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You Can Rely on the Old Man’s Money*

If you’ve ever been concerned that you haven’t been able to give your children what you wish you could, you’re not alone. Most parents want the best for their children. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want them to struggle the way I had to.’

It’s only natural for parents to want their children to have everything. But there’s an old expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ And it might very well apply here. If you’ve met children who’s always had everything they wanted, and never had to work for it, you know the effect that can have on their dispositions. And that’s to say nothing of how unprepared such children are to deal with life’s challenges.

There are plenty of examples of young people who’ve always had everything they wanted in crime fiction. They don’t always make for sympathetic characters, but they can add interest to a story, and they can add plot threads.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, we are introduced to Ronald Marsh. Having grown up in a ‘blueblood’ family, he hasn’t really wanted for anything. He’s never learned to manage his money, so he’s in quite a difficult financial situation. In fact, that makes him a suspect when his wealthy uncle, 4th Baron Edgware, is murdered. The victim’s wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the primary suspect. She wanted a divorce so that she could marry again. But she says she was at a dinner party in another part of London, and there are twelve people willing to swear that she was there. So Chief Inspector Japp has to look elsewhere for the murderer. Hercule Poirot is involved in the case, since he visited the victim on the day of the murder. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Ronald Marsh copes with the stress of being suspected of murder, of being in need of money, and so on. It’s clear that he was never prepared to work for goals and to deal with adversity.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep introduces us to the Sternwood family. General Guy Sternwood is upset because a book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent him an extortion letter that mentions his daughter, Carmen. Sternwood hires Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him from harassing the family. Marlowe doesn’t find the Sternwoods pleasant at all, but he agrees to take the case. By the time he tracks Geiger down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood was in the room at the time of the killing, but she’s either too drugged or too dazed to say much or remember anything. Marlowe quickly gets her out of the way before the police suspect her, and thinks that this will be the end of his work with the Sternwoods. The next day, though, the Sternwoods’ chauffer dies in what looks like a suicide (but is it?). Now, Marlowe gets more and more deeply involved with the family as he helps to find out what’s behind that death. Throughout the novel, we see that Carmen Sternwood and her older sister, Vivian, have always had every material thing they wanted. They haven’t had love and affection from their parents, but they’ve always been indulged. And that has a profound impact on them.

Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood gives readers a look at the ultra-privileged lives of Bollywood superstars. In it, top film director Nikhil Kapoor is found dead in his writing studio, apparently of a freak electrical accident. His wife, superstar actress Mallika Kapoor, also dies of an apparent cocaine overdose. The Powers That Be want this case wrapped up quickly, and the deaths attributed to tragic accident; but Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan isn’t so sure. So, he begins to look into the matter. He learns that, not long before the deaths, Nikhil Kapoor had hosted a private party at which he said one of those present had killed before, and would kill again. With this information in hand, Khan begins to investigate the people who were at the party, and find out which one Kapoor might have had in mind. And in the end, he finds out the truth about those deaths, and one other murder. As the story evolves, we meet the Kapoors’ son, Rohan. He’s been very much indulged his whole life, and is thoroughly spoilt. He’s smart enough, but he’s never had to work for a living, or make a life for himself. That overindulged background has an important impact on him.

In Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson gets a new client, Christine Arvisais. It seems that her former fiancé, ‘blueblood’ Gordon Hanes, was shot on the day that was supposed to be their wedding. Everyone thinks that Christine’s responsible, but she claims she is innocent. Sasha doesn’t care at all for this new client; Christine is spoiled, self-entitled, and rude. But a fee is a fee. So, she starts looking into the case. And it’s not long before she finds that there could definitely be other explanations for Hanes’ murder. Throughout the novel, we see that Christine has always had everything she wanted. And she’s actually quite hampered by not knowing how to work for herself or deal with life’s unexpected blows. And that life of indulgence has certainly had an impact on her personality.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of the Garrow family.  Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who comes from a ‘blueblood’ family. He’s doing quite well, even being spoken of as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s been indulged most of his life, and his mother still works to make sure he has whatever he wants. And on the surface, he does. His wife, Jodie, is smart and attractive, and he’s got two healthy children. Then, everything changes. His daughter, Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. Angus doesn’t know about this child, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her baby.  Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overzealous nurse can’t find any formal records. Soon, the whispers start. Then there are some very public questions about what happened to Jodie’s baby. There’s even talk that Jodie may have had something to do with the baby’s disappearance. Now, Jodie is a social pariah, and Angus finds it very hard to cope with this challenge. He’s never really had to face adversity before, and he’s always had everything. It’s interesting to see what happens to him as the novel goes on.

There are plenty of other examples of fictional children who’ve never been refused anything (right, fans of James. M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce?). They’re almost never really pleasant, happy people. But they can add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Daryl Hall and John Oates’ Rich Girl.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, James M. Cain, Jill Edmondson, Raymond Chandler, Shadaab Amjad Khan, Wendy James

Diamonds Never Lie to Me*

There’s something about jewels. In part, it’s their mystique, of course. But they are considered to have a lot of intrinsic value. What’s more, they’re often small, so they can be easily transported, traded, and so on. It’s little wonder, then, that the jewel trade is such a lucrative one. Companies such as De Beers have made fortunes through the years. That alone means that the jewel trade is a very attractive target for all sorts of crime.

That, plus the hold the jewel trade has on a lot of people’s imaginations, means that there are plenty of references to it in crime fiction. Here are just a few. I know you’ll think of others.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Demetrius Papopolous. Based in Paris, he is a highly respected dealer in jewels and valuable antiques. So, he’s aware of it right away when new collections of diamonds, rubies, and other jewels go on the market. This expertise makes him a very useful contact for Hercule Poirot, who’s tracing a valuable ruby known as Heart of Fire. It was purchased by wealthy American businessman Rufus Van Aldin for his daughter, Ruth. But she’s been murdered, and the ruby (along with the necklace that held it) is gone. As one angle of investigation, Poirot tries to determine what’s happened to the jewel. As he interacts with M. Papopolous, we learn a little about the side of the jewel trade that involves exclusive dealers and their clients.

Jewel dealers have played an important role in times of anxiety, when people were scrambling to get as much ready cash as possible. For instance, during the last years of the Weimar Republic, many Germans were desperate for money. Their currency had little value, and the Great Depression of the early 1930’s was in full force. We see a bit of that in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. Journalist Hannah Vogel lives and works in 1931 Berlin, not long before the Nazis take power. Everything is scarce, and very few people have money. Hannah herself has been slowly selling her jewelry, as her salary gives her barely enough to keep going. In the main plot of this story, she discovers to her shock that her brother, Ernst, has died. She wants to find out how and why, but she has to move very quietly, so as not to attract any attention. Still, she doesn’t give up; and in the end, she finds out the truth about Ernst’s death. Along the way, she has more than one conversation with Herr Mordecai Klein, the jeweler with whom she’d been doing business. Those conversations shed some interesting light on the way people used the jewel trade to manage during that time of panic.

Because the jewel trade is so lucrative, many governments cooperate with the mining industry to ensure a steady supply of gems. That’s what’s happened between the government of Botswana and the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC) in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. The story starts when Professor of Ecology Bengani Sibisi and his guide discover the remains of an unknown man near rural Dale’s Camp. At first, it looks as though the dead man wandered too far from camp and was attacked by wild animals. But it’s not quite that simple, and Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu begins to look into the matter more closely. There seems to be a connection between this death (and another) and BCMC, so Bengu and his team pay particular attention to the way the company does things. So, readers learn about how diamonds are discovered, how their ownership is established, and how they are bought, sold, and transferred.

Sometimes, of course, the jewel trade has a darker side. In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, for instance, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team are faced with a puzzling case. An unidentified Senegalese immigrant has been shot, execution-style, at one of the city’s open-air markets. The first step in trying to find out who the killer was is to find out more about the victim. So, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello start asking questions about the man. It takes some time, both because of the language barrier, and because the man was in Italy illegally. But eventually, Brunetti and Vianello find the home where the dead man lived. As they look through his possessions, they find a hidden cache of diamonds. Now, the case takes on a whole new complexity as the detectives link this murder to the illegal ‘conflict diamonds’ trade.

And then there’s Faye Kellerman’s Sanctuary. In one plot thread of this novel, LAPD Detective Peter Decker and his police partner, Marge Dunn, investigate a strange disappearance. Wealthy Los Angeles jewel dealer Arik Yalom and his family have disappeared. Later, the Yalom parents are found dead, and their two teenage sons are suspected. But they’re still missing. So, Decker and Dunn follow leads through Los Angeles’ diamond district, all the way to South Africa, and eventually to Israel, the Yalom family’s original home. Along the way, readers learn something about the diamond industry and its worldwide reach.

Diamonds and other jewels really do have a fascination for a lot of people. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that we see that industry showing up in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Barry and Don Black’s Diamonds Are Forever.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Faye Kellerman, Michael Stanley, Rebecca Cantrell

We Were Ready For Adventures and We Wanted Them All*

As this is posted, it’s 134 years since Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was published as a novel (it had previously been published in serial form in Young Folks magazine). Even now, the story is popular, although our lives are, in many ways, so much different.

There’s just something about adventure stories such as Treasure Island that can capture the imagination, and keep readers turning or swiping pages. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that there are so many adventure stories in crime fiction. Readers get to take part in the adventure without really undergoing the actual dangers. These stories can be fun, too.

Agatha Christie wrote more than one adventure-type crime novel. For instance, in The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. Her father has recently died, leaving her with no real family, and little in the way of money. She decides she doesn’t want to stay in London, but isn’t sure at first just what she does want to do. Then one day, she happens to be on hand when a man falls, or is pushed, under a train. She finds a piece of paper that had been in the dead man’s pocket, and soon works out that it refers to an upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, she books passage and prepares for an adventure. And adventure is what she gets. She discovers that the man’s death (and another death) are related to international intrigue, stolen jewels, and a crime syndicate.

In Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide, we are introduced to Brisbane police officer Chayse Jarrett. He’s been assigned to work on the investigation of the murder of a deckhand, Ewan McKay. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton, captain of the trawler Sea Mistress, has been accused of the murder, and it’s believed that it all might be connected to the drugs trade. Jarrett is instructed to go undercover on Sea Mistress and find out whether Bretton is involved in the drugs trade, and whether he killed McKay. As it happens, Bretton broke his leg in the incident that ended in McKay’s murder, so he’s not able to skipper Sea Mistress. His daughter, Samantha ‘Sam’ wants to take his place, so that the family’s income won’t be in jeopardy. Bretton doesn’t like the idea, but he also sees little choice if the family is to keep going. So, he gives his consent, and Sam takes the wheel, with Jarrett on board as the new deckhand, and her other crewmate Bill Marvin rounding out the team. The crew soon finds that the sea isn’t their only danger. For one thing, Melbourne drug lord Stefan Kosanovos is trying to make inroads by sea into Brisbane, and does not welcome any interference. For another, both Sam Bretton and Chayse Jarrett are determined to find and bring down McKay’s murderer, and that presents its own risks. In the end, we learn who killed McKay and why, and how it’s connected with the long-ago voyage of another ship. This is a crime novel, but it’s also an adventure story, with narrow escapes, nasty villains, and so on.

Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night sends octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz on a series of adventures. He’s recently moved to Norway to be nearer his granddaughter, Rhea, and her Norwegian husband. The plan is for him to settle into life as an older man, living out his final years peacefully. That’s not what happens, though. One day, Horowitz inadvertently witnesses the murder of a young woman. He rescues her young son, and the two of them go on the lam, since it’s very likely that the killers will go after the boy next. As the police look for the killer, Horowitz and his travel companion go on all sorts of adventures, including on a tractor. In the end, they help to catch the killer.

Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series is the story of Sister Thomas Josephine. It’s 1864, and Sister Josephine is making her way across the western United States from her convent in St. Louis to a new life in Sacramento. Sister Josephine is intelligent and quick-thinking, and she’s not so naïve as to believe that everyone she meets is going to be pleasant and helpful. But she’s not prepared, at least at first, for the adventure and risks that she’ll encounter. Theft, murder, arson, and more are a part of life in what’s often been called ‘the Wild West,’ and Sister Josephine runs into more than her share of those dangers. She learns quickly, though, and becomes, if I can put it this way, a little tougher as time goes by. In the end, she adapts to this very adventurous life. Holbern has set up this story as a series of short (novella-length) books, some of which end on cliffhangers. That sort of story ending isn’t to everyone’s liking, but it reflects the fact that this is an adventure series as much as it is anything else.

There’s also Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty, and F***ed. In that novel, we meet Martin Carter, a banker who’s just been made redundant. As if that’s not enough, his marriage has fallen apart. On his last day of work, Carter gives in to temptation, and makes off with a million-dollar payroll. He makes his escape in a stolen police-issue 4WD, and takes off on what turns out to be a series of adventures.

Adventure stories can require more suspension of disbelief than some readers want. But they can be exciting and fun, too. Little wonder so many people love them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jim Steinman’s Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Derek B. Miller, Geoffrey McGeachin, Sandy Curtis, Stark Holborn

In The Spotlight: Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crimes don’t impact just the victim and the perpetrator. They also impact the victim’s family, and that effect can last for a very long time. To see how this works, let’s turn the spotlight today on Belinda Bauer’s debut novel, Blacklands.

As the story begins, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his Nan, Gloria, in a small, working-class house in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. But this isn’t a typical working-class family. Nineteen years ago, Steven’s uncle (and Gloria’s son), Billy Peters, went missing and never returned. It’s always been believed that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s now in prison for other child murders. But Billy’s body was never found, and the family has been left bereft and without answers.

Steven feels the family’s pain; it plays out in many different ways. And he wants his family to be whole. So, he decides to dig on the moor and see if he can find Billy’s body. At least then, he thinks, he’ll get some recognition, and be able to put his family together. He doesn’t have any luck, but then he gets another, more daring idea. He decides to write to Arnold Avery in prison, and try to find out from him where Uncle Billy is buried.

Thus begins a correspondence between Steven and Avery. As time goes on, it becomes almost a sort of ‘cat and mouse’ game, with each of them trying to stake out a position of power. Steven doesn’t tell anyone in his family about what’s going on, thinking that he can manage it on his own, and that he doesn’t want to hurt, especially, his grandmother any more than has already happened. As the story moves on, the stakes get higher and higher. And in the end, we see that Steven’s choice to try to find out the truth about his uncle’s death will have a real impact on everyone.

The two main characters in this novel are Steven Lamb and Arnold Avery. So, the story is told from their perspectives (third person, past tense). We see how each one reacts to the exchange of letters, and we learn about what life is like for each.

Steven never met his uncle, but Billy Peters’ death has had a profound effect on his life. His family is fractured; and, although his mother does try to take care of him and Davey, she’s got her own issues. And his Nan is still grieving her son’s loss. That loss has affected Lettie, too. She’s felt ‘second best,’ since all the attention was on her brother. And, perhaps without being aware of it, that plays out in her relationships with her own children, as she prefers Davey over Steven. There’s certainly not a lot of joy in the house, and little affection. And, with both Gloria and Lettie preoccupied with their own grief, the two young boys don’t get a much loving attention.

The family also faces harsh economic realities. There’s not much money, and very few treats. The house is adequate, but not particularly nice; and there’s little left over for new things. Steven doesn’t get a lot of support at home, and has few things that the other boys at school would envy. So it’s not hard to imagine how he’s become the target of bullies. That, too, makes his life miserable. Steven is a brave boy, and his ability to stay tough becomes important. But he is still just a boy who would very much like a loving mum.

For his part, Arnold Avery has become accustomed to prison life. Through his eyes, we see what daily life is like in a contemporary men’s prison. It’s not a pleasant place, and Avery has an especially difficult time of it, because he’s in for raping and killing children. In the world of prison, nothing is lower than that; in fact, he’s assigned guards to escort him to meals and so on so that he won’t be attacked or killed. Still, he’s working on being a model prisoner, because he has plans for after he gets out – plans that he has no intention of sharing with his psychiatrist. Avery has contempt for just about everyone else, seeing them all as his intellectual inferiors. He is not in the least bit sympathetic, but he does have a way of getting people to talk to him and believe him, and it’s possible to see how he could get his victims to relax around him.

The story takes place in Dartmoor and Exmoor, and that moor setting is an important element in this novel. Moors can be beautiful. But they can also be bleak, lonely, and subject to very unstable weather patterns. There are bogs and sometimes very dense fogs that can completely disorient even someone who lives nearby. That context adds to the atmosphere of the novel.

There isn’t a lot of ‘onscreen’ brutal violence in the novel. But readers who do not like stories in which children come to harm will want to know that they have in this novel. Bauer doesn’t give detailed descriptions, but she doesn’t gloss over what’s happened, either.

Blacklands is the story of a family struggling to cope, even years after the tragedy that devastated them. It offers a look at the crime from the perspective of a brave young boy who wishes he were a lot older and more mature than he is, and who just wants to have a real family. And it takes place in some of the UK’s more beautiful, and more dangerous, natural settings. But what’s your view? Have you read Blacklands? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 20 November/Tuesday, 21 November – Dead Lemons – Finn Bell

Monday, 27 November/Tuesday, 28 November – Days Are Like Grass – Sue Younger

Monday, 4 December/Tuesday, 5 December – The Student Body – Simon Wyatt

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Filed under Belinda Bauer, Blacklands

They’ll Be There Calling Me ‘Baby’…Maybe*

When a young person’s parents can’t or won’t provide a safe and appropriate living environment, that child is sometimes made a ward of the state. This often means the child goes to a foster home or series of foster homes, and is supposed to be monitored by a social services agency. It’s not at all an ideal solution, but it can be better than living with a parent who’s addicted to drugs, or who abuses the child, or who needs intense and ongoing mental health care. Young people who spend time in ‘the system’ need to develop a tough exterior, and things can be difficult for them. Sometimes, their lives work out well; sometimes they don’t.  Either way, such children can make interesting characters.

There are plenty of them in crime fiction, too. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a product of the ‘the system.’ He’s the son of a prominent lawyer and a prostitute. Since his father wasn’t a part of his life until he was an adult, he spent his early childhood with his mother. Then, when she was murdered, he became a ward of the state, and spent much of his time in foster care, orphanages, and other institutions. Those experiences have definitely impacted Bosch’s life, and given him a different outlook on life to the one he might have had if he’d grown up in a stable home.

In C.J. Box’s Open Season, we are introduced to Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Shortly after the novel begins, he has an encounter with a local poacher, Ote Keeley. It doesn’t go well for Pickett. A few months later, Keeley’s body turns up near the Picketts’ own woodpile, and Pickett is drawn into the mystery of who killed the victim and why. When Keeley’s daughter, April, is abandoned by her mother (that story arc appears in a few of the novels), the Pickett family takes her in. Officially, she’s a ward of the state, but the Picketts see her as their adopted daughter. She adjusts to life with her new family, but, as fans of Winterkill and Below Zero know, things do not magically turn out all right for her.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only female-owned private investigation agency. At the beginning of the series, her focus is on her work. Everything changes when her then-fiancé, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, takes in two foster children, Motholeli and her brother Puso. They’ve lived at the local orphanage as wards of the state since their parents died, and are doing well enough. But Mma Silvia Potokwane, who runs the orphanage, wants them placed in a good home. She persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take the children, and at first, Mma Ramotswe isn’t too pleased that all of this happened without her knowledge. But she takes to the children, and they to her. And in the end, these children find a safe and caring new home.

So does former Bangkok street child Miaow, whom we meet in Timothy Hallianan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty has taken Miaow in as a foster child, and his doing his best to care for her, with the help of his partner, Rose. It’s not always easy, because Miaow has her own trauma and ‘baggage.’ But she’s doing well – much better than she would if she’d stayed on the streets. Rafferty wants to adopt her legally; and, as the series goes on, we see what it’s like when children who are wards of the state go through the adoption process.

And then there’s Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy.  In one interesting plot thread of this novel, we learn about a woman named Agnes Moore. Born in England, she was sent to an orphanage as a ward of the state when her parents were believed to be among the war dead (of World War II). After the war, she and many other British children were sent to Australia. Agnes stayed at a place called Fairbridge Farm, where she had a good experience. Later, she grew up, returned to England, and married and had a family. What she was never told, though, was that her parents weren’t dead. They were listed as dead in error, but they survived the war. When they found that Agnes had been sent to Australia, they went there, too, and had a second child, Sally ‘Snow.’ Agnes later discovered she had an Australian family, and the novel begins as she goes back to Australia to try to connect with her sister and, if possible, her parents. Instead, she goes missing. Her daughter, Ruby, wants the truth about what happened to her mother. Journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett is covering the story in a professional but not particularly interested way. His curiosity is piqued, though, when he learns why Agnes was in Australia. He starts to write stories about the family, and begins receiving letters from Snow, who’s now in prison for a crime that is revealed as the story goes on. She, too, has had experiences with the fostering system, ‘though from a very different perspective. Now thoroughly interested, Fawcett follows the history of both sisters, and it’s fascinating to see how differently they turned out.

Being in foster care – in ‘the system’ – doesn’t have to sentence a child to a miserable life. But it is a difficult situation, and many authorities try to avoid it if possible. It does make for some interesting plot points and characters, though.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charinin’s Maybe.

 

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, C.J. Box, Caroline Overington, Michael Connelly, Timothy Hallinan