Understanding the Elephant

Does anyone remember the story of the blind men and the elephant?  Six blind scholars all try to discover what an elephant looks like by touching one part of the animal.  Because an elephant is composed of many shapes (trunk, ears, legs, tail, etc.,) running your hands over one part of it doesn’t give you an accurate picture of the animal, but it does show what a limited perception can discover.  And, when it comes to some episodes of history, we’re all blind folks trying to survey an elephant.
Val McDermid tackles this idea in her mystery novel, The Grave Tattoo.  On the surface, it’s a modern day story about the discovery of a body near the Lake District of England.  Although the corpse has been underground for awhile, it’s easy to see this is neither a recent death nor the discovery of an ancient caveman.  What’s interesting are the number of complicated tattoos still discernable on the decedent’s skin.  And therein hangs the link to a historical debate and the mysterious elephant in the room.

The debate is who was at fault for the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty, Fletcher Christian or Captain Bligh?  The popular opinion has switched back and forth, from Bligh’s exoneration to Nordhoff and Hall’s pro-Fletcher Christian novel, (that served as the basis for at least three Hollywood movies) and back to Bligh with Caroline Anderson’s history of the Bounty that I wrote about last year.  The mystery is the ultimate fate of Fletcher Christian: did he die on Pitcairn Island or did he find his back to England?

Wordsworth – Poet and
Christian’s Defender?

There are rumors that not only did Christian return to England but that he looked up an old grade school chum while he was there: the poet, William Wordsworth. And it’s rumored Wordsworth turned Christian’s account of what happened into an epic poem to be published after both of them were dead. But Wordsworth’s work and the sailor both disappeared.

Enter into this historical/literary mystery, one Jane Gresham, a Wordsworth Scholar who waits tables and teaches part-time while trying to break into an academic career. Because she grew up in the area where Wordsworth and Christian once lived, she knows the rumors and starts hunting for clues, but she isn’t the only one. Wordsworth’s manuscript, if it exists, is worth millions and not everyone is as honest as Jane. Pretty soon twenty-first-century corpses are turning up to keep company with the tattooed man in the pathologist’s waiting room. Pretty soon Jane is racing known and unknown enemies to save a piece of literary history and the lives of innocent people.

We may never really know who was the “bad guy” on the HMS Bounty or what happened to Fletcher Christian.  Val McDermid has given us a guess with The Grave Tattoo along with a  satisfying thriller. As guesses go, her book’s more fun than trying to figure out what an elephant looks like by touch.

Hurray for the Series Novel: Val McDermid’s Splinter the Silence

They say publishers love novels that turn into a series.  The  characters in these collections of stories develop their own fan base assuring the publisher of a a steady and increasing audience to gobble up each new adventure as soon as it hits the stands.  Still, it’s tricky to write that kind of series because each book has to serve two plots.  Each book has a primary, short plot: it finds and resolves a conflict that involves the new characters and most (if not all) of the permanent cast. The second plot is harder because it’s part of the overall arc of the series. This plot creates some incremental change in the lives of the permanent cast and lets them create or resolve underlying conflicts (Continuing characters must evolve from book to book or the reading public gets bored and leaves).  Interweaving these two plots in each book is a little like jumping rope double-dutch style: it takes skill, balance and concentration.  Thriller/Mystery novelist Val McDermid has created three different detective novel serials, the most popular of which are the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books.  Her latest in this series, Splinter the Silence, shows how a good author can make some themes serve two plots at once.

In the short-term plot, silence is what happens when crusading women are squelched.  Bloggers, journalists and other feminists who step into public debate have been showing up dead after being attacked in the social media.  Each of the deaths look like a suicide and most assume these women died to escape the continual cyber-bullying even though those close to the women all insist the victims never seemed depressed or suicidal.  The local police don’t realize there’s a serial killer in the mix and it’s up to profiler/psychologist, Dr. Tony Hill and retired detective Carol Jordan to stop the murderer before more speakers are silenced.

The second silence has been building around central character Carol Jordan for some time. For seven novels, Carol Jordan fought criminals, the media, and her sometimes foolhardy supervisors in the police force in order to bring the guilty to court and speak for their victims. Her weapons in the fight were her anger, brain and drive; her sole release, the relaxation that came from alcohol. Her support staff knew about her boozing but kept quiet since it didn’t seem to affect her work.  Then Carol’s brother was murdered and grief drove her from the job and into the bottle. A phone call from jail provides Tony with the opportunity break through Carol’s withdrawal and ask her to get help.


Still the fight against progress permeates Splinter the Silence.  As the killer fights the idea of women having independent lives, Carol fights recognizing her dependence on drink, no matter how damning the contrary evidence. Even when she glimpses the how far she has fallen, Carol’s continued sobriety is no assured thing.

Val McDermid never hands out assurances but life doesn’t either.  Instead, her books hold out hope for those who keep trying to communicate.  As long as her characters engage readers’ emotions, she will be begged for more stories of Dr. Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan.

Why do we scare ourselves?

