Don’t Give Up*

The news of yesterday’s suicide attack in Manchester is shocking and disturbing. My deepest sympathies to those who lost loved ones in the attack; I wish you peace and healing as you move on. My wishes, too, for quick recovery to those who were injured. Please know that millions of people everywhere stand with you as you cope. I hope that knowing you are not alone will help you stay strong.

One of my social media contacts asked a thought-provoking question about this attack: are we getting inured? Do we no longer allow ourselves to feel deeply about such awful acts of violence? If that’s true, what does that say about us?

Humans can adapt to a lot of situations; it’s part of how we survive as a species. There’s an argument, too, that if we really stopped and absorbed every suicide attack, every senseless murder, and so on, we’d be frozen into immobility. That’s true in life, and if you read crime fiction, there are many, many examples of it there, too. Fictional police, for instance, have to do their jobs, no matter what horrors they see. They can’t ‘freeze up.’ The same goes for fictional PIs, and so on.

On the other hand, becoming too detached doesn’t work, either. There are plenty of crime-fictional examples of characters who are so detached as to be thoroughly dysfunctional. They can’t do their jobs well, they can’t maintain relationships, and they can’t connect with the world enough to be dedicated to what they do.

There’s another way, too, that we can look at this question of how inured we are (or aren’t). If you consider the crime novels that are published each year, there are plenty in which there’s some brutal, ugly violence. Some of it’s quite gratuitous, too. And there’s arguably more of it than there used to be in the genre. A friend of mine once put it this way: you’ve got to out-Hannibal Hannibal Lecter. You may not read such books yourself, but they’re big sellers.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not arguing that such books shouldn’t be published. I’m too dedicated to freedom of expression for that. But it’s a piece of evidence that we’ve gotten accustomed to extreme violence in our crime fiction. And that makes me wonder what this says about us.

I know that people are feeling a lot of different things about the Manchester attack: anger, shock, sadness, and lots of other things. That’s only natural. If we’re going to retain our humanity, we need to feel those things about all the attacks we hear about, whether they’re at a concert, an outdoor market, or anywhere else, and wherever in the world they occur. Those feelings hopefully keep us from being too inured to others’ suffering. And hopefully, they help us to stop this needless violence, and keep us from behaving in inhumane ways. There’s enough of that in the world already.

My thoughts and wishes for peace and healing to those who lost loved ones in the Manchester attack, and to the injured and their families. We are with you.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Peter Gabriel song.

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In The Spotlight: Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Victorian London can be a very effective context for a novel. The physical setting alone can be appealing. And there are all sorts of possibilities for plots and characters. So, it’s little wonder that several series are set in that context. Let’s take a look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry, the sixth in his Barker & Llewellyn series.

Cyrus Barker is a private enquiry agent; Thomas Llewellyn is his assistant. One day they get a visit from Inspector Terence Pool of Scotland Yard. He has a very odd sort of commission that he wants to discuss with Barker. It seems that the British government has granted diplomatic immunity to one Sebastian NIghtwine, who’ll soon be returning to London. And Nightwine has expressed concern that he may be in danger from, of all people, Barker.

That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Barker and Llewellyn have crossed paths with Nightwine before; in fact, it was Barker’s discovery of several of Nightwine’s crimes that drove Nightwine to flee the country in the first place. Now, the British government thinks it needs Nightwine’s help for a secret mission. So, he’s been brought back to London.

Barker strongly suspects that Nightwine has his own agenda, which will probably include revenge. What’s more, Barker has no illusions that Nightwine has reformed, so he’s convinced that there’s a criminal plot, too – one that the British government has not discovered. Forbidden by police to go anywhere near his quarry, Barker has to be creative in finding out Nightwine’s real motives. But once he does, he sees that there is real danger if Nightwine isn’t stopped.

Then there’s a murder, for which Barker is neatly framed. Now, Barker and Llewellyn are on the run from the police, who are not without resources. Every officer in London is on the lookout for them, and all of Barker’s funds are cut off.  This leaves Nighwine free to carry out his plot. So, without money or access to ‘the usual channels,’ Barker and Llewellyn have to solve the murder, clear Barker’s name, and thwart Nightwine’s plans. To do that, they’re going to have to use all of their skills.

