Hoping For the Best But Expecting the Worse*

Early AdulthoodAn interesting post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about those early years of adulthood. It can be a stressful time as you’re trying to figure out the adult world. You’re on your own, but at the same time, not necessarily settled. You may be trying out different jobs, dating different people, and in other ways experimenting. It’s an interesting, if sometimes awfully anxious, time of life.

It certainly figures into crime fiction, and that makes quite a lot of sense. For one thing, the background atmosphere of the stress of those years can add tension to a story. For another, it’s often easy for readers to identify with those early-adulthood years. And beginning adults are often not yet settled into their lives, which allows them all sorts of encounters that are made-to-order for a crime novel.
One post is not nearly enough space to mention all of the examples of this sort of character. But here are just a few to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him she may have committed a murder. But she abruptly changes her mind about engaging his services, and even admits that part of the reason is that he’s too old. Then she leaves without giving her name. Through his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot learns that the young woman’s name is Norma Restarick. She’s the daughter of a successful business magnate, but she’s grown now, and living in London with two roommates, Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver want to follow up on what Norma said to them, but by the time they start asking after her, she’s disappeared. Her roommates say they don’t know where she is, and her family says she’s returned to London. Now Poirot and Mrs. Oliver have two mysteries to solve. One is, of course, Norma’s whereabouts. The other is the story behind the murder (if there was one). Among other things, the novel gives readers a look at the lives of young adults in London during the mid-1960s. I know, I know, fans of Hickory Dickory Dock.

Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar series features an interesting group of young people on their own. Tamar is a law professor who acts as a sort of mentor/role model to former student Timothy Shepherd, as well as to his friends, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, Selena Jardine, and Julia Larwood. These young people do have steady jobs and promising careers. But in some ways, they’re still very young and sometimes quite vulnerable in their ways. So they turn to each other for friendship and support. And it’s interesting to see how they look to Tamar for guidance at times. The series has a light touch, but Caudwell also shows some of the anxiety that young people often feel at this time of life.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, is not only an academician and political scientist, she’s a mother (and now, a grandmother). As the series moves on, Bowen follows the lives of Joanne’s children as they finish school and start their own lives. For instance, at the beginning of the series (Deadly Appearances), Joanne’s daughter Mieka has just begun her university studies. It’s a time of real transition for her, and she decides that what she really wants to do is open her own catering company. It’s not what Joanne would have wanted her to do, but Mieka is determined. And she seems to have a sense of what she may be in for, as the saying goes. As the series goes on, Mieka starts to grow into her adult roles, and it’s interesting to see how she slowly develops adult confidence and competence. It’s also interesting to see how her relationship with her mother evolves as she moves from university student to professional.

In Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions, we are introduced to three young men, Axel Frimann, Philip Reilly and Jon Moreno. All three are more or less on their own, and just getting started with life. Jon has recently been released from a mental hospital, where he’s been dealing with severe anxiety problems. His friends think it might be a good idea if he gets the chance for some ‘down time.’ So the three decide to spend a weekend at a cabin by Dead Water Lake. Late one night, they take a moonlight boating trip on the lake, but a terrible tragedy happens, and only two young men come back. Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer, and his assistant Jacob Skarre, investigate. They know that the two young men who were there that night could probably tell them everything, but they’ll have to get them to open up. In the meantime, another body is discovered. This time, it’s the body of a teenaged boy who’s found in Glitter Lake. As Sejer and Skarre look into the cases, they discover that the two tragedies are connected. Fossum explores this time of life in some of her other novels, too.

Fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series can tell you that those novels feature a cast of ‘regulars’ who share the building in which Chapman lives and has her bakery. In fact, two of them, Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, are employees at the bakery. These two young women are in those early years of adulthood. They live on their own, sharing an apartment, but they’re not what you’d call really settled. They’re trying to forge acting careers for themselves, so they go to plenty of auditions, and take whatever acting jobs they can get. On the one hand, they do have a certain amount of confidence. But on the other, they’re sometimes quite vulnerable. And the way they live certainly reflects both their youth and their lifestyles (this is taken from Devil’s Food):
‘Those girls had more makeup than a theatre company. It was everywhere, stuffed into every corner of the bathroom. I did find some soluble aspirin, some contraceptives, something called bikini line wax, that made me shudder, and a lot of miscellaneous instruments that I did not recognise.’

And this is a description of their kitchen:

‘They had a lot of dried soups and so on, all guaranteed 150% fat free (and how much sugar?). They did have real coffee and tea, and a lot of herbal teas in pretty packets featuring dragons and unicorns. And a whole box of hangover remedies…There were plenty of cups, but the dishes had not been done recently.’

