Category Archives: Kerry Greenwood

Words of Wisdom*

You might not think of crime novels as sources for ‘words of wisdom.’ But they can be. In fact, there’s a surprising amount of everyday wisdom in lots of crime novels. Sometimes, those gems come from the sleuth; sometimes they don’t. Either way, though, you can learn some interesting lessons when you read in the genre.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing in response to a letter from Miss Emily Arundell, who lived there. She wasn’t specific in her letter, but referred to a delicate matter on which she wanted to consult Poirot. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. At first, it’s put down to liver failure. But Poirot is not convinced, and he decides to look into the matter. One of the people he and Hastings consult is Miss Caroline Peabody, who’s known the Arundell family for a very long time. She tells the two men about Miss Arundell’s sisters, saying that one of them had ‘a face like a scone.’ Here’s what she says next:
 

‘There’s something to be said for marrying a plain woman; you know the worst at once and she’s not so likely to be flighty.’
 

Now, admittedly, that might be seen as a dated way to think about a woman’s value. But it does hint at the importance of character as opposed to outward appearance. And it’s an interesting perspective on the times.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has learned some important lessons in his time first as a police officer, and now as a private investigator. And, although Block’s novels aren’t necessarily what you’d call philosophical, they do offer some of Scudder’s hard-won wisdom. In The Sins of the Fathers, for instance, successful business executive Cale Hanniford hires Scudder to find out about the death of his daughter, Wendy. There seems no doubt that she was murdered by her roommate, Richard Vanderpoel. In fact, the case has already been closed. But Hanniford had been estranged from his daughter, and he wants to know more about the person she had become. Scudder agrees to find out what he can, and he starts asking questions. He slowly traces Wendy’s last weeks and months and learns more about her. And, in the end, he finds out the truth about her death, too. At one point, here is what he says about getting information:
 

‘You have to know when to stop. You can never find out everything, but you can almost always find out more than you already know, and there is a point at which any additional data you discover is irrelevant and any time you spend on it wasted.’
 

It’s not easy to know where the right stopping point is, but it’s interesting to consider that there is one.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger is the story of Fabien Delorme. When he is informed that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash, he is, of course, sad at her loss. But their marriage hadn’t been a good one for some time. What upsets him even more is that she was with someone else at the time of the crash. Her lover, Martial Arnoult, also died, and Delorme learns that he left a widow, Martine. Delorme finds out more about her, and slowly becomes obsessed. That obsession draws both of them into a spiral of events, and the end result is real tragedy. At one point, Delorme reflects on their marriage, and how happy they were at first. In fact, he thinks that they were so happily wrapped up in each other at that time, that their friends started avoiding them:
 

‘Everyone knows that excessive happiness is as off-putting as excessive misfortune.’ 
 

That’s a very cynical point of view, of course, but there’s a grain of wisdom in there about constant cheerfulness without the acknowledgement that misfortune happens, too.

One of Kerry Greenwood’s sleuths is Melbourne-based baker, Corinna Chapman. At one point, she was an accountant. But she has discovered that baking, especially breads, is her passion. In Trick or Treat, though, she is in great danger of losing the bakery. In one of the plot threads of that novel, some of the local supply of flour has become poisoned with ergot. In fact, there’s already been an ergot-related death. Now, all of the bakeries have to be temporarily closed until they can be shown to be ergot-free. There are other plot threads, too, that threaten Chapman’s, and the bakery’s, peaceful existence. When the danger is past, here’s what Chapman thinks about it:
 

‘I had come very near to losing all the things I valued and I valued them more now that I knew how very much I would miss them.’
 

It certainly offers a perspective on the things we hold dear.

And then there’s the list of Solomon’s Laws. They are the creation of Paul Levine’s Steve Solomon, a Coconut Grove (Florida) lawyer. He’s not afraid to push the limits of what’s accepted in the courtroom, and some judges do get annoyed at his antics. But he is completely dedicated and tireless when it comes to defending his clients. And he’s good at what he does. He’s developed a series of laws that guide the way he lives. Here are a few of them:
 

When the law doesn’t work…work the law
In law and in life, sometimes you have to wing it.
I will never compromise my ideals to achieve someone else’s definition of success.
Lie to your priest, your spouse, and the IRS, but always tell your lawyer the truth.
We all hold the keys to our own jails.
 

The novels have a lot of wit in them. Still, there is some real wisdom in some of these laws.

