In The Spotlight: Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses

>In The Spotlight: Kate Atkinson's One Good TurnHello, All

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. A great deal of crime fiction places an emphasis on the investigation of the crime that’s at the heart of the novel. But plenty of crime fiction takes another approach, and places the focus on the impact of a crime on the people involved, sometimes years later. That’s the sort of novel Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

One day, the police at one of the South London stations receive a strange anonymous letter. In it, the author confesses to the murder of a vagrant whose body was found on the tracks at an underground station. There’s not very much that the police can do with such a letter, and there’s no telling if it’s genuine. But we soon learn that it is.

The story behind the letter begins in 1966 South East London, a time of Mods, Rockers, and all sorts of experimentation. Teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan are sheltered, but they’re fascinated with the fashions, the music, and the culture. They want to experience it for themselves, so one Friday night, they wangle their mother’s permission to go to the Palais Royale to dance. Her condition is that their cousin Jimmy must take them there and bring them back. Since Jimmy is ‘cool,’ the girls agree and excitedly prepare for their big night.

At first, it’s an exciting adventure. But it’s not long before things change. What happens that night ends up having repercussions that change the girls’ lives forever (I know, it sounds cliché, but it really is accurate in this case).

This isn’t a ‘typical’ crime novel (is there one, really?), in that there isn’t really a criminal investigation. So we don’t follow a sleuth as she or he goes about finding out the truth about a murder or other crime. Rather, it’s the story of one night, and how the events of it impact the lives of just about everyone involved. Readers who prefer crime novels where there’s a murder (or set of murders), a police investigation, and a resulting arrest, will notice this.

And that’s evident in the structure of the story. The novel begins with the anonymous letter, and then moves back in time to 1966, and the story of what led to that night, and what resulted from it. Readers who prefer novels to have a chronological structure will notice this. That said, though, the different time periods are clearly marked, so it’s easy to tell when the action is taking place.

The story is largely told from the perspectives of Bridie, Midge and Jimmy. So we get to learn quite a bit about them and their families. Bridie and Midge are what used to be called ‘nice girls,’ who’ve been brought up in a working-class Irish Catholic family. But there the similarities between them end. Beyond their differences in appearance, they have quite different temperaments. Midge, the younger sister, is more adventurous, and much less devoted to the Catholic tradition. In fact, she questions much of it – and of all religion – privately. For her part, Bridie is devoutly observant, and believes all of the Catholic dogma. Both sisters are devoted to their family and to each other; as the older sister, Bridie in particular feels a sense of responsibility to look after Midge.

As for Jimmy, he’s what used to be called ‘wayward.’ He has a job, but he supplements his income with other ‘business enterprises.’ He’s older than Bridie and Midge, and much more streetwise. In fact, he tries to dissuade them from going to the Palais, because he knows the kinds of things that go on there. He’s not at all religious, but he does have a sense of family obligation.

Each of these characters is deeply affected by what happens at the Palais, and we see a clear demarcation between ‘before that night,’ and ‘after that night.’ Readers who are interested in the long-term impact of life-changing events will appreciate this.

A great deal of the novel’s action takes place in 1966/67 South East London, and that setting and context form important elements in this novel. The late 1960’s were a very different time, especially for girls and young women, and that’s woven through the story. So is the atmosphere of drug experimentation, sexual liberation, and the other major changes that were taking place in that place at that time. There are mentions made of the popular music, too. And there’s some mention of the clothes, makeup and other fashions of the time. Readers who are interested in life in working-class London during those years will appreciate this.

This was, in some ways, a dangerous time, and that’s also woven through the novel. This isn’t a ‘remember-when,’ coming-of-age romp. There is grit, and Avery offers an uncompromising look at some of the risks. Readers who prefer light, easy-to-read crime fiction will notice this. Along those lines, this isn’t really a novel with what you could call a happy ending. Life changes drastically for all those involved, and Avery doesn’t make light of that. That said, though, the novel isn’t hopelessly bleak. For some of the characters, life goes on, and is even good. That doesn’t change what happens, though.

Our Trespasses is the story of two teenagers negotiating the exciting and dangerous world of the pivotal late 1960s. Its focus is one life-changing night, and the effect of what happens that night on everyone involved. But what’s your view? Have you read Our Trespasses? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 1 August/Tuesday, 2 August – Shield of Straw – Kazuhiro Kiuchi

Monday, 8 August/Tuesday, 9 August – State Fair – Earlene Fowler

Monday, 15 August/Tuesday, 16 August – The Dinner – Herman Koch

20 Comments

Filed under Our Trespasses, Steph Avery

So Many Pieces Still Unsolved*

UnsolvedAs I post this, today would have been Amelia Earhart’s 119th birthday. Her life was certainly fascinating, and her career has been an inspiration to many people. But as much as that, it’s her disappearance that’s captured the public’s imagination. In 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, went missing in the area of Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. There were on a round-the-world flight that was being followed by millions of people when they went off the radar.

