Category Archives: Gail Bowen

Silk Pyjamas*

An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about sleepwear. That’s right, robes, pyjamas, oversized tees, and other nightwear. One of the really interesting things about sleepwear is the way it’s changed over time, at least for a lot of people. It’s true in real life, and we can see it in crime fiction, too.

For example, in my novel Past Tense, I mention that my sleuth’s wife, Laura, wears an oversized tee to sleep. And she’s not alone; lots of people do that. Others sleep in shorts and a tee, or something else comfortable.

One of the points that Moira makes (you really want to read that post if you haven’t) is that, with so many hotels and other such places having en suite facilities, there’s not a need these days for things like robes and dressing gowns. People don’t need to be concerned about who sees what they wear to bed. But it wasn’t always that way.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express takes place mostly on board the famous Orient Express train as it makes its way across Europe. On the second night of the journey, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works to find out who is responsible. As he questions the passengers, several mention a lady wearing a scarlet dressing gown with dragons embroidered on it. So, he asks every female passenger what her dressing gown looks like. For many, it’s at the very least an odd question. One of them even says,
 

‘‘I must suppose you have a reason for such a question.’’
 

All of the women answer the question, so we learn about their nightwear. And Christie matches nightwear to what you might call station in life, as well as temperament. So, Poirot also learns something about the women as he asks that question.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater introduces his 87th Precinct team, in particular, Steve Carella. In the novel, two police officers are murdered; and, at first, it looks as though someone has some sort of vendetta against the police. Carella follows up on that possibility and traces the whereabouts of several former convicts who might resent the cops. One of them is staying at a brothel, so Carella visits the place. It’s owned by someone he knows, Mama Luz. When Mama Luz opens the door to Carella, she’s wearing a silk kimono that, you could argue, befits her status as the madam. She and Carella have known each other for a while, and they have an understanding. He basically leaves her business alone; she sees that things at the brothel stay under control.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Lora King, a teacher in 1950s Padadena, California. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she takes interest when he starts dating a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant named Alice Steele. She tries to be happy for Bill when he and Alice marry, but Alice makes her uneasy. And, little by little, she starts learning some things about her new sister-in-law that make her even more uncomfortable. At the same time as she is repulsed by Alice’s life, though, Lora also finds herself drawn to it.  A note from Alice (that actually mentions a nightgown) perhaps expresses this best:
 

‘You liked the voile nightgown you saw in my closet, touched it with your milky fingers and asked me where I’d gotten it. When I bought you one of your own, your face steamed baby pink, but you wore it. I knew you’d wear it.’ 
 

Then, there’s a murder. And Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s doing it to protect Bill, Lora starts asking questions. And she finds herself drawn in in ways she wouldn’t have imagined.

In John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitplecheep investigates the murder of a US Marine named William Bradley. Sonchai’s police partner, Pichai Apiradee, was killed as a result of this case, so Sonchai is especially motivated to find out who is responsible. The trail leads at one point to the home of a Russian pimp named Iamskoy. Here’s part of the description we get when Sonchai gets to the place (just about lunchtime, when Iamskoy’s employees are still asleep, or just getting up):
 

‘…a woman answers the door. She is wearing a black dress…and reveals a lot of cleavage…
‘Andy,’ she calls without anxiety. Instead of Iamskoy, another woman appears in shorts and T-shirt. Then another. A fourth is dressed in a long nightgown, done up firmly at the neck.’
 

All of these women are in the same business, and it’s interesting to see how their different personalities are expressed in their sleepwear.

Of course, sleuths have sleepwear, too. In Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, for instance, Albany, New York police detective Hannah McCabe and her police partner investigate three murders. They all have the same murder method, but nothing else really links the victims. So, one important part of solving these murders is looking into the victims’ pasts to see if they have ever met, or ever would have had contact with each other. That involves background research done on the computer, and McCabe chooses to work at home,
 

‘…on the sofa in the living room, in her cotton nightgown and robe.’
 

And she’s not the only sleuth who sometimes works that way.

Of course, no discussion of sleepwear in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As any fan can tell you, his preferred nightwear is a large pair of yellow silk pyjamas. He wears them in several novels and stories. In fact, Gail Bowen pays tribute to them in The Gifted. In one scene in that novel, her sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, goes to a costume party with her husband, Zack. She goes as Archie Goodwin; he goes as Wolfe. And he is dressed in…. yellow silk pyjamas.