And that’s part of what makes crime fiction such an interesting genre. Yes, there are characters, plots, and so on. But there’s also a lot of wisdom. Who’d’a thunk?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Christopher Cross.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Pascal Garnier, Paul Levine

There is Nothin’ ‘Bout Me That’s Unsuitable*

A lot of us have at least something about our appearance that we’d like to change. That’s part of why the fitness, beauty, and pharmacy industries are as lucrative as they are. And there’s nothing at all wrong with choosing healthy foods or getting just the right haircut. After all, when you like the way you look, that can build confidence.

But it’s really refreshing to meet people who are, as the saying goes, comfortable in their own skins. Yes, it might be nice to be taller/shorter, a little younger, or perhaps have blue instead of brown eyes. But people who are at peace with themselves are content with the way they look. They don’t desperately try to be different, and that makes them more confident, interesting characters.

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, for instance, knows full well that she’s not a young, lithe beauty. And, yet, she doesn’t dye her hair, or spend lots of money on the latest beauty remedies. She keeps her appearance neat and clean, but she doesn’t obsess about what she looks like. And her age and comfort with herself gives her a certain confidence. On the surface, she’s everyone’s well-mannered, polite grandmother. But fans know that she has a razor-sharp mind and is confident enough in herself to be assertive when she needs to be. And that adds interest to her character.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe isn’t exactly ‘movie star’ attractive. As his partner, Archie Goodwin says, he weighs a seventh of a ton. Wolfe isn’t overly concerned about his appearance, though. He doesn’t dress in the latest fashion or spend a fortune on his hair or clothes. As fans know, there are a few novels in which he diets and (gasp!) exercises. But in the main, he’s not worried about losing weight or being on the ‘cutting edge’ of men’s fashion. He’s comfortable with the way he is, and he is utterly confident in himself – sometimes, as Archie would say, too confident. But Wolfe lives life on his own terms, with no attempt to look the way he’s ‘supposed to’ look.

Fans of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel can tell you that it’s much the same with him. He knows he’s wrong at times. But he’s confident in himself and comfortable in his own skin. He certainly doesn’t worry too much about how men are ‘supposed to’ look. He doesn’t spend a fortune on clothes, men’s cosmetics, or gym memberships. Instead, he accepts himself exactly the way he is. If others don’t like it, he doesn’t much mind.

The same is true of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker, who will be the first to tell you that she’s heavy. Here’s what she says about it, though:
 

‘I can’t afford to spend all day in self-loathing, as everyone expects fat women to do. Self-loathing eats your life. Being fat isn’t my fault or even my sin, despite what all those TV ads say. I was myself and that was what I was…’
 

She shares some wit about it, too:
 

‘I could not get that thin if I starved myself for ten years, and that is a fact. We are famine survivors, we fat women and ought to be valued for it. We must have been very useful when everyone else collapsed of starvation. We would have been able to sow the crops, feed the babies and keep the tribe alive until spring came. If you breed us out, what will you do when the bad times come again? At the very least, you could always eat us. I reckon I’d feed a family of six for a month.’ 
 

Chapman certainly has those moments we all do, where she’d like to have that beautiful outfit, or that perfect hair-and-makeup look. And she’s not what you’d call egotistical or arrogant. But she is confident and comfortable in her own skin.

So is Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty. She’s in her fifties, and she’s not exactly a magazine model lookalike. She likes her Johnnie Walker Black, and wears whatever’s comfortable. Her confidence is a real asset in her line of work, too. On the surface, she owns a legitimate sewing supply store. But she also has a ‘side business.’ Women who’ve been abused know that they can go to her for help evening the score. When she gets a new client, she pays a very uncomfortable visit to the abuser. If that’s not enough to teach him a lesson, she pays a second, even more unpleasant, visit. And she keeps track of her ‘parolees’ to make sure they stay on the proverbial straight and narrow. And after a visit from her, few of her ‘parolees’ want to fall afoul of her again. Hardesty knows that she’s not perfect, and she does make mistakes. But she is very comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t spend a lot of time obsessing about her appearance.