As I mentioned, this novel takes place in London, and Thomas clearly places the reader there. From Trafalgar and Leicester Squares, to the docks, to the slums, readers follow along as Barker and Llewellyn follow leads, go into and out of hiding, and so on. And it’s the London of 1886. So, readers who are also familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle may find some of the lifestyle described in this book to be familiar.

But if you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson case, it really isn’t. Barker and Llewellyn are a quite different pairing. And the differences go beyond the fact that Holmes and Watson are more or less friends and colleagues, while Llewellyn is Barker’s employee.

For one thing, in most of the Holmes/Watson stories, Watson quite admires his friend. He seldom has a word of criticism for Holmes, although it’s clear in the stories that Holmes isn’t perfect. That’s not the case with Barker and Llewellyn. Llewellyn respects his boss’ intelligence and ability to solve crimes. But he’s hardly blind to Barker’s imperfections, and he certainly doesn’t hero-worship the man. In this scene, for instance, Barker asks Llewellyn to get a list of passengers who will be on the same ship to London as Nightwine:
 

‘‘What are you planning to do with the information?’ [Llewellyn]
‘I intend to board the Rangoon, of course. What odd ideas you get into your head sometimes.’
‘But he warned you off…’
‘Legally, I have the right to enter the vessel, so long as I do not molest Nightwine in any way or keep Poole and his men from performing their duties. My defense will be iron-clad if I can find someone aboard ship with whom I am acquainted and who will vouch for my attendance there.’
‘Hence the passenger list.’
‘Ah, light breaketh.’
I sighed. One does that a lot when working for Barker.’
 

Llewellyn respects Barker, and he’s glad for the job. But to him, Barker is all too human.

The snippet above also hints at another element in this novel: the wit. One the one hand, this isn’t a ‘jolly romp’ sort of mystery. On the other, there are funny comments and moments woven through it. For instance, in this scene, Barker and Llewellyn arrive at the dock when the ship carrying Nightwine arrives. Poole spots them:
 

‘Poole wagged a finger in his [Barker’s] face. He was one of the five people I knew brave enough to get away with it. I was not one of those people.
‘You’re up to something.’ [Poole]
‘Of course I’m up to something. I’m a private enquiry agent. We live by our wits.’’
 

As I mentioned, this isn’t a comic caper sort of novel. But it definitely has funny moments.

It’s also worth noting that, in this series, the police are presented in a more positive way than they often are in the Conan Doyle stories. Barker does say some disparaging things about them, but it’s not a story full of bumbling coppers. And, when he and Llewellyn go on the run, he’s well aware that the police are a force to be reckoned with.

The mystery itself – Nightwine’s plan, the murder, and the frame-up of Barker – is solved, and we learn what’s behind everything. We also, by the way, learn some things about Barker’s backstory. But I can say without spoiling the novel that this isn’t one of those cases where the guilty party is led away in handcuffs. There are some gritty scenes and moments, too. So, you couldn’t really call this a light, cosy sort of story. That said, though, the violence is not extended nor unusually brutal.

Fatal Enquiry gives readers a look at life in late-Victorian London. It weaves the story of the animus between Nightwine and Barker into the crime plot, and features two enquiry agents whose working relationship forms an important part of the story. But what’s your view? Have you read Fatal Enquiry? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 29 May/Tuesday, 30 May – Never Buried – Edie Clair

Monday, 5 June/Tuesday, 6 June – You  – Zoran Drvenkar

Monday, 12 June/Tuesday, 13 June – Red Ink – Angela Makholwa

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Filed under Fatal Enquiry, Will Thomas

I’m an Adult Now*

When does a young person become an adult? What’s the line between ‘not-an-adult’ and ‘adult?’ It’s really rather blurred, if you think about it. Legally speaking, people attain majority in many places when they’re 18, or sometimes 21. This means they can vote, enter into contracts, give sexual consent, and more.

But if you think about it, do you really consider an 18-year-old an adult? In some ways, yes, especially legally. But if you know young people in this age group, you know that they’re often in that ‘not-quite-ready-for-adulthood’ category. So, the legal definition doesn’t really capture it. There are, of course, coming-of-age rituals in different cultures and religions (e.g. the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the quinceañera, confirmation, or the kinaalda (that’s the coming-of-age ritual for Navajo girls)). But those rituals usually take place during the early-to-mid teen years. And most of us would likely agree that people that age are not adults.