There have been many theories about what happened to Earhart and Noonan. Some have held up better than others, but as far as I’m aware, there’s been no indisputable evidence of their fate. And that’s precisely what makes this disappearance so irresistibly interesting to so many people. It’s an unsolved case, and people very often find them fascinating.

There are plenty of other real-life unsolved cases, too. They’re the subject of a lot of speculation and theories. There are crime-fictional cases as well. And they capture people’s interest even when those people have no stake in what really happened. It’s human nature to be curious.

In Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, for instance, Inspector Alan Grant is laid up with a broken leg. As he’s recuperating, he happens to muse on a portrait of King Richard III. His reflection leads him to the question of whether the king was really the murderer he was made out to be. That possibility gets Grant curious about what really happened to Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Most people have always thought Richard III had them killed. But Grant begins to wonder if there’s another theory. So he looks into the matter.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse shows a similar sort of curiosity in The Wench is Dead. In that novel, Morse is laid up with an ulcer. During his recovery, he reads a book about the 1859 discovery of the body of Joanna Franks in one of Oxford’s canals. At the time of her murder, two men were arrested, found guilty, and duly hung. But Morse isn’t sure that they really were guilty. So he can resist looking into the case again. Neither he nor Inspector Grant is officially assigned to the case in question. It’s just human nature and the desire to get answers that drives them.

Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems also shows the human tendency to want questions answered and mysteries solved. The Thirteen Problems is a collection of short stories, loosely tied together by an overarching theme. A group of people meet every Tuesday evening. At each meeting, one person describes a murder case. The others try to solve the murder. And it’s interesting to see how the human wish to impose order and have things make sense plays a role. I agree with you, fans of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, he’s recently returned to work after a line-of-duty shooting that left him injured, one colleague murdered and another with permanent paralysis. Never the easiest person in the world to work with, Mørck has become even more difficult since his return. So, for several reasons, he’s given a new role: head of a new department, Department Q, which is dedicated to looking at ‘cases of special interest’ – cold cases. Mørck’s first instinct is to do as little as possible, since he’s very cynical about both the department and his appointment to it. But then one case captures the interest of his assistant, Hafaz al-Assad. Five years earlier, up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard when missing during a ferry trip with her brother, Uffe. The theory at the time was that she went overboard and drowned. But her body has never been found. Assad is curious about the case, since some things don’t quite add up. So he persuades his boss to re-open it and look into it more deeply. And that’s when the two discover that Merete Lynggaard might still be alive. If so, she may have very little time left.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, the second of her novels to feature Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. The nation is getting ready for the 30th anniversary of the South Africa Springboks’ rugby tour, which was to include matches with the New Zealand All-Blacks. At the time of The Tour, as it’s often called, apartheid was in full force in South Africa, and many people protested the Springboks’ visit. Others simply wanted to see the matches. And, of course, the police were responsible for keeping order and protecting everyone’s safety. The controversial decision to let the visit go ahead led to some real ugliness. Now, Thorne’s bosses want a new angle on the 30th anniversary story. Thorne doesn’t really think there is one at first. And in any case, she’s busy with another story. But then, one small item catches her attention. During the match, two people dressed as lambs went to the games, where they danced, made fun, and entertained the crowds. Then, they stopped attending. Thorne’s curious about what happened to The Lambs. Her curiosity is piqued even more when she learns that one of them was a professional dancer who was killed one night. Now, Thorne can’t resist looking into what really happened.

And that’s the thing about human nature. And it’s part of the reason for which people still want to know what happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. I hope we learn the real truth.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Powderfinger’s Thrilloilogy.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Colin Dexter, Josephine Tey, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Paddy Richardson

You Can Run a Household*

HousekeepersWouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone to manage your household? The cleaning chores would be done, the dry cleaning would be sent out and picked up, the food would be purchased, cooked, and served, and perhaps even your household accounting would be done. That’s the life people live when they have a skilled housekeeper.

A recent comment exchange with Kathy D. and with Tim at Solitary Praxis has got me thinking about the role of housekeepers in crime fiction. And housekeepers are certainly woven through the genre. It makes sense, too, when you consider that housekeepers have been part of the social and economic structure of many societies for a long time.

In days past, of course, people of means (and even plenty of people who weren’t extremely wealthy) had household staffs (cooks, maids, drivers, nannies, and so on). The housekeeper supervised those people – not always an easy job.