It’s a very interesting example of the way people in those early-twenties years live their lives.

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair series also shows what those early years of adulthood can be like – at least what they were like in Australia in the early 1930s. Sinclair is the third son of the wealthy Sinclair family, with his older brother Wilfrid much the more settled. Rowly is an artist, and although he doesn’t completely live the bohemian life, he has collected a motley crew of friends and acquaintances. His close friends are Elias (who’s usually called Milton, because he wants to be a poet), Edna Higgins (sculptor and sometimes-model), and Clyde Watson-Jones (also an artist). While they’re not in the very earliest stages of adulthood, these four are still not really settled. And while Rowly, at least, has money, none of the group has really created an established life. They’re an interesting mix of optimism and anxiety, and we see both their confidence and their vulnerability.

And then there’s Chad Hobbes, whom we meet in Seán Haldane’s Victorian-Era historical novel The Devil’s Making. Hobbes has just finished his degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford, and has arrived in Victoria, BC. With some help from a letter of introduction, he gets a job as a police constable, under the command of Augustus Permberton. When the body of Richard McCrory is discovered, Hobbes gets a real awakening, and not just about murder. He learns some of life’s lessons about prejudice, religion, politics and philosophy. As the novel goes on, we see how Hobbes shows that youthful blend of energy and optimism with vulnerability.

And that’s the thing about those early adult years. They can be a time of great self-involvement. They’re also a time of idealism, sometimes heartbreak, often vulnerability, and always change.

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. And now, folks, please give yourselves a treat and visit Marina Sofia’s excellent blog. Fine book reviews, powerful poetry, and great photography await you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alphaville’s Forever Young.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Sarah Caudwell, Seán Haldane, Sulari Gentill

Scandi-lous! ;-)

Petrona LogoThe shortlist for the 2016 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel has recently been announced. I think it’s very exciting to see so much great Scandinavian crime fiction available. And it’s all got me thinking about…





…a quiz! Oh please! You know this blog is dangerous!😉


Some excellent crime fiction has come to us from the Scandinavian countries. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your Scandinavian crime fiction, 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? Pour yourself an Akvavit to begin…if you dare!😉




Filed under Uncategorized

In The Spotlight: Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask

>In The Spotlight: Rex Stout's Fer de LanceHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many contemporary readers prefer crime fiction that’s character-driven, or that at least has a strong emphasis on characters. But there are plenty of readers who like to ‘match wits’ with the author, and enjoy a plot-driven sort of whodunit. And even readers who like character-driven novels also often enjoy the challenge of putting all of the clues together. So let’s take a closer look at a whodunit sort of puzzler today, and turn the spotlight on Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask.

The story begins on the London docks, where the Bullfinch has just come in from Rouen. Tom Broughton, who works for the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, is sent to ensure that a valuable consignment of wine has arrived in good order. The customer is particular, and there were complaints about the last shipment, so Broughton is told to check everything very carefully.

When he arrives at the company’s warehouse, Broughton begins to look over the consignment. One of the casks seems both heavier and larger than the others, and that catches Broughton’s attention right away. Then, Broughton and one of the warehouse foremen notice something else: a pile of sawdust seeps out of the cask. That in itself isn’t so unusual, since sawdust is used to cushion the bottles of wine. What is odd, though, is that there’s also a gold coin. Then another one falls out. Before long, a pile of several have slipped out. Now Broughton directs the foreman to open the cask to see what’s in it. Inside, the two men discover the body of a woman. The police are notified, and Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate.

The first thing Burnley has to do is locate the cask, since by the time he gets to the warehouse, it’s already been claimed. After a time, he traces it to Mr. Léon Felix, who claims that it contains statuary that he ordered from Paris. When the cask is opened, Felix seems shocked to discover the body; in fact, he’s so devastated that he can’t really assist the investigation, and is sent for medical treatment.

The woman remains unidentified. But, since the cask was shipped from Paris, the belief is that she may have been French. So Burnley travels to Paris to follow up on that lead. Once there, he reunites with his friend, M. Lefarge of the Sûreté. Together they begin their investigation.

It takes a few days and some advertisement, but the woman is finally identified as Annette Boirac, wife of the managing director of a manufacturing company. Her husband claims that she left him, and there’s evidence to support his story that he wasn’t home at the time she went away. But of course, spouses are always the most likely suspects. There are other people, too, who could have killed the victim. Felix himself was involved with her, and therefore becomes a suspect. So Burnley and Lefarge have to trace the cask from its origin, and trace Annette Boirac’s movements, to find out exactly when she was killed and by whom. To do that, they have to work their way through several ‘red herrings’ and lies, and follow the complicated path the cask took. In the end, though, they discover who the murderer is.

This is very much a whodunit in the traditional style, with an emphasis on clues and the evidence of what people say (and don’t say). For example, the victim’s identity is established in part by the ‘legwork’ of two police officers who go around to the various dressmakers in Paris to find out who sold the distinctive dress the she was wearing. There are clues in shipping records, recollections of domestic staff members, and marks on a carpet, among other things. Readers who enjoy figuratively going along with the police as they follow up leads will appreciate this. Readers who like trying to deduce who the killer was before the author reveals it will also appreciate this.

Because of this focus on the plot, there is less focus on character development. We do learn a few things about some of the characters. However, this isn’t the sort of novel where we follow a police detective ‘home from the office.’ Readers who prefer to have a focus on the characters will notice this.

As each new lead comes up, Burnley, Lefarge, and their supervisors put it into the larger context of the crime. So there is quite a bit of discussion about what the leads mean, where that leaves the investigation, and so on. Readers who are accustomed to fast-paced novels and ‘lone wolf’ investigators will notice this. Readers who prefer novels where different branches and forces of the police work together will appreciate the fact that the members of Scotland Yard and the Sûreté cooperate, share information and so on. In fact, Burnley and Lefarge are good friends, and there’s no sense of the ‘patch wars’ that are sometimes present in modern police procedurals.

The pace of the novel reflects the fact that this is much more like a police procedural than it is a contemporary thriller. On the one hand, this means that readers who prefer a fact pace and a thriller-like sort of suspense will notice that this story isn’t like that. On the other, the pace does allow the reader to follow along as Burnley and Lefarge make sense of the information they get, and put it into perspective.

The novel takes place both in London and Paris. The two detectives do a great deal of following leads, checking alibis and statements, and interviewing witnesses and suspects in both places. So there is a solid sense of place and context of both cities.

We learn the truth about the murder of Annette Boirac, and we learn who is guilty and why. But, in the tradition of many classic and Golden Age novels (this one was published in 1920), that doesn’t mean that we see the murderer led away in handcuffs. We do, however, get a complete explanation of exactly how the crime was committed, how the ‘red herrings’ were used, and so on.

The Cask is a classic-style whodunit with the real emphasis on the gathering of clues, the testing of alibis and statements, and the following up of leads. It features two detectives from different countries who work together to solve the case, and a criminal who’s taken pains not to get caught. But what’s your view? Have you read The Cask? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 2 May/Tuesday, 3 May – Nefarious Doings – Ilsa Evans

Monday, 9 May/Tuesday 10 May – Three Little Pigs – Apostolos Doxiadis

Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Terror in Taffeta – Marla Cooper


Filed under Freeman Wills Crofts, The Cask

No More War, Please*

ANZACDay2016One of the best things about the crime fiction community is that we can all put aside the things that could divide us, and we can learn from each other. We all have different backgrounds, different cultures, different values, different politics, and so on. And instead of letting those things come between us, we are enriched by them. We all have different takes on books, different kinds of books we like and don’t like, and so on. But that only gives each of us a broader perspective. At the end of the day, I am a better person, and certainly a better-informed reader, because of the other people in this wonderful crime fiction community.

As I post this, it’s ANZAC Day, a day to remember those who gave their lives as part of the ANZAC forces. As I think about those who died, and of their families, I can’t help but imagine what a much better world we’d have if other people took lessons from the worldwide crime fiction community. Oh, don’t worry; I’m not completely naïve. I don’t have too many illusions about global reality. You can’t if you write crime fiction. But think what we’ve accomplished as a crime fiction community. We disagree – sometimes strongly. We don’t all see the world in the same way. And perhaps privately we get annoyed with each other. And we talk about death and murder a lot. But guess what? We’re friends. We work with each other. We learn from each other. We respect one another. We have commonalities that bind us. And I’ve seen how we all support each other when something goes very well – or very badly.

That’s one reason I feel so fortunate to be included in the crime fiction community. And it’s one reason I always take time out on this blog to reflect on ANZAC Day. So many Australians and Kiwis have been kind to me, and I’ve learned so much from my Kiwi and Aussie friends. You know who you are, and I hope you know how grateful I am to you. So, although I’m neither Australian nor a New Zealander, I stand with those who are, in remembrance of too many young people who lost their lives too soon. Their loss is a tragedy for us all.