And that can be refreshing in a character.  We all have our anxieties; that’s perfectly natural. And it’s normal to wish we had perfect hair, a sculpted body, or something else. But people who are content with what they look like and who they are tend to have a real sense of confidence. And that can be very appealing.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s Big, Blonde and Beautiful.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout, Sophie Littlefield

We Fear What We Just Don’t Know*

As this is posted, it’s 53 years since the opening of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. As you’ll know, it’s a fictional re-telling of the Salem witch trials of the 17th Century. Miller used the play to speak out about the anti-communist paranoia – the McCarthyism – of the early 1950s. In the play, we see how fear and lack of understanding can end up in tragedy, and we’ve certainly seen it in real life, too.

That plot point can also add to a crime novel, too. For one thing, it seems to be a human characteristic. For another, it adds suspense and sometimes character layers.

For example, in Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is faced with three murders. All of the victims were somehow associated with the Badwater Clinic, run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse.  The clinic makes use of both western medicine and Navajo spiritual and healing traditions, and there are people from both schools of thought who don’t like what’s happening there. So, there is more than one possible murderer. Then, a would-be assassin targets Sergeant Jim Chee. Now, he’s drawn into the investigation. It turns out that Navajo beliefs in skinwalkers – witches who can take other shapes – plays an important role in the novel. So does the fear of falling under the influence of a skinwalker.

Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk is the story of Boston-area neuroscientist Dr. Edward Armstrong, who is doing work on possible medical treatments for depression. He’s been hired by a new company to create a psychotropic therapy, and he’s excited at the idea of making headway on his research. He and his team are under a great deal of pressure to come up with something quickly, since the pharmaceutical company won’t make a profit if he doesn’t deliver. Then, Armstrong gets what he believes is a breakthrough. He’s been dating a nurse, Elizabeth Stewart, who is renovating a home that’s been in her family for hundreds of years. In fact, one of her ancestors who lived there was executed on suspicion of witchcraft. It turns out that the hallucinations and other symptoms used as evidence were actually caused by ergot growing below the basement. Armstrong is fascinated by the idea of using ergot’s psychotropic effects in his research, and he and his team get to work. It ends up, though, that there are tragic consequences that no-one had considered.

M.C. Beaton’s Death of an Outsider begins as Constable Hamish Macbeth takes some time away from his usual post at Lochdubh to fill in for a colleague in the village of Cnothan. Macbeth is not exactly given a warm, cheerful welcome, and the feeling is mutual. Still, he tries to do the best he can to carry out his duties. One of the villagers, William Mainwaring, is possibly even more disliked than Macbeth is. He and his wife, Agatha, are English ‘incomers’ who’ve taken up crofting. But it’s suspected that Mainwaring is involved in some dubious activities. What’s more, he’s contemptuous of the locals, and Agatha isn’t much better. Then, Agatha complains to Macbeth that she’s being pursued by a group of witches. Macbeth isn’t superstitious, and he’s no fan of the Mainwarings, but he has to investigate a citizen complaint. And it is true that some strange things are going on. Matters come to a head when Mainwaring is murdered. Now, Macbeth has to work with the wary locals to try to find out who killed the victim.

Alexander McCall Smith introduces his protagonist, Mma Precious Ramotswe, in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe has recently opened her detective agency, and it’s not long before she begins to get clients. One of them is a schoolteacher named Ernest Pakotati, whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. He is desperate to find the boy and wants her to help. Mma Ramotswe is particularly upset about this case, as you can imagine, and starts working on the case immediately. Before long, she learns that the boy’s disappearance could be related to local witchcraft, and that adds a lot of complication. On the one hand, Mma Ramotswe doesn’t believe in traditional witchcraft, and it’s not politically expedient in modern Botswana to express those beliefs. On the other hand, plenty of people do believe in witchcraft. There’s an underlying respect for, if not fear of, witch doctors and others who deal in the occult. So, it’s not easy to find out the truth.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Miriam Kaplan, who goes by the name Meroe. She is a Wiccan who lives and has her shop, The Sibyl’s Cave, in a Melbourne building called Insula. Meroe is skilled in herbalism and other sorts of healing, and she follows many of the Wiccan traditions. She is friends with Greenwood’s sleuth, Corinna Chapman, who lives and works in the same building. Chapman doesn’t always understand Meroe’s beliefs and skills, but she’s not afraid of her, either. And it’s interesting to see how Meroe is portrayed in this series.

People often seem to fear the unfamiliar. There are myriad examples from real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too. That fear can lead to suspicion and worse, sometimes with tragic consequences. These are just a few examples from crime fiction. I know you’ll think of others.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Hornsby’s Sneaking Up on Boo Radley.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Miller, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Robin Cook, Tony Hillerman

I Prefer You*

Many crime writers have more than one series. This lets them explore different characters and plot lines. Having more than one series gives authors other options, too. It also lets them reach out to different audiences.