So, the answer to ‘how do you know when someone’s an adult’ can be murky. And crime fiction explores that murkiness. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the genre shows us ourselves. But it’s really interesting to see how the question is addressed.

Some people think of adulthood as meaning the taking on of adult responsibilities, such as getting a job, minding the children, having a home, and the like. But plenty of very young people do those things. For instance, in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is trying to clear her name of suspicion of murdering her former lover, Douglas Brady. At one point, she’s visiting her friend, Leslie. Here’s what Leslie says about some of the children who live near her:

 

‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’ 

 

This child is only seven – certainly not an adult chronologically. but she’s already doing the sort of child-minding that many parents would entrust only to an adult in whom they had confidence.

In Peter May’s Entry Island, Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec is seconded to Entry Island when James Cowell is murdered there. As it is, he has regular bouts of insomnia. But during his trip to the island, he begins to have vivid dreams of stories he was told as a child – stories of his Scottish ancestor, also called Sime. As the novel goes on, we learn more about that Sime, who lived during the early-to-mid 19th Century, and emigrated to Canada. Among other things, we learn that, although he’s a boy by nearly any modern standard, he takes on a great deal of adult responsibility when his father’s off hunting. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that the 19th-Century Sime’s father is killed. At that point, Sime takes on even more responsibility for his home, his mother and his siblings. That scenario might not be unusual for the times, but it certainly blurs the line between child and adult.

To make matters even murkier, there are also plenty of crime-fictional characters who are chronologically adults, but don’t really seem to have crossed that threshold. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boynton family. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton and her adult children, Lennox, Raymond and Carol, are in the Middle East on a sightseeing tour. With them is Mrs. Boynton’s youngest child, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ and Lennox’s wife, Natalie. This isn’t a ‘normal’ family trip, though. Mrs. Boynton is malicious, domineering and mentally cruel. Her family members are so cowed that no-one dares to oppose her, and that includes the three oldest Boyntons. Through the eyes of some of the other characters (including Hercule Poirot), we get to know the Boyntons. It’s interesting to see that, although Lennox, Raymond and Carol are chronologically adults (they’re in their twenties to early thirties), they don’t really live like adults, as we usually conceive of that. Several characters make mention of it. But that doesn’t stop them being suspected when Mrs. Boynton is murdered on the second day of the family’s journey to Petra…

In Vicki Delaney’s Winter of Secrets, we are introduced to Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth, her brother Jason, and five of their friends. All of them are university students on a skiing trip to Trafalgar in British Columbia. They’re all from well-to-do families, so they have no problem affording the trip, renting an SUV, bringing all of the skiing equipment they’ll need and so on. On Christmas Eve, Jason and his best friend, Ewan Williams, are in the SUV the group has rented. They have a terrible accident and go off the road into a nearby river. Jason dies from the injuries he’s received. But it turns out that Ewan was dead – probably for several hours – before the accident. Now, Sergeant John Winters and Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith have a murder case on their hands. And it won’t be easy. All of the people involved are hiding things, and Wendy and Jason’s parents aren’t very helpful. In the end, though, they find out who the murderer is. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how, although these are adults in several ways, they don’t really live completely responsible adult lives.

And then there’s Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus. Dr. Duca Lamberti has recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for euthanasia. One day he’s approached by Pietro Auseri, an engineer who’s concerned about his son, Davide. It seems that Davide has been in a deep depression, and has taken to drinking heavily. Even stints in rehabilitation facilities haven’t been of any help. Auseri wants Lamberti to find out what’s the matter with Davide, and help him. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do, but he agrees. He soon learns that Davide’s depression stems from an incident a year earlier, when a young woman named Alberta Radelli died after threatening Davide that she would commit suicide if he didn’t take her with him. Davide blames himself for her death, so Lamberti believes that his patient won’t heal unless they learn the truth about the young woman’s death. Davide agrees, and the two look more closely into the matter. It turns out that Alberta’s death was not a suicide at all. Throughout the book, we see that, although Davide Auseri is chronologically an adult, he doesn’t really have an independent life, and Lamberti has to coach him to really start thinking for himself.

As you can see, crime fiction isn’t very helpful when it comes to working out where the line is between ‘adult’ and ‘not-an-adult.’ And it’s quite likely that it’s not really a line, anyway. What do you think? When did you first really think of yourself as an adult? I’m due any day now, I think…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Pursuit of Happiness.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Denise Mina, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Peter May, Vicki Delany

It’s Not Supposed to Be This Hard*

Have you ever noticed that there are some myths out there about life? Bear with me and I’ll explain. All of the advertisements and popular-culture outlets present life in certain ways that just aren’t realistic. And because of that people believe that’s how things ‘should’ be. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s not true.

Many people buy into those myths, only to discover later that things don’t work out that way. And that can lead to tension, depression, and more. That’s certainly true in real life. You may even have had the experience of thinking, ‘Why am I struggling so hard with this? It ought to be a lot easier!’ We see it in crime fiction, too. Although it can be damaging in real life, it can also add to the tension and suspense of a novel.

For example, one of the most pervasive myths there is, is that parents of newborns immediately bond with their children in such a fierce way that the challenges of child rearing simply don’t matter. But that’s not true. Caring for a baby is very hard work. We see that, for instance, in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me. That novel is the story of Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern, who move from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, Róisín. They’ve made the move so that Gerry can take a new job that’s a real step up for him. This means that he’s gone a lot, so Yvonne does most of the child care. And it turns out to be nothing like the myths of newborns and their mothers. She loves her daughter, but she finds many things a challenge. And it doesn’t help that she really doesn’t know anyone in Dublin. So, she turns to an online forum called Netmammy, where she finds solace and good advice from other new mothers. Then, one of the members of the group drops off the proverbial grid. Yvonne gets concerned, but there’s not much she can do about it. Then, the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Is it the missing member of Netmammy? If so, this has a lot of serious implications for the group. DS Claire Boyle and her team investigate, and find that the two cases are related, but not in the way you might think.

We also see this myth of the parent/child bond in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, make the move from Scotland to Alistair’s home town in Victoria, with their nine-week-old son, Noah. The first scenes in the novel take place during the flight. And we soon see just how challenging it is to travel with an infant, and how much harder those myths make it. The baby cries – a lot – and the parents are just as exhausted as any new parents are. Add to that the stress of travel, and it’s little wonder the flight is a nightmare. But there’s this myth that newborns are easy to care for, and that all new parents delight in the myriad tasks that are a part of raising children. And those myths don’t go away as children get older. Most parents do love their children very, very much, but that bond is a lot more complex than the myth would suggest.

So is the bond between partners. A permanent bond between two people requires hard work and commitment. That’s not to say there’s no fun and joy in it. There is. But it’s not easy. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband, Zack. As of the most recent novel in this series, Joanne is a retired academic, political scientist, and mother/grandmother. Zack is the current mayor of Regina. The two of them have faced a number of challenges, and are both strong-willed. They love each other and are committed to each other. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for them all the time. But then, neither was really expecting that the myth of the blissful, uncomplicated marriage could be real.

On the other hand, that’s exactly what Eva Wirenström-Berg, whom we meet in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, was hoping to have. She and her husband Henrik have been married for fifteen years, and have a six-year-old son, Axel. From the beginning, Eva believed in the myth of the perfect, blissful marriage and the ‘white picket fence’ sort of home. But lately, things between her and Henrik have been strained. It isn’t supposed to be this hard, and Eva is hoping that it’s just work stress. But then, she discovers to her dismay that Henrik has been unfaithful. And, in one plot thread of this story, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she finds out, she makes plans of her own, but things spiral far out of her control…

Another of those myths is the ‘golden life in a new place.’ After all, that’s the reason so many millions of immigrants have made the move from their homes to a new country. But, for many immigrants, no matter which country they choose, it’s rarely as easy is it seems that it ought to be. There’s the language, there’s finding work, there’s educating children, and more. In some cases, such as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, immigrants end up being highly successful; and in real life, that does happen.

But there are also cases where settling in to a new country and lifestyle is a lot harder than the myths say. For instance, in Robin Cook’s Vector, we are introduced to a taxi driver named Yuri Davydov. In the former Soviet Union, he was a technician working for the Soviet biological weapons program. After the breakup of the USSR, he emigrated to the US, lured (as he sees it) by promises of wealth and great success. But that hasn’t happened. He hasn’t found any sort of job in his area of expertise, so he’s had to take a job driving a cab. He’s completely disaffected, and so, is easy prey for an equally-disaffected group of skinheads who want to carry out a plan of ‘revenge’ – the release of anthrax in New York City. When medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Lori Montgomery become aware of the plot they have to work to find out who’s behind it, and stop the conspirators if they can.

There are many other crime novels that feature immigrants who find that life in their new home is a lot harder than they’d thought. Eva Dolan, Ruth Rendell, and Ausma Zehanat Khan, among others, have all written about this topic. And they’re far from the only ones.

Those myths of how easy it’s ‘supposed to be’ to have a child, sustain a marriage, become a professional lawyer (or doctor, or professor, etc.) are woven into many cultures. And those dreams can be motivating. But the reality is seldom much like the myth. And that can add tension, a plot thread, or a layer of character development to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Spinfire’s Prove Me Wrong.

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Filed under Ausma Zehanat Khan, Eva Dolan, Gail Bowen, Helen Fitzgerald, Karin Alvtegen, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, Ruth Rendell, Sinéad Crowley

What Shall I Call You?*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you’ll know that right now, I’m working on revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. Revising can be a difficult process, especially if some fundamental things about a story need to be changed. But most authors have to make at least some revisions to their drafts.

One of the things I’ve discovered about this particular novel as I’ve been revising is that, of all things, the title I’d chosen no longer works. The plot has changed, and that means that the title doesn’t reflect it very well any more. So, I have to choose a new title.

Titles are interesting things, too. In some way, they have to catch the reader’s attention. Some authors do that by selecting unusual titles. For instance, the titles of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels are certainly inventive. There’s A Red Herring With Mustard, and I Am Half Sick of Shadows, just to name two. And Bradley’s by no means the only author to opt for such unusual titles.

Other authors, such as Sue Grafton and the ‘Nicci French’ team use titles to link the novels in their series. Fans can tell you that Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is sometimes called ‘the alphabet series,’ because each book begins with a letter of the English alphabet (e.g. A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc..). And the Nicci French Frieda Klein novels all have days of the week in their titles (e.g. Blue Monday).

Whatever title an author chooses, most people agree that it needs to be short enough to be remembered fairly easily. Too many words and it’s clumsy. That’s why there are so many crime titles that are one or two words (e.g. Elmore Lenoard’s Get Shorty, or Ruth Rendell’s The Vault). There are exceptions to this, of course. However, titles that are ‘crisp’ and not overblown generally seem to be more successful.

A title also arguably has a real advantage if it reflects something about the book. Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice has as one of its central plot points a dangerous new drug, known as ‘black ice.’ In this case, ‘black ice’ also refers more metaphorically to very dangerous situations that one might not see coming, and are all the more perilous if one’s not prepared. And Rex Stout’s Champagne For One is about the death of Faith Usher, who dies of poison after drinking a glass of champagne at a dinner party.

As you can see, the choice of a title can be a tricky business. It can’t be too long (but it has to be long enough to say something about the book). It can’t be too ‘cookie cutter’ (but not too ‘cutesy’ either). It has to be attention-getting (but not so strange that it’s off-putting). Little wonder that I’m really paying attention to this part of the revision.

But, you see, I have an advantage. I have you. You folks are all readers, and excellent judges of the titles of that get your attention or annoy you (or something in between). So, I’ve decided to ask you to help me and choose the title of my next Joel Williams novel. Below, you’ll see a poll with some possible titles. If you’d like a say, vote for your choice. The poll will be up for about a week, and then we’ll talk about it.

Now, to help you decide, here’s the tentative blurb (there may be some changes, but this is the basic story):
 

Research Can Be Deadly!

Criminal justice professor Joel Williams and two colleagues are studying Second Chances, a Philadelphia alternative school program that’s supposed to keep at-risk students off the streets and out of prison. But it hasn’t kept those young people out of danger. The research team is shocked when their work turns up a tragic death. One of the students, 15-year-old Curtis Templeton, fell from a building near the school, and everyone says it was a horrible accident. But if it was an accident, why isn’t anybody willing to talk about it? And if it wasn’t, who would want to kill Curtis?

To get answers, Williams and the team will step into the world of for-profit alternative schools, and into the lives of the people they’re meant to serve. And they’ll go up against someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep certain secrets hidden.
 

What do you think? Which title says it best?

 


 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ Flesh and Blood.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton