heather is more than excited when it’s announced that there will be a charity fête at the hall, as there has been in the past, and that Marina Gregg herself will preside and will meet people. On the day of the event. Heather finally gets to meet her idol. But she soon gets sick and later dies from what turns out to be a poisoned drink. At first, it seems like a case of accidentally poisoning the wrong victim, since Marina has her share of enemies, and Heather seemingly none. It turns out, though, that Heather might very well have been the intended victim all along.

Much of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is set in the small Québec town of Three Pines. It’s got a long history, and some residents have lived there for a very long time. And we see how that history plays out in Still Life, when beloved retired teacher Jane Neal is killed on Thanksgiving. At first the death looks like a terrible accident, but Gamache and his team learn that the victim was murdered. There’s a scene in this novel in which Neal confronts a group of local boys who’ve been harassing the owners of the town’s B&B. She identifies them all by name, since she knows them. That stops them in their tracks, and also makes them suspects when she’s found dead. It also shows that Three Pines is one of those towns where people know each other. But as time goes on, people do move in and out. For example, in A Fatal Grace, celebrity and ‘life coach’ C.C. de Poitiers and her family move to town. Her background and personal life are deeply troubled, as are her relationships with everyone in town. So when she is murdered, Gamache and his team have plenty of suspects.

Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Killing introduces readers to professional house-sitter Thea Osborne. She’s a relatively recent widow who’s trying to make a new life for herself and is using house-sitting as a bridge to whatever comes next. Her first clients are Duntisbourne Abbots residents Clive and Jennifer Reynolds, who are taking a three-week cruise. Thea’s job will be to look after their dogs, their sheep, and their gardens as well as their house. And Clive Reynolds has provided a long and very specific list of duties. On her first night in the house, Thea thinks she hears a scream, but supposes it’s probably her imagination. The next morning, though, she finds the body of Joel Jennison in a pond on the property. The police begin to investigate; and, as she’s new in the area and was in the house at the time, Thea is one of their ‘persons of interest.’ As she begins to ask questions about the death, though, Thea finds that more than one person might have had a motive. One of the things we see in this novel is the impact of people who’ve bought homes in the area in the past few years – the ‘incomers.’ They’ve affected the housing market, the shops and services, and the social relationships in the village, and it’s interesting to see how they and the locals react to one another.

Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books shows the way that mobility can happen. Bookseller’s assistant Israel Armstrong lives in North London. His educational background is in library science, and he would like nothing more than to be curator of a prestigious library. But he knows he has to ‘start small.’ There’s nothing available locally, so when he hears of a position as librarian for Ireland’s Tumdrum and District, he applies for and accepts the job when it’s offered to him. On his arrival, Armstrong finds a sign on the library door saying that it’s closed. Thinking he’s come all this way for nothing, he tracks down the person who hired him; she tells him that the community has decided to switch to a mobile library. As Armstrong gets used to that and many other aspects of life in the area, we see what it’s like for people who don’t know an area to move in. He doesn’t know anyone at first; and although everyone’s heard of him, the locals don’t know him either, really. Along with the actual mystery (the disappearance of almost the entire library collection), this change in the community is an interesting plot thread.

Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery shows a few consequences of today’s increased mobility. Waldemar Leverkuhn and a few of his friends have gone in together on a lottery ticket. To all of their surprise, they win, and decide to go out to celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is stabbed to death in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate the murder, which means they speak to the other residents of the apartment building where the victim and his wife lived. It’s interesting to see how these residents have superficial, but not very rich, information about the other people in the building. Nobody seems to know a great deal about the Leverkuhns. So the police team look into the family’s past. It turns out that the family had lived in the small town of Pampas from 1952 to 1976, but,
 

‘They moved out and disappeared. From one day to the next.’
 

They didn’t keep in contact with former residents, either. Even the family itself shows the effect of modern mobility, as the Leverkuhns’ grown children don’t live nearby.

And that’s the thing about today’s mobility. It means that people move a lot more frequently, and that family members often don’t live near one another. Those trends have had major effects on society – and on crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bad Company’s Movin’ On.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Ian Sansom, Louise Penny, Rebecca Tope

I’ll Be Your Warrior of Care*

Village BobbiesOne of the more enduring (and to some, endearing) figures in crime fiction is the local (usually small-town) copper – the village bobby if you want to think of it that way. This character is depicted differently, depending on the point of view of a novel. There are even novels in which the small-town copper turns out to be the killer, or at least a ‘bad guy’ (no spoilers). But whether they’re depicted sympathetically or not, bobbies and their counterparts in other cultures are woven throughout the genre, and not just in classic/Golden Age crime fiction.