We see that sort of household structure in Emily Brightwell’s historical (Victorian Era) Mrs. Jeffries series. Mrs. Jeffries serves as housekeeper to Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. In that role, she supervises his cook, maids, coachman and footman. Witherspoon also finds that Mrs. Jeffries is a very helpful ‘sounding board’ when he’s on a case. What he doesn’t know is how deliberate that is on Mrs. Jeffries’ part. She has a good relationship with her employees, who serve as her ‘eyes and ears.’ So when Witherspoon is conducting an investigation, Mrs. Jeffries gets a lot of information from her staff. After all, who pays attention to a maid? Or a coachman? Those people can hear things and see things without really being noticed.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories feature housekeepers. And it’s interesting to see how their roles evolved over time as they’re portrayed in her work. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926. In that novel, wealthy manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. His stepson, Captain Ralph Paton, is the most likely suspect, but he’s gone missing, so the police can’t question him. His fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes he’s innocent, though, and asks Hercule Poirot (who has moved to the area) to investigate. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ is Ackroyd’s housekeeper, Miss Russell. She’s certainly very much in charge of the staff. But she is, if you will, a victim of the social mores of the day, and has to be very careful of what she says and does. She’s also very much aware that Ackroyd could fire her at any moment.

Things changed quickly, especially after World War II. So in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) (published in 1957), we see quite a different role for the housekeeper. In that novel, Miss Marple works with her friend, Elspeth McGillicuddy, to find out the truth about a murder Mrs. McGillicuddy witnessed. The body ends up at Rutherford Hall, the property of Luther Crackenthorpe, so Miss Marple needs an ‘in’ to get to know the Crackenthorpe family. For that, she relies on professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow.  Lucy is very good at her job, so she’s in demand, and basically sets her own work schedule and working conditions. The Crackenthorpe family eagerly hires her, and, technically speaking, she is an employee. But there’s no question who really runs the household and is subtly in charge.

We see that also in Barbara Neely’s novels featuring professional housekeeper Blanche White. Like other skilled housekeepers, Blanche is observant and quick-thinking, and is able to multi-task. On the surface, Blanche is an employee who can be dismissed at any time. What’s more, she is black, while many of her employers are white. This in itself puts her and her employers in different social classes in many areas. And yet, fans of this series can tell you that Blanche has her own way of being much more ‘in charge’ than many of her employers may think. They depend on her in ways they’re probably not even aware of, and they go along with her wishes without noticing it.

Sometimes it can be dangerous to be a housekeeper. Just ask Vera Pugsley, whom we meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. In that novel, TV personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has decided to give up the pressures and hassles of the media, and open an antiques business with her recently-widowed mother, Iris. Everything changes, though, with one telephone call from Iris. It seems she’s suddenly moved from London to Little Dipperton, Devon, and taken the former carriage house on the grounds of Honeychurch Hall, home of the Honeychurch family. This abrupt change of plans shocks Kat, and she rushes to Devon to see what’s going on. When she gets there, she discovers that her mother has injured one of her hands in a car accident, so Kat makes plans to stay on a bit until Iris is well. It’s not long before a strange series of events starts happening. First, someone seems to be sabotaging Iris’ attempts to get settled in her new home. There’s also the matter of the disappearance of the nanny that the Honeychurch family has hired. Then, there’s a theft from Honeychurch hall – a valuable antique snuff box. Then, the Honeychurch family’s housekeeper, Vera Pugsley, is murdered. Kat gets drawn into this mystery, as well as the history of the Honeychurch family.

Of course, not all housekeepers are sleuths or victims. Some are decidedly not on the side of the angels, as the saying goes. Any fan of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca can tell you that. In that story, we follow the fortunes of Maxim de Winter’s second wife as she tries to adjust to life at Manderley, the de Winter home. One major obstacle is that the place still seems permeated by the presence of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. And the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, does nothing to dispel that presence. In fact, she works as hard as she can to manipulate, frighten, demean, and belittle the new Mrs. de Winter. Matters are made worse by the fact that Rebecca did not die naturally.  The psychological tension in the story increases as the second Mrs. de Winter slowly discovers the truth about her husband, Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers.

And then there’s Eunice Parchman, whom we meet in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family needs a housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale advertises for the position. Eunice applies, and is hired with very little ‘vetting.’ And that proves to be disastrous. It turns out that Eunice has a secret – one she is determined that no-one will discover. When a family member accidently stumbles on that secret, the result is tragedy.

See what I mean? Housekeepers are woven into crime fiction in many different ways. Thanks, Tim and Kathy D., for the inspiration. Which fictional housekeepers have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Grass is Always Greener.

31 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Daphne du Maurier, Emily Brightwell, Hannah Dennison, Ruth Rendell

They Are Three Together*

TrilogiesAn interesting guest post on mystery novelist Patricia Stoltey’s site has got me thinking about trilogies. Before I go on, let me encourage you to visit Patricia’s blog. Interesting posts about writing, and updates on the Colorado writing scene, await you. And this particular post includes some useful input on writing a trilogy, for those who may be contemplating that.