See what I mean? Sleepwear is an important part of crime fiction.  Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, please give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s excellent blog. Lots of interesting reviews and commentary on clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Thomas Dolby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Frankie Y. Bailey, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, Megan Abbott, Rex Stout

Glory – One Blaze of Glory*

There’s something about the creative drive that can be all-consuming if it’s not checked. Whether it’s art, music, dance, writing, or something else, the need to create something meaningful can be powerful.

It can also add a great deal to a crime story. That urge can, for instance, shut someone off from others. Or it can lead to all sorts of tension and conflict – or worse. The creative drive can also be an important layer of character development.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, we are introduced to a sculptor named Henrietta Savernake. She is driven by her need to create, and it often impacts what she does. As the story begins, she’s having an affair with Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. As it happens, they are both invited to spend the weekend at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch (he is staying nearby) and arrives just after the shooting. He works with Inspector Grange to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim, and it turns out that more than one person had a motive. As a part of the investigation, he gets to know a little about Henrietta Savernake, and he learns about her creative drive. In fact, she doesn’t know how to grieve for Christow, other than by creating:
 

‘She stirred uneasily . . . Why had that thought come into her head?
Grief. . . . Grief. …A veiled figure . . . its outline barely perceptible–its head cowled . . . Alabaster . . .
She could see the lines of it— tall, elongated … its sorrow hidden, revealed only by the long mournful lines of the drapery. Sorrow, emerging from clear transparent alabaster.’
 

It’s hard for her, but she doesn’t know any other way. You’re absolutely right, fans of Five Little Pigs.

In Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, Nero Wolfe is persuaded to attend a meeting of Les Quinze Maîtres, the fifteen greatest chefs in the world. They will be gathering at the ultra-exclusive Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. Wolfe’s not happy, of course, at leaving his home, but this opportunity is irresistible. When he and Archie Goodwin arrive at the spa, they settle in and meet the chefs. Then, everything changes. Master chef Phillip Laszio is murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on another chef, Jerome Berin. But Wolfe doesn’t think he’s guilty. So, very much against his better judgement, he starts asking questions. Throughout the novel, it’s very clear how passionate these chefs are about their creations and what they do. That drive impacts a lot of their interactions and their views; and Wolfe, who is very much a gourmand, understands their devotion to what he considers more or less an art form.

Fans of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series will know that Joanne’s adopted daughter, Taylor, is a gifted artist. She is passionate about what she does and driven by her inspiration. Sometimes, that makes her difficult to be around, but it is an essential part of her character. And fans of this series will know that Taylor’s biological mother, Sally, was also a gifted artist who was driven by creativity.

Many journalists are driven by and passionate about their work. One the one hand, this can push them to write excellent stories and essays. On the other hand, that drive can have a real impact on a journalist’s personal life and even professional connections. For example, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, we are introduced to Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She loves what she does, and she wants to be at the top of New Zealand’s journalism scene. But she knows that there are a lot of hungry young people coming up behind her as the saying goes. So she wants the story that will establish her. She thinks she finds that story in the case of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, her husband, and their son. Now, little pieces of evidence suggest that Bligh may be innocent. If he is, then this could be the story Thorne’s been waiting to do. She looks into the case, and soon finds herself getting closer to it than she thought she would. And the process of getting the story has real impacts on several of her relationships.

In Paul Cleave’s A Killer Harvest, we are introduced to Christchurch surgeon Dr. Toni Coleman. She’s created a surgical procedure that allows for eyes to be transplanted. She’s dedicated to perfecting the procedure, so that more people’s eyesight can be restored. One of her patients is sixteen-year-old Joshua Logan. He’s been blind all his life; but, when his father, Mitchell, is killed in the line of (police) duty, he has a chance at sight. Dr. Toni plans to transplant Mitchell’s eyes in his son. The operation seems to be a success; and, physically, Joshua begins to heal. Most importantly, he can see. At the same time, he starts to have unsettling dreams/visions. One of his new eyes is working as it should, but the other isn’t. As Joshua starts to learn to function as a seeing person, he learns some very unsettling things about his father, and that leads him to some real darkness. For Dr. Toni’s part, she is so dedicated to what she has created, that it’s hard for her to see the consequences. And that plays a role in the story.