Think what it might be like if everyone could work together, help each other, and learn from each other, the way we do in the crime fiction community. Perhaps if more people did that, there’d be less awful loss of life. Too idealistic? Quite possibly. Never gonna happen? Perhaps. But why not try? Wouldn’t it be a good way to remember those who died, by working to make sure that others don’t have to?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bronski Beat’s No More War.


Filed under Uncategorized

Curiouser and Curiouser, Sir*

Strange Noises and Odd PapersI’ll bet you’ve had the experience. You hear a funny noise, or you see an odd piece of paper stuck in a crack in the back of a drawer. You’re curious, so you decide to open up that piece of paper, or investigate that weird noise. It’s perfectly understandable, really; humans tend to be curious.

It’s interesting to see how that sort of curiosity plays out in crime fiction, too. Readers can identify with the urge to find out what’s causing that noise, or what that paper says. What’s more, plot points like that can add interest and even suspense to a novel.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner, who has an eerie story to tell him about the death of her sister, Julia. It seems that Julia had been hearing strange, soft whistles and other noises during the night. Other odd things were happening, too. Then, just before she suddenly died, Julia said something very cryptic to her sister. Now Helen is hearing the same weird noises. She’s worried about what might be going on, and she wants Holmes to investigate. He and Dr. Watson travel to Stoke Moran, the Stoner home, and begin the search for answers. They discover that those weird sounds are not just products of the imagination, and that their client is in real danger.

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase begins when Rachel Innes decides to rent Sunnyside, a large country house, for a summer holiday with her nephew, Halsey, and niece, Gertrude. Very soon, some strange things begin to happen. One of those things is a series of strange banging and tapping noises. Rachel is by no means a fanciful person, and decides to investigate. But she can’t find anything that really explains the sounds. Other weird things begin to happen, too, things that frighten her family maid, Liddy Allen, so that she actually ends up leaving. Then, there’s a murder. What’s worse, both Halsey and Gertrude are implicated. Rachel is determined to clear their names, so she begins to do her own investigations. And she learns that those weird sounds are important clues to what’s been going on at the house, and to the murder.

In one plot thread of Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead, Garda Ben Devlin investigates a very odd occurrence. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry on her baby monitor, but says that it’s not her son. In fact, she and her partner have no children. They’d planned a family, but their son was stillborn, and they haven’t gotten rid of the baby things they’d bought. The manufacturer of the baby monitor reports that some of the monitors may pick up the sounds of other crying babies if they are very near. But there are no babies living anywhere near Christine and her partner. Devlin looks into the matter more closely, and finds that the solution ties in with another case he’s investigating. In fact, there’s an important piece of information that comes from following up on that weird sound of an infant crying.

And it’s not just a matter of following up on odd sounds. In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver is visiting a block of London flats. She’s hoping to track down a young woman named Norma Restarick, who shares a flat with two other young women. During the visit, Mrs. Oliver sees a couple of furniture movers taking a desk out of the building. As they’re putting the desk into the van, a piece of paper flutters out. Mrs. Oliver tries to give it to the men, but they ignore her. That piece of paper stuck in that desk turns out to be a very important to clue to Norma’s whereabouts, and to a murder.

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead introduces Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of Canada’s government. In that novel, they’re called in when a man named Christopher Drayton dies after a fall from Ontario’s Scarborough Bluffs. At first it doesn’t seem the kind of case, even if it is murder, that would interest the CPS. That group normally concerns itself more with hate crimes and other community-relations cases. Then readers learn the reason for the CPS’ involvement. Scraps of letters found in a drawer, and a scrap of paper found in a pocket, suggest that the victim may actually have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal who committed real atrocities during the Bosnian War. If that’s Drayton’s real identity, then this is a very delicate case. Questions will most definitely be asked about why a war criminal was allowed to live in Canada, and those questions could lead to the end of more than one career. So Khattak and Getty will have to be very careful as they investigate. It turns out that those little scraps of paper jammed into a drawer are very important.

And that’s the thing. Every once in a while, when you hear a weird noise, or you see a scrap of paper stuck somewhere, it leads to something much more than you think.

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? An odd noise in our heating/air conditioning system turned out to be coming from a scrap of paper stuck in one of the vents. You can just see it on the bottom right of the grill. The air currents made it rattle. You never know what you’ll find when you investigate those strange things.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barenaked Ladies’ Curious.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Brian McGilloway, Mary Roberts Rinehart