Trilogies aren’t a new phenomenon, of course. When it comes to crime fiction, they’ve been around for quite a while. And there are plenty of examples. Space won’t permit me to discuss all of them, but the few I mention here should give an idea of what’s out there.

William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy features Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw. Consisting of Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalties, this trilogy is argued to be the first example of ‘Tartan noir.’ The novels are tied together by Laidlaw’s presence and some other elements. However, each of the novels has a different case and focus. So (and this is important in a trilogy) the books can stand on their own in terms of the individual stories.

McIllvanney’s Laidlaw series isn’t the only trilogy set in Glasgow.  There’s also Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Underworld trilogy. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence offer the reader a look at Glasgow’s criminal world and those who inhabit it. Many of the main characters are professional killers, and the books show how these people go about their jobs. Again, the trilogy is held together by some of the characters’ personal stories, and by its overarching theme. But each novel tells a different story.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy features Stockholm County CID police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. Anger Mode, Project Nirvana, and The Weakest Link are thrillers that include elements of the police procedural. There are international plots, there’s high-level corruption, and so on. There are also plot threads involving Gröhn and de Brugge’s work lives. Each novel has an individual plot. At the same time, though, there are arcs that cross all three novels. And there are characters besides Gröhn and de Brugge who recur.

There’s also Carlo Lucarelli’s historical (WWII and post-WWII) trilogy featuring Commissario de Luca. In these novels (Carte Blanche, The Damned Season, and Villa Della Oche), we see how de Luca has to negotiate the landmine that is the political landscape of Italy during this time. As Mussolini’s regime slips from power and then is defeated, de Luca has to deal first with the fascist regime, and then with the backlash against it. The whole time, he has to find a way to survive the changes in power as well as do his job.

And I don’t think I could discuss crime-fictional trilogies without mentioning Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy and Len Deighton’s Bernie Sansom trilogy. Both feature main characters who are, if you will, caught in the tide of larger events and movements, and try to do their best in what’s sometimes a very dark world. The trilogies are quite different (‘though both are noir trilogies), but both main characters are essentially decent but cynical people who have to do their best to survive in a climate of world-weariness and sometimes hopelessness. There are lots of other trilogies out there, of course, and they’re not just crime-fictional trilogies, either.

There are good reasons to choose the trilogy format, both for authors and for publishers. For authors, the trilogy allows for character development and story arcs along the lines of what’s possible in a longer series. There’s also flexibility, so that the author can explore different main plots within a trilogy. What’s more, for both author and publisher, a trilogy allows for a commitment without risking too much. And for the publisher, the trilogy can mean more sales, as it may motivate readers who’ve enjoyed the first book to purchase the other books.

And that brings me to the benefits for readers. Many crime fiction fans don’t have the time (or perhaps, the motivation) to read a long series. Unless one’s a real admirer of a given author, it’s hard to make that commitment to a long-running series. But a trilogy – only three books! – is easier in terms of the investment of time and reading energy. And it allows the reader to follow some stories-across-stories. For many readers, it’s an effective balance between enjoying an author’s work and making too much of a commitment.

Trilogies do have their drawbacks, of course. For one thing, they can limit both author and publisher. If the main characters in a trilogy really do become popular, ‘fleshed out,’ and of continuing interest to the author and publisher, what happens? Some publishers will agree to a fourth (or fifth, or…) outing in a series. But it can be awkward. It can be a bit confusing, too. For another thing, a trilogy means that the author has to sustain the plot threads and story arcs over three – but only three – novels. That means, in a sense, planning a series, with individual plots, but threads that tie the novels together. Those threads arguably have to be stronger than those that bind a longer series, too, since it’s a trilogy.

What do you think of the trilogy? Do you enjoy story arcs that last over three novels? Or do you prefer longer series, where the characters really evolve over time? Perhaps you prefer standalones? If you’re a writer, have you planned or written a trilogy? How is it different for you to planning a standalone or longer series?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Helplessly Hoping.

49 Comments

Filed under Carlo Lucarelli, Jean-Claude Izzo, Len Deighton, Malcolm Mackay, Patricia Stoltey, Stefan Tegenfalk, William McIlvanney

Hold My Calls, Please ;-)

SecretaryIf you think about it, fictional sleuths really do rely on a lot of people to solve their cases. We really need to remember those people who do the real work! And that’s got me thinking about…

 

 

A quiz! Oh, don’t look at me that way! You’re the one who visited this blog today! 😉

 

Where would crime-fictional sleuths be without their secretaries, receptionists and assistants? As a dedicated crime fiction fan, I’m sure you know all of your sleuths’ secretaries and receptionists, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question with the correct answer, and see how well you do.

 

Ready? Buzz for the secretary to begin…if you dare!😉

 

phone

37 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized