Radio, Radio*

LiveBroadcastI’m really excited to announce that I’ve been invited as a guest on Tell Me a Story, presented by The Magic Happens Radio Network! If you’re free, and you’d like to listen, tune in right here tomorrow, 22 May, 10:30am PDT/17:30 GMT. More details then! And no worries if you’re not free at that time; I’ll be posting a podcast.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Elvis Costello.

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It Should be Easy For a Man Who’s Strong to Say He’s Sorry or Admit When He’s Wrong*

ApologiesBeing human, we all make mistakes at times. And some of those mistakes mean we also have to make apologies. Some apologies (e.g. accidentally bumping into someone) are easy. A quick, ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ and all’s usually well again. But other apologies are harder and take longer. They can be really awkward too. If you’ve ever had to look someone in the eye and tell that person how sorry you are, you know what I mean.

Apologies are an important part of relationships, though, and simply bringing the topic up can clear the air. They may not be the main plot point in crime fiction novels, but they can add some character depth and points of tension. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting Nasse House, Nassecomb, to help with preparations for an upcoming fête. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions. But she suspects something more than a fête may be going on. So she asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot arrives, he gets to know Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, who own Nasse House, as well as some of the locals who are helping to prepare for the big event. Among those helping out are Alec and Peggy Legge, who have taken a cottage nearby for a summer break. In one of this novel’s subplots, the Legges’ marriage is under a great deal of stress, and at one point, Peggy actually leaves. Poirot has guessed the reason for the strain, and advises Alec to go after his wife and patch things up with her. Alec agrees, and although Christie doesn’t tell us how it all works out, it’s clear he thinks that saving his marriage is worth humbling himself.

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters is the first pairing up of DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. In this novel, they’re investigating the sudden death of Meredith Winterbottom, who seems to have committed suicide. Kolla isn’t so sure of that, and Brock gives her the ‘green light’ to look into the matter. And it turns out that there are several reasons that someone might have wanted to kill the victim. For one thing, a developer wants to buy up all the property on Jerusalem Lane, where Meredith lived with her two sisters, and create a new shopping and entertainment district. Meredith was the lone holdout, refusing to take the developer’s offer. What’s more, she and her sisters are descendants of Karl Marx, who lived in that part of London for a time. They have some family books and papers that could be quite valuable. As if that’s not enough, her son stands to inherit the house (and the potential profit from selling it) if his mother dies. And he’s very much in need of money. For the most part, Brock and Kolla have a good working relationship. But there is an important rift between them, and Brock decides to work things out. So he visits Kolla, bearing a peace offering of flowers and a bottle of Scotch. It’s a little awkward for both of them, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say they patch things up.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who seems to have the perfect life. She’s healthy and good-looking, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. All is well until the day her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident, and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about that child, but a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she give the child up for adoption, but when the overzealous nurse checks into that, she finds no formal adoption records. Jodie’s family life begins to crumble when the gossip starts about what might have happened to the baby. And when it all goes very public, Hannah begins to feel the strain of having a mother who’s become a social pariah. We do learn the truth about the baby, and Hannah learns that there is no such thing as ‘black and white’ when it comes to people. When she sees a fuller picture of her mother’s story, she knows that she owes Jodie an apology:
 

‘‘Oh, Mum,’ she’s crying, a year’s worth – a lifetime – of tears. ‘I’m so sorry. It’s been so awful. I’m sorry I’ve been such a cow. I didn’t mean to. I don’t even know why. I’m so sorry. I just want everything to be the way it was.’’
 

Everything isn’t magically wonderful again after Hannah’s apology, but we can see that,
 

‘It’s going to be okay.’
 

That apology is an important part of opening up communication between mother and daughter.

Sometimes, it’s parents who have to say they’re sorry, and that can be just as awkward. In Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead, Garda Ben Devlin and his team are involved in some difficult and painful investigations that take up a lot of his time. In a sub-plot, he’s also facing a bit of trouble with his children, Penny and Shane. Penny is dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of a trauma she suffered. Shane loves his sister, but has to cope with the understandable jealousy (and guilt over that) that he feels about all of the attention Penny’s gotten. As a way of spending some special time with Shane, Devlin offers to take the boy to a film – a ‘just us men’ sort of thing. Shane’s all excited about it, but Devlin gets caught up in a piece of the case he’s working and forgets to take Shane out. He knows he’s really hurt his son, and at a vulnerable time, too, so he makes a special effort to say how sorry he is. At first, Shane’s not having any, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story that by the end of it, Shane forgives his father, even if he’s still not at all pleased about what happened.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s at a bit of a plateau in her career, and would love to find the story that will establish her at the top of her profession. That story comes in the form of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Everyone assumes that Bligh really was guilty, and nothing in the records indicates that the police were anything but conscientious and careful. But little pieces of evidence also suggest that Bligh might be innocent. If he is, this could make for an explosive story. So Thorne pursues it for all she’s worth. She finds out the truth about the case, but it comes at quite a cost. And when all is said and done, she knows she needs to make some apologies:
 

‘I’m sorry. So sorry. I behaved unforgivably.’
 

In the end, we see that life will go on, and Thorne starts over. But the apologies are very hard.

They often are. But they can help heal relationships. They can also be the stuff of rich character development and even story arcs in novels.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shameless.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Brian McGilloway, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

And I Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling*

Peaceful MomentsEver had one of those peaceful, calm times when life seems to be going along smoothly? It’s a fact of life that those times don’t last. In a way, that fragility makes them all the more precious, and even poignant. Here’s how Jodie Garrow puts it in Wendy James’ The Mistake:
 

‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’
 

It certainly seems to be. Jodie is married to Angus, a successful attorney. She has two healthy children and a well-off lifestyle. She’s healthy herself, and attractive. That peace is shattered when Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years before to another child. No-one –not even Angus – knows about that other child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie tells the nurse she gave the child up for adoption. But when the over-curious nurse looks for the records, she finds nothing. Now the question is whispered, and then asked quite publicly: what happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s life spins out of control as she becomes a social pariah. In the end, we learn what happened to the baby, and you can’t really say that Jodie’s life is forever ruined. But it’s never going to be the same.

There’s a peaceful moment like that in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, too. Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her brand-new husband Simon. Linnet is both wealthy and beautiful, so with her marriage to Simon, she seems to have it all. There were a couple of nerve-wracking moments when she and Simon encountered her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But things seem to have calmed down, and Linnet is enjoying herself. She and Simon go on a sightseeing visit to a temple, where she has the chance to rest after they’ve finished the tour:
 

‘‘How lovely the sun is,” thought Linnet. ‘How warm how safe… How lovely it is to be happy… How lovely to be me me… me… Linnet. … She was half asleep, half awake, drifting in the midst of thought that was like the sand, drifting and blowing.’
 

Just a moment or two later, a boulder falls, very nearly killing Linnet. It’s frightening to think someone might have been trying to kill her. Things go from bad to worse on the cruise when she is actually murdered. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race work to find out who the killer is.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police detective Dave Robicheaux is taking some time away to heal up after an on-duty shooting that killed his partner and left him wounded. He’s enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, the chance to fish and spend time with his daughter Alafair, and the simple pleasure of sitting on his small dock. Everything changes when he gets a visit from an old acquaintance. Minos Dautrieve is now working with the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a special task force. He wants Robicheaux to help the government bring down New Orleans gangster and drugs dealer Tony Cardo. At first, Robicheaux demurs. But when Dautrieve tempts him with the chance to go after a criminal he’s been wanting to catch, Robicheaux agrees. He soon finds his life getting more and more dangerous as he begins to get close to Cardo.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when University of Vancouver criminologist and academician Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan gets an unexpected chance for a trip to Nice. A colleague who was supposed to deliver a paper at a conference there has been injured and can’t go. So Morgan is tapped to take his place. She’s promised a lovely few days in Nice, with only the paper presentation on her docket. One afternoon, she’s sipping wine at an outdoor café, relaxing and thinking that maybe agreeing to this trip wasn’t so bad. She’s enjoying that peaceful moment when an old acquaintance, Alistair Townsend, passes by and sees her. She’s never liked him, but gets talked into attending a birthday party he’s giving for his wife. When he suddenly collapses and dies at the party, Morgan finds that what was supposed to be a peaceful trip is anything but…

The main action in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing starts peacefully enough for Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. He’s just arrived at his office, and goes through his usual morning routine. It’s a pleasant, if a bit mundane, sort of a morning, fueled with deliciously seasoned Kashmiri tea. Then everything changes. Puri’s secretary Elizabeth Rani brings him the morning paper, which contains terrible news. Dr. Suresh Jha has been killed. Jha was a former client of Puri’s, so the PI certainly takes an interest. It seems that Jha was killed when the goddess Kali appeared and murdered him as punishment for being an unbeliever. Puri is a spiritual enough person, but he doesn’t believe in supernatural solutions to mysteries. So he begins to ask questions. And he finds that this incident isn’t at all what it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. That novel begins as Gurdial Singh goes on his morning rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers who live in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. It’s a peaceful time of day, and Singh enjoys the routine. He’s content with his life, too, and likes where he is, if I can put it that way. Then he gets to the home of radio celebrity Kevin Brace. Singh finds the door a bit open, which is unusual enough. But when Singh knocks at the half-open door and Brace answers it, things turn much worse. Brace says only,
 

‘I killed her, Mr. Singh.’
 

Singh goes inside and discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the condominium’s bathtubs. The police are alerted and begin their investigation. It turns out to be a more complicated case than it seems on the surface, and Singh is drawn into it as an important witness.

Those peaceful, even idyllic moments are probably all the more precious because we know they end. And they can certainly add to the texture of a novel. I’ve given a few examples. Your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Tempchin’s Peaceful, Easy Feeling.

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On the Wind That Lifts Her Perfume Through the Air*

ScentsI was recently a witness at a crime scene. I can’t say much about it, because it’s an ongoing investigation, and because I don’t want to compromise any of the people involved. I can say that thankfully, no-one died. Also, I’m grateful to say that no-one in my family or circle of friends was involved.

With that background, one of the striking things about the scene, both at the time of the incident and later, was the smell of the blood. To be candid, it’s still with me. And no, I promise this post will not be a long list of books where the smell of blood is mentioned. But I can tell you that I have more respect than I ever did for all first responders (including police) who deal with it on a regular basis. How you folks do that is more than I can imagine.

Scents don’t have to be as powerful as that of course to be memorable. In fact, it is said that our sense of smell is a lot more powerful than we may think. Smells of all kinds bring back memories (Ever catch a hint of the cologne or perfume an old flame wore? See what I mean?). They’re powerful advertisements, too; bakeries everywhere count on that. And of course, they play a role in investigations, both real and fictional.

It’s a bit harder to depict scents and their impact in fiction, but it can be done well. And some detail about scents can add to a reader’s engagement in a novel. Certainly it does in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks she’s found the story that will make her career when she learns of the case of Connor Bligh. He’s in prison for the murders of his sister Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. The only member of the family who escaped was their daughter Katy, who wasn’t at home at the time of the murders. Here’s what Katy says about her arrival home that terrible day:
 

‘Then my heart started beating so hard it felt as if it would burst and I started choking. Choking and retching. It was the smell.’
 

This description is actually given several years after the murders; that’s how much of an impact the scent of the murder scene had.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins when journalist Jack Parlabane wakes up to the sound of a terrible commotion coming from the flat downstairs. He’s got an awful hangover, but he is curious about what’s going on. He leaves his own home, not thinking to bring his key along, and goes downstairs. The crime scene that awaits him (no, I won’t describe it in detail) is, to say the least, foul. The scents are enough to make Parlabane feel much, much worse, and he wants to get back to his own place as soon as he can. But without his key, he can’t do that. So he decides to go through one of the windows in the downstairs flat and climb up into the corresponding window in his own. That’s when DC Jenny Dalziel, who’s one of the investigators, catches him. And it’s how Parlabane gets involved in a crime story he couldn’t have imagined.

As I mentioned, scents can also be powerful triggers for memory. Agatha Christie uses that fact in several of her stories. For instance, in Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale was poisoned one afternoon, and the assumption has always been that his wife Caroline was responsible. She had motive, too, and in fact, was arrested and convicted. She died in prison, so is no longer there to defend herself; but Carla is convinced she was innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and starts by interviewing all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each. Then, he uses that information to establish who was guilty. One of the things that several people tell him is that the murder happened so long ago that it’s impossible to remember details. But Poirot uses strong scents in two instances to trigger memories; that information helps him greatly in solving the mystery. I know, I know, fans of After the Funeral and Murder on the Orient Express.

Of course, not all scents are unpleasant or terrible reminders. But they all have the capacity to influence us. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne baker who knows the appeal of the smell of fresh-baked bread. Here’s what she says about it in Heavenly Pleasures:
 

‘The scent of fresh baked bread was dragging the famished hordes out of the cold street, where a nasty little Melbourne wind had whipped up…’
 

It’s very hard to walk past a bakery for just that reason.

Scent is also a really important part of the appeal of wine. Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen’s Benjamin Cooker could tell you all about it.  He is a winemaker and a noted oenologist, whose opinion is respected throughout the winemaking community. His expertise also makes him and his assistant Virgile Lanssien perfect choices to investigate when there is fraud, theft or worse among the members. More than once in this Winemaker Detective series, there are mentions of the way wine is made, and how that process impacts its aroma. It’s a really clear example of how much our sense of taste is affected by our sense of smell.

You may not think about it much unless perhaps you have a cold, so that you can’t smell much. But scents really are very powerful triggers, for memories and a lot else.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations.

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In The Spotlight: Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. British Columbia (BC) is not just a beautiful part of Canada; it also has a rich and interesting history. To get a sense of that part of Canada, let’s turn the spotlight on Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making, which takes place in 1868 and 1869.

Chad Hobbes has recently completed his degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford, and has just arrived in Victoria, BC. With some help from a letter of introduction to the Governor, he is given a job as a police constable, under the command of Augustus Pemberton. At first, the job consists mostly of guard duty, settling drunken quarrels, and the occasional removal of local prostitutes.

Then one day, a group of Tsimshian Indians, who were in the area to sell their handmade goods, comes to the courthouse with horrible news. They’ve discovered the mutilated body of Richard McCrory. At first, it seems that this will be an easy case. It turns out that McCrory had been involved with Lukswaas, one of the Tsimshian women. Her partner Wiladzap is one of the leaders of this group, and it’s assumed that he killed McCrory, both as an act of vengeance and to assert his leadership. Wiladzap denies being the killer, and Lukswaas supports him.

As a matter of form, the police have to conduct an investigation, more to prove that they are even-handed than to actually find out whether they’re right in their theory. So Hobbes is given the job of asking perfunctory questions of anyone who might have known the victim. As he does so, he learns more about McCrory.

It turns out that McCrory was an American who billed himself as an ‘alienist,’ a psychiatrist during the days before the development of modern psychological and psychiatric science. He also claimed to be a mesmerist and phrenologist. As Hobbes talks to the people who interacted with the victim, he gets a clearer picture of the kind of man McCrory was. The victim, Hobbes learns, gave lectures on mesmerism, and also saw private patients. Most of these were people with psychological complaints (what we would now consider depression). Hobbes learns from these patients that McCrory’s ‘treatments’ very often consisted of what today we’d call sexual abuse of patients. In fact, he was obsessed with sexuality, much as Freud would be some fifty years later.

The more Hobbes discovers about McCrory, the more likely killers there are, and it’s not just because of McCrory’s approaches to psychological treatment. He had a certain magnetism, but wasn’t what you’d call an ethical, ‘upstanding’ person. In fact, he has a rather dubious history. Little by little, Hobbes gets to know the people involved with McCrory, and puts together the evidence. In the end, he finds out the truth about the man’s death.

One of the most important elements in this novel is its sense of time and place. The novel’s setting is Victorian British Columbia, a frontier of the Empire. The local culture is a mix of British tradition, some American influence, and a pragmatic local approach to life. There are dance halls, drinking places, and sailors. There’s also a cultural mix of English, American, Chinese, and Indian people. And we see the customs and lifestyle of the late 19th Century in that part of Canada.

Along with that is a strong sense of prejudice about social and ethnic class, particularly about Indians. One of the reasons for which the police aren’t in a great hurry to investigate this case is that they assume that an Indian would willingly act with savagery. They think they have the right man because they assume that’s the kind of person he is, no matter what he says. And throughout the novel, there are clearly stated assumptions about the superiority of Whites and the inferiority of Indians, on just about every level. Even Hobbes starts with those assumptions. There are also Victorian beliefs about what men and women ‘should’ be like, as well as assumptions about Blacks, Chinese, and other non-majority groups. We may find those beliefs offensive today, but they are the opinions of that time.

One of the important debates of that era was over Charles Darwin’s theories about the development and preservation of species. Those theories sparked (still do!) real controversy about the nature of humans and the relationship between humans and other animals. There were all sorts of philosophical, political, social and religious facets to the questions Darwin’s work raised, and this novel explores them. Hobbes is a former Divinity student who wrestles with the religious beliefs he grew up with; he no longer subscribes to them, but they still affect his thinking. His reflections and the viewpoints of other characters in this novel provide a look at the way different people of this era regarded Darwin.

Hobbes’ struggle with these larger questions, and his search for the truth about McCrory’s murder, lead him to try to get to know the Tsimshian better. Through his experiences with those people, readers learn a little more about them, too. Haldane doesn’t depict the Tsimshian as ‘noble savages;’ of course as a culture they are more complicated than that image would have us believe. At the same time though, Hobbes also learns that they are much more than what the local Whites think of them.

Hobbes is also motivated by his growing feeling for Lukswaas. He’s uneasy around women, mostly because of the conflicting messages he’s gotten about them. He’s attracted to them, being heterosexual; but at the same time, all of the religious views he’s heard warn him about them, especially if they are Indian. That mixed message about women and the roles they should play also has an impact on other characters (of both sexes).

The novel isn’t what you’d call a police procedural, although Hobbes is a constable. It’s an unusual story in that sense; law enforcement is an important element in the novel, but Hobbes and his colleagues don’t use the techniques we might find familiar from more contemporary novels. And Hobbes isn’t an ordinary police sleuth. He’s somewhat of a philosopher as well as a student of the law.

The story doesn’t move at breakneck pace. It’s slower and more thoughtful; readers who prefer thrillers and other fast-moving crime fiction will notice this. It’s also worth noting that McCrory’s murder is brutal and Haldane doesn’t sugarcoat it. That said though, the murder takes place ‘off stage.’

The Devil’s Making is a close look at colonial life in the mid-19th Century. It features a visually beautiful setting and a context that includes several different groups of people. And its focus is an unusual sleuth who’s trying to make sense of his New World experience. But what’s your view? Have you read The Devil’s Making? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 25 May/Tuesday 26 May – In the Blood – Lisa Unger

Monday 1 June/Tuesday 2 June – The Water Rat of Wanchai – Ian Hamilton

Monday 8 June/Tuesday 9 June – The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange – Anna Katherine Green

 

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