And that’s what’s interesting. Even ardent fans of an author usually prefer one of that author’s series over the other. While I have no hard data, my guess is that there are several reasons for that, and those reasons interact with one another.

One of the reasons might be that there are simply more novels in one of an author’s series than in the other. For example, Agatha Christie wrote 33 novels, a play, and more than 50 short stories featuring Hercule Poirot. She wrote 12 Miss Marple novels and a few short story collections. By contrast, she wrote only 4 novels and one short story collection featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. It’s not surprising, if you think about it, that fans of Agatha Christie would prefer either Poirot or Miss Marple. It’s not necessarily because they are better stories (although some would argue that they are). It might also be that the Beresfords don’t get the ‘press’ that Poirot and Miss Marple do.

A similar thing might be said of Reginald Hill’s work. He wrote 24 novels featuring Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, and many people know him from those stories (and the TV series based on them). But he also wrote 5 novels featuring Joe Sixsmith. There are people who like them better, but my guess is, most people think of Dalziel and Pascoe when they think of Hill.

Sometimes, an author’s different series features two very different contexts and/or main characters. So, a reader’s preference might have to do with the setting or the characters. For instance, Kerry Greenwood has two successful series. One features the Honorable Phryne Fisher, a 1920’s socialite who becomes a private detective. That series has been adapted for television, with Essie Davis in the role of Phryne Fisher. Greenwood’s other series features former accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. She’s quite a different sort of character to Phryne Fisher, although both are independent, intelligent, quick-witted women. The two series are quite different, too. One takes place in the 1920s; the other is contemporary. One is told in third person (past tense), the other in first person (also past tense). There are other differences, too, and readers certainly respond to them.

That’s arguably also the case with Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez series and her Vera Stanhope series. They’re both contemporary series, and both feature a police detective. But, as fans know, they have different settings. The Perez series takes place in Shetland, while the Stanhope series takes place in Northumbria. The two characters are quite different as well, even apart from their genders. So, it’s not surprising that some readers prefer the Vera Stanhope novels, and some prefer the Jimmy Perez series

There are also authors who have written very different types of series. For example, consider Donald Westlake’s work. He was a prolific author, so I’ll only focus on two of his series. Under his own name, he wrote a series featuring professional thief John Dortmunder. Under the name of Richard Stark, he wrote another series featuring another professional criminal named Parker. Although both main characters are professional criminals, the series are quite different. The Parker series is gritty, and Parker himself is ruthless. He doesn’t hesitate to kill if the need arises, and he is capable of being quite violent when pushed to it. There is wit in the series, but it’s not at all a light ‘comic caper’ series. The Dortmunder series, on the other hand, is lighter (although it, too, isn’t really a ‘comic caper’ series). Dortmunder isn’t a coward, but he prefers to avoid violence if he can. He’d rather make the right plans so that violent confrontation isn’t necessary. Of course, fans can tell you that Dortmunder’s carefully-laid plans seldom work out the way he hopes that they will. Many readers find his character more sympathetic than that of Parker. Others, though, prefer the grit and cool, logical efficiency of the Parker character.

Lawrence Block, also a prolific writer, has created two very different series in his Matthew Scudder novels and stories, and his Bernie Rhodenbarr novels and stories. Scudder is a former NYPD officer who’s become a PI. The stories featuring him tend to be dark and gritty, and fans know that Scudder goes through some very difficult times as the series goes on. And in it, Block explores the dark side of human nature. So, the endings aren’t usually neat, ‘everything will be all right now’ sorts of endings. By contrast, his Bernie Rhodenbarr novels are lighter, even comic. Rhodenbarr is a professional thief and lock picker who doesn’t set out to be involved in murders. But he does come across bodies in his line of work, and he is highly motivated not to be arrested for home invasion or theft (or murder!). So, he investigates as much to keep himself out of trouble as for any other reason. This is a very different sort of series to the Matthew Scudder series, so it isn’t surprising that some fans like one series better than the other.

And these are by no means the only examples of authors who write more than one series. When that happens, fans often do go for one series or another. Is that true of you? If an author whose work you love writes multiple series, which is your preference? Why?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Monk Higgins, Harvey Fuqua, Morris Dollison, and Dave McAleer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Donald Westlake, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Reginald Hill, Richard Stark

Say the Word and I Will Rescue You*

In Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings meet Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley. A short conversation is enough to suggest to Poirot that she may be in danger for her life. And he finds a piece of evidence that strengthens that conviction. That sense of coming to her rescue, if you will, gets Hastings and Poirot involved in her life. In fact, Poirot warns Nick to be careful, and urges her to have someone stay with her. She obliges by inviting her cousin for a visit. One night, Nick hosts a dinner party, where the guests will watch a display of fireworks afterwards. Poirot and Hastings are invited, so they’re on the scene when Nick’s cousin (who happens to be wearing one of Nick’s shawls) is shot. Now more convinced than ever that Nick’s at risk, Poirot takes further steps to try to protect her. At the same time, he and Hastings work to find out who shot Nick’s cousin.

Poirot is by no means the only sleuth who gets drawn into a case because someone needs what I’ll call rescuing. It’s a natural human reaction to want to help someone who’s in trouble, and it’s a useful tool for an author to draw a sleuth into a case, especially a sleuth who’s not a professional detective. So, it’s little wonder we see this plot point in a lot of crime fiction.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe feels a similar sense of protectiveness in The Big Sleep. In that story, he’s hired by General Guy Sternwood to stop a blackmailer. It seems that book dealer Arthur Geiger sent Sternwood an extortion letter that mentioned his daughter, Carmen. Now, Sternwood wants Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. By the time Marlowe gets to Geiger’s shop, though, it’s too late: he’s been murdered. Carmen is in the room when Marlowe finds Geiger’s body, but she is too dazed, or too drugged, to be coherent. Marlowe gets her away from the scene as quickly as possible, to avoid mixing her up in this murder. That decision to rescue Carmen Sternwood draws Marlowe deeper and deeper into the family doings, and into more trouble and danger than he’d bargained for at the outset.

In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, we are introduced to Corinna Chapman, a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker who has her home and shop in a large Roman-style building called Insula. In one of the story’s plot lines, the building gets a new resident, Andy Holliday. He doesn’t really mix with the other people who live there and has very little to say for himself. When Chapman visits him to introduce herself, she finds that he’s in a bad way. He’s left most of his things in boxes – except for a bottle of scotch, a glass, and cigarettes. It’s not long before Chapman learns what’s making Halliday miserable: his teenage daughter, Cherie, ran away because her parents didn’t believe her when she told them she was being molested. Andy wants very badly to try to patch things up with Cherie, but he has no idea how to find her. Chapman barely knows the man, but she sees that he needs help, and she steps in. They find a way to reach out to Cherie, and it’s not spoiling the novel to say that Andy and his daughter reconnect.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s gained a good reputation as host of a television show called Saturday Night, but she knows there are younger, ‘hungry’ journalists out there. So, she would love to find the story that will establish her at the top of New Zealand journalism. And she thinks she finds it in the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murder of his sister, her husband, and their son. Only their daughter survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the murder. Now, little pieces of evidence suggest that Bligh was innocent. If that’s true, it would make exactly the sort of story Thorne wants. So, she starts to pursue the story, and almost immediately runs into obstacles. There are several people who are absolutely convinced that Bligh is guilty. They are not at all willing to help Thorne. But she persists, partly out of a desire to get the story, and partly because she feels a desire to rescue Bligh, if I may put it that way, if he’s in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And she finds herself getting closer to the story then she thought she would.

And then there’s Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Digger’s Rest Hotel, which is the first of his Charlie Berlin novels. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned to Melbourne from military service in Europe, where he was a POW for a time. He wants to get on with life and get back to work as a police officer, so he’s seconded to Wodonga to help the local police stop a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a string of robberies. While he’s there, Berlin meets Rebecca Green, who’s doing a story on the robberies for the Argus. Both see the wisdom of working together, rather than as adversaries, so they share the information that they can. As they get to know each other, Green sees that Berlin is suffering from what we would now call PTSD. He’s not really a fragile person, but he has his share of demons, and Green feels a sort of protectiveness towards him. You might even call it the urge to rescue him.

A lot of people have that urge to protect and rescue, and sometimes, it’s a very sound instinct. After all, it’s been responsible for saving a lot of lives. But sometimes, the instinct to rescue and protect can get a person into much more than it seems at first.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chicago’s Rescue You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Kerry Greenwood, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler