We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature*

natural-restorativeIf you’ve read novels featuring Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll know that she’s very fond of her garden. Admittedly, she likes the opportunity that gardening gives her to – erm – observe others. But she also likes being outdoors when the weather allows it.

She’s not alone. There’s actually credible research that suggests that we all benefit in many ways (cognitive, emotional, and more) from being in nature. In fact, research that a colleague and friend has done suggests that children learn better, have fewer mental and other health problems, and are more creative if they are out in nature. And that’s only a few of the benefits. That may be one reason so many of us were told to ‘run outdoors and play’ when we were young.

Certainly being outdoors, without electronics, can be a real restorative. So it’s not surprising that we see plenty of cases of sleuths who like their time in nature. For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is recovering from the traumatic experience of being charged with murder (read Strong Poison for the details of that). She decides to take a break from the world by going on a hiking holiday near Wilvercombe. And at first, she does find it both relaxing and restorative. It helps her get some perspective, as nature tends to do. One afternoon, she stops to take a rest near a beach. When she wakes up, the tide is out, and she sees the body of a dead man. She alerts the authorities, who begin the investigation. The man is soon identified as Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer who works at a nearby hotel. Before long, Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane, and together, they work to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. It turns out that there are several possibilities.

The central focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage has to do with Framhurst Great Wood, which lies near the town of Kingsmarkham. There’s a plan to run a road through the wood, and plenty of people are upset about it. And that includes Inspector Reg Wexford. He’s resigned to the development, but he’s not happy about it:

‘When I retire, he had told his wife, I want to live in London so that I can’t see the countryside destroyed.’

He’s not alone. Many people love the forest, and don’t want to see it ruined. Several activist groups arrive in the area to protest the new road, and Wexford knows there’s going to be trouble. Matters get far worse when the situation disintegrates to a hostage-taking incident. What’s more, one of the hostages is Wexford’s own wife, Dora. Then there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to solve the murder as well as try to find a way to free the hostages.

Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache enjoys spending time in nature, too. In fact, in A Rule Against Murder, he and his wife, Reine-Marie, travel to the Manoir Bellechasse for an annual getaway to celebrate their anniversary. It’s a time for them to get away from it all, and at first, it’s a wonderful trip:

‘One day rolled gently into the next as the Gamaches swam in Lac Massawippi and went for leisurely walks through the fragrant woods.’

They enjoy themselves thoroughly until they begin to get to know the dysfunctional Finney family, who are also staying at the lodge. Then, there’s a murder. Now Gamache finds that his peaceful, natural retreat is anything but.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux can tell you that, in the first novels in the series, he lives in a small, rural home on a bayou where he operates a fish dock. Later, he lives in a house that’s a little less rural, but not far away from the bayou. Robicheaux often finds peace when he simply spends time out on a lake, away from ‘it all.’ Although he’s not an eco-warrior, he understands the value of nature’s rhythms, and some of nature’s healing power. And Burke’s descriptions share that natural beauty with the reader.

Many indigenous cultures are infused with the understanding of how important a connection with nature really is. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, or of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte can tell you that those sleuths pay very close attention to nature, and are attuned to its rhythms. They connect on a regular basis with the natural world.

So does Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. In Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), we learn that she spent her childhood among her mother’s Aborigine people:

‘…my little mob and I would hunt in the hills, fish in the creeks, climb the skeletal trees, scour the countryside on horses borrowed from the stock camps.’

Emily ended up being sent away to boarding school in Adelaide, but she returns to the Moonlight Downs encampment and finds a place to belong. And she reconnects in this novel and in Gunshot Road with the natural world.

Even dedicated city dwellers know how restorative it can be to take a walk in a park, listen to birds, grow plants, or sit watching the sea. For instance, there isn’t a much more determined ‘city person’ than Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. But fans know that he gets his ‘nature fix,’ too. He spends a few hours each day with his orchids. If you find that being in nature calms you and helps you focus, well, the research supports you. Little wonder we see so many fictional sleuths who know that.

Speaking of nature…just for fun, can you spot the baby lizard in the ‘photo (You can click on the ‘photo to enlarge it if you like)?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Dorothy Sayers, James Lee Burke, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

Everybody Take Responsibility*

taking-responsibilityEver had the feeling that most companies and their representatives are only too happy to hide behind ‘company policy’ instead of providing good customer service? Yeah, me, too. And it can get disheartening.

But I’m here to say that it’s not always that way. Some people do take personal responsibility for what their companies do and what their customers need. Case in point: something that happened to me. Recently I had a situation with the auto insurance carrier I’ve had for decades. Without boring you with details, I’ll just say that there was a lapse in customer service – one that really disappointed me. But the story doesn’t end there. A few hours after dealing with the issue, I got a call from the representative who’d been working with me. She took personal responsibility for the choice her employer made, and took it upon herself to make things right. And she did. Among other things, it shows that there are people who do their jobs conscientiously and with integrity. It also made me an even more loyal customer. Thanks to that employee who had a sense of personal responsibility. Thanks, Liberty Mutual, for supporting that kind of integrity.

The whole situation got me to thinking about how integrity and conscientiousness can be woven through a genre such as crime fiction, in which we read about the horrible things people can do to each other. It’s got to be done deftly, or the result can be too ‘frothy.’ But it can be done.

Aaron Elkins’ Loot, for instance, introduces readers to Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. He gets a call one day from his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. It seems that Pawlovsky’s just gotten a painting he thinks might be very valuable, and he wants Revere to give him a sense of its worth. Revere agrees and goes to the shop. Much to his shock, the painting appears to be a priceless Velázquez. Revere is concerned about such a valuable item left in a pawn shop, and asks to take the art with him while he does some further investigation. This Pawlovsky refuses to do, and, in the end, Revere doesn’t fight him on the subject. He leaves for a few hours of research. When he gets back, he finds that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels a real sense of responsibility that he didn’t work harder to keep his friend safe, so he decides to at least find out who killed him. The trail leads all the way back to World War II, when the painting was originally ‘borrowed for safekeeping’ by the Nazis.

In Giles Blunt’s 40 Words For Sorrow, Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Detective John Cardinal learns that a body has been discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. It’s soon established that it’s the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who went missing five months earlier. Cardinal was assigned to that original case, and was never able to solve it. He takes personal responsibility for that, and goes himself to visit her mother and tell her the news – something that must be extremely difficult. He also takes responsibility for this new angle on the case, and follows the leads he gets. In the end, he’s able to discover who the killer is.

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts is the first in his series featuring sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish. He’s just coming back to life, so to speak, after the murder of his wife, and has been spending quite a bit of time at the bottom of a bottle. Unfortunately, that’s the state he was in when Danny McKillop was arrested for a drink driving incident that ended in the death of a Melbourne-area activist named Anne Jeppeson. Now McKillop’s out of prison, and wants to meet with Irish. But by the time Irish gets to it, McKillop’s been shot. Irish already feels responsible for McKillop’s imprisonment; he did a horrible job of representing him and he knows it. So he does what he can now to at least make things right for McKillop’s family. He digs into the case more, and finds that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s death, and that this ‘accident’ was quite deliberate.

In one plot thread of Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, Trafalgar (British Columbia) Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith discovers that her best friend, Christa Thompson, is being stalked by Charlie Bassing. Smith advises her friend to swear out a complaint and get a restraining order, but that doesn’t go very well. What’s more, Smith’s dealing with a murder case at the moment, and it’s occupying her time. So she doesn’t really follow up. Then, the stalking turns very ugly. Smith feels responsible for what’s happened, and believes that the system (and she!) should have done a better job of protecting Thompson. So she takes it on herself to try to make things right. It’s extremely awkward and difficult, because the whole thing has ruptured the friendship. But Smith isn’t satisfied to just ‘put it in the files.’

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has a similar feeling in The Hanging Tree. One day she gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants her to investigate the twenty-year-old disappearance of Orla’s brother, Callum. Unfortunately, Orla’s drunk when she calls, and not particularly coherent, so Scarlett puts the matter aside. Then one day, she learns that Orla has committed suicide (or was it?). She feels a real sense of responsibility, especially since she’d brushed the victim off. Now Scarlett takes it on herself to dig into the mystery of Callum Payne’s disappearance, and find out what happened to him, and how that might be linked with his sister’s death.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood, in which we meet London investigator Catherine Berlin. She’s been gathering background information on an illegal moneylending racket run by Archie Doyle. As a part of that, she’s been working with an informant who goes by the name of Juliet Bravo. One day, ‘Juliet’ is found dead in Limehouse Basin. Berlin knows that the victim’s safety was her responsibility, and she’s determined to try to make things right by at least finding out who killed her contact. That conscientiousness puts her at odds with her employer, and in very grave danger.

We all have stories, I’m sure, of people who didn’t have that sense of personal responsibility and integrity. I know I do. Once in a while, it’s nice to remember that there are people who act conscientiously – even in crime fiction…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Nylons’ Human Family.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Annie Hauxwell, Giles Blunt, Martin Edwards, Peter Temple, Vicki Delany

In The Spotlight: Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club

>In The Spotlight: Reginald Hill's An Advancement of LearningHello, All,

Welcome to another special edition of In The Spotlight. As we continue our exploration of this year’s four finalists for the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel, let’s take a close look at Jen Shieff’s historical novel, The Gentlemen’s Club. Let’s turn the spotlight on 1950s Auckland.

Rita Saunders is a successful hairstylist who also runs a gentlemen’s club – a not-very-well-disguised brothel. Things are going well for her, although she does feel the lack of a partner. But everything changes when a ship from England docks. One of the people on board that ship is Istvan Zieglar, a refugee from Hungary who wants more from life than a spot in a Displaced Person’s camp (more about him shortly). Another is Fenella Grayson, who is English. She’s brought with her three orphaned girls who are to be placed at Brodie House, an orphanage that’s directed by a man named Lindsay Pitcaithly. It’s hoped that adoptive families will soon be found for them, and that they’ll thrive in New Zealand. The orphans settle in, and Fenella begins looking for work. Her mother, Rachel, is from Auckland, so Fenella’s already got some contacts.

For his part, Istvan, too, settles in. He’s going to be helping to build a new bridge over Auckland Harbour, and is eager to get started and begin to save money. He takes a room in a cheap hotel and gets ready to report for work. One day, he hears a young woman in the adjoining room. She’s in obvious serious distress, and he goes in to help her. She is sixteen-year-old Judith Curran, who has come to Auckland to have a (then illegal) abortion. It’s all been arranged by Pitcaithly, who has paid for her abortion in exchange for her agreeing to work in his home as domestic help. The abortion has just been carried out, and Judith is in serious danger of infection or worse. Istvan sees that she needs help, and stays with her, nursing her as best he can, until she’s able to leave.

Little by little, and each in a different way, Istvan, Judith and Rita become aware that something sinister is going on at Brodie House, and that Pitcaithly is not all that he seems to be. But he is a powerful person, and each of them is vulnerable for different reasons. As they work to find a way to prove their suspicions, they learn that there’s more to this case than it appears on the surface. If they’re going to be successful, they’re going to have to work together and be willing to take considerable risks.

Most of the novel takes place in Auckland, and Shieff places the reader there clearly. We see the growing city through several pairs of eyes, too. There’s Istvan, for whom the city is a place to start a whole new life. And, for the most part, he’s allowed to pursue that dream. In that sense, Auckland is depicted as more or less welcoming to immigrants. From Judith’s perspective, it’s a place to escape from her own unpleasant family situation and have her own life. And Rita’s known the city always. She knows both its good side and its seamy underbelly, and still loves the place. Readers who enjoy finding out about a city’s history will appreciate these different points of view about Auckland.

Point of view in its larger sense also plays an important role in the novel. We see the events through several pairs of eyes, including Istvan’s, Judith’s, Rita’s, Lindsay’s, and other characters (all in third person, past tense). Sometimes, the same event is described from more than one perspective. Readers who prefer only one point of view will notice this. That said, though, Shieff makes it clear whose story is being told at any given point.

Another important element in this story is its timeline. While the story is told in a more or less chronological way, the timeline does occasionally move back and forth, so as to ‘fill in a blank’ for readers. Shieff makes those time shifts obvious, so that readers know when different events happen, but readers who prefer just one continuous timeline will notice this.

The novel draws together the fortunes of three people: Rita, Istvan and Judith. Their interactions, and those they have with others, are central to the story. So the element of character figures strongly in the novel. We learn about each person’s backstory (and their pasts do matter), and we see the events that draw them together. Each one of them has to summon reserves of courage as they go up against some real danger. And I can say without spoiling the story that all of them do. Readers who prefer strong female characters will appreciate that, as will readers who prefer immigrants to be depicted as other than victims.

The dangers that these characters have to confront add an element of suspense to the story. But readers who dislike a lot of violence will be pleased to know that this isn’t really a violent story. It’s more suggested than described, if I can put it that way. That said, though, what is hinted at (and in a few places, made clear) is truly ugly, so readers who prefer light mysteries will want to know this.

The novel has been described as ‘gritty,’ and in some ways it is. Some of the characters turn out not to be what they seem on the surface. And others allow certain things to happen, although they know what’s going on. In that sense, this isn’t a happy story. But it’s not all ‘doom and gloom.’ Some of the characters turn out to have real integrity.

The Gentlemen’s Club is the story of some awful things going on just beneath 1950’s Auckland’s thriving, welcoming surface. It takes place in a distinctive setting and context, and features three courageous characters who are trying their best to make things right. But what’s your view? Have you read The Gentlemen’s Club? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 24 October/Tuesday, 25 October – The Fixer – John Daniell

Monday, 31 October/Tuesday, 1 November – Twister – Jane Woodham

Monday, 7 November/Tuesday, 8 November – Montana 1948 – Larry Watson


Filed under Jen Shieff, The Gentlemen's Club

Making Mischief Used to Make My Day*

mischief‘I didn’t mean any real harm.’ ‘We were only having a bit of fun.’ I’m sure you’ve heard things like this when people make mischief. And sometimes mischief is really just that: a relatively harmless prank that’s no more than annoying. You might even laugh about it (much) later. But sometimes mischief gets out of control. And when that happens, there can be real consequences.

Mischief can be an interesting plot thread in a mystery novel. It can show a little bit about characters, or even be used to misdirect in a whodunit sort of story. Once in a while it can provide some comic relief, too, depending on the sort of mischief it is. In whatever way the author uses mischief-making, it can add a layer to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder by poison of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, everyone thought the killer was Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline. She had plenty of motive, and there was enough evidence to convict her. She died in prison a year later, but Carla has always believed her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to take the case, and interviews the five people who were present at the time of the murder. He also gets each person’s written account of the murder, and of the days leading up to it. One of those people is Carla’s aunt (and Caroline’s half-sister), Angela Warren, who lived with the Crales. At the time of the murder, she was fifteen years old, and about to be sent away to boarding school. She had an ongoing conflict with Crale about that and other things, and wasn’t above playing tricks on him. Among those tricks was putting things into his drinks. In one case, she put valerian (which has a very unpleasant taste) into his beer. And that habit makes her a possible suspect…

Peter Robinson’s Gallows View introduces readers to DCI Alan Banks. In this novel, he and his family have recently moved to the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. And they’re not long there before Banks has to face several challenges. One of them is a voyeur who’s making life miserable for the local women. Another is a series of home invasions. Then there’s a murder. Mixed up in some of this is Trevor Sharp, a young teenager who doesn’t really fit in in school. When he gets involved with textbook-case juvenile delinquent Mick Webster, trouble soon begins. What starts out as just having some fun goes very, very wrong.

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is assigned to investigate the death of Jane Neal. She is a beloved former teacher who lives in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Early one Thanksgiving morning, she’s killed in what looks like a terrible hunting accident. But Gamache comes to wonder whether her death really was an accident, and begins to look into the case. As he does, he and his team get to know her background and her relationships with the other residents of Three Pines. That’s how they learn about one incident in particular. It seems that three local boys had recently played a cruel prank on bistro/B&B owners Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. Jane saw what happened and called out two of the boys by name. They might have only been making some mischief, but the incident puts them squarely in the spotlight when it comes to motives for murder.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle features Andreas Winthur and his best (really, only) friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They’re not really by nature cruel or malicious. What they are is bored young people looking for some fun. One day, they’re spending time together as they usually do. As the day goes on, what starts out as ‘just some fun’ turns out very differently. At the end of it, Andreas disappears. His mother, Runi, gets concerned when he doesn’t come home, and goes to the police about it. But Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t overly worried. When more time passes, though, he begins to think something might have happened to Andreas, and looks into the matter more closely. Soon enough, he meets Zipp and asks him about what happened on that fateful day. But Zipp says as little as possible. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Zipp hasn’t killed Andreas. But he certainly knows more than he tells Sejer, at least at first. And as the story goes on, we see how far a little mischief can end up going…

Of course, not all mischief turns out so horribly. Fans of Alan Bradley’s historical (1950s) series featuring Flavia de Luce can tell you that she isn’t above making mischief. Flavia is the youngest of three sisters. Suffice it to say that the three of them certainly have their conflicts. Flavia’s two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy,’ consider her a nuisance at best, and sometimes play some very mean tricks on her. But Flavia isn’t without her resources. She’s a very skilled chemist, and uses that to her advantage. For instance, in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, she schemes to tamper with a lipstick belonging to one of her sisters. She distils the irritant in poison ivy, and puts it on the lipstick, hoping to make her sister miserable. And that bit of mischief has its own consequences.

Most mischief does, though. Playing what seems like a harmless prank can end up in laughter. But it can also have serious consequences. But don’t take my word for it. Crime fiction’ll show you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Super Furry Animals’ Bad Behaviour.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Karin Fossum, Louise Penny, Peter Robinson

We Stand as One…Undivided*

pi-partnershipsWhen we think of fictional PIs, the ones who may quickly come to mind are ‘lone wolves,’ such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. There are plenty of other examples, too, and it makes sense that we’d think of them. A lot of PIs have their own businesses. And some, such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, work with associates who aren’t business partners.

But there are benefits to having an official PI partner. For one thing, the costs and risks are shared. For another, two PIs can work on more cases than can one PI. That means more business. So plenty of PIs, both real and fictional, work with a partner rather than go it alone. It’s not always an easy relationship, of course. There are logistics, matters of finance, and decision-making that have to be worked out between people who are bound to disagree at times. But a PI partner can add a variety of strengths to a business. After all, no one person can do everything, let alone do it well.

There are plenty of PI partnerships in the genre, too. For instance, technically, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is Archie Goodwin’s employer. So in that sense, they are not partners. But any fan of the series can tell you that Goodwin makes plenty of the decisions, has plenty of autonomy, and actually runs the business to a much greater extent than Wolfe would probably care to admit. So, although you may disagree with me (and feel free to if you do), I think of Wolfe and Goodwin as PI partners more than employer and employee.

Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike offer an interesting contrast when it comes to a PI duo. Cole is more personable and outgoing than his partner. He has his quirks (do you know another fictional PI who wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and has a Disney clock in his office?). But he’s the one, in general, who interacts with clients. He can be snarky at times, but he’s the one who does the talking. Pike, on the other hand, is taciturn. He’s a former US Marine who now owns a gun shop. He is, in a way, the ultimate ‘bad boy’ who wears sunglasses all the time, always carries weapons, and so on. But at the same time, he’s got his own code. And he’s the only one who can interact with the feral cat that shares Cole’s home. In many ways, he and Cole couldn’t be more different. But they respect each other and they depend on one another’s skills.

Betty Webb’s Lena Jones and her business partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, own Desert Investigations, a Scottsdale, Arizona PI firm. Jones is a former police officer with her own history and personal scars. She’s able to use her police background and the grit that comes from her personal past as she investigates. Sisiwan is a member of the Pima Nation. He lives in a trailer on the Reservation, and prefers a simple, uncomplicated life. He’s the computer expert of this PI team (in fact, in Desert Run, Sisiwan is lured away from the PI world by Southwest Microsystems). Jones and Sisiwan have a number of differences, but their skills are complementary, and they make an effective team.

S.J. Rozan has chosen an interesting approach to writing her Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series. Each is an independent PI, but they do work together on some cases. And in many ways, they’re very different people. Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by the name of Lydia Chin, is an American-born Chinese PI. She lives and works in New York City’s Chinatown. She keeps some of the traditions of her Chinese family, but she’s also American. Her family strongly disapproves of her occupation, and her mother would like very much for her to find a Chinese man and settle down. But Chin has other plans. She’s as comfortable speaking English as she is speaking Cantonese, and her ability to negotiate both cultures is an asset. Bill Smith, twelve years older than Chin, lives alone over a bar. He’s seen plenty of life, and is much more cynical than Chin is, although he’s not hardened. Fans of this series will know that the books are written from alternating points of view, in first person. Some are written from Chin’s perspective; others are written from Smith’s. This allows readers to get to know both PIs, and lets readers in on how they perceive each other.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel. They’re a Bangkok-based PI team, and partners in life as well. Their partnership has taken adjustment on both sides. Keeney is Australian by birth and culture, but has adapted to living in Thailand. She speaks fluent Thai, and is very much accustomed to living independently and making her own business and personal choices. Patel is originally from India, but moved to Bangkok in part to help in his uncle’s book shop (that’s how he and Keeney met).  Learning to work as a team isn’t always easy for these two PIs. They’re both bright, strong-willed people who have very different cultural backgrounds and different perspectives. But they’ve found that they have complementary skills and knowledge. And they care deeply for each other.

And that’s the thing about PI partnerships. In the most successful ones, the partners bring different strengths to the job, and learn to trust each other. They know that they do much better working together than either could do alone. They might argue from time to time; but in the end, they respect each other and work together, rather than at cross purposes. This post has only allowed space for me to mention a few PI teams. Which ones do you like best?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bon Jovi’s Undivided.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Betty Webb, Rex Stout, Robert Crais, S.J. Rozan