My mother tried to raise kids who didn’t know fear.  I think she must have experienced some very bad moments in her own childhood because she understood the nature of childhood terrors and did her best to keep me and my sister from everything scary.  Our TV shows were monitored, our movie choices screened and Mom made sure that the books we read could never frighten or intimidate us.  All of this careful planning had a funny result: we grew up scared of a lot of things and although my sis recovered fairly quickly, (she’s far braver than I am)  it takes me some extra work to get past the terror on the screen and in fiction. I work at this because I don’t want to miss something good, just because it is disturbing but sometimes I have to ask (as my Mom must have before every Halloween and roller-coaster), “Why do we like to be scared?”

The wish to be frightened is part of Halloween tradition but this goes back a lot further than a “Haunted-House-for-Charity” (think about this: these days, we get startled out of our wits in order to give money to a worthy cause.  Must we be terrorized into generosity?)  Authors have been scaring us for a living for centuries.  So, did scary stories like The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho become popular in the 1700’s because printing presses were available to print them or had our lives become so civilized by then that we needed a frisson of fright in order to stay interested in life?

A friend of mine thinks it has something to do with endorphins.  Terror involves a kind of excitement and surviving a scare often creates a mild euphoria so riding the roller coaster or paging through a tense thriller makes you feel good, especially when the hero/heroine triumphs instead of dies.  Because the reader is never actually in danger, he or she gets the benefit of the endorphin rush without the trauma of the actual experience. 

 (One reason I love the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan thrillers is that the author, Val McDermid, never discounts the trauma.  Her heroes face grave dangers and usually prevail but each experience leaves its own scars and trauma.  Nobody battles monsters and comes away untouched.)  I think endorphins may play a role but I think there is something more.

We live in a fearsome world, where atrocities are perpetrated that defy explanation.  Sometimes, just examining these disasters is more than we can bear or understand. Nevertheless we still need, emotionally, to examine and understand these acts in order to put them in perspective. So we write and read horror stories where the monsters often have a background story that allows us to comprehend their motives and, eventually, overcome the antagonist.  Monsters seldom prevail in these stores.  Someone else gains control and the “bad guy: is subdued.  Scary stories, frightening as they are, tell us things will ultimately come out all right.  The monster will be stopped. Some hero will take control. A version of life will go on.  These are comforting thoughts.  Maybe we read scary stories to tell ourselves that terror is transitory and life will (eventually) be okay. Ultimately, control will be re-established.

Whether it’s for the feeling of excitement or a sense of control, we continue to read and create scary stories.  If you like them, this is the time to celebrate them.  If not, find a nice copy of something comforting and hide out for the next week or so.  Different stories will come along.  Everything will be OK.

Introducing Scottish Noir

There are a lot of genres in crime fiction.  There are cozy mysteries and hard-boiled detective tales, capers and whodunits.  There are police procedurals, legal thrillers, psychological suspense books and we’ll have some more genres next Tuesday.  In the meantime, one of my current favorite writers is Val McDermid, the journalist who created what she calls “Scottish Noir”.    This means her characters have the uncompromising, tough and amoral personalities the frequented Dashiell Hammett’s novels but McDermid’s stories are settled in the cold, bleak areas of Scotland.    Add to this mix a set of villains so strange that Thomas Harris could have invented them and you’ve got Scottish Noir.  These books aren’t for everyone but, boy, are they good.  McDermid is best known for her Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series but if you want an introduction to her work, I’d start off with the thriller, A Place of Execution.

A Place of Execution is about the twin investigations into the disappearance of Alison Carter, an adolescent that disappeared one night in December of 1963.  Allison’s home was Scardale, a one-road village where half a dozen families have lived since the world began.  The young Detective Inspector, George Bennett, has to figure out what happened to Allison, no easy task since he’s a stranger and the locals of Scardale don’t trust him.  Two other children recently disappeared in the next larger town and Detective Bennett fears the missing Allison is a third victim.  Add that George Bennett is a decent chap at the beginning of his career and marriage and you have a policeman who suffers when a child vanishes on his watch.  And Alison does, right into the cold, night air of Scotland.  Though the police find her dog and evidence of a crime, they never find her body or bones.

Thirty-five years later, Catharine Heathcote is primed to write a book about the Alison Carter case.  A journalist who was the same age as Alison, she remembers the girl’s disappearance and the effect it had on her young life.  Now she has the chance to review the evidence and maybe draw out a few ghosts.  Catharine also runs the risk of re-opening wounds.  George Bennett is still haunted by the girl he could never bring home.  And although it seems modern, much of Scardale hasn’t changed since 1963.  Like its habit of keeping secrets.

A Place of Execution has much to recommend it, including pace, tension and some very interesting characters.  Still, it is not for the faint of heart.  Terrible things happen in the world, according to Val McDermid, and the only chance for justice is when the good guys are as tough as the bad ones.  If you can accept that fact, you’ll survive it seems, in these stories of Scottish Noir.  If you can’t, do yourself a favor and don’t walk out alone.