It’s easy to see why, too. For one thing, they are police officers; they investigate crimes. For another, there’s a certain relationship that develops between local coppers and residents. In places where everyone knows everyone, the bobby often has a feel for the people who live in a town. That knowledge can be crucial for getting information and solving cases.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth uses this sort of knowledge quite a bit when he solves cases. He’s the village bobby for Lochdubh, in the Scottish Highlands. He knows the locals very well; he’s one of them. Because he’s an integral part of that community, he finds it easier to get people to talk to him than he would if, say, he were an ‘outsider’ up from Inverness to investigate. So on the one hand, it serves him very well to be on the low rung of the police ladder. Much to the chagrin of his superiors, he’s good at solving cases, too. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a high-status position. Nor is it particularly lucrative. So there are those who don’t have the kind of respect for him that they might if he were a Superintendent. Still, being the village bobby suits Macbeth; he really has no ambition to move up.

Constable Evan Evans, Rhys Bowen’s creation, chose to be the village bobby for the small Welsh town of Llanfair, in the Snowdonia Mountains. He’s from the area, but moved to Swansea as a boy. At first, he hoped that life in Llanfair would be peaceful, but it’s hardly turned out that way. As the local bobby, he gets involved in all sorts of investigations, from trampled flower beds to brutal murders. Still, he is committed to the people he serves, and he is considered ‘one of us.’ He has a perspective that his superiors don’t, and that often gives him insights that help him solve cases.

When readers picture village bobbies, they often think of the traditional UK bobby. And there are lots of them in crime fiction. I know you’ll be able to think of many examples. But this sort of character has counterparts in other places in the world. And it’s interesting to see how the character has evolved outside the UK and Ireland.

For instance, there’s Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire. His jurisdiction is Absaroka County, Wyoming, and his base of operations is the town of Durant. Like the more traditional bobby, Longmire is an integral part of the local community. Just about everyone knows him; he knows just about everyone. He cares about the people who live in the area, and for the most part, they know that and respect him for it. So there is a similar sense of ‘small-town copper’ that you see in ‘English village’ murder mysteries. But there are some interesting differences. One is that, as sheriff, Longmire is elected, not appointed. This does affect the dynamic between him and the people he serves. Longmire’s no toady. Still, he knows that if he doesn’t do his job well, or if he loses the respect of the locals for another reason, he won’t be re-elected. It makes for a subtle, but real difference in his interactions with people. Another is that he’s got a very large area to patrol. And that has a real impact on the way he and his team go about investigating. It’s not often a matter of a quick trip to a shop to ask about who’s been there.

There’s also Vicki Delany’s Moonlight ‘Maggie’ Smith. Born and raised in Trafalgar, British Columbia, she now serves the town as constable. Smith works with a slightly larger team than you sometimes find in series featuring local coppers. But there’s still that almost-intimate relationship between her and the members of the community. In some ways, that’s helpful to her. She knows a lot of the local history, and she can find out things that aren’t as easy to learn if you’re not from the area. On the other hand, since she grew up there, a lot of people remember her from her early years. And sometimes that’s awkward for her, as she now has a position in law enforcement. Still, her local ties are very helpful to her boss, Sergeant John Winters. That connection is part of what she brings to the team.

And I don’t think a post about local bobbies and their counterparts would be complete without a mention of Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. He is a former soldier who now serves the small French town of St. Denis. He’s tightly woven into the community, and most people trust him in ways that they don’t trust the police nationale or even the local gendarmerie. He knows a lot about the area, too, and the histories of most of its people. He coaches youth sport, and has gotten to know most of the families. Like the British bobby, Bruno has a relatively small jurisdiction. He travels from time to time, but his cases are generally quite local. And, like the bobby you probably think of when you hear the term, he’d prefer to settle matters informally and peacefully. He’s a practical, pragmatic person, and he’s found that to be a lot more useful than obeying only the letter of the law.

There are many, many other examples of the local copper. Whether they’re traditional village bobbies or not, these characters fill an important role in law enforcement. And in crime fiction. Which ones do you like best?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alanis Morissette’s Guardian.

30 Comments

Filed under Craig Johnson, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker, Rhys Bowen, Vicki Delany