That’s the thing about being driven by creativity. It can result in truly fine work. But it can also have serious negative consequences.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Larson’s One Song Glory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave, Rex Stout

You Know I’m Gonna be Like Him*

It’s interesting how things get passed along in families. I’m not really talking here about physical appearance, although that, of course, is passed along, too. I’m talking more about things such as mannerisms, traits, and, sometimes, special talents. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying something exactly like one of your parents, or using a mannerism that one of your parents used, you know what I mean.

We see this in crime fiction, too, and it can make for an interesting layer of character development. It can even add to a plot point. It’s realistic, too, so it can also add some credibility to family dynamics.

Agatha Christie addressed this in several of her stories. There’s even one (I’m not giving title or sleuth, so as to avoid spoilers) in which family traits prove to be a major clue to a killer. Appointment With Death, for instance, features the Boynton family, Americans who are on a tour of the Middle East. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a malicious, tyrannical person whom Hercule Poirot calls a mental sadist. She has her family so much under her control that they do whatever she says, and never risk displeasing her. The family takes a trip to the ruins of Petra, during which Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. Colonel Carbury is in charge of the case, and he’s not quite satisfied that this was a natural death. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and it soon comes out that the victim was murdered. The most likely suspects are the members of her family, each of whom had a very good motive for murder. One of those family members is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny’ Boynton. She’s become mentally quite fragile as a result of her mother’s psychological abuse, and on the surface, she doesn’t seem much like her at all. But, she has a rare acting ability. When she gets the chance to live her own life, free of her mother’s influence, we see just how talented she is – and that she has more in common with her mother than it seemed. Here’s what one character says:
 

‘‘Looking at Jinny, I saw – for the first time – the likeness. The same thing – only Jinny is in light – where She was in darkness…’’
 

It’s an interesting commentary on the way certain mannerisms and personality traits can be passed down.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we are introduced to Trevor Sharp. He’s a teenager who’s a bit at loose ends. He doesn’t fit in well at school, and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. So, as you can imagine, he’s quite drawn in by a local delinquent named Mick Webster. His father, Graham, warns him away from the boy, but Trevor doesn’t listen. That’s how he gets mixed up in several cases that Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks is investigating. For one thing, a voyeur has been spying on several of Eastvale’s women. For another, there’s been a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. And Banks wants to know what role, if any, Trevor has played in these crimes. As we get to know the Sharps, we see that on the surface, they’re different. But they really aren’t that different after all. And, in the end, we see how much Trevor has inherited, if that’s the right term, from his father.

One of the main characters in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is an LAPD officer named Edward ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of LAPD legend Preston Exley, and that fact makes his life extremely complicated. His older brother Thomas, was, in many ways, just like their father, and slated for a highly successful police career. In fact, Exley senior placed all of his hopes in Thomas. But Thomas was killed in WW II (the novel takes place in the early 1950s) shortly after his graduation from the police academy. Now, the burden of excelling on the police force falls to Ed, who’s not nearly as much like his father as his brother was. Still, as the novel goes on, we see that he has more in common with his father than it may seem on the surface.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner features the members of the Lohman family. One evening, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet up with his brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. They’re having dinner at an ultra-exclusive and extremely expensive Amsterdam restaurant. On the surface, it’s just a getting-together of two couples. But under the surface, there’s a lot more going on. Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son, and, together, their boys have committed a terrible crime. Now, the two couples have to decide what they’re going to do about it. As the novel goes on, we see that, in several ways, the boys have inherited their attitudes and beliefs from their parents. While the parents are unwilling to admit it, there’s a resemblance between them and their sons.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She is a (now-retired) academic and political scientist. She is also the mother of an adopted daughter, Taylor. Among other things, Taylor is an extraordinary artist, with rare talent. Interestingly, her biological mother, Sally, also had real artistic talent. The novels in the series don’t all focus on Taylor, Sally, or art. But throughout the series, we see how, even though they spent no real time together during Taylor’s formative years (Sally was killed when Taylor was not much more than a toddler), there are still real resemblances between the two. And sometimes, they’re very clear to Joanne, who was friends with Sally and who has raised Taylor.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of parents and children who are absolutely nothing like one another. But in a lot of cases, there are similarities, whether it’s in attitude, mannerisms, preferences, or something else. So it makes sense that we’d see those similarities in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, James Ellroy, Peter Robinson

I Want Adventure in the Great Wide Somewhere*

Many young people choose to travel before they settle down to jobs and adult responsibilities. Some do a gap year before university. Others travel after they finish university. Still others travel instead of going to university. Either way, that year or so of travel can add a real richness to one’s life, and some memorable experiences.

Of course, that sort of travel can lead to all sorts of unforeseen circumstance. Just a quick look at crime fiction is all it takes to show that gap years and other travel experiences can have very unexpected outcomes.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory, Dickory Dock, we are introduced to Sally Finch. She is from the US, but she’s studying in London under a Fulbright Scholarship, and is living in a hostel for students. All goes well until one of a pair of her evening shoes goes missing. At first, it seems like a mean, but not dangerous, prank. Then, other things go missing. Now, Sally’s worried about what’s going on in the hostel. The manager, Mrs. Hubbard, invites Hercule Poirot to do a little discreet investigation, and he agrees. On the night of his visit, another resident, Celia Austin, confesses to taking some of the things (including Sally’s shoe), and everyone thinks the matter is settled. The next night, though, Celia dies. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, and now Sally’s mixed up in it all. It’s certainly not the experience she’d planned when she came to London.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook features an American named Tad Rampole. He’s recently finished his university studies and has decided to travel a bit before he settles into adult life. His university mentor suggested that, since he’s planning to be in England, he should pay a visit to Dr. Gideon Fell. Rampole takes that advice and makes the arrangements. On his way to Fell’s home, he meets a young woman named Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten right away, and the feeling is mutual. Later, Fell tells Rampole a strange story about the Starberths, It seems that, for two generations, the Starberth men were Governors at a nearby prison, which has now fallen into disuse. There’s still a family ritual associated with the prison, and it’s now the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin, to participate. He’s concerned, because several of the Starberth men have died violent deaths. Tragically, Martin dies, too. Mostly because of his feelings for Dorothy, Rampole works with Fell to find out the truth about the murder.

Cath Staincliffe’s Half the World Away is the story of Lori Maddox, who decides to do a gap year backpacking in South East Asia. Her mother, Jo, and stepfather, Nick, support her choices, although, of course, they’re concerned, as any parents would be. Lori begins her trip and keeps in regular contact at first. She blogs about her adventures, she sends emails, and so on. Then, the contact starts to become a little more erratic. At first, there’s no reason to really worry. The gap year can be the adventure of a lifetime, so it’s natural for young people to get distracted. Then, Lori stops communicating at all. Now, Jo is really worried. She turns for support to Lori’s father, Tom, and together, the two decide they need to go and find their daughter. Lori was last known to be in Chengdu, China, where she was teaching English, so that’s where Tom and Jo travel. When they get there, they get very little help from the local authorities. Even their consul can’t be of much assistance, because it’s in the interest of the local police to preserve the area’s reputation. So, Jo and Tom will have to find out the truth on their own.

In Charity Norman’s See You in September, Cassy Howells and her boyfriend, Hamish, are planning a trip to New Zealand as a break between their university studies and taking up adult life. They’re planning to volunteer for a few weeks, and then explore the country. Cassy’s parents, Diana and Mike, are excited for her, but, of course, concerned, as you’d expect. Things go well at first. But Cassy and Hamish start arguing, as couples do. That adds tension to their relationship. Then, Cassy discovers to her shock that she’s pregnant. When Hamish makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be a father, the two break up, and Cassy’s left alone and vulnerable. She’s rescued by a group of people who live on an eco-commune. They invite her stay with them for a few days so that she can decide what to do next. Cassy gratefully accepts and joins the group. Little by little, she feels comfortable with them, and in the end, she decides to stay with them. Soon enough, it’s clear that she’s joined a cult which is led by a charismatic man named Justin. Meanwhile, her parents, particularly Diana, are quite worried about her. She’s cut off contact, and in other ways is no longer the Cassy they thought they knew. So, they decide to go and get her. By this time, though, Cassy is fully integrated into the cult; she even has a new name, Cairo. In the meantime, Justin has revealed that the Last Day is coming, and that could spell disaster for the group. Now, the question is: can Diana and Mike get Cassy/Cairo to leave before tragedy strikes?

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Darkness of the Heart, which features her sleuth, retired academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. In one plot thread of this novel, her daughter, Taylor, has just finished secondary school, and decides to take a gap year. Her reasoning makes sense, but that doesn’t mean Joanne doesn’t have any concerns. I admit I’ve not (yet) read this book; I’m a book or two behind in the series. But if you want to read more about it, visit Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, who did an excellent review.

Gap years and other travel can be exciting and fulfilling adventures for young people. They can also be quite dangerous, and you never quite know what will happen. Little wonder this plot point comes up in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken’s Belle (Reprise).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Charity Norman, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr

And I’m a Little Bit Older Now*

One of the important decisions that authors of series need to make is whether, and how quickly, their main characters will age. There are some good reasons not to have characters age. But there are also some strong arguments for letting characters age in more or less real time.

For one thing, we all age. So, we can identify with main characters who get older – it’s realistic. For another thing, as we age, different things happen in our lives (from beginning of career, through height of career, through retirement; from newlyweds, through raising children, through having grandchildren). This gives the author a number of possibilities for adding plot points, characters, and so on.

Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford age in real time, and that makes for several possibilities for plots. In The Secret Adversary and in the Partners in Crime collection, they are young, energetic, and adventurous. And that’s part of what draws them into the espionage business. In N or M? and By the Pricking of My Thumbs, they’re middle-aged. They’re more experienced, their children have grown, and they go about their cases differently. In Postern of Fate, they’ve retired. They’re older, with grandchildren, and take a different attitude towards life to what they did as a young couple. Fans of this series like the fact that they can see how the Beresfords change over time as they age. It adds appeal to their characters.

That’s arguably also true of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. When we first meet her, in Deadly Appearances, she’s middle-aged, the mother of a university-bound daughter and two younger sons. She’s moving to the top of her career as an academician and political scientist, and still coping with the death of her husband, Ian. As the series goes on, Joanne ages, as we all do, in real time. Her children grow, leave home, and make their own lives. She adopts another child, who also grows up and gets ready to leave home. She marries again, moves into retirement, and learns the joys of grandparenting. Other things happen in her home life, too, and they all fit in with what happens as people move in life and get older. That natural aging process makes Joanne an accessible, realistic character; her life reflects what happens to real people.

Tony Hillerman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn ages, too, over the course of the novels that feature him. In the early novels, such as The Blessing Way, Leaphorn is a young man. He’s active, he has stamina, and so on. And the cases he investigates fit with that sort of a detective. As the series moves on, Leaphorn ages. As he does, he rises a bit in the ranks of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). He and his wife, Emmy, approach middle age together, and later, he copes with her death. In the later novels, Leaphorn has retired from active duty, but still occasionally lends his expertise. It’s an interesting transition through the course of the novels, and it makes his character believable.

Michael Connelly has made more or less the same decision about his main character, Harry Bosch. As the series begins, he’s about forty, and a veteran with the LAPD. He’s had relationships, but he’s not married or particularly tied to one person. As the series goes on, he goes through several changes professionally. He also marries and is later divorced. He also becomes a father. In more recent novels, he sees his daughter, Maddie, grow up and begin to think about becoming a police officer like her father. Although Connelly doesn’t place a big emphasis on Bosch’s age, he does address issues such as retirement age. You’re absolutely right, fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus.

There are also authors such as Donna Leon and Ruth Rendell, whose main characters have aged over time, but perhaps not as quickly as real time. Leon’s Guido Brunetti and Rendell’s Reg Wexford are both married fathers of young-ish children at the start of their respective series (‘though Wexford’s daughters are a bit older – in their teens). As both series go on, their children get older (Wexford becomes a grandfather). They begin to face the issues that people face as they get towards middle age, too. And, although, neither author places a great deal of emphasis on this ageing process, it’s going on in the background.

On the one hand, having characters age in real time can be limiting for an author. On the other, it’s a very natural process, so readers can identify with the characters. And it allows the author to work in different sorts of characters and plots. Do you prefer to see your characters age in real time? If you’re a writer, what choices have you made about your main character’s ageing process? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s As I Come of